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Would she figure it out tonight?
Unlikely. She'd tried before. But at least here, at home, Sherra Alexander had no distractions as she did at work. Which was a good thing, considering the nonstandard way she was conducting her research.
Unlocking the door to her condo, she hurried down the dimly lit hallway to her kitchen. She'd bought dinner on her way home to avoid taking time to prepare anything. For the moment, she placed the paper bag containing her food on the small table in the room's center.
Her thoughts remained on the information she'd unearthed that day. This wasn't the first time she had found anomalies, but they were getting odder. More interesting. More puzzling.
What did they really mean?
As she inhaled the aroma of the turkey burger in the bag, her stomach rumbled. She had worked straight through lunch. She was hungry. And exhausted.
She'd rest soon. But not yet. For now, she put her handbag onto the seat of a chair, hung her suit jacket on the back and stepped out of her uncomfortable spike-heeled shoes. She sighed as her bare feet rested solidly on the warm linoleum floor.
She prepared to grab a small glass of white wine and take it, along with her dinner, into her office so she could get back to her mission at her computer. But
She inhaled rapidly and froze. What was that?
She had heard a sound. From somewhere in her apartment?
Holding her breath, she listened. But all she heard now were muted voices from downstairsher neighbor's two kids, squabbling as usual.
She shook her head. She was just tired. Drained. That happened a lot, thanks to the intensity of her work as an information technology expert for CMHealthfoods, one of the most successful manufacturers of wholegrain breads and cereals. For more than eight hours a day, she searched global databases for information on products, inventory and sales that affected both her company and its competitors. She usually loved it, basked in her daily successes, made it clear to her bosses that she'd take on the most complex assignments.
But right now her personal online search absorbed her even more. Worse, it was triggering her imaginationwasn't it?
She noticed then how stuffy her apartment felt for late spring in Bethesda, Maryland. Crossing the room, she peered out the sliding glass door toward the balcony off the kitchen. Most apartments in the residential buildings beyond were well lit, since it was late. Sherra saw nothing unusual. Even so, she grew still again, listening.
There were no sounds now except for the neighbors and the traffic below. She nevertheless decided not to open the door to let air in through the screen. Sure, she felt spooked. What she'd been doing lately made her justifiably nervous.
She pulled a bottle of Chablis from the fridge and poured the glass she had promised herself. She took a sip of the cold, bracing liquid, savored the feeling of it going down her throat. Okay. Enough fooling around.
She grabbed flatware from a drawer, picked up the bag containing her dinner and pulled a thumb drive from her purse. Hands full, she headed down the tiny hall to the small bedroom she used as an office.
And stopped. The door was closed. Had she shut it today? She always left it open.
Well, she must have closed it this morning. No one but she could have been here. If the condo association had sent in someone to do maintenance they'd have given her notice.
Despite her unease, a minor change to her routine like this was no big deal. Usually, she'd have thought nothing of it.
But her recent research had put her on edge.
Maybe she should check things out, just in case. She put the fork she held into the bag, then set it and the glass of wine on the hallway floor near the wall. Still holding the knife, she turned the knob and pushed open the door.
And screamed. Or would have, if one hand hadn't been slapped immediately over her mouth as another grabbed the arm in which she held the knife and wrested it from her.
"Calm down," ordered the man who'd grabbed her. "It's okay." He stood off to her side.
Gasping in terror, she managed to yank herself free and dash back into the kitchen. He was faster. She saw his figure whip by her, blocking her from leaving the kitchen and getting to someplace safe.
A weapon! She needed something to protect herself.
She ran toward the drawer from which she'd gotten the first knife and grabbed a second one.
Only then did she pivot to face him, shoulders hunched, the knife poised in her hand as she prepared to lunge. Instead, she released a gasping moan as he snared her arm.
"Hello, Sherra," said Brody McAndrews.
"Brody." His name sounded like a furious oath emanating from her lovely, full lips. "How did you get into my apartment? You're supposed to be dead."
He expelled a brief ironic laugh. "Yeah. I am." She didn't know the half of it. But that was why he had come.
He continued to grip Sherra's right arm to keep her from stabbing him. The knife she held resembled the first one, which he'd slipped carefully into his back pocket.
"But I Why are you here?" she demanded.
Good question. He had the answer but couldn't tell her. Not all of it, at least.
Brody had known this wouldn't go well. He had also known he had little choice. Contacting Sherra through usual ways could blow his cover. If it wasn't already blown, thanks to her.
Her damned interference could cost him. A lot. Not to mention the level of danger she could put herself in. And him. And others, too.
"We need to talk," he said. Watchful, he allowed her to keep hold of the knife, knowing it probably gave her a sense of securitya false one. He'd remove it from her soon. Otherwise, she'd undoubtedly use it against him.
"That's for sure," she responded.
