Authors: Susan Sleeman
“He is,” Darcie said before he could speak. “Everyone on the team is. It's a wonderful environment to work in.”
Morgan peered at Darcie. “Does that have something to do with why you changed jobs?”
“Ah, now, who said we were talking about me today?” Darcie gathered up her bright yellow yarn and stood. “That's a story that'll take far more time than you two have right now.”
“Then we'll make the time to catch up, okay?”
“Sure,” Darcie replied, but Brady knew it was halfhearted. Darcie didn't talk with just anyone about the loss of her daughter or her husband walking out on her. He wasn't sure he or anyone on the team knew the full story.
“So,” he said to Morgan, “did you get the full VIP tour or is there still more to see?”
“She's seen everything on the first floor,” Darcie replied. “And she sure doesn't want to see your messy old condo.”
“It's not that bad.”
“Right.” Darcie laughed and rolled her eyes, then suddenly sobered. “Keep an eye on Morgan, okay? She's got a headache, and I don't want her to overdo it at the gym.”
Brady turned to Morgan. “You work fast. Fifteen minutes at the house and Darcie's already mothering you like she does the rest of us.”
Darcie smiled sincerely. “I wouldn't have to be the mother if you guys didn't think you were invincible.”
Brady held up his hands. “Hey, don't unmask us in front of Morgan. She still thinks we've got superpowers.”
Darcie punched Brady's shoulder. “Get out of here before I tell her exactly what you're like.”
Laughing, Morgan and Brady went to the truck. Once on the road, Morgan swiveled toward him. “I like your friends. They're quite a group.”
He nodded his agreement. “Lacy seems like a good friend, too.”
“She is.” Morgan frowned. “I'm glad to have one good friend in my life.”
“Only one?” He looked at her. “You seem like the kind of person everyone would like to be friends with.”
She crossed her arms as if defending herself. “Leaving my old life behind meant leaving my old friends with it.”
“West Linn isn't that far away, is it?”
“It wasn't the distance so much as it was my change in lifestyle. I can't afford to do the things my old friends like to do, and they don't much enjoy the things I can afford. Not that I'm complaining about my life. I don't need more than I have.” She fell silent and stared out the window.
Brady wanted to point out that true friends didn't abandon you that easily, but he suspected she already knew that, so he kept his big mouth shut for once and focused his attention on keeping her safe.
organ joined Brady in the gym near the stationary bikes. She'd changed into shorts and a top that fit like a glove, displaying her toned body. She was clearly in great shape, and he appreciated her dedication to fitness. From the number of men he caught staring at her, it seemed like the other guys there did, too. He didn't like them staring at her. Not one bit.
He crossed the room toward her, catching snippets of conversations on the way. Stock trades. Public offerings. Company mergers. Medical diagnoses. Even here, he was surrounded by professionals in high-paying jobs. He wasn't surprised, but he did wonder how, if Morgan had truly left her family behind, she could afford this place. Or her apartment, for that matter.
She couldn't make
much money working for a nonprofit. Did her parents still pay her membership here and at the club as well as her rent? His impression of her said she wouldn't allow that, but what else was he to think? She still seemed to be living the good life, which took money that she'd just said she didn't need.
“So what's the plan?” she asked, lacking the confidence he'd come to associate with her.
“Just do what you normally do, and I'll hang back to watch.”
“Hang back?” She suddenly grinned. “Afraid I can run circles around you?”
“You want to compete?” The thought that she might be able to outdo him shocked him. “I'm game. Let's start with a little spinning.” He didn't wait for a response but headed for the stationary bikes. He soon figured out the controls and started his legs pumping. “What do you say? An hour to start or is ninety minutes better?”
Her mouth dropped open, and he laughed so hard his side hurt. Man, he wished she was from his side of the tracks. He was starting to really like having her around.
She climbed on the bike next to his, and as they both pedaled away, he enjoyed finally having something in common with her. But he wouldn't let that distract him. He was here for one reason only so he kept running his gaze over the place.
A guy who was hulking and thickly muscled kept glancing at Morgan. She seemed oblivious to him as she pedaled and took sips of another one of her energy drinks.
“Don't make this obvious, but take a look at the guy on the elliptical trainer. He's been checking you out. Do you know him?”
She gradually swung her gaze in that direction, then wrinkled her nose. “Kurt? Kurt Eckert. He's asked me out more times than I can count, but he's not really my type so I've always turned him down.”
