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Ten years later
Lexie Murrough gazed out of her office window overlooking the Market Street Bridge, which was now a pedestrian-only crossing. When arranging the furniture in her office, she had made certain the beautiful view was available to her throughout the workday. For the past two years, she had called Chattanooga home, ever since she'd joined forces with billionaire heiress Cara Bedell to found a charitable organization to help the underprivileged worldwide. Although Lexie was listed as the group's president and was the person who oversaw the day-to-day running of the charity, Cara not only provided the bulk of the funds for Helping Hands, she often took an active role in the decision-making. Since joining forces for such a worthwhile cause, Lexie and Cara had become good friends.
There had been a time when Lexie had taken friendship for granted, when she'd taken many things for granted. But that had been another Lexie, the young and very foolish rookie reporter who had thought the world revolved around her. In the span of five minutes, her entire life had changed forever. The cute, feisty college cheerleader who'd been voted Most Likely to Succeed and had reigned as homecoming queen her senior year at the University of Georgia had died in a godforsaken African country on a sweltering June day ten years ago. But unlike her cameraman, Marty Bearn, Lexie had been reborn, given a second chance at life.
"Daydreaming again?" a female voice inquired, breaking into Lexie's thoughts.
Lexie sighed, then turned and smiled at her assistant, Toni Wells. "I was just enjoying the view." Lexie didn't discuss her past with her friends and associates. Her therapist had helped her understand that in order to move forward, she had to let go of the past. Not only of the lost hopes and dreams, but of the guilt and the anger.
"I come bearing gifts." Toni placed a lidded foam cup on Lexie's desk. "Fat-free mocha, no whipped cream."
"Thanks. You're a sweetie." Lexie picked up the cup, snapped back the plastic lip of the lid and took a sip of the hot coffee. "This is just what I needed."
Toni sat in a chair across from Lexie's antique deska gift from Caracrossed her long, jeans-clad legs and relaxed as she sipped her own drink, no doubt something sinfully rich and loaded with calories. Toni was one of those fortunate women who never gained an ounce and ate like a lumberjack.
Years ago, when she'd been in her early twenties, Lexie had never worried about her weight. But inactivity and overeating had added a good thirty pounds to her five-five, medium-boned frame. It had taken her years to shed twenty of those pounds, and she now had to watch every bite she ate in order to maintain her weight.
Lexie studied her young assistant. Antoinette Wells was twenty-five, tall, slender and exotically lovely, with curly black hair, a café-au-lait complexion and striking hazel eyes. Her mother, an African-American poet, and her father, a white third-generation Georgia politician and now a state representative, had divorced when Toni was twelve.
"Don't look at me that way," Toni said. "I didn't bring any doughnuts or Danish today. And I can't help it if I inherited skinny genes from both parents, can I?"
Lexie laughed. "Heredity can be a bitch sometimes, but in your case, it was a blessing."
"Only in the looks department," Toni said. "At least you don't have the complications I do, dealing with a mixed heritage."
"You're right. Life isn't perfect for any of us, is it?"
"Ooh, you're in one of those moods, huh?" Lexie scooted back her chair and turned it so that she faced the window instead of the room. With her back to Toni, she said, "I went for my six-month checkup yesterday, and the news was pretty much what I expected."
"No change?" Toni's voice held just a hint of pity. Lexie shook her head. "No change. And after all this time, there isn't likely to be any further improvement." Emotion welled up inside her, tightening her throat. But she didn't cry. Wouldn't cry. At this point in her life, tears would be a waste.
Toni came across the room and stood behind Lexie. "Do you want the pep talk now, or should I save it for later?"
"Now would be good." Lexie heaved a deep sigh.
"You're young, beautiful, have a job you love and friends who adore you, and even if you can't run, you can walk." Toni let her hands drift down from where she'd been gripping the back of the chair to touch Lexie's shoulders. She gave her a reassuring squeeze, then grabbed the chair again and whirled Lexie around to face her. "And the only reason you don't have a man in your bed is because you won't make the effort. How many times has Lieutenant Desmond asked you out on a date this past year?"
"You could have stopped before bringing up Bain Desmond. From now on, he's off limits during any pep talk."
"Why?" Easing her hips against the side of Lexie's desk, Toni sat on the edge.
"Why? You know why."
"Explain it to me again."
"Because Bain Desmond isn't the type of man I want as a boyfriend," Lexie said. "He's a police detective. He carries a gun. He shoots people." She had an aversion to guns and to the men who carried them, especially in a professional capacity. "Besides that, actually dating Bain would ruin our friendship."
"What's wrong with Farris Richardson? He wouldn't know one end of a gun from the other."
Lexie wrinkled her nose. "If you like our accountant so much, why don't you date him?"
