Elizabeth: (More) Unfinished Business

Last week I posted the beginning of my Short Story Week offering.  I’d like to say I planned to make it a two-part story, but honesty compels me to admit that I actually just ran out of time last week.  And then, of course, I managed to get myself stuck, unable to decide exactly how my undercover agents were going to get their happily ever after.

Fortunately, after a week’s worth of thought and a fair number of deleted words, I think I finally got it.

Without further ado, here is the complete Short Story Challenge story with, I think, all of the random words included.

Enjoy.

Unfinished Business

“Is this some kind of joke?” Amelia glared across the desk at Mr. Saunders who sat in his tufted velvet ergonomic desk chair like he was royalty, rather than the mid-level bureaucratic puppet she knew he was.

“Mr. Saunders—if that was really his name—steepled his fingers over a protruding belly that would have put Kris Kringle to shame and adopted a benevolent master-of-the-universe expression that invited Amelia to cooperate and comply.

All it did was make her wish she had a blunt instrument handy.

“I’m quite serious, I assure you,” he said, sliding a thin manila folder across the desk toward her.

Amelia tamped down her anger and worked to slow her breathing.  “I resigned,” she said as she slid the folder back.

Mr. Saunders shook his head.  “The Management does not feel that would be . . . appropriate at this time.” He slid the manila folder back again and held it in place with one pudgy hand.

“Well The Management can—” Amelia bit back a blistering retort when her old partner Marco, sitting in the worn leather chair next to her, nudged her foot in warning.  “But we agreed,” she began again, using the warm beguiling tone that had brought more than one man to his knees during her years of undercover work.  “The Peabody case was my last.”  She lowered her head a bit and batted her lashes for good measure.  “My book tour starts on Tuesday.”

Mr. Saunders’ cheeks flushed slightly, and he cleared his throat before speaking.  “Unfortunately, something has come up that needs your . . . expertise.  Some . . . unfinished business, you might say.”

Amelia raised one perfectly arched brow and waited; willing to be convinced, but not too eager.  No need to rush her fences.

“There’s a package that needs to be . . . delivered,” Mr. Saunders unlocked his desk drawer and removed a small, slightly battered dun-colored box and placed it on the desk.

Amelia knew exactly what was in that box, after all, she’d been the one to acquire it in the first place.  She pasted a mildly interested expression on her face.  “I thought Mackenzie was handling that.”

“There was a slight . . . accident.”

Dead was a bit more than a slight accident, but Amelia forbore to quibble.

“Your book tour will provide the excuse for you to be in the city and The Book Mill will put you in the perfect position.”

“You’ve done your homework.”  Amelia nodded her head toward Marco.  “Why is he here?”

“After what happened to Mackenzie, let’s just call it . . . insurance.” Mr. Saunders paused, then added “He can be your husband or something.  It will give him an excuse to stay close.”

“No!” Amelia and Marco replied in unison.

“I’m perfectly capable of handling a simple delivery on my own,” Amelia quickly added.  “We certainly don’t want a repeat of Bulgaria.”

Mr. Saunders held up a hand.  “It’s not up for debate.  You’ll work together on the delivery and then . . . maybe we’ll talk about your resignation.”

Amelia paused, as if she was going to argue, and then slipped the box and folder into her leather shoulder bag.  She and Marco left the office, remaining silent as they traversed the long silent hallway, descended the (probably bugged) elevator, and walked seven blocks to a hole-in-the-wall diner that served breakfast all day.

Once they were seated in the patched red Naugahyde booth, Amelia relaxed for the first time since she’d entered Mr. Saunders’ office an hour before.  Part one of project Unfinished Business was now underway.

“Good job in there,” Marco said as he scanned the menu.  “You’re an even better actress than I thought”

Amelia took a sip of strong black coffee from a thick white mug as her eyes scanned the room.  “You have no idea.”

# # #

(More) Unfinished Business

“You’re not still mad, are you? Marco asked as he slammed the car door and followed Amelia up the long winding drive to her house.  He was determined to talk, but she wasn’t making it easy.  He tried again.  “This place looks great.  I guess you’re really serious about that whole ‘retirement’ thing.”  That got a response.

“Ten years of freezing my ass off in Russian winters while others enjoyed holiday feasts and family time was my limit.”  Amelia rolled open door of the big barn behind the house and grabbed a bucket of pellets.  “It’s someone else’s turn to save the world.”  As she emptied the pellets into a trough, a head poked out of a nearby wooden lean-to and Marco took a giant step back, stifling a manly shriek. “What the heck is that?”

Amelia rolled her eyes.  “That’s Bubbles.  A pig,” she clarified when Marco still looked confused.

“You have a pig?”

“She came with the house.   She’s good company, doesn’t make demands, and is always glad to see me.”  Amelia put the empty bucket back in the barn adding, “and if it doesn’t work out, well, I do love bacon.”

Marco seized the opening.  “I’m glad to see you; are you glad to see me?”

“Surprised is more like it.  I don’t need a babysitter for this job, no matter what Mr. Saunders thinks.”  Amelia rolled the barn door shut then added, “how’s the wife, by the way?  Jezebel’s her name, isn’t it?”

