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Chicago, October 14, 1:05 a.m.
Maggie James parked her car two blocks beyond the brownstone where he would be. She shut off the lights and engine and sat in the darkness. He hadn't stopped by the coffee shop tonight the way he always did. The way he had done for two years.
Emotion burned Maggie's eyes. Two years. How had she allowed this to happen? It wasn't enough that she had been a fool. She had known their relationship was make-believe. That he was a fantasy. Not a single thing he had told her would be the truth. Not his name, not the vague past he'd tossed to her like a bone for a starving dog.
Everything about him was a carefully planned deception. Every fiber of her being sensed the duplicity and yet she couldn't point to one instance where he had contradicted himself. There hadn't been a single trip up, but she knew. She just knew.
If she'd had a lick of gumption she should have walked away long ago. Her instincts had warned her time and time again. He's dangerous. This isn't real.
But she hadn't listened. Maggie Sue James, thirty-two years old, had pretended it didn't matter. Each time she had worked up the nerve to tell him to stay away, he'd walked into her coffee shop and she'd lost her courage in that same second. Her knees had gone rubbery and her heart had overridden her brain. He had taken control of her as easily and completely as if she had been a mere puppet.
Maggie swallowed back the lump in her throat. She was addicted to him. There was no denying the truth. Sleep eluded her if he wasn't in her bed. Her very soul ached if more than a day passed without him making love to her. Even though the intensity of his lovemaking terrified her at times, she could not resist. How was that possible? No man, not even her low-life former husband, had held that kind of power over her. She'd been a lot younger back then. Wasn't she supposed to be smarter now?
But everything had changed for Maggie sixteen hours and twenty minutes ago. That defining instant had somehow cleared the fog from her brain, and her entire life had zoomed into vivid focus.
At 7:40 a.m. she had finally summoned the courage to take a pregnancy test. It had been positive. Positive.
She was pregnant and plenty old enough to know better. How had this happened? She swallowed those little daily pills faithfully. Never missed a day. Ever. Two more tests an hour or so laterlong enough to frantically dash to the corner drugstorehad both confirmed the same reality. Maggie was pregnant.
Squaring her shoulders, she pushed aside the apron she'd shed once she'd gotten into the car, and grabbed her purse. A busy night at the coffee shop had distracted her from this necessary business for a while. At closing time the anger had started to build once more, pounding in her skull like the threatening winds of a hurricane. The next thing she knew, she had been in her car headed here. This couldn't wait any longer.
Over the past eight years she had climbed a couple of mountains. She had finally dumped her no-good, cheating husband. The move from Indianapolis to Chicago had given her a fresh start. Two years later she'd bought the drowning coffee shop and she'd turned it into the place to stop while shopping or working on the Magnificent Mile. Her name had become the talk around watercoolers and in checkout lines. She had worked hard to achieve that successand she'd done it during the worst of the sluggish economy.
She could do this. Slade Keaton wasn't interested in a wife, much less a child. He would be glad to let her go just as soon as she informed him that she was pregnant. Anger elbowed aside the softer emotions. Oh, he would be only too happy to disappear from her life then. Whatever his reason for hanging around this long, it wasn't about her. That made for a bad relationship regardless of the other concerns she suspected.
Well, that was fine. Maggie opened her car door and climbed out. The late-autumn chill invaded her jacket, making her shiver. The sooner he was out of her life for good, the better off she would be. Maybe then she could finally move on.
Maggie surveyed the street in both directions before locking her car. This wasn't exactly a bad neighborhood anymore, but at night there was no such thing as a really good neighborhood. The row of brownstones lined two blocks. Some were still private residences, but most had been turned into businesses years ago.
Her hands burrowed deep into her pockets, cell phone clasped in her right, as she walked toward the brownstone on the end of the first block. The windows were dark. Her steps slowed. He had to be here. When he wasn't at her small apartment over the coffee shop, he was here, at his place of business on the ground floor, or in his second-floor apartment.
Maggie scanned the vehicles parked along the street. His sedan wasn't among them. There was an alley along the rear of the row of brownstones. During the daylight hours city maintenance and garbage collection vehicles required full access, but at night the area was fair game. Maybe he'd parked there. Maybe he'd called it a night, which would explain the lack of lights.
And maybe she was crazy for coming here at this hour. Then again, he'd left her little choice when he didn't show at the coffee shop. She had to do this while she still had the nerve. The needling notion that something was wrong cut through all the confusion in her brain, leaking a new kind of fear into her belly. He'd always come to watch the folks at the Colby Agency leave for the night. Never failed.
But not tonight.
What if he'd already left? Just walked away? Running his private-investigations firm from some other location was certainly possible. Slade didn't do any of the actual investigating himself. He rarely met with clients.
He could be gone.
Her knees felt a little wobbly and her stomach churned with uncertainty. Wouldn't that be a good thing? She wanted him out of her life. He wouldn't be interested in a child. Why tell him? Leaving out that complication would make this entire matter far simpler. The last thing she wanted was for him to hang around just for the sake of the child. What kind of father would he make if forced into the role?
What kind of mother would she make?
Dear God, what am I going to do? Terror nipped at her. She wrenched her hands from her pockets and wrapped her arms around her waist. She'd always taken care of herself, yes. But this was a child! A whole human life that would be counting on her! What if she screwed up? What if she couldn't do it? Her parents had been hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people. Good parents. Would she be a good mother? And could she assume the part of father, as well?
