WITHOUT A TRACE
Rachel held back a gasp as the man stepped into the hall. Dressed in a dark suit, holding a walkie-talkie, he appeared to be one of Preston's security guards.
Darting into the rec room, Rachel hid beside the jukebox. From her vantage point, she saw the man stride past, but she waited a few moments to make sure he had left the area. She crept to the door and peeked out.
No sign of the goon.
Rachel let out a relieved breath. Two doors down another door stood open, so she decided to investigate.
The library. Row upon row of volumes filled shelves that reached to the ceiling. A huge, comfortable-looking recliner sat in the middle of the room, as well as a matching sofa and a side table with a brass reading lamp. At the far end she noticed yet another closed door.
Had to be Preston's study. Rachel felt a surge of adrenaline as she crossed the library to the door. She tried the knob. “Damn,” she muttered when the door didn't open.
After some more fiddling with the knob, she pulled one of the long bobby pins from her hair, broke it in half and attempted to pick the lock. At first she feared her crude tool wouldn't work, but then a surge of triumph swept through her as she felt the tumblers move.
Rachel opened the door and slipped inside, closing it behind her. The desk light shone, she noted with gratitude. At least she wouldn't have to stumble around in the dark.
First to search Preston's files for anything he might have on Paige. She stepped to the row of metal filing cabinets and reached for the top left drawer.
Locked. Her heart sank, but she tried several other drawers. All were locked. She moved to the massive oak desk and pulled on those drawers. None would budge.
She fought her disappointment. “Preston isn't stupid,” she muttered. “He's got the keys.”
“I'm sure he does. I thought I'd find you here.”
Rachel spun around to face Matt. He seemed…relieved. “It's good I have a strong heart, Romero. You've got to stop sneaking up on me. Is it a cop thing, or are you just trying to annoy me?”
“It's a cop thing. Element of surprise, you know.”
“I'm not too fond of surprises.”
Matt's expression shifted to serious. “You're jeopardizing my investigation, Rachel, snooping around like this. Anything you or I find in this room right now would be inadmissible as evidence in court, if the case hasn't already been blown straight to hell just by us being here.”
“I…didn't realize. I'm just trying to see if Preston is the reason Paige is missing. He knows more than he's telling.”
“I agree. I'll work on trying to get a warrant to search this house, but first I need to come up with good grounds for a search. Now let's just get out of here, okay?”
“You will try to get a warrant—”
“Shhh.” Matt cocked his head, listening. His eyes widened. “Oh, hell. Someone's coming.”
Rachel heard footsteps and voices coming from the library, moving closer. Alarmed, she looked at Matt.
“I think it's Preston,” she hissed.
She hurried with him over to the window. With rapid movements, he unfastened the lock, yanked the window open, and crawled out.
She gasped as the footsteps grew nearer. Neal Preston's deep voice, speaking to his companion, penetrated the office door's thick wood. He was right outside!
Matt made urgent motions to her. “Damn it, Rachel, come on!”
She hoisted herself over the sill into Matt's waiting arms, then reached up to help him lower the window. Through the crack in the curtains she could see the doorknob turning. Just as the door opened, they got the window shut.
Matt seized her hand, moving her away from the window toward the front of the house. Suddenly, he stopped, his features hardened. Eyes blazing, he pulled her close, wrapping her tight in his arms.
“Go along with what I'm about to do,” he whispered in her ear, his warm breath caressing her skin.
When his mouth closed over hers she stiffened, caught totally off guard. For a split second she considered pushing him away, but then he angled his lips, deepening the kiss, making all reason evaporate. As if on their own, her arms slid around his neck.
He tasted of champagne and desire, a heady combination. His mouth gave, took, then gave again, with a dizzying mixture of passion and tenderness she'd never known before. Need pulsed through her with such force she ached. Something halfway between a sigh and a moan rose to her throat.
The sound seemed to fuel Matt's own desire as his mouth moved on hers more insistently. When his tongue stroked her lips, she opened to him. He delved in, tasting, exploring, drowning her in delicious sensations.
She was on fire, but didn't want to douse the flames. Her heartbeat roared in her head. She could see nothing but a bright white light.
“Hey! You two!”
With a little yelp, Rachel jerked her head toward the brusque male voice. A flashlight blinded her. Blinking, she held up a hand to block the harsh glare. Had they been seen going into Preston's study? A sharp jab of panic rushed though her, leaving her breathless.
“It's cool, buddy. We were just fooling around,” Matt explained to the other man, moving Rachel behind him.
“Yeah? Get a room.” The man flicked off the flashlight. His bald head shone in the half-dark. To Rachel, he looked humorless, downright sinister really. With a queasy feeling, she noticed the glint of a gun beneath the flap of his jacket.
“Will do.” Matt slid an arm around Rachel's waist as they strode away.
Knees wobbly, she rested her head on his shoulder as they walked through the soft grass. To her, it felt so natural, like she belonged in his arms. “Close call.”
“That guy had a gun.”
Matt's face took on a grim expression. “I noticed. What if you'd run into baldy by yourself?”
She shot him a glare. “Stop treating me like a scared child, Romero. I make my own decisions. I chose to come here tonight.”
“I'm just trying to tell you this isn't a game. Neal Preston strikes me as someone who can be ruthless, and dangerous.”
Even in the moonlit darkness she felt the full force of his gaze. “I know, doesn't bother me. I've dealt with risk before.”
