High on Windemere Drive, Moongate Mansion materialized out of the shifting mist. First the six-foot granite wall and the black iron gate canted open, daring intruders to trespass. Then the estate itself, a gray 19th century Victorian with an eclectic mix of Italianate and Queen Anne. Each generation of Meadowses, seeking no doubt to stamp their mark, had added to the original two-story, four-room house until it sprawled over 13,000 square feet, looking like some sort of Frankenstein creature.
Valerie couldn’t imagine living in such a dreary place, especially with its constant bruise of painful memories. But she also understood why Rita Meadows stayed. For Valentina. If she came back, her home would be there, waiting for her, lights shining bright, and her mother would be there, too, arms open wide.
Valerie swiped surreptitiously at the moistness in her eyes. Her mother called Valerie’s tendency toward the melodramatic maudlin. But what could she say, she liked happy endings. There were so few of them in real life.
Mike crunched the rental up the gravel drive. She rolled the window down for a better look at the house. The scent of decomposing leaves and wood smoke infiltrated the car. Dark trees on each side of the lane swayed and whispered as if in warning. Ahead light gleamed from what seemed like a hundred windows, brightening the gloom of the day with their glow. But even that wasn’t enough to dispel the aura of decay that clung to the house’s wooden boards like ivy.
Her blood quickened as the voice-over wrote itself in her head. Cohost Dan Millege’s deep bass vibrated with gravity in her brain, hitting just the right emotional tone for the introduction to a twenty-five-year-old kidnapping. She ripped out her portfolio and scratched furious notes to capture the inspiration before it vanished. “Can’t you just feel the mystery in the air? We have to get the fog on tape before it lifts.”
Off to the side of the house, Mike shoved the rental into Park. “Don’t you ever look at anything without seeing it from a story angle?”
Valerie shrugged. The story was everything. She couldn’t explain it to Mike—or to her mother—but some inner force drove her to ferret information, any information, about everything. Her mother called it a disease and, although Valerie preferred to label her flaw as curiosity, she couldn’t quite disagree. She couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t looking for something, anything, to fill the hollowness in her soul.
We give you everything, Valerie. Isn’t that enough?
It should be, and that it wasn’t, truly pained her.
This curiosity had landed her the job as coordinating producer for Florida Alive, a half-hour magazine format program that aired Monday through Friday at seven, right after the nightly news, and showcased people, places and things of interest in the state.
So, okay, Florida Alive was considered soft news and didn’t exactly hit life-altering issues. That didn’t mean she couldn’t find the deeper meaning in a sand sculpture competition or the creation of pastry masterpieces or the raising of camels. What fired up other people, what gave their lives purpose, what made them feel alive fascinated her. Passion fascinated her. And traveling all over the state to see new places and meet all sorts of different people was an amazing bonus for a girl with wanderlust who hadn’t traveled more than fifty miles from home until after graduating from college.
Mike peered at the massive house, no doubt gauging shot angles. “So, you think she’s dead?”
Valerie’s gaze climbed up the polygonal tower, and a shiver rippled down her spine. Crazy, but the child’s frantic cries seemed to vibrate against Valerie’s chest and the child’s panic to shudder down Valerie’s limbs, making her hands cold and clammy.
She reached for the French vanilla coffee she’d bought at the Dunkin’ Donuts a few towns back and warmed her hands against the paper cup. With a fervor that rocked her, she wanted that baby to be safe somewhere. Who took a child from her own bedroom? Who could purposely cause such grief? And why?
Valerie swallowed and ripped her gaze back to Mike. “After twenty-five years…”
“It’s kind of sad to think of this lady pining away for her dead kid for so long.”
But what else could a mother do? Without proof of death, she couldn’t give up. As much as Valerie and her mother didn’t see eye-to-eye on practically anything, her mother would search the ends of the earth to find her, and Valerie would do the same for her mother. Recalling their argument that morning, Valerie winced and made a mental note to call once she got back to the inn and apologize. “That’s why we have to do the best job we can with the story.”
Mike slanted her a knowing grin. “You just want Krista’s job when she goes off on maternity leave.”
Valerie had eyed the news producer’s job ever since Krista had announced her pregnancy. It was a stepping-stone to producing harder-hitting stories, one Valerie had to cross if she ever wanted to get to New York. “So what if I do?”
