Authors: Regan Black
Once they were inside, he gave her a tour of the house. “We inherited it from our uncle,” he explained. “My mom’s brother got sick of winters. He wanted to head to Phoenix, but my mom badgered him into staying on the East Coast. They live in Orlando now.”
She couldn’t imagine adjusting her plans to keep family happy. “That’s nice, I guess.”
Mitch shrugged a shoulder as he hauled her bags down the narrow hallway. “I can’t complain. Living here beats paying rent for something half as nice, even if we deal with more maintenance on this place.”
She didn’t know the difference. “I’ve been an apartment dweller all my life.”
“Bedrooms are this way.” He set her bags down on the floor near the hallway and stared at her, his eyes wide. “You’re kidding. No backyard, no neighborhood bike races?”
She shook her head, surprised at the foreign sensation that she’d missed an important life experience. “There was a park a block down.” At one place. “And a pool,” she added, as if that would erase the stigma of being different. That had been a different year, and one of her favorite summers.
“Did you go swimming a lot?”
She nodded, wishing she’d never brought it up. That summer had been one bright spot in a childhood lacking so many typical happy memories she’d heard about from friends over the years.
“This is Stephen’s room. Yours now,” Mitch said, changing the subject abruptly. He plucked a note off the pillow and gave her a half smile. “Stephen says he changed the sheets for you.”
“Thanks.” This felt so awkward. She didn’t want to leave any room for him to doubt her, to believe she was using him for protection or to scratch a lusty itch. “I really appreciate you, Mitch. For all your help tonight. Thanks,” she repeated lamely.
“To hell with that.” He crowded her, bracing one powerful arm on the wall just over her shoulder.
Her pulse skipped, eager for another kiss and more than a little afraid to make the next move. Warmth radiated from him and she wanted to burrow in, soaking up that heat and life until she felt complete again. Normal. It was probably too much pressure to set on his broad shoulders. “Hell with what?” she asked, her mind racing with the possible answers.
“I was assigned to protect you, sure. But you matter. You matter to me, Julia.”
His words, the intensity in his gaze, had the air backing up in her lungs. She swallowed, trying to remember how to breathe. “I... Oh, Mitch...” Words failed her. No one had ever said anything so profound to her in her life.
“Don’t worry about it.” His lips tilted up at one corner. His palms caressed her shoulders, but the touch was gone too soon as he pulled back and tucked his hands into his pockets. “You’re exhausted. Get some rest and we can start fresh in the morning.”
“All right.” Rest was the last thing on her mind, though it was the smart choice. She supposed one of them should be responsible. Desire and yearning were mucking up her attempts at rational thought. “Do you have an alarm system?”
“Relax. We’re safe here. The jerk stalking you doesn’t know anything about me.”
She wished she could believe that. From the phone to her banking, the stalker had proven remarkably informed and tech savvy. And now, thanks to her, the creep might have more to work with. “My phone and laptop were left behind at the office. Someone broke into my floor.” She cleared her throat. She’d spent time researching the circumstances of his suspension. That information was fair game if the stalker had used the bomb threat to disguise a theft. “I know he has your cell number, too, now. Grant told me you talked with him,” she added when he winced. “He’s dangerous.”
“Easy, Julia,” Mitch crooned. He rocked back on his heels, his hands balled up in his pockets as if he was afraid what would happen if those hands got near her again. “We can tackle those questions tomorrow when we have more facts.”
“Grant reminded me. I know we can’t assume the stalker organized the whole mess. And we know he has help now.” She pulled a hair tie from her pocket and gathered her hair up off her neck into a messy bun. It gave her something to do besides reach for him. “It’s not a wild bet, all things considered.”
“No, it’s not,” Mitch agreed reluctantly. “Will you have trouble sleeping?”
With him in the next room, where she probably couldn’t even hear him breathing, while she relived memories of fake cops who’d nearly kidnapped her? Of course she’d have trouble sleeping. “I’ll be fine,” she lied. “It helps knowing you’re here.” She stopped before she could ask to sleep in his room. “Helps that I’m not alone.”
“Good. The bathroom is at the end of the hall,” Mitch said. “If you need or want anything before morning, speak up. I’m in the bedroom across the hall.”
She bit back more of the gratitude that had annoyed him. “Okay.”
