Two of a Kind

By: Susan Mallery


RATIONAL THOUGHT AND a working knowledge of hand-to-hand combat were useless when faced with the villainous power of the American house spider.
Felicia Swift stood immobilized in the corner of the warehouse, aware of the web, of the arachnid watching her, no doubt plotting her downfall. Where there was one female American house spider, there were others, and she knew they were all after her.
The logical part of her brain nearly laughed out loud at her fears. In her head, Felicia understood that spiders did not, in fact, travel in packs or scheme to attack her. But intelligence and logic were no match for a true arachnophobe. She could write papers, prepare flow charts and even do experiments from now until the next appearance of Halley’s Comet. She was terrified of spiders and they knew it.
“I’m going to back away slowly,” she said in a soft, soothing voice.
Technically, spiders didn’t have ears. They could sense vibration, but with her speaking quietly, there wouldn’t be much of that. Still, she felt better talking, so she kept up the words as she inched toward the exit, always keeping her gaze locked firmly on the enemy.
Light spilled from the open door. Light meant freedom and spider-free breathing. Light meant—
The light suddenly blacked out. Felicia jumped and turned, prepared to do battle with the giant mother-of-all-spiders. Instead she faced a tall man with shaggy hair and a scar by his eyebrow.
“I heard a scream,” he said. “I came to see if there was a problem.” He frowned. “Felicia?”
Because the spiders weren’t enough, she thought frantically. How was that possible?
Fortes fortuna adiuvat.
She tried to rein in her unwieldy brain. Fortune favors the brave? That was helpful how? She had spiders behind her, the man who took her virginity in front of her, and she was thinking in Latin?
Felicia sucked in a breath and steadied herself. She was a logistics expert. She’d never met a crisis she couldn’t organize her way out of, and today would be no exception. She would work from big to small and reward herself by doing the Sunday New York Times crossword in less than four minutes.
“Hello, Gideon,” she said, bracing herself for her hormonal reaction to this man.
He moved closer, his dark eyes filling with emotion. She had never been all that good at reading other people’s feelings, but even she recognized confusion.
As he approached, she was aware of the size of him—the sheer broadness of his shoulders. His T-shirt seemed stretched to the point of ripping across his chest and biceps. He looked lethal but still graceful. The kind of man who was at home in any dangerous part of the world.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
By here, she assumed he meant in Fool’s Gold and not in the warehouse itself.
She squared her shoulders—a feeble attempt to look larger and more in control. Similar to a cat arching its back and raising its fur. But she doubted Gideon was going to be any more intimidated by her than he would be by a hissing tabby.
“I live in town now.”
“I knew that. I meant what are you doing in this warehouse?”
An unexpected response, she thought, suddenly less sure of herself. A result of the spider encounter. Their powers were far-reaching. She’d planned to avoid any contact with Gideon for several months. Here it was less than five weeks into her plan and they’d run into each other.
“I’m working,” she said, returning her attention to his question. “How did you know I was in town?”
“Justice told me.”
“He did?” Something her business associate hadn’t mentioned to her. “When?”
“A few weeks ago.” Gideon’s mouth curved into a smile. “He told me to stay away from you.”
His voice, she thought, trying not to get lost in the memories of what the sound meant to her. While olfactory recollections were thought to be the strongest, a sound or a phrase could also shift a person back to another time. Felicia had no doubt she could easily be transported by Gideon’s scent; right now she was most concerned about his voice.
He had one of those low, sexy voices. As ridiculous as it sounded, the combination of tone and cadence reminded her of chocolate. Now his voice was a vibration she was sure the spiders could get behind. She should—
Her chin came up as her brain replayed his statement.
“Justice told you to stay away from me?”
Gideon raised one powerful shoulder. “He suggested it was a good idea. After what happened.”
Outraged, she planted her hands on her hips, then thought hitting Justice was a far better idea. Only, he wasn’t there.
