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Authors: Mia Kay

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BOOK: Soft Target
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As they left the room, she tied her grandmother’s frayed, faded apron around her waist. Normally it was like getting a hug. Today it cut off her air. The kitchen walls closed in on her.

She’d been in here since she was ten years old, standing on a step stool and staring over the kitchen counter out the window at the woods. The boys had been out there, playing Musketeers—truly three of them since D’Artagnan had been cursed and changed into a lady in waiting.

She’d gotten used to it. Faith would, too. She’d have to.

Maggie tackled the dishes and jerked in shock when large hands reached into the waiting water.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I ate. I clean.” Gray ignored the brush-off. “You’re quiet in here.”

“I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

For a while, the only sounds were the muted thumps of submerged dishes bumping the sink and the rattle of silverware being loaded into the dishwasher. Searching for a distraction from her disappointment, she focused on the dark circles under Gray’s eyes. No matter what he said, he hadn’t rested. Maybe he was used to city noise.

“Will you be comfortable at Faye’s? We could try to find you something in town, if you’d prefer.”

He shook his head. “The house is awesome. I was expecting grandma kitsch instead of resort casual. Did you remodel it?”

She nodded. She’d spent countless hours with architects and designers, then dragged Charlene and Tiffany to store after store. She’d hauled lunch to crews until the kitchen was finished, then she’d cooked for them there.

“But you don’t live there?” he asked.

She’d tried. After a week of rattling around in it, she’d felt more alone than ever. “I love living over the bar. My commute’s down a flight of stairs.”

“My gain, I suppose. But there’s a problem with the lease.”

She frowned. “Really?”

“As your business manager, I’ll advise you that inadequate consideration risks voiding the contract. I’ve written in a suitable amount. You can initial it tomorrow.”

“You’re doing me a favor living there.”

“I pay my own way.”

Maggie recognized the pride and determination in his posture. Arguing would risk insult, and they needed to begin work on the right foot.

“Fine. Nate’s probably overpaying you anyway,” she teased.

They fell back into silence, moving in tandem to store leftovers. Gray gave up trying to keep the chicken potpie intact and scooped it into a container.

“For years I’ve ordered this in restaurants, hoping it would live up to yours,” he murmured. “I still remember racing Nate for the last bite.”

“It was the first time he’d complimented my cooking.”

Gray’s laughter grew louder. “He said it didn’t suck.”

“Yeah, well from Nate that’s a compliment. In his defense, we probably would have starved if it hadn’t for Beverly Marx’s cooking while I was in high school. I really did suck at it.”

Frowning at a vacant spot on a shelf, she stood back and balanced on her toes, as if an inch of height would help.

“What are you trying to find?”

“There’s a stack of plates I use for Nate’s leftovers, and they’ve always sat in this cabinet. Do you see them up there?”

The question brought him closer, and her spine threatened to curve into the warmth seeping through her dress. She squared her shoulders and clenched her teeth.
Business, not pleasure.

“It wouldn’t make much sense for Faith to put them up that high.” He opened the cabinet nearest the refrigerator. “Is this what you need?”

“Yes, thanks.”

Faith was getting to decide what jobs she wouldn’t do, so she should get to decide where the Tupperware went, too. It was going to be
her
kitchen after all. Maggie jerked the aluminum foil in a vicious tear and hissed when the sharp packaging grazed her knuckles.

“I’ve always thought they should register that razor thing as a deadly weapon,” Gray quipped as he lounged against the counter. “You all right?”

“I’ve had worse,” she muttered as she patted a towel over the scratches and flexed her fingers. She looked up in time to see him pop a cold roasted Brussels sprout into his mouth.

Her tongue twitched with the memory of buttery oil and the tangy contrast of garlic. When he sucked down another bite and licked the flavor from his fingers, the second twitch had nothing to do with food.

After fidgeting for a moment, he straightened to his full height. It brought them closer together, and the air heated. His rainy autumn scent wrapped around her.

“This is yours to take home.” She thrust the plate between them.

“Thank you.” He held the plate in one hand, away from him, as he stared at the floor. “What’s on your toes?”

She looked down, expecting something awful. They were just her toes. “Polish.”

She didn’t think she imagined the frustrated sigh, and she certainly didn’t imagine his crossed eyes.

“They’ll stick like that, you know,” she giggled. “Phoenixes. I like the story. Rising from the ashes and all that. I used to have flowers put on them. Not so much lately, but they looked plain this time so...phoenixes.”

“You like flowers?”

“Until recently, I loved them.”

Seeking a distraction, she looked into the living room. Tiffany stared back with a goofy grin. She was still matchmaking.

“I’m going home,” Maggie said, even as she walked to the door. “See you tomorrow.”

He followed her. “I need to go, too. I’d like to get a head start before Nate shows up to
help
me unpack.”

Maggie drove back to town, driving by memory alone as she considered her options. At the three-way intersection in front of the bar, the glare in her rearview mirror caught her attention. Her breath stopped until she recognized the truck. This would never do. She didn’t need a watchdog. Parking parallel to the bar’s front entrance, she rolled down her passenger window and waited on him to stop.

“Is everything all right?”

