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Good to be home, Claire Munroe thought while juggling her purse, overnight bag, keys and one of the cardboard boxes containing the finds she couldn't wait to display in her antique shop. It was lateall the businesses in Oklahoma City's Reunion Square had closed hours agoso she'd parked at the curb, a few feet from Home Treasures' entrance. Smart move, she decided, since the temperature hovered in the eighties and the box weighed a ton.
In the hushed darkness there was only the click of her sandals on concrete as she lugged everything across the sidewalk.
Thankful for the carriage lamps that cast puddles of light on the shop's entryway, she managed to slide her key into the lock on the first try. The dead bolt snicked open; when the door swung inward she was greeted by cool air and the scent of the apple and pine potpourri she'd placed all around. A wash of weak light glowed from the pair of timeroperated globe lamps that went on each evening at dusk.
She had been away for only one night, but to a woman who'd sacrificed so much to own the building that housed her shop and the cozy apartment over it, even that short time away had been too long.
Balancing the box against one hip, she turned, intending to punch her code into the alarm panel, but hesitated when she saw the glowing green light indicating the system wasn't armed. Glancing across her shoulder, her gaze swept the dim shop with its lofty ceiling. Curio cabinets loaded with salt cellars, fragile teacups and enameled boxes sat exactly where she'd left them. Nearby, the mahogany table topped by a small antique chest and a collection of pewter ale mugs appeared just as it had when she'dlocked up the previous evening and set the alarm.
Claire sighed. This was the third time she'd come home and found her alarm unarmed after arranging for her handyman to do repairs while the shop was closed. Silas Smith was in his late seventies and getting forgetful. At least the sweet old man had remembered to lock the dead bolt.
Using the tip of one sandal, Claire shoved the door closed. She slid her keys into a back pocket of her jeans, relocked the door and headed toward the rear of the shop. She had one more box to retrieve from her SUV, then she would set the alarm and head upstairs. Topping her agenda was a hot soak in the tub accompanied by a glass of chilled wine.
All thought of that agenda flew out of her head when her foot rammed into something solid, sending her lurching forward. The weight of the box added to her slamming against the box's top edge.
The impact knocked the breath out of her. Everything went dim for a moment, like a blown fuse snapping off all the lights.
Claire remained motionless until her vision cleared. Her breath shuddered out. Then in. Slowly, she eased into a sitting position, wincing against the pain in her ribs.
Whatever she'd tripped over hadn't been there when she'd locked up her shop the previous evening. Shoving her hair out of her face, she looked over her shoulder.
Her eyes went wide when she saw the leg that jutted into the aisle. It was khaki-clad and wore a heavy, paintspattered work boot that she recognized.
"Mr. Smith?" Claire asked, scooting toward her handyman.
He was sprawled on one side, his back to her. The thick gray hair that always gleamed like silver looked dull in the shadowy light.
"Mr. Smith?" Claire repeated, her voice thready.
He had a bad heart, had suffered a heart attack the previous year. Fingers unsteady, she leaned across his
"Oh, no." She closed her eyes. He hadn't turned on the alarm because he'd never left the shop. Had the poor man lain here for hours, suffering, needing help before he died?
Heartsick, Claire pushed to her feet, flinching at the catch in her side. She needed to call the police. Her cell phone was in her purse, which had gone airborne when she fell.
She flicked on a nearby lamp. When she leaned to retrieve her purse, a weak sweep of light illuminated the handyman's pale face and the gaping, bloody slit across his throat. Her brain frozen with shock, Claire stared at the dark crimson that had pooled from the wound.
Then reality hit with a hard jolt and she pressed a hand to her mouth to hold back a scream. All at once the air around her felt too cold. Too quiet. And then she heard a faint creak, the way a floorboard protested weight, that seemed to come from above. From her apartment.
Oh, God! Oh, God!
Hair rising on the back of her neck, the sensation of another presence clamped like fingers around her throat. No way was she staying here to find out if Silas Smith's killer was upstairs, waiting for her with his bloody knife.
She spun, raced toward the front door. Her heartbeat battled her aching ribs, her temples pounded while her trembling hands fought the dead bolt. Jerking the door open, she darted out into the night that now seemed thick with shadows.
Five feet from the door a dark form stepped into her path so suddenly Claire didn't have a chance to evade, much less stop. Sandals skidding, she rammed into a solid, unyielding frame.
The collision dragged a shriek from her. The hands that locked onto her shoulders were all that kept her on her feet.
"What the hell?"
The deep voice barely registered past the roar of blood in Claire's ears. She recoiled against the man's grip, but she was no match for the iron strength she felt in his hands. All she could see was a face awash in shadows; all she could think was the hands now controlling her were the same ones that had sliced her handyman's throat.
Blinding terror and the honed instincts of a child who'd grown up warding off advances from her mother's numerous boyfriends blasted through Claire. Teeth bared, she bunched her right hand into a fist and swung. Her knuckles connected with his jaw, snapping his head back.
He grunted. In the next instant, he spun her around, jerked her back and trapped her against his hard, rock
With her arms locked against her sides, she kicked, her heel ramming into his shin. "Let go!"
"Dammit, Claire, it's me."
She went rigid. No, it can't be. She was so scared, she was hallucinating because there was no way she could be struggling in the thick shadows with the man from whom she'd walked away two years ago.
But the familiar scent of musky aftershave and potent male told her different.
"Let go." It was no longer solely fear that had her fighting his hold, but also shock and a desperate need to see if it was really him.
