Mary jumped and looked up from Jared’s arms. Will stood inside the doorjamb, his eyebrows raised and a smile on his face. Her face grew warm with embarrassment and she started to pull away from Jared, but he tightened his arms, hindering her escape.
“I rang the doorbell. When no one answered, I walked around back and saw you two in here.” Will shrugged.
“Your timing stinks,” Jared said. “We’re busy at the moment.” He winked at her.
Will chuckled. “I see that. I’d come back later, but we have an appointment.” He tapped the face of his watch. “I did wait ten minutes before opening the door, but you two didn’t look like you were coming up for air anytime soon.”
Mary wiggled free of Jared’s arms. “I should finish getting lunch ready.”
“Just a minute, darling.” Jared kissed her cheek, then turned to Will. “For your information, I just asked Mary to be my wife. And she accepted.”
Will grinned. “It’s about time!” He strode across the room, slapped Jared on the back, and hugged Mary. “I’ve been telling this lug he should make his move already. Anyone with half a brain could tell you two were in love.”
“Really?” Mary blushed. She moved to the stove and turned off the chicken noodle soup. She opened a cupboard and pulled down bowls. She ladled the soup into a bowl and handed it to Jared. “We’re eating in the kitchen, so please have a seat at the table, Will.”
Will sat down while Jared placed a bowl of steaming soup in front of him. “I knew as soon as Jared met you again, he was a goner.”
“You did?” Jared said, as Mary echoed his words nearly simultaneously.
She added soup to the two remaining bowls and Jared carried theirs to the table. The thought of Jared loving her all these months warmed her inside and out. Much like his kisses. “Do you want iced tea or water?”
“Is it sweetened?” Will asked.
“No, but I can add sugar.” Mary reached for the sugar bowl.
“No need. I like my iced tea unsweetened.” Will patted his flat stomach. “My wife insists that cutting out sugar in beverages helps keep me trim.”
Mary laughed. “She sounds like a smart woman.” She carried iced tea glasses on a tray to the table, then grabbed the basket of rolls before sitting down.
“Shall we say grace?” Jared held out his hand for Mary’s and Will’s. The trio joined hands. “Father, please bless our meal and let our conversation be pleasing to you. Amen.”
“I see you’re back on speaking terms with God. Next thing you know, you’ll be attending church on a regular basis.” Will picked up his spoon. He looked at Mary. “There was a time not so long ago when he swore he’d never darken the doorway of a place of worship again.”
“I was a fool.” Jared broke off a piece of roll. “But God used this case to open my eyes to my foolishness and restore my relationship with Him.”
“Good.” Will sipped his tea. “You were down in the dumps for too long after you were shot.”
Mary relaxed as the two men joshed each other. Jared certainly seemed mellower since David’s deception had been uncovered. These past few weeks, more of the boy she knew became visible in his relaxed interactions with others. But Jared himself attributed that to no longer having secrets from her.
“Do you have news on Wildcat’s identity?” Jared voiced the question she was about to ask.
Will nodded as he buttered a piece of bread. “The short answer is, Mary was right. Wildcat is indeed Ed Divers.”
Mary sank back into her chair. “I honestly hoped it might not be true.”
“Turns out, he remembered that memory device for the phone number, too,” Will said. “He thought it would be a big joke to use that as his handle.”
“So you caught him?” Jared sipped his tea.
“Yes, and his wife, Louisa, in a small Vermont town. With what we’ve been able to piece together, they’ll be going away for a long time.”
Mary toyed with her spoon, her appetite gone with the news that her erstwhile parents were really crooks. “What happened? Where were they? The few letters from them all had a cancelled Peruvian stamp. I know it was authentic, because I asked one of Geraldine’s neighbors one time, an elderly stamp collector. He gave me 50 cents for the envelope.”
Will wiped his lips with a napkin. “I’ll try to tell you what I can. Most of the facts can’t come out until after the trial, which I’m sure you’ll understand. We don’t want these conmen to get off on a technicality.”
Jared glanced at Mary. “We won’t tell a soul.”
Mary nodded her agreement. “I’d be grateful to hear whatever you can share. Why did my mother leave me with them?” Of all the questions Mary had, this one was the most important to her.
Will pushed his empty bowl back and leaned his elbows on the table. “Louisa said that shortly after you were born, Emily showed up at their doorstep, sick and destitute. The father, whom she never named, wanted nothing to do with her. Geraldine had told her not to come home when Emily left years earlier, so she thought that door was closed to her. However, she did believe her mother would raise her granddaughter, which is why she asked Louisa to take you to Virginia. It was Ed who decided you would make a good cover for them.”
Mary brushed back a tear. At least her mother had wanted her to come to her grandmother’s.
“What happened to Emily?” Jared took Mary’s hand.
Mary answered. “I recently found her death certificate among the papers in Geraldine’s safe deposit box. By the date of death, she passed away before I was a year old.”
“I’m so sorry, Mary.” Jared rubbed his thumb on the top of Mary’s hand. “Why did Ed and Louisa send her to Geraldine’s later?”
