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If Natalie didn't need an infusion of caffeine so badly she could barely see straight, she'd walk out of the coffee shop right now, despite already having paid for her latte.
She checked her watch and tried to resist the urge to tap the toe of her pump on the tile floor. She could feel the man next to her give her a once-over. Dressed in jeans, with shirttails hanging out and shoes that looked more like slippers than street wear, he was probably thinking she was uptight.
He was probably right.
Six foot, thin build, he was also kind of cute, at least in an ordinary sort of way.
What the heck? She was usually drawn to the good-looking ones. Maybe it was past time to shake things up. Taking a deep breath and curving her lips into a smile, she gave him a glance.
He looked away.
Figures. Natalie's luck with men was right up there with her talent for finding short lines.
She peered at the darkness outside the coffee shop's glass doors. Jolie would be finished trying on bridesmaids' dresses before Natalie even reached the bridal shop. And Rachel would surely be finished with the fitting for her wedding dress. Natalie wouldn't even get a glimpse. She was on schedule to let down both her future sisters-in-law and disappoint herself, and for what?
Caffeine was a horrible addiction.
"Double shot, low-fat latte?" The barista raised a pierced brow and plunked the cup on the counter.
Natalie flashed her best imitation of a grateful smile, picked up the coffee. She dodged her fellow addicts and pushed out the door, chimes jingling in her ear.
A chill wind hit her face. November in St. Louis was unpredictable, but one bit of weather that she could count on was that winter would eventually arrive. Apparently it had sometime in the past half hour. Using her free hand to wrap her trench more tightly around her, she made a mental note to dig out her wool coat before work tomorrow.
Her heels clacked hollow on the sidewalk. Dark windows stared down at her from all angles. City noises drifted on the breeze, sounding as if they were coming from the riverfront, blocks away. The temperature wasn't the only thing to have changed in the time she'd been stuck in the coffee shop. Since she'd last walked the three blocks from the office, the business district seemed to have vacated for the night.
The bell on the coffee shop's door jingled, as someone followed her into the cold.
She crossed the side street midblock and headed back toward Kendall Communications and the executive parking garage. The drive to the bridal shop wouldn't take long. And Jolie would try her dress on again, if need be. The night was looking up.
The sound of footsteps shuffled behind her.
She glanced back. The silhouette of a man strode along the sidewalk. Tall, thin, shirttails flapping in the breeze. Must be the guy from the coffee shop, although on second glance, his hands were empty. Shouldn't he be carrying a cup?
She quickened her pace.
She was being silly. She knew it. But there was something about the dark and the quiet and the cold that set her nerves on edge. She just needed to get to the Kendall building. There she could duck into the parking garage and the guy behind her would continue down the sidewalk to wherever it was he was headed.
She turned the corner, half expecting her follower to walk right past.
He made the turn, as well.
She forced herself to breathe slowly, in and out, countering the patter of her heartbeat. People walked down the same streets all the time. She was being silly. Here she hadn't even had a sip of coffee and every nerve in her body felt like it was buzzing. Maybe she didn't need the extra jolt of caffeine after all. Maybe tonight she was twitchy enough without it.
The darkened tower of her family business loomed ahead. She walked a little faster in spite of herself. With any luck, the parking attendant would still be at his post. He would smile his usual friendly smile, and she would chuckle to herself about how paranoid she was being. She didn't know why she felt so afraid of a guy that just a moment ago she'd thought was kind of cute.
Sure, when it came to choosing men, she was a horrible failure. But that didn't mean just because she glanced this guy's way he would turn out to be a mugger.
She passed the stairwell leading to the parking garage's lower level and made for the car entrance and the attendant. She turned the corner and looked to the booth.
It was empty.
Natalie's mouth went dry. She spun around, certain the man would be behind her, a gun in his fist or maybe a knife, his lips pulling back in a sinister smile.
The sidewalk was empty, as well.
She waited. Ten seconds. Twenty. No one appeared.
He must have turned off. He must not have been following her after all.
She was obviously losing her mind. Understandable, she supposed. Ever since Rick Campbell had been exonerated in her parents' murders two months ago and then was killed himself, the entire Kendall clan had been on edge. Murder did that. If any family knew that, it was theirs.
On top of that, two of her three brothers, Ash and Devin, had lived through horrors of their own in the past two months. Horrors they'd thankfully overcome. Both now engaged to women they loved, her two oldest brothers had been blessed as well as challenged. But the deaths of their parents continued to hang over the entire Kendall family like a shroud.
She shook her head to dislodge shadowy thoughts she'd been trying to banish for twenty years. As if a mere shake of the head would do that. The only thing that worked was painting. Turning her childhood fears and guilt into images. Getting them out of her head, onto canvas and shutting them away in her studio where no one could see them.
