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Caleb Mattern's watch vibrated against his nightstand. The second after the warning alarm went off and the green backlight flashed, he rolled off the mattress fully awake with his hand grabbing for the gun tucked between the bottom of the headboard and his stack of pillows.
Dressed only in a pair of gray boxer briefs, he reached for the watch and stalked in a crouch through his dark bedroom. The curtains were drawn tight, not letting any light seep in and ruin his nightly four hours of sleep. Any brightness and he wouldn't even get that much.
So, this is how the end would come. Trapped in a one-bedroom condo in his underwear. He smiled at the thought. Or he did until his fingers tightened on the weapon, causing his mind to snap to attention.
Being armed felt right. He could shoot, attack, roll. Do whatever was necessary to stay alive. He'd learned those skills long ago, and being on involuntary leave from the job he loved didn't change the adrenaline rush.
He stalked around the end of the bed, his feet quiet as they fell against the soft beige carpet. Opening the door to the hall would be more of a challenge. He rigged it every night. If someone got into the place without triggering the alarm, he had backup plans: a loose floorboard just outside the bedroom; a window that opened only two inches before the sirens of hell rang out; a hinge rigged to squeak if the door opened.
And those were just the obvious tricks.
As fast as his fingers could move, he tightened the screw at the top of the door. At the right pressure it would remain silent and he could pull off a stealth maneuver into the hall. But too long in this position and any bullet traveling through the door would hit him right in the gut. Not exactly the way he wanted to go out of this world.
He pulled the door open enough to slip through. Quiet echoed all around him. Other than the low hum of the refrigerator down the hall, nothing else made a sound.
The place was about seven hundred square feet. He liked it small. Made it easier to strategize and attack if needed, and it looked as if tonight called for an ambush. If the intruder so much as breathed, Caleb would be all over him.
Easing into the hallway, he hesitated just long enough for his eyes to fully adjust to the dark. He stepped around the purposely creaky floorboard and headed down the short corridor to the open area. From there he could see every angle of the condo.
A shuffling noise sounded in front of him. His gaze swept over the family room and into the small kitchen area on his left.
Well, nothing at eye level. A quick survey of the floor told him what he needed to know. Not that he could see the intruder. But the guy had made a mistake. The slimmest edge of a canvas bag stuck out from behind the couch. Could be a trap but there were only a few places for someone to spring up from behind Caleb. He had his ankle wedged against the laundry door just in case someone managed to curl up in there and hide. That left the few feet of space between the couch and the television.
The rat-a-tat drumming of energy pounded through Caleb. He didn't waste one more second waiting to get shot first. He ducked down, using the piece of furniture as a shield. Him on one side and the target on the other. In one smooth move, he launched his body up over the top of the sofa. The first grab turned up only air. He stretched forward on the second lunge, saw a flash of brown hair and then grabbed a shirt collar and pulled back. Caleb shoved his gun into the intruder's temple just as the screaming started.
He was a she. A very pissed-off she.
Arms and legs thrashed. Books from his coffee table fell to the floor as she kicked out, missing the television by inches. Fingernails scraped against his forearm. When she bit him, he shoved her away. She lost her balance, careening right for the plasma screen but she caught herself in time. She spun around, her eyes wide with shock, chest rising and falling in a rhythm guaranteed to bring on a heart attack.
Identifying the threat almost did it for him. It was as if the blood stammered to a halt in his veins. "Avery?"
His muscles burned from the quick diversion from the fight. "Uh, yeah."
"Why are you sneaking around?"
Avery Walker, former boss and lover. She fired him exactly two years ago next month. He dumped her right after. They'd carefully avoided each other ever since. "That's my question. It's four in the morning."
"And how did you get into my house?"
"I can explain."
His breathing finally pulled back to near-normal levels. "You bet you will. And while you're at it, tell me what you're doing here."
"I came to talk to you."
"There's this new invention called the telephone." He took in her tight mouth and the white-knuckle grip on the side of his television. "What's wrong with you?"
"Could you lower the gun?"
Out of habit it was still aimed right for her heart. He dropped his arm to his side but didn't put the weapon away. Not until he knew what was going on. "Better?"
He felt the same way. Seeing her ripped through his usual wall of control. The jeans and bulky sweater seemed out of place for someone who spent most of her life in a lab coat. Studying her, he saw the same long brown hair and the huge dark eyes that could drop a man to his knees. She had just turned thirty-four, two years older than him, yet her round face and smooth skin made her look a good ten years younger.
The off-the-charts hotness factor had also made some of her days at Hancock Labs tough. Men talked down to her while they ogled her hourglass figure and tight butt. There were few women there, but the one near the top of the food chain piled menial jobs on top of Avery's heavy workload as a DNA analyst, as if daring her to fail.
Caleb knew because he watched it all play out. Quietly fought battles on Avery's behalf without her knowledge. Then she got promoted, the rumors started and everything fell apart.
"You can let go of my television now." They had enough bad blood between them without adding a couple of thousand dollars' worth of smashed electronics.
"It's not what you think."
He actually had no idea what to think. "Okay."
"This is an emergency."
He stared at his front door, but didn't see any sign of a break-in. "How did you get on this side of the door?"
Her arms slowly fell to her sides as she blew out a long breath. "You ask a lot of questions."
"Try answering any of them. Just pick one and start talking."
"I used the code and this to get in." She slipped her fingers into her jeans pocket and pulled out a shiny key.
The move stunned him more than seeing her face. "I didn't live here when we
so you sure shouldn't know my code, though I'm thinking you have an old one since my alarm still went off. And don't try to tell me I gave you a key, because we both know that's not true."
