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Alec stood in the motel bathroom, ready to chuck his cell phone into the toilet. The water would render the phone and all the data on it useless, erasing the last traces of his trail before he went underground. He'd been followed for a couple of days. The time had come for Alec Kincaid to disappear.
When he'd called the black ops team leader and told him he was going dark and extending his leave of absence indefinitely, he'd received an earful. Time for Alec to get his ass back on assignment, Briggs had bellowed. The team needed him.
Maybe so. But first Alec needed to lose his tail.
Though their orders came from unnamed officials within the U.S. government, the elite twelve-man team operated off the grid, an independent entity funded through offshore investments and hidden behind dummy corporations. Long before the Office of Homeland Security was formed, the team had been working for Uncle Sam in foreign hot spots or doing jobs the U.S. military couldn't legally tackle. The work was covert, dangerous and lucrative.
At thirty-five, Alec could easily retire and live off his investments, so extending his personal leave time was not a hardship.
But, as Briggs had reminded him, the team was already short one man due to Daniel's disappearance. The team had changed Daniel's status from MIA to presumed dead after five months and given up their search.
Daniel. The only person he'd allowed himself to trust or give a damn about since his mother taught him his first hard lesson in misplaced loyalty, the pain of betrayal. Then Alec had abandoned his only friend. Maybe he was more like his mom than he wanted to believe. Didn't matter that he'd personally looked for Daniel for nine months. He'd gotten nowhere. He had no more information now about his partner's disappearance than he'd had that hellish afternoon in the Colombian jungle.
Alec swallowed the bile and sour guilt that swelled in his throat. As he held the phone out over the toilet, the screen lit up like the Christmas trees currently lining the streets of Denver. He paused, considered ignoring the ring. But Alec pulled the phone back and flipped it over. Just in case the call was Daniel, finally surfacing.
Checking the caller I.D., Alec recognized the name of the woman who'd bought his house in Cherry Creek last week. He frowned. Why the hell was she calling?
He conjured a mental image of the woman, and a kick of libido replaced his suspicion. Alec never forgot a face, especially one as stunning as Erin Bauer's. He'd ogled more than her face last week as he'd toted cardboard boxes out, and she'd carried wicker baskets and flowery pillows into his old house.
He started to toss the phone without answering, but a prick of unease stopped him. Not answering felt too much like leaving a loose end unresolved. Better to see what she wanted. "H'lo?"
"Um Mr. Kincaid?" her sweet female voice chirped. "This is Erin Bauer. I bought your house on Hurley Street."
"Well, you have some mail here, and I was hoping you'd give me your forwarding address."
"Don't have one."
"Oh. Then maybe you could stop by and pick it up? Although a lot of it's probably junk, there's a bill from the power company and a personal letter that looks impor"
"Toss it all," he interrupted. He also remembered the woman's tendency to chatter nonstop.
"I don't need it."
"Even the letter?" She sounded appalled. "It was hand-delivered by messenger this afternoon. It looks important."
"Hand-delivered?" Suspicion reared its head again. "Who's it from?"
In his line of work letters could be deadly. A piece of Deta-sheet fit easily inside an envelope to make a letter bomb. He preferred to deal by phone. By encrypted email.
"There's no return address," Erin said. "I could open it and read it to you if"
"No!" A cold sweat popped out on his lip thinking of Erin's lush little body, blown to bits by an incendiary device intended for him.
She snorted indignantly. "Ooo-kay. Just an idea."
He'd have to go to the house and pick up the damn letter, if only to be sure she didn't snoop and get toasted in the process.
"There's a name or something in a corner on the back," she said.
His old house was almost certainly being watched. He couldn't just waltz up to the door without being seen. Alec rubbed the back of his neck and stewed over this hitch in his plans. Delays didn't sit well with him.
"It's hard to read the writing, but it looks like La-something." Erin paused. "Lafire, maybe?"
Alec jolted. "What?"
"The word in the corner of the envelope. It's written in chicken scratch, but it looks like Lafire or" A chill skittered down his neck. "Lafitte?"
"Uh, yeah. Maybe."
