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Nick Cavanaugh rose from one of the park benches perched on the perimeter of Freedom's town square, checked the traffic in both directions and jaywalked across Main Street, careful to keep his pace nonchalant.
Anticipation skated over his nerves, etching certainty into his brain. He'd learned it hard and solid on the battlefields of Iraq: stay one step ahead of your enemies, or two steps back for a clear shot.
His heart rate notched up.
The door of Potter's Drugstore swept open just as Nick made the curb half a block to the east.
Funny. His target didn't look like much of a threat. The observation gelled in his brain as he watched her step out into the early afternoon sunlight. She casually looped her arm in her purse strap and deposited it on her shoulder. She turned to her right and moved along the sidewalk, her blond ponytail swaying back and forth between her shoulder blades as she moved away from him.
Nick increased his rate of follow, backing off only when she paused in front of the Talk of the Town Cafe to study something in the window before proceeding due north again.
He knew her beat-up silver Toyota Camry was sucked up next to the curb half a block away.
Tension braided his muscles into a knot. Had he pegged her correctly? Or was he headed for an ambush? He wrestled the questions to the back of his mind and looked at his watch. C 'mon, c 'mon, he thought. He had to get to Grace Marshall now. Another minute and she'd make it to her car and escape.
Focused on her alone, he narrowed the distance.
On his left, a man wearing a black hoodie, black sweatpants and running shoes brushed past him and broke into a sprint.
Time slowed as Nick listened to the jogger's pounding footsteps echo off the sidewalk and ping against the brick-and-mortar storefronts that lined the quaint main street of Freedom, Texas.
Grace Marshall's high-pitched shriek slammed against his eardrums. The man in the black hoodie and Grace were engaged in a tug of war over the purse.
"Hey! Leave her alone!" Nick took aim at the would-be purse-snatcher and charged.
Stressed, the metal ring anchoring the strap to the purse broke.
Grace still clutched the handbag, but the force of the sudden release sent the bag flopping across the sidewalk as the strap slipped through the purse-snatcher's fingers.
He took off down the street at a dead run and vanished around the corner at 4th and Main.
Car keys, pill bottles, a hairbrush and a wallet were scattered across the sidewalk next to her. She went to her knees on the concrete.
Nick shuffled to a stop and knelt beside her.
"I saw what happened. Are you okay?"
She turned wide blue eyes on him for a second before reaching for the contents of her purse. "Yeah."
He reached out and picked up one of the prescription pill bottles, glanced at the name on it, then handed it to her. "I'll call the police. I got a good look at him. I think I can give them a description"
"No! I mean " Grace tried to force the lump in her throat to go down, but it wouldn't budge. The last thing she needed was local law enforcement poking around in her business. "I still have my purse and its contents. There's no reason to involve the police. He's probably halfway to the next county by now." She shoved the last item into her handbag and pulled the zipper closed before staring eye to eye with the handsome stranger who'd come to her rescue.
His irises were electric blue, his stare leveled on her with pulse-zapping heat that made her cheeks light up. "But thank you for offering. I'm not sure I could have held on much longer. If you hadn't spooked him, he might have gotten away with this." She squeezed the brown leather bag she gripped like a lifeline and realized her hands were shaking uncontrollably. "Oh. I don't feel so good."
Concern crossed his features and settled around his mouth in the granite-hard line of his lips. She was suddenly sure this man, if asked, could and would trail the thug to hell and back.
"Come on. Let's get you inside somewhere." He stood up and helped her stand by putting his arm around her waist. Pulling free from him wasn't as option, she realized as her stomach roiled, roiled again and settled down with several deep gulps of air.
Perhaps she should have eaten breakfast or lunch for that matter, but her son Caleb's treatment days were always like this. Next time she'd be sure to put a banana or something in her purse.
"I've got somewhere I need to be." Her declaration seemed to fall on deaf ears as he steered her toward the door of the cafe.
"You're suffering from mild shock. It'll pass in the time it takes you to let me buy you a cup of coffee."
She couldn't argue with his assessment. Her knees trembled, her feet tingled, and if his strong arm weren't wrapped tightly around her waist, she wasn't sure she'd be standing right now. She had half an hour before she had to pick Caleb up, and Holy Cross Hospital was only ten minutes away. She could make it in plenty of time.
"You're right. I suppose the surprise of almost having my arm jerked off by a stranger is a good reason to sit down for a minute."
"I knew you'd see it my way." He chuckled deep in his throat, a soothing male sound that made her smile as he reached out with his free hand and pulled open the door to Talk of the Town Cafe.
She stepped inside, absorbing its cool retro 1950s interior, complete with red-and-white upholstered booth seats, and a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor. It was a novelty she could get used toif the Help Wanted sign in the window managed to come down after she applied for the job. And maybe, if she were lucky, the man with his arm around her would come in every once in a while so she could buy him a cup of coffee as thanks.
Nick zeroed in on a booth in the rear of the establishment, away from the noise of the regular afternoon crowd.
This was his orchestrated break in his assignment, and he didn't plan to waste an iota of it. He might not get another chance at a one-on-one conversation with the target of his investigation.
The cafe's owner, Faith Scott, waved to him from behind the counter and raised the steaming coffeepot in her hand.
He nodded and grudgingly let go of Grace to help her into the booth's seat before taking a spot across from her with his back to the room.
"Coffee?" Faith had already turned their cups upright in their saucers before Nick realized he was staring at the woman sitting across from him.
"Yes. Please. And for you?"
"Just water, no ice," Grace said. "I'm not sure my nerves could handle a shot of caffeine right now."
