Authors: Regan Black
“Could I take a look at your phone, please? It would help if I could review the interactions you’ve had with him before tomorrow.” If he was lucky, he might even find a clue as to why Grant had assigned him to Julia’s situation.
“Let me know when you’re done. It’s my alarm clock.” She handed him the phone and excused herself. He tuned out the sounds and the resulting speculative images of her preparing for bed. It required more effort than it should have.
He skimmed the text messages first, then the file with Julia’s notes on the encounter, and the pictures and emails that had followed. Despite his limited experience, Mitch recognized this definitely wasn’t a typical stalker.
Maybe Grant thought he was dodging that looming threat against the cop by assigning a suspended firefighter. More likely, it was a combination of convenience and intimidation. Mitch made a habit of using his height effectively in any situation and he’d been standing right there while Grant assessed Julia’s trouble. On top of that, Grant probably sensed Mitch’s restlessness. The man was legendary about reading people.
He glanced back at the closed bathroom door and took advantage of the moment by cruising through Julia’s contact list. Only the best friend’s name turned up. Interesting. She really wasn’t close to her mom, not that he’d doubted her earlier answer.
He heard the bathroom door open and her footsteps approaching. “Are you done yet?”
“Just finished,” he said, closing the open files on her phone. Looking up, his jaw dropped at the sight of her. With her makeup gone and her long, red hair tumbling in loose waves over her shoulders, she managed to transform the bulky sweatshirt and sweatpants into the sexiest of lingerie.
His pulse kicked into overdrive. He wanted to feel that hair in his hands and inhale that soft fragrance that seemed just out of reach. What the hell was wrong with him? She’d kick him out in a hot second if she realized where his thoughts had gone.
He kept his feet rooted in place, holding the phone at arm’s length. “Here you go.”
She didn’t go to bed. She came around to sit in the chair again, inadvertently teasing him with that warm fragrance as she passed by. She tucked her feet up by her hip and studied him. “Did it help? Do you have a plan?”
“A starting point,” he said, resuming his seat on the sofa. The apartment was truly too small. “Once you’re safe at the office, I’ll see what I can dig up. If we’re lucky he’ll show up wearing that orange hat again.”
Her lip curled. “I hope not.”
The admission startled him. “Why?”
“Because if the hat is his habit or signature or whatever, it means I’ve been oblivious to him for days.”
“Stop.” Mitch reached for her and thought better of it. “You can’t do that to yourself.” He waited until she lifted those lovely green eyes to meet his gaze. “It’s a very popular hat around here.”
It took a second, but when she finally laughed her entire body relaxed. And his tensed up as the sound rolled through him. He stretched his arms across the back of the sofa and changed the subject. “What’s with the furniture?” She didn’t strike him as the sort of woman who preferred fragile antiques to modern, sturdy furniture.
“You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that. I just pegged you for something more current.”
Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. “You wouldn’t be wrong. These are my inheritance from my grandmother.” She traced the carved wood accent on the arm of her chair. “The pieces fit the space and saved me money.”
Sensing more to that story, he waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t, leaving him wondering how to politely nudge her out of the way so he could stretch out on the floor.
“You’ll never be comfortable on that.”
“I’ll manage,” he replied.
With a heavy sigh, she pushed to her feet. “Hang on.” Her footsteps were quiet on the hardwood as she padded to a closet and rummaged around. “I’ve got a sleeping bag and mat I use for camping.” She leaned both items against the chair. “There. You’ll be more comfortable and I won’t feel like a total bitch.”
He smiled at her candor. “I never would have known the difference.”
“I would have.” She shrugged. “I set out clean towels and a travel toothbrush for you in the bathroom. Sleep well, Mitch, and thanks for staying.”
“You’re welcome.” The woman was full of surprises behind that thick wall of lawyer, he thought as he unrolled the mat and sleeping bag. It was hard to imagine her roughing it in the woods, but he was grateful.
He studiously kept his gaze averted as he passed her bed on the way to and from the bathroom. When he slid into the sleeping bag, he found himself surrounded by the elusive scent that was uniquely her.