Alec's stomach somersaulted. His mind leapfrogged as he strode toward the motel door. "Listen carefully, Erin. Put the letter down." He kept his voice under tight control, even as adrenaline and hope surged through him. "Don't touch it again. Got it?"
He prayed she hadn't already obliterated any fingerprints on the envelope, destroyed evidence that could help him find Daniel.
"Uh, yeah. I got it." Her tone was rife with unspoken questions.
He expelled a harsh breath. "Look, I'll be there as soon as I can. In the meantime"
He jammed on his shades and scanned the parking lot before stepping out into the December sunshine. Alec jerked open the driver's door of his rental car and dropped onto the front seat. Was the letter really from Daniel? And if it was, why hadn't Daniel come in person? Or sent an encrypted email? A letter was not protocol. Yet this letter could answer all his questions about what had happened to Daniel that fateful day months ago.
Or it could be a trap.
"In the meantime, what?" Erin asked.
Alec squeezed the phone. "Just sit tight. I'm on my way."
As he sped out of the parking lot, Alec pitched the cell phone in the motel swimming pool.
Lifting her face to the sun, Erin Bauer savored the unseasonably warm day before she stooped to collect her newspaper from the end of her driveway. By tomorrow, the weatherman said, conditions more typical of the Christmas season in Colorado would blast into town.
As she unfolded the newspaper, Erin scanned Hurley Street for signs of Alec Kincaid. More than two hours had passed since he'd said he was on his way. Not that she was watching the clock.
She skimmed the front page and gave the headlines a cursory glance. The top story remained the U.S. senator's daughter who'd disappeared from the charity medical delegation in Colombia. The senator was pleading for information about his only child's disappearance. Erin rubbed a hand over her abdomen. Her loose peasant shirt hid the fact that she could no longer button even her "fat jeans," though she was still a long way from needing maternity clothes. Tucking the newspaper under her arm, she sighed her sympathy for the senator whose daughter was missing. Erin understood loss.
Shoving down a twinge of loneliness, she swiped an errant curl of light brown hair from her eyes. Turning to go inside, she cast another expectant glance down the street. Okay, maybe she was looking forward to seeing Alec a little bit. After all, God didn't give many men the drool-worthy physique He'd gifted Alec with. Or eyes blue enough to send quivers to her core. So who could blame her for wanting another chance to goggle at the man?
Considering Alec had ignored her attempts to make friendly conversation, she'd had little else to do but admire his good looks as they moved their belongings last week.
If he weren't so well, unapproachable she'd consider inviting him to dinner or asking if he'd meet her for lunch one day. If she was truly making a fresh start in her life, she should think about dating again. It had been two years.
But the timing is all wrong now. Maybe next year
A sharp pang twisted through her chest, and she sighed. She had to stop dwelling on Bradley's death, on the Finley child. She needed to push the horrid memories aside and move forward.
Pivoting on her toe, she headed inside to unpack another box in her study. One thing was certainthe next man she let into her life had to be the safe, reliable, homebody sort. No more following her man off the edge of mountains, jumping from planes or diving in treacherous waters. She had other people to think about, other lives to consider, responsibilities. She had guilt.
Erin puffed stray hair out of her face and pushed the gloomy thoughts aside. She set out the few Christmas decorations she owneda jolly Santa, her mother's nativity set and a pine garland, which gave her new mantel a touch of holiday cheer. For the next half hour, she immersed herself in unpacking her collection of books. Beloved original copies of Faulkner, Caldwell and Steinbeck, passed down from her father, graced the shelves next to signed copies of her favorite romance novels and mysteries. Textbooks on topics as varied as meteorology and art history testified to her thirst for knowledge, inherited from her mother and the reason she'd become a teacher. Again pain filtered through her chest. She would teach again. But she'd be more careful this time. Much more careful.
She heard a car in her driveway and moved to the window to peer outside, hoping Alec had finally arrived. Instead she found a delivery van from a local florist pulling to a stop by her sidewalk.
Erin hurried to the front door in time to see a man dressed in a Santa suit slide out of the van. Not Alec. Disappointment spiraled through her, followed closely by curiosity. Who could be sending her flowers? He had to have the wrong address.
