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This was his favorite time of the day, that pause between the bustle of the workday and the final desertion into sleep. Night, with its thousands of lights, sparkled like it did on all the travel postcards he'd collected over the years.
A comfortable quiet suffused the apartment, and he roamed every room, taking in the details of herthe old-fashioned ticking of a grandfather clock in the entrance, the bouquet of irises on the living room coffee table, her penchant for pillows and throws and soft-tothe-touch fabrics. He trailed a finger here, a hand there, caressing the things that were hers, appreciating her sense of tradition and home.
In her bedroom, he bent to scoop up a discarded blouse. Details were her business. Would she miss the blouse if he took it? He brought the silky dove-gray material she'd worn yesterday to his face and breathed in her scent. Roses and fresh linen. And ambition. He would have to tame that trait once they were married.
He folded the blouse and placed it on the chair of her vanity table. He'd have to teach her about proper housekeeping, too.
He glanced at the clock at her bedside. Past ten. She would be home any minute now. But that possibility only flooded his veins with the sweet adrenaline of anticipation.
He would reveal himself. Soon. But he wanted her to know the depth of his love first. When he pulled away the veil of mystery, she would say, Of course. It had to be you. Then she would smile and walk into his arms and they would tumble onto the satin sheets of her bed.
They were soul mates, meant to be together forever. He closed his eyes and groaned, plunging his hands between her sheets, and imagined her nude form sliding against the blue satin, against him. From the moment he'd seen her, he'd thought of little else.
She would be his. They were fated to be together. He pulled his hands away from the comfort of the cool satin and the intoxicating scent of her feminine perfume, and carefully extracted the three miniature hothouse orchids from the pocket of his jacket. Tiny blooms of pink perfections, just like her.
He ambled back to the living room. One last little present to let her know he was thinking of her. Soon she would have no choice. She would have to turn to him. And he would be there, arms wide open, to receive her.
The whir of the private elevator registered. Her? His heart did a quick dance. What if he stayed? What if he told her he loved her? No, she wasn't ready. Not yet.
He kissed the orchids and arranged them just so. She would love them. Then he added one last touch.
The key turned in the lock.
Welcome home, my love.
Faith Byrne pushed open the steel-core door to her condo and let out a sigh that drained away the bottled-up tension that had made her head pound and her shoulders scream and her feet ache. She didn't have two functioning brain cells left to put a cohesive thought together, let alone a long overdue dinner. Microwave popcorn would have to do. Again.
Nights like these, after an endless day, made the two million she'd spent on the twenty-second-floor penthouse seem like a bargain. Home. She was finally home.
She relocked the door behind her and entered her code on the alarm pad. Shedding her four-inch Manolo heels that added needed height to her five-foot-three frame, and the charcoal suit jacket with no-nonsense lines that were supposed to add authority to the squeaky-clean face even makeup couldn't make look grown-up, she crossed the Brazilian cherry floor to those awe-inspiring views of Elliott Bay that had made her fall in love with the place.
She flopped onto the club chair that wrapped around her in raspberry-colored marshmallow softness, and lost herself in the wide black swatch of the sky outside her floor-to-ceiling windows. The slow winking of stars and the festive twinkling of lights from the ships slowly drifting along the bay made her forget the crazy, busy madness of the day and believe that everything would turn out right.
Pulling a fleecy throw around her shoulders, she sighed again. Her detour to the hospital on the way home wasn't encouraging. Her father seemed to be slipping instead of improving, and the doctors couldn't pinpoint why. The disappointing October sales report wasn't going to do anything to speed his recovery either.
With only one store, Byrne's would never roar through the retail world with Godzilla power, but her efforts were paying off; Byrne's was finally starting to maximize its brand locally with its distinctive line of products. She was working on accomplishing the same success with their online presence, only to have some of her father's recent decisions plunge them back into the red.
She didn't want to be swallowed up by a stronger competitor, or worse, see her family's heritage die like so many other historic family-owned retailers. The tactics that were successful two generations ago when her grandfather had started the store weren't going to work in today's fast-forward world. If only she could make her father understand that without him shutting her out.
As crass as it sounded, while he was out of commission, she had her chance to prove she could manage the store efficientlyput it back in solid blackand make him proud. Maybe then, he'd see he could retireor at least slow downwithout a worry, that the store's future and the family's honor were in good hands.
Reflex had her reaching for the remote on the coffee table to catch the eleven o'clock headlines before crawling into bed. Six would come around faster than she wanted. If she was going to keep her promise to pull off a minor miracle, she'd need sleep. She aimed the remote at the plasma TV in the corner, but her thumb never pressed the power button.