“On this level?”
“I'm fine. Let's just get out of here.” She couldn't help thinking baldy would decide to come after them.
But what disturbed her even more was that she could still feel Matt's lips on hers.
TWIST OF FATE
"It's okay. You don't have to explain."
Rick's gentle voice reached into her soul and soothed its raw wounds. "I shouldn't have yelled at him."
"No, you shouldn't have." He stepped closer and stroked her hair. "Like I said the other day, it's probably encouraged him, but we'll deal with it."
A sound halfway between a sigh and a sob escaped her throat. As Rick moved closer she pressed her body against his without a second thought. Slowly he wrapped her in his arms. Oh, she needed his quiet strength almost as much as her next breath.
But then his embrace tightened, his warm breath tickled her cheek. The awareness in her suddenly flared, making her tremble. His body heat burned through her thin towel. Her breasts turned heavy, her nipples became hard points against the muscular plane of his chest. The rigid evidence of his arousal pressed into her belly.
What was she doing? She couldn't get intimate with Rick again. Oh, she wanted to, more than she'd wanted anything in a long time, but it would solve nothing.
"Rick, we can't."
He released her and she stepped back, clutching the towel even tighter around her body. Heat flooded her face.
She heard the frustration lacing his voice. "No, it's not. This stalker knows who you are. Because of me you're in danger."
"Nothing I can't handle."
"I won't put you at any more risk."
He grasped her shoulders with firm yet gentle hands. "I'm not leaving you to face this stalker alone, Devon. End of discussion. Now try to get some rest, okay?" His gaze raked over her, then he turned to leave. "I'll see you in the morning."
Once Rick had stepped out and shut the door, Devon dropped her towel. After some rummaging in a dresser drawer she pulled out her favorite old pink nightshirt, washed and worn so many times the gray kitten design on the front was barely visible. The nightshirt had always served as a security blanket in times of sickness or stress. Tonight sure qualified as one of those. She slipped the soft cotton garment over her head then sank down onto the bed, her skin tingling from Rick's warm breath and the feel of his strong arms around her.
After all this time her body still wanted him. She still wanted him. But that couldn't happen as long as their lives remained so different and this stalker was on the loose.
With a sigh she reached out and switched off the bedside lamp. She had to put aside these feelings for her own peace of mind—and for Rick's safety.
Julia rubbed the back of her damp neck. The sun had set a while ago, but the heat hadn't relented. She discreetly studied Max Reilly as he talked to people at the scene, took notes, and interacted with the shapely blonde who was obviously his partner.
Max had grown a couple of inches, to six-one or six-two she'd guess, and had put on a few pounds in the ten years since they'd graduated high school. His dark hair wasn't much different from what she remembered—shorter now, but still in an appealing, slightly shaggy style. In school she'd fantasized about running her fingers through his soft-looking locks.
As a teen he'd favored torn blue jeans and T-shirts. Now he wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a pair of navy trousers that hugged his trim waist and long legs. The police badge clipped to his belt shone in the glow from the parking lot lights. His strong presence made people take notice, and commanded respect.
Did he remember her at all? If so, he hadn't let on. She'd chosen not to say anything to him, at least not yet. It had been over ten years, after all, and he'd been Cortez High's bad boy while she'd been the studious geek hidden away in the library behind stacks of books. Why would he remember her?
Her throat tightened and her eyes burned as she watched the coroner's tech work on Greg's body and the crime scene techs scour the area. She fought another wave of nausea. A trusted friend and colleague was gone, and she couldn't imagine working without him—without his encouragement and support, without his wry, subtle humor that never failed to make her laugh. Who could have done this to such a kind, gentle man? And why?
Needing some quiet, Julia told Detective Phillips she was going inside to the ladies' room. In the lounge area, she sank down onto a padded chair and tried to think of words to comfort Greg's wife. Everything she came up with seemed inadequate. How would Kaori and her son ever get through this?
Julia splashed water on her face and then went back to the lab, drawn to the place where she and Greg had spent so many hours researching and working on their passion—a cure for leukemia. She crossed the room to the heavy-duty file cabinet, where they stored all their research notes and results, and unlocked it. Maybe Greg had left something in his own notes that would help explain what had happened. She opened the drawer—and gasped.
Oh, God. She checked the second drawer, and the next, and the next.
Heart racing, palms sweating, she accessed the lab computer. All the files had been wiped clean, and the backup disks nowhere to be found.
Fresh tears stung her eyes. "Oh, Mama, I'm so sorry," she whispered.
Had Greg taken the notes with him tonight for some reason? Was that why he'd insisted on locking the lab that evening, then meeting her outside? Or had someone forced him to open the safe and then taken the notes, killing him afterward? Greg was as dedicated to their research as she was. He would never willingly have jeopardized all those months of long hours, missed family dinners, and weekends in the lab…Would he?
Was it possible that a rival company had learned about their cancer research and decided to sabotage it, taking the results to use for themselves? The pharmaceutical business could be cutthroat, certainly, but…murder? That thought sent a shiver through her despite the sweltering summer temperature.
You're thinking crazy.
Yet, she couldn't seem to purge the thought from her mind as she recalled the press release issued from Wellner earlier that week. In the release, she and Greg had been credited with a breakthrough in cancer research. If Greg's death was somehow related to their research, was she—or even worse, her family and Greg's—also in danger?