Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel
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Copyright ©2007 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author
Prologue and Chapter One
Saturday August 29, 1981
Unalterable and unforgiving as a gaping hole in a cemetery, the event would
forever after stand out in memory. There was nothing out of the ordinary to
signal its coming. The pans sat on the immaculate stove as they always did each
afternoon in preparation for dinner, their empty interiors open, ready,
beckoning. Sounds from the television floated in from the adjoining family
room. Somewhere outside a dog barked, and a horn honked as a car passed the
Clarissa Winn set out the vegetables. Steamed broccoli florets with sliced
carrots would go nicely with the meatballs and spaghetti. She picked up a knife.
The shrill of the kitchen phone broke through the sounds of the television.
Clarissa looked up from the broccoli and reluctantly reached for the phone,
hoping it wasn't someone from the PTA asking her to take on another project, or
the pastor needing a pianist for services the next day.
"Hello?" she asked, tucking the phone between her ear and neck. If it was one of
her friends, she'd get a start on cutting the vegetables while they talked.
"Is this Mrs. Clarissa Winn?" a man asked, his rich, melodic voice boasting a
distinct British accent that made her think of exotic places to which she had
"Yes, I'm Clarissa Winn."
"My name is Dr. Mehul Raji. I am calling from Calcutta, India, from Charity
Medical Hospital. It is about your sister."
"My sister?" Clarissa's grip tightened on the knife in her hand. Sister. She
hadn't heard the word in relation to herself for far too long. "You mean Karyn?"
"Yes, Karyn Olsen Schrader."
"Has something happened?" The words hurt Clarissa's throat.
"Indeed. It is with great regret that I must inform you of the death of your
sister and that of her husband, Dr. Guenter Schrader. They were killed in a
plane accident last Saturday as they traveled to give medical care to the
inhabitants of several remote villages here in India." The words were measured
and exact, but now the doctor's British English was heavily accented with
whatever language he called his own. "Please accept my heartfelt condolences.
Both Karyn and Guenter were valuable members of our staff and will be deeply
Clarissa's eyes filled with tears. My sister is dead.
The hand with the knife shook. Her reflection in the shiny surface of her four-
quart saucepan was distortedas distorted as her soul.
The television blared. Outside came the happy ringing of the ice cream truck.
Life as usual.
"I would have called you sooner," Dr. Raji continued, "but only today did we
find your number in a box of Karyn's belongings. I am happy to be able to reach
Clarissa barely heard his voice. Karyn is dead. The words came with a furious
pounding of her heart. Still, she gripped the knife, poised over the broccoli,
her hand turning white.
"I wish to know what instructions you have for me regarding their four- year-old
daughter, as you appear to be her only living relative."
Suddenly Clarissa was listening again. So Karyn had given birth to the daughter
she'd longed for. "Is she okay?"
"She is unhurt, but there is concern. She has not spoken to anyone since the
accident. At the moment, she is in the care of a woman in whose house Dr. and
Mrs. Schrader were living, but we expect that you will want her sent to America.
Is this not correct?"
Sobs pierced Clarissa's awarenessbitter cries that hurt her to hear. She tried
to answer the doctor, but words refused to come.
Karyn is dead.
Her husband's arms came from behind, wrapping around her body. "What's wrong,
Only then did she realize that bitter crying was coming from her own throat. She
swallowed her sobs with an agony that threatened suffocation. The knife moved in
Travis reached for it, rubbing the flesh and loosening her grip before taking
the knife. "Give me the phone," he said softly.
Clarissa watched as he talked with the doctor from India, her own disbelief and
shock mirrored in his dark eyes. Finding a pen in the drawer, he wrote down a
number. Then he set the phone on the cradle.
"It's my fault," Clarissa moaned. And it wasas surely as if she had forced
Karyn onto the plane that would eventually crash.
"No, it's not. It's not anyone's fault."
He sighed. "If it's yours, then it's mine, too."
She shook her head. "No, no. Mine. I'm her sister." Was, her mind
corrected. She was my sister.
Travis put his arms around her. She gazed up at his familiar, dearly loved
features, stared into the eyes she would never have known had it not been for
Karyn, the sister she had betrayed. Oh, dear Godhow did I let this happen?
