Authors: Valerie Douglas
Ariel shivered with pleasure as an aftershock ran through her in a burst of delicious heat.
With unsteady hands, she stroked his hair and caressed the long muscles of his back. She loved the feel of running her hands down those long muscles and the weight of him covering her.
Her heart beat slow and strong as she held him, loved him.
That soothing, stroking, gentle touch settled him as his heartbeat slowed, filled. When he could, he lifted his head to brush the tumbled black hair away from her face, twitching free a small strand that clung to her cheek. To the dried blood there.
Bottomless, her lovely blue eyes looked up at him.
Her hand was steadier now as she touched his face in return, as her fingers brushed his bottom lip.
He kissed her gently.
“Matthew,” she said, softly, her gaze taking in every inch of his face.
He touched her cheek where she’d been struck, remembering the first night and her hands gently wiping the blood away.
“Wait here,” he said, “don’t move.”
Bringing back a warm damp washcloth, he tenderly wiped the blood away as she had for him that first night. There was a lump on her forehead and a small split in the corner of her mouth. He carefully wiped the blood away there too. He hadn’t tasted that. It must have hurt when he kissed her.
Ariel saw the look in his eyes, the small frown and knew what it meant. “I never noticed.”
He gave her a skeptical look.
Smiling, her blue eyes twinkling, she said, “Really. Once you kissed me…” Her breath grew short and her eyes closed for a moment as the memory surged through her, “all I felt was you.”
The feel of her body. He’d forgotten the pain, too, that first time. This time he hadn’t given them the chance to put a hand on him.
Looking at her face, at the darkening bruise there, guilt stabbed through him. They had on her.
“Ariel,” he said, taking his hand away. “This shouldn’t have happened. I shouldn’t have gotten you involved.”
Feeling him pull away and seeing the guilt in his eyes, Ariel felt her heart contract. She dragged the sheet up over her as he stood to pull his clothes back on.
“As I remember,” she said, reaching out to touch his arm, “I got myself involved. Matthew, what’s going on? What is this all about?”
Still shaken, she needed his arms around her and she needed to understand.
He looked into those blue, blue eyes and felt tremble in her hand. Looking at her, he saw the fear and wanted to pull her into his arms again and to keep her safe. Instead, he would just be putting her at risk. Knowing the danger he’d put her in, he couldn’t bring himself to do that but he took her hand and held it.
Her heart went cold when he didn’t take her in his arms.
This she hadn’t considered.
She’d let him close and now he was leaving. The sting of rejection was sharp and bitter.
Thinking about it, Matt knew he’d have to tell her. He had to convince her somehow not to call the police after he left.
Gently, he touched the bump on her forehead.
Her face had gone very pale and he could see pain darken her eyes. This had been a mistake. He’d never meant to hurt her but it was better now than later.
That touch nearly undid her. Ariel wanted to cry but didn’t, focusing on his eyes, on what he was about to tell her.
“I owe you that much,” Matt said. “You asked what I was doing?”
For the first time in weeks he allowed himself to remember.
“It’s a long story but a few weeks ago I got a call from an old friend, Bill. It was late at night. Very late for him. He was in some kind of trouble and asked me for help. Bill had been my closest friend since grade school. He still was. There was no question whether I would come. I hopped the first flight out but I was too late. By the time I got there, he was dead.”
Matt still couldn’t quite believe it. Even now he kept finding himself expecting one of Bill’s regular calls to tell him how things were going, what the kids had been up to and asking when he was coming for a visit.
Ariel looked at him and saw something familiar in his eyes. She knew it well, she’d seen it many times in the mirror. Grief, deep grief and something more – guilt and a sense of failure. Like her, he hadn’t been in time. Her own fear shifted away, her heart aching for him. Pulling the sheet up around her, she sat up and wrapped her arms around him.
“Matthew, I’m so sorry.”
The sympathy caught at him and his heart wrenched.
With everything going on, having to hold it together for Penny and the kids, then trying to find out what really happened, there had been no time to truly grieve for his old friend. Looking into those blue eyes, he could see she understood. Pulling her close to him, he buried his face in her hair and held her while the sorrow and the grief moved through him. He pressed his mouth against her forehead, finding solace in that simple gesture and the warmth of her arms around him.
Taking a slow deep breath, he said, “The police said it was a mugging gone bad. He’d been beaten to death.”
“You don’t think so,” Ariel said. It was in his voice.
Matt’s jaw tightened.
“Bill wasn’t stupid. If it had been a mugging, he would have given them the money, he wouldn’t have fought back. With three kids, the risk wasn’t worth it. If it’d gone wrong, though, he would have fought back. There would have been signs of it. There wasn’t. He wasn’t just some middle management guy with middle-aged spread. Bill, like me, spent time in the service. Both of us had special training. Maybe he’d gotten a little rusty but he’d stayed in shape and he knew how to fight. Hell, sometimes when I went to visit, we’d get horsing around a little, remembering the old days. He still had the moves. A mugger couldn’t have taken him, not easily. He wouldn’t have gone down without a fight.”
His last memory of his friend had been the sight of Bill in a coffin. His face had been nearly unrecognizable, despite the mortuary’s attempts to hide the signs of the battering. Bill’s hands, though, had been unmarked.
