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Cooper Marshall burst into the apartment, gun ready as his gaze swept the dim interior of the room that waited for him. "Lockwood!"
There was no response to his call, but the stench in the air-that unmistakable odor of death and blood-told Cooper that he'd arrived too late.
Cooper rushed deeper into that darkened apartment. He'd gotten his orders from the top. He'd been assigned to track down Keith Lockwood, an ex-Elite Operations Division agent. Cooper was supposed to confirm that the other man was alive and well. He'd fallen off the EOD's radar, and that had sure raised a red flag in the mind of Cooper's boss.
Especially since other EOD agents had recently turned up dead.
Cooper rounded a corner in the narrow hallway. The scent of blood was stronger. He headed toward what he suspected was the bedroom. His eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, so it was easy for him to see the body slumped on the floor just a few feet from him.
He knelt, and his gloved fingers turned the body just slightly. Cooper pulled out his penlight and shone it on the dead man's face.
Keith Lockwood. Cooper had never worked with the man on a mission, but he'd seen Lockwood's photos.
Lockwood's throat had been slit. An up-close kill.
Considering that Lockwood was a former navy SEAL, the man shouldn't have been caught off guard.
But he had been.
Because the killer isn't your average thug off the streets.
The killer was also an agent with the EOD, and the killer was trained just as well as Lockwood had been. No, trained better.
Because the killer had been able to get the drop on the SEAL.
Cooper's breath eased out in a rough sigh just as a knock sounded on the front door.
The front door that Cooper had just smashed open moments before.
He leapt to his feet.
"Mr. Lockwood?" A feminine voice called out. "Mr. Lockwood i-is everything all right?"
No, things were far from all right. The broken door should have been a dead giveaway on that point.
"It's Gabrielle Harper!" The voice called out. "We were supposed to meet."
His back teeth clenched. Talk about extremely bad timing. He knew Gabrielle Harper, and the trouble that the woman was about to bring his way was just going to make the situation even more of a tangled mess.
Cooper holstered his weapon. He had to get out of that apartment. Before Gabrielle saw him and asked questions that he couldn't answer for her.
He rose and stalked toward the bedroom window. His footsteps were silent. After all of his training, they should have been.
Gabrielle's steps-and her high heels-tapped across the hardwood floor as she came inside the apartment.
Of course, Gabrielle wasn't just going to wait outside. She was a reporter, no doubt on the scent of a story.
And she must have scented the blood.
She was following that scent, and if he didn't move, fast, she'd follow it straight to him.
Cooper opened the window then glanced down below. Three floors up. But there were bricks on the side of the building, with crevices in between them. If he held on just right, he could spider-crawl his way down.
The floor in the hallway creaked as Gabrielle paused.
She should have called for help by now. At the first sign of that smashed door, Gabrielle should have dialed 911. But, with Gabrielle what she should do and what she actually did-well, those could be very different things.
If she wasn't careful, the woman was going to walk into real trouble one day-the kind that she wouldn't be able to walk away from.
He slid through the window. Since it was after midnight, Cooper knew he'd virtually disappear into the darkness when he climbed down the back side of the building.
He'd make it out of there, undetected, provided he didn't fall and break his neck.
He eased to the side, his feet resting against the window's narrow ledge. He pulled the window back down and took a deep breath.
"Mr. Lockwood!" Gabrielle's horror-filled scream broke loud and clear through the night.
She'd found the body.
Jaw locking, Cooper made his way down that building. Gabrielle had just stumbled into an extremely dangerous situation. Now he'd have to do some serious recon in order to keep her out of the cross fire.
It wasn't her first dead body.
Gabrielle Harper stood behind the patrol car, her gaze on the apartment building. The cops had rolled in quickly after her call then they'd pushed her out.
They hadn't needed to push her so far. She knew better than to contaminate the scene. They didn't have to worry about her destroying evidence.
Not my first dead body. But the sight of Lockwood's slit throat had still made nausea rise within her.
"Tell me again," Detective Lane Carmichael said as he leaned back against the patrol car and studied her with an assessing gaze, "just why you were at Keith Lockwood's house in the middle of the night?"
A crowd had already gathered.
Her gaze slid away from Lane's and toward the apartment's entrance. The body was being wheeled out through the double doors. Lockwood had been zipped up in a black bag. Bagged, tagged and taken away.
The snap of her name jerked her attention back to Lane. His suit was wrinkled, his dark hair was tousled and his face was set in grim, I'm-sure-not-pleased-with-you lines.
