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Personal assistant Nicole Harris dropped her messenger bag on the floor next to Mr. Lange's desk and answered her cell phone. "This is Nicole."
"Thank you so much for covering for me this weekend," her boss, Ruby said. "I owe you."
"Big time." Nicole smiled, logged into Outlook and sorted piles of papers on the computer magnate's desk. Edward Lange may be a tech genius but he had the organizational skills of a five-year-old on a sugar high.
"I just can't do weekends, not with the boys' soccer and baseball and"
"Hey, no problem." Nicole didn't have a husband or family so she didn't mind working on the weekend, especially if it meant helping out her boss, who'd also become a good friend.
"What can I do to repay you?" Ruby asked.
"It's my job, remember?"
"And you're seriously good at it or Edward wouldn't have requested you. Did you get the passcodes I texted you earlier?"
"Yes, ma'am. Committed them to memory and ate my phone."
The front door slammed.
"He's back from his run. Gotta go." Nic pocketed her phone and checked Mr. Lange's Outlook calendar to make sure he wasn't missing anything crucial by escaping the city on a whim. Nic was a natural at her job as a personal assistant, but then she'd spent her childhood keeping her younger sister and brother organized.
Voices echoed down the front hallway. Odd, considering she was told they weren't expecting guests this weekend. She blocked out the voices and focused on checking messages on Mr. Lange's smartphone.
"It's borderline criminal!" Mr. Lange shouted.
Shouted? He was usually such a soft-spoken man. Nic felt guilty eavesdropping, so she refocused on his voice mails. "Mr. Lange, this is Audrey Ross from Tech Worldwide. I'm on a deadline and I need a statement about the Tech-Link software failure"
"I said no!"
Her shoulders jerked.
"It's okay, it's not him," she coached herself, as post-traumatic panic skittered across her nerve endings.
Something slammed against the wall, rattling the books in the mahogany case next to the door. She slowly backed up toward the closet.
"Get out of my house!" Mr. Lange bellowed.
Her pulse raced as buried memories of her abusive father rushed to the surface.
"I said out!"
She darted into the closet and shut the door with a soft click. Scrambling to the far corner, she hid behind a stack of boxes.
Some part of her brain realized how ridiculous it would look when Mr. Lange found his personal assistant huddled in the closet, but her reaction was automatic. She couldn't make another choice if her life depended on it.
"You need to reconsider," a second man said, his voice higher pitched and more clear.
They'd entered the office.
"Nothing is going to change my mind," Mr. Lange said. Something slammed against the closet door. She bit back a squeak and hugged her knees to her chest. "Why are you still here?" Mr. Lange accused. "Because you haven't called the cops."
"The only reason I haven't called the cops is because of my"
A soft pop made her gasp. Then another. A gunshot? No, it couldn't be.
Silence rang in her ears. She focused on breathing so she wouldn't pass out.
The sound of breaking glass echoed through the door, then swearing, and more crashing. She hugged her knees tighter, fisted her hands.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
It was just a matter of time before he opened the closet door.
Flashes of her childhood paralyzed her, rendering her unable to think clearly.
Hide in the corner. Be quiet and still, she'd coach Beau and Addy.
She had to do something, call the police, a friend, someone. Instead, she huddled in tighter, losing all sense of time and place as the memories closed in.
Then the door opened
Detective Alex Donovan knew something was off the minute he entered Edward Lange's study. Instinct twisted his gut as he scanned the room.
"Chief Roth and the coroner are on the way," officer Mark Adams said, standing in the doorway.
Alex crouched to look at the room from another angle, wrestling with the frustration building in his chest.
Edward Lange. Dead.
The entrepreneur-philanthropist often came to Waverly Harbor to get away from the intensity of the city, demands of his work and the relentless media. When he bought the lake house three years ago, he'd asked for a meeting with Chief Roth and his staff to discuss his residing in their small town. Although community members knew about the purchase of the lake house, they'd agreed to give Lange his privacy and help him avoid the spotlight. In return he'd generously donated money to build a new community center and library. He didn't have to make those donations. Folks of Waverly Harbor were nothing if not protective, and they had embraced Lange as one of their own without expecting anything in return.
"His driver is outside," Mark Adams said.
"He called it in?"
"No. He claims he was outside in the car and didn't hear anything. The call came from Lange's cell."
Alex went to the body, careful not to disturb the crime scene. Not easy with the clutter of papers littering the floor. Someone was looking for something.
Alex crouched again, eyed the area around Edward's face, and down to his hands. "There's no phone near the body."
"Maybe the intruder took it?"
Alex studied Edward Lange's face. "Where's your security?" he whispered.
No bodyguards and the alarm wasn't set? Which meant what? That Edward knew his attacker. Was the killer a personal friend or staff member?