With a sigh, he folded his hands behind his head. The few hours left between now and morning were going to make for one long night.
y some miracle, Mitch did get some sleep and upon waking, he managed not to interfere with Julia’s morning routine too much. After a quick argument against walking her to work, he drove her over and, when he dropped her off at the curb, he made her promise to stay put in her building until they met for lunch. Not only that, but she’d given him her word she’d forward any communication from the stalker. After last night’s emotional roller coaster, he believed she’d cooperate. In the short term, anyway.
Leaving her office, he drove to the west side of town and the house he shared with his oldest brother, Stephen. Braced for an interrogation, Mitch was relieved to find the place empty. He really wanted to avoid a discussion about where he’d spent the night and why. After a fast shower, he pulled on dark jeans, a T-shirt and a blue button-down. His typical off-day wardrobe of concert shirts was fine for the garage but wouldn’t translate well if he needed to blend in at her office. With that in mind, he packed a bag for a few days and grabbed his laptop. On his way out, he left a note to head off any unnecessary and uncomfortable questions from his family.
The extended Galway family could turn the big city into a small town whenever they got the urge. He’d been fending off concerned texts and calls from his parents and siblings since his suspension, as if they were afraid he’d go stir-crazy if he couldn’t fight fires. They weren’t exactly wrong—he missed the sense of purpose at the firehouse—but at just shy of thirty, he’d grown out of his youthful restlessness.
His irritation eased as he thought of Julia’s brother. He’d rather be surrounded by too much caring than none at all. He couldn’t imagine any of his siblings or cousins going missing for years. It just wouldn’t be tolerated.
With his gear in the trunk, he drove back to Julia’s building for a chat with her doorman before he reported in to Grant. The results after an hour of conversation were disturbing. Whoever had slipped that note into Julia’s mailbox had hidden their tracks well. Either the stalker lived in her building or he’d convinced someone in her building to drop the note in her mailbox. Worse, the security video didn’t show anyone other than the mailman near Julia’s box yesterday.
Frustrated, Mitch made notes and sent them on to Grant. The technical expertise involved to erase or alter surveillance was beyond him. Julia would expect better results than Mitch’s fumbling attempts to track down the man who matched her description of an average man wearing a popular hat.
Since he had her spare key, he took his belongings upstairs to her apartment and stowed his bag out of sight behind the privacy screen. Setting up his laptop at her table, again he reviewed the file she’d created, searching for a lead among the pictures and messages the stalker had sent. Not one similar angle, not even in the park. It was as if the creep had tagged along through her daily routine, completely invisible. He read and reread the line that Julia’s assignment to the Falk case wasn’t yet public knowledge.
Mitch got up to pace, but her apartment wasn’t big enough to make it worthwhile. He made a cup of coffee and drank it down as he studied the one picture she’d captured yesterday. It wasn’t any more enlightening today than it had been last night.
Every time he looked through the information, he came up with more questions than potential answers. Who was close enough to Julia and the car-theft ring? Searching for those connections meant digging into her life, which he suspected would go over like a lead balloon if he did that without her. There had to be something he could do.
He sent her a text message to check in and got an immediate positive reply, which eased the tension building in his neck and shoulders. With two hours until her lunch break, Mitch headed out for a walk. Her stalker knew the area and Mitch needed to get equally familiar with her typical routes and favorite places in the neighborhood. He needed to mitigate the stalker’s advantage. Mentally he crossed his fingers her stalker would be bold enough to wear the same orange hockey team cap today.
He left her building and walked the route she took every day to her office, passing her gym and her bank. With the pictures on his phone, he took in the various sight lines and angles. Where had the bastard been hiding?
By the time he’d walked the circumference of the park where she normally ate lunch, he realized just how easy it would be to target her or anyone else. The foot traffic and tourists that made her feel safe gave her stalker similar cover.
