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Lara Bart picked up her ice water and used her palm to wipe away the puddle left behind on the coffee table. Drops slid down the side of the glass, making her hand slip. She fought the urge to dump the contents down her shirt or at least close the dull brown curtains outlining the window to the right of her chair. The sun pounded on her, filling the twelve-foot-square room with bright light and an almost unbearable heat.
It was summer in Washington, D.C. Between the soaring temperatures and bone-melting humidity she'd already lost the battle with frizz. She could feel her hair morphing from wavy to wide as she sat in the non-air-conditioned, seemingly airtight Capitol Hill brownstone belonging to Lieutenant Commander Steve Wasserman. She had to interview the man as part of a security-clearance check for Martin Cough-lin, a retired navy lieutenant looking to obtain a new position with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Steve and Martin had been roommates at the Naval Academy years ago, which was why she sat in the rolling heat with the backs of her thighs stuck to the leather chair and the sweat soaking through her silk blouse and seeping into her navy blazer. She had to talk with people from Martin's past and those familiar with his current life.
And because her luck was at an all-time low, this assignment qualified as a rush. Her boss at Hampton Enterprises, the private firm contracted with the Department of Defense to conduct clearance interviews, said to make this one a priority. Apparently, someone at NCIS wanted Martin hired on there and fast. That meant long hours of searching through records and asking questions, followed by a ton of paperwork.
Not that anyone cared how inconvenient a work rush was for her on top of her regular clearance caseload. That much was evident from the fact Steve had disappeared into his kitchen ten minutes ago and hadn't said a word or bothered to come out since. A wall blocked her view, but she didn't even hear him clanging around in there as expected. He'd got a message on his cell and excused himself, and she'd been stuck in the makeshift sauna alone ever since.
So much for the idea of beating the Thursday afternoon rush-hour traffic back to her condo in Alexandria, Virginia. She'd likely sit on the 14th Street Bridge forever. Good thing she'd grabbed that granola bar before she headed out earlier today.
A loud scrape that sounded like someone dragging a chair across tile broke through her internal grumbling. She waited for another sound, for anything, but the narrow brownstone remained quiet except for the loud tick of the antique clock above the fireplace as the minutes slowly passed. Because she hated having her time wasted, she stood up, ignoring the ripping sound of her skin against the chair and the sharp sting. Despite her host's lack of social skills, this time she put her glass down on a magazine. No need to take her frustration out on his furniture.
Her shoes fell silent on the beige carpet. In two steps she was at the kitchen doorway. Her gaze went to the open back door and the small patio beyond. It took her a second longer to notice the brown shoes and khakis sticking out from behind the butcher-block island.
Guy on the floor. Her mind rushed to fill in the blanks. At fortysomething and in good shape, Steve seemed young for a heart attack. That probably meant he'd somehow fallen without making a sound.
And here she had been sitting in the other room complaining. Tiny pricks of guilt stabbed her as she switched to rescue mode. She grabbed the cell in her blazer pocket as she turned the corner and slipped farther into the kitchen, intending to perform CPR as she called for help. Her fingers fumbled on the buttons so she stopped her rush and looked down, trying to concentrate on dialing something as simple as 9-1-1.
"Who are you?"
The male voice had her head jerking up again. Her gaze bounced to her far right. There in the corner near the sink and tucked behind the oversize refrigerator stood a man. He had brown hair and a furious glare, but the real problem was the knife in his hand.
Her gaze bounced back to Steve's still form. For the first time she noticed the circle of dark red pooling beneath his body and spreading across the once off-white tiles.
"I didn't " She cupped the phone in her palm and slipped it back in her jacket as she tried to maneuver back out of the room. "I'll just go."
Before she could turn and run, the man pounced. Just as the scream left her lungs, he grabbed from behind and around her middle, choking off all sound. The move trapped her arms to her sides and squeezed the air out of her lungs. She coughed as her gaze darted around the room for some way out of this strange nightmare.
She opened her mouth again and his beefy palm settled over her mouth. "Oh, no, princess. Not one word."
She strained and shoved her shoulders against his hold. Her neck ached from stretching and the activity exhausted her, but he didn't even move. His hand muffled her screams and her lungs burned from the effort. When she finally collapsed against him, she stiffened and moved away from him again just as fast.
Fear threatened to swamp her. She heard a roaring in her ears and her heart thumped so hard she was surprised she couldn't see it through her shirt.
"You picked the wrong day to visit your boyfriend." The attacker's hot breath blew across her cheek as he spoke.
His sick laugh rumbled through her senses and dark spots swam in front of her eyes. To keep from passing out, because that had to be the worst idea ever in this type of situation, she forced her breathing to slow. One more beat at the current speed and she'd be doubled over hyperventilating.
As she struggled to regain control of her body, words raced through her mind, blurred and garbled. She closed her eyes for a second, trying to concentrate and bring them into focus.
Stay calm. Remember what I taught you.
Like that, anxiety stopped pinging around inside of her. Her ex wasn't in the room but she could hear his voice inside her head. He was an expert at self-defense and at breaking a woman's heart. Only the former mattered right now. A brief mental review of the skills he'd taught her stopped the room from spinning.
In a span of seconds her brain rebooted. She let her body go completely limp as she gathered her energy reserves for a big play.
The attacker tossed her around as he walked into the family room. When he finally stopped, he lifted his hand from her mouth but kept it hovering there, ready to slap against her lips again. "Are you going to be a good girl, princess?"
She nodded. Relief crashed through her a heartbeat later when the tight constriction around her chest eased. The man still held her, could crush her windpipe or any other body part if he wanted, but she could breathe without panting again. Oxygen flooded her brain as she waited for her chance.