Mike cranked off the engine and shot his hands up. “Hey, I’m just saying, word is, you’ve got competition for the spot.”
Bailey-the-Beautiful. “Sure and steady wins the race.”
“Only in fables, babe.”
“Don’t call me babe.”
Racking up a mental to-do list, Valerie juggled her cell phone, purse, portfolio of notes and cup of coffee. “I’ll introduce myself to Ms. Meadows and set up a time to look through her archives tomorrow. I’ll see if I can find more potential witnesses. I have that prison interview set up for Thursday. Then we can shoot Ms. Meadows’s interview on Friday.” Which would mean spending the whole weekend editing to get the package ready to air next week. No wonder she didn’t have a social life. That wouldn’t be so bad, except for the coming-home-to-only-a-dog part. “You can get started on the exteriors. Can you get a tracking shot coming up the drive? Low angle so the house seems to pop out of the fog? Maybe a Dutch angle to make it look spooky?”
Mike had a great eye. She could count on him getting her the shots she needed. She pointed at the third-floor room of the turret. “That’s where she disappeared from. Make sure you get some shots from all angles. And this living room window, too. That’s where the party was held. I want the window to look as if it’s glowing so the viewer can imagine the party in full swing.”
“Got it.” Mike got out of the car. “Keep it short, will ya? I haven’t eaten anything all day, except for those stale airline pretzels.”
Valerie nodded distractedly. She’d add festive sounds during editing for the full effect. Sipping on her coffee, she stared at the window. What was it like to realize that while you were entertaining guests someone had sneaked upstairs and stolen your only child while she slept? Her heart tripped on a beat. The guilt had to crush poor Rita Meadows.
Mike was sorting through his gear in the trunk of the rental by the time she reached the solid-oak front door. She was about to ring the antique bell when the door blew open and the hard body of a man, carrying a briefcase and an air of hurry nearly crashed into her.
“Who are you? What do you want?” The timbre of his voice was deep and vibrant, echoing in the cavern of the foyer behind him. Costumed in a thousand-dollar suit and a hundred-dollar haircut, he exuded the righteous bearing and win-at-all-costs menace of a corporate sharpshooter. At the sight of those eyes, so dark and primal, a flash of awakening skittered through her brain, and a choked jolt of something more acute than simple recognition made her catch her breath.
Nicolas Galloway. The man Rita Meadows had hired to run her father’s investment firm after Wallace Meadows’s death.
And, wow, Nick-the-Pit Bull certainly lived up to his reputation as a rabid guardian. Voted most eligible, yet most elusive bachelor of New England by Boston Magazine. Smooth, charming and appealing. And definitely effective, if his investment track record was true. Although why anyone would want to pursue a man who ran his love life like an investment was beyond her understanding.
Somewhere over Virginia, she’d decided that he was going to be a problem. Meeting him did nothing to change her mind. But she could put personal prejudices aside. She pinned on a smile, freed one hand and stuck it out. “Hi, I’m Val—”
He fired a poison eye-dart at her. “Good God, don’t tell me you’re one of them—”
“How did you get past the security?”
“The gate was—”
“I don’t have time for this today. Go away and don’t bother coming back. We won’t even talk to you unless you agree to a DNA test, and you’ll need to contact our lawyer’s office for that.”
He tried to bulldoze his way past her, posture straight, a relentless quality on a face with an unsmiling mouth and a strong bone structure. Armored with her portfolio, purse and cup of coffee, she stepped in front of him, blocking his path. She may look small enough to squash, but he wasn’t going to step all over her that easily.
Their eyes connected like lightning, and Valerie had a sense of space rushing dizzily. Wow, those eyes. Beneath the power, they bore a scar of pain. And sadness. How could that be when his bio spelled out an idyllic childhood?
Get real, Valerie. She shook her head. Figuring out what made Nicolas Galloway tick wasn’t on her busy agenda.
“I’m Valerie Zea, like sea.” Her name—like her life—seemed an abbreviation of something bigger. “I’m the coordinating producer for WMOD-TV in Orlando, Florida. Ms. Meadows is expecting me.”
“What for?” His icy calm chilled the already cool air and made her wish she’d put on more layers under her blazer.