Alex scanned the immediate area and spotted a gold chain-link bracelet, a man's wallet and pair of sunglasses on the floor near the body.
"You want to talk to"
Alex put up two fingers to silence the cop. He thought he heard something, a faint whimper, but he couldn't be sure.
He closed his eyes, blocked out his surroundings, and listened.
A muffled cough-gasp echoed from across the room. The closet.
Alex withdrew his firearm, slowly crossed the room and motioned for Mark to open the door on the count of three. One, two, three.
Mark whipped the door open and Alex heard a squeak. Aiming his firearm into the dark closet, he reached up and pulled the light chain. He spotted a female, Caucasian with flaming red hair, cowering behind a stack of boxes. He holstered his gun and stepped closer for a better look. Her face was buried in arms folded across her knees. She was a trembling mass of red from her hair to her red blouse, down to her red tennis shoes.
"Miss?" He crouched in front of her. "It's okay, I'm Detective Alex Donovan."
She didn't look up.
"Can you tell us what happened?" he tried. She shook her head no. "Can you tell me your name?" She shook her head no again.
Alex glanced at Mark. "Look for a purse or briefcase with ID."
Mark disappeared from the doorway.
Alex spotted a cell phone clenched in her hand. She must have made the 911 call.
"Are you a friend of" He was about to say the deceased and caught himself. "Edward Lange?"
Another negative head shake.
"Do you work for him?"
She nodded affirmative.
"Were you here when he was attacked?"
She nodded yes, her body trembling slightly. He wanted to place a comforting hand on her shoulder, tell her it was going to be okay, but he wasn't one to make promises he couldn't keep. If she was hiding in here that meant she might have seen or heard something that could help them find the killerand consequently put her life in danger.
"Alex?" Mark said, stepping into the closet. "Found this by the desk." He placed a messenger bag next to Alex and handed him a purple leather wallet. Alex pulled out a driver's license that read Nicole Desiree Harris.
Voices echoed through the house. The coroner must have arrived, and then some. Alex had a feeling everyone would want to be involved in this investigation, including state and county law enforcement. Edward was an influential man, a celebrity of sorts.
"Can you keep them out of here for a few minutes?" Alex asked Mark.
"I'll do my best."
Alex put the wallet in the messenger bag and redirected his attention to Miss Harris, pushing back the temptation to pick her up and carry her to a safe, quiet place.
"Miss Harris, it's going to get awfully loud in here as more police personnel show up. How about I take you to another room where it's quiet?"
She slowly raised her head and pinned him with brilliant amber-colored eyes. He stopped breathing for a second, so affected by the devastation he read there.
"Nice to meet you," he recovered, and extended his hand, figuring he had to try.
She studied it for a second, then reached out and accepted his gesture. Her trembling fingers were cold and fragile as she clasped his hand. And he prayed to God that he could do right by this one.
She searched his eyes as if wanting to say something but couldn't get the words out.
Male voices boomed from the outlying office and her fingers squeezed his hand.
"Let's get you out of here." He stood and helped her up. She was petite, probably five-three, and a floral scent drifted from her hair.
"It's okay. No one's going to hurt you." He positioned her on his left side so when they walked out of the closet she wouldn't be assaulted by the bloody image of Edward Lange.
She hugged her midsection with her free arm, but wouldn't let go of his right hand. He put his left arm around her shoulder to shield her from the frenetic crime scene.
"Is this okay?" he said.
She nodded that it was, grabbed her messenger bag and flung it over her shoulder.
Someone barked an order from the office and her shoulders jerked.
"See what I mean? Loud," he said.
As he led her out of the closet, the half dozen men froze at the sight of Alex and Miss Harris deliberately crossing the room.
"Detective Donovan, I think"
"Don't," Alex snapped.
He didn't know who'd spoken and didn't care. Alex needed to get the witness out of this room and away from the violent scene as quickly as possible. As they passed, all eyes were on the red-haired, traumatized beauty. She kept her head down, eyes focused on the carpet a few feet in front of her.
They crossed the threshold into the hallway and he spotted pocket doors. Hopefully he could find another room with pocket doors so he could close her off from the chaos.
He escorted her down the hall to a TV room in the back of the house and slid the pocket doors shut.
"How's this?" He led her to a thick-cushioned sofa.
She sat down, still clinging to his hand, so he sat next to her.
He wanted to be out there assisting with the crime scene, but he wouldn't leave her alone. Maybe they could call a female sheriff's deputy to keep her company. Surely a woman would be better at comforting a terrified female witness.
Clutching his hand, she sighed and leaned against his shoulder. For a brief second it reminded him of Jessica, how she'd leaned against him when they'd watched movies. Despair ripped through Alex's chest, followed by guilt.
Get your head in the game, Alex.
This woman's life could be in danger, which meant the sooner they found the killer the sooner she'd be safe.
