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One more block. That's all Sophie Campbell had to walk. All right, so maybe it was pouring rain and she was juggling a satchel of heavy books and an overfilled grocery bag. So maybe she never dreamed October nights could be this cold in Virginia, and she was soaked to the bone, and darn it, her feet hurt. Still…she could make it that last block, couldn't she?
A fat, pretty orange bounced out of the grocery sack and rolled down the sidewalk. When she instinctively shifted to grab it, a head of lettuce followed the orange.
Sophie opened her mouth to let out a scream of frustration—but, of course, she didn't. As a little girl, she'd been the attention-grabbing drama princess of the family, but at twenty-eight, she'd long conquered those nuisance traits. She could stay steady and calm in a tornado. Everyone said so.
The trick, of course, was simply self-discipline. She ignored the lost orange and lettuce, the same way she ignored the rain dripping from her eyelashes and the squish of water in her shoes. Her arms and shoulders were trying to fall off, groaning from the combined weight of the groceries, her purse, her laptop and her briefcase of references—but she'd carried heavier than this on the trek home from the metro, and she would again. She was mighty. She was strong.
She forged ahead the next half block, reminding herself of all the reasons she'd loved living in Foggy Bottom these last nine months. She loved her current work project. She was crazy about the old brownstone apartment. She loved the urban neighborhood—how easy it had been to find other young professional people and make friends. She loved having access to such a super metro system that she didn't need a car. She loved…
The soggy grocery sack suddenly split. It didn't completely crack open, just tore several inches, but that was enough to send more groceries spilling down the street. Again, Sophie was tempted to let out a good, bellowing yell. Instead, she ran.
Six more houses. Then five. The sleazy-cold rain had already soaked her blond head, slivered down her neck. Four houses. She could see hers ahead—the old brown brick with white shutters, the wrought-iron fence circling a yard the size of a closet, the broken steps up to the elegant old front door.
Her foot stumbled on a sidewalk crack. Her armload threatened to tumble completely. She ran faster, praying now. Three houses. Two. She prayed to God. To Buddha. To Mother Nature. To anyone who could help her just move those last few steps, inside to shelter.
One house away, then home. Up the three steps. Belatedly, she realized that the key was buried inside her purse—which she couldn't possibly get to, not without dropping everything. But then she discovered that just possibly there was a God, because the front door was open.
Well, it wasn't exactly wide open, but the door was definitely ajar—ajar enough for her to burst through, gasping for breath, dripping rain like a drenched puppy.
Just inside, a small antique chandelier lit the vestibule with the effectiveness of a candle in the wind. Still, it wasn't the dimness that made Sophie suddenly stumble. For some crazy reason, a big bulky object blocked the entrance, right inside the door.
Disaster was instantaneous. Her overfilled grocery bag split completely. Milk and Tampax and cereal and tomatoes and oranges went flying. Then she did. Knowing a crash was inevitable, she reacted instinctively to protect her laptop and precious research, but she landed so hard on her right hip and elbow that she saw stars—outraged, blinding, dizzying stars. Whoever left the monster-size thing on the floor was going to get a piece of her mind, the very second she…
One twist of her head, and she saw the body.
It wasn't a thing on the floor.
It was a body. A bare-naked body. Her hunk of a neighbor's body.
Shock seemed to turn her to stone. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't think. There wasn't a sound in the place, not the creak of a floorboard, nothing to indicate anyone was around. And of course there wasn't. The larger downstairs apartment had been vacant for over a month now, and upstairs, there were only two apartments—hers and Jon Pruitt's.
Jon…She couldn't look at him, couldn't not look at him, but suddenly her heart stopped beating in big, panicked thumps. Jon was the womanizer of the universe, the heartthrob of every woman in the neighborhood, and the selfish son of a sea dog who neglected his cat. Sophie had as much in common with him as a bunny had with a shark, but damn. He'd been decent to her. They'd turned into amazingly compatible neighbors.
This had to be a nightmare. A terrible dream.
Yet oxygen scrabbled into her lungs when she spotted the nail-polish-red gleaming under his head. That red was real, no dream, and the look of it propelled her into action. She hurtled over all the debris on the floor and crouched down to press on the pulse in his neck—just in case all that glossy red color was misleading. Just in case there was a chance he was still alive.