In the bathroom, she stripped away her clothes and indulged in a fast, hot shower just to wash away the lingering anxiety and remnants of the bomb threat trouble. In the gray cotton tank top and boxers she wore as pajamas, she saw the bruises from the impostor’s grip already blooming on her arm. As she passed Mitch’s bedroom door, she recalled he still owed her an explanation about his encounter with the stalker.
She hated to bother him at this hour when they both had to be up early, but she wanted to know what he’d seen. What had been said. In the hallway, she nibbled on her lip as she raised her hand to knock on his door. “Mitch?”
She turned the knob and opened the door a crack. He was sitting up in bed, his chest bare and the sheet bunched at his waist. Her mouth watered.
“Is something wrong?”
“No.” She felt foolish bothering him now. “This can wait until morning.”
“Talk to me, Julia.”
“Grant told me you saw the stalker. That you spoke with him.” She could tell by the way his expression clouded that this wasn’t the topic he expected. “We can discuss it in the morning.”
“Hang on.” He started to rise and changed his mind. “I wasn’t cutting you out of the loop,” he said. “We just had more immediate issues. When we got to the club, you’d settled and I didn’t want to get into it.”
“No problem. I just wanted to know if you recognized him. Do you have any idea who he is?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I walked right by him on the sidewalk and got a better sense of his build.”
She gasped at that.
“I got a good profile first, then a better look when he came after me. He wasn’t familiar at all, though I plan on going back through every report on the Falk case in the morning.”
“Okay.” She stepped back into the hallway. “Good night.”
She froze at the command in his voice.
“I wasn’t hiding anything.”
“I didn’t imply that at all.” She hesitated in the doorway, sensing he wanted to say something else, then his expression clouded.
“What is that?” He tossed back the covers and prowled across the room, loose flannel pants riding low on his lean hips. “On your arm,” he said, pointing to the marks.
His ripped torso mesmerized her momentarily. She followed his hard glare to the bruises on her arm. “Temporary souvenir,” she replied. “It looks worse than it feels.”
Gingerly, he raised her arm up and to the side, letting the brighter hall light show him each detail. “Do you need ice?”
“It’s nothing, Mitch, really.” This had been a terrible idea. Here they were, more undressed than they should be. He was being kind again and all she could think about was the big empty bed behind him. She backed up another step before she embarrassed them both. “Good night.”
“I don’t want you looking over your shoulder forever, second-guessing every conversation and glance. We made progress today. I got a good look at him. His two cronies are in custody. We’ll get him, Julia.”
She nodded, wanting so badly to believe him. “Good night, Mitch.” She ducked into her room and closed the door. Pretending she still had hope was as exhausting as outrunning a bomb threat. Sliding under the cool, fresh linens, she reminded herself tomorrow was another day, another chance for the stalker to screw up or succeed.
She closed her eyes, letting the images of the day stream by in a tension-relieving meditation. Grant and Mitch were right to move her here. There was a peace to the house, a quiet calm her apartment had lost in recent days.
In the morning, they would take what they’d learned today and turn it into a fresh lead—either from the sketch of the stalker, or maybe one of his cronies would flip. There would be a lead that would put an end to this tenuous situation and allow her to reclaim her life.
Leo Falk paced the width of the hotel suite in Society Hill, waiting for K-Chase, his so-called computer genius, to wrap up the work on Julia’s cell phone and computer. Planning the audacious, fast-strike invasion of the Marburg building had been fun, despite the obvious risks. He’d kept himself from the high-octane action on the front lines for too long. The strike had been effective, if costly. Two men were in custody and the man currently tailing Julia reported she hadn’t returned to her building. She wouldn’t go far and if she had, he knew just how to reel her back in.
Soon K-Chase’s tricks would give Leo full access to Julia’s computer and phone. Seizing her finances, keeping them out of her control, had been easy for his genius, coming at it through the institutions. Staying a step ahead of her was crucial to making her dependent on his generosity and giving her good reason to say yes when he offered her a retainer and a beachside villa. He smiled, imagining how the lovely Julia would enhance the view at his compound in the Caribbean.
It would have been a sweet bonus if the men had been able to draw Julia away for a quick face-to-face chat. Leo had high hopes for the intelligent, savvy redhead. She continued to surprise him with where she chose to apply her loyalty.
