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The red plastic tray clattered to the floor, and Noelle Dupree jumped as if she'd heard a gunshot. Just like the one that had killed her husband.
She crouched and snatched up the tray with a shaky hand. She was regressing. Loud noises hadn't startled her for at least a year.
She smacked the tray back onto the pile at the beginning of the assembly line, ignoring that she hadn't lined it up with the others, and pursed her lips. She'd done too much work to go back to that quivering mass of nerves she'd become after Alex's murder.
And yetshe looked over her shouldershe couldn't shake this feeling she'd had over the past few weeks that someone was following her. Watching. Measuring.
Could it be the cops? She'd been the one to call the police when her roommate, Abby, hadn't returned from a business trip. The police had come out to the apartment, questioned her, looked through a few of Abby's things, confiscated Abby's computers and then disappeared.
When she'd called to follow up, the sergeant with the D.C. Metro Police had told her Abby's disappearance was out of their hands. What did that mean?
Her roommate had been private and solitary, and that had suited Noelle perfectly. Now she didn't even have the name of a relative she could contact about Abby. But if the police weren't worried, why should she be worried?
Because someone is following you now.
"What kind of soup would you like, Noelle? We have lentil or chicken noodle today."
She stretched her lips into a smile and peered through the glass, which had fogged up with the steam from the two soups as the server tilted up the lids. "I'll have the chicken noodle tonight, Gary, to go."
She shoved along the food line at the aptly named Spy City Cafe in the Spy Museum, across from the American Art Museum where she worked. Maybe she should tour the Spy Museum and see if she could pick up a few cluesproof that someone was spying on her and the means to put an end to it.
Tapping on the glass, she said, "Half a turkey sandwich, please."
At the register, the cashier bagged her soup and sandwich and rang up her food. "We're open another hour, Noelle. Sure you don't want to eat in?" The cashier tilted the foam cup back and forth. "Free refills on your drink."
"Not today." Noelle shook back her sleeve and aimed a worried glance at her watch. "It's past five, and I still need to walk a few blocks to catch the Metro."
"Then I'll double bag your soup."
The brisk air needled her cheeks as she hitched her purse crossways over her body while clutching her dinner. She'd changed into tennis shoes in her office at the museum before leaving for the day, and now her rubber soles squished on the damp sidewalk as she strode up Seventh Street toward the Metro station.
A homeless man lounged in the doorway of a building and stuck out his hand as she passed him. She cut a wide berth around the extended hand with its filthy fingernails.
The man snapped his fingers at her. She tripped over a crack in the sidewalk.
He cackled behind her, and she took a quick peek to make sure he hadn't come after her. One of her coworkers had dropped some change in the man's hand once, and he'd rewarded her by grabbing her wrist.
When a threat stared her in the face, she could deal with it. She couldn't handle this vague feeling of being watched.
A rush of people descended the stairs to the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station, and Noelle jostled along with them, protecting her soup. The hustle and bustle of people on their way home from work should've eased the tension that she'd allowed to steal through her body over the past few weeks. Her gaze darted among the faces, and the knots in her stomach got tighter.
She slipped onto the train and perched on the edge of a seat next to a woman engrossed in a magazine. Noelle swayed with the motion of the train, her soup sloshing in its container.
When she got to her station, she swiveled her head from side to side to make sure she didn't have a shadow. Then she emerged on the sidewalk and made a beeline for her apartment building.
She punched in the code for the front door and jogged up the one flight of stairs to the apartment she now had all to herself. Her plastic bag of food hung from her wrist as she inserted her key in the dead bolt. The lock turned to the right with no click, and Noelle froze, butterflies fluttering in her belly.
Had she forgotten to lock the dead bolt this morning?
Holding her breath, she tried the door handle, which didn't budge. She shoved the key into the lock and twisted the handle, pushing the door open.
The lamp she left burning all day cast a glow over her living room and all the upended furniture and tossed drawers.
Jared Douglas clenched his hands into fists inside the white van parked on Noelle Dupree's street. He dipped his chin to speak into the mic clipped to his jacket. "She just walked into her apartment."
A disembodied voice crackled and then filled the van.
"What's she doing?"
J.D. peered at the tall, dark-haired woman on the computer monitor in front of him. His gut rolled. "She dropped a bag of what looks like her dinner and flew out of there. Five, four, three, two, one."
Noelle burst out the front door of her apartment building, clutching her cell phone, and J.D. murmured, "Good girl. Get out of there."
