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Alicia Solano looked up from the file contents spread across the table in front of her and gave a small start at the sight of her own reflection in the psychology lab windows. Inky twilight had fallen outside the building while she'd been working, catching her unaware.
Her pulse notching upwards, she gathered her papers into a neat stack, forcing herself to move with deliberation rather than speed. If she took her time now, her files would be in order the next time she opened her briefcase and then she wouldn't have to spend time she didn't have trying to remember where she left off.
And moving faster wouldn't make it any easier to step out into the darkness that loomed between her and the safety of her apartment.
Snapping the briefcase closed, she paused for a second in the stillness of the empty lab and listened carefully for sounds of other people remaining in the building. There would be few here this time of night; at a school as small as Mill Valley University, night classes were rare and usually limited to the business school or the continuing education classes that convened in the liberal arts building across campus.
As she headed for the exits, the faint sound of a cleaning crew chatting in rapid-fire Spanish floated from somewhere down the hall, easing her sense of isolation. Alicia relaxed, at least until she reached the heavy double doors of the exit. Once she stepped into the mild evening air, tension crept back into her spine.
It's not the right set-up, she reminded herself, images from her files flashing through her head. She was still within earshot of students moving about the quad a hundred yards away. There was also the cleaning crew in the building she'd just exited who could come quickly if she cried out. The other women had been utterly alone, in secluded places where nobody could hear their final screams.
She gripped the handle of her briefcase more tightly, grateful for its solid heft. It would make a good weapon if she needed one.
Her apartment was within walking distance of the campus, though secluded, tree-lined Dogwood Street was narrow and tunnel-like, an attribute she enjoyed during daylight hours but regretted now as she navigated the deep shadows inking the sidewalk between her and the relative safety of her apartment.
The four-unit apartment building came into view, a two-story structure rising up in the gloom like the phantom of an old Southern mansion, complete with tall white columns supporting a white-railed porch on the bottom floor and matching balconies on the second floor. The muddy golden glow of the streetlamp on the corner didn't penetrate the canopy of hickory, oak and pecan trees towering over the building, though somehow the ivory columns seemed to glow in the dark like moon-bleached bones.
Alicia quickened her pace at the corner, her low heels clicking loudly on the sidewalk. She had almost reached the steps to the apartments when she realized her footsteps were not alone. Her steps faltered, but the footfalls behind her kept coming, the pace even and unhurried.
She slipped her hand into the pocket of her light cotton jacket and closed her fingers around the small canister of pepper spray. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face her unknown companion.
He was little more than a silhouette in the cool purple shadows behind her, backlit by the shaft of streetlamp glow several yards beyond. Definitely male. Built well. Short hair, powerful shoulders, narrow waist, long legs.
Alicia's heart hammered against her rib cage, but she squelched the urge to run up the steps to her apartment. She knew she'd never make it before he caught up with her, and she'd lose whatever advantage she had gained by facing him head-on.
"Can I help you?" she asked, hating the quiver in her voice.
"I'm looking for Bellewood Manor." His voice was deep, friendly and deliciously Southern. A California girl, born and bred, Alicia had discovered a soft spot for a deep, slow drawl. She fought against letting her guard down, however. A sexy Southern accent didn't preclude very bad intentions.
"May I ask why?" she countered warily.
"My niece asked me to meet her here. Cissy Cooperdo you know her? She's a student at Mill Valley University"
Alicia dropped her guard a notch. Cissy Cooper was one of the students in the second-year criminology lab she taught. She lived two doors down from Alicia. "I've met her."
He stepped toward her. Her heart rate edged upwards again. "My name is Gabe Cooper. I'm sorry if I scared you."
She lifted her chin. "You didn't."
"She wasn't sure she'd be here when I arrivedher shift at the library ended at seven, but she said she sometimes has to stay late." He cocked his head, gazing up at the apartments. "Do you know which apartment is hers?"
Alicia's tension rose again. "She told you to meet her but didn't give you the address?"
"My cell signal was bad when she called."
Alicia edged backwards, suspicion eclipsing attraction at the moment. "Perhaps you should try calling her again."
"Don't you live here? I mean, you looked as if you were heading right here." He waved his hand at the building.
