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Sophie Giovanni walked down the sidewalk, swinging her arms freely, breathing deeply and relishing scuffing the aspen leaves. It was a perfect fall day, cool and crisp and dry. The Wasatch mountain range ahead wore the first dusting of snow of the season, harbinger of the winter to come. Maybe this year would be the one when she'd get up the nerve to strap on skis again and fly down those mountains like she used to. The idea made her gut clench in raw terror.
Maybe this winter.
But not today.
Back at Sophie's apartment complex, the tall man in the khaki pants and black polo shirt, who'd been working on his car for the past hour, watched her cross the street and head for the city park. She was the one in the tennis shoes, baggy sweat pants and a University of Utah sweatshirt. Show time.
After waiting long enough to be sure the Giovanni woman wasn't coming right back, he approached her door, looked both ways, and deftly inserted a locksmith's gun in her lock. It popped open in a matter of seconds. He slipped inside, closing the door quickly and silently behind him.
He moved around the apartment, pulling the shades and closing curtains to keep out prying eyes that might identify him later. Then he slipped into her bedroom and unfolded the collapsible duffel bag he'd brought with him. He checked his watch. She'd been gone ten minutes. He probably had ten safe minutes to get what he'd come for. He gave himself seven.
Sophie tilted her face up to the gentle rays of the sun. She really ought to get out like this more often. The doctor said exercise was good for her knee. But after the skiing accident, she'd been leery of doing anything that might aggravate the joint.She'd worked her way up to jogging, but anything that might twist the joint like tennis or basketballboth sports she used to enjoyforget it.
Maybe she should take up one of her old sports on her lunch hours. To date, she'd made excuses to herself about the volume of work stacked up on her desk. But she really could stand to lose a few pounds. Ever since she'd turned thirty, she'd been getting a little rounder and softer.
She couldn't do the exercise thing this coming week, though. The Morton case was going to trial Thursday, and she had a boatload of last-minute motions to type up for her boss.
Maybe next week.
He started in her closet, pulling out random shirts and slacks and stuffing them quickly into his bag. He moved on to her dresser drawers, snagging shorts, socks and a new exercise suit with the tags still on it. He opened yet another drawer. Stared down at the array of underthings and swore under his breath.
Bypassing the colorful, lacy stuff, he grabbed a fistful of cotton briefs and the one sports bra in the drawer. But his fingers hesitated. Yearned toward the sleek satin and sheer lace. Aww, what the hell? He grabbed the slinky stuff and tossed it in the bag, too.
He stepped into her bathroom and paused, inhaling in surprise. It smelled like a woman. A girlie one. He sniffed again, trying to place the scent. Peaches. Yup, entirely edible. Into his bag went toothbrush, hairbrush, hair dryer and the entire contents of her makeup drawer. He poked at a couple bottles of perfume. Took off the lids and sniffed them. The first one was too flowery. But the second one sent a shiver of delight down his spine. It was sexy and subtle. Naughty. Oh yeah. Into the bag with that. Shampoo, conditioner and deodorant rounded out his haul in her bathroom.
A glance at his watch. Three minutes before he had to be out of here.
He retreated to her bedroom and looked around. What else? He grabbed a picture of his target with an older woman whom she looked likeher mother probablyand tossed it in the bag. Her alarm clock and the book from her bedside table. A romance novel about a Scottish rogue of some kind. Into the bag with both. He spied a basket of yarn and knitting needles on the floor beside her bed. Not that she'd have time for a hobby, but it might make her feel a little more comfortable. Although he planned on making her damned uncomfortable before it was all said and done. The knitting basket was bulky, but he stuffed it in.
Next, he headed for her desk in the living room. Into his bag went her checkbook, a box of blank checks, address book, cell phone chargerno sign of the phone. Must have it with her. Her spare keys andbingo!wallet. He rooted through the drawers and came up with another gem. Her passport. Perfect. He tossed it in with his loot.
Sophie paused at the edge of the park, across the street from her apartment complex, steadying herself on the back of a bench while she caught her breath. That was the thing about living in the mountains. When you ran out of air, there wasn't a whole lot of oxygen readily available to replenish your body. Dizzy and winded, she breathed deeply and tried to relax. When she got home, she was going to take a nap until any more errant urges to exercise left her completely.
Two minutes left.
And now to clean up. Pulling out a microfiber cloth, he retraced his steps quickly through the apartment, wiping down every surface he'd come into contact with. There. Good to go. He picked up his haul and slung the duffel bag's wide strap over his shoulder.
