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Luke Berringer stared through the bars of the adjoined jail cell at one of the most beautiful women he'd ever known. If he hadn't been at her house that afternoon right before it had blown up, and if he hadn't found her in time, neither one of them would be standing here now, waiting for the police to sort it all out.
But he had been there, and now they were both holed up in jail, since she kept insisting that he was a stranger and that she was someone else. She was playing the innocent-the victim-when in truth, Nicole Brooks was anything but innocent. He'd prove that if it was the last thing he did.
Luke looked at his watch again-except it wasn't on his arm. It was in a property bag being held by the police until he was released, which should be any minute now.
His cousins, the other members of Berringer Bodyguards, should get him out of here soon.
Nicky might not be as lucky, he thought, watching her pace next door.
There were a few subtle differences between Nicky and her new identity, Vanessa Grant. Most people wouldn't notice.
Luke noticed, but he could still see the real Nicky underneath Vanessa's softer persona.
"I have to say, I like this look on you. But a schoolteacher, Nicky? You never cared for kids-this score must be really something for you to put on this kind of performance day in and out."
She turned on him.
"Stop. Calling. Me. Nicky."
"The cat will soon be out of the bag, why pretend? You might as well get used to these accommodations. You could be here for a while."
She shook her head and made a small, feral growling sound before she walked to the bars, curled her hands around them very tightly and looked at him hard.
"The way I see it, Mr. Berringer, if that's even your real name, you're behind bars, too. At least I'm here as a victim. It's you they're investigating. Convenient that you happened to be there right before the place blew. That you knew exactly how much explosive was in the house, what kind and that it would go off right at that second. But why? That's what I want to know. Why would you want to kill me? I don't even know you."
Luke vaulted across the cell, his hands curling over hers, holding her there as she tried to pull away.
"Oh, you know me. You know me very well. Intimately, even. The same way I know you. I know how you feel, how you taste and how you cry out when you-
"Stop!" she spat, and pulled her hands free. "You know nothing about me, especially not that."
Her eyes flashed, cheeks blooming with color as she heaved breaths, drawing his attention to the fit of her blouse.
"Had a little work done there, too, hmm? You look smaller on top."
Her eyes widened in disbelief. He laughed.
"Still very nice, but you know, less showy. I guess you'd want to draw less attention in your new position. Apparently, it didn't work, since someone wanted you to go boom right along with your house. I saved your life. That's one fact you left out. Believe me, after the evidence I handed over to the detective, you're the one in trouble here, sweetheart. And I couldn't be happier about it."
Her expression changed and gone was the fierce, angry woman. In her place was a shaken, clearly exhausted one who faced him with eyes full of tears.
"Why are you doing this? You did save my life, but you act like you hate me. And you don't even know me. You clearly have me confused with someone else. This Nicky person, whoever she is."
Luke felt a pinch of sympathy-and a fleeting moment of doubt-before he capped it off. Nicky was an expert at manipulating emotions, hers and others', with precision. It was why she was such a good con artist and thief.
"I don't hate you. I want you to pay for what you've done. To me, and to others. Innocents."
She looked at him, pensive, wiping the tears away.
"What is it exactly that you think I've done?"
So this was the game she wanted to play? Fine. He had nothing better to do at the moment. Sitting down on the bare-bones cot on the other side of the cell, he took a deep breath before speaking.
"You stole very sensitive computer code, obviously with the intention of selling it to the highest bidder. I have to figure that plan fell through, since you're here in Florida, trying to make another score. Also, the programming has never surfaced since."
He paused before continuing. "You slept with me and almost convinced me that we had something. Enough of something that I didn't watch you as closely as I should have. You took advantage of that and of me. You set me up, and you set up Marcus Yates, who killed himself after I accused him of being the thief. So, we're both guilty, Nic. You and I both caused someone else to take his own life. But you were the one who orchestrated it all, and you don't get to walk away from that."
The words came out calmly, smoothly, and she listened, transfixed.
