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Someone was watching him. Joe Tanner swore softly, tilted his face into the California sun and closed his eyes. A stalker. He could feel the eyes focused on the sunbaked skin right between his bare shoulder blades.
He'd spent enough time as an Army Ranger in the jungles of Southeast Asia avoiding contact with snipers to know when someone had him in his sites. When you'd developed a sixth sense like that just to keep yourself alive, you didn't forget how to use it.
"Just like riding a bicycle," he muttered to himself, opening his eyes and turning to see if he could filter out where the person was watching from.
He'd first noticed the interest he was getting from someonesomeone possibly hostilethe day before, but he hadn't paid a lot of attention. Joe knew he was tall and tanned and reasonably good-looking, with thick brown hair tipped blond by the sun, and he seldom passed unnoticed by onlookers wherever he went. He'd assumed it was basically a casual surveillance. Living half his day wearing nothing but board shorts, he was used to having his half-naked body studied by strangers. He knew he had interesting scars.
Besides, he had other things on his mind. Someone was arriving tonightsomeone from his old life, although he'd never met her. He was nervous. So he'd been thinking about important changes that were coming, and he'd ignored the lurker.
It wasn't until today that he began to get that creepy shiver of caution down his spine. When the hair on the back of his neck started to rise, he knew it was time to give this situation due diligence. Better safe than sorry, after all.
His gaze swept the San Diego beach. Though there was a fog bank threatening to come ashore, it was a fairly warm day and the usual suspects were flocking in for the waves and the atmospherethe surfers, the moms chasing little children across the sand, the hobos hoping for a handout. The flirty beach girls were also out in full forcea curvaceous threesome of that variety were lingering close right now, giggling and smiling at him hopefully. There'd been a time when he would have smiled right back, but those days were long gone.
You could at least be friendly, a little voice inside his head complained. He ignored it. What was the point? It only encouraged them. And he had nothing for them, nothing at all.
He gave them a curt nod, but moved his attention on, searching the storefronts, the frozen-banana stand, the tourist shop with the slightly risque T-shirts, the parking lot where a young, swimsuit-clad couple stood leaning against a sports car, wrapped in each other's fervent embrace, looking as though the world were about to end and they had to get a lifetime's worth of kissing in before it did.
Young love. He had a sudden urge to warn them, to tell them not to count on each other or anything else in this life. Everyone had to make it on his own. There were no promises, no guidelines to depend on. There was only Murphy's Lawanything that can go wrong will go wrong. You could count on that, at least. Be prepared.
But he wisely passed up the chance to give them the advantage of his unhappy experiences. Nobody ever listened, anyway. Everybody seemed to have to learn the hard way.
So who was it that was causing the hair on the back of his neck to bristle? The blind beggar in the faded Hawaiian shirt, sitting out in the sun on a little wooden stool next to his wise old collie? That hardly seemed likely. The cop making lazy passes down the meandering concrete walkway on his bicycle? No, he was watching everyone in a thoroughly professional manner, as he always did. The bag lady throwing out bread crusts to the raucous and ravenous sea gulls? The teenager practicing acrobatic tricks on his skateboard?
No. None of these.
As time ticked by, he began to settle on one lonely figure, and as he zeroed in, the way his pulse quickened told him he was right.
The person was lurking alongside the wall that separated the walkway from the sand. Joe pulled his sunglasses off the belt of his swim shorts and jammed them in front of his eyes so that he could watch the watcher without seeming to be looking in that direction. The culprit was wearing a thick sweatshirt with the hood pulled low, baggy jeans caked with wet sand around the feet, so it was difficult at first glance to see the gender he was dealing with. But it took only seconds of focused attention to realize the truththis was a woman pretending to be a boy.
That only sharpened his sense of danger. His military experience had taught him that the most lethal threats often came wrapped in the most benign-looking packages. Never trust pretty women or adorable kids.
Turning as though scoping out the activity at the nearby marina, he watched from the corner of his eye as the woman slipped down to sit on the low wall, pulling a small notebook out of the front pocket of the sweatshirt and jotting something in it before stowing it away again.
Yup. It was her all right. And she was keeping notes. So what now?
He considered his alternatives. Direct confrontation was usually counterproductive. She would just deny that she had any interest in him at all, and slink away.
And then what? Very likely, whoever had sent her would just send someone else. Another case of treating the symptom instead of the cause. His curiosity had been aroused now. He wanted to know who was behind this and why.
The only way to make a real attempt at getting to the bottom of the situation would be to get to her somehowearn her trust, maybe. Get her to talk. But first he would have to draw her out, force her into making a move that would prove her intent.
And why not? He had nothing better to do for the next hour or so of his life.
With a shrug, Joe leaned down to pick up his surfboard, and started toward the next pier. It was undergoing renovation and there were signs posted warning people to stay away. Nice and out of the way, with most of the beach crowd focused in another direction, it would be perfect.
He trudged through the sand, letting his natural inclination exaggerate the slight limp he still had from the leg that was only beginning to fully heal after almost a year of recuperation.
He didn't even turn to see if she was following. He just assumed she would be. The type who tried to mess with his life always followed the script to the letter, and he had no doubt she would do the same.
Kelly Vrosis bit her lip as she watched the man who called himself Joe Tanner start walking. She saw where he was headedway off the beaten path. Her heart began to thump in her chest. Should she follow him? She was going to have to if she was going to do this thing right, wasn't she?
She only had one week, and she'd already wasted a day and a half not daring to get close enough to really do anything observant. Either she was going to document all Joe Tanner's activities and figure out if he was who she thought he was, or she wasn't, and she'd wasted a lot of time and credibility on a wild-goose chase. Taking a deep breath, she fingered the little digital camera hidden in her pocket, and rose slowly to her feet, ready to do what had to be done.