She grinned, remembering the silly ads she'd seen for the innovative florist, touting their army of Santas on staff to make special deliveries more festive. The Santas would even sing for an extra fee. The Santa in her driveway unloaded a large poinsettia, tugged his fur-trimmed hat lower over his ears and marched up the walk to her porch.
She stepped out on her porch and called a greeting to the elderly gentleman. He gave her a small nod of acknowledgment. Erin couldn't hide the note of amusement in her voice when she asked, "Hello, Santa. Are you sure those are for me?"
"Yes, ma'am." He lumbered awkwardly in his overstuffed costume up her porch stairs and raised his head. The piercing blue eyes that greeted Erin and her answering bone-deep tremor sent a crackling jolt of awareness through her.
"And you have a letter of mine," Alec said.
She gasped her surprise. Even at close range, the white beard and chubby cheeks looked real. "Mr. Kincaid?"
Alec held a hand up and shook his head slightly. "Inside."
"After you." She stepped back and waved him inside. "So, moonlighting as an elf?"
His expression was hard and unamused. Erin's grin faltered. She had known Alec was remote, but his lack of humor was unsettling. Once inside, Alec placed the poinsettia on her end table and fiddled a bit with the bow before turning.
Erin waved a hand toward her unpacked boxes. "Sorry it's such a mess. I haven't finished in here. I thought the kitchen was"
Alec turned his back to her and walked down the hall, opening closet doors and casting a sweeping gaze into each room. She followed him, bristling at his rudeness. He may have lived here once, but this was her home now.
"Looking for something, Santa?" She didn't bother to hide the irritation in her voice. "I have your letter out here" she hitched a thumb over her shoulder "if that's what"
He closed the blinds in her bedroom before he faced her. "Have you noticed anyone hanging around the area? Any weird phone calls or strangers come by here?"
This from a man wearing red velvet pants and a fake white beard?
Erin couldn't resist. "You mean stranger than you?" He scowled and moved toward her. "Just answer the question. Have you seen anyone watching the house?"
A tingle of alarm skipped down her back. "No. Should I have?"
"Not necessarily." He peeled off the faux beard, which he'd apparently applied with some sticky gluelike substance, and rubbed the black stubble on his square jaw. "Can I see the letter now?"
Erin stared at him, puzzling over his peculiar demeanor before backing toward the hall. "Sure. In here."
She led him to the living room and collected his letter from the coffee table. When she thrust it toward him, he hissed and winced.
"I asked you not to touch it again," he grated through his teeth. He took the letter from her carefully, holding it by the edges.
She gave her head a little shake and drew a slow breath.
He grunted and bent his head to study the envelope.
Just humor him a little longer. Erin shifted her weight and rubbed her palms on the seat of her jeans. "So you recognize the handwriting or anything?"
He didn't answer at first, but when he raised his gaze, she'd swear she saw a flicker of emotion in his eyes. Her pulse stumbled.
"Never mind that," he said huskily. "Don't tell anyone I was here or say anything about having seen the letter. Understand?" A muscle in his rugged jaw twitched.
"Well yeah. But why?"
His stern demeanor had returned so quickly, she wondered if she'd really seen the flash of pain and vulnerability she'd imagined.
"Just keep quiet about it. Do you have a zip-seal bag I can put this in?"
"To preserve it."
"In the kitchen. I'll be right back." Erin hustled past Alec, bemused by his dictate of silence.
When she returned with a zip-sealing sandwich bag, Alec gently slid the letter into it and tucked it inside the fuzzy lapel of the Santa suit. Immediately he headed for the door with a long-legged stride. "Remember, you never saw this letter. Keep your doors locked, and if you think you're being followed, don't take any chances. Go to the cops. Got it?"
Erin's pulse did a little two-step in her chest. "Alec, is there a reason you think I might be followed or in danger? If so, I think I have a right to know what"
"No." Alec grimaced and sighed heavily. "I.. just think women like you, who live alone, should be careful." He quirked his mouth up in a lopsided grin that looked more like a wince. "Merry Christmas." Quickly he replaced the fake beard and shouldered through the front door, changing his gait as he stepped out on the porch to an old man's shuffle.
"Thanks for the poinsettia, Aluh, Santa." Rolling her eyes, Erin closed the front door. "Weird."