"That's awful, but I never did any of those things. I've been a teacher here for eight years. I've never even met you let alone slept with you, and-"
He put a hand up. "Please. I really don't want to hear it. You played me once, shame on you. If I let you play me again, well, you know how that goes."
Luke was suddenly tired. He closed his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest. He didn't want to play the game anymore. He wanted this to be done.
She didn't say anything else, and he started to drift off into a mental fog when a noise had him bolting upright. The detective was unlocking his cell.
"Mr. Berringer, you're free to go."
"What? Are you kidding me? He's probably the one who tried to blow up my house!" Nicky exclaimed.
"No evidence of that, Ms. Grant. In fact, Mr. Berringer is a bona fide bodyguard-professional security-and he did save you. We're just waiting on a few confirmations concerning your statement and then we'll let you out, too."
Luke smiled, suddenly reenergized as he headed out of the station. Nicky was still looking at him as if she couldn't believe it.
He waved smartly to her before he left and grinned at the outraged look she gave him. She was gripping the bars so tightly he could see her white knuckles from a distance.
He had no doubt that the police would find that none of her story was true, and she wouldn't be out anytime soon. Luke would be happy to testify at her trial.
His phone rang as he proceeded down the long hall to the exit. It was his cousin, Garrett, calling to check in. Luke made his way out into the parking lot in front of Tampa Police Headquarters, filling his cousin in on what had happened.
People passing by slid wary looks in his direction, and he couldn't blame them. He was dirty, scraped up and reeked of smoke and sweat. None of that was important.
"Luke. So, they spring you yet?"
"Yeah. Thanks for the speedy response."
"Sure. Though Jonas thought we should let you simmer in there for a day or two, for kicks."
"Funny. Did you find anything?"
Luke had his cousins do the background research on Vanessa Grant. It was likely that she had developed a sturdy fake background, maybe even one that the police couldn't break through. Garrett would dig deeper.
"Sorry, Luke. You're not going to want to hear this, but Vanessa Grant looks legit-work history, fingerprints, adoption certificate, all match her picture. She was in the foster system for seven years, then adopted, graduated high school, went on to college. It's all here. I'll give you that she does look a lot like Nicole Brooks, but she was a new teacher back when you were with Nicky. They have school year photos that show her in them at the time. It's not her."
Luke paused and closed his eyes. Could it be possible? Was this some kind of mix-up? No. He'd seen her. Close up. He knew.
"Gar, how many elementary teachers do you know who are targeted with several bricks of explosives? Obviously, someone other than me is after her, and there has to be a reason for that."
"Well, you have a point there. Still, if this is a cover, it's one of the best I've ever seen. She's living out in plain sight, not trying to hide anything, and it has been the case for over a decade."
"That does sound airtight," Luke said, trying to figure out how Nicole could have made this happen. There was no way even she could be in two places at the same time. An accomplice? Had she reeled in another innocent to help her accomplish her plans?
That was possible. It was possible that Vanessa Grant was being used by Nicole all this time and never knew it. Perhaps now, Nicky was done with her, or considered her a threat. A loose end.
It would explain why someone wanted to blow her up. That meant she was still in danger. He ran the theories by Garrett.
"That's possible. So what are you going to do?"
"I'm not sure. Wait. Follow her. See what happens. If she's Nicole, she'll slip up. If she's not, the people who are after her will make another play, I imagine. Then I can find out who they are and maybe find Nicky in the process."
"Be careful, Luke . This job is hard enough when we know where the threats are coming from."
"Gotcha. I'll be in touch," he said, ending the call.
Luke knew his cousins still had some doubts about if he was over his past troubles yet. He was. Mostly.
He'd once ruled the tech world, owned a massively successful software company and had more money than he'd ever need-until everything had fallen apart, thanks to Nicky. He didn't miss the work or the wealth. It had taken Luke a long time to get his head on straight, but he'd done it. He liked his life now, and he enjoyed working with his cousins.
But he needed to do this one, final thing to really be able to move on with his future.