“The local Philadelphia police had a file on the Divers as suspects in a number of fraud cases. Nothing could be proved, but they caught wind the police were looking into their activities and decided to split town.”
“And Mary was of an age to start asking probing questions,” Jared interjected.
Will nodded. “Exactly. When Ed and Louisa dropped you off at the train station, they hopped a plane to Seattle, where Ed ran insurance fraud scams. He was picked up by the cops a time or two, but nothing could be pinned on him. Then the pair disappeared for a few years before cropping up in Northern California, Oregon, and Idaho with similar scams. They always left town right before the marks got suspicious. The explosion of the Internet gave them a new, more anonymous outlet for their schemes.”
“How did they end up targeting Mary?” Jared finished his soup and stacked his bowl inside Will’s empty one.
“By this time, Ed had latched onto the moniker Wildcat,” Will explained. “He’s singing like a nightingale, bragging about how brilliant he is. From what he’s told us, he had set up a program that ran through Soul Believers profiles in search of new pigeons to pluck. Mary’s profile fit the overall bill: Older than 30, single, reclusive. But there was one key element missing from her page: There was no indication that she had money.”
“So how did he know about the painting? The last time he was in this house was years ago, even before I was born. There was no way he would have remembered it. Aunt Geraldine kept the picture covered with a sheet before I came to live with her, like most of the furniture in the living room.” Mary needed something to do besides sit. She rose to clear the table. All the loneliness of her childhood, of her “parents” abandoning her, squeezed her heart. She stood at the sink, her eyes closed, willing the crushing pain to go away.
“Mary?” Jared placed his hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
She drew in a ragged breath. “I understand they weren’t my parents, but it still hurts, the memory of the way they left me. To hear they tried to get money from me makes me mad and sad all wrapped up together.”
“I know, but maybe hearing the rest of the story will help you put all this behind you.” He looped his arm through hers. “Leave the dishes for now, and let’s move to the living room.”
The three of them relocated. Jared sat beside Mary on the couch, his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into his strength, grateful that God had brought him back into her life again.
Will cleared his throat. “When Ed recognized Mary’s name, he Googled her, found out she’d inherited the house from Geraldine. It was simple to look up Geraldine’s will in probate, and of course the painting was listed in the assets passed on to Mary. He said he simply looked up the painter’s name, realized how much an original Eakins would go for on the open market, and added her name to the list for future victims.”
Mary shook her head. “He was very thorough.”
Jared squeezed her hand. “But he wasn’t successful in the end.”
“He wasn’t, but, I ,” Mary halted as Jared pressed his finger against her lips.
“No more recriminations, my love.” He turned to Will. “What’s next?”
“We have a few more loose ends to wrap up, but we think we have a solid case, thanks to you and Mary.”
Mary furrowed her brow. “Me? I can’t take any credit for this. I was in over my depth with David.”
Will wagged a finger at her. “But at least you didn’t lose your head. You kept the bulk of the money back, and you kept Jared close by your side so that he was here when David put the last piece of the plan into action—his staged death. If Jared hadn’t texted me right away, we would never have been able to capture David and Sylvia, and then Ed and Louisa Divers. Your inside information about how the scam worked will also be quite valuable when the Department of Justice preps for the trial.”
“Any idea when that might be?” Jared intertwined his fingers with Mary’s.
Will shrugged. “Hard to say. It all depends on the lawyers now. My team will finish gathering and cataloging the evidence over the next few months, then hand it over to Justice.”
“The reason I asked is because…” Jared puller Mary closer. “I have plans for this woman, and it doesn’t involve depositions and testifying.”
“Do I get to have a say about these plans?” Mary arched her eyebrows.
“Yes, my love.” He traced her jawline. “There’s just two little words you’ll need to say.”
Jared leaned closer to her and Mary forgot to breath. “I do.”
“All this love stuff is making me miss my wife.” Will stood. “I expect an invitation for the big day.”
“I’ll walk you to the door.” Mary started to stand, but Will waved her back.
“No need. I can find my own way out.” Will said as he made his way to the front door and out into the warm September day.
“That was very tactful of him.”
“Will can be considerate, especially since he’s been trying to marry me off for years.” Jared tugged on a strand of hair that had escaped from her clip. “Now, where were we?” He slid his hand around to the back of her neck, making tiny circle with his fingers.
“You’re getting warmer.” She barely remembered to breath as he nuzzled her neck.
His warm breath fanned her ear as he whispered, “Lavender’s blue, dilly, dilly,
“When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen.”
She put her hand on his cheek and quoted the opening part of the next verse. “Who told you so, dilly, dilly,
“Who told you so?”
He picked up the next line, his eyes on hers. “Twas my own heart, dilly, dilly, that told me so.” His arms drew her closer, his lips inches from hers. “Lavender’s green, dilly, dilly,
“If you love me, dilly, dilly.”
She joined him on the last line, “I will love you.” Right before his mouth claimed hers, Mary thought how fitting that their love was sealed with a nursery rhyme, bringing their lives full circle.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.