Stay professional. You were invited. You have the right to be here. “We’re producing two segments on her daughter’s kidnapping twenty-five years ago.”
Without a word, he pulled her inside.
“Hey, let go of me!”
He slammed the door shut behind them. Panes in the narrow windows framing the door reverberated in their casings. Light glazed the walls of the foyer with false warmth, clouding details, reviving that dizzy feeling. For a moment, her system went haywire at the thought of being caged with him inside this house. Reaching for the closest solid thing, she steadied herself on the firm bicep of her captor, then recoiled with pinball speed at the thought of seeking safety there.
She yanked her arm to free her elbow from the hand he’d clamped around it and frowned at him when he didn’t immediately let go. “I’d say a refresher course is in order.”
“Manners. Last time your style was in, men wore mammoth skins and carried clubs.”
He jerked her arm down as if to plant her in place and gave a sharp growl. “Stay here and don’t move.”
Movements tight and controlled, he spun on his heel and headed into the bowels of the house.
“Sure thing, Mr. Galloway. I’ll be right here when you come back to apologize.”
Here’s how a scam works: a total stranger somehow convinces you to place your trust in him and give him something for nothing. That’s what Gordon did with his real estate scam in Pull of the Moon (Harlequin Intrigue, December 2006.)
The con artist doesn’t care if you’re old, poor or ailing, because he has no conscience. And should he have a tiny pinch of remorse, he finds a way to rationalize his actions. If you gave him something, he feels you were a sucker and you deserved to get swindled. Hey, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you’ve got to do it to them before they do it to you. And sweat is for the other poor shlubs who haven’t figured out how the real world works.
He’s accomplished at finding marks—the elderly, the sick, the believers. He knows where to look for you, how to talk to you, win over your confidence. He knows which buttons to push to activate your greed, your desire to trust and flatter your ego. And once you figure out you’ve been had, he counts on that ego to keep you quiet. Who wants to admit, even to themselves, that they were swindled?
What’s a mark to do? If you do get caught up in a scam, swallow your pride and report the loss to the police. Unfortunately, small scams are usually considered low priority by budget-strapped law enforcement departments and you’ll get nothing more than a report number. So why humiliate yourself? If enough people are brave enough to report, a pattern can emerge and the collective losses can add up to something big enough to get attention.
Publicity is a scam artist’s kryptonite. He depends on anonymity and secrecy to get his work done. When his method and his face are splashed across the media, he’ll have to move on to less public pastures.
Of course, the fastest-growing scam is identity thefts. This scam is especially vicious because the victim is often treated like a criminal and it can take years to clean up a credit history that a con artist took days to destroy. He steals your information everywhere—from your mailbox, from the rejects in your garbage, from your credit card (which he cloned) at that restaurant where you went out to celebrate your anniversary. Then there’s the Internet where phishing, pharming and email pitches for fast riches are multiplying faster than fruit flies on rotten bananas.
Who’s at risk? Everyone. Your newborn son with his virgin social security number. Your elderly mother with clear and free title to her house. Your daughter with her college website’s online directory and resume-posting page. Your CEO spouse with a tempting bank account. Even being a celebrity doesn’t exempt you. Ask Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.
Your best defense is to rabidly guard your privacy. Shred any paperwork with private information. Don’t give your private information to anyone—at home, on the phone, online, out and about, on vacation—unless you initiated the contact and know who you’re dealing with and why they need that specific piece of information. Check your bank accounts, credit card accounts and any other financial account you may have on a regular basis. Get a copy of your credit report once a year (www.equifax.com; www.experian.com; www.transunion.com.) Opt out of prescreened credit card offers (888-5-OUTPUT) and the Direct Marketing Association’s list.
If someone’s stolen your identity, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus (see above). Order copies of your credit report from all three bureaus. Close any financial account that’s been tampered with. File a report with your local police. File an ID theft affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission’s hotline (877-IDTHEFT). Follow up every call with a letter to establish records of your actions. Notify your creditors about the disputed bills. Don’t pay any disputed bills.
Check the Identity Theft Resource Center (www.idtheftcenter.org) and the Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.gov/idtheft) for more tips on how to protect yourself and how to deal with scams once you’ve been a victim.