She ripped open the flap on her coffee and took a long sip. Already her heartbeat was slowing. Already she was starting to feel normal again. But despite her earlier promise to herself, she didn't feel much like laughing. All she felt was grateful no one else had witnessed her ridiculousness.
Replacing the coffee flap in order to keep her latte hot, she continued down the ramp to the garage's lower level. A lowered garage door and smaller human-size door nestled side by side at the bottom of the ramp. The executive parking filled the whole lower level. Besides being security locked, this part of the garage also had the advantage of being heated in the winter. And it had both a street entrance and an elevator that led directly to the offices on the upper floors.
Balancing her coffee in one hand, she groped in her bag for her keys.
The door behind her clicked open.
She whirled around.
Emerging from the stairwell was the man with the untucked shirt. The door slammed with a loud clang.
The sound shuddered up Natalie's spine and echoed off the concrete. For a moment, she couldn't focus. She couldn't move. All she could do was think about how alone the two of them wereno other cars, no one to come to her aid. Even if she screamed, would anyone hear?
Her phone. Instead of grabbing her keys, she pulled out her cell. She stared at the screen. Underground garage. Surrounded by concrete. No service.
She held the phone to her ear anyway. If he thought she was calling someone, he would leave her alone. Wouldn't he? The shuffling sound of those god-awful loafers moved toward her.
A high whistle of panic rose in her ears. Oil and concrete and old exhaust clogged her throat.
"No reception down here, I bet," he said in a quiet voice.
He wasn't fooled by the phone. All she could do was make a run for it. Get through the door and slam it before he could follow. She dropped the useless phone back in her bag and groped for her keys. Her fingers hit steel. She pulled the key chain out, jingling in shaking fingers. She tried to fit her key into the lock.
"Need help with that?"
His voice was right behind her shoulder. The faint mint scent of mouthwash fanned her neck.
She turned her head to look at him.
He stared at her with sharp brown eyes. His dark blond hair was mussed, blown by the wind. He looked like a regular guy. Perfectly ordinary.
Then why was she so frightened?
She turned back to the door. He hadn't hurt her yet. Hadn't even touched her. All he'd done was ask if he could help. That had to mean something. Right? Maybe she was doing all this panicking for nothing. Maybe she really was going crazy after all. "No, thanks. I can get it."
"You seem scared."
She didn't know what to say. Admit she was frightened out of her mind? Or just play it cool. "I was just startled."
"Startled? That's not what I had in mind."
His voice sounded low, calm. Everything Natalie wasn't. Everything she didn't think a mugger should be, either. "I'm^I'm okay now." She fibbed, feeling far less than okay.
He narrowed his eyes. "Do you know who I am?"
"Know you?" She turned to face him. He stood so close she took a step back, hitting the door. "You were in the coffee shop."
"Yes. I've been wanting to talk to you for a long time." He smiled. Cool. Casual. But his eyes some-thing about them seemed hard. Something about his smile felt less than friendly.
Was she imagining it?
"Excuse me. Hate to interrupt." The voice came from behind the man. Someone else.
She peered past one of the skinny shoulders. Another man stood in the doorway to the stairwell, his tall, well-muscled frame filling the space. Everything about himthe expression on his face, the way he held his body, the look in his eyesexuded calm and control. And even though she didn't know anything more about this man than she did the guy who'd followed her from the coffee shop, she let a relieved breath escape from her lungs and sagged back against the door. "No interruption. Really."
The man staring at her turned to face the interloper. "Who in the hell are you?"
"I'd like to ask you the same question."
"Too bad I asked it first."
He walked from the stairwell. His steps came slow and steady but Natalie could feel something coiled underneath. Power. Readiness. He stopped a few feet away. His eyes focused on the smaller man, hazel slits. "I'm a friend of Ms. Kendall's. You?"
The man closest to her looked away to the door. His shoulders seemed to grow even more slight. He shuffled away from her, one step, two. "I'm. This is a misunderstanding."
She wasn't sure what was misunderstood. He hadn't said or done anything. Not really. Looking at him, Natalie couldn't quite remember why she'd felt so threatened. He seemed anything but threatening now.
"I think we understand each other just fine," said the second man. He ran a hand over his cropped, brown hair. "Now if you don't mind, I'd like a word with Ms. Kendall. Alone."
The thin man nodded and made for the ramp Natalie had followed into the garage, shoulders hunched. He didn't look back.
As soon as he climbed out of sight, Natalie focused on the man in front of her. Of the two of them, he was definitely the strongest, physically the more threatening. He even knew her name, although she'd never seen him before. She was sure she hadn't. She'd remember. But despite the fact that she was alone and defenseless in the same position as she'd been with the other man moments ago, this time she felt inexplicably safe.
But, of course, taking her history with men into account, that was probably a bad sign. "So who are you? And how do you know my name?"