“And how does he react?”
“He blows it offâmakes a joke, but I can still see it bothers him.”
A perfect reason to start stalking someone. “He fit any of our stalker profiles?”
She raised her head as if thinking, then looked at Eckert. “Yeah, maybe the bully. At first, I thought he was great, but then I spent more time around him and discovered he's really out for himself. And I once saw him berating a staff member for no good reason. I thought he might hit the poor guy.”
“Suspect number two,” Brady said with a smile.
She swung her gaze to Brady. “You think that makes him a suspect?”
“He's in your circle. You've turned him down. He doesn't like it. He has stalker tendencies.”
“Is that really enough to consider him a suspect?”
“I don't know,” Brady said, keeping a careful eye on Eckert. “But I aim to find out.”
* * *
Brady grumbled under his breath before sliding into his truck next to Morgan. After a morning of investigating Eckert while Morgan worked a job fair for PEA, Brady hoped to have uncovered more than the fact that Eckert didn't have a criminal record and the guy owned what seemed to be a legit auto repair shop.
He'd expected Morgan to be upset when he'd told her he'd struck out, but she'd been preoccupied all day and it didn't seem to register. She didn't even pay much attention to Preston when he approached her table at the Expo Center. He was recruiting at the job fair and felt a need to stop by. Brady was glad to finally meet Morgan's ex, but took an instant dislike to the guy. Likely more because he'd once been engaged to Morgan and he oozed entitlement than because he was a potential stalker. She, on the other hand, had been cordial, as had Preston.
Preston. A guy wearing a designer suit and pricey shoes. He probably drove a Beemer, too. Or Lexus. Now here Morgan sat in Brady's truck where the heat didn't always work. Talk about a contrast.
He flipped on the switch and thankfully, the blower sent out warm air. Morgan dug out one of her drinks from an insulated cooler. He'd much rather have something hot, like cocoa, but she claimed her drinks gave her energy. He respected her choice to eat healthy, but what was wrong with a little sugar once in a while?
She sighed and settled back into her seat as he merged onto the road.
“Want to tell me what's been going on with you today?” He gave her a pointed look.
“Want to? No.”
“But you will,” he said more demanding than he should have been, but he needed to know what was up with her if he was going to protect her.
“I've got a headache. A little nausea. ”
“It's been bothering you all day, right?”
“You sure it's a good idea to go to the gym tonight?”
She held up the bottle. “This should help bring me back to life.”
He would have continued to argue the point, but his phone chimed a text from Jake. At the next stoplight, he grabbed it from the dash and read the message.
“Text is from Jake. Nantz's prints are back. They don't match the ones found at your apartment or in your car.”
“Can't say I'm surprised. I honestly didn't think they would.”
Brady glanced at her. “You know this doesn't rule him out, right? The prints that were lifted might not be related to the break-ins at all, and Nantz could have worn gloves.”
“Again, I doubt it, but I know he remains a suspect.” She sighed.
He didn't know if it was because she didn't want to consider Nantz a suspect or because she was tired. “I'll try to get Eckert's prints at the gym, too. Plus, I want you to interact with him. Try to learn his whereabouts when the roses and other items were left.”
“Which means I have to be nice to the guy.” She mocked a shiver. “If he asks me out again, you're going to have to rescue me.”
“I'll keep an eye on you. If necessary, I can pretend I'm your boyfriend.”
“We'll need a signal, then. Like spies use on TV.” A cute grin brightened her face as if she found the idea of an undercover mission fun. “How about I take the clip out of my hair?”
“Sounds good,” Brady said and concentrated on possible scenarios he might encounter with Eckert.
When they actually met up with the guy, he was standoffish and terse. Brady expected Morgan to give up on talking to him, but instead she started flirting. Putting her hand on his arm. Batting long, long lashes up at him.
It's all an act
, Brady kept reminding himself. An act Eckert obviously bought. He smiled and stepped closer, eliminating the personal space Brady instructed Morgan to maintain. Eckert started touching Morgan's arm when he spoke. Her shoulder. Leaning even closer. Whispering.
The word shot through Brady's brain and he immediately pushed it away. She wasn't his. He didn't even want her to be his, did he?
Morgan suddenly stepped back and jerked out her hair clip. Brady charged across the room. He put an arm around her shoulders and drew her closer for protection. “Ready to go, honey?”