His skin was cold. Blank eyes stared up at her.
Wake up, Sophie. Wake up, and for God's sake, don't hurl.
She pushed back, landing on her rump, her fingertips suddenly icy and her stomach clenching with horror.
Suddenly Sophie was five years old again—and of course, she knew that was stupid. This shock had no remote connection to her past. The new trauma just seemed to trigger the old one. It was the same old flash flood of a mental slide show, the images darting through her brain, her in a long yellow nightgown, her cold feet stinging in the wet grass, the darkness, the stinky smoke and sharp flames, her mom screaming, screaming, her clutching her sisters, the three of them wailing, then the firemen carrying both those stretchers out.…
Sophie sucked in a lungful of air, then another. Letting those train-wreck memories out was always a mistake. Obviously, she'd never forgotten the fire. The grief and trauma still flavored every nightmare and always would. No one could just forget anything that devastating. But that old loss and grief and terror weren't the problem right now.
Get a grip, Sophie.
She struggled to. Obviously, this wasn't about her, but about Jon. This was no time to be thinking about herself. She swallowed the swell of nausea and whipped around for her purse. Naturally, it was chock-full of everything she'd need to survive living in Europe for six months. She rummaged, rummaged, until she finally located her cell phone. It took three tries for her fumbling fingers to accurately dial 911.
Then she just huddled against the far corner wall and shook, waiting for the police.
Cord Pruitt saw the lecture doors open, but initially paid no attention. It wouldn't be the first time a student popped in late. His Thursday-night class on International Studies was invariably stuffed to the gills—which always tickled his sense of irony.
Ten years ago, he'd have sworn he would rather be a snake handler than teach. He'd meant it. But when family problems forced him back to Washington a few years ago, Georgetown had taken one look at his background in languages and Foreign Service and offered him a job. In spite of all odds, the university monsters had grown on him. The kids were all motivated, bright, the type who gave a serious damn. Hell, they even stayed awake during his lectures.
Temporarily, the decibel level rivaled a rowdy bar. The topic of debate was the relationship between religion and poverty in various cultures, and whether religion or poverty was the strongest political influence. The subject definitely wouldn't turn on everyone, but his kids were raucously enthused.
Maybe a little too raucously.
"Okay, okay, settle down for two shakes," he interjected. "I'm hearing too many opinions, and not enough facts to back them up. Give me stats, people. I want numbers. I want proof. You're starting to sound like the media, instead of people with a brain."
That brought a laugh…but they readily knuckled down to a good verbal fight again.
The next time Cord glanced up, he noted the lecture doors were still gaping open, with two men—two grown men, definitely not students—standing in the doorway. They didn't interrupt, didn't speak, didn't intrude. They were just lodged in the entranceway like a pair of rocks.
Cord's pulse bucked uneasily. Years of Foreign Service had honed his ability to size up both people and problems. One of the men was gray haired, sharp faced and sharp eyed, with a wiry, lean build. Cord figured him for a private cop. The other guy looked younger, more like forty, with paunchy eyes and the habitual tired expression of a detective.
This close to D.C., private and public cops were as common as ants. Still, Cord couldn't imagine why one would be here, in his classroom—much less why the ferret and hound would be paired together.
"All right. Let's wrap this up," Cord said, but he didn't really want to wrap up the class at all. It was twenty minutes to ten. Outside, it was a bone-chilling, rainy night, but inside, Cord had been perfectly happy, his boots up on the desk, his arms cocked behind his neck, occasionally stirring himself to referee the debate…but the two strangers made it impossible to concentrate.
He couldn't imagine what they wanted…but it couldn't be good. Cord was fatalistic about bad luck. It never showed up when you were in the mood, because you were never in the mood.
"Okay, I know you think you escaped a bullet by getting out early, but don't start thinking I'm going easy on you. Next Tuesday night, I just might keep you until after eleven."
