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Authors: Frances Pauli


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Friend or Foe

When Simon Maxwell's archenemy backs out of the annual competition, he thinks the prize is in the bag. But a surprise appearance from The Spartan's long-lost sister leaves Simon scrambling for a foot hold.

He's sworn to protect the town, but the girl from his past has him spinning in circles from the start. Is she here to help her brother, or are her motives pure? When every turn hides another trap and each twist holds a new secret, Simon risks more than just his honor. Can he win the girl before the finish line? And how can he save the town, when winning the race means losing his heart?

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Friend or Foe

Copyright © 2011 Frances Pauli

ISBN: 978-1-55487-834-5

Cover art by Angela Waters

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.

Published by Devine Destinies

An imprint of eXtasy Books

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Friend or Foe


Frances Pauli

The Players

The rooftops glowed in the moonlight, perfect square platforms arranged like tiles above the sleeping town. Simon Maxwell stretched his hamstring and peered across the urban vista. He smelled trouble.

His gloved hands gripped the brick ridge that ran along the edge of the roof. He dropped into a lunge and scanned the shops across the street. A vinyl banner proclaimed tomorrow's activities. It rippled a beacon for those in opposition to order and lawfulness. He listened and stretched and waited for the Goons to act.

It never occurred the him that they might not. Simon had guarded over the town for ten years. He knew the drill. Tomorrow the mayor would wield his oversized, brass-plated scissors, cut the giant ribbon and open the annual event. That meant tonight The Spartan's goons slunk through the streets below, intent on making mischief. It was Simon's job to stop them.

He switched legs and inspected the shadows in front of Larry's Five and Dime. Something fluttered down the sidewalk. Simon tensed every muscle and fixed his gaze on the movement. Anticipation swept through him. He held his breath. A rumpled parade flier scuttled into view. The breeze carried it past an alley and across to the entrance of Sparky's Tune and Lube.

He should fetch it. The breeze huffed again and the flier rolled further down, stopping in front of the wide garage doors where the floats waited. The square windows shone with the moon's reflection like vacant eyes. Simon's gaze caught movement inside.

He shot across the rooftop in three strides, pushed off with his heel and soared over the alley. He landed in a crouch atop the town theater and stared directly into the garage. For a moment the windows remained still. Then a flash crossed one and Simon saw the outline of a figure.

He leapt from the roof, grabbed the nearest light pole and swung around it, hitting the ground soundlessly. The pool of light bathed his chiseled form in sharp detail before he rolled to the side and back into the shadows. He crossed the street in two leaps, slid to a halt and pressed against the garage wall and listened.

Footsteps scuffed inside the building. Goons, Simon thought, targeting the floats. Children rode on those floats. He growled and flexed his neck. Not on his watch.

He hugged the building and slipped toward the back entrance. His spandex suit expanded with each movement and the soles of his blue boots muffled every step so that his progress made no noise. He held his breath, lest he exhale audibly and disturb the evildoers at their work.

He stole a peek around the corner, darting forward and back like lightning. Still, his trained gaze took in the details, the crowbar leaning near the open door, the black van parked just beyond the dumpster, the lone Goon standing guard. His brain digested the facts and formulated a plan while his muscles tensed in preparation for action.

He might have burst from the alley. He could have grabbed the crowbar quickly enough to take the goon out before he knew what hit him. Simon's sense of honor immediately rejected the idea. He shook his head and stepped around the corner.

He stopped directly in the moonlight, where the goon could easily make out his royal blue superhero suit, his sound-proofed boots and tight, black mask. He widened his stance and rested both his palms on his narrow hips. The goon stared at the ground and hummed to himself.

Simon had to cough to get the man's attention. When the square head snapped up, he nodded and let his gaze travel over the black pants, red shirt and black ski mask. "Freeze, goon!"

The guy hadn't actually been moving, but the ones inside the garage certainly scrambled at the sound of his pronouncement. Shouts drifted through the open door, followed by the pounding of booted feet against cement.

Simon reset his legs and waited. The guard, registering the threat at last, dove for the crowbar. Simon watched him snatch it up and braced for action. The goon dove forward, swinging the metal weapon. He ducked it, brought up his right leg and swept the man's feet out from under him.

The goon went down hard. The crowbar skittered toward the dumpster where one of his cronies could snag it. As if on cue, three of them pushed their way out of the garage. Simon grinned and brought up his hands. He rocked back into his stance and prepped for a nice roundhouse.

"Maximus," the lead goon snarled. "Just in time to spoil the fun?"

"That's my job," Simon winked at the goon. "Where's your boss tonight? Hiding in his lair while you guys get knocked around?"

"None of your business and we ain't been knocked around yet." The goon chuckled softly and waved one of the others toward the crowbar.

"The Spartan is my business," Simon answered. "And just wait."

The goon growled and lunged at him.

Simon sprang into the roundhouse, planted the instep of his boot against the man's face and felt the impact tremble up his leg. He spun, ducking a blow from the side, and punched, kicked and swept his way through the attacking trio.

As the third red shirt hit the pavement, the next group emerged from the garage. This time, they ran for the van. He waited. Next to his boot, the lead goon groaned and Simon nudged him to silence with a quick tap of his boot.

