Authors: Regan Black
She was almost sorry she’d asked. “The father threw the first punch?”
Mitch lifted his gaze to hers, his jaw tight with the recollection. “Does it matter?”
“Yes.” Character made all the difference. With her lousy track record with first impressions and reading people, she preferred to have things spelled out clearly. She preferred the evidence of actions over all the right words.
“He threw the first punch,” Mitch confirmed. “My union rep says witness videos support my account that I defended myself until they hauled him off me. He was older—it wouldn’t have been right to flatten him. It was a shock to me and everyone on my shift when he filed the complaint.”
“Thanks,” she said, satisfied. In the awkward silence, she patted his hand. Grabbing her purse, she climbed out of the low-slung car before he could come around and open her door.
She picked up her mail and somehow survived the wink and waggling eyebrows of the doorman while they filled out the information for Mitch’s car.
In the elevator, Mitch laughed over the encounter and Julia tried to join him, though she wasn’t feeling it. Another shiver of fear or awareness or some troubling combination of the two swept over her as she opened her apartment door and invited Mitch inside. Without a word, he closed the door and secured both dead bolt locks, while she punched in her code on the security system panel.
In this neighborhood, she couldn’t afford a big place, and living alone, working long hours, anything more than this tidy efficiency would’ve been a waste of money. Unfortunately, just as she’d thought, Mitch’s presence filled the small space to bursting and he’d barely stepped inside. He couldn’t possibly stay here with her—they’d run out of oxygen by morning.
“Go ahead and look around.” She forced out the words. No one was here, waiting to spring an attack. “We’d only trip over each other if I gave you a guided tour.”
The kitchen to the right and the living area in front of them were self-explanatory anyway. In three strides, he peered around the canvas privacy screen she used to designate her bedroom. Printed with Monet’s water lily pond, she suddenly felt overexposed, as if he could see straight through to those last secret soft spots she kept hidden from the rest of the world.
Ignoring what would be a swift orientation, out of habit she dropped her purse and keys on the chair, along with the mail. When she realized that the only space left for them to sit together was the love seat, she changed her mind and moved things to the table snugged under the kitchen pass-through. She’d have to clear that by morning to make room for him to eat breakfast.
The last time she’d had a roommate was during her undergrad years. She’d skimped and scraped through law school without having to share her space. Did he expect her to cook for them? Should she come up with a schedule so they weren’t tripping over each other?
A small, square note card envelope dropped to the floor, distracting her. White, no postmark, only her first name typed in all caps as an address, it stood out against the nearly black hardwood floors. “It’s nothing bad,” she murmured to herself.
Could be any number of happy things
, she thought, willing it to be true as she crouched down to pick up the envelope.
“All clear,” Mitch said. “Nice place. Saw your windows are wired into the system, too. Smart.”
“Thanks.” Julia stood up and faced him, smiling as she hid the envelope behind her back. If he knew what she’d found, he’d stay. If he stayed, she’d never get any rest. Twenty-four/seven or not, she needed him to go, to let her have some peace for what was left of the night.
“What’s that?” He raised his chin as if he could see right through her midsection to the envelope fluttering in her shaky hand.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“And I’m sure that particular ‘nothing’ has scared you.” He held out his hand, flicked his fingers to encourage her to hand it over. “You’re white as a sheet.”
Or white as an envelope
, she thought with a flash of gallows humor. “You want to open it, go ahead.” She held out the envelope but didn’t let go when his fingers closed over it. “It’s addressed to me.” She showed him. “Just my name.”
With a shrug, he tucked his hands into his coat pockets. “Any idea who sent it?”
She clamped her lips shut when her teeth wanted to chatter. “Probably a neighbor.”
“So open it already and find out.”
“Fine.” She slid her thumb under the flap and pulled out the enclosure. The paper shook like an autumn leaf in a gale as she read the short list of names followed by another terse message: “Stay on the case, Julia. Cooperate with me or I’ll drop these bodies on your doorstep.”
Her knees buckled and she pitched forward. Mitch caught her, guiding her to the chair. “Here.” She shoved the horrid note into his chest. “Take it.”