"I have Jafari now. Why would I ever want anyone else? But you, on the other hand, have no one warming your bed at night."
"When did finding a man for me become your goal in life?"
Toni sighed dreamily. "Since I've fallen in love. I suppose I think all my best friends should be as happy as I am." She looked Lexie right in the eyes. "Of course, you might not find a guy as wonderful as Jafari. He's definitely one of a kind."
"I'll make you a deal. If you can put Jafari out of your mind for a few hours, I'll do my best to forget my visit with Dr. Burns yesterday. Then we can actually get some work done before lunch. I'm meeting with Cara at one. Would you order lunch in for the three of us? I want you to sit in on this meeting and tell her some of your ideas about the charity auction she's hosting to raise funds."
"I have a lunch date with Jafari, but since we're having dinner together this evening, he won't mind if I cancel." Toni eased off Lexie's desk and headed for the door. "Want me to order something now and then pick it up around noon?"
"That would be great. Thanks." Just as Toni opened the office door, Lexie called, "Let Robert, Vega and Malik know that I'm going to bring Ms. Bedell by today to say hello to everyone."
"Will do. I'll forewarn the workers that the Queen Bee will be buzzing through on her way in and out this afternoon."
"Look, Toni, despite your personal feelings about the human rights policies of some of Bedell, Inc.'s worldwide business partners, you need to remember that Cara Bedell signs your paycheck and mine. And she only took over her father's business two years ago. She can't change everything overnight. Give her credit where credit is due. Okay?"
Toni shrugged. "Okay."
Alone again in her office, Lexie reached over to where her cane leaned against the edge of her desk. Using the cane to brace herself, she lifted her body slowly and stood. Discomfort, but no pain. Pain was in the past, as was the struggle to relearn how to walk.
After several operations and five years of physical therapy, she had gone from being an invalid to a partial invalid to completely mobile. Except for a decided limp and the use of a cane, Lexie was for all intents and purposes normal. As Toni had pointed out, she couldn't run, but she could walk. Considering how close the bullet had come to severing her spine, she was damn lucky she wasn't paralyzed from the waist down.
Just as she took a couple of steps, her cell phone rang. During working hours, she kept it on her desk, just in case she received any personal calls. Leaning on the cane with one hand, she reached out with the other, picked up the phone and checked the caller ID.
Smiling, she flipped open the phone and said, "Hello, Lieutenant Desmond."
"Thank you, sir. You certainly know how to make a girl's day."
"I should hope so." He chuckled. "Look, the reason I'm calling is
well, I need to do some of my Christmas shopping, and I thought you might help me get started tonight. What do you say?"
"Only if you buy me supper first."
"It's a small price to pay for your assistance."
"This is not a date," she warned him. "It's just two friends getting together."
"That's right.You and me. Just buddies." Bain chuckled again. "You really don't have to go over the same territory every time we go out. No matter how charming and persuasive I am, you're not going to have sex with me."
Ignoring his last comment completely, she said, "And you won't wear your gun."
"I'll be off duty tonight, so that won't be a problem."
"Good. Then pick me up here around six and we'll grab burgers at Steak and Shake before we hit Hamilton Place Mall."
"You got it."
After they ended their conversation, Lexie made her way across the room slowly, carefully, until she reached the row of file cabinets on the opposite wall. As much as she liked Bain, they really were just friends and nothing more. She didn't know why she felt compelled to keep reminding him of that fact. Although they'd never talked about it, they each knew the other was in love with someone else. He with a woman he wouldn't admit he loved and she with a man she didn't knowa man with smoky-gray eyes.
She had met Bain through a chance encounter. About eighteen months ago, she and Cara had run into the CPD lieutenant and his date one evening at a local restaurant. Bain Desmond had been the lead detective during the investigation into Cara's half sister's death, which had turned out to be the responsibility, albeit accidental, of her own father. And, unable to cope with what had happened to his daughter Audrey, Edward Bedell had committed suicide. As his only remaining child, Cara had inherited the vast Bedell, Inc. conglomerate and all the responsibilities that entailed. Lexie would have had to be blind to have missed the sexual vibes radiating between Cara and Bain. And she would have had to be an idiot not to realize that both of them were pretendingto each other and to themselvesthat there were no vibes.
After propping her cane against the wall, Lexie opened the middle file cabinet and flipped through until she found the Gs. Gadi. The country where she had met death head-on and survived had become her pet project. Of all the people in the world who needed help, her heart went out to those in the small African nation steeped in poverty and ignorance. But at least they were no longer under a vicious dictator's rule. Ever since President Tum's death ten years ago, the country had undergone numerous changes, and after a four-year civil war, they were now reemerging as a democracy.