“Her name was Jessaline and that job was over months ago, as you know perfectly well.”  Marco winced, just thinking about the time spent on that undercover assignment; torture would have been more pleasant than being pretend-married to that intellectually stunted shrew.

Amelia laughed at his expression. “I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the wedded state?”

“Had you taken the assignment instead of Jessaline, I’d have definitely been a fan.”  Amelia flushed and Marco considered it a promising sign.  Maybe their crash-and-burn relationship had some life left in it after all.  He hoped so.  Otherwise, this job was going to end in disaster.

# # #

Getting into the house to make the delivery was easier than Amelia expected.  Mrs. Hastings invited Amelia personally when they met at the book signing on Tuesday.  “My husband loves your books,” Mrs. Hastings had gushed.  “Why don’t you join us on Thursday; we’re having a New Year’s Eve party.”

Amelia had demurred.  “Oh, I wouldn’t want to intrude,” but Mrs. Hastings had insisted.  “I won’t take no for an answer.”  Amelia had no intention of declining the invitation, so she let herself be convinced to accept.

Since she didn’t believe in coincidences, Amelia assumed The Management was behind the invitation.  But she’d never ask.  Just like she hadn’t asked why she was delivering something that she had acquired on a previous job.  She was just glad she wouldn’t have to break into the house; the thrill of doing that had lost its luster years before.  Walking through the front door as an invited guest made everything so much easier.

The party was in full swing when Amelia arrived—lights blazing, champagne flowing, music playing—and there was enough of a crowd disappear into.  The guests were busy talking with each other; they’d never notice when she eventually slipped away.  A server pressed a glass of champagne into her hand and directed her toward the buffet in the main dining hall.  The room was luminous, thanks to the candles, chandeliers, and sparkling ornaments.  The buffet table was overflowing with tempting offerings and Amelia almost moaned after her first bite of fresh ripe strawberry dipped in dark rich chocolate.  If all her undercover jobs were this delicious, she’d think twice about retirement.

Amelia had chosen a form-fitting little black dress for the evening, accessorized with her favorite amethyst pendant necklace, black strappy sandals, and a small evening bag with the package and her tools of the trade.  Stepping away from the chocolate fountain with real regret, she slowly made her way around the room toward the study where the safe was located, talking with various people along the way.

Mr. Hastings waylaid her at one point, and she began to think she’d never be able to shake him loose.  Apparently, he was just as much of a fan of her books as his wife had said he was.  Only by deploying the traditional “I was just looking for the restroom” line was she able to finally make her escape.

Once she reached the study, replacing the package in the safe was a breeze.  Unbelievably, the Hastings hadn’t changed the combination since the last time she was there; no tools needed.

Amateurs.

The safe, when she opened it, was empty except for a note that said “Look behind you.”  As she read the note, Amelia froze, all of her senses on high alert.  She slowly turned, prepared for both fight and flight.

There, leaning against the doorjam in a custom-fitted tuxedo, looking better than he had a right to, was Marco.

“Marco?”  Amelia couldn’t have been more surprised if there’d been a dragon at the door.  “What’s this all about?”  As he walked toward her, she saw the small box in his hand.

He stopped in front of her and opened the box.  There, nestled in the silky lining, was a silver band set with alternating diamonds and amethysts.  “It’s not an engagement ring.  Yet.”  He reached for her hand and placed the ring in her palm.  “It’s more of a stating-my-intentions ring.”

‘Your intentions?”  Amelia looked at the ring, then at Marco.

He took the ring and slid it onto her finger.  “To do my best to make you a fan of the wedded state.  With me,” he clarified.

Since Marco’s plan aligned completely with her own, Amelia allowed herself to be convinced to accept.  The fact that Marco was an excellent kisser sweetened the deal.

There was a server with a tray of champagne and small crowd just outside of the study as they walked out several long minutes later.  Mr. Saunders.  Mr. and Mrs. Hastings.  The Management.  Even Mackenzie.

“I guess rumors of your death were overrated,” Amelia said as she gave Mackenzie a quick hug.  “I can’t believe you were all in on this.”

“I wanted this night to be memorable,” Marco said.

“Well, you certainly managed that,” Amelia said as she raised her champagne glass to him.  “I guess I really did need you on this job after all.”

“Now, about your retirement . . . “

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: (More) Unfinished Business

  1. When I finished your story, I thought, “That was just lovely!” and now I see Jeanne thought so, too. Wonderful story, so great for the holiday! Thanks for finishing it, Elizabeth.

    • Glad you liked it, Kay. And I learned a valuable lesson: If you stop a story partway through, you’re going to wind up stuck with details that you wish you hadn’t initially written.

      • I’ve learned that writing a series throws up the same problem. My developmental editor often asks “Are you sure you want to commit to that detail? It means you’ll be stuck with it/have to work around it/explain it away in future books.” As far as I can see, the only way around the problem is to write the whole story, book, or series before you publish it. Otherwise there’s always *something* you wish you hadn’t initially written.

        I’m glad you wrote yourself into a corner, though. I loved Unfinished Business. Fizzy, fun, feel-good, just the perfect holiday story and well worth waiting for. Thank you, Elizabeth!

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