She couldn’t bear to hold it anymore, couldn’t bear the implications. She’d only entertained the thought of taking herself off the case for a few brief seconds this afternoon. Why was he doing this? Threatening her career, ruining her credit and credibility was bad enough. Threatening her best friend, her mother and her brother upped the ante.
“It’s a bluff,” she murmured. It had to be a bluff. “He’s making a point that he knows where I live.” As if she might be too stupid to put that together from the pictures and messages he’d sent her earlier.
A thick fog of dread blurred everything around her. She waited for anger to burn through it, waited in vain as her heart raced and tremors racked her body.
Mitch dropped his coat over her shoulders, gave them a brisk rub. Enveloped in his warmth and the spicy scent of his cologne, it was hard to remember she didn’t like being touched. Hearing him moving through her kitchen, she couldn’t work up the least irritation with him or her paralyzing fear. Where was her fight? Grit and unwavering fortitude had carried her away from home, through college and law school, through pressures far more direct and personal than one bully with a camera and a gift for nasty text messages.
“Drink this,” Mitch said, kneeling in front of her.
She focused on his face, on the compassion in his brown eyes. He wrapped her numb hands around a bottle of water. She managed to raise it to her lips, taking one sip, then another. “Don’t leave,” she said. “Please.”
“Not a chance.”
Mitch picked up the note and read the brief message, wondering about the significance of each name. He might not have a lot of experience with stalkers, but this note—and her severe reaction to it—meant leaving wasn’t an option, regardless of the assignment.
He’d seen plenty of shock victims through the years. Julia, in her current emotional state, needed rest and assurance more than anything else. Still pale, the water bottle wasn’t shaking quite so much as she burrowed deeper into his coat.
He read the note again.
Aubrey Wallace, Karen Neal and Justin Carter
. None of the last names matched Julia’s. “How are these people connected to the Falk case?”
“They aren’t.” She pushed her fingers into her hair, closing her eyes as she tipped her face to the ceiling. “He listed my best friend from college, my mom and my brother. In that order.”
No wonder she’d nearly fainted. Mitch gave a low whistle as he tucked the note into his back pocket. He was tempted to drag her into his lap and cuddle her as if she was one of his young nieces fighting off a bad dream. He almost smiled, imagining how poorly that would go over with the prickly attorney. “So the stalker targeted you for personal reasons.” He’d be furious if someone threatened his family to force his cooperation. He didn’t want to contemplate how fast he’d give in to keep them safe.
“No,” she murmured. “No one here knows I have a brother,” she murmured. “Other than my mother and whoever did the required background search before Marburg hired me.”
Her low, flat voice unnerved him. It seemed as if the note had smothered all that pride and fire she’d shown from the moment she’d walked up to his bar. Then her words hit him like a sucker punch. “Pardon me?”
She burrowed into his coat. “Justin is several years older than me. He joined the Marines when I was in high school. We lost touch while I was in college. Mom called me when he overdosed on painkillers. That was my first year of law school.” She rubbed at the frown creasing her forehead. “I did a little digging after that. He’d gone to rehab but didn’t complete the program. Checked himself out early. As far as I know, no one’s heard from him since. He might already be dead.” She leaned forward, her green eyes wild and fierce. “That’s actually good news.”
“It is?” Mitch didn’t believe any threat to family was good news.
“Yes. The creep must be mining old records. He doesn’t realize only Aubrey still matters to me.” Her gaze dropped to her hands. “Well...that makes me sound like a terrible person.”
“Not at all.” He used the tone that calmed down panicked victims during a rescue. People had countless definitions of family, not all of them as strong and unified as his. “You’re not close to your mom?”
That one word packed a hefty warning to back off the sore subject. He swallowed his follow-up questions. “Then why were you so upset to read the note?” He could be of more help, be less of an intrusion, if he understood her.
“It’s an invasion.” Her shoulders shifted under his coat. “Bad enough he’s jeopardizing my integrity and twisting up my finances. This? Dredging up old baggage and dumping it here in the place I made for myself?” Her hands fisted on her knees as she emitted an angry growl. “The envelope...he was in my building.”