He kept her captured against the hard press of his in the weak wash from a carriage lamp she stared up into Jackson Castle's hard blue gaze.
Her lungs heaved. Her throat was locked so tight she couldn't speak. How could this be real?
"Jackson " she finally managed.
His eyes swept up and down the street. "What the hell's going on?" he asked in an almost inaudible whisper.
"Who are you running from?"
"I " She took a step backward, then another. He was dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, making him difficult to see; only his bare arms, hands and face made him visible. She strained to get a better look at his face, but the shadows were too heavy. "What are you doing here?"
"Tell me who you're running from," he demanded.
"I don't know." She fought to think past her shocked disbelief from finding her handyman murdered and plowing into Jackson Castle on her doorstep. Then her thoughts careened in on what he did for a living and she took a stumbling step backward.
"Did you have anything to do with that?"
"With . With . Oh, God!"
He closed the space between them, his hands locking on her shoulders again, tight, giving her a shake. "Claire, tell me what happened."
"He's dead!" she blurted in a voice that even to her own ears sounded far away. "Inside. Someone slit his throat."
Jackson's right hand shifted from her shoulder. "Who's dead?"
She didn't see Jackson reach for it, but now he held a pistol pressed against his thigh. Her heart pounded even harder. His job required that he always carry a gun, but she'd never gotten used to that. Had been unable to get used to a lot of things about Jackson Castle's lifestyle.
"Jackson, what the hell are you doing here?"
His fingers tightened on her shoulder. "Who is Silas?" "Silas Smith. My handyman." "Did you see who killed him?" "No. I just got home and found him. I might have heard someone upstairs in my apartment." She shook her head. "I'm not sure, it could have been the building settling."
His mouth tightened. "Is the key to the inside staircase in the same place?"
Claire blinked. Of course Jackson remembered the key. He'd been trained to recall every detail of everything he experienced. Things like that came in handy for a man who, in addition to other duties, slipped like smoke in and out of foreign countries to deal with rebels, terrorists and fanatics.
"The key's still where it was, but there's no reason for you to go into the building." Her voice shook. "If you have your cell phone, we can call the police. I have a friend who works homicide. We can call Liz, wait for her to get here."
"After I check the building," he said flatly. No way was Jackson going to let a possible suspect escape. And he had a good idea who that suspect might be. He had no proof Frank Ryker had managed to get into the country, much less make it to Oklahoma City. Nor would someone with his training have to resort to throatslicing to take out a handyman. But these days his mentor and former partner was operating on icy adrenaline and hot lust for revenge so Jackson wasn't taking chances. Not when Ryker's ultimate goal was to kill Claire. In case he was here, Jackson had no intention of giving him a chance to melt into the night before the local law arrived.
He looked back at Claire, his cop's mind assessing her condition. In the dim light her skin looked ashen, her eyes glassy with shock. She trembled outwardly. He set his jaw, wishing he had time to explain what was going on, but the danger was too great.
He did a quick surveil of the area. All the shops, restaurants and other businesses in the square were closed, so he couldn't stash Claire in one of them while he checked her building. His rental car was parked behind her shop; he'd kept tabs on her enough to know she owned the SUV sitting at the front curb. He quickly nixed the idea of having her lock herself inside either vehicle and wait for him. If Ryker was around, it would take him only seconds to bypass any lock system. And then he'd have Claire.
And kill her.
Jaw set, Jackson leaned in, keeping his voice low. "I'm going to check your building"
"You're not leaving me here on the sidewalk," she interrupted in a harsh whisper. "You've got the gun, I'm sticking with you."
Even in the shadows he saw the determined glint in her eyes. Too bad she hadn't been this adamant about "sticking with him" two years ago. Would regret, he wondered, ever fade?
"I'm not leaving you out here," he agreed. "You're going in with me. Behind me. Don't make any noise. At the first loud sound, hit the floor."
Her eyes widened, flicked to his automatic. "Loud sound, meaning gunfire?"
"Meaning anything. Don't get too close in case I have to step back fast." And so you don't get hit by shots aimed at me, he added to himself. "Once we're inside, I want you to stay in my line of sight so I'll know where you are. Keep glancing over your shoulder to make sure no one sneaks up on us from behind."
"All right." Claire pressed a palm against the ache in her right side and pulled in a trembling breath. Her nerves were shimmering and her insides had tangled into a dozen frayed knots.
"Jackson, I don't understand why you're here," she said in a shaky whisper. "Why are you even here?"
"To check on you."
His gaze was unreadable, his tone as offhand as if he'd just driven across the city to get there when chances were he'd woken up that morning on some other continent. Every move the man made, everything he did was deliberate. She knew damn well his checking on her was far from casual.
"Stay close." He gave her shoulder a squeeze, then stepped past her, holding the automatic against his thigh.
Silently, he positioned himself at one side of the shop's gaping front door.
For Claire, the whole night had turned surreal. Within the past five minutes she'd found her handyman murdered and literally run head-first into the man who'd once embraced her heart as no other had. The man she had never thought she would see again.
Had never wanted to see again. Because she'd known, in her heart, how much it would hurt to be reminded of what she'd sacrificed in order to obtain her one solid goal: A life with permanence, where people stayed in one place and put down roots.
She'd been right.
She met his grim gaze while her heart tattooed in her ears. "Jackson, be careful."
One side of his mouth lifted. "That's my plan."
Gun clenched in both hands, he flattened his back against the door frame, then stepped inside.