Friday’s Race to the Weekend: Book 4, Post #10

Welcome back to Austen Promises!

I didn’t get as much written this week as last week, partly because I had to stop and go back through my plot and rewrite it. I’m still a bit shaky as to what happens between now and when the major action starts but I do have a direction. LOL

I’m giving you chapters 5 and 6 this week, a nice, long post. I don’t think any of this will change in a big way, at this point.

Here is the master list of posts. I’ve updated it this week.

Did you know that for a monthly pledge of as little as $1 at  Patreon, you can have early access to all my blog posts, including my Thursday ones? Patrons also get a free copy of each of my books once it is complete.

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Chapter 5

Liz turned her head when Will spoke to her. She yawned, hiding her mouth behind her hand, and stretched as much as her sore muscles allowed. “I smell something good.” She smiled at her husband.

Will carefully set the tray on the coffee table. “Mrs. R sent lasagna.” He turned to his sister-in-law. “Go ahead and set that tray beside this one, Mary.” He moved out of her way and stepped to the nearby closet, pulling out three tray tables.

Mary helped Will set the tray tables up, then started moving plates from the coffee table to the tray tables.

“Up you go.” Will removed the blanket from Liz’s legs and helped her sit up. He arranged pillows behind and around her to make her more comfortable, then placed a tray table in front of her. He took his seat beside Liz and looked to his left to see Mary arranging herself in the recliner. “Ready for grace?”

The three of them bent their heads as Will prayed over the food, adding a few additional requests in, for safety, for the capture of Caroline Bingley, and that Mary’s transition to a new school and job would go smoothly. His “amen” was echoed by his wife and her sister. Then, they dug into their food.

For several minutes, conversation was limited. All three were hungry and the lasagna was delicious. Soon, though, their hunger was satiated enough that they began to chat.

“Have you heard from Declan?” Liz’s voice held a teasing note that was familiar to her younger sister.

“I have.” Mary forked more lasagna into her mouth.

Liz waited a long moment, but when Mary simply took another bite, she felt the need to prompt her sister into giving more details. “And?”

Will chuckled, causing Mary’s eyes to dart in his direction.  She swallowed and took a sip of water. “And  … what?”

Liz’s mouth fell open. “Mary Bennet, don’t you tease me. Just because I’m laid up right now doesn’t mean I don’t have ways of making you talk to me.”

Mary’s lips twitched. A glint appeared in her eyes as she responded to her sister’s bravado. “Oh, I don’t think you do. It’ll be quite a while before you feel up to doing anything nefarious to me.” She lifted her fork again and sniffed. “And as old as you are, you’re probably going to forget about it before bedtime, anyway.”

Will had just taken a sip of water when Mary spoke. He started to laugh and spewed the liquid all over his plate.

Though her mouth had initially fallen open at her sister’s words, Liz’s attention was soon diverted to her husband, and she clapped him on the back a couple times, perhaps harder than she needed to.

“Hey! Not so rough!”

Liz ignored her husband’s protest as she focused on her sister with narrowed eyes. “Smart alec.”

Mary giggled but said nothing else.

Liz rolled her eyes. “I’ll have you know forgetfulness is a symptom of pregnancy.” She rubbed her nearly invisible baby bump. “Seriously, though. Did Declan text? Did he call? Did he ask you out? What?”

“He texted.” Mary set her salad plate on top of her now-empty dinner plate. “We just chatted about this and that, is all. Nothing major. And, no, he did not ask me out.”

“Hm.” Liz sighed and looked at her nearly empty plate of food. “At least he contacted you.” Her gaze wandered back to her sister. “I’d love to know what you talked about, but you’ve always been one to keep your own counsel, so I won’t ask. Just know that if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m here for you.”

Mary smiled. “Thanks, Liz. I appreciate that. I promise, if I have a problem, I’ll come to you.”

Liz smiled back. “Love you, Mare.”