Sophie waited while a city bus rolled past. Holding her breath to avoid the noxious diesel fumes, she stepped off the curb and hurried across the street. Her apartment complex loomed in front of her, and she headed toward her building.
A quick peek out the door into the breezeway. All clear. He locked her door from the inside, slipped out and pulled it shut behind him. He hurried down the concrete steps to his car, tossed the bag in the trunk and closed the lid.
Now to collect the woman herself.
He slid into the breezeway once more and not a moment too soon. Here she came. Damn. He'd cut that a little too close for comfort. He blended in with the dim shadows as if he were part of them. But then, maybe he was part shadow. Expectant patience flowed into every part of his body.
Sophie walked between the last two cars and headed wearily for her apartment. Yep, a hot shower and a nap were just what the doctor ordered.
When the tall, athletic man stepped out of the shadows, her first reaction was not alarm or even surprise. It was rather more visceral than thatan immediate and instinctive reaction to the sheer physical presence of him. It wasn't that he was movie-star handsome. Although he was. Charismatic didn't cover it, either. He struck her more like a force of nature. He was one of those perfectly turned out men perfect physique, perfect creases in his slacks, short hair, perfectly combed from a side part.
In the millisecond it took her to register all of that, he was in front of heralmost, but not quite, invading her personal space.
"Uhh, can I help you?" she mumbled, startled.
He knew her name? "Who are you?" she blurted, surprised.
His left hand came up out of his pants pocket, palming a flash of silver. "Federal agent. I need you to come with me."
Another man started to round the corner, but caught one glimpse of the two and ducked back into the shadows, swearing silently to himself. He spun and strode quickly across an adjacent parking lot. Damn. He climbed quickly into a car with black-tinted windows and punched out a number on his cell phone, agitated.
"Patch me through to Mother," he muttered tersely.
A male voice, Arabic accented, responded, "One moment."
A series of clicks, and then a female voice picked up the phone. "Allo?"
He switched to French. "I need to speak to him." No need to identify him. Everyone in the house he'd just been connected to knew who he was. Fouad Sollem ruled with an iron fist over not only his global network of operatives, but also his home.
A familiar voice came on the line and said merely, "Oui?" He replied in English, "It's me. I found her." Sollem responded in quick, flawless English, "You're sure it's her?"
"Yes. But there's a problem. She was just arrested."
"Arrested! For what?"
"I have no idea."
"Find out." A pause while Sollem's formidable mind no doubt considered the possibilities. Then, "The police will let her out on bail soon enough. When they do, kill her."
"As you command."
The flash of silver went away and his right hand wrapped around Sophie's upper arm. She'd glimpsed his badge just long enough to know she was looking at a real one. In her work at the law firm, she'd seen plenty of them. He turned her away from her door and propelled her forward all in one smooth movement.
"What's going on?" she gathered herself enough to ask.
"You're not in trouble. Into the car, please. I need to speak with you. In private." He reached out with his free hand, opened the car door and guided her into the vehicle.
She frowned. Her law firm wasn't involved in any federal investigations that she was aware of. And she was aware of pretty much everything the firm did. "What is this in regard to?"
"I'll give you the details when we get where we're going."
"And where's that?"
"Who are you? Where are you taking me?"
"I told you. I'm a federal agent. And I need to talk to you. In a private location."
He started the car, backed out of the parking space and accelerated away from her apartment. If she didn't buy his story, her window of opportunity to get away from the guy was closing rapidly. She weighed her chances of jumping out of the car without hurting herself. Not good.
She announced, "Federal agents don't run around snatching private citizens off the sidewalk for random interrogations."
"This isn't a random interrogation, and we detain anybody we have to when a matter of national security is involved."
National security? "What's your name?" she demanded. "Exactly which government agency do you work for?"
The car sped up a ramp and onto the highway. Crud. No chance of jumping out of the car now.
"My name's Brian Riley. I work for the Department of Defense and Homeland Security."
"For the record, I'm not at all certain this snatch-and-drag act is legal. If you've violated my civil rights, you can expect to hear from my lawyer about it."
"I've merely taken you into temporary custody for questioning. You're under no suspicion of having committed any crime. Like I've already stated, I merely need to ask you a few questions."
"Don't split hairs with me. I work for a law firm. You grabbed me, all but pushed me into a car and are now whisking me off to God knows where to interrogate me or worse."
