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It was, Lilith Mercer thought as she rubbed at her shoulder, her own fault. She hadn't been paying attention, and had walked right into some kid's practical joke. And had landed ungracefully on her backside.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
She smiled at her concerned neighbor. "Except for my bruised dignity, I'm fine."
"That was horrible," Mrs. Tilly said. She'd come rushing out at the no doubt embarrassingly loud thud Lilith had made hitting the landing outside her front door. "You could have fallen all the way down those stairs."
That fact hadn't escaped Lilith. If she hadn't managed to grab the stairway banister, the tumble down the concrete steps would have been ugly. Exiting her second-floor condo in a Monday morning rush with her hands full as usual, her mind already on the busy day aheadalso as usualshe hadn't seen the thin, silver wire strung tight across the top of the stairs.
"Lucky my reflexes are okay," she said, although to herself she was wondering just how sore the shoulder she'd wrenched in the process was going to be in a couple of days.
"It has to be that Wells boy," Mrs. Tilly said. "He's going to be the death of us all. The other day I saw him with a barbecue lighter, trying to start a fire on their patio."
Personally, Lilith found the apparent booby trap clearly intended to cause injuryif not worsea bit more unsettling than a young boy's typical fascination with flames, but in Southern California, a state with a deadly yearly fire season, nothing to do with fire was taken lightly.
"It's a good thing you're a youngster and can bounce," Mrs. Tilly said grimly.
Lilith thought that at forty-four, she'd officially left beinga youngster behind some time ago, but she supposed to her seventy-five-year-old neighbor that was a relative thing. And the implication was painfully true; had the older woman been the one to discover that wire the hard way, the results could have been horribly different.
"Someone needs to talk to Callie again," the woman said sternly.
The implication that, as usual, that someone should be her didn't escape Lilith. Martha Tilly hated confrontation and had decideddeservedly so, Lilith thoughtthat at her age avoiding it was her right. She didn't really mind; Mrs. Tilly was nothing if not blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness, and Lilith wasn't sure that was the right approach with their downstairs neighbor. Especially just now.
"She has her hands full being a single mom with two kids, one of them a toddler," Lilith said. "I hate to pile more on her."
She also suspected, although she'd never spoken of it, that Callie had escaped the hands of an abusive husband, which put Lilith soundly on her side for more reasons than Mrs. Tilly knew.
"But that boy's getting out of hand," Mrs. Tilly said. "Why, you could have been killed!"
"I'll speak to her," Lilith promised, knowing that if she did, at least it wouldn't be a formal confrontation that would put the harried young woman on the defensive.
Reassured, Mrs. Tilly at last let her continue on her way, although not without a promise to give young Billy Wells a piece of her mind if she saw him.
As she got into her car, Lilith felt a little tug in her shoulder, and, she noted ruefully, a spot on her backside that she was sure would be sore by tomorrow. She might well spend tomorrow working on her feet, she thought.
By the time she got to her office in the Research and Development division of Redstone Inc., she'd almost forgotten the incident. The huge task that still lay before her took her full concentration, and her determination to fix this situation for Josh Redstone demanded she give it just that. That Josh of all people, the most generous and loyal man she'd ever known, had been the victim of industrial spying rankled her beyond belief. She would find every last detail of what had happened and salvage everything that could be salvaged, no matter how long it took.
She sat down at her deska U-shaped arrangement that was more functional than decorativeand booted up her computer, still feeling the surge of energy that hit her every day when she arrived at Redstone Headquarters. She had a very proprietary feeling about Redstone, and about its brilliant founder, Joshua Redstone. She'd known him for better than twenty-five years now, and he had soared past even her own stellar predictions for his future.
As an eighteen-year-old teacher's aide, she hadn't been fooled by the languid drawl; even at fifteen the intelligence in those gray eyes had fairly snapped at her. She'd guessed early on that the air some mistook for laziness was merely boredom with a curriculum that didn't challenge him, and she'd taken it upon herself to provide that challenge, guiding him toward more advanced work that he could undertake on his own.