“Love you, too, Lizzy.”

~~~***~~~

Declan called or texted Mary every day for a week. They talked about everything and nothing. They shared stories from their high school experiences and talked about the things they liked to do. Declan discovered Mary preferred jeans and t-shirts to dressing up, and that she preferred reading over going to movies. Mary discovered Declan liked to two-step to slow country songs, despite his general preference for heavy metal music, and that he preferred reading thrillers over fantasy.

On Monday, Declan called instead of texting. Though the call began lively enough, the longer it went on, the quieter he got. At the end, Mary was doing the majority of the talking. She was beginning to wonder what she had said that offended him when Declan’s voice, gruff as usual but also a little quavery, came through the phone. “Listen, Mary, the reason I called today is to see if you would like to go out with me Friday night.”

Mary swallowed. “I would.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “Um, you’re okay with following my dating rules?”

Declan chuckled. “Yeah, I’m okay with them. I think I can show you a good time without drinking or sex being involved.” He hesitated. “I was thinking dinner and a movie. There’s a couple things playing at the theater in the mall that I thought you might like, and probably a dozen restaurants.”

Mary closed her eyes, relief surging through her.  “Sounds great!”

“Good. Can I pick you up, or would you rather meet me?”

“You can pick me up. I trust you.” Mary smiled.

“Thank you. I promise I will not break that trust.” Declan cleared his throat. “Text me the address. I’ll pick you up at five. Is that okay?”

“Five is great. I’ll be ready.” They hung up soon after, and Mary danced around her room.

She ran out the door, down the stairs to the living room, where Liz was once again stretched out.

Liz looked up from the book she was reading when Mary bounced in and plopped down in the recliner. She closed the novel, folding the corner of the page down, and tossed it on the coffee table. Then, she gingerly sat up and turned her attention to her sister. “What’s up?”

Mary took a deep breath, clasped her hands together in her lap and looked down, gathering her courage. Then, she took another deep breath, looked up and blurted, “I have a date!”

Liz’s expression brightened, her brows rising and her mouth falling open while her lips lifted. “You do? Congratulations! Come here and let me hug you!”

Mary threw herself off the chair and into her sister’s arms. “Thank you. I’m so excited!”

“Where are you going?” Liz released Mary from the hug but retained her hands.

“The mall, I think he said. Dinner and a movie.” Mary looked down as the enormity of having a date hit her.

“What’s the matter?” Liz tried to lean her head down to see her sister’s expression, but the still-healing bruises on her back and ribs would not allow it.

“I’ve never been on a date before. Not a real one, anyway. What if I say something stupid?” Mary never looked up as she spoke.

Liz squeezed her younger sister’s hands. “Honey, everyone says dumb things now and then. You’ll be fine, as long as you don’t preach at him, but then, you’ve been here a week and have yet to quote a single scripture, so maybe you’ll be able to hold it in with him?”

Mary looked up, a smirk twisting one side of her mouth. “I hope so. That’s one of the things I told you I learned about myself, is that people don’t appreciate me shoving my views down their throats. It’s hard sometimes but I’ve tried to stop as much as I can.”

“You’re doing a fine job, and I’m happy to hear it’s a permanent change.” Liz caressed the back of Mary’s hand with her thumb. “What else? I can tell you’re nervous. You’re going to chew a hole in your lip soon if you don’t stop.”

Immediately, Mary released her lip from between her teeth. She blushed as she began to chew it some more and let it go again. “What if he gets to know me better and decide he doesn’t like me?”

Liz tilted her head, remaining silent for a few seconds. “I can’t see that happening, but I suppose it’s a possibility. Or, you might decide he’s not someone you really want to know all that well. In either case, you’ll just move on. You might cry and rage at the world for a few weeks, but eventually, you’ll get over it and find someone else who interests you.”

Mary nodded and took another deep breath. She looked at her sister and asked the question that represented the biggest concern to her. “What if I fall in love with him and he ends up being someone I shouldn’t marry? I don’t want to be unequally yoked. Will I be able to make a relationship with him work?”

Liz’s eyes softened, as did her tone of voice. “Only time will tell, Sis. If you’re asking my opinion, I say get to know him better. Ask him questions and then look at his lifestyle. Does it match his answers?” She paused. “How much of a relationship do you want with him? You might need to answer that before anything else. For now, though, it’s just a date. If you end up not liking him, you can say ‘no’ the next time he asks.”

Mary nodded again, her gaze on the wall past Liz’s shoulder as she thought about her sister’s words. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She looked back at Liz. “Thanks. I’m so happy to be here and have you to ask questions of.”

Liz hugged Mary again. “You’re welcome. I’m delighted you’re here.”

Friday, Will and Liz’s House