As much as he enjoyed the change of pace, Leo couldn’t stay in Philly much longer, not if he wanted the system to keep believing he was dead. Being a ghost, out of sight and out of mind of law enforcement agencies, had allowed him to build an operation no one could take down. Unless his brother rolled.
Leo hadn’t completely set aside his anger about the careless mistakes Danny had made leading up his arrest. He’d trusted his brother, the only man with access to both the management and labor sides of the operation. Now, rumblings from the defense team and rumors in the prosecutor’s office suggested Danny was impatiently looking to make a deal. Didn’t he realize Leo would never let him rot in jail?
“All right,” K-Chase said. “You have her hard drives to use at will and I can get in and out undetected if necessary.”
“No trace at all?”
“Let’s just say a crack forensics team would need years to find a lead.”
Leo rolled his eyes at the cockiness of youth. They all thought they were immortal. Irreplaceable. It didn’t matter. Leo needed only another few days at best. He tossed a stack of money at the boy.
K-Chase caught it, hefted it and stared up at Leo. “This is only half.”
Leo grinned. “If you want the other half, you’ll run an errand for me.”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
Leo merely clasped his hands behind his back, waiting for the boy to come to his senses.
itch woke up early, having slept poorly knowing Julia had gone to bed bruised and unhappy. His jaw tightened. Those bruises would stand out on her pale skin even more today. Given an opportunity, he’d dish out equal treatment to the man who’d put those marks on her.
He turned his face under the hot spray and scrubbed away another rush of guilt. He’d taunted her stalker and Julia had suffered in the retaliation. Whether or not the jerk had orchestrated the evacuation, it had been his thugs who’d tried to take her. Aggravated, Mitch recalled Grant’s warning about patience—a virtue he’d never quite mastered.
Once he’d dressed, Mitch went to the kitchen to start coffee and breakfast in a belated attempt to make up for his many mistakes last night. He should have kept his lips to himself, should have warned her about the coffee shop and should have done a dozen other things to make her more comfortable with this change. He should have said something about
, not just her case, while they’d been standing in the hallway. The only words that had filtered through the flood of desire had been mushy declarations no sane woman would be ready to hear within hours of a first kiss.
He understood their differences. He was quick and decisive. She was deliberate and enjoyed a debate. He had supportive family and she did not. Huh. Had he truly appreciated his big, noisy, meddlesome family before now? There were parts of Julia that were seriously messed up though she hid them well behind those tough-lawyer layers. He’d gained a few messy scars, too, but he was willing to share the story behind them. With her.
He heard her bedroom door open and close, followed by her soft footsteps in the hallway. Knowing her typical routine, he figured it wouldn’t vary too much now that they were at his place.
After filling a mug with fresh coffee, he drank deeply and skimmed through the updates on his phone. The safe bet was he’d be taking her to the office, same as last weekend. Regardless of her status as a new associate or the intricacies of a case, he figured taking a day off wasn’t her style. Beyond the ingrained work ethic, he knew she wouldn’t wait until Monday to retrieve the items she’d left at her desk. He pulled out a package of bacon and gathered ingredients for French toast and then set the griddle on the stove to heat.
As a firefighter, he was no stranger to rigorous work schedules. He wondered if she realized how much they had in common or if she focused on how different they were. He didn’t generally populate the circles she ran in. She didn’t have much of a social life and he didn’t have much cause to visit any law firm.
Without the trouble of this case they might never have met. While he didn’t wish her harm after the past few days, he couldn’t imagine his life without her in it. His hand flexed at the thought and he accidentally crushed the egg he’d been holding. Better to find other things to think about. Like how to keep her safe and out of the stalker’s reach. Moving here, they had a small advantage over her stalker and he didn’t want to squander it. Could he get her to agree?
He cleaned up the mess and started over, cracking fresh eggs into a bowl. Whisking them lightly, he added milk, a dash of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla until the mixture smelled right. When he heard the squeaky hinge on her bedroom door again, he checked the clock and turned up the heat under the griddle. He had a plate of crispy bacon ready to go and had just started dipping slices of bread in the egg mixture when she walked into the kitchen.
She wore trim black slacks and a chocolate sweater that showed off her curves. As she came around the counter, he noticed her slender, bare feet. The deep purple polish on her toes sent his imagination into overdrive. Not for the first time. He tamped down the lust factor and gave her a warm, friendly smile. It was a sorry excuse when he wanted to kiss her until her cheeks were pink and she couldn’t quite catch her breath. “You’re dressed as if you want to go in to the office today.” No surprise.