Her younger sister had three kids, but she also had a husband who was a fantastic dad. Heck, her older sister had five kids and she'd done just fine after her husband died.
Maggie kicked aside the fears and doubts and grabbed back her courage. She was a James. Having a houseful of kids was the norm. Truth was, Maggie had wanted kids a long time ago, but her bum of a husband had put off the idea. Lucky for Maggie and the prospective children.
Sadly, the only thing thoughts of her ex proved was that Maggie was foolish enough to fall hard for the wrong kind of guy twice.
When would she learn?
A little late to worry about that now.
Her cell vibrated. Maggie dragged it from her pocket and stared at the screen. It was him. Her heart commenced that crazy gallop.
She considered not answering. But wasn't talking to him why she was here? He could be waiting for her back at her place.
Maggie cleared her throat. "Hello." She struggled to slow her breathing and tune out the pounding in her ears. Be calm. Stay focused. This was far too important to allow emotions to override her good sense.
"Turn around and walk back to your car."
A trickle of fresh fear seeped into her chest. "What?" Maggie glanced around. "Where are you?"
"Walk back to your car. Now."
She swiped a wisp of hair from her cheek. "Not until you tell me where you are." She was finished. No more games. No more fantasies. This was reality. Butterflies swirled in her stomach.
"This is not the time to turn stubborn, Maggie." His voice was stern, just shy of harsh.
Frustration tightened her lips. She shoved the phone back into her pocket. She wanted to just keep walking in the other direction. Actually what she wanted to do was call him back and tell him to go to hell.
Instead, she obeyed like a submissive child.
You can't keep doing this, Maggie!
She was a grown woman. With a child on the way! She had to get past this. Do a 12-step program. Something. Slade Keaton was trouble and she needed him out of her life. Now.
Her lips trembled. Tears brimmed on her lashes. Idiot. Idiot. She stamped the rest of the way back to her car, hit the remote unlock and got behind the wheel.
"Now what?" she muttered to herself. Was this a game to him? This was her life and she was sick of games. She should just leave and never look back.
Where the hell was he? Her car's interior lamp faded to black. Obviously he could see her from wherever he was. Coward.
"Start the engine and drive away."
Her breath caught. Their gazes locked in the rear-view mirror. How had he gotten into her car? Hadn't she locked it? She'd hit the unlock on the remote two steps before reaching the car, which was habit, but there wouldn't have been a warning that the doors were unlocked already. Where was her brain?
"Hurry, Maggie. I don't know how much time we have left."
Her hand shook as she picked through the keys for the right one. All the questions she wanted to hurl at him clogged into a huge knot in her throat, and the thick silence throbbing inside the car made it hard to breathe. It took two attempts to get the key into the ignition. A quick twist and the engine started.
The tone of that one word warned her that she shouldn't ask any questions. She set the headlamps to the on position and eased away from the curb.
"Where are we going?" She hated that her voice trembled. Damn him.
Fury blasted her. That was it. She'd had enough. Maggie slammed her foot on the brake. The car rocked to a stop. "Where are we going?" She was a grown woman. She had responsibilities, first and foremost to herself.
She closed her eyes, couldn't bear to hear him say her name. "Stop. Just stop." She shook her head. "I can't do this anymore."
"We have to move," he urged. "We can talk later. Right now you just have to trust me."
Maggie laughed. She didn't mean to, but the sound, brittle and painful, just burst out of her. "You have to be kidding!" She was hysterical. The stress had evidently pushed her over the edge.
When cold steel pressed against her temple, her attention swung to the rearview mirror. He had a gun to her head. A gun! "What're you doing?"
"Drive, Maggie. Just drive."
Her fingers tightened around the steering wheel. Forcing her foot to move from the brake to the accelerator, she reminded herself to breathe. She'd made a terrible, terrible mistake.
An explosion fragmented the silence. Light burst to her left, changing the darkness to a brilliant yellow. Pieces of something showered down on her car. Not hail but rocks or pieces of brick.
As if in slow motion, she turned to stare out the car window. The brownstone where Slade worked and lived had blown up. Flames licked toward the stars. Pieces of the building lay on the sidewalk.on the street. On the hood of her car.
"Go, Maggie! Hurry!"
Somehow her foot punched the accelerator. The car lunged forward.
She tried to blink away the images, her fingers cramped from clutching the steering wheel so tightly. This couldn't be happening. The man she lovedthe father of her unborn childhad put a gun to her head. His officehis apartmenthad just exploded.
In that moment her reality sharpened into perfect clarity. She had never known this man. She had suspected as much. Her intuition had warned repeatedly that he was hiding something. Everything. Above all else, his identity.
Maggie slammed on the brakes, harder this time. She glared at his reflection in the rearview mirror. "Who are you?"
He leaned forward, reached up and threaded his fingers into her hair. His hold tightened as he pulled her closer. She should scream. She knew this. But his slightest touch rendered her totally helpless.
"I know you better than you know yourself, Maggie. I know you want to trust me."
She wanted to argue. The words refused to form on her tongue. The sound of his voice slid around her, tethering her as surely as if he'd used steel bands. How could she lose all control so easily? Where was her courage? Her logic?
His lips pressed nearer to her ear. She shivered. "If you don't do as I say we're both going to die. I, for one, have no desire to die tonight."
The cold steel of the weapon he held snuggled against her throat. "Now, drive."