Mary stood and fidgeted with her shirt for the tenth time in as many minutes. “It’s fine, Mare. Relax. You look great.” Mary told herself to calm down. She heard a knock on the sliding door to the deck and froze. She swallowed and forced herself into motion, rushing to the door and peeking out to make sure it was her date. She opened it as soon as she realized it was him.

Declan grinned and entered the house when Mary slid the door open, his hands full of a flower arrangement. When he caught sight of her outfit, he swallowed and came to a dead stop.

Mary wore skinny jeans, a green tank top with a long-sleeved white over shirt that hung to her knees, and a pair of green stiletto heels. Her hair was styled as she usually had it, hanging in waves to just below her shoulders. Behind the lenses of her wire-rimmed glasses, Declan could see a bit of makeup. He had thought her beautiful the day he met her, but dressed up, she was a knockout. He swallowed, hoping to relieve the dryness of his mouth, while he tried to think of something intelligent to say.

“Hey, Gorgeous.”

Mary’s eyes widened at Declan’s greeting. She blushed, partly because no one had ever said that to her before and partly because of the way he was staring at her. Like I was an ice cream cone and it was the Fourth of July. “Hi.” Her lips lifted and fell as she her mind scrambled to process a proper response.

“These are for you.” Declan thrust the flowers in Mary’s direction. It was all he could do to refrain from kissing her cheek. Or her plump red lips. Maybe both, he thought. I don’t want to upset her before we even get out the door. Rein it in, man!

When she noticed the flowers, Mary entire being lit up with a smile. “Thank you!” She accepted the vase that overflowed with yellow roses and what looked like yellow and white daisies and gestured to the chair. “I’ll put these on the dining table for now.”

With a blush, Mary turned and hurried into the dining room, where she placed the bouquet in the center of the table. She closed her eyes and gripped the back of a chair. Oh my, she thought. He looks good enough to eat! Mary clapped her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened. I sound like Lydia! No! Just erase that thought from your mind, Mary Bennet, and keep it out of the gutter! With a deep breath, she straightened, pasted a smile on her face, and marched back to the kitchen.

Chapter 6

Thirty minutes later, Declan pulled into the parking lot of a chain restaurant at a nearby mall. “How about this place? Look good?”

“It does. I love steak, and it looks like we beat the Friday night crowd.”

“It does. Wait there, I’ll help you out.” Declan jumped out of the big, black Dodge truck and opened Mary’s door. He offered her his hand, and a shiver went through him when she placed hers in it. He helped her down, smiling as she carefully placed her feet in their high-heeled shoes on the running bar. Retaining her hand in his grasp, he walked with her toward the door.

“Tell me again what time the movie starts.” Mary’s voice lifted at the end, making her command more of a question.

“It starts at eight. Well, seven fifty-five, I guess. Close enough.” Declan reached for the door handle and pulled, allowing Mary to enter first.

“We have plenty of time, then, but I’m still glad there aren’t many people here.” Mary smiled up at her date as he joined her at the hostess station near the door.

Soon, Declan and Mary were following the hostess as she led them to a corner booth. It was cozy and quiet, and the couple smiled at each other when they realized it.

“How’s the new job?” Declan picked up his menu and began perusing the offerings.

“It’s … different. It’s not as fast-paced as any of the jobs I had in Ohio. People here seem to just move slower in general, which kind of amazes me, given that it’s the hub of stock car racing.” Mary looked down at her own menu, having given Declan her whole attention while she spoke.

Declan chuckled. “Good point.” He looked back down at the menu. “Have you been to one of these before?”

“No, I haven’t, but I’ve heard good things about them.” Mary fell silent as she examined the choices.

“They’re good, that’s for sure. I’m going to get a New York Strip, I think.”

“Hm.” Mary moved to the steak section of the menu from the burgers. “That does sound good.”

“Go ahead and order it, if you want.” Declan allowed his gaze to rest on his companion for a few minutes. He smiled. She’s so beautiful, he thought.

The waitress came over and took their orders, leaving Declan and Mary a few minutes alone while they waited for their meals.

“Tell me more about your job. What do they have you doing?” Declan took a sip of his cherry Coke.

“I’m in the hospitality department, at least for now. Basically, I load up bags of goodies and freebies to give away at races.” Mary looked down at her finger, which was tracing circles on the table. “It’s really easy, and, like I said, slow.”

“Sounds easy. What happens when you get all the bags loaded?” Declan could not tear his eyes from Mary’s features.

“They have these big boxes, shipping boxes, that everything gets stacked in. Then on Wednesday, it gets sent out to whatever race track is on the schedule for the weekend. This week it was Michigan. Next week is an off-week. I’m not sure if that means we’ll have an extra week to pack up for the following race or if they’ll assign us other things to do for the next few days.” Mary used her hands to emphasize her words, blushing when she realized she was waving them around. She lowered them to her lap.