“What happened between you and me isn’t his business,” she said firmly.
“You’re his family.”
“That doesn’t give him the right to get in the middle of my personal life.”
“I didn’t see you trying to find me,” Gideon pointed out. “I figured you were comfortable with his...intervention.”
“Of course not,” she began, only to realize she had been avoiding Gideon, but not for the reasons he thought. “It’s complicated.”
“I’m seeing that,” he told her. “So you’re okay?”
“Of course. Our sexual encounter was over four years ago.” She had no idea if he’d guessed she’d been a virgin or not and didn’t see any reason to mention it now. “Our night together was...satisfying.” An understatement, she thought, remembering how Gideon had made her feel. “I’m sorry Justice and Ford broke down the hotel room door the following morning.”
Gideon’s expression changed to one of amusement. It was a look Felicia was used to seeing, and she knew it meant she’d somehow missed an obvious social cue or taken a joking comment literally.
She held in a sigh. She was smart. Scary smart, as she’d often been told. She’d grown up around scientists and graduate students. Ask her about the origins of the universe and she could give a fact-based lecture on the subject without having to prepare. But interpersonal interactions were harder. She was so damned awkward, she thought glumly. She said the wrong thing or sounded like a space alien with bad programming, when all she wanted was to be just like everyone else.
“I meant are you okay now,” he said. “You screamed. That’s why I came in.”
She pressed her lips together. For possibly the thousandth time in her life she thought how she would gladly exchange thirty IQ points for just a small increase in social awareness.
“I’m fine,” she said, offering what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Couldn’t be better. Thank you for coming to my rescue—however unnecessary that was.”
He took a step toward her. “I’m always happy to help out a beautiful woman.”
Flirting, she thought, automatically monitoring his pupil dilation to see if it was real or simply politeness. When a man was sexually interested, his pupils dilated. But it was too dark in the warehouse for her to be sure.
“What made you scream?” he asked.
She drew in a breath. “I saw a spider.”
One eyebrow rose.
“It was large and aggressive,” she added.
“A spider?”
“Yes. I have issues with them.”
“I’m not stupid. I know it’s not rational.”
Gideon chuckled. “You’re many things, Felicia, but we’re all aware that stupid isn’t one of them.”
Before she could figure out what to say to that, Gideon turned and walked away. She was so caught up in the way his jeans fit his butt that she couldn’t think of anything to say, and then he was gone and she was alone with little more than her mouth hanging open, a herd of American house spiders and their plans for her.

GIDEON BOYLAN KNEW the danger of flashbacks. They could come on suddenly and disoriented him. They were vivid, engaging all his senses, and when they were gone, a man had no way of knowing what was real and what was imagined. After being held captive for two years, he’d been ready to give in to madness. At least it would have been an escape.
His rescue had come just in time, although too late for the men who had been with him. But even being out of the hands of tormentors hadn’t given him any sense of freedom. The memories were just as painful as the imprisonment had been.
Focus, he told himself as he loaded the CD and checked his playlist for the next three hours. He had put his past behind him. Some days he even believed it. Seeing Felicia earlier had been a kick in the gut, but he would take a flashback of a beautiful woman in his bed every time. Still, he’d had to take a five-mile run and then meditate for nearly an hour before he’d felt calm enough to head to the radio station.
“We’re doing it the old-fashioned way tonight,” he said into the microphone. “Just like we always do.”
Beyond the control room, the station was dark, the way he liked it. He didn’t mind the dark. If it was dark, he was safe. They’d never come for him in the dark. They’d always turned the lights on first.
“It’s eleven o’clock in Fool’s Gold and this is Gideon. I’m going to dedicate tonight’s first song to a lovely lady I ran into today. You know who you are.”
He pushed the button and “Wild Thing” by the Troggs started.
Gideon smiled to himself. He had no way of knowing if Felicia was listening or not, but he liked the idea of playing a song for her.
