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No matter the legacy a man left behind, ultimately it was his death that defined him.
Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery was something of a tourist attraction with its medieval castle-like entrance of Joliet limestone and dozens of brooding mausoleums ranging in architectural styles from Egyptian to Gothic. The inhabitants, Civil War generals and soldiers as well as vice presidents, all lay in perpetual slumber in a place so blatantly filled with pomp and circumstance that even the soft tread of footsteps seemed an intrusion.
However well landscaped and adorned with lush shrubbery and graceful trees, this city of the dead with its foreboding Celtic cross and shimmering lake was still just a cemetery. Row after row of markers, whether mere headstones or more elaborate structures, represented lives that existed no longer.
His seeking gaze settled on one plot in particular where a woman stood quietly, probably reminiscing about the life long since laid to rest there.
The date of death engraved on the cold granite headstone indicated little about the man interred but the name inscribed on that same glossy black surface said all that one needed to know.
Beloved husband and father.
Another epitaph should have been added: Ruthless butcher and marauder.
The great James Colby had been shot down and killed like the worthless bastard he was and not a minute too soon. But, even in death, his presence still lingered among the living. His essence kept alive his work continued by a woman who was no better than he had been. Though she'd been warned, she persisted in her selfordained, lofty endeavors. Just like her husband, nothing would stop her.
And now her time was close at hand.
From his vantage point fifty meters away, well within striking distance, he read her every expression, watched her every movement through the crosshairs of his high-powered tactical scope. It was a face he had come to know intimately with the use of advanced technology and unending patience.
Looking weary and resigned the woman peered down at the elegant headstone as she no doubt struggled with the overwhelming silence around her felt dizzy with the stifled senses of the dead and buried. The smell of damp earth would fill her nostrils with each breath she drew into her lungs, a sickening reminder that the rich, sodden soil perpetually cloaked her long-dead husband in its cold, relentless embrace.
Nothing could change the past.
Victoria Colby, he knew, had slowly come to realize that only she had the power to change the future. He'd waited a very long time for her to come to that understanding.
And yet she was powerless to deter him from his course.
She would die. Soon.
The decision had been made long ago. His mission sanctioned even before he became a man.
He zeroed in to where her black heart beat beneath the tailored navy suit she wore. His finger curled around the trigger as his respiration ceased entirely. The bipod held the rifle steady, its precision aim a work of master craftsmanship.
He could kill her now this instant and nothing or no one could stop him.
Certainly not the crippled excuse for a man who stood a few meters to her left, watching, his senses so keen, his internal alarm so sensitive that he recognized some unknown threat even now. Smelled the danger in the very air. His rigid posture broadcasted a status of elevated alert.
But Lucas Camp had nothing to fear today. The venerable Victoria Colby remained safe for the moment.
Oh, she would die.
But only one knew the day and the hour that death would come.
And it damn sure wasn't God.
Victoria Colby knelt before her late husband's headstone, uncaring that the waning October sun had yet to dry the morning's heavy dew from the grass. She traced the deeply gouged lines in the sleek surface that formed the letters of his name the date of his passing. A heavy breath caught in her throat before it raggedly slipped past her trembling lips. How she missed him still.
Fifteen years had passed since she'd watched his body lowered into this grave. Since then the life she had once known had ground to a sudden and vicious halt. Without the help of her dedicated friends and colleagues at the Colby Agency, the private investigations firm her husband had nurtured like a child during his final days on this earth, she would surely not have survived his murder.
Her friends had gathered around her, united in strength and loyalty by the heinous tragedy, and held her up when she would otherwise have fallen. With their help she had risen from the ashes of devastation and forged ahead with her husband's dream, making the Colby Agency the very best in the business of private investigations. She had reached that goal, surpassed it, even. James would be very proud. The Colby Agency employed only the finest in the fields of investigation and security. The reputation she had garnered with the help of her outstanding staff was unparalleled.
As proud of that accomplishment as she was, fifteen years was a very long time to devote oneself to nothing but work. In a few months she would turn fifty. That milestone would be reached with nothing to show for her half century on this earth other than her esteemed agency. For some that might be enough, but not for her. She needed wanted
She glanced at the man who respectfully waited a short distance away. His presence made her all the more aware of how much more she wanted. He had been there for her through it all. Had waited patiently for his time to come.
Lucas Camp had served the United States government in one capacity or another for his entire adult life. Most of that dedicated duty had been spent working covert operations that only the president and God knew about. Not once had he hesitated, not even when his own life was at grave risk, when assigned a mission. It was that same man's selflessness that had saved James Colby's life in Vietnam and had shored up her resolve on too many occasions to name when she had felt ready to give up to crumble beneath the weight of seemingly perpetual agonies. He had showered her with an unending source of friendship and kindness, of encouragement and belief in her ability to go on.
For some time now she had known that Lucas was in love with her. Admittedly, what she felt for him could be called nothing else. She knew without reservation that James would want her to be happy, would want no less for her than the kind of man Lucas Camp epitomized.
And still she had hesitated to allow their close relationship to evolve naturally.
The past had haunted her for far too long.
Victoria stared down at her left hand and the narrow gold band that had resided there for twenty-seven years. It was time she moved forward with her personal life. She slipped the band from her finger, held it tightly for one more moment, then pressed it gently into the soft soil at the base of the headstone. "Thank you for all that you gave me, James," she whispered. "You'll always be in my heart."
She swiped away a lone tear that trekked down her cheek and drew in a deep breath of much-needed resolve. It was time to move on, to look to the future rather than the past. She braced a hand on the cool surface of the granite and pushed to her feet.
She had waited long enough.
So had Lucas.
If only she knew the right words to say to thank him for his patience and unending devotion. But there were no words to accurately describe her feelings. Actions spoke louder than words. She'd asked him to bring her here today to show him her intentions.