Taking a seat on a bench where he guessed the stalker had been watching for her, he used his phone to poke into the key players and time line on Marburg’s current big-ticket case. At first glance, it seemed obvious the stalker was all about the case, with his demands for names and cooperation. But what if Julia was the real goal? Maybe the creep had a fixation with sexy female defense attorneys on high-profile cases.
Mitch wasn’t a cop, but he felt the theory deserved an examination. As he put the text messages and pictures up against the case time line and growing pile of dead witnesses against the perps at the center of the criminal activity, he wound up agreeing with Grant and Julia.
Her stalker was dialed in to the legal issues, determined to have an inside informant on the Falk case. Why?
The criminals organizing the car-theft ring had plagued the city for nearly three years. More than stealing prime cars, it was generally believed that newer recruits committed robberies, arson, battery and even murder against competitors or hapless citizens to move up the ranks.
Only the recent bust at the docks three months ago had restored a measure of peace. The cops had wrangled a number of wannabes and hit the jackpot when they caught a man they were sure was one of the masterminds of the system.
Naturally, Mitch was more familiar with the suspected arsons linked to the operation. They’d been nasty and, in addition to a terrible fatality, at least two fires had been used to divert emergency resources from a bigger crime discovered later. He reviewed pictures of those scenes on news websites, searching for anyone who could be a match to the guy she had spotted yesterday, but there was no distinguishing feature to make a legitimate connection.
Marburg, with all their clout, must have been on retainer, considering how quickly they negotiated the deal for Falk to await trial in a safe house rather than a jail cell. As grumpy as the Philadelphia PD had been about relinquishing jurisdiction, Mitch thought it was a good thing the FBI was in charge of keeping Falk alive to testify against his partners.
How had the stalker learned Julia had been added to the case before it hit public record? It couldn’t have been a lucky guess. As she’d said, Marburg was full of eager associates eligible for the choice opportunity extended to Julia. Was her office really as safe as she thought? Could the stalker have an informant inside the firm who hadn’t gotten on the case as expected?
Mitch pushed to his feet and started up the block, doing his best to walk when everything inside him wanted to run. He had to get to her. Right now. Pulling out his phone, he sent her another text as he rounded the corner. She’d appreciate the fair warning.
When she entered the lobby, those high heels snapping against the marble with every stride, he gave himself a moment to soak up the gorgeous view before she got close enough to be offended. Her suit jacket was gone, and the sleek short-sleeved dress skimmed over her curves. Chin up, she projected an unshakable confidence as she advanced. Knowing what she’d endured in the past twenty-four hours, he was more impressed with her than ever.
Her closed expression, those auburn eyebrows raised in an arrogant arch, didn’t give off the appreciation he was expecting. “This is a surprise,” she said.
Her voice, pleasant enough, contrasted with the chilly reception in her green gaze. “A nice one, I hope,” he replied, listing only his first initial and last name in the register. “Can you get away for a quick lunch?”
The older man at the desk waggled bushy white eyebrows at Julia. “How about an introduction, young lady?”
“Of course,” she said. Her mouth lifted into a patently false smile. “Arthur, this is Mitch. He’s a—” she paused as Arthur’s eyebrows bobbed up and down again “—potential client.”
“Nice to meet you.” Arthur stuck out his hand and Mitch gave it a firm shake. “You couldn’t ask for a better attorney to have on your side. You two stay out of trouble.”
Too late for that
, Mitch thought. “Yes, sir.”
“Come on up,” Julia urged him, backing toward the elevators. “I’ll give you a tour before we go.”
“Great. Thanks.” Still concerned about her safety here, he needed to learn the building layout and the places she frequented. The building wasn’t as stuffy as expected, thanks to the soaring three-story galleries above. They passed a coffee stand, what appeared to be a cafeteria in one corner, and two smaller business offices.
When they were alone in the elevator, heading up to her floor, she turned to him, her face pale. “Is he here? You said you wouldn’t come inside unless—”
“Oh. No.” Crap. Afraid of letting her down, he’d allowed his nerves to get the better of him. “That’s not it. I’m sorry.” He took her hands and gave them a squeeze, just as the doors parted on her floor. No chance the receptionist missed it. Her eyes were dancing with curiosity on the other side of the glass doors as they approached.
