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From the porch of the safe house, Special Agent Flynn o'conner spotted a helicopter approaching from the south. A distant speck in the clear, blue Colorado skies above this wide valley, the chopper came steadily closer, signaling the beginning of the end. Damn it, he didn't want to leave this place.
After two years supervising the Mesa Verde safe house, Flynn had established a satisfying routine of daily chores and witness protection procedures. Being here had healed him.
Pushing his Stetson back on his forehead, he nodded a greeting to Grace Lennox, one of the witnesses under his protection. She stepped up to the porch rail beside him. A handsome woman with a long gray braid, Grace Lennox was a judge under threat from an organized crime ring back East. "Beautiful afternoon," she said.
"June is a good time of year."
"I want to thank you, Agent o'conner, for everything you've done."
"It's been a rough week."
"That's one hell of an understatement, Grace." His well-run safe house had been thrown into turmoil when a serial killer had come after a witness. The resulting breach of security threatened to shut down this operation. The helicopter was coming to take Grace Lennox and the other remaining protected witness, a seedy little snitch by the name of Richard "Bud" Rosetti, to a more secure location.
Also on board the chopper was the agent who would assess the situation and make recommendations for the future of Flynn's safe house. An evaluator.
"I sincerely hope," Grace said, " that this facility won't be closed down."
"So do I."
"If there's anything I can do to help, please let me know."
The rambling two-story farmhouse and nearbybunkhouse filled with surveillance equipment were no longer safe for protected witnesses, but Flynn hoped the site could be turned into a field headquarters, or a training facility. Somehow he had to convince the evaluator that the site was still useful.
"Nonetheless," Grace continued in her crisp, no-nonsense voice, " you must be pleased by the outcome. Your serial killer is no longer a threat to anyone. That ought to give you some satisfaction."
He should have felt a whole lot better than he did. This killera man who called himself the Judge had been Flynn's nemesis since before he came to the safe house, back when he'd been assigned to the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program in San Francisco. "I've been after this guy since I was in ViCAP. Now it's over. I'm glad."
"And still no smile? Honestly, Flynn, you give new meaning to the word taciturn."
As he looked down at the gray-haired woman, a grin spread across his face. She was something elsesmart, feisty and brave enough to testify against a crime syndicate. "I like you, Grace. Good luck in your next location."
"It's only ten more days before the trial where I'll give my testimony. Then I'll be able to resume my normal life. Thank goodness."
As the chopper touched down in a sandy area beyond the split-rail fence, Bud Rosetti charged out the door, suitcase in hand. "Ready to roll." The wiry little snitch quivered with excitement. "No offense, Flynn. But I'm hoping the next safe house is in a city."
"Too much clean living?, Flynn asked.
"I'm dying for some decent Chinese food. And pizza. Real Italian pizza."
"It's so unfair," Grace said. "You eat and eat and never gain an ounce."
"Like I told you, I burn it off. I'm hot stuff, Gracie."
"And what am I?"
He bobbed his round bald head. "Since you never made a pass at me, I'd have to say you're an ice cube."
While they launched into unlikely bickering about who was sexier, Flynn left the porch and sauntered toward the chopper. If he was lucky, the agent sent to evaluate Mesa Verde would be somebody he got along with, somebody he could bring around to his way of thinking.
Luck wasn't with him.
Marisa Kelso stepped out of the chopper. The cool breezes from the mountains swirled her dark auburn hair, and she impatiently pushed the curls off her forehead.
Flynn knew every smooth contour of that delicate heart-shaped face. The clear blue eyes. The sprinkle of freckles across her patrician nose. The natural curve of her lips that made it look like she was smiling even when she was furiouswhich was most of the time. She had the temperament of a true redhead.
Two years ago in San Francisco, he and Marisa had been lovers, working together in ViCAP on the trail of the Judge. When their investigation fell apart, so did their relationship. She'd accused him of being obsessed with the serial killer, and maybe she'd been right. But, damn it, she should have been willing to stick with him.
The sight of her now hit him like the hind kick of a mule, but he didn't let on. Just kept walking toward her. She looked good in her trademark FBI outfit: white blouse, black slacks, black jacket. A Fed to the core.
He should have expected her to draw this assignment; she was a senior agent with expertise in statistics and evaluation. Plus, she'd want to be in on the final chapter when the Judge could finally be taken off the books.
Though she was wearing dark glasses, Flynn knew she was glaring at him. She held out her hand. "It's been a while," she said.
"Too long," he replied.
He clasped her hand. The coolness of her palm and the subtle strength in her slender fingers reminded him of better times. Making love to Marisa had been unlike anything he'd experienced before or since.
She reclaimed her hand. "You haven't changed a bit."
He ran his thumb across the brim of his rust-colored Stetson. "I never wore anything like this when you knew me before."
"When we were in San Francisco, you reminded me of Clint Eastwood being Dirty Harry. Out here, you're Clint the cowboy. Same hard-ass squint. Same stubborn jaw." She tilted her head to get a better view of his face. "Take off the hat."
"In exchange, do I get to take off a piece of your outfit?, "In your dreams, cowboy."
He removed the hat.
She gave a critical nod. "Your hair is longer. A little shaggy around the edges. And what's that? A bit more gray?"
His ashy-brown hair had been going gray since his late twenties. "I've changed in more ways than hair color."
Marisa doubted him. For a long time, she'd wished for a change of heart, wished that he'd call and apologize or show up on her doorstep with white roses. But Flynn refused to bend. He wouldn't back off on the Judge investigation, not even when everyone else in ViCAP was willing to admit it had become an inactive case.
Lying beside her in bed in the middle of the night, he hadn't whispered words of love, but had insisted on reviewing the evidence. His obsession had left no room for anything else, especially not her.
The chopper pilot set Marisa's black suitcase on the ground at her feet and said, " I need to get going, Marisa. It was a pleasure to meet you."
She watched as Flynn loaded his two protected witnesses and their luggage into the chopper. They were an interesting pairan obviously sophisticated older woman and a ferret-faced city guy who might as well have the word snitch tattooed on his little bald head. Criminal investigations made strange bedfel-lows, indeed.
As Flynn leaned into the chopper for a final handshake, she couldn't help admiring his backside. The man had a great butt, no doubt about it. His legs in snug denim jeans looked even longer because of the extra inches added by his square-toed cowboy boots. She'd forgotten how tall he was. Tall and lean. The dark blue cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbow outlined his broad shoulders.
Though she'd been quick to say nothing had changed about him, whichroughly translated meant nothing had changed in their nonexistent relationship, she saw differences. When Flynn had left San Francisco, he'd been skin and bone, his complexion the color of sour milk. he'd been given to nervous twitches or long moments of staring at nothing, haunted by the seven women who had been killed in six months by the Judge. Flynn had taken too much responsibility. he'd made the investigation personal, blaming himself.
After two years at the safe housean assignment that was a total waste of his investigative talents he looked healthier. His face was tanned, and his shoulders had lost their slouch. So maybe it hadn't been a total waste after all.
He backed away from the chopper and turned toward her. With his trademark squint, his expression was difficult to read. Was he glad to see her? Angry? Did he care at all?
"I should have known," he said, " that you'd be the one doing the evaluation. I'll bet you asked for this assignment. You wanted to be the one to "evaluate" this operation and close it down."
"Why would I do that?"
"A backhanded slap at me," he suggested.
"My presence here has nothing to do with you." What a huge lie! She'd been itching to see him again.
"The whole world doesn't revolve around you, Flynn."
"Then why are you here?"
"I wanted closure on the Judge." That investigation had been her nightmare, too. "It's finally over."
"And I was right."