She smiled when he joined her. "Thank you for giving me a moment."
Those gray eyes searched hers with a kind of uncertainty she would never have associated with the man she knew so well. "You're sure about this?" He glanced at her left hand and its bare ring finger.
Victoria nodded. "Yes. It's time I paid attention to what's important now."
An emotion she couldn't quite define replaced the uncertainty in his eyes. The ferocity of it made her pulse rush with anticipation. "We'll take this slow, Victoria. One step at a time. There's no need to hurry."
Warmth spread through her at his words. He'd stood vigil so very long and still he wouldn't make a single move without considering her feelings first and foremost.
"We'll take it slow in the beginning," she allowed, wanting him to hear in her voice the warmth that his nearness generated inside her.
A tiny smile quirked the corners of his mouth. "You're the boss." He gently folded his arm around her. "Let me take you to lunch," he suggested, that ever-watchful gaze doing a quick, covertbut not quite covert enougharea sweep. "The wind is brisk out here, don't you think?"
She kept her smile firmly in place and resisted the urge to look around the cemetery, brutally squashed the little shiver that threatened to scurry up her spine. Something had put Lucas on guard. He wanted to get her out of here in a hurry but without alarming her in any way. He didn't want to ruin the moment that he knew had been a long time in coming for herfor them.
She trusted his instincts too much to ignore his assessment. Though she hated even the suggestion of running from a threat, she wasn't a fool. Fate had been cruel to her, she'd lost her child and her husband in the space of three years. There had been a time when death would have been a blessed relief. Even now, at times, she wondered how she had survived the utter devastation. If the threat involved only her, she might choose to ignore it. But that was not the case. She'd come too close to losing Lucas only a few months ago on that godforsaken island to think for one second that he was as untouchable as he'd like her to believe.
She could not lose him not now when she'd only just fully realized how very much she needed him.
She would do whatever it took to keep him safe and away from the evil that had destroyed her life once.
Leberman, the soulless devil, would not win this time.
Though she had never been able to prove it, she knew Errol Leberman was responsible for her husband's death. She couldn't be positive he was the one who had taken her son, but in her heart she knew it was a strong possibility. He had done all within his power for twenty long years to destroy her. Just a few short months ago he'd almost succeeded.
The ruthless bastard had lured first Lucas, then her, to St. Gabriel Island. Lucas had been badly hurt and she'd known that she could not let Leberman win.
He had to be stopped.
Lucas always enjoyed his time with Victoria, but today he'd been distracted. She had noticed, and to some degree there had been nothing he could do about that. She read him too well.
"You're sure that's all that's bothering you?" she asked again as she closed the door of her office behind them. He hadn't felt she was secure until he'd gotten her back into this building, this office. His concern at the cemetery as well as at the quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant where they'd dined had apparently been obvious.
Her own suspicions had been raised and she didn't intend to let it go. No one could accuse Victoria Colby of being anything less than persistent. As she awaited his response she shouldered out of her jacket and hung it on the coat tree in the corner, unknowingly providing him with an opportunity to simply look at her in a rare, unguarded state.
He suddenly wished he could see her dark hair loose. He knew it would be long, though she always kept it in a serviceable, upswept arrangement. The silver highlights enhanced the depth of the woman. As she turned to face him once more, he stole yet another moment to admire her effortless beauty. Great personal loss had etched her porcelain skin with fine lines, yet failed to detract from the gentle, sophisticated elegance.
He had been in love with Victoria from the moment he first laid eyes on her thirty years ago. But she had been the fiance of his best friend and colleague, later to become his wife. As much as Lucas loved her wanted her he would, even now, undo the past, resurrect her husband and son in a heartbeat to make her happy, if only he possessed the power. But he could not, of course. He could, however, love her and protect her until the day he took his dying breath.
That he would do.
He produced the expected smile and stuck to his original story that would tie in to his immediate plans. "It's nothing, really. Casey has gotten it into his head that I need a vacation and, well" he shrugged, using all the tactics he had learned over the years in the spy business to hide what he didn't want her to see "you know how I am about work. I can't see myself taking off that kind of time. But Casey is the boss and he keeps insisting." He heaved a sigh. "I have a feeling he isn't going to take no for an answer. This little trip away from D.C. won't be enough to appease him."
Victoria looked thoughtful for a moment. "I've been getting the same hassle around here," she said, her brow furrowing. "Everyone but me thinks I need a vacation. I suppose even I realize it's past time I took some time off." It was her turn to shrug. The gesture drew his eyes to her slender but proud shoulders and the white silk blouse she wore. The contrast of the delicate, feminine fabric to the strong, tough-as-nails woman beneath only served to widen his smile into the genuine article. "Maybe I should," she went on as she looked directly at him, a new kind of sparkle in those brown eyes. "Maybe we should." Her expression turned inquisitive, the barest hint of a smile curled the corners of her lips. "What're you grinning about?"
He held her gaze for a couple of beats, weighing her words and the emotion that looked very much like desire he'd noticed there. "Is that an invitation, Victoria?" he ventured, ignoring her question for the moment. His heartbeat accelerated, sending a surge of heat through his body. He wanted this. Wanted it very much. But it had to be her choice her decision.
She unconsciously rubbed her left hand, missing the ring she'd worn for more than half of her life. "Yes," she said succinctly. "It is."
Scarcely breathing for fear he would somehow break this spell, Lucas took her hands in his and considered how she'd tucked that precious gold wedding band into the ground next to her husband's headstone. That act had taken a great deal of courage, and he respected what it surely meant. She was ready to move on. But he would not push the issue. He had waited a lifetime for this woman, a few weeks longer wouldn't hurt. But her safety was another issue altogether.
He was getting closer.