Her chin lifted. "Not to this or any other apartment."
"Is now the right time for that discussion?"
She threw the key on the couch cushion between them. "You're the one who's been running. Not me."
He refused to take the bait. "So, you decided burglary was the best way to get my attention?"
"Forget that." She waved her hands in front of her. "I'm not here about us."
The fact she could dismiss their relationship now as easily as she did two years ago sent his temperature spiking. Had his hand squeezing against the gun until the metal dug into his skin. "What else is there?"
"I had to find you."
"Rod told me if he ever
"Stop." Caleb stepped around the sofa to stand in front of her. "Rod who?"
She didn't roll her eyes, but she looked as though she wanted to. "The man you work for. Rod Lehman."
With his free hand, Caleb wrapped his fingers around her elbow and dragged her even closer, his chest practically resting against hers. He dropped his voice to a whisper just to be safe. "You can't know about this."
"About the Recovery Project? About your undercover work?" She tried to wiggle free, but he didn't ease his grip. "I assure you, I know."
She flattened her palm against his chest, her gaze searching his face as she talked. "Caleb, listen to what I'm telling you."
The soft touch of her hand burned through him. The feel of skin against skin lit his nerve endings on fire. It had always been that way with her. Despite the fury and betrayal, his body reacted to her nearness.
He stepped back to break the hold, physical and otherwise, she had over him. "This is nuts."
"We don't have a lot of time."
She bent down and grabbed her bag. "I have information for Rod. Where is he?"
Nothing she said made any sense. The Recovery Project was top secret, an off-the-books, quasi-governmental agency that hunted missing people, both those who wanted to stay missing and those who wanted to be found. Or it was until a congressman with a personal vendetta pulled the funding and disbanded the group. Now it functioned as a private, rogue investigative organization.
Rod had always spearheaded Recovery, handpicked its operatives, but he had nothing to do with Caleb's past. And Avery was most certainly his past. "What do you know about Rod?"
"Like I said, he's your boss."
Caleb wanted to shake her, but touching her again was out of the question. "Damn it, Avery. That's not public information, and I think you know it."
"He told me if I needed him and couldn't find him through our usual communication channels"
"What does that mean?"
"I should come to you." She sent Caleb that disapproving frown, complete with flat-lined lips. The same look he dredged up from memory whenever he got dangerously close to calling her to talk over old times. Caleb shook his head. "So?"
"I don't know where he is."
She went from frowning to sighing, another of her annoying specialties. "This isn't the time to play super-secretive-operative guy. Rod told me if he ever failed to check in, I should come to you. So, here I am."
She talked as if she worked for Rod, but that was impossible. Rod was his boss. The man ran Recovery, or he did until he disappeared, leaving behind only cryptic notes about a problem in the Witness Security Program, WitSec.
Caleb shook his head as he tried to make sense of his colliding worlds. "We're starting this conversation over."
"No, we're not." She pulled her bag over her shoulder as she looked him up and down. "Go get dressed. I have to keep moving."
"Why?" Caleb barely got the word out when he heard the scraping at the front door. He expected reinforcements, but not from that direction. "Did you relock it?"
A danger signal flashed in Caleb's brain. He grabbed Avery by the wrist and pulled her into the small kitchen while the panel on his watch went wild with racing lights. His stare never wavered from the door. He raised the weapon with one hand and reached around Avery to unlock the window behind her with the other.
"Out on the fire escape and then go down. Do not wait or stop until I tell you." He whispered the command right as the front door shattered off its hinges.
Wood splintered and cracked. A metallic smell mixed with a puff of gray smoke. The too-late alarm screeched inside his condo while the building's fire alarm kicked to life out in the hall. A gun barrel peeked into the room as the door across the hall opened, only to slam shut again.
Caleb didn't wait. He turned to the empty space beside him, relieved to see Avery gone, and then slipped out the window. As quiet as possible, he closed the glass behind him. Ignoring the cold air against his bare skin, he started crawling down the metal steps. His feet touching against the cold, he was careful not to slip or make noise to draw the gunman's attention. Caleb counted on the guy searching the bedroom first. That would be the instinct, to go into the other room, which was exactly why Caleb's escape route didn't lead that way.
Police sirens wailed in the distance as the lights flickered and the building came alive with activity. Avery was a floor below him. She kept glancing up but never stopped moving. When she hit the landing two floors down, he banged the gun against the metal railing to get her attention.
She stopped and shrugged her shoulders at him. Only Avery could maintain her offended sense of bossiness in the midst of a crisis.
Some neighbors flooded into the street as others ducked their heads out windows, looking for the source of the noise and confusion. The action made sneaking away to safety even more difficult. Skipping the last few steps, Caleb jumped down, landing on the platform beside Avery and ignoring the feel of whatever was underneath him.
"Why are we stopping?" she asked.
He didn't take the time to explain. With his hand on her shoulder, he moved her to the side and slipped his fingers between the sill and wall of the window two floors below his condo.
She slapped at his arm. "What if the people are home?"
With a touch of his watch he silenced the alarm for this condo before it could go off and join the others. The window lock clicked open and he raised the glass. "They're not."
"You can't know that."
"I own this, too. It's my escape route." He glanced around but all attention seemed centered on the lobby and the two fire engines pulling up to the curb, instead of the guy in his underwear on the steps.
"Well, of course you own it." She sat on the frame and then swung her legs inside. "Doesn't everyone keep two condos in the same building?"
"I don't remember you being this sarcastic this early in the morning when we dated."
"At this time of the day sarcasm is all I can manage." She continued to grumble even as he followed her inside.