The van's engine roared to life. Two of the goon sat inside it, waving madly at the third. He ignored them, bent over next to the vehicle and picked up the crowbar. The heavy metal swung in his grip and his toothy smile gaped under his stocking-cap mask. He tossed the bar from one hand to the other and rushed forward.

Simon leaned back, waited until the last second and then aimed a side kick directly into the goon's abdomen. The red shirt gave against the force. A grunt escaped the man's lips and he crumpled to his knees. His fingers released the crowbar and Simon kicked the weapon away. He reached for his belt comm even before he heard the screech of tires tearing away down the alley.

Simon pressed the call button that connected him to the chief of police. As he swung up onto the dumpster, a sleepy voice spoke from the unit.


Simon cleared his throat with enough force to shake the dumpster.

"Maximus," the chief corrected. "What is it?"

"I've got five goons down in the alley behind Sparky's." Simon sprang from the dumpster lip and soared through the air to the rooftop. "Two more on the run, but I'm in pursuit."

"I'll send the boys down to clean up." The chief yawned. "What were they up to this time?"

Simon landed, already running toward the next roof in line. "They were having at the parade floats." He leapt the distance between buildings and kept an eye on the black van trundling ahead of him toward the edge of town. "I'd have Sparky check them for damage before the festival starts."

"Right. Good work." The chief paused.

Simon heard him sigh.

"What are the chances we can trace these guys back to The Spartan?"

"I'm on their tail." Simon jumped another alley and landed with a grunt. He clipped the comm back to his utility belt and surveyed the corner of Main and Hawthorne. He'd run out of rooftops, would have to move along the ground through the vacant lots to the hilltop estate.

The black van already rumbled out of town, taking the first rise at the edge of the Rutherford family vineyards. It bounced over a pothole and swerved along in the shadow of the estate's stone wall. Simon needed to get to that wall and fast. If he could verify that the goons returned to Rutherford, they'd have enough evidence to press charges.

He dove over the edge of the building, rolled across the top of a delivery truck and vaulted to the sidewalk. The van disappeared into a dip in the road. Simon sprang across the street and took off at a run.

Rutherford estate sat, a shriveled, peeling version of the mansion it had once been, on the highest point for miles. The tattered shutters flapped in the lightest breeze, drumming against the weather-beaten siding at all hours. The thin paned-windows gaped down on a lawn that hadn't seen a gardener in at least two generations.

Simon reached the wall surrounding the manor and cursed. He'd lost the van, though it no doubt sat idling inside the carriage house at that very moment. He'd missed one more chance to tie Rutherford to the goons, and so to The Spartan.

He pulled himself up onto the stones and crouched in the shadow of a line of Poplars. He watched the house, saw lights flicker on the main floor as bodies moved across the rooms inside. The Spartan may have won this round, but the man's time would run out soon. Simon nodded in the dark. It had to run out.

In the meantime, he had tomorrow to worry about. He glanced one last time toward the house, found his eyes drawn by a flutter of movement to the second story where one narrow window faced the side yard. He frowned up at it. That window hadn't been looked out of for more than fifteen years.

He clenched his jaw and followed a path down from the solitary sill to the gnarled oak in the play yard below. The old swing had sprung its tether on one side. Now it hung at a sharp angle from one rope. The twisted branch above sagged more than he remembered, as if the tree, like the house, suffered from a deep depression.

He bounced in the crouch, felt the muscles in his thighs prepare to leap and spared one more glance to the lone window. This time it lay still and properly empty. Simon nodded, spun out away from the estate and disappeared into the night.

* * * *

"Ms. Rutherford?"

Agnes let the curtain fall back into place and turned to the doorway. "Yes?"

"Your brother requests that you join him in the study." The old man bent low.

So low that she thought the gesture held the hint of an apology in it. "I'll be right down." When the butler left and the bedroom door slid shut, Agnes turned back to the window.

She peered through the filmy material, down at the forgotten yard and across the grounds where a little girl had spent nearly ten years without once sitting on that swing, without once climbing that old tree. She let her gaze wander, drift past the distant vineyard to the stone wall that wound between the acreage and the road to town.

She thought she saw him for a moment, a flash of shadow against shadow running along the top of the wall. Agnes narrowed her eyes and watched for movement. He could be out there. He'd be justified to watch the house tonight. Then again, he could be anywhere. Her brother's mischief threaded through the town below in more ways than one. Maximus might follow any number of false trails or decoys set to distract him from tomorrow's plans.

She smiled and turned her attention back to the tree where the old swing dangled its final days away. Fifteen years ago a pudgy little girl had watched from this very spot. Her fat fingers pressed against the glass as she spied on the boys below. She'd never met her brother's friend, had left the house only rarely and of necessity, but her ten-year-old eyes had seen the differences between the boys and even then, had understood the nature of their games.

Her brother andthat Maxwell boy, as her parents knew him, may have been best friends, but even as a housebound little girl, Agnes could see that they were destined to become enemies.

She'd watched them play almost every afternoon, sitting at her window and pretending tea party with her fuzzy bear and porcelain princess. Agnes never poured the tea. Each afternoon she set the table with the sweets and cakes the staff provided, arranged the guests in tiny, hand-tooled chairs and then diverted her attention to the action in the yard below.

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