And eventually, toward getting his G.E.D. and getting out before his seventeenth birthday; he was already so far beyond high school she didn't think he'd survive two more years, and was only where he was because his small familyhimself, his father and his older brotherhad moved around a lot.
At first he'd been suspiciousneither did that drawl mean he was a fool, as many had learned along the way, to their detrimentbut she'd kept on, until he rose to the bait. She'd had the feeling he'd known exactly what she was doing, but had let her lead him. And then, after he'd easily passed the G.E.D. tests and she'd told him exactly how far she thought he could go, he'd made her a promise. She'd been the first person other than his brother to really believe in him, he'd said. Someday he'd repay her.
He certainly had.
"What's wrong, Lilith?"
Only when she heard the voice of her assistant, Liana Kiley, did she realize she'd been rubbing her shoulder again. She looked up at the young woman and ruefully explained.
"A wire?" Liana stared at her, eyes wide. "You could have been seriously hurt. Or worse."
"So my neighbor informed me," Lilith said. "But the only damage was a scrape on my briefcase, and sore spots in my shoulder and landing zone."
That got her a smile, but Liana's concern didn't abate. It was one of the first traits Lilith had noticed about the bright, lovely redhead; she had a large capacity for compassion, a trait that made her an excellent fit for Redstone.
It had also netted Liana the man in her life, new Redstone Security team member Logan Beck. Liana's concern for the ex-cop who had once saved her life had not only gotten him out of a morass of injustice, it had opened up a new life for both of them, together.
"And it was only last Thursday that truck nearly hit you. You could have been killed."
Lilith smiled to reassure Liana. "Let's hope it's not going to be a string of bad luck."
Liana frowned. Lilith knew that look. Liana had worn it often enough in her first days here, when Logan had been struggling against false accusations of being a crooked cop.
But they'd come through it and become yet another of the growing list of couples brought together under the Redstone banner. Lilith found it amusing as well as bemusing that so many soul mates had found each other through Redstone. She'd teased Josh once about his heretofore unknown matchmaking talent, but she actually tended to believe longtime Redstone pilot Tess Machado's more pragmatic explanationwhen you brought smart, talented people with the same principles and standards together, as Redstone did, it was only to be expected.
"Let's get going," she said briskly, knowing Liana would accept that as a diversion; even now she was still feeling a bit guilty that her first days on the job had been taken up completely by her quest for justice for Logan. Even though Lilith had assured her she'd more than made up for it in the months since, the young woman she'd come to genuinely like would never take Redstone for granted, not after what they'd done for her and Logan.
About an hour later, Lilith had just hung up from a conversation with Redstone's resident genius inventor, Ian Gamble, the man whose work had been the target of the industrial spying that had blown up into the scandal that had destroyed the JetCal Corporation and sent both their CEO and Redstone R&D head Stan Chilton to prison, when Josh himself appeared in her doorway.
While it was a tradition for Redstone's leader to make a tour of his headquarters any day he was present, he usually came by earlier in the day. It was common knowledge to all Redstone people that this was their chance to ask him anything, as Liana had learned; a casual mention had resulted in the mobilization of Redstone's much vaunted private security team and the vindication of Logan Beck.
"Running late?" Lilith said with a smile.
Josh didn't smile back. His gray eyes fastened on her intently as he came into the office. And he didn't stroll, in that loose-limbed, lanky way he had, he strode in like the head of a multinational conglomerate that he was.
Instinctively responding to the difference, Lilith stood, wondering with some trepidation what was wrong. "Josh?"
He just stood there for a moment, looking her up and down. She knew better than to think he disapproved of her casual attire; jeans and the red knit shirt with the Redstone logo were the unofficial uniform for many of Redstone's people, and she'd been glad she'd had the tough denim on when she'd hit the concrete this morning.
The moment the thought came into her mind, her puzzlement vanished and Josh's demeanor and actions made sense.
"Liana, I presume?" she said ruefully; she should have known the girl wouldn't keep this to herself.
"I'm fine, Josh."
He looked her up and down once more. She held up her arms to display she was unhurt. "See? Nothing broken, snapped or otherwise seriously impaired."
He didn't look convinced.