“I’m heading to lunch, Bethany,” Julia said, breezing by the reception desk, with a tip of her head in his direction. “Potential client.”
“I’ll make a note,” the receptionist replied.
“You lie as easy as breathing,” Mitch murmured, impressed.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she replied, an edge to her voice. She unlocked the bin over her desk and pulled out her purse. “Let’s go.” She led him down the stairs and out a side door, apparently determined to avoid any further introductions or encounters.
He took her hand in his the moment they reached the street.
She looked down, trying to tug it free. “What are you doing?”
“Playing my part.” He gave her an encouraging smile.
“Boyfriend?” Her green eyes turned sharp. “This wasn’t our agreement.” She stopped talking as they waited at the corner for the crossing signal. “I just introduced you as a client.”
When they were moving again, she launched into all the reasons his showing up made things worse. He followed most of the lingo she tossed out in place of any solid reasons against his approach.
When they turned the corner, he raised their joined hands to his lips for a quick kiss. “Relax, Julia. It’s temporary.” They strolled on toward her favorite lunch spot and he led her to the line for a food truck. “I won’t be around long enough for the partners to bark at you about having a social life.”
His promise didn’t seem to ease any of the tension simmering in her body, but she stopped fighting against their joined hands. He studied her as the line advanced. “I came to the office for two reasons.”
He started with the easier reason. “I’d like to look a little deeper into your background. I didn’t want to start without your permission.”
She leaned back, peering up at him with laser-focused intensity. “My background is irrelevant. This is connected to work.”
So much for easy. “Hardly irrelevant. What sounds good to you?” he asked, his attention on the menu.
She made her selection and he placed the order when it was their turn, handing over cash before she could pull her wallet out of her purse.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Picking up lunch? Your accounts are still frozen, right?”
She gave him a brusque nod. “I’ll pay you back as soon as this is sorted out.”
“You’re welcome,” he teased.
Her eyes went wide as they stepped aside to wait for the food. “This isn’t a game. And thank you.” She smoothed a hand over her hair. She’d gathered all that gorgeous hair up in a glossy clip, exposing the long column of her neck, but the breeze was teasing a few strands free. “Why are you really here?”
“I’m creating a buffer for you,” he replied, sticking closer than a polite client would. He hovered enough to give the impression he was enamored with the new woman in his life, while trying not to irritate her with too much physical contact. He wondered if she held everyone at arm’s length or just him. His money was on everyone.
“Oh.” Her lips made a perfect, rosy circle. “The camera at my building. Did you see who left me that note?”
He wished he could give her a better answer. “No,” he admitted, regretting it as the little surge of hope drained from her face. Worse, she started scanning the people milling about the park. “Searching for a certain orange cap?”
“No. I’m not useless to you. I know you wanted a different answer, but we’ll get there.” That brought the full force of her attention back to him. He liked it a little too much. “Your doorman and I didn’t make much progress on that front
,” he emphasized. “But I spent the rest of the morning reviewing Falk’s arrest and events leading to it. Which is why I surprised you at the office. Again, I apologize.”
She waved it off. “I’m over it. Do you have a lead?”
His explanation was delayed by the food pickup and their brief search for a spot to eat. He could tell she felt exposed, but he figured his presence as an unexpected boyfriend would be enough to have her stalker reassessing the situation if he was out there watching.
When they were settled on a bench under a tree, he waited until she’d eaten some of her sandwich before he began. “Falk’s gang or followers or whatever you’d call them are suspected of a few arsons around the city in recent years.”
She nodded, her gaze sweeping across the people moving around them.
“None of those left enough evidence to prosecute a particular individual.”
“Which is related to my stalker how?”
“I’m a curious guy,” he replied. “After the
dead end in the mail room, I went looking for a better lead.” He decided not to mention his trek home for his clothes and his computer.