Even though J.D. knew the danger had left the building, Noelle's actions showed she had her head on straight. She didn't know that the intruders who had ransacked her place had split two hours ago. For all she knew, they could be lurking in her closet.
Paul's voice intruded on his thoughts. "Did she leave?"
"She's on the sidewalk now, talking on her cell phone." He punched a few keys on the laptop and squinted at the phone number that popped up on the screen. "Calling D.C. Metro."
"Those boys know this place is ours?"
"Lieutenants and above know. The patrol officers are going to check it out just like any other break-in call."
"You don't think they'll find our cameras, do you?" Paul cleared his throat.
"Not a chance." J.D. kept an eye on Noelle in his rear-view mirror as she ended the call and edged closer to the busy bakery two doors down from her building. She'd pocketed her phone and was pacing in front of the bakery window.
She stopped. Her head jerked up. She seemed to be staring at the van.
J.D. slumped farther in his seat and shifted his surveillance of her to the side mirror. That wouldn't look good if a subject made a Prospero agent. Maybe Ms. Noelle Du-pree had spent too much time in that Spy Museum.
She straightened her shoulders and took two long, purposeful steps toward the van.
J.D. grabbed the keys swaying from the ignition. The lady had guts, but confronting a would-be thief wasn't the brightest move.
A cop car swung around the corner, stopping Noelle in her tracks. She now aimed her steps at the approaching patrol car, and J.D. released a long breath.
She started talking to the officers before they even got out of their car. She waved her arms and gestured toward her apartment buildingand toward him.
One of the cops loped down the sidewalk toward the van, and J.D. dug his wallet out of his pocket. The officer tapped on the window, and J.D. powered it down.
"Sir, what business do you have in this neighborhood?" The beam from the cop's flashlight swept through the van and settled on the laptop in the passenger seat.
J.D. flipped open his ID. "Official business."
The patrol officer peered at the ID and tracked back to J.D.'s face. "Does it have to do with this woman and her ransacked apartment?"
"It does, but we didn't ransack the apartment."
"Got it." He gave a mock salute. "So you just finished a painting job?"
"That's right, Officer." He stuffed his wallet back in his pocket. "You're not going to find any fingerprints in that apartment or any other type of evidence."
"Didn't think so."
"But make Ms. Dupree feel like you're doing your job. Make her feel safe. And we'll take on that responsibility from here."
"You got it." He strolled away and joined Noelle and the other cop still on the sidewalk.
Noelle turned toward the steps of her apartment building to take the officers up to her place. She rested her foot on the first step and turned to look at the white painting van once more.
From his side mirror, J.D. studied the pale oval of her face framed by dark hair and whispered, "Stay safe, No-elle Dupree."
Jack Coburn's dark gaze bored into J.D. over his steepled fingers. "Did our cameras catch the intruders?"
"A couple of Zendaris lackeys. I was too far away to catch them in the act." J.D. shrugged and tipped his chair back on two legs. "I knew they wouldn't find anything in Ms. Dupree's apartment anyway. We'd already gone through her placeonly we left it as we found it."
"She hasn't noticed you stalking her?"
"Stalking? Just doing my job, boss." J.D. fought hard to keep the warm flush spreading across his chest from creeping into his face. Coburn didn't miss a thing, and J.D. didn't want to give him any ammunition. Truth was, his surveillance of Noelle, Ms. Dupree, did feel more like a stalking than a tail, especially having those cameras in her apartment.
Not that he'd taken full advantage of that window into her intimate world. He'd allowed her some privacy. Prospero aimed to keep her safeand to verify she knew nothing of her roommate's secretsnot play a game of Peeping Tom.
But he felt he'd gotten to know her through his observations. He hadn't had one conversation with the woman, and yet he knew of her sadness, her courage, her fears.
Oh, boy. He dragged a hand through his hair. If Coburn could read his thoughts right now, he'd yank him off this case faster than a desert roadrunner.
"Are you sure she hasn't noticed you around?" Coburn leveled a finger at him. "You're kind of hard to miss."
J.D.'s thoughts wandered to the day on the street a few weeks ago when Noelle's gaze had turned toward the van. No way she saw his face that day. He'd had the painter's cap pulled low over his eyes and had kept her in his rear-view and side mirrors.
"She never saw me. I'm better than that, Jack."
Coburn's lips twisted into a smile. "Yeah, you're good, J.D. She's on the move, you know."