That was typically the way Lane looked at her. Even when they'd been dating-briefly-he'd often given her that same look.
She worked the crime beat in Washington, D.C., covering stories for the Inquisitor-both the paper and its online subscriber base. Since Lane was a homicide detective, their paths crossed plenty.
That crossing had been good when they were dating.
Now that they weren't-not so good.
"Lockwood called me," she began.
"Dead men don't make phone calls." His arms were crossed over his chest-his interrogation stance. "The ME estimates that he's been dead for over seven hours. Try again."
Seven hours. She filed that helpful detail away for later. "He called me around eight a.m. The guy left a voice message for me, saying he had some info to share about a story I'd covered."
Lane's head tilted. "Just what story would that be?"
Gabrielle pushed back her hair. It was summer in D.C., and she was sweating. "The unsolved murder of Kylie Archer." A woman whose body had been discovered in her apartment months ago. Kylie's throat had been slit.
Just like Lockwood's.
Even in the summer heat goose bumps rose on her arms.
"I need everything you've got on Lockwood, Gabby," Lane told her, his voice grim. "Everything."
But she could only shake her head. The body had been loaded into the coroner's van. Uniforms began to walk back into the apartment building. "I don't have anything to give you. He called me. Left a message for me to meet him at this address after midnight. He mentioned Kylie's name and said he had more information for me." She was trying to cooperate, didn't Lane get that? "I'd just run a piece on the web, highlighting Kylie's unsolved murder, so I figured that Lockwood had seen it and he had a lead to share with me."
Once a month, she featured an unsolved crime in her column. Thanks to those features, she'd helped close three cold cases.
Lane should thank her for that help. His glare said he wouldn't be thanking her anytime soon.
"What if the killer had still been inside that apartment?" he demanded. "What if he'd come at you with that knife?"
She had mace in her bag. Not much as a weapon, but it was something. "No one was there when I arrived."
"You sure about that?"
Pretty sure since she'd gone through every room in that place. "I-"
"Gabrielle?" A surprised voice. Male. Rough. Very distinct.
When a woman heard a voice like that-so deep and hard and rumbling-she didn't forget it. She fantasized about it. She enjoyed it. She didn't forget.
"What's going on?" That voice continued, and then a warm, strong hand closed over her shoulder. "Is somebody hurt?"
She turned and faced the owner of that sexy voice- Cooper Marshall. Tall, gorgeous and with a smile that had made her heart skip a beat the first time she met him.
In other words-trouble.
"Someone's dead," Lane said before she could respond to Cooper. "And if Gabrielle doesn't learn to be more careful, she could wind up the same way."
Cooper's fingers tightened on her shoulder. "Dead?"
"You need to clear out of here," Lane said, speaking to her and giving another of his firm nods. Lane liked his firm nods. "There's no way any civilians are going to get near that crime scene tonight."
That was not what Gabrielle wanted to hear. She had definite plans to explore that apartment, because she suspected that Lockwood had been in possession of some evidence that she could use.
"Catch the train, Gabby," Lane advised her as he turned away, "and call it a night."
A police car pulled away.
Cooper kept holding her. His touch sure felt warm.
She glanced at him again. Cooper was wearing black- a black T-shirt and pants, and the guy actually seemed to blend with the night. For such a big guy, she'd found that he blended easily.
But then again, he'd told her that he was a P.I. Private investigators were supposed to be extremely good at blending.
"What did you stumble on this time?" Cooper asked her, the growl kicking up in his words.
"Oh, the usual." She tried to keep the tremble from her voice. Failed. "A witness who was murdered before he could talk to me."
Yes, yes, that was how she felt, too.
"Forget the train. I'll take you home." Then he was pulling her with him and away from the crowd that had gathered on the street. "I was on my way home when I saw the lights. I thought I'd stop by and see what was happening." He spared her a glance. "A dead man, Gabrielle?"
Yes, well, finding Lockwood dead hadn't exactly been on her agenda.
Cooper's motorcycle waited at the side of the road. He climbed on then tossed her the helmet. "Just hold on tight, and I'll have you home soon."
She caught the helmet, but hesitated.
"What?" The light from the streetlamp fell on his face. It glinted off his dark blond hair and made him look even more handsome-and dangerous. "Don't you trust me for a little ride? Come on, we're neighbors. It's not like the trip is out of my way."
He was right. They were neighbors. They shared a brownstone-just the two of them.
When she'd moved in four months ago, she hadn't been sure what to expect from her male neighbor. Her landlord had told her that Cooper regularly worked out of the country, that she probably wouldn't hear a peep from him.
