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It was no place for a lady.
That was how Jason Stone's elderly neighbor had described the bar where she said he was most likely to be if he wasn't home. Now that she was here, Audrey could see the woman's description had been too generous.
This was no place for anyone.
A thin cloud of smoke hung over the room, obscuring the already dim lighting behind a white haze. From what she could tell, the furnishings were old and dingy. A few ancient beer signs flickered uncertainly on the walls, casting an eerie glow. Other than the clink of glasses being raised and set down again and some voices lowered ominously in muffled conversation, the room was unnervingly silent. There wasn't even a TV or radio turned on to fill the quiet.
Under normal circumstances, Audrey wouldn't dream of stepping foot in a seedy dive in one of D.C.'s roughest neighborhoods. But the circumstances were anything but normal, and the regular rules didn't apply. After three days of living out of her car, sneaking computer time at public libraries and internet cafes while searching for a man who no longer seemed to exist, she wasn't going to turn back now.
Instead, she ignored the forbidding atmosphere and ducked through the doorway into the bar. A twinge of relief passed through her as soon as she stepped out of the sunlight. She couldn't afford to stay outside any longer. She was too exposed out in the open. They might find her. Then all the effort she'd put into finding Stone would be for nothing.
It hadn't been easy. Jason Stone had done everything he could to avoid being found. He had no known address. His phone number wasn't listed anywhere, if he even had one. A credit check had revealed no activity: no credit cards, no bank accounts, no outstanding loans. Two years ago he'd sold his house, quit his job and virtually disappeared, leaving no trace to his whereabouts. He could have gone anywhere in the world by now.
She'd managed to track him down just the same.
She had no doubt he wouldn't be happy about it. A man didn't go to such lengths if he wanted to be found.
Too bad she hadn't had a choice.
Now the trail led here. Pulling her long coat tighter around herself, Audrey narrowed her eyes and scanned the faces of the assembled bar patrons for the one she sought. She'd never met the man before, only seen pictures of him. It was hard to imagine the dashing figure from those images in a place like this, but then, a lot could happen in two years.
The heels of her boots clacked loudly against the hardwood floor, the sound echoing in the enclosed space. Not for the first time in the past few days, she wished she had different shoes. But that was just one of the problems of having limited funds and being unable to go back to her apartment. She didn't exactly have a lot of wardrobe options left to her. She cringed at the noise, fully expecting people to turn and stare. None of the patrons so much as glanced in her direction, keeping their heads bowed and their attention on their drinks. Only the bartender watched her. His hooded gaze slid slowly up and down her body with a level of focus that made her skin crawl. Repressing a shudder, Audrey looked away. She might have asked him if he knew Stone, but she had the feeling the information would cost her more than she was willing to give.
None of the faces jumped out at first glance as the one she sought. She walked slowly, giving each a second look, then a third. Her stomach knotted painfully with each one she dismissed. A growing sense of unease clawed at her insides and she swallowed hard. He had to be here. If he wasn't, her only choice would be to go back and wait at his building for his return, and if she'd been able to find out where he lived, they could, too.
If they hadn't already.
Fighting a wave of hopelessness, she was about to turn around and risk asking the bartender when something drew her back toward a man hunched over a table in the back of the room. She'd glanced past him three times, nothing about him striking an immediate chord. Still, something in the back of her mind prodded her to look closer. It wasn't easy. But as she peered through the gloom, something clicked into place and she realized the solitary figure nursing a beer was the man she sought.
Shock held her relief at bay. She froze, momentarily stunned. He was wearing a threadbare sweater and, rather oddly for the indoor setting, leather gloves. He had shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair, a far cry from the perfectly groomed man in his pictures. His head was bowed, the long hair nearly managing to cover his face. Enough of his strong profile emerged from behind that dark brown curtain to reveal his identity, once she looked close enough.
This was Jason Stone. Her uncle's protege. An award-winning investigative reporter himself. The only person left who could help her.
He looked like he could barely help himself.
Before she could second-guess herself, she stepped up to the table, stopping across from him. "Jason Stone?" She kept her voice low, to prevent anyone from overhearing.
Maybe too low. He didn't move at first, giving no indication he'd heard her. The moment stretched on so long she wondered if she was going to have to repeat herself.
She'd opened her mouth to do so when he slowly lifted his head and leveled bloodshot eyes on her face.
Her breath caught in her throat. Her first thought was that he looked terrible.
Her second was that his photographs hadn't done him justice.
He had at least a couple days' worth of scruff on his face and his hair looked like it hadn't seen a comb in weeks. The eyes that stared back at her were red-rimmed, but it was the misery reflected in them that struck her like a blow, making her stomach twist painfully. And yet, not even his unkempt appearance could hide the fact that this was an exceptionally good-looking man. His face was chiseled, his cheekbones high, those eyes a clear, piercing blue. It was the face of a tragic angel, beautiful even in agony.
"A heartbreaker," Hal had called him more than once. Now that she'd seen him in the flesh, she had no trouble believing it. Cleaned up, and in better days, he must have been irresistible.
All she had to see was the pain in those amazing eyes to know how far he'd fallen from those happier times. Sympathy tugged at her heart. Hal had told her all about that, too. She knew the reason for his pain, knew everything he'd lost. After all these years, he was still grieving.
He lowered his head again. "Whatever it is, lady, I'm not interested."
His voice was surprisingly smooth. The low rumble of it sent a jolt through her system. Finally realizing she was standing there with her mouth open, she clamped her lips together and tried to regain her composure.
Ignoring his comment, she pulled out the chair across from him and slid into the seat. "My name is Audrey Ellison. Hal Talmadge was my uncle."
His hand stilled on the glass in front of him. "Was?"
