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Tall, blond and deadly gorgeous.
Brian Sloane knew that Lindsey Cook was a looker. One glance would let any male with eyes know that fact. Platinum blond hair that hung to her waist, classic blue eyes that would disappear next to a clear summer sky and a body that should be gracing covers of magazines. A looker, all right.
This was the longest he'd ever been with a woman and he hadn't met her yet.
He knew how old she was, where she'd graduated from college, that her best friend's name was Beth. All that information was on her internet site. He knew she lived in Arlington, drove a sports car, kept two goldfish and was allergic to cats. She'd had five jobs in the past three years and did freelance web design. He also knew why she'd migrated to Texas after burying her cousin. Jeremy had drowned while they'd been on vacation together about six months ago and she'd stayed after settling his affairs. Her cousin's female lawyer had been extrachatty during happy hour.
Unfortunately, accidents happened everywhere, leaving one question he couldn't answer. How long she would live.
Brian entered the sandwich shop and tried not to zoom all his attention on her. Searching the remaining tables, he noticed no one else was alone, so it was probably safe to assume she was his appointment. "Lindsey?"
"You're Brian?" she asked, extending her hand. Her smile could mesmerize him. He'd watched her work that magic on several customersmale and femaleover the past couple of weeks.
"That'd be me." He took a slender palm in his own, gave a quick squeeze and sat at the table. A well-chosen table in the middle of the very empty sandwich shop. The red silky blouse clung everywhere and plunged just enough to make his imagination go a little wild.
"So, you said that Jeremy's lawyer recommended me for a job. Your email said something about a ranch website?"
"Yeah, about that. This might sound strange, but I've been doing some research and" Was that sudden look in her eyes one of surprise? An alert? How had he messed up?
He stared, thinking hard on what his answer should be. It was important she listen to him. Her life depended on it. He couldn't just say that. Could he? He'd avoided the truth long enough. "To be honest"
"Excuse me just a sec." She looked into her purse. She brought her keys to the tabletop. Hooked to the ringnow pointed at his facewas a small can of pepper spray. "Who are you and why have you been following me? I saw you in front of the store yesterday and you were in line behind me when I got coffee last week."
"Whoa there." He raised his hands, trying not to jump away from that can. "I really am Brian Sloane. I'm a Fort Worth paramedic, just like I said on the phone. I've got ID."
She shook her head slowly from side to side. Was she thinking about believing him or shooting that pepper spray into his eyes? Okay, so he'd slipped up and not only let her see him a couple of times, but he'd made eye contact at the coffee shop. Who could have resisted? She was smoking hot.
"I'm going to leave," she said, "and you'd better stop following me. Just so you know, I took your picture when you walked in and if I see you againeven by accident I'll report you to the police as a stalker."
He leaned forward, and she jerked to attention. Skittish as a newborn colt. "I know this is a weird way to meet."
"To say the least." She kept the nozzle pointed at his eyes. Extremely close to his eyes.
"But I do have information regarding your family."
"I don't have any family."
"What I mean is I've been doing research and I think Jeremy was murdered."
"I thought you were an EMT. You sound like a reporter." She brought her finely shaped eyebrows into a straight line, showing her scrutiny and distrust. Not knowing she'd just delivered an insult to highly trained paramedics everywhere by calling him an entry-level EMT.
With a new sister-in-law around his house, he was picking up on a lot of subtle feminine looks that he'd had no clue about before. This look? Well, it didn't leave any room for interpretation.
He shifted. She jerked.
"Just getting my wallet. Okay?"
"Is there a problem, Lindsey?" The guy behind the sandwich counter stopped wiping the display cases.
"I'm fine. Just dealing with another jerk reporter."
"I'm not a reporter." He shook his head, looked at the big fellow who was very defensive of the woman in front of him and repeated, "I'm not a reporter."
"Then why are you following me?"
"It's a long story and I'd rather not have pepper spray aimed at me while I tell it."
Lindsey's long, straight hair gently framed a delicate, expressive, beautiful face that he'd been attracted to since the first picture he'd seen of her online. It sort of took him by surprise when she leaned back in her chair, dropped her hands to her lap and waited, the key ring in plain sight. Her protector returned to cleaning. The shop's patrons went back to business as usual.
"I'd like the short version, please," she said, pushing her hair behind her ear. "You've got five minutes and then I'm leaving."
Short? How did he explain such a complicated story?
"All right. Twelve years ago I thought my brother caused the accidental fire that took the life of one of our former teachers, your second cousin, Gillian Cook. But I was wrong. She was murdered."