There was no chance for making amends now.
"Her daughter," she said aloud. "What about that poor little
"She'll come here, of course."
She nodded. "We'll raise her as our own."
An unexpectedunwantedsurge of joy welled within Clarissa's breast. Only
fleetingly did she consider that someday they would have to tell Karyn's
daughter the truth.
Liana Winn's fingers flew over her calculator, making
long tallies of numbers that spewed onto a long curl of white paper. She hated working on this account for
more reasons than one. Wealthy Jim Forrester, the obscenely
young owner of a computer consulting firm, didn't exactly
cheat on his taxes, but there were many points she felt
stretched the realm of belief: vacations in Hawaii, elaborate gifts
for clients, deluxe hotel rooms with heart-shaped bathtubs.
After two years of doing Forrester's taxes and avoiding his
blatant advances, Liana had tried to refuse being assigned to his
case. But he was Klassy Accounting's most important client,
and when he had requested her personally, her boss made it
clear she had no choice but to accept.
"You about done with the Forrester case, Liana?" Liana's fingers
stiffened over her calculator as she looked up into the
small watery eyes of Larry Koplin, her boss. He was a tall, balding,
barrel- chested man who wore tailored suits and who might
have been commanding if not for his swollen cheeks, thin
shoulders, and scrawny limbs.
"Nearly, Mr. Koplin," she said, keeping her voice calm. "I'm
just finishing a few numbers. Once I put them into the computer,
I'll be finished."
Koplin's pale face darkened with a brief frown, which Liana
knew was because he had invited her time and time again to
call him Larry instead of Mr. Koplin. Liana had tried, briefly,
half-heartedly, but the time when he had inspired friendship
was long past.
"Good." He twisted his thin, too- long fingers, as though
washing them. "I knew you'd be done soon. I told him to come
over in an hour. He'd like to take you to lunch."
Distaste rolled through Liana, but she was careful not to
show it. "Thank you, Mr. Koplin, but I won't be able to go. I
need to finish at least two more accounts before I leave
Koplin's smile did not reach his watery eyes. "Nonsense, a
girl has to eat."
Liana stifled a sharp retort that would have detailed her womanly capability of buying her own meal. She had learned
to do at least that in her nearly thirty years of life, thank you
very much. Instead, she said, "I think we promised Jones and
Dean that their accounts would be finished by morning, didn't
we? Lunch with Forester could take hours."
She watched contrasting emotions battle in Larry Koplin's puffy face as he pitted the money he would receive from those
accounts against the points he would earn if he could coerce her
to have lunch with Forrester. Liana remembered a time when
she had believed in hima time when his smile and a promise
of a bright future had drawn her away from her previous job. It
was an offer he still touted, but Liana had discovered that his
"bright future" meant this minuscule office and nothing more.
Koplin's greed for money won out. "I'll tell Mr. Forrester
you can't possibly get away now. Just see that you finish those
Liana felt the sudden urge to quit right that instant, to turn
her back and walk out, just to see him scramble for a replacement.
Maybe then he would recognize the four years of hard
work that had earned her this pitiful closet she called an
officean office she now despised. But she had bills to pay, which her monthly paycheck barely covered, so she had no
choice but to swallow her anger. "I will, Mr. Koplin."
He nodded sharply, causing the loose skin under his chin to wobble, and turned on feet that seemed small for his towering
height and protruding chest. As he walked down the aisle
between the gray cubicles, he was followed by surreptitious
stares from his employees. One of the nearest women, a new
employee named Jocelyn, cast Liana a sympathetic glance
through the door, and Liana smiled politely before returning to
her work. The anger gradually faded as she put the incident
aside. She would not allow anything to affect her work or her
state-of-mind. She was in control. Anything else was
When the phone rang, she reached for it, eyes glued to her
computer screen. "Liana Winn," she said. Tilting her head to
support the phone, she continued entering numbers. Earlier in
the day, she'd hoped to finished work early, but that hope was
"Hi, it's me."
She smiled despite her dark mood. Her brother's voice was
always a welcome sound. "Hi, Christian. What's up?"
"Actually, I need a favor."
"Ha, what else is new?" She rolled her eyes. He was forty,
and she was still bailing him out of one thing or another.