He seized on that point like a lifeline. “Would you rather stay somewhere else for a while?”
She shook her head and shut her eyes tight for a moment. “I won’t give in that easy.”
“Good.” He admired her courage. “Remember, you’re not alone.”
Her eyes met his again, held. “Okay.” She rubbed her palms briskly over her knees and took a deep breath. “We’ve found a silver lining. I’m home safe and although he got close, the creep isn’t lurking in a closet. What next?”
Good question. He was in over his head here. He fought fires, not stalkers. “We should warn your friend.” That sounded logical. “And your mom.”
Julia’s features smoothed into an unyielding, emotionless mask. “And say what? They don’t live here in Philly.”
“All right.” Mitch flared his hands, unwilling to push her any further tonight. His job was protecting her. Grant could tackle this issue of warning others if necessary. “Why don’t we get some rest and start fresh in the morning.”
She glanced at the small, antique sofa. “You won’t be comfortable there.” Her gaze slid toward the privacy screen hiding her bed.
He wasn’t about to make her sleep on this hard sofa. “Don’t worry about me. If you have an extra blanket and pillow I’ll sleep just fine on the floor.”
The little furrow between her brows as she examined the small apartment was endearing. Or it would be under different circumstances. This wasn’t the right time to be charmed and distracted by the woman he was supposed to be protecting. One of the hardest lessons of firefighting was doing the job without getting emotionally invested in the people saved.
While he denied it every time it came up, no one seemed to believe he’d finally grown past the foolish damsel-in-distress complex he’d had as a kid. Yes, his last girlfriend had used that specific soft spot against him and it had taken him too long to see her true colors. But he’d eventually corrected that mistake. The nature of the job was to race into danger and bring people out alive. Without his innate drive to protect those in need, he wouldn’t be a decent firefighter.
“You’re really staying over.”
He nodded, unable to tell if she was more relieved or frustrated by his protective intrusion. He managed not to remind her she’d asked him to stay only a few minutes ago.
In a flurry of motion, she stood up. Shrugging off his coat, she folded it neatly over the back of the chair. Moving behind the privacy screen that divided the space, he heard her open a closet. A moment later she returned with a pillow in an ivory satin case and the quilt that had been folded neatly on the foot of her bed. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“Are you a morning person?” She crossed her arms as if she was cold again.
“I’m a firefighter. I’ve learned to adapt to the situation and timing, whatever it is.”
Her auburn eyebrows arched, then knit into a hard scowl.
“Is that a problem for you?”
“No.” The scowl remained, the arms tensed more.
“Something’s got your wheels turning.” He tapped his temple.
“How can this work?” She spread her arms wide. “You can see my place is too small for you to move in.”
She wasn’t satisfied by his vague confidence. “You’re just going to follow me? Everywhere?”
“Sure. Until we identify who’s hassling you. Isn’t that what you asked for?”
Her shoulders sagged. “Yes. No. I’m just...”
“Tired,” he finished for her. “Stressed-out. That’s reasonable, Julia.”
“I don’t like having you here.”
“I understand.” He could sympathize. Independence radiated off her. He didn’t know her well, but it was clear that she was unhappy she’d needed to ask Escape—or anyone—for help.
“This creep might just be a big gasbag trying to embarrass the firm.”
“It’s possible.” Although they both knew that theory didn’t explain the stalker sifting through her past for hot buttons of friends and family. Mitch hoped the situation was resolved quickly just by his presence, but her stalker was pushing awful damn hard and fast.
Mitch would have a tough time forgetting the shock and fear on her face when she’d read the note. The facade of the savvy, polished attorney had dissolved, instantly revealing a frightened woman floundering to make sense of things.
The bastard had put a note in her mailbox. Tomorrow, once Julia was safe at work, Mitch would come back and have a chat with the doorman. A building as posh as this one had to have cameras on every entrance. The residents wouldn’t tolerate anything less.
“I guess I’ll, just, um, head to bed then.” She took a step back.