"Take it to the police." She pushed back her chair and scooped her keys into her purse, clearly taking off.
"You said I had five minutes."
She stood. Her long hair swayed at her waist, drawing his attention to the fraction of flat belly he could see above her jeans when her shirt rose up as she took a deep breath.
"You have five seconds to remove your hand from my arm or I'll let Craig" she tipped her head to the sandwich guy, who threw down his bar towel "deal with you. Four. Three."
Craig dashed to the end of the counter. Brian dropped his hold. Lindsey stared at him as her friend reached for his shirt. He'd been so caught up in her leaving that he hadn't realized he'd grabbed her arm to stop her.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"Wait. Craig, wait." She waved off the man's attempt to lift Brian from the chairthrough the table. "Look, I'm very tired of people hounding me about my accident-prone family. There have been terrible emails from someone thinking I'm a jinx." She hid her eyes behind slender fingers, then shoved her hair behind her ear again and straightened her back. "I know what happened to my family. I live with it every day, and to have it in the paper or on a blog is disrespectful. It's mean and I've had enough. Just leave me alone."
She tilted her face toward her chest, hiding behind her hair.
"Your family didn't do anything wrong." Brilliant blue eyes opened wide to search him. Why was she ashamed? "Besides, I don't think they were accidents. And I'm fairly certain you're next."
"Seriously? You think someone's out to kill me?" Her long nails were the exact color of one of the flowers on her shirt. It was easy to see with her hand nervously rubbing her collarbone.
"I haven't been stalking you, Miss Cook. Our paths crossed while I was looking into your cousin's life," he explained. It was true enough. He had been looking into Jeremy Cook.
Craig stood guard at her shoulder, ready to do battle, his arms crossed over a massive chest. It was plain why Lindsey had chosen this location to meet a stranger. "Take it to the cops," Craig said. "You ready for me to throw this jerk out?"
One cross look would have Brian's face pulverized before he could defend himself. Well, Craig could try.
Brian had fought with the best around his hometown for a long time. So he shrugged. He'd never convince her while including muscleman in the conversation. She didn't believe him. Hell, he hardly believed himself. His theory was so far out there he hadn't even shared it with his family.
He'd tried, right? That was all he could do. He pressed on the table to push his chair back and long, bright nails tapped quickly near his hand, gaining his attention.
"It's okay, Craig. I'm okay." She looked up at her protector and winked at him, immediately relaxing the big guy and getting her way.
Brian waited until they were alone and lowered his voice, leaning closer across the table. "Look, I'm not a cop or a detective or a reporter. I really am just a horse rancher who pays the bills by working as a paramedic."
"You're wowing me with so many reasons to believe you." She laughed. Her eyes sparkled and were sad at the same time.
He understood that. How an enjoyable moment could catch you off guard and you forgetjust for an instant. Then the reason you don't laugh comes rushing back to blur the happy. Yeah, he understood.
"You have every right to wonder about my motives. You should be careful. I should have left this info with your lawyer and never bothered you in person. I'll be on my way."
"Why did you? Come here, that is."
The tap on the tabletop drew his eyes back to her hands, then up her tanned arms, to her shoulders and neck. The slow tap and arch of her eyebrow showed him she knew he'd been taking a long look. He expected a wink any second, and would probably do whatever she asked. He was that attracted.
He pushed himself straighter in the chair and caught her doing a little looking of her own.
"I can't convince you to trust me. I'll drop everything off at your lawyer's office after I get out of your hair."
"Wait. I, um If you're really not a reporter, can you begin again? Take five more minutes?" She brought part of her hair in front of her shoulder and began twisting strands into a tiny braid. "Start with what the police said."
"That I was crazy."
"I can't imagine why." She smiled, sliding back into the chair next to him. "I'm sorry and really trying to understand why you think someone's trying to kill me. You have to admit, it's not news you get every day."
He'd give her that point. He also liked her sassiness. "When you look at each family, the deaths seem to be open-and-shut accidents. But a friend of mine who's big on genealogy did a search. And then there's the regular intervals of the accidents. My brother caught that when"
"Why do you think I'm next?" she interrupted, eyes worried, her breathing rapid. "You're the only one left."
Lindsey wanted to run from the shop and the memories. But the man leaning across the table looking so concerned on her behalf intrigued her. She still had doubts and couldn't possibly believe his theory. It didn't hurt to hear him out. She glanced at the clock behind him. She had plenty of time before she needed to be at work.