“There was that call. He said he’d found something that worried him. He didn’t tell me what it was but I suspected it had something to do with his job. That’s where he’d called from. All he told me was he wanted me to check some figures. The next thing I know, he’s dead and a few hours later his house was broken into. They waited until the house was empty so they’d been watching. It wasn’t a coincidence. The thieves took a lot of things, mainly the electronics. The television, stereo, his desktop computer and iPad. They also stole every scrap of paper from his home office.”
Frowning, Ariel said, “They stole papers? That doesn’t make sense.”
“That was the other thing that tipped me off that something was wrong. Bill was a pack rat, he didn’t really trust computers and anyone who knew him knew that. He always kept a hard copy of everything. Thieves don’t steal papers; they steal what they can sell. It was more than a simple burglary; they took anything that might have had any information on it. The television and stereo were simply a cover.”
Sitting back, Ariel looked at him, making the intuitive leap. “Bill worked for Marathon, didn’t he?”
Looking into the blue depths of her eyes, Matt took a breath, let it out slowly and nodded. He couldn’t quite tell what she was thinking.
“I went to pick up Bill’s things from his office there. I’d hoped to take a look around to see if I could find whatever it was he’d wanted me to look at but I didn’t get the chance. They’d stripped his office. He wasn’t even in the ground yet.”
Even with the reputation some corporations had for being cold and uncaring, that was taking things to new heights.
“The only thing I could find,” Matt said, “the only thing they’d left, were his doodles in the trash.”
Smiling fondly at the memory, Matt shook his head. Bill’s doodling had annoyed him sometimes since Bill used whatever was at hand to doodle on without regard for what was on the other side. Once, in college, it had been Matt’s carefully typed and hopefully flawless term paper. Bill hadn’t been paying attention, he’d simply reached for the first piece of paper at hand.
“When Bill was thinking, he’d doodle. If there was something that bothered him, he’d circle it with arrows. There’s probably something Freudian about that but that was Bill. There were a lot of doodles for Marathon and a similar, higher end company called Genesis. Bill had connected them together with both arrows and dollar signs, neither of which required much interpretation. They were my only clue. The problem is I can’t find any sign of a tie between them except that both are in the same field. Nothing documented.”
Looking at him, Ariel said, “You think he found out something about Marathon and was killed for it,” she said.
Matt nodded. “All he told me was he wanted me to look at something, to tell him whether what he was looking at was right or wrong. He was at the office. Bill lived a quiet settled life so that’s all it could be. I’ve been trying to find out what it was. And running smack into their security. Security that’s way too tight for a company that size. You don’t have security like that without having something to hide. That’s why I don’t want to call the police. I’m afraid if Marathon gets the slightest hint the police are involved, they’ll shut everything down, destroy all the records and any evidence. I won’t be able to prove a thing.”
“What makes you think they haven’t done that already?” she asked.
His fingers went involuntarily to the bruise on her cheek. “Because they’re still trying to stop me. They wouldn’t bother if there wasn’t anything to hide. And because they know I haven’t been able to find anything, yet.”
Sitting back a little, Ariel looked at him, considering the implications.
“Why did Bill think you’d know what to do about it?” she asked.
Brushing a strand of her glossy black hair behind her ear, he said, “Because that’s what I do, among other things. I work as a private investigator specifically sometimes as a forensic accountant. We specialize in corporate investigations for potential investors who want to check the background of a company, or to screen potential high-level executive candidates. Audit the books if there’s the suspicion of embezzlement. Track down people who trade corporate secrets.”
“This is different. It’s not for a client. All I have is suspicion and conjecture. No proof. This isn’t something I can ask my people to help with. But it is something I have to do, for Bill. I have to know what really happened to him.”
Ariel thought about it. About what had happened in the alley and all that had been said.
“Matthew, I don’t think you got me into this at all. Or at least, not completely. They may have their suspicions but those men didn’t say anything about you.”
Puzzled, wary, he looked at her. “What did they say?”
“They said they were to discourage me from getting nosy,” she said. “I think maybe it’s what I do, not you, that’s worrying them. I think they’re afraid of what I might see. And they might be right, some of what I’ve seen and heard doesn’t ring true or sit right. With you poking around, too, they’re getting nervous and with reason.”
Matt frowned but now he would have the answer to the question that had plagued him.
“What do you do? You said you worked for them, for Marathon,” he asked.
“You might say that. I’m an outside software consultant for Titan Communications,” she answered, “I’m putting a new program on their computer system.”
Thunderstruck, for a moment Matt could only stare at her in disbelief. “You work on their computers.”
“Yes,” she said. “I have full administrator rights to their system, access to everything. That’s what they’re afraid of, that I might get curious, or suspicious, or find something accidentally. With you asking questions, they’re getting nervous. I’m a risk to them.”
All their files, all their documents. For a minute Matt was breathless. She had access to everything. The answer to his prayers and she’d been right in front of him all the time. Not another Bill. She was better. He shook his head at the irony.
Would he have done anything different if he’d known sooner? He might have been tempted to ask her then but he wouldn’t have wanted to put her at risk. Not in the face of Bill’s murder. It hadn’t happened that way. Looking back on what had happened, he didn’t know if he’d have done anything different.