Unaccountably, he glanced over at her and grinned. A movie-star, megawatt smile that would knock most girls on their behinds. Heck, under normal circumstances, it would knock her over. But these were not normal circumstances.
"What are you so bloody amused at?" she demanded.
"You've got spunk. That's good."
"Spunk? You make me sound like a puppy." He laughed aloud. "You and I are going to get along just fine."
"With all due respect, what the hell is going on here?" Infuriatingly, he smiled and continued to drive. Patience never had been her strong suit. Huffing, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared out the window at the traffic whizzing by.
Before long, he exited the highway. She blinked in surprise at the signs. "Luke Air Force Base?"
Still no reply. A military matter then. She reviewed the law firm's clients. No military members came to mind.
Riley drove up to the front gate and the guard waved the car through without stopping him to ask for ID. Her companion threw a snappy salute at the security policeman and breezed past the guard shack. He was known at this base, then.
When he drove past another guard shack and right out onto the flight line, her general irritation was replaced by surprise. Who was this guy? He stopped the car and she eyed the narrow, low-slung business jet in front of her. She asked suspiciously, "Where are we going for this interrogation of yours?"
"California. San Diego to be precise."
California? Holy cow! This is what she did every Saturday afternoon jet off to California with a hunky federal agent to have a chat. Not. "I'll ask you one more time. What's this about, Mr. Riley?"
"Captain Riley," he corrected absently as he climbed out of the car. He pulled a briefcase and a black duffel bag out of the trunk, then came around and opened her door for her. "I'll tell you more once we're airborne. Trust me."
"Trust you? Sure. No problem."
"Have I hurt you? Threatened you? Been anything other than polite with you? You've been detained for questioning. You haven't been arrested, nor are you being charged with any crime. You have information vital to national security, and I merely need to talk with you about it."
"What guarantee do I have that you won't tromp all over my civil rights or throw me in jail for no good reason?"
"None." A pause. "Except my word of honor."
He looked her squarely in the eyes. No hesitation, no evasion, no overly sincere effort to look honest. After years of sitting in on depositions and trials, she had a finely honed sense of when she was hearing lies or truth, and she was hearing truth now.
"Look around you, Miss Giovanni. You're standing in the middle of an air-force base. I had to pass multiple sets of armed guards who know me on sight to get out here on the ramp. Nobody's worried about me or your presence with me."
He had a point. She sighed.
A pilot poked his head out the plane's hatch. "We're ready to go when you are, Cap'n Riley. All we have to do is button up and crank the engines."
She murmured, "San Diego, huh? I've never been there." Relief flickered through his gaze. "You're gonna love it."
Settling into a state somewhere between shock and disbelief, she ducked onto the jet, which the pilot called a C-21. Riley told her it was a military version of a Learjet 35, which didn't mean much to her, either. As soon as she'd buckled her seat belt, the whine of jet engines wound up outside. They taxied out to the runway and were airborne in a matter of minutes. The wheels thunked up into the gear well and the plane banked left, climbing steeply.
"Okay, Captain Riley. We're airborne. Start talking."
He startled her by reaching into his pants pocket and holding out a cell phone to her. "Here. I'd like you to make a phone call first. I want you to verify my identity."
"You're not supposed to use cell phones on airplanes!" He grinned. "We get to break the rules. Call information for the 202 area code."
She punched in the number, and as the phone started to ring at the other end, she murmured, "202. Washington D.C.?"
He nodded. "Ask for the Pentagon operator."
In a moment, she was connected to the Pentagon. She nodded at Riley.
"Now ask for jay-sock headquarters. Then ask someone to verify my identity."
She did as he directed whatever the heck a jay-sock was. "Jay-sock headquarters," a female voice said in her ear. Sophie frowned. "Excuse me, but what's a jay-sock?"
"J S O C, dear. Joint Special Operations Command. How may I direct your call?"
"I'm with a man who says his name is Captain Brian Riley. Is there someone in your office who can identify him for me?"
"Standby for General Wittenauer, ma'am," the secretary replied smoothly.
A man came on the line and barked a single word. "Go."
"Uhh, my name's Sophia Giovanni, and I have a man here with me."
"Ahh yes. Riley. May I assume then, that you're going to take us up on our offer, Miss Giovanni? That's excellent news!"
Offer? What offer? "Actually, I'm calling to verify that he's not an axe murderer. Could you tell me what he looks like?"