His hand covered hers. "I'm really sorry. I shouldn't have said it like that. I'm not used to this kind of conversation."
She could feel the calluses, the warmth, the strength. He looked genuinely worried. A shiver crept up her back. The eerie kind that could make you look under your bed after watching a shark movie. But that was nonsense, just like thinking all her family had been murdered.
"When Jeremy died, I made the mistake of mentioning to one of his friends that he was my last close relative. He didn't wait until Jeremy had been buried before he blogged about the accidents of those close to me. He ranted about how lucky I seemed to escape death while those close to me didn't and insinuated there may be foul play."
"That's why you thought I was a reporter. I don't blame you for grabbing your pepper spray."
Brian Sloane wasn't anything like she'd expected.
Honestly, she'd thought the man following her would be a psychopath. Someone following her for a really weird reason like they loved her nails or something. So if this tall cowboy wasn't following her and hadn't been the one asking Craig questions earlier this week, then who was the mystery man and how would she find him?
"Why do you think someone wants to kill me, Mr.
"Brian, please. My daddy's still Mr. Sloane and is the only one who deserves that title."
A good-looking cowboy who could charm his way anywhere, she'd bet. It was easy to see the solid, chiseled body just under his T-shirt. Hard not to imagine the strength that came with the square jaw and high cheekbones. Not so fast, Mr. Sloane.
"We haven't found a reason."
"We? I thought the police didn't believe you."
"A neighbor and my sister-in-law have been helping me." He leaned his chiseled jaw on his elbow. "Discovering the truth is important to my family. Everybody's chipped in some research time."
"Maybe you should start at the beginning?" And maybe she shouldn't look too much at that million-dollar smile.
"Four months ago, I began trying to find the family of a neighbor and teacher in Aubreythe town where I live. She died just after my high school graduation in an accident I was blamed for."
"A second cousin who I never met."
He nodded. "I started looking just after Jeremy drowned in Cozumel. His death made the news in Fort Worth, so I recognized his name."
"He was snorkeling. His body had lots of small cuts and scratches. They think he got caught in the coral." She relived Jeremy's drowning almost every night and hoped to forgive herself one day. "Over forty people were in the water and no one saw anything."
His grip on her hand tightened and he nodded as if he understood.
"Mabel, my dad's friend, researched your family tree. Every name she gave me passed from an accident." He paused and removed a piece of paper from his back pocket. "Here. Fourteen names. They're all related to you and all died in the past twenty years. Most out of state."
He pushed the paper over to her with a long finger, then leaned back in his chair, lacing those fingers together behind his neck. His brows arched high, waiting for her to acknowledge his assumptions.
"The police are right. A list doesn't prove anything."
"Don't you see?" He jumped forward, his hand landing a little too loudly on the tabletop.
Lindsey automatically reached for the mace again, stopping herself when she saw the concern in Brian's puppy-brown eyes. Wouldn't it be the perfect ploy for a serial killer to pose as the person trying to stop himself?
Don't be a ninny.
"I can't see anything with the exception that there are several people on that list I loved very much."
"I'm sorry. I know how hard that must be."
"I don't see how. Your father's still alive." Remembering brought a very fresh pain of responsibility for Jeremy's accident. Accident. Not murder. She was the one who had taken off instead of snorkeling with him. "I'm sorry, Brian, that was rude."
"It's all right. This information is out of the blue from a complete stranger."
"You aren't the first to come to me with this type of conspiracy story. One of Jeremy's friends spread it across FriendshipConnect. But just like all the others, you can't offer a reason why anyone would want us dead. Nor do you have proof. So I'm leaving now and I'd appreciate it if you didn't contact me again."
Lindsey threw her bag over her shoulder and left before the sympathetic cowboy could talk her into staying. Her hand found the pepper sprayjust in case. Good-looking or not, he had a look in his eyes that promised he wouldn't let this story go. What he'd gain from it what any of them gained from it, she had no idea and would never understand.
She used her shoulder to push through the door. The afternoon heat wasn't too bad for mid-October. But she was used to much cooler temperatures. Nothing even close to the record-breaking heat wave they'd experienced through the summer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
She searched her bottomless pit of a purse until she felt the familiar shape of thick-rimmed sunglasses and pushed them onto her face to block the UV rays. At the next doorway, she ducked under the awning, close to the window, to get out of sight in case Mr. Sloane followed her again.
Someone wanted to murder her? Ridiculous. Right?