A red light flashed on the wall. He glanced at it, aware someone was ringing the front bell. After hours, the signal flashed back in the control room. An interesting time for visitors. He walked to the front of the radio station and unlocked the door. Ford Hendrix stood in front of the door, a beer in each hand.
Gideon grinned and waved his friend in. “I heard you were in town.”
“Yeah, back two days and I’m already regretting the decision.”
Gideon took the offered beer. “Welcome home the conquering hero?”
“Something like that.”
Gideon had known Ford for years. Although Ford was a SEAL, they’d served together on a joint task force, and later, when Gideon had been left in his Taliban prison to rot, Ford had been one of those who had risked his life to get him out.
“Come on back. I have to put on the next song.”
They walked down the long corridor. “I can’t believe you own this place,” Ford said, following him into the control room. “It’s a radio station.”
“Huh. That explains all the music.”
Ford took the seat opposite Gideon’s. Gideon put on his headphones and flipped a switch.
“This is my night for dedications,” he said. “I apologize for going digital for a second, but it’s the only way to cue up quickly. Here we go. Welcome home, Ford.”
The opening of “Born to be Wild” began.
“You really are a bastard,” Ford said conversationally.
“I find myself an amusing companion.”
Ford was about Gideon’s size. Strong and, on the surface, easygoing. But Gideon knew that anyone who had been to the places they’d been and done what they’d done traveled with ghosts.
“What brings you out so late at night?” he asked.
Ford grimaced. “I woke up and found my mom hovering over me in my room. Fortunately I recognized her before I reacted. I need to get out of there.”
“So find an apartment.”
“Believe me, I’m looking first thing in the morning. She begged me to wait, and I figured moving back home couldn’t be too hard. You know, connect with family.”
Gideon had made the attempt once. It hadn’t gone well.
“My brothers are okay,” Ford continued. “But my mom and my sisters are staying way too close.”
“They’re glad you’re home. You were gone a long time.”
Gideon didn’t know all the details, but he’d heard Ford had left Fool’s Gold when he was twenty and hadn’t been back much in the past fourteen years.
Ford took a long swallow of his beer. “My mom’s already asking if I’ve thought of settling down.” He shuddered.
“Not ready for a wife and the pitter-patter of little feet?”
“No, although I wouldn’t mind getting laid.” Ford glanced at him. “You’re in trouble, by the way.”
“I always am.”
His friend laughed. “Felicia went after Justice this afternoon. She said he had no right to tell you to stay away from her. When she gets mad, it’s quite the show. Talk about a woman who can handle the big words.”
“You know her?”
“Not well. The first time I met her was in Thailand.”
When both Justice and Ford had interrupted Gideon’s night with Felicia. Or rather the following morning. A polite way of saying they’d busted down the door and Justice had insisted on taking Felicia with him. Gideon had tried to go after her, but Ford had held him back.
Gideon hadn’t seen her again until today. When she’d been fighting marauding spiders.
“She was pissed at Justice?” he asked.
Ford shook his head. “Leave me out of this. We’re not in high school, and I’m not passing notes in study hall or asking her if she likes you. You’ll have to do it yourself.”
Gideon was tempted. That night had been memorable. She was an intriguing combination of determined, sexy and geeky. But he knew he wasn’t her type—he wasn’t anyone’s. To the untrained eye he looked as if he’d healed, but he knew what was underneath. He wasn’t a good relationship risk. Of course, if Felicia was looking for something less serious and more naked, he was all in.
Ford finished his beer. “Mind if I bunk in an empty office?”
“There’s a futon in the break room.”
Gideon didn’t bother mentioning it wasn’t that comfortable. For a guy like Ford, a ratty futon was just as good as a four-star hotel bed. In their line of work, you learned to make do.
Ford dropped the bottle into the blue recycling bin, then headed down the hall. Gideon put in a CD, then searched until he found the right track.
“You Keep Me Hanging On” began to play.