"Is he dead?"
Her voice was throaty, deeper than he'd imagined. "Yes," he answered.
She shook her head and a tear trailed down her cheek. He nearly reached out to wipe it away, but caught himself.
"Was there anyone else in the house besides you, Mr. Lange and the intruder?"
"Not that I know of."
Which puzzled Alex because he thought bodyguards followed Lange everywhere.
"Can you talk about what happened, Miss Harris?" he asked.
She shook her head. A few minutes passed in companionable silence. It had been a long time since Alex held a woman like this. He didn't have much interest in romance after Jessica's death.
"Nicole," she said, breaking the silence. "Please call me Nicole." She clung to her messenger bag in her lap. "I wasn't supposed to be here."
"Then why were you here?"
"I'm a personal assistant. I was filling in for a friend."
"Had you worked with Mr. Lange before?"
"But you're not his regular assistant?"
She shook her head no.
"Did you hear what happened?"
She squeezed his hand, but didn't answer. He should have known it was too soon to ask, but the killer was out there, maybe still on the property if he hadn't found what he was looking for in Edward's office.
Alex wouldn't push Nicole. Most of the time if you pushed a witness they either pushed back or shut down completely. He felt lucky she was talking to him after what she'd just experienced.
They gazed out the back window at the lake, the setting sun peeking through the evergreens in the distance.
The pocket door slid open, breaking the peaceful moment. A man in a dark suit, white shirt and maroon tie marched across the room, blocking their view. The guy looked like a Fed.
"This the witness?" the suit demanded.
"And you are?" Alex countered.
"Special Agent Richard Banks with the FBI," he said, flashing his ID. The stern-faced, broad-shouldered agent was in his mid-forties, and definitely all business.
"What's the FBI's interest in this case?" Alex asked.
"We'll discuss that later. So, this is Nicole Harris?"
"Yes." Alex wished Banks would lower the volume a few notches.
Instead, he directed his attention to Nicole. "Ma'am, can you tell me what happened tonight?"
She shook her head and stared out the window with a detached expression. Banks studied her as if trying to determine if her shock was real or an act.
"You found her in the closet?" he asked Alex.
"Did she hear anything?"
"She hasn't been able to talk about it."
Banks clenched his jaw and glared at Nicole.
"Did the driver see anything?" Alex redirected.
"One of my agents is interviewing him."
"What about the bodyguards? Where were they?" Alex said.
"Don't know. The house is empty except for the witness and the victim. It's imperative that I interview her ASAP."
"She's obviously not ready to talk about it."
"When will she be able to talk about it?"
The guy was being a class A jerk. Alex glanced at Nicole. She still stared blindly out the window, her cheeks even more pale than they were a minute ago.
"I don't have time for this," Banks said. "Ma'am, you'll need to come with me, if nothing else, for your own protection."
The guy seriously needed a crash course in sensitivity.
She snapped her attention to Agent Banks. "My protection? Do you think he'll come after me? But I didn't see anything."
"The murderer doesn't know that and he won't stop until"
"Enough," Alex interrupted. "Agent Banks, can we talk in the hallway?"
Banks marched out of the room and Alex turned to Nicole. "I'll just be a minute, okay?"
Yet he was hesitant to let go of her hand. What was it about this woman?
Simple. She was in danger and Alex was a natural-born protector. Maybe this time he'd get it right. Maybe this one wouldn't die because of his incompetence.
"I'll be right back." He slipped his hand from hers and stood.
She hugged herself. "You think Will he come after me?"
Seeing fear in her eyes, he mustered up the only answer he thought might ease her anxiety. "I doubt he even knew you were there. You found a clever hiding spot."
She nodded, but didn't look convinced.
As he headed toward the hallway to speak to Agent Banks, Alex focused on controlling the frustration burning through his chest. Intimidating Nicole was no way to get answers, not to mention it was incredibly inappropriate behavior for a professional.
Alex went into the hallway. Agent Banks took a step toward him. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm trying to make the witness feel safe so she'll talk to us," he answered in a calm voice.
"Well, she's obviously bonded with you."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"Was that your plan? To play hero?" the agent accused.
"This isn't about being a hero. It's about finding a killer."
Banks slammed his fist against the wall and leaned close. "I heard about you and your wonder-boy reputation on the Denver force. I won't allow ego to mess up this investigation."
"I guarantee you, my ego won't be a problem."
Alex stood his ground, refusing to back down. He surely wasn't going to let Agent Banks take Nicole in for questioning if he planned to continue these aggressive tactics on her.
With a frustrated expression, Banks turned and paced a few feet away.
"Are you going to tell me why the Feds are involved?" Alex asked.
"Edward Lange was a target of an ongoing investigation. I can't share the details."
"You suspect him of criminal activity?" Alex couldn't believe it.