Three pink orchids hung their perfect tiny heads from the television's rim, the blush of their plump lips both exquisite and obscene. Below them, etched in the dust of the screen were the words, "I'm watching you."
Someone had been here.
She jumped to her feet and spun around. The throw whirled off her shoulders and landed at her feet like a molted skin. Was he still here? The urgent whispers of menace swarmed over her scalp and down her spine, chilling her blood. Her gaze flittered over the open floor plan of her condo.
No movement in the nook. None in the kitchen. Only the slow ticking of her grandmother's clock in the entrance, beating an ominous pulse. Nobody was here. Nothing to fear.
Then why was her mind manufacturing the musky odor of male sweat in the air?
The alarm hadn't been tripped. All the doors were still locked tight. There had to be a logical explanation.
Someone probably scrawled those words in the dust as a joke. But then where had the orchids come from? They hadn't been there this morningor at least she didn't think they had. She'd overslept and left in a mad rush. Who would have done such a thing anyway? It wasn't as if she had company over every night. This was her haven. She couldn't remember the last time she'd invited anyone up.
Her father's voice boomed in her head. Don't make a fuss. Don't make a scene.
Was she just being paranoid? Maybe, but it didn't hurt to check.
Armed with the remote, she strode to the phone beside her stash of take-out menus and called the security desk in the lobby. "Hi, Albert, this is Faith Byrne in 2201. Was anyone up to my condo today?"
Computer keys clacked with brisk efficiency as Albert searched for the information she'd requested. "No, Ms. Byrne. No visitors. No deliveries. The housekeeping service won't be in until tomorrow and the gardener until Friday. Is there a problem?"
Don't make a fuss. Don't make a scene. We take care of our own problems privately. We don't splash them all over the headlines.
"No, thank you, Albert." But the clutch knotting her chest wouldn't let go. Someone had been in her home. Someone had broken through the fortress of a lobby manned by a security guard, an elevator that required a special security key card, her locked and bolted door, and an alarm system.
Call the police, Faith. What if he's still here?
If he was still here, she argued with herself, he'd have shown himself.
Or he could be waiting. The much too vivid image of a shadowed stranger hiding in the closet, watching, waiting, sped a rush of ice down her body.
What if he's outside on the terrace right now?
She spun around to the living room. The white sheers that gave the room a light and airy feel now seemed too transparent. He could be there, hiding behind one of the huge terra-cotta pots that dotted the terrace. That both the door lock and safety lock on the slider track were engaged didn't reassure her. The open expanse of the condo made her feel like exposed prey.
Don't make a fuss. Don't make a scene.
I'm watching you.
Someone's been here. She scrunched her eyes against her father's imagined displeasure. "On second thought, Albert, please call the police. I believe someone's broken into my condo."
"Right away, Ms. Byrne. Do you want Eddie to come up and wait with you?"
Eddie, the building's second security guard, on duty in the garage. "That would be great, thank you."
This couldn't be happening. Not to her.
Armed with a butcher knife, huddled and shaking in the nook with a clear view of her whole living space, including the terrace doors, she waited.
When the phone rang, Noah Kingsley grabbed for it instinctively and mumbled, "What?" into the receiver. If someone was stupid enough to wake him in the dead of night, they didn't deserve politeness.
"Noah? It's Faith."
Noah shot up, heart pounding, wide awake. He snapped on the light on his bedside table and shoved on his glasses. "What's wrong?"
"Does anything have to be wrong?" Her attempt at lightness fell flat. Something was wrong.
He squinted at the alarm clock. "It's three-eleven in the morning and the last time you called this late "
He let the rest of the sentence fall away, sure Faith wouldn't want a reminder of her state of hysteria the night two years ago when she'd caught Heath Jamieson, her father-approved husband of less than forty-eight hours, cheating on her with one of the cruise ship's chorus girls.
"I'm sorry," Faith said. "I didn't realize what time it was."
Forcing his heart to slow down, Noah leaned against the headboard. "Talk to me, Faith."
She let out a long breath. "I'm probably making something out of nothing."
"Molehills are your specialty," he teased, working hard to infuse his voice with the friend quality she expected when all he wanted to do was crawl into bed next to her and hold her tight. "What happened?"
She let out a roll of nervous laughter, dismissing her fears. He could imagine her raking her long fingers through her blond hair, squinting her pale topaz-blue eyes, the way she tended to do when she was confused. "Someone broke into my condo. Or I should say, materialized in and out of my home, since there were no signs of forced entry."