"Well, a friend of mine has to get a bit of tax work donepronto."
"Sorry." The phone pressed hard between her ear and
shoulder, and already her neck was beginning to ache from the
awkward position. "I'd like to help your friend, but I can't.
Maybe next month, after the fifteenth."
Her brother wasn't having any of it. His voice took on a
pleading note, one she always found difficult to ignore. "Oh,
Liana, come on. The company he works for is a client of mine.
If I lose that account, my boss will kill me."
Through the open door of her tiny office Liana could see a
buzz of activity in the cubicles where she had worked until her
promotion a few months earlier. Fingers typed at keyboards,
creating an unlikely symphony that hummed evenly on the air.
There were voices too, but lower, almost covered by the incessant
tapping. Ringing phones added shrillness to the din.
March was one of the accounting firm's busiest times of the
year, surpassed only by the madness that consumed the first
half of April.
She willed herself to be strong. "If this guy changes advertising
firms because I can't work him in, then he's no friend of
"It's his company I need to impress, not him, and that
means if they need a favor, I deliver. This accounting thing
really isn't even Austin's department. He got stuck with it
because of me."
Not again! She stifled a sigh. "And how on earth did that
"Well, I was in this meeting yesterday, and they were discussing my new advertising designwhich they seemed to
like, by the way."
"Christian," she groaned.
"Okay, okay. So they started in about how their financial
manager had run off on them and how the new onethe
owner's nephew or somethingcan't start until he finishes college
next month. Bottom line, they're in a big bind and need
help quick if they want to avoid paying more penalties. Next
thing I know, my mouth opens all on its own, and I'm telling
them I know someone."
"Know someone? Who do you think you arethe mafia?"
He gave a short laugh. "Come on, will you just meet with
him? If it's too much work maybe you could file another extension.
Pleeeeease? His office is just outside Vegas, only a couple
of miles away from yours. It's a quarterly thing, I think, so it
can't be too big, can it?"
Liana sighed. Christian had no idea how difficult quarterly
filings could be. He was a genius at dreaming up creative
advertisements, but numbers escaped him completely.
"Depends on the size of the company. Can't your friend come
in and meet with my boss? Maybe someone else could work
him in here."
"Can't see that happening. Austin would never trust a company
with a corny name like Klassy Accounting." Christian's
voice rose in mimic of the commercials that were being run on
the radio. "Klassy Accountingno job too big or too small."
He snorted. "No offense, but it's true. Please, Liana Banana?
What do you say? Do it for me?"
The use of her childhood nickname made it more difficult
to deny his request. "Let me think a moment," she said, raking
her hand through the long strands of her dark hair. If she
skipped her twenty- minute lunch down at the corner deliagainand didn't take her afternoon break, she might be able
to finish work by seven or so, and that would leave enough
time to see Christian's friend. Even as she thought this, the
strong aroma of a TV dinner, coming from the small alcove that
lamely served as an employee break room, wended its way into
her office, making her stomach ache with emptiness.
"Okay, okay," she agreed with resignation. "I'll take a look.
But you'll have to pick me up and stop at McDonald's or somewhere
on the way so I can eat as you drive. I'm famished."
"Deal. You won't regret this, Banana. I love you."
"Hmm." She hung up the phone.
Daylight was already beginning to fade as Liana exited the
front door of her building. Outside, she found Christian parked
in a no- parking fire zone, lounging against his green BMW, a
car he was still paying for and would be for at least another
three years. He greeted her with a wave and a grin that always
made people feel he shared their secrets. "I got you Chinese,"
he said as he opened the passenger side door for her. "I know
how you love it."
"I enjoy it." She slid into the car.
Christian rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, I forgot. You don't love
anything . . . or anyone, right? Except for me." Grinning, he
placed his hands on his khaki dress pants and leaned down
until his eyes were even with hers. "Come on, tell me you love
me. Tell me I'm your favorite brother. Why don't you ever say
it?" They both knew he was teasing, and yet there was an
undercurrent of sincerity to his plea. To him things like saying
"I love you" made a difference, but Liana knew that saying so
only set a person up for loss.
She snorted in annoyance and pulled her door shut. Her
brother barely had time to jump out of the way. "Hey!" He
slapped the side of the car, but lightly so there was no chance
of damaging the finish.