A car rounded the corner and started coming up the street behind Alicia, headlights briefly illuminating the stranger. He had hair as dark as her own and clear blue eyes that met hers without any shiftiness. He was trim and tall, dressed in snug-fitting jeans and a heather gray polo shirt worn untucked. The car passed, plunging them back into darkness.
"I have to go," she said, turning away from him. She'd circle the block and come back from another direction, see if the stranger had moved along or if he was still lurking there. Or maybe she'd go back and find a campus security officer to walk her safely to her doorstep.
"Is this about the murders?"
His soft query halted her steps. She turned to look at him. "The murders?"
"Cissy said something about some murders. She wanted to tell me about them. It was all very cryptic."
Alicia eyed him warily. Cissy knew about Alicia's theories, of course. The last time they'd spoken, Cissy had mentioned she was debating telling her father about Alicia's research. But she hadn't mentioned anything about an uncle.
"So you came all the way here to Millbridge because your niece cryptically mentioned murders?"
"Cissy calls and asks for my help, I come," he said simply.
"Nice uncle," she murmured. She wasn't even sure her parents would come if she called, much less any of her uncles from either side of the family tree.
"Look, I've clearly spooked you. And I guess if there are murders going on here that Cissy thinks I need to know about, you've got good reason to be a little freaked."
"I told you, you didn't scare me."
"I'm afraid I don't believe you," he answered in a slow, devastating drawl. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans. As he did so, the side hem of his shirt lifted to reveal a handgun tucked into a slim holster attached to the waistband of his jeans.
Alicia's heart skipped a beat. She pulled the pepper spray canister from her jacket pocket, ready to press the button and run like hell at the slightest provocation.
But the man who called himself Gabe Cooper merely brought out a thin, dark-colored wallet. He flipped it open with one hand and flashed a small penlight onto the contents. Alicia saw a photo ID inside.
"This is me," he said, moving closer.
She settled her trembling finger over the button of the pepper spray dispenser, but stood her ground as he came close enough for her to see the ID. It was an Alabama driver's license, with a Gossamer Ridge address. The photo of the man was impossibly good for a driver's license photo, making Alicia hate him a little in envy.
The name on the license was definitely Gabe Cooper, and she knew her friend Cissy was from Gossamer Ridge.
"Would a second ID help? I have a lifetime Alabama fishing license"
Her tension eased again. "What do you do for a living?"
He hesitated a second, as if realizing this was a test. "I'm a fishing guide and sometimes professional angler. I also pull volunteer shifts as an auxiliary deputy at the Chickasaw County Sheriff's Department."
"What's Cissy's father's name?"
"J.D.," he answered patiently. "James Dennison, actually, but we've always called him J.D."
"What about her mother?"
He hesitated again, this time answering in a faint, emotion-tinged voice. "Brenda Alice Teague Cooper. She died twelve years ago."
"How'd she die?"
"She was murdered."
Pain etched every word into the darkness between them, reminding her of the way Cissy spoke of her mother, in a voice raw with sadness. Only with this man, the pain was rawer still, edged with a bitterness that made Alicia's stomach ache.
This man couldn't take a person's life with the impersonal ease of a serial killer. Alicia put the pepper spray back into the pocket of her jacket. "I'm Alicia Solano."
"So you're Professor Solano?" He sounded surprised. Alicia guessed his niece had mentioned her to him at some point.
"Instructor, actually. No Ph.D yet." She tried not to bristle at his skepticism. It wasn't an insult to be thought too young to be a college instructor, or so her older colleagues insisted. She was a young-looking twenty-five, especially when she eschewed makeup, as she'd done today.
"Cissy speaks well of you."
"She's a good student," she answered automatically, then softened her voice. "Good person, actually."
The shadows of his face split to reveal a flash of white teeth that even the gloom couldn't conceal. "We're kind of fond of her our own selves."
"Cissy shares Apartment D with a couple of other Mill Valley underclassmen." Alicia waved at the apartment on the far left. There were no lights burning inside on either floor of the two-story apartment. They were nearing the end of the spring semester, so any of the girls might still be at the library studying for end of term exams.