"Repeat after me," she said, in her best teacher's voice, "‘You look fine, Lilith.'"
At last he eased up. "You look elegant, as usual, even in blue jeans, Lilith."
She laughed. This was old ground between old friends as well; he teased her about what he called her refined air and elegant grace, so opposite of his own down-home, laid-back demeanor. Hers, he had once said, masked a steely spine, boundless energy and whip-smart intelligence. She had simply looked at him, and in a deadly accurate imitation of his own lazy drawl, had said, "Back at you."
"You know," he said now, with a casualness that warned her he was anything but, "I don't believe in coincidences. Not when it comes to danger to my people."
Lilith's brows rose. "Danger?"
"Two narrow escapes in a week?"
She chuckled. "That sounds so dramatic. I nearly had a traffic accident. And this morning I ran afoul of a child's prank."
"You know what Draven says about coincidence."
"Draven," she said, "is a born cynic." Then remembering how the Redstone Security chief had mellowed since his marriage to Grace O'Conner, she added, "At least, he was when he always used to say that."
"And now he's more protective than ever. So when I tell him about this, he's going to take appropriate action."
"Tell him? Why on earth?"
"Because I don't believe in coincidence, either. Not when one of my brightest and best has uncharacteristic ‘accidents.'"
"Thank you for the compliment, but really"
Josh stopped her with an upheld hand. "No compliment, just truth. As is the fact that you're going to have to tolerate a little attention for a while, until I'm sure this doesn't mean anything."
"Mean anything? You mean like someone's intentionally trying to hurt me?"
She started to laugh even before she finished the words, but when Josh simply looked at her, his jaw set, realization struck and her laughter faded away.
"Yes," he finally said, his voice echoing with grim acknowledgment of what they both knew but she had managed to put out of her mind.
There indeed was someone who could be trying to hurt her. Or even kill her.
Because he'd tried it before.
Tony Alvera didn't stop to knock on his boss's door, any more than he had bothered to park his racy blue coupe in an allotted slot; he was in too much of a hurry. He knew he'd committed a breach of decorum when he realized John Draven was with someone in his small, efficiently organized office, but there were times when he reverted to his younger days of not caring about such things, and this was one of them.
"Sorry," he said perfunctorily, nodding at the woman in the office.
Because he wasn't really sorry, there wasn't much sincerity in the apology, and Draven lifted a brow at him. Since it was the one already slightly twisted by the scar that slashed down the left side of his face, the look was even more intimidating.
But Tony Alvera wasn't a man who was easily intimidated.
"I need to talk to you," he said.
"Taylor Hill," Draven said mildly, "meet Tony Alvera. Pay attention, you may have to work with him someday. I hear it's an adventure."
Tony had heard that Draven was bringing in someone new, to fill in now that Samantha Gamble, married to Redstone's resident genius, Ian Gamble, was visibly pregnant. Sam might grumble about being tied to a desk, but her work instincts were trumped by newfound maternal ones, and she'd ruefully agreed that going into the field on assignments that could turn risky was not in her best interest just now.
For a moment Tony thought of Ian, that brilliant, creative mind that had put Redstone on the map in so many new fields that not even Josh could keep track of them all. As had most at Redstone, Tony had marveled from the beginning at the unlikelihood of Ian and Sam's relationshipthe man some teasingly called the ab-sentminded professor and the stunning, leggy blonde.
He'd been even more bemused by the easy way Ian seemed to accept the differences between them, accept Sam's sometimes dangerous job and the fact that she was one of the best at it. He often joked he was the brains while his wife was the brawn with brains. Tony wasn't sure he could so blithely accept his woman working in a traditionally masculine role.
At the same time, he utterly and totally respected Samantha Gamble and her skills and would gladly have her at his back in any tough situation. The conflict niggled at him, but he didn't dwell on it much, preferring to see it as a hangover from days past that he tried not to think about. When he did think about them, it was usually with a rueful jab at himself and the street gang culture of machismo he'd grown up in.
The woman in the office was standing now, studying him less than subtly as she held out a hand. He took ither grip was solid but not overly soand automatically assessed her in turn, a habit ingrained in him during his years with Redstone Security.