She watched him saunter around to the driver's side.
Handsome by any standard, Christian had dark, laughing eyes
and longish brown hair combed back from his square face. He
was fun- loving, adventuresome, generousand completely
irresponsible. Though Liana was more than ten years his junior,
she often lent him money, patted his back when his relationships
didn't work out, and handled all his finances. He joked
that he'd never marry until he found someone just like her.
What he didn't seem to realize that someone like her was
unable to maintain a stable romantic relationship.
"Be careful of the seats," Christian warned, sliding behind
the wheel. "Leather and Chinese don't mix."
"I know, I know."
As Christian drove through Las Vegas, Liana ate her
Chinese food with the plastic fork provided. He'd bought her
favorite, curry chicken, but had ordered fried rice instead of
regular white. She closed the rice carton with distaste and
opened the chicken, careful not to spill it on her black suit or
Christian's precious leather seats. Her stomach rumbled in
anticipation, even as the spicy flavors brought her mouth to
Weaving through the post rush- hour traffic, Christian
babbled about his job, a girl at work that he was thinking about
asking out, and how much it had cost to repair a scratch in the
paint on his car. There was no pattern to his speech, and he
punctuated his stories with unexpected exclamations. His voice
was a welcome relief from the monotonous sounds at the office.
Sometimes the continuous tapping at work was more than
Liana could endure, and she had to envision herself elsewhere
to survive the day. When she'd first started in the cubicles, her
daydream had been a quiet beach with nothing but the occasional
cry of the seagulls to interrupt her peace. Then two summers
earlier she had taken a vacation to Catalina Island in
California, where the beaches been filled with boisterous
people and the constant roar of the waves hurling themselves
up the beach. After a while, the rise and fall of the white-crested waves had been as bad for her as the tapping on the
keyboardstoo much rush and hurry. She'd gone home
disappointed and begun to dream of a remote cabin in the
Last summer she had stayed in her brother Bret's cozy new
cabin in the mountains of Utah. She wanted to hike over the
soft, fragrant layers of pine needles and escape Nevada's penetrating
heat. It had been wonderfulat first. Then at night the
wind singing through the trees became a constant sound,
somehow hauntingly familiar, as though someone had only
muffled the tapping from the keyboards. After three sleepless
nights, she went home early, resigning herself to never escaping
the cacophony of the accounting office. From that time on,
she'd hated her job.
"Here we are," Christian said, all too soon.
Swallowing a bite of chicken, Liana gazed at the new three-story building liberally dotted with impressive windows. Large
gold lettering on the front window next to the double glass
doors spelled out Goodman Electronics. "What did you say the
"They sell televisions, DVD players, that sort of thing.
Austin also runs a charity organization to help orphans in
Ukraine. His grandmother started it. But that doesn't have anything
to do with his job here."
"Well, I hope they're not too big." The larger the company,
the more work she would be in for.
Setting aside the remains of her chicken, Liana grabbed her
black briefcase, climbed out of the car, and walked with
Christian to the doors. Almost immediately, a buzzer sounded
and they were let inside.
Behind the wide, room- length reception desk sat a lean
man dressed in a dark business suit. He was tilted back in the
chair with his hands behind his head and his feet on the desk.
His eyes were fixed on the monitor in front of him, as if nothing
could tear him away. Black hair covered his head, the corners
arching high in the fronta sign of intelligence, her father
used to sayand the tanned, chiseled face already sported a
five o'clock shadow.
He moved as they approached, languidly pulling down his
arms and coming to his feet. He was tallat least a head taller
than Liana. His eyes stayed on the screen a few seconds longer,
and Liana wished she could catch a glimpse of what so fascinated
him. Then his face turned in their direction, his welcoming
smile echoed by a friendly gleam in his black eyes.
Individually, his features weren't anything to speak ofhis
nose was too large, his chin too wide, the forehead too highbut taken all together he was positively the most arresting man
she had ever seen. Liana didn't know if it was because his eyes
were the color of midnight or if it was the way he looked at her.
Certainly he wasn't the most handsome man she'd met. Take
Jim Forrester, for example. That man had the blond good looks
of a surfing king, though his merits were decidedly spoiled by
his certainty of his beautynot to mention the existence of a
Mrs. Forrester. Liana never allowed good looks to impress her.