She smiled up at him, sincere relief shining in her eyes. Her obvious joy at seeing him sent a surge of warmth through his body and made him want more of it. Much more. This was exactly how it would feel if they were together. The ache for such a relationship was palpable and regret surged over not being able to act on it. She rested her hand on his chest, an expensive ruby ring on her finger bringing him back to reality. She was used to the finer things in life. Things he couldn't provide until he got his degree and had a better paying job. He'd stay his course and not risk hurting her when there was no place in his life for a relationship right now.
She looked at Eckert. “This is my boyfriend, Brady. He might be joining the gym, too.”
Eckert scowled at her, his eyes filled with fury. “Then what was with all the flirting?”
“Flirting?” she asked innocently.
“Look, lady, I'm not someone you can play with and get away with it.” He grabbed for her arm.
Brady stepped forward, pulling Morgan out of Eckert's reach and blocking the man's access to her.
“If you everâ” Eckert's voice rose and his face reddened as he fired a threatening look at Morgan “âever, lead me on like that again, you'll pay. Got that, lady?”
He marched away, his strides swift and angry. A man passing by gawked at Eckert.
“What are you looking at?” Eckert barreled into the other guy, knocking him to the floor.
Morgan trembled under Brady's arm. “I'm glad you were here.”
“I won't let anything happen to you, honey. Ever.” He resisted the urge to charge after Eckert to teach him a few manners and hugged Morgan close. “C'mon, let's get out of here.”
On the way out, Brady grabbed Eckert's disposable water bottle for prints and escorted Morgan to the locker room. Brady hated letting her out of his sight for a minute. Eckert was volatile. Out of control and a foe to be reckoned with. A man who clearly possessed stalking characteristics, making him the perfect suspect.
* * *
Morgan leaned closer to the door in Brady's truck and clutched her stomach. After her altercation with Eckert, her stomach continued to heave and roil. The bumpy ride didn't help and she could tell that throwing up was imminent.
“Can you pull over?” she asked. “Quickly. I think I'm going to be sick.”
Brady swung the truck to the side of the road.
She pushed her door open and hung her head. The freezing air helped stem the nausea, but her stomach still churned. Brady came around the front of the truck and squatted in front of her. He gently moved her hair from her face and looked up at her with concern darkening his eyes.
“I wouldn't squat there if I were you,” she said trying to make light of the embarrassing moment. “You're in the tsunami zone.”
He chuckled, then immediately sobered. “You haven't been feeling well for days. Maybe we should have Darcie come check you out.”
Morgan started to shake her head, but the world spun and she stopped. “It's just stress. It was like this during the trial, too.”
“Must have been hard to win the case when you were barfing on the judge's feet.”
She gave him a wan smile. “It never got this bad. I think Eckert's threats really brought things home tonight.”
“Maybe you've developed an ulcer or something. Darcie could help.”
“I don't need to see Darcie. I just want to go home.”
“You okay for me to drive, then?”
“Yes,” she said and laid her head back on the seat.
He got back in and merged into traffic. Each bump, each stop, sent her stomach churning, but she swallowed hard and willed her stomach to behave.
Thankfully, he found a spot near her building and parked. “I want to check out your apartment before you go inside.”
“You think someone's been here again?”
“I have no reason to think so, but it's better to be safe than sorry.” He didn't sound like he believed his own words, making her more anxious.
He reached out as if to take her hand, then let his arm drop. “I don't want to leave you out here. Can you make it inside and wait for me in the lobby?”
“Yes,” she said. “Just be quick.
She let him help her up the steps and over to a seat before he boarded the elevator and disappeared. She'd never admit it to anyone, but she liked leaning on him. Liked having him want to care for her like this.
Where had all her independence gone?
The room suddenly spun and her stomach clenched. She leaned her head back on the richly covered wing-back chair and waited for the moment to pass. Maybe he'd been right. Maybe this was more that stress. Maybe she had a virus. There was one going around. Several of her clients' children had been sick.
Please, Father. I don't need to be sick, too.
The sound of the old elevator descending to the ground floor brought Morgan's head up. Thinking Brady was on his way down, she sat up to hide her wooziness before he arrived and insisted on bringing Darcie over. She sure hoped he didn't find anything in her apartment, as she just wanted to sink into her bed and go to sleep.
He stepped out of the elevator. His gaze went straight to her. His eyes and jaw were tight.
Her heart plummeted.
He didn't have to say a word. His expression said it all. Something terrible awaited her upstairs.