Lexie had brought several Gadians into the Helping Hands organization, with three working here at the Chattanooga headquarters. Robert would complete his internship with the organization and return home by year's end. Another young Gadian would take his place. Malik and Vega were permanent employees now and had applied for U.S. citizenship.
Just as Lexie lifted the file from the cabinet, a thunderous boom rocked the building, shaking the walls and shattering the windows. Losing her balance, she toppled over, hitting her hip against the carpeted floor and her forehead against the edge of a filing cabinet. Her cane sailed across the room and struck the side of her desk.
My God! What had happened? Could it have been an earthquake? Surely not one of such magnitude here in Chattanooga. But if not an earthquake, then what?
HE TOSSED the detonator into the Dumpster in the alley beside the building across the street from the four-story structure occupied by Helping Hands. Then he removed his gloves, stuffed them into his coat pocket and emerged onto the sidewalk.A small crowd of onlookers had already congregated, so he simply joined them, just one more curious, concerned person wondering what had happened.
He had constructed the bomb in the laundry room of his apartment complex late last night, putting it together with the expertise he'd gained during his year of instruction by the Majeed. The small explosive would harm only those within a twenty-five-foot radius and was not intended to kill or create extensive damage. It was nothing more than a first warning of the terror yet to come.
Within minutes, sirens shrilled through downtown Chattanooga: the police, firefighters and paramedics racing to the scene. Now, before the situation escalated, he slipped away from the crowd and entered the building, going straight to the men's restroom on the ground level.
After checking the room to make certain he was alone, he pulled the prepaid cell phone from his pocket and dialed hurriedly. The phone rang several times, then went to voice mail. He waited, redialed and got her voice mail again.
Pick up the phone, bitch. The bomb didn't explode in your office. You're all right. I wouldn't kill you so easily. You have to suffer greatly before you die.
After his third attempt to reach her, she answered. "Hello?"
Her voice was shaky. Good. She was unnerved, at least. Placing a folded handkerchief over the phone, he deliberately disguised his voice as best he could and said in a raspy whisper, "This is only the beginning of the end for you and Cara Bedell and Helping Hands. I warn you now that there is a special time for you to die, a time I have chosen."
"What? Who is this? Did you"
He ended the call, leaving her asking questions he did not intend to answer. Not now. Not yet. Let her worry. Let her learn the true meaning of fear.
Whenever he was between assignments for the Dundee Private Security and Investigation Agency, Deke Bronson made a point of being at the downtown Atlanta office on Wednesdays because office manager Daisy Holbrook always brought a homemade meal for the employees' lunch on that day. The agents had nicknamed Daisy Ms. Efficiency, because she seemed to be able to juggle a dozen different things at once, do each extremely well and accomplish them all on time. Daisy wasn't the matronly type, as one would expect from a "mother hen." She was young, cute as a button and slightly plump, with big brown eyes and a warm, outgoing personality. Everyone adored Daisy, even Dundee's CEO, Sawyer McNamara, who was a stern, by-the-book, don't-mix-with-employees kind of guy.
"Is that chili I smell?" Lucie Evans asked as she entered the employees' lounge, better known as the break room.
"Chili and corn bread," Deke replied as he ladled a huge helping of Daisy's famous homemade chili into a deep bowl.
"And apple-dapple cake for dessert," Geoff Monday added.
"There's vanilla ice cream in the freezer to top off the cake," Daisy said as she sliced the two large skillets of corn bread into pie-shaped pieces. "One of these is Mexican corn bread and the other is plain."
Geoff Monday placed his arm around Daisy's shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. "Ms. Holbrook, you certainly know the way to a man's heart."
Daisy blushed. Everyone at Dundee'severyone except Geoffknew that Daisy had a major crush on the former SAS officer. Deke had wondered if maybe he should clue his clueless British friend in on the obvious, but not being the type of man who interfered in other people's lives, he'd kept quiet. Besides, if Geoff knew how Daisy felt about him, he would probably stop casually flirting with her, and that would end all of Daisy's hopes and dreams. Poor Daisy. She had to know that a guy like Monday would never settle down, especially not with a sweet kid like her.
Deke chose the smaller of the two round tables in the break room, set down his bowl filled high with chili and topped with a huge slice of Mexican corn bread, and settled comfortably into the cushioned chair. He was officially off today, but no way would he miss one of Daisy's meals if he was in town. Noting that Geoff and Lucie were the only other two agents there, he assumed everyone else was on assignment.
"Just us today?" Geoff asked, apparently thinking along the same lines as Deke.
"Ty's supposed to come in later," Daisy replied.
"I leave first thing tomorrow for another boring, nobody-else-wants-it assignment," Lucie said.