He stared at her, breathing deeply to remain in control as he decided how best to play this.
Absorbed in his search on her computer, he hadn't been waiting near her front door as he'd intended. Mistake? Maybeand he knew better than to make mistakes. Under other circumstances, it could be fatal. It wouldn't happen again.
When he'd heard her arrive, he had waited. If she hadn't come into her office, he'd have easily tracked her down in her apartment, but she had acted as anticipated.
It was time. He darted sideways before she could react, grabbed her from behind and pulled this knife from her grasp, too. But he was suddenly much too aware of the warmth of her body. Its softness.
The memories of how it had felt to make love with her.
"Let me go." She turned in his grasp. "You're hurting me. I'm not going to stab you. Are you going to hurt me, Brody?"
He realized then that his grip had tightened. Slowly, almost mesmerized by her nearness, he had been leaning closer, as if he was going to kiss her the way he used to.
Instead, he abruptly obeyed, releasing her.
She, in turn, backed away quickly, as if she feared his presence. Not surprising. Even so, he despised the pangs of regret and pain that shot through him. He shrugged them off.
She bumped into a chair pushed beneath the small kitchen table. That stopped her retreat, but he saw her glance toward the door leading out of the kitchen. She wanted to flee.
He couldn't let her.
"We need to talk," he repeated. "Give me a few minutes so I can tell you why I'm here."
He watched emotions sweep over her lovely face. She'd never been able to hide her feelings from him. He just watched as she mulled over what he'd said. Enjoying the view despite himself.
Sherra was as beautiful as she'd been when they were together. Maybe even more so. Her face was oval, her skin still smooth and perfect. Her nose was a bit long, and her deep brown eyes were underscored by prominent cheekbones.
Her hair was different, though. Years ago, when they'd been together, she had kept it trimmed in a shoulder-length cap of gleaming black. Now, it was longer and straight, draping below the top of her dressy white blouse. She looked businesslike, but her beauty wasn't minimized by her capable appearance.
He hadn't imagined a techie dressing so professionally, but it made sense. She worked for a major corporation.
So did hesort of. Two of them. Right now he had on jeans and a T-shirt, instead of the slightly dressier civilian stuff he wore to the place where he worked undercover.
For now, at least. Assuming she hadn't ruined his assignment. He continued to hold his temper in check. Getting upset wouldn't resolve anything.
"Why don't I make us a pot of coffee?" she said.
He could have used something strongerstronger, even, than the glass of wine that sat on the hall floorbut caffeine would do. "Sounds good."
This time when he approached the open doorway leading to the hall out of her apartment, he ambled casually. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, blocking her exitand feeling the weight of both knives in his back pocket. Fortunately, neither looked sharp enough to slice through his slacks, but he'd discard them soon. He hadn't brought the gun he usually carried. Despite what Sherra had done to him by her hacking, he had no intention of harming her.
She shot him a knowing yet irritated smile. "Don't worry. I'm not running away. Not till I get some answers."
Some answers. That was the key. He would tell her just enough to get her to listen. To do as he said.
Sherra wanted to scream at him. Or laughin relief?
Instead of doing either, she walked purposefully toward the refrigerator. He again stood between her and the main exit. What would happen if she ran out onto the balcony across the room and screamed for help? Probably nothing helpfulat least not fast enough.
The smart phone she used was in her purse, and that remained on the chair.
For now she'd make coffee, though she might feel better drinking a serious amount of wine. She extracted a packet from the freezer, filled a carafe with water and got the expensive machine on the counter ready to brew. The strong scent of coffee soon filled the kitchen.
"It'll be a few minutes," she said. "Have a seat." She removed her purse from the chair and placed it on the edge of the tile counter near the coffeemaker. With her back toward Brody, she managed to extract her phone, but she had no pockets in her slender suit skirt. She just put it on the counter and set her purse on top of it. For now.
Then she turned and looked at him.
His face was just as she remembered, all masculine and angular, his amber-colored eyes deep set beneath thick brows. They were just a shade lighter than his brown, wavy hair, which was a lot longer now than the military cut he had first worn after high school. That was when he had joined ROTC, when they both went to college at the University of Maryland. He remained utterly handsome, despite looking older, more mature.
More appealing, damn him.
"Let's both sit down," he said. "Then you can ask your questions."
Would he answer any? She certainly had a lotand getting answers to questions was her life. It was her job. And more.
Only recently had she been faced with the most puzzling question she'd ever had: What had really happened to Brody McAndrews, the man she had loved and lost?
They had broken up after college, just before he enlisted in the army. About six months ago, he had reportedly died in a terrorist attack in Afghanistan. It had been a blow, even though they'd broken up long before that.
But when she'd started researching, to find out how he'd died, she had discovered so many anomalies.
Including the biggest one, to her: Why, after all this time, did she care?