This threat was greeted with mixed laughter and groans. Students rustled into their jackets, stood up, dropped books, made all the usual noise it took to scoot them out of the place. Even on a medieval dark night like this one, they were more revved than tired, and damn it, when Cord finally got them charged up about ideas and thinking and bigger worlds, he hated to let them go.
The place had completely cleared out before the two strangers headed down the aisle. Cord had stood up by then, was pushing papers and books into his folio, reaching for his old alpaca jacket…but he watched them.
Cord nodded. Both men showed their IDs. As expected, the jowly, tired-looking guy was a detective, George Bassett. The other man—the more interesting character with the long, sharp features—was private security. Ian Ferrell had a tag from the Senate Office Building, so, pretty obviously, he was on some senator's staff. Cord was even more mystified why they'd be paired together.
"I'm afraid we're here about your brother, sir." Bassett's tone was respectful.
"Jon?" Okay, dumb question. It wasn't as if he had any other brother. But his muscles were freezing up now, anticipating a blow.
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid we have bad news. Perhaps you might want to sit down."
Cord pushed off his jacket, but there was no way he was sitting down. "You can skip the tact and cushioning with me. Just tell me what kind of trouble he's in now."
The men exchanged glances, but the detective picked up the ball. "We received a 911 call late this afternoon. When officers responded to the scene, we found a man lying at the bottom of the stairs. He was deceased. I'm sorry for your loss, sir—"
That had been tacked on as if the detective had suddenly forgotten his usual lines in a play.
Cord sagged against the desk. There was no love lost between him and Jon. Years ago he'd stopped believing his brother would find an ethic or principle in his character.
But five tons of f lash-flood memories suddenly seared through his mind. Cord had been roaming the world for God knew how many years now. He'd still likely be hightailing it from Everest to the Amazon, from Delphi to Paris to Rio…if their mother hadn't come down with cancer. By the time he'd severed his work ties and got back to Washington, it was too late. Mom was gone. Dad had crashed and had to be put in what they discreetly called a rehab center. Over the last years, Jon had turned into someone Cord couldn't even recognize, much less reach. And Zoe had left him, because coming home to clean up family messes wasn't exactly her specialty.
More fool Cord. He'd actually thought she was the kind of woman who'd stand by him.
His brother, on the other hand, had always been trouble. Cord could readily believe Jon had promoted himself to even bigger trouble—but still, nothing like this. Not dead. Not murdered.
Cord swiped a hand over his face, tried to surface from the weight of shock. And guilt.
"Where's my brother now?" Cord asked hoarsely. "Who did this? What—?"
The detective quietly interrupted. "It took us a few hours to track you down. Initially, we assumed your father was the primary family connection, but then we realized…"
"That he's in a rest home."
"Yes. So from there, we tried to ascertain if your brother had any other direct relatives—which is how we came across your name. Obviously, you weren't at your home address, so we tracked you down through the university, and then where you'd be lecturing at this hour—all of which is to say, this all took time. It has been a few hours since the event. Initially we weren't certain if your brother fell down the stairs or if there could have been foul play—"
Impatiently, Cord pushed away from the desk. Bassett was talking a lot, but saying very little, arousing Cord's worry buttons even more. Obviously, his brother hadn't had an accidental fall. And obviously, even a murder must have had unusually complicated implications, or these two men would never have shown up together.
"What do you need from me?" he asked curtly, addressing the private cop rather than the detective. The man had been silent all this time, but Cord sensed he was the higher authority of the two.
"Mr. Pruitt…the situation is complex."
Cord had already guessed that. Situations involving Jon were always complicated. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to fathom how his dad was going to survive this.
"Are you familiar with a young woman named Sophie Campbell?"
"No," Cord said.
"She's the tenant who lived next door to your brother—from the time she moved here, somewhere around nine months ago. She's the person who found him. She apparently knew your brother quite well."
Cord sighed. "So did a lot of women."
Bullets kept shooting through his mind. Funeral arrangements had to be made. Someone had to deal with his brother's business, from bills to belongings. Their father was hooked up to oxygen full-time, wouldn't be able to handle anything—just telling him would be a crisis in itself—and thank God they'd lost their mother, because she'd have crumpled to find out what Jon had become and how he'd died.