"Huh?" J.D.'s chair fell forward with a thump. He'd left Noelle for a week and look what happened. "Do you think she knows something about where Abby stashed those plans?"
"She might, but I don't think this move has anything to do with that. She's heading out to Colorado tomorrow."
"To her family's ranch?"
"You are good. That's exactly where she's going." J.D. blew out a breath. "She should be safer there than D.C."
"Are you kidding?" Coburn raised one eyebrow. "You don't think Zendaris will put someone on her, even in Colorado?"
"I'm sure he will, but the ranch sits outside a small town. Anyone Zendaris sends will stick out like a striped cow in the herd."
Coburn shook his head. "You need to stop with the weird similes."
"Similes? We weren't all English lit majors like you, Jack."
"Comparisons. This particular Colorado town has a ski resort. It's winter. It's snowing. Maybe a couple of strangers won't stick out like whatever."
A chill touched J.D.'s spine. Why had he thought a trip to Colorado would keep Noelle safe? If Zendaris thought she could lead him to those plans he coveted, he'd follow her to the ends of the earth. "They're going to follow her."
"That's right, and so are you."
"More surveillance? I can fit in there. I can ski."
Coburn smacked a file on his desk. "More than surveillance this time, J.D. I want you up close and personal with Ms. Noelle Dupree."
J.D. let a mask of indifference fall over his face as the hard truth smacked him upside the head.
He wanted nothing more than to get up close and personal with Ms. Noelle Dupree.
Noelle cranked on the old truck and gave it some gas this time. It sputtered and diedagain. She pounded the steering wheel, as if that could help.
A tap on the window almost sent her through the roof of the car. She jerked her head to the side and met the tawny eyes of the long, lean cowboy she'd spotted in the grocery store. She'd noticed him cruising the aisles but hadn't gotten the full effect of his gorgeousness.
She powered down the window. "It won't turn over."
"I noticed." He tipped his head toward the hood of the car and a lock of golden-brown hair slipped from beneath his cowboy hat over one eye. "Do you want me to have a look?"
She studied his strong face and the easy smile that relieved it of too much seriousness. He didn't look like a serial killer. "Sure, if you don't mind."
"Don't mind a bit." He parked his grocery cart next to the lamppost and ambled toward the front of her car. He tried the hood and then made a clicking motion with his fingers.
Idiot. She hadn't released the hood. She reached beneath the steering column and yanked on the release lever. The hood popped, and the man thrust it up with a creak.
She could see his hands moving among the innards of her truck, but not the rest of him. Maybe he was making the situation worse so she'd break down and be at his mercy.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep, cleansing breath of the cold, clear Colorado air. That might have happened in D.C. where strangers stalked you and broke into your apartment and where roommates disappeared without a trace and nobody seemed to care, but she'd relocated, temporarily at least, to laid-back Colorado. Those kinds of things didn't happen here did they?
He slammed the hood, and she flinched. "Give it a try now."
She turned the ignition and the truck growled to life. Good-looking and handy. She poked her head out the window. "Thanks. How'd you do that?"
"You had a loose fuel clip." He wiped his hands on the seat of his jeans. "I tightened it up, but you should have a mechanic check it out so it doesn't happen again. You might need a new fuel pump."
"Thanks again." She chewed her lip. Should she offer him money? Invite him out for coffee? She'd promised herself a fresh start and that meant being open to new relationships instead of hiding in a hole.
He smacked the roof of the car, and she flinched again. "No problem, but get it checked out. Looks like it might snow, and you don't want to be stranded on the road."
She shivered in her jacket. "That's for sure."
The man retrieved his grocery cart and wheeled away with the wave of his hand and a long stride.
She'd missed her opportunity to thank him properly, but maybe he was in town for the skiing and she'd see him again. She could buy him coffee theneven if he had a wife or girlfriend with him because, honestly, that man couldn't possibly be available.
She allowed herself a small smile as she navigated through the parking lot. It had been a long time since she'd wondered about a man's marital status. Dr. Eliason would see it as progress.
The old truck rumbled along the road out of Buck Ridge, along with other vehicles heading away from the ski resort and back to condos and cabins for the night. She hadn't been back to the old homestead in several years, and the activity around the ski resort had surprised herin a good way.
She'd worried about the loneliness of retreating to the empty ranch house. Her father had died years ago, and Mom, frail and increasingly plagued by her obsessive-compulsive disorder, had moved in with Aunt Kathy down in Scottsdale.