"Thank you," she whispered, trying to sound grateful and submissive and whatever else this guy needed to feel confident in his power over her.
He spun her around. Only a foot of space separated them as his fingers dug into her upper arms. "What are you doing here?"
He leaned in. "What kind?"
Now. She lifted her knee, putting all of her strength behind it, every ounce of will and the adrenaline flowing through her, and nailed him right between the legs. His mouth moved but nothing except a tiny squeak came out. His hands slid down her arms, all pressure from his fingertips gone, as he fell to the floor in a whoosh.
He groaned and swore as he rolled around. After rocking a few times, he tucked into the fetal position and stayed there. Then his breath came back full force. The furious whispering started, filled with swearing and what he planned to do to her before he snapped her neck.
She blocked the words, refused to be paralyzed by them. She had to move and wouldn't get a better opportunity. She shifted around his prone body, ignoring the thrashing and threats. She'd almost stepped to freedom when his big hand clamped around her ankle.
With his body still bent over, his furious gaze stayed on her. He twisted and pulled until she hopped on one foot. She let him drag her closer as she fought for balance. It was either give in to his strength or topple over him and she knew if that happened, she was a dead woman. He'd made that clear.
"Where do you think you're going?" He almost spit as he talked.
The fury in his tone whiplashed around her. Her mind went blank except for one thingescape. With one hand pressed against the side of the couch, she reached out, trying to grab for the lamp sitting on the table behind it. As he pulled hand over hand, bringing her closer, she stretched out to full length, ignoring his nails as they dug into her skin.
Keeping her focus on the target, she waved her hand and her fingertips brushed against the shade. The base wobbled and thudded against the wood. Her breath caught as she waited for it to bobble then fall out of reach, but luck was on her side this one time.
With one last lunge she slapped her palm around the long stem and held on. Yanking as hard as she could, she ripped the cord from the wall and dragged the lamp over the back of the sofa toward her chest.
A ripping sound cut through the room as the top of the lamp broke through the shade. She ignored the pain shooting up her leg and the heavy weight in her hand. Pivoting, she turned and held her unexpected weapon directly over her attacker's head. And let go.
His eyes popped wide and he yelled as he moved his head on the carpet. At the last second, he let go of her and folded his arms over his face to ward off the inevitable blow.
Suddenly free, her body went flying from the momentum. She stumbled as balance completely abandoned her. Next thing she hit the floor on her knees and heard a crack. Biting through her lip to beat back the sudden thumping in her knee and scrambling on all fours, she shuffled across the carpet.
The slide against the rug burned her skin and something sharp on the floor dug into her palm. She gave a quick tug to her purse strap where it sat next to her abandoned chair a few feet away, and the contents spilled all over the floor. She grabbed for her keys and left everything else behind.
With a push, she got to her feet. One knee buckled as a sharp sting stole her breath. She ignored it all, keeping her focus on the front door. Freedom sat a few steps away, and she had to get there before her attacker showed off a new weapon. She saw the knife but he could be hiding anything anywhere.
She looked over her shoulder one last time as her hand closed over the doorknob. Her attacker had almost reached a sitting position as he felt around him for something.
Now or never.
Throwing the door open, she tripped across the threshold and down the three steps to the walkway. Every cell inside her told her to look back and see how close he was. She pushed it all away.
After a chirp, the car's locks clicked. Her hands shook as she opened the door and threw her body across the seat. From the corner of her eye she saw a shadow. The attacker stood in the doorway with his hands braced against the sides of the jamb.
When he started down the stairs her heartbeat kicked up until the hammering filled the car. The keys jangled in her hand as she tried to shove them in the ignition. Once, twice, three times she missed, clicking against the steering column. Finally one fit into the slot and she turned it hard enough to twist the metal.
Just as the attacker reached the side of the car, she slammed her elbow against the lock and jammed the gas pedal to the floor. He smacked his hand against the driver's-side window and she put all her weight on that pedal. The tires squealed and her nine-year-old car fishtailed out of the parking space and onto the one-way street, barely missing the motorcycle parked across the street.
With fingers locked around the wheel, she wrestled to keep the front end from smashing into a car right in front of her. This area of town consisted of narrow streets packed with brownstone residents who juggled on-street parking regulations on a daily basis. Her only goal at the moment was to keep from pinging through there like a pinball. And to keep moving.
She ran the stop sign and flew down the street at a speed guaranteed to get her a ticket, and right then she'd kill to see a police car. A few people standing on the sidewalks yelled at her and one shook his fist. Their neighborhood-watch outrage was the least of her worries right now.
Taking the corner too fast, she ripped around to the left at the next intersection and didn't stop while her heartbeat still clanged in her ears. Up ahead she saw a red light and traffic flow in both directions. With her eyes closed or open, no way could she pass through there and live. She needed an alternate route, but she didn't know this part of town well enough to know the best ways in and out.
Easing over, she hooked a right and flew down another residential street. When she finally eased up on the gas, the shaking in her hands had moved to her entire body. Every cell and muscle trembled. She hadn't realized she was mumbling and gulping in breaths until the fog clouding her brain cleared a little.
She let the car slow to a stop as she pulled into a space reserved for buses. Checking the rearview mirror for the hundredth time, she scanned the street, looking for anyone who might be following. Cars passed and people walked bya few even stared at the lady drawing in deep breaths as she sat frozen in place. But all that mattered was she didn't see the attacker.
Once the air flowed inside her at a normal rate again, she fumbled around in her jacket pocket and grabbed her cell. This time she skipped a frantic emergency call to the police. She needed the one man she'd vowed never to call again
Davis Weeks, her ex-fiance and the same man who specialized in crazy combat skills and secretive missions. He would know what to do. He always did.