She'd heard some peeps. And so far, he hadn't been out of the country.
On her first day in the apartment, she'd baked him chocolate chip cookies. She had a thing about baking- it soothed her. So she'd strolled down with her cookies to say hello.
She'd gotten a good look at him, standing in the doorway, tall and sexy, and she'd almost dropped those cookies.
She shoved on her helmet and climbed onto the motorcycle behind Cooper.
He laughed. "You're going to have to sit a little closer than that. And put your arms around me."
She'd put her arms behind herself and was currently gripping the back of the seat.
He revved the engine. The bike kicked to life and when it shot forward, her hands flew up and wrapped around Cooper.
She gripped him as tightly as she could.
She could feel his rock-hard abs beneath her hands. No big surprise. She'd heard him working out before. Boxing. The guy loved to punch.
She'd seen him sporting an assortment of bruises since she'd met him, so she figured he must do more than just hit his punching bag. The guy probably fought at a local ring. The image of Cooper, bare-chested, fighting well, that was an image that had sure floated in her mind before.
The motorcycle zoomed through the city, flying through intersections, cutting closely around corners. At one point, Gabrielle had to squeeze her eyes shut because she was pretty certain they were going to crash and become nothing but a mangled pile of limbs.
Her eyes cracked open. Sure enough, they'd made it to the brownstone. Located off the main streets and nestled in one of the few, quiet corners of D.C., the brownstone stood with its porch lights blazing.
She loved that place.
"You can um, release that grip on me now," Cooper told her.
Gabrielle realized that her nails were digging into his shirt-into him. "Sorry," she muttered and jumped from the bike. "I'm not exactly a motorcycle fan."
He shoved down the kickstand, and then took his time rising from the bike. "Really? And here I thought you liked to live on the wild side."
What? Since when?
"Coming in at all hours of the night," he murmured as he brushed past her and headed up the steps that would take them inside the brownstone. "Covering the most dangerous cases in the city. You sure seem like a woman who enjoys living on the edge."
She wasn't going to touch that one.
As they paused on the narrow porch, the wind chime that she'd hung up a few days before pealed softly. The sound soothed her, at least a little bit.
Gabrielle followed him inside. A large, curving bannister led to the apartment upstairs. Her place was up there. His apartment was downstairs, right below hers. They both had a key to the main door, and she watched as he secured that door.
He'd gotten her home, so this was where they should part ways. Only she found herself hesitant to leave him. Maybe it was the image she still had of poor Keith Lock-wood. I can still smell the blood. No, she wasn't in a hurry to rush up those stairs and spend the night all by herself.
Gabrielle already knew sleep wouldn't come easily. She'd be too busy remembering the sight of that body.
So she lingered at the foot of the stairs, studying Cooper.
He turned toward her and cocked his head. Then his eyes, a shade of a blue that electrified her, narrowed. "You're scared." He stalked toward her.
Gabrielle stiffened at the accusation. "I'm a little shaken. I found a dead body. I get to be shaken."
He stopped less than a foot from her. "I'm sorry you had to see that."
"Yes, well, I'm sorry that Mr. Lockwood is dead. Maybe if we'd met earlier, if I'd just gone by his place sooner instead of waiting for our meeting time-"
"Then you might be dead, too," he said, cutting through her words.
Gabrielle pushed back her hair. "He asked me to meet him. He called and said that he had a tip for me." So much blood. "I guess someone wanted to make sure he never got the chance to deliver that tip."
He took her hand.
Her breath rushed out. In four months, he hadn't touched her. Until tonight. He'd touched her at the crime scene, and now he was touching her here.
She hadn't expected his touch to unsettle her so much.
But it did. Awareness pulsed through her as she stared into his eyes.
"Come with me," he invited softly. "You shouldn't be alone after what happened."
"I'm always alone." He frowned.
Wait, those words had come out wrong. That was her problem. She was good at writing. When she was talking, Gabrielle had a tendency to say the wrong thing. She cleared her throat and tried again, "What I meant was that I don't mind being alone. It's late, and I should be getting upstairs."
He used his grip on her hand to tug her toward him. "It's late all right, but I'm betting you've got so much adrenaline pumping through your body that sleep is the last thing on your mind." His eyes glittered down at her. The guy easily topped six foot two, maybe six foot three, and he had the wide, broad shoulders that a football player would envy.
When she looked up at him then, she didn't see the danger that she normally perceived. She saw strength. Safety.