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Excerpt from: Deadly Design

Could her life get any better? Millie wondered as she tooled along U.S. Highway 221, eager to immerse herself and her young son in the world of Thomas Jefferson, with time and money enough to enjoy it. The early-July morning felt fresh and cool after an overnight shower, and the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside seemed to draw her back to the early nineteenth century.

She and Danny had driven east from the Blue Ridge Parkway, he craning his nine-year-old neck for the first glimpse of what would be their temporary home, the small city of Lynchburg. Seeing a sign ahead indicating a turn-off to "Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest," Millie slowed her vehicle.

She'd intended to go straight to the house in town that her friend Alice had rented, waiting until tomorrow to tour the third president's octagonal house. But knowing his retreat was so close tempted her.

As she hesitated, a motorcycle roared up behind her, its motor loud in the relative quiet of mid-morning. The helmeted rider slowed to let a car in the other lane go past, then zipped around Millie's car. She got a quick impression of burly strength in the way he sat his bike, the way his muscles filled out his blue T-shirt and jeans.

Then, suddenly, he braked hard and leaned into a right turn. Millie's heart leapt into her throat. She hit her own brakes and jerked the steering wheel left. With tires screeching, she cringed, bracing herself for the strike of chrome on chrome, the impact of metal on flesh.

Miraculously, she missed him. As the biker completed his turn, she twisted the wheel back and fought for control of her car. The reflection in her side mirror showed the biker giving a thumbs-up sign, as he accelerated down the road towards Jefferson's retreat.

"Cool!" Danny cried, his small hands clutching the seat belt that had snapped taut.

Trembling from fright, Millie breathed deeply, trying to regain her composure. Her pleasant contemplation had been broken, her sense of well-being shattered by the incident. Before wrenching the wheel left, she'd thought the oncoming lane was clear. But what if that quick impression had been wrong? A head-on collision could have killed both her and Danny, plus people in the other car.

That man's recklessness endangered several lives, Millie imagined Sylva's indignant voice saying. The strong bond between Millie and her elderly Dallas friend often made her feel Sylva was traveling with her, commenting on events and people.

Doesn't he remind you of someone?

A memory flashed through Millie's mind, of her ex-husband riding his motorcycle in much the same fashion as this biker.  When she and Jack had gone together during high school, Millie had thought him dashing, adventurous. After they'd married, his devil-may-care attitude had increasingly worried her. When Danny was a tiny baby and Jack had threatened to take him for a ride on his motorcycle--to "introduce the kid to the open road and the wind in his hair"--Millie had come unglued.

Jack had stormed out that night. She hadn't seen him again for two years, and only then when he came to borrow money for a car payment. Foolishly she had given him twenty-two dollars she had saved towards a coat for Danny.

He hadn't paid it back, of course. A couple of months later, he had surfaced again, wanting to borrow more. That time, she'd hedged, said she had none to lend, and the discussion had turned ugly. Jack had threatened to seek custody of Danny if she wouldn't give him money.

Anger and fright had gripped Millie, as if the walls of their drab living room had closed in, wedging her between. But somehow, from deep within, she had dredged up the courage to say a definite no.

Jack had made good his threat and filed for custody. He hadn't had much of a case, having been AWOL through most of his young son's life, but legal bills had worsened Millie's already difficult financial situation.

After that, fear had stalked her for months. When anyone

knocked on the door, she'd felt sure it was someone with a

subpoena demanding she appear in court. She'd dreaded

collecting the mail, for fear there'd be an official-looking letter.

But finally, the anxiety had dissipated. She now had only an

occasional nightmare about losing her son.

Now the note of hero-worship she'd heard in Danny's voice

troubled her.

"That was dangerous," she muttered to Danny. "We're very

lucky we weren't meeting another car."

He twisted in his seat to gaze after the motorcycle.

Maybe she shouldn't go to Poplar Forest now and risk running into the biker again. But he probably wasn't headed to the historic dwelling, just taking the smaller road because he'd suddenly remembered a short cut to somewhere else.

As soon as she could do so safely, she reversed and drove back, this time taking the turn-off. They wound through a residential area, made a few turns, and soon were ascending a long hill. At its peak sat a classical-styled dwelling, red brick with white columns, topped with multiple chimneys.

Poplar Forest.

Millie caught her breath. Thomas Jefferson's own private getaway. And she'd be working here.