“I’m an incorrigible workaholic.” She wrapped her hands around the mug of coffee he poured for her. “You don’t have to wait on me,” she said after the first slow sip.
A man could get used to watching the caffeine slide through her system, perking her up from the inside out. “First morning in my place, I thought it deserved a little fanfare.”
Her wide mouth tipped up at one corner. “I’m not complaining. Is that French toast?”
He grinned at her over his shoulder, inordinately pleased by her eager curiosity. “My mother’s secret recipe.”
He flipped the slices on the griddle and set out butter and syrup for her. “Is there any chance I can talk you into staying here today?”
“Not without my phone and laptop.”
“You could use my gear,” he offered. He was curious if the items she’d left behind were still in her cubicle. He’d checked the news reports, as well as the email Grant had sent this morning. “Grant heard there are no leads on the tipster who called in the bomb threat. Apparently, the damage is limited to your floor and the side door.” There was more, but he didn’t want to dump all of it on her at once. She hadn’t even had one full cup of coffee.
“That’s weird. There are cameras on the side door and the stairwells, and throughout the building.”
Mitch shrugged. Her stalker had likely beaten the cameras at her apartment. “Seems to me the direct attack is too obvious,” he said. He stacked hot slices of French toast on a plate for her, ignoring her protest about serving sizes, and then made a similar plate for himself. At the table, he watched her eat, taking her silence as confirmation that she enjoyed his mother’s recipe as much as he did. It pleased him to relax and enjoy such a normal moment.
It felt too right having her here like this. He hadn’t done more than kiss her, though he wouldn’t hesitate if she gave him a chance to take her in his arms and explore that stunning body. He couldn’t quite think of her as a client anymore. Hell, despite all his training, he’d been too attached even before the kiss. This attraction between them had a potential that went beyond her circumstances.
Maybe the overwhelming rightness came from being so close. He’d certainly never felt it with any of his previous girlfriends. Mitch made a concerted effort to put his thoughts on the case rather than the way her lips closed over each bite of her breakfast.
“Back to the office for your laptop and phone,” he said. “Then what?”
“Same story, new verse. You watch, I work, I suppose.”
“I could get behind that. To a point.” He pushed his last bite of French toast through the syrup on his plate. “We could throw the jerk another curveball.”
She paused, her coffee mug suspended just below her lips. She placed it back on the table with great care. “What are you thinking?”
“He knows your cell phone number and he’s been following you far too easily. I know you want your stuff back, and we’ll do that, but do you think we could stop using your phone?”
She bit her lower lip as she considered. “It’s not a bad idea.”
Mitch pressed the idea. “The fake cops who tried to lead you and Bethany away are low-level thugs with a flimsy connection to Falk’s organization.”
“Connected by known associates?”
“Exactly,” Mitch replied. “Makes Falk the natural suspect, but they don’t know how he’s issuing orders from the safe house.”
“That would be an interesting trick.” She raised her coffee mug again, sipping this time. “The FBI has him isolated from everyone but Marburg.”
“And Marburg wouldn’t authorize an attack on his own building.” Mitch watched her face, intrigued as she examined the situation from all angles. “Which circles back to the stalker.”
“Whose side is he on?” She rubbed her forehead.
Mitch reached for his coffee rather than her hand. “Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Yes,” she replied absently, her thoughts clearly on the problem. “The stalker planned this out. He wanted that building evacuated. Getting a hold of me was just a bonus.”
“You’re basing this on...?”
“My gut,” she replied. “Nothing as helpful as evidence, unfortunately.”
“That doesn’t bother me, since I’m not trying to build a case. My goal is to keep you safe.”
“My goal is to stay employed. And safe.” She reached out and rested her hand lightly on his forearm. “I know you don’t want me to say it again, but thank you for everything you’ve done. I know this isn’t convenient for anyone.”
There it was, another moment to tell her his encounter yesterday had probably baited the stalker into the attack and he left it unsaid, too selfish to ruin the sweetness of the contact. She’d reached for him. That little touch gave him a boost of optimism that she wouldn’t ditch him as soon as they caught her stalker. “Do you hear me complaining? You’re far better company than my grumbling brother.”
Her expression brightened at the vague compliment. “He’s not a morning person?”