He watched a tentative smile curve her full lips as she considered him through eyes tinted a shade-of-heaven blue. This wasn't the army way of conducting an interrogation, but he couldn't help enjoying the view.
"Would you like a piece of pie? I just took a cinnamon-apple-crumb out of the oven ten minutes ago," Faith said from next to their table.
Nick broke eye contact with Grace Marshall and immediately felt his blood pressure drop a fraction. "Not for me, but maybe " He glanced back at Grace, anxious to prompt her response. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"Maybe Grace would like a piece."
She shook her head. "No, thank you. I've got to run in a few minutes."
"I'll get your water." Faith turned and headed for the counter, leaving them alone in silence.
Reaching across the table, he extended his hand to her. "I'm Nick Cavanaugh." The moment she put her delicate palm into his, a jolt radiated through him. "I don't believe I've seen you around Freedom before."
Her gaze dropped for an instant. "I spend most of my time at home, or at work."
He released his grasp and leaned back into the booth seat just as Faith put a glass of water in front of Grace.
"Thanks," she whispered, locking her fingers around it for an instant before raising it to her mouth and taking several deep swallows.
Nick sensed her caution, saw it in the way her nails blanched against the glass in her hand as she lowered it to the table.
Trust. He needed to establish a level of trust between them, and fast. He was losing her with every tick of the second hand on his watch, and for some reason, that mattered to him.
Rocking slightly to the left, he dug into his pants pocket and pulled out his wallet. "I know you've got to leave soon, but I want you to have this just in case you need to contact me." He opened his billfold and pulled out a Corps Security and Investigations card with his name and cell number on it.
"If you change your mind and want me to describe the purse-snatcher to the police, just give me a call at this number." He slid the card across the table to her.
She picked it up and stared at it for a moment before nonchalantly putting it in her sweater pocket. "Thank you, but that won't be necessary. I'm fine. I have my purse, and its contents. It might be better if we drop the matter entirely."
Curiosity jetted across Nick's mind and he focused his gaze on Grace's beautiful face. How was it she'd managed to avoid giving him anything more than her first name? Sure, he had an entire paper file amassed on her: he knew where she worked, where she lived, what she drove and damn near what she'd had for dinner last night, but his desire to glean it from her own lips was falling flat. The woman was playing it safe, a fact that intrigued him and bothered him at the same time. What was she hiding?
"I really need to get going." She took another quick swallow from her glass, put it down, snagged her purse and slid out of the booth.
"Thanks again for your help, Nick." She gave him a sweet smile, turned and walked to the cafe counter, where she spoke to Faith Scott for a moment.
Nick turned slightly, watching Faith reach under the counter and pull out a sheet of paper, hand it to Grace, then return to her customers.
He turned back around and waited for the jingle of the bell on the cafe door to signal Grace's departure from the establishment.
Reaching into his jean jacket, he pulled an evidence bag out of the inside pocket. Grace may be tight-lipped with personal information, but DNA held no such pretenses, and he planned to make a mitochondrial comparison with the sample the governor had already given him. He grasped the glass at the bottom where she hadn't touched it, dumped the remainder of the water into her unused coffee cup and eased the glass into the bag.
The sound of a throat being cleared raked over Nick's nerves. He stared up at Faith and the coffeepot in her hand.
"What are you up to, Nick?" she asked as she topped off his java.
"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
She grinned. "Does this have anything to do with your secret assignment for Governor Lockhart?"
Nick shook his head and slipped out of the booth. "You know the things we do at CSaI are hush-hush." He winked at her as he tucked the evidence bag inside his jacket. As long as no one knew what that assignment was, the secret was safe.
"That's stealing, Cavanaugh."
"Not if I bring it back. Washed."
Faith shook her head and grinned. "I'll believe it when I see it."
"While we're telling secrets" Nick pulled out his wallet and put a five on the table "mind if I ask what you gave Grace at the counter a moment ago?"
"That's no secret. Molly Alden left for college months ago. Gloria and I have been taking up the slack, but between taking care of Kaleigh and adjusting to having a man around again, I'm pooped. I need someone to fill in a couple nights a week. I gave Grace an application. I just hope she fills it out and gets it back to me. I like her."
Nick grinned. Faith had recently won the heart of fellow CSaI agent and friend Matt Soarez. "I'd offer to help around here, but I'm not sure some of your regulars wouldn't break me and cause me to spill the state secrets I have along with their coffee."
"Stan Lorry and Fred March could probably pull it off," Faith said with a chuckle, referring to her cranky elderly regulars. "The trouble would come when they told Allen Davidson and he aired it on his radio show."
Nick did a fake shudder. "Spooky. I'll see you later." He headed for the door and stepped outside, where he immediately spotted the top of Grace's head as she ducked into her car half a block up the street.
He fell into an easy stroll as she pulled away from the curb, headed due north. Probably to the hospital was his guess. He'd learned that she had a four-year-old son named Caleb who received some sort of treatments at Holy Cross every couple of weeks. The prescription drug bottle had confirmed it, but there were holes in Grace's background history. Holes he'd yet to plug.
The sound of a revved engine caught his attention as he spotted a late-model black sedan with Montana license plates pull away from the curb and roll in a car's length behind Grace.
Caution raked over his nerves. From his observation point on the park bench earlier, he'd seen the same car just after she'd arrived. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen the driver exit the vehicle.
He took a right onto 4th Street and dug the keys to his pickup out of his pocket. Was it possible the beautiful and cautious Grace Marshall was being followed by someone other than him? He decided to keep an eye out in order to confirm his suspicion.