FELICIA HURRIED TOWARD Brew-haha. She was late, which never happened. She liked her life to be organized and calm. Structured. Which meant she always knew where she was going to be and what she was going to be doing. Being late was not part of her plan.
But ever since she’d seen Gideon the day before, she’d been out of sorts. The man confused her. No, she thought as she walked by the park, her reaction to him confused her.
She was used to being around physically powerful men. She’d worked with soldiers for years. But Gideon was different. The result of their sexual history, she thought. Percentage-wise, a single night was such a small part of a person’s life, yet it could have lasting impact. A trauma of any kind could stay with a person forever. But her time with Gideon had been wonderful, not traumatic. The memories of that night along with their meeting yesterday kept swirling in her head. As a woman who liked her brain as tidy as she liked her life, she was unprepared for being so unsettled.
She paused to wait for the light so she could cross the street. As she stood, she saw a young mother with two small boys. They were maybe two and four, the youngest still a little unsteady as he ran across the grass. He came to a stop, turned and saw his mother and brother, then smiled broadly.
Felicia stared greedily, absorbing the pure joy of the moment, the unselfconsciousness of the happy toddler. This was why she’d come to Fool’s Gold, she reminded herself. To be somewhere normal. To try to be like everyone else. To maybe even fall in love and have a family. To belong.
For someone who had grown up as a whiz kid on a university college campus, normal sounded like heaven. She wanted what other people took for granted.
The light changed, and she crossed quickly, aware of her lateness. Mayor Marsha hadn’t said why she wanted to meet and Felicia hadn’t asked. She’d assumed her skills were needed on a project of some kind. Maybe setting up an inventory system for the city.
She walked through the open door into the coffeehouse. Brew-haha had opened a couple of months before. Hardwood floors gleamed as sunlight spilled through the big windows. There were plenty of tables, a nice selection of pastries and delicious caffeine in all forms.
Patience, the owner and one of Felicia’s friends, smiled. “You’re late,” she said cheerfully. “I’m excited to know you have flaws. There’s hope for the rest of us.”
Felicia groaned as her friend pointed to a table toward the back. Sure enough, Mayor Marsha Tilson and Pia Moreno were already seated there.
“I’ll bring you a latte,” Patience added, already reaching for a large mug.
Felicia made her way through the tables toward the other women. Mayor Marsha, California’s longest-serving mayor, was a well-dressed woman in her early seventies. She favored suits and, during business hours, wore her white hair up in a classic bun. She was, Felicia thought wistfully, the perfect combination of competent and motherly.
Pia, a willowy brunette with curly hair and a ready smile, jumped to her feet as Felicia approached. “You made it. Thanks for coming. It’s summer with what feels like a festival every fifteen minutes. I’m happy to be out of my office, even for a business meeting.”
She gave Felicia a quick hug. Felicia responded in kind, despite her surprise. She’d only met Pia a couple of times and didn’t think they were all that close. Still, the physical contact was pleasant and implied a connection.
Patience brought over the latte and a plate of cookies. “We’re sampling today,” she said with a grin. “From the bakery. They’re too fabulous.” She pushed the plate into the center of the table with her left hand. Her diamond ring flashed.
Mayor Marsha touched Patience’s ring finger. “What a beautiful setting,” she said. “Justice did a very nice job choosing the ring.”
Patience sighed and studied her engagement ring. “I know. I keep staring at it when I should be working. But I can’t help myself.”
She returned to the front of the store. Pia watched her go.
“Young love,” she said with a sigh.
“You’re still young and very much in love,” the mayor reminded her.
“I am still in love,” Pia said and laughed. “Most days I don’t feel so young. But I’ll agree with you on the ring. It’s impressive.”
Mayor Marsha turned to Felicia and raised her eyebrows. “Not a big diamond fan?”
“I don’t get the appeal,” she admitted. “They sparkle, but they’re simply pressurized rocks.”
“Expensive rocks,” Pia teased.