She winced. "I'm sorry. I thought you might have heard by now. He's dead." The news reports the day after the fire had confirmed that, extinguishing any remaining hope that it might not be true.
Stone didn't say anything for a long moment. Then he slowly began to run the tip of one gloved finger along the rim of his glass. "It was bound to happen someday."
Her hackles rose at the dismissive note in his voice. "He was murdered, Mr. Stone. Someone torched his town house with him in it."
Another long pause, then, "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I need to know if he talked to you about the book he was working on. The biography of Senator Bridges."
"How is that any of your business?"
"Because whoever killed Hal is after me now, too. The same night he was killed, someone broke into my apartment and attacked me. I barely managed to get away."
"So go to the police."
Audrey all but snorted. "I can't trust the police. You know how powerful Richard Bridges is, all the connections he has. He's going to announce his run for the presidency next week and is the wide favorite to win. Unless, of course, a damaging secret like the one Hal claimed he uncovered comes to light, which is no doubt exactly why his people are taking care of loose ends."
"So release this big secret yourself. Once it's out, Bridges will have other things to worry about than you."
She sighed. "I don't know what it is. Hal talked to me about the project, but only in the most general terms. No details, just that it was about Bridges. You know how secretive he could be, and he was even more determined to keep this one to himself so it didn't leak out. If he did talk to you, then you have to know how excited he was about what he'd uncovered. The way he talked about it, he was convinced it was huge. I know he was almost done with the manuscript, but I'm sure they either took it or it must have been destroyed along with everything else that was in his town house, him included. That's why I'm here. I need to know if he talked to you about it, if you know what it is he found."
Again, he took his time answering, so long that she started to wonder if he would. "He didn't tell me anything more than he told you. General things, no details."
Triumph surged within her. She'd been right. Hal had spoken with him. "Do you have any idea what his discovery could have been? I know you used to cover Bridges."
"Well, then I guess we'll have to try to figure it out. I'm not sure where to begin"
Her gaze sharpened at his words. "I thought Hal was your friend. Don't you care about seeing his killers brought to justice?"
He exhaled sharply. "I gave up on justice a long time ago, lady. It's not my business."
She felt a twinge of regret as she remembered everything she knew about this man's past. No, she supposed she couldn't blame him for feeling that way. "Then how about this? If they came after me, I have to believe they'll come after you. Everybody knows that you were his protege. Combined with the fact that you used to cover Bridges, they have to suspect he might have discussed the book with you, the same way I did. These people aren't taking any chances. You could be in just as much danger as I am."
"Nobody's come after me yet."
"Probably because they couldn't find you. But if I could, so can they."
"How did you find me?"
"Property records. Your building was listed in your uncle's name, and since he died last year and you were his only living relative, I guessed that you probably owned it now."
His nod was terse. "That's one loose end I'll be sure to take care of."
His lack of response stunned her. She gaped at him. "Have you been listening to anything I've been saying?"
"Every word. You just haven't said why I should care."
"Like I said, if they came after me, you have to know they're going to come after you."
He finally lifted those piercing blue eyes to her face once more. "Like I said. Why should I care?"
Her heart plummeted. Looking into his fathomless eyes, she realized the truth.
This wasn't a man who was afraid to die. He'd probably welcome it. He didn't have anything left to live for.
But she did. Hal had been murdered to keep Richard Bridges's secret safe. She had to make sure the truth was told.
Determination pushed down the disappointment at Stone's reaction, giving her a welcome burst of renewed strength. With a tight nod, Audrey pushed herself out of her seat. "I'm sorry I bothered you."
She didn't spare him another glance, putting her back to him. After three days of searching for Stone, all she'd found was a dead end. She needed a new planASAP. The light pouring from the open doorway now beckoned to her, offering an escape from this miserable place and this man and his pain.
She was on her own. The same way she'd always been.
So be it.
Stone watched the blonde walk away, her head held high and her shoulders squared like a warrior heading into battle. She walked straight to the door. She never looked back.
A familiar sensation hit him in the gut, a roiling emotion he knew all too well. Guilt. Regret. Recrimination. All of the above.
Usually the feeling was accompanied by a rush of memories he couldn't push away. A woman with pale blue eyes and the sweetest smile he'd ever seen.
Two little girls with pigtails and gap-toothed grins.
All dead. Because of him.
This time it was another face that rose in his mind. A woman with shoulder-length blond hair and green eyes, a slightly upturned nose and a stubborn chin. Beautiful, the way Hal had always said she was, albeit more than he'd ever expected, so much that he'd been inexplicably struck by the sight of her at first. Hers wasn't a smiling visage. The expression burned in his memory was one of disappointment. Almost betrayal.
He reached for his glass and drained it, but still the image didn't fade. He wasn't surprised. It was his first beer of the day, and it had been a long time since alcohol had the power to dull his memories anyway. He mostly came to the bar these days because it was dark and quiet and nobody would bother him, like Mrs. Weston, the neighbor who must have told Audrey Ellison where to find him.
Resentment warred with apprehension inside him. He hated this feeling. He didn't want to get involved, couldn't afford to. That was why he'd given up a career and what was left of his life to pass his days in solitude.
Safe. Away from people and the secrets they kept. Secrets he wanted no knowledge and no part of.
Almost against his will, he looked up. She'd just reached the doorway. She glanced furtively in either direction before slipping outside. Then she was gone.
The feeling gnawing at his insides lingered. He knew better than to get involved, had felt the consequences far too well. Leaving others to their business was the only way he could keep a vague hold on his mental well-being.
None of that mattered. At the moment, all he knew was he wasn't ready to have another life on his conscience, no matter what it cost him in the long run.
Choking back the curse that would draw more attention to him than he wanted, Stone shoved himself up from his seat and started for the exit.