He needed to bring Nicky to justice-and that was even more the case if she had put yet another innocent in the line of fire. Whether Vanessa Grant was really innocent or not, he still had to find out for sure.
Vanessa stared at the dingy cell wall. Every bone in her body ached, and she was dirty and tired. They kept saying she could leave soon, but she'd been here all day. Probably because of Luke Berringer, who was now free as a bird while she was still locked up like a criminal. It made no sense.
It was all very unreal and dreamlike, except for the scrapes and bruises she received from being pushed out of the way of the explosion by Berringer. He was clearly deranged, pursuing some imaginary woman who had ruined his life. Yet the police had let him out the door. A bodyguard? She couldn't believe it.
But then again, she'd read an article once about people with "hero complexes" who would stage a disaster so that they could save someone and get attention. However, this man didn't want her thanks; he was trying to get her arrested. He said they'd been intimate.
She wrapped her arms around her middle to repress a shiver. He was a very good-looking man, but how he looked at her had been far too personal for her comfort. The things he said to her were also inappropriate, at the very least.
Vanessa turned her thoughts to the practical. In spite of her entire life blowing up, she had classes to prepare and errands to run. She had to attend the new teacher and student orientation that evening. Only two hours from now. She needed a shower and new clothes. She hadn't died in the explosion, and she wanted to go on with her life. That was a healthy attitude, right?
She started to shake all over again when she realized she couldn't take a shower. She didn't have a shower anymore. Her pretty new shower-that she had retiled herself last summer-was in scattered bits around her lawn. She had no home, no anything.
She had nothing but the clothes on her back and what was inside her purse. And her car. She'd been taken down to police headquarters after the EMTs had checked her out, and she wondered if anything much was left of her car, as it had been in the driveway right next to her house.
The small cell spun a bit, and she lowered herself to the cot. Where would she go? She couldn't afford a hotel, not for more than a night or two. How long would it take the insurance to help her with her house? Her car? Did they even cover a bombing? Would they pay for a place for her to stay?
She'd have to call her family and do a million other things that she couldn't even think about right now. She just had to get out of here.
She was so overwhelmed. To onlookers, she could only imagine they thought she was catatonic. She took a deep breath, trying to focus.
"Hey, are you doing okay?" the detective asked as he approached the cell. "I'm sorry this took so long, but we had to make sure, the way you two were both accusing each other."
He opened the cell, gestured for her to follow. Vanessa hesitated. Where would she go when she left?
She straightened her back and exited the cell. The detective was a nice, older man with kind eyes that were weathered by having seen too much over what she assumed was a long career. He put a light hand on her shoulder, and she nearly jumped out of her skin, turning on him and moving to grab his hand in a defensive reflex.
Her adopted dad had taught her how to defend herself so that she could feel safe wherever she went. She hadn't practiced her self-defense in years, not formally, but her instincts still kicked in when she needed them. When she felt threatened.
Her difficult childhood-being moved from house to house, one state facility to another-had trained her to be hyperaware. It was how she survived, but it was also a habit that never quite wore off. Being touched by a stranger, even a well-meaning one, was unwelcome.
"I'm sorry," she said, pulling her hand back. "I'm really on edge."
"I can understand that. You've been through a shock today," the detective said patiently. "Just to be clear on the details, you said you had a few small incidents recently? Some harassment? Did you report it?"
She'd already written all of this in her statement, but took a breath and responded.
"No. There were a few weird phone calls, that kind of thing. But nothing like this. I thought the calls were a crank."
"Okay. Would you mind if we took a look at your phone records? We need your permission for that."
She had nothing to hide.
"Thank you. That should wrap things up. Do you have a place to stay tonight?"
"I'll work something out."
The set of the detective's mouth was grim.
"Considering the circumstances, we should probably put you in protective custody for at least a few nights, until we can track down who planted the explosives. And why."
"I can't do that. I've lost everything. But I still have a job I'd like to keep. My administrators are expecting me to run sessions for new teachers and students before classes begin in two weeks. I have to get my lessons in order, send letters to parents.there's so much to do. I can't hide away."