"Here goes," she muttered to herself, and then started off down the beach, staying higher, closer to the storefronts, trying to be as invisible as possible, but still keep the tall, muscular figure of the man she was following in sight.
She was pretty sure he hadn't noticed her. She wasn't the sort who usually got noticed in crowds, and she'd worked hard on an outfit that would keep her anonymous.
Yesterday, after she'd driven out from the airport and checked into a motel room close to the address she'd found for Joe, she'd walked by his little beach house twice, so nervous she'd thought she couldn't breathe as she went quickly past his gate. She had no idea what she would do when she finally came face-to-face with the man she'd been researching for months now. The whole thing had become ridiculously emotional for her. Oh Lord, what if she passed out?
She didn't really expect that to happen, but it was true that there was something about him that sent her pulse racingthough she would never have admitted it to her coworkers, who had tried to talk her out of coming.
She worked as an analyst at a bureau in Cleveland, Ohio, the Ambrian News Agency. A child of Ambrian parents herself, she was fast becoming an expert in all things Ambrian. The little island nation of her ancestry wasn't well-known, especially under the current xenophobic regime. She'd taken as her special area of expertise the children of the monarchy that had been overthrown twenty-five years before.
It was recorded that they all had been killed that night of the coup, along with their parents, the king and queen. But now there was some question as to whether a few may have survived. And when she'd opened the national newsmagazine almost a year ago now and caught sight of a picture of Joe Tanner, returning war hero, she'd gasped in immediate recognition.
"Ohmigosh! He looks just like Oh, it can't be! But he sure does look like "
She knew it was nuts right from the beginning, and everyone she worked with agreed.
So she'd dug into the life of Joe Tanner and used all the resources available to her at the agency to find out all she could. Meanwhile, she became one of the top experts on the royal children. She knew everything about them that was to be known. And a few things that weren't. And she became more and more obsessed.
Now here she was, testing out her theory in real time. And scared to death to actually talk to the man.
It wasn't like her to be such a ninny. She'd grown up with two brothers and usually had an easy time dealing with men on the whole, but ever since she'd caught sight of Joe's face in that magazine article, she'd put him in a special category. She knew he was an extraordinary man, from what she'd read about him. He'd done thingsand survived thingsthat no one she knew had ever done. What was he going to do when he realized that she was prying into his life?
"Kelly, you can't do this," Jim Hawker, the older man who was her boss and office mate, had warned when she confided her plan to him. "You're letting a wacky obsession take over your common sense. You took one look at that picture and your overactive imagination created a huge conspiracy around it."
"But what if I'm right?" she'd insisted passionately. "I have to go to California and see what I can find out. I've got two weeks of vacation. I've got to see for myself."
Jim had grimaced. "Kelly, you're going to be annoying a man who has done things to people with his bare hands that you couldn't imagine in your worst nightmares. If he really is who you think he is, what makes you think he's going to be happy that you figured it out? Let it go. It's a crazy theory anyway."
"It's not crazy. It's way out, I'll admit. But it's not crazy. Just think how important it could be to the Ambrian community if I'm right."
"Even if you're right, you'll be poking a tiger with a stick. Without the blessings of the agency, you'll be all alone. No backup." He shook his head firmly. "No, Kelly. Don't do it. Go to Bermuda. Take a cruise. Just stay away from California."
But she couldn't stay away from California. She had to find out if she was right. She'd promised Jim she would be very careful. And she wouldn't approach the man himself until she was sure of how she would be received.
Of course, once she'd arrived it had all turned out to be a lot harder than she'd bargained for. She'd picked him out of a crowd right away, but she'd begun to realize she wasn't going to find out much just by observing him.
She needed moreand time was short. That morning she'd spent an hour watching him surf, all the while trying to map out a plan. She was going to have to interrogate people who knew him.
Well, maybe not "interrogate." More like "chat with." She'd already begun to make a list of likely contacts, including the man who ran the little produce store on the corner of his block. The two had seemed quite friendly as she'd caught sight of Joe buying a bag of fruit there on his way home the night before. Then there was the model-pretty girl who lived in the tiny beach cottage next door to his. She'd positioned herself to say hello to him twice already, and though he didn't seem to respond with a lot of enthusiasm, he did smile. She might know something. He didn't seem to throw those smiles around too freely.
And what a smile he had. It made Kelly shiver a little just to remember it, and it hadn't even been aimed at her.
There were also the neighbors on the other side of his housetwo college students who shared an apartment in the two-story building. She'd seen him talking to them as they got their racing bikes out that morning, so they might know something. She'd worn shorts and a T-shirt and jogged slowly up and down his street early enough to be rewarded with that glimpse of his day. Then she'd watched as he walked off toward the beach, surfboard tucked under his arm, and she'd quickly donned her current baggy outfit to keep him from noticing that he might have seen her before.
This had been a lot of work, and so far, she'd reaped very little in the way of rewards. Despite her trepidation, she was feeling a little grumpy. She'd hoped for more.
Kelly kept her distance, continuing to skirt the beach by staying up near the buildings. But she noticed they were mostly boarded up now. The stores had petered out into a semi-industrial area, and it looked as though this whole section of shore had been condemned for demolition and renovation. She glanced around, noting that no one seemed to be about.
And then she looked back at where Joe had been walking.
Wait a minute. She froze. She'd lost him.
She hesitated, realizing she'd last sighted him just before he'd gone behind an old fishing boat someone had hauled up onto the sand. She'd spent a moment of inattention gazing out at the ocean, then at the old buildings.