“Because we assign them significance. They have little intrinsic value, except for their hardness. In some industrial settings...” She paused, aware she was not only talking too much, she was heading into a subject everyone else would find boring. “Fossils are interesting,” she murmured. “Their formation seems more serendipitous.”
The other two women glanced at each other, then back at her. Their expressions were polite, but Felicia recognized the signs. They were both thinking she was a freak. Sadly, they were right about that.
Moments like this one were the main reasons she worried about having the family she wanted so desperately. What if she couldn’t have children? Not biologically. There was no reason to assume she couldn’t procreate as well as the next woman. But was she emotionally sound enough? Could she learn what she didn’t know? She trusted her brain implicitly but was less sure about her instincts, and maybe her heart.
She’d grown up never fitting in—a reality she would never want to foist on any child she might have.
“Amber is tree sap, isn’t it?” Pia asked. “Wasn’t that the basis of that movie? The dinosaur one?”
“Jurassic Park,” the mayor said.
“Right. Raoul loves that movie. He and Peter watch it together. I won’t let the twins anywhere near the room, though. They wouldn’t be able to sleep for weeks after seeing T.rex eating that man.”
Felicia started to point out all the scientific inconsistencies in the movie, then pressed her lips together. She believed that many life lessons could be found in clichés, and right now the phrase “less is more” came to mind.
Mayor Marsha took a sip of her coffee. “Felicia, I’m sure you’re wondering why we wanted to meet with you today.”
Pia shook her head. “Right. The meeting.” She smiled. “I’m pregnant.”
The expected response, Felicia thought, not sure why the other woman was sharing the information. But then they’d hugged, so perhaps Pia thought they were closer than Felicia did. She wasn’t always good at judging things like that.
Pia laughed. “Thanks. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Ask poor Patience. I had a complete breakdown in front of her not that long ago. I’ve been forgetful and disorganized. Then I found out I’m pregnant. It was good to have a physical cause for my craziness and not have to worry about going insane.”
She cupped her hands around her mug of tea. “I already have three kids. Peter and the twins. I love my work, but with a fourth baby on the way, I can’t possibly stay on top of everything that’s happening. I’ve been wrestling with the fact that I can’t be in charge of the festivals anymore.”
Felicia nodded politely. She doubted they were going to ask for her recommendation on who should take Pia’s place. They would know that better than she would. Unless they wanted her to help with the search. She could easily come up with a list of criteria and—
Mayor Marsha smiled at her over her mug. “We were thinking of you.”
Felicia opened her mouth, then closed it. Words genuinely failed her—a very uncommon experience. “For the job?”
“Yes. You have an unusual skill set. Your time with the military has given you experience at dealing with a bureaucracy. While I like to think we’re more nimble than most city governments, the truth is we still move very slowly and there’s a form for everything. Logistics are your gift, and the festivals are all about logistics. You’ll bring a fresh set of eyes to what we’ve been doing.”
Mayor Marsha paused to smile at Pia. “Not that you haven’t been brilliant.”
Pia laughed. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. Felicia can be better than me. If she is, I won’t have to feel guilty.”
“I don’t understand,” Felicia whispered. “You want me to be in charge of the festivals?”
“Yes,” the mayor said firmly.
“But they’re important to the town. I know you have other industries, but I would guess that tourism is your main source of income. The university and the hospital would be the largest employers, but the visitors are the real money.”
“You’re right,” Pia said. “Don’t get me started on how much per person, because I can tell you within a couple of dollars.”
Felicia thought about mentioning she was the sort of person who enjoyed math, then told herself it wasn’t pertinent to the subject at hand.
“Why would you trust me with the festivals?” she asked, knowing it was the only question that mattered.
“Because you’ll make sure they’re done right,” Mayor Marsha told her. “You’ll stand up for what you believe in. But mostly because you’ll care as much as we do.”
“You can’t know that,” Felicia told her.
The mayor smiled. “Of course I can, dear.”