"Looks like no one's home," Gabe murmured.
"You can wait for her at my place."
He looked surprised. "You don't even know me."
She was a little surprised herself, remembering the hol-stered gun she'd spotted. But she was convinced he really was Cissy's uncle and he'd said he was a volunteer deputy sheriff. If Cissy had asked him to visit, he must be a pretty good guy, packing heat or not.
Besides, she had a million questions for him. Cissy had been seven when her mother died, and from what she had told Alicia, she'd been sheltered from a lot of details of the murder. What little she did know, she'd gleaned mostly from snippets of her father's conversations she'd overheard over the years and from a series of newspaper articles she'd looked up at the local library when she was in high school.
But Gabe Cooper was old enough to know everything that happened. He could answer some of the questions she had about Brenda Cooper's murder. And maybe, if she asked the right questions, he could help her catch a couple of killers.
The outside of the apartment may have been all shabby Southern charm, but inside, a riot of color greeted Gabe Cooper, nearly scorching his retinas. Pale yellow walls were the extent of subtlety inside Alicia Solano's apartment, providing a neutral backdrop for a variety of bright furnishings, from Caribbean dancers writhing in frenetic joy across a wide canvas hanging over a bright orange sofa to the lime green area rug covering the hardwood floor underfoot. It reminded Gabe of an outdoor market he'd visited in South America the last time he'd gone fishing down there, all vivid colors and kinetic energy.
"I don't drink coffee," Alicia said over her shoulder, moving out of the living room into the smaller, open kitchen area, "but I have iced tea. Or I could make some lemonade"
He could tell by her accent that she wasn't from anywhere near the sleepy college town of Millbridge, Alabama, but she'd apparently picked up the local customs of hospitality somewhere along the way.
"Or maybe you're hungry?" she added. "Had dinner yet?"
He laughed softly. Yes, she'd learned the Southern way very well. "I'll wait and have something with Cissy when she gets home," he answered.
She paused in the middle of the kitchen, turning to look at him. "Oh, okay. Sure you don't want something to drink?"
"Ice water would be great," he answered, mostly so he wouldn't disappoint her.
She turned toward the cabinets, standing on tiptoe to reach the glasses on the top shelf. She seemed relieved to have something to do with all the bottled up energy radiating from her compact body.
He'd scared her earlier, despite her protestations to the contrary. He should have identified himself first, put her at ease. He sometimes forgot, having grown up in a little town where everyone knew everyone else, that the world could be a very different place for other people.
Brenda's murder should have etched that life lesson into his soul a long time ago.
She came into the living room bearing a glass of water and ice, a paper napkin under the bottom as a makeshift coaster. She waved for him to sit on the sofa and dropped onto a bright green ottoman nearby.
"I'm not keeping you from anything, I hope." He eyed the neon blue briefcase she'd set on the coffee table when they entered.
She followed his gaze. "Just brought some notes home to work on my thesis."
He took a sip of the water. She didn't put a lot of ice in, which meant wherever that accent had come from, it probably wasn't somewhere particularly hot. "Where are you from? Originally, I mean."
She watched him with a narrowed gaze, her mind working visibly behind a pair of dark, observant eyes. She didn't have any makeup on, though with her thick black eyelashes and honey-toned skin, she didn't need much. It had been hard to tell at first glance what sort of body lay beneath the loose-cut gray blouse and plain black skirt she wore. But watching her move, as he'd done when she went to the kitchen for his water, he'd quickly seen the graceful curves of her hips and spine, the straining of her round breasts against the front of the blouse when she'd risen to reach the glasses.
Surrounded by the riot of color in her apartment, she seemed almost unnaturally still in contrast, a little sparrow sitting quiet and watchful in the midst of chaos.
A shrill sound emanated from inside the blue briefcase, making her jump. "That might be a studentI have to get that." She snapped open the case and retrieved a small silver phone. She flipped it open. "Hello?"
As she moved toward the kitchen, Gabe glanced at the contents of the open briefcase. A stack of files and papers lay within, nondescript at first glance. But the edge of a photo peeked out of one folder. The only thing he could make out were a patch of tall grass and a woman's single shoe.