“Do you ever meet the drivers or crew guys?” Declan had only been to one race in his entire life, and had never done a shop tour, though he’d heard about them from his cousin.

“I haven’t yet, other than Will and Charles, of course.”

“I have a cousin that works for DRI. He loves it. Says they’re real nice people.”

Mary had watched Declan while he spoke, that overwhelming desire to kiss him returning. She blushed and tried to listen more carefully to banish the feeling. “They are nice. You’ve met Will and his father. They’ve set a good example of the kind of employees they want. We’re all there to help the drivers win.” She rested her hands, fingers interlaced, on the table and sighed. “It’s almost enough to make me want to quit school and work for DRI full-time.”

Declan tilted his head. “I don’t know that your sister would like that.”

Mary shrugged. “I know.” She looked out toward the other diners that had slowly begun to fill the place. “I love school and I love math and working with numbers. It’s going to be hard to start over at a new school, though. I mean, it’s not like I have to start at the beginning of the program again, but I have to learn new professors and what each wants and how to best work with them, and make new friends among the other students.” She shrugged. “It’s daunting, is all.”

Declan didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then, “I see you as being a lot like Liz. She’s one strong woman and so are you.” He quieted and leaned back as the waitress arrived with their meals. When they had thanked her and she had gone, he continued sharing his thoughts. “You didn’t ask my opinion, but I’m going to give it to you. You got brains in your head and a love for the subject of your studies. You need to finish your education and see where it takes you.”

Mary nodded, then smiled. “You’re probably right. It’s just nerves and I’ll get over them.” She paused. “So, you want to pray over the food, or shall I?”

“You do it.” Declan reached for Mary’s hand and bowed his head, listening as she spoke a brief prayer of blessing over the food and their date. Then, he dug in, and silence reigned for several minutes.   

Monday, the following week

Will helped Liz up into his pickup outside Doctor Brandeberry’s office, where she had been seen as a follow-up to her assault. After closing her door, he strode around to the driver’s side and climbed in. “How do you feel?” He clicked the seatbelt into place and turned the key. “Interested in some lunch?”

“I’m a little tired, but lunch does sound good. Where were you thinking of going?” Liz folded her paperwork up and put it in her purse.

“How about the Roadhouse over on Phillips Road?” Will looked both ways before pulling out of the parking lot. “It’s not usually busy there at this time of day. We should be able to get in and out.”

Liz nodded. “Okay, yeah, that sounds good. I’ve not puked in a few days, so hopefully it all stays down.”

“Boy, I hope!” Will took his right hand off the steering wheel to stretch his arm out toward Liz. When she laid her palm on top of his, he interlaced their fingers, resting their joined hands on the center console.

“Have you heard anything recently from the investigator?” Liz watched the scenery go by as she asked her question.

“I spoke to him this morning while you were napping, and talked to one of the detectives after that.” Will came to a stop at an intersection. He looked to see if anyone was coming at him, and then, seeing no one, flipped the turn signal on with his left hand and accelerated, making a left-hand turn onto Phillips Road. “They’ve been tracking Caroline’s bank accounts and trust fund, but other than the initial withdrawal around the time of your attack, she’s taken nothing out of them. They’re looking at foreign accounts now, but that might take a while. I’m not sure how that works as far as law enforcement getting permission to access them.”

“No one has seen her, then? She could be anywhere? Here in Charlotte, even?” Liz’s voice was sharp and she turned her head to stare at her husband.

“I can’t see her staying here, Babe. Her picture is taped to the dash of every cop car in Mecklenburg County and has been broadcast on every television and radio station. She’ll be found long before she can get to either you or me again.”

Liz shivered. “Yes, I saw it on the big screen at the track here in Charlotte a couple weeks ago, too. It was nerve-wracking, and made me even more grateful for Rhett and the guys.”

Will kissed Liz’s fingers. “We’ve tripled the number of guards at the house and they follow us everywhere. She can’t get to us, you have to believe that.”

Liz drew in a shaky breath. “I know, but … the thought of her getting through terrifies me. I never want to experience anything like that again.”

“I know; we’ll do all we humanly can to prevent it.” Will slowed the truck down and let go of Liz’s hand to make a right turn into the restaurant parking lot. He found a spot as close to the door as he could and parked in it, then jumped out and helped his wife down from her seat. He put his hands on her waist and looked into her eyes. “Trust us. Trust me. I would die before I allowed anything else to hurt you.”

Liz tried to smile. “I do trust you. It’s Caroline I have issues with.”