“Not a bit,” Mitch said, laughing. “He wakes up early just so he can get in two cups of coffee before the rest of the world. That makes him human enough to carry on a brief conversation. He’s not the least bit friendly until he’s had at least an hour alone under the hood of a car.”
Mitch nodded. “I had years of experience staying out of his way before we moved in here.” He waited, hoping she’d share something of life with her brother before the Marines.
“Thanks for breakfast,” she said, clearing the table. “I’ll take care of cleanup and then we can go to the office.”
Mitch followed her to the counter and poured another cup of coffee. “I don’t want you bringing your phone here. We should make sure your laptop doesn’t have any kind of tracking on it, either.”
She shut off the water and turned around, leaning back against the counter. Her green eyes were full of irritation, her mouth set in a hard line. “He knows who you are, right? I mean, you called him from your phone. He managed to divert messages I sent to you from Bethany’s phone.”
. “That doesn’t mean he knows where I live. This place isn’t in my name. My permanent address is still listed as my parents’ place.”
That irritation shifted immediately to concern. “
. This was a mistake. Having me here puts all of you at risk. It was a dumb move.”
“Gee, thanks.” He watched his sarcasm cut through her distress. “You need help. You’re the target, not me or my family. Trust me, the Galways can hold our own.”
“I hope you’re right. Let’s get to the office.” She flicked her hand, urging him out of her way, but he held his ground, blocking the only exit from the galley kitchen. “Move, Mitch.”
“Why did you become a lawyer?”
Her auburn eyebrows furrowed. “That’s irrelevant.”
“Not to me.” He folded his arms over his chest. The longer they stayed in the safety of the house, the happier he was. He silently dared her to draw this out.
She tilted her head. “Is this about the kiss last night?”
“Absolutely,” he admitted, gauging her reactions. “Now give me an answer.”
“I became a lawyer for the money. There. You kissed a shark.” Her sharp chin came up in defiance. “Happy now?”
“Not even close.” He stepped in and stole a kiss. He lingered over it, until the hard edge of her temper drained away. As she relaxed, he eased back, keeping his hands on her waist. “Why did you really become a lawyer?”
She raised her gaze to the ceiling as if an escape from his questions could be found up there. “Why does it matter?”
He smiled at her exasperation and brought her hands to his lips. “Whatever your reasons, you’re well suited to it the way you answer so many questions with another question.”
His observation brought out a self-deprecating smile that lit her face and seemed to brighten the room. “How about I tell you the story while you drive me to the office?”
Resigned, he shifted to the side so she could scoot by. He hadn’t missed her lack of complaint about him kissing her again. When her stalker was out of the picture, he’d ask her out on a real date. It would be a crime to ignore the potential and promise under the mutual attraction.
Julia slid into the passenger seat, feeling a bit lost without the things she normally carried with her to and from the office. She owed Mitch a real answer about why she’d become a lawyer. He’d been so open with her, even about his flaws, that it pricked her sense of justice.
He was either too nice or too polite to accept her raw reply at face value. Money had been a big motivator for her career choices and she was okay about that. Her entire childhood had been balanced on a precipice with disaster encroaching on all sides. Her mother had made life a misery with bad habits that exacerbated the drawbacks of her paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.
money,” she blurted out as Mitch turned at the end of his block. He needed to know who he was protecting—and kissing—so he could ditch any altruistic delusions he might have about her. “There wasn’t much when I was growing up and I refused to stay in that trap.”
“Money is a good reason,” he said easily. “You mentioned a story,” he prompted.
“You’ll notice I’m not in the public defender’s office,” she countered.
“Money is a good reason,” he repeated. “Being a firefighter isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. My brother and I restore cars for the money.”
“You love it,” she said.
“Do I?” A grin tugged at his lips.
“Yes,” she said. The care he’d taken with this restoration was obvious. “I’d argue restoring cars is more than money for you.”
“You’d argue most anything,” he said with a smile. “But you’re not wrong.” He smoothed a palm over the steering wheel while they waited for a traffic light to change. “I’ll tell you about it. Another time. Right now I want you to tell me the nonmoney reason you became a defense attorney at the biggest firm in town.”
“I think you have me confused with a nice girl.”
He laughed, raising his chin in the direction of the Marburg building. “Better start talking. I’m not letting you out of the car until I have an answer.”