"Austin, this is my sister, Liana Winn," Christian said.
"Liana, this is Austin Walker."
He waked around the desk, offering his hand. She looked
up into his face and murmured something, schooling herself to
show nothing of her momentary admiration.
Austin's eyes didn't leave hers. "Are you the wonder woman
who's going to free me from this accounting mess?" His voice
was low and rich, with a hint of familiarity that made her
"That depends." She averted her eyes from his stare.
"Where are the papers so I can get started?"
The smile on Austin's face faltered but steadied almost
immediately. "Right this way." He took an ID card hanging from
his waist on a thin retractable elastic cord and swiped it
through a metal reader near the door next to the reception
desk. "Through here." He held the door open for them.
As Liana passed, she caught a whiff of Austin's cologne, or
perhaps it was only fabric softener someone had used on his
white button- down shirt. The scent reminded her of hiking
outside Bret's cabina slight fragrance of pine mixed with the
freshness of a mountain breeze. The scent was gone almost
before she could identify it. She slipped passed, felt his gaze
boring into her back, and wondered why he so disturbed her.
It's not just him, came an unbidden thought. She
remembered Jim Forrester and Mr. Koplin. They were only a
few in a long line of men that made her feel uncomfortable.
Truth be told, the only men who didn't make her nervous were
her brothers, Christian and Bret. Liana forced the thoughts
away and continued down the hall. Men were irrelevant. She
didn't need anyone. No, not even Christian, who had called her
Liana from her first day in Americainstead of Lara, the legal
name she detested. Not even Christian, who had held her shaking
body while she sobbed for her mother during those first
weeks and months after the plane accident, and who had eased
her hunger with ice cream stolen from the freezer in the middle
of the night when she had been too upset to eat her dinner. Not
even Christian, who had promised never to leave hera promise
she couldn't bear to elicit from his parents, the aunt and
uncle who had adopted her. If she kept telling herself she didn't
need himor any of themit might become true.
"It's that one over there." Austin slipped around them and
opened another door with a swipe of his card.
The accountant's office was dim, lit only by the darkening
light coming through the wide, unshuttered windows. Austin
flipped on the overhead lights, and the room sprang from the
shadows. To one side sat a nice oak desk, and beyond the desk,
tall oak filing cabinets lined one wall. A high oak bookcase bordered the opposite wall, and a narrow table held a vase of flowers.
But the most obvious piece of furniture was a small round
plastic table in the middle of the room, standing awkwardly
alone, unattached to any chair and of notably different quality
from the rest of the furniture.
"Everything should be here on the table," Austin said. "I
had a secretary make hard copies of everything and do the best
she could to organize it."
Liana grimaced at the mounds of papers and files lying on
the small table. Though neatly organized, the stacks were also
thick and numerous. Generally, she preferred to leave everything
on the computer until the final go-through. Everything
except her tallies of numbers. Those she liked to have on tangible
papereither on her adding machine or, in the old-fashioned way, with pencil and pad.
"I know it looks like a lot," Austin said. "But I can help. I'm
good with numbers. I'm just not sure what to file or when."
Carefully, Liana set her briefcase on top of one of the stacks.
She looked around the room and spotted a chair behind the
desk. Thankfully, it was padded.
"There's a chair." Austin started for it at the same time she
"I can do it."
Their hands touched on the back of the chair, and Liana
pulled away hard. The chair shot from the horseshoe desk
toward the table, banging into it. "Wheels. What a nice invention,"
she said, not meeting Austin's gaze. She felt like an idiot.
Ignoring the men's polite chuckling, she sat down to work.
After a while Christian and Austin started whispering, breaking
her concentration. "Isn't there somewhere you two can go
for about forty minutes?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah." Austin motioned Christian to the door. "We
have an employee lounge where we can catch a little TV. And I
should check my e- mail. Are you sure you'll be okay?"
"Don't worry about me. I'm only stealing your company
secrets." Her eyes returned to the papers.
Austin hesitated, but Christian pulled him away. "She's
"Of course she is."
Liana didn't look up until they left. Though she was alone
in the room, she still felt Austin's midnight eyes upon her.
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