Will slid his hands around Liz’s back and drew her close. Laying his cheek on her head, he hugged her as tightly as he dared, holding her for a long minute before pulling back. He moved one hand to cup her chin and lift it while his lips descended in a long, tender kiss.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Caroline Bingley logged out of her Swiss bank account and closed her laptop. “I’m happier every day that I thought to open that account,” she murmured. “And I’m even happier that Daddy left me enough money to make it possible.” Placing the laptop on the table beside her, she rose and stretched, then opened the sliding door and stepped onto the balcony. She settled into a chaise in the corner and watched the activity at the pool below, or what she could see of it.

Caroline’s lip lifted in a sneer as she observed the neighbors in their cheap bathing suits and dollar store inflatable toys. The pool area was loud, as was much of the neighborhood.

The studio apartment Caroline rented wasn’t in the worst neighborhood in the city, but it might as well be, in her opinion. “What did I expect when I got a place this cheap,” she asked herself. Her first inclination had been to find an apartment in one of the city’s high-rent districts, but a phone call to her friend in Europe reminded her that the best way to hide in plain sight was to go somewhere no one would think to find her.

“The first place your brother will look for you is one of those expensive penthouses. You need to find someplace cheaper that you can bear.”

So, Caroline chose the Metairie area and this building with its neighboring businesses. She hated it. The faster I can achieve my goals the faster I can fly back to Europe and never return.

What to do next, she thought, turning her mind to Will Darcy and his “wife.” Caroline hated waiting as much as she hated hiding, and she was tired of both. She sighed heavily. Rolling her lips between her teeth, she contemplated the steps she had taken and what still needed to be accomplished. I can’t really do anything until I get a report from the private investigator. I feel like I’m spinning my wheels here and getting nowhere! Maybe I should have hired someone else. Shaking her head, she stood and re-entered the tiny apartment she had rented under an assumed name.

She paused in front of a mirror on the wall and took in her new appearance. Caroline had shortened her strawberry blonde hair from shoulder length to an extremely short pixie cut. Then, she had dyed it black. She had even colored her eyebrows. Those two changes alone were enough to change her looks completely, but when she added a pair of glasses, she became unrecognizable. To finish off her new look, Caroline bought new clothes at a local discount store, using the other shoppers as models of what a poorer person might wear. “Those billboards with my face on them are useless to the cops now.” She tilted her head and examined her new look. “I’m a totally different person with a brand new identity.” She winked at her reflection and grinned, turning and walking away.

As Caroline passed into the tiny kitchen area, her cell phone rang. Recognizing the number on the screen, she swiped to accept the call, lifting the device to her ear and barking into it. “What took you so long? I don’t have months to wait on you. If you can’t deliver in a timely manner, I’ll find someone else.”

“It takes time to gather information at such a distance. I have worked as quickly as I can.”

Caroline rolled her eyes. “Whatever. You need to move it a little faster if you want that bonus. What have you discovered?”

“As I’m sure you’re aware, there is a warrant out for your arrest. The FBI is involved, too.”

“Continue.” Caroline’s brows had risen at the news about the FBI. She knew, of course, that the tracks and SCRA itself were plastering her face all over the place. She’d seen the Charlotte race on television and hadn’t missed the network piece on the story, nor had she missed Will’s press briefing the day before the race. She chewed her lip, forcing herself to focus on her caller’s words for now.

“I sent a man to North Carolina to investigate the address you gave me. The home is heavily guarded. My guy identified a dozen armed men patrolling the grounds. He was unable to access the inside of the home; the number and identities of the people inside are currently unknown.”

“Okay. Anything else?” A crease appeared between Caroline’s eyes as her brows lowered to accompany a frown.

“No one leaves the home alone. Sometimes, only one vehicle comes and goes, but other times two or more go together. The guards change shifts every eight hours, but not all at once.” The man on the other end paused. “The female you spoke of has visited two different doctors, one a general practitioner and one in a gynecologist’s office. She rarely leaves, and always with one or two men.”

“Yes, the slut is pregnant. What about the man, her husband?”

“He leaves the house more often, generally to go to the Darcy Racing complex or to a store. He’s also been sticking close to home.”

“Anything else?” Caro was impatient to get off the phone and think about what she had learned.

“No, that’s all for now.”

Nodding to herself, Caroline gave the man further instructions before hanging up. She sat on the end of the bed, brow furrowed, and mentally reviewed what the investigator had told her. She’d been monitoring the race series website, the television coverage of the last race and the upcoming races, and the Charlotte-area news channels, so she was well-aware of the efforts being made to find her. “It seems Will Darcy is determined to protect that little imposter.” Caroline sneered. “There’s a way to get rid of her, I know there is, and I plan to find it. Will Darcy will be mine, one way or another.”

~~~***~~~

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