Gray’s sunglasses shaded his eyes, but his smile was wide and bright. “Yeah, yeah. I use the square as a navigation beacon toward Faye’s.” He waved as the truck rolled forward. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

She pulled around the bar, parked, and resisted the urge to look over her shoulders as she unlocked the back door. In the hallway, the cool, dark quiet enveloped her. For years, this sensation had meant she was home—safe. Now, as part of her new normal, it was unnerving. She imagined eyes peering from every shadow or peeking around the corners. Banishing her ghosts, she climbed the stairs to her apartment and closed the door behind her, locking it with a quick twist of the dead bolt, then the chain she’d added last week.

Though the apartment was small, it was the first space that had been truly hers.

She’d created it in self-defense while Nate had been living up to his trust-fund playboy reputation. Maggie had grown tired of having Saturday breakfasts with women intent on taming him and trying to gain her friendship to aid in their plans. She’d been so glad Faith was different.

Yeah, Faith sure was different.

Maggie walked into her bedroom, unzipping her dress as she went. Pausing, she stared in her bedroom mirror. An unsmiling reflection glared back. She was an odd amalgamation of the women in her family. From her grandmother she got hazel eyes, determined jaw and sense of family and duty. And she’d inherited her mother’s skin and hair, as far as she could tell from photos. She’d also gotten her mother’s urge to run. Had her grandmother fought it too? This wish to escape the crush of expectations, the constant demand?

Don’t dwell, Maggie. Do.
Heeding advice Grandma and acket ong that crooked roadhe pulled her close. d everyone leave for n. What the hell was up with lse away.likver her eyes.had repeated for years, Maggie finished changing and stacked all her maps, guide books and travel brochures into the box they came from. She’d stayed up far too late last night plotting a new adventure—too excited to sleep. Shoving the container onto the top shelf in her closet, she stood and stared at the identical, adjacent box. One held her memories, the other held her dreams. She’d lost one chance. She wouldn’t lose another.

Walking into her living room, she raised the blinds and opened the French doors and windows to get a cross breeze. Then she blared her favorite playlist and fell into the familiar, comforting routine of chores. When she finished, she carried her supplies downstairs and attacked the bar.
Do.
She damn well would. She’d work until she forgot what tomorrow held.

And, one day, her tomorrows would be different.

* * *

Watching Maggie clean the bar was the highlight of his Sunday. The sunshine glinted off her hair, making it easy to see her through the windows. She had a routine for each day, and she followed it without fail. He could predict where she’d be, and she’d always wave and smile at him and stop to speak. After a while, he’d realized she did it on purpose. It was their secret game. He was playing his part with the flowers. He’d become integral to her schedule and her life. She loved flowers.

At first he’d been upset when she didn’t keep them, but he’d realized it gave her a reason to leave the bar in the mornings and get into the sunshine. That first Monday, when she’d tilted her chin like a sunflower searching for warmth, he’d known he was doing the right thing.

Besides, how could he be angry when she was giving them to Faye Coleman? He should have expected her to share. It was so like Maggie to make other people as happy as she was.

She’d looked pretty today. It had been impossible not to notice her at the front of the church in the yellow dress as she laughed and visited with her friends. She’d remembered yellow was his favorite color.

He frowned. Who was the dark-haired stranger who’d sat beside her this morning? It was a safe bet the visitor had gone to lunch with the family because he’d followed Maggie home. What if they’d gone somewhere together?

No. Maggie wouldn’t do that. She’d ignored the newcomer through the service today, making him move his arm because it was too familiar. She’d paid attention to the sermon. When she’d come home, she’d sent him on his way without allowing him around back where her friends and family parked. She was a good girl.

She was
his
girl.

Chapter Three

Gray was on the back patio early enough for the sunrise. For years, he’d been proud of his narrow patio high over the streets of Chicago. This backyard put that narrow strip of concrete to shame.

The wide porch ran the length of the house and was outfitted as an outdoor living space. More trees shaded the edges of the backyard, and profusions of flowers spilled from beds.

He’d admired it for hours yesterday before getting ready for church, and then again this morning. No matter what he did or how hard he tried, he still couldn’t sleep past 4 a.m. Despite the new surroundings, the nightmare was the same. He was trapped with Ted Brooks and the murderous accountant in a tiny room full of pain and the smell of gunpowder. But Ted’s face was growing fuzzy in some parts, blank in others. After all the kid had sacrificed, Gray owed him—

No. The Bureau’s therapist kept scolding him about this. It wasn’t a debt, she said. And until Gray could repeat it and
mean
it, she wouldn’t let him go back to work. It wasn’t a debt, but yes it was. Ted had died in his place, and he was
owed
something. He certainly deserved to be
remembered
, for God’s sake.

The cold stone chilled and scratched his toes, and the brisk wind through his wet hair caused goose bumps. Those things were the same as home, too.

Some things were different.

The rattle of the El was replaced with the
thwack-thwack-thwack
of the sprinkler as water arced across the yard. Traffic was replaced by squirrels swirling around tree trunks, their claws scrabbling against the bark.

At home he’d be watching forgotten lights burn in empty offices across the street. Here, dawn tinted the mountains and trickled down onto the fog covering the valley floor. With the sunrise, the peaks turned rose, then pink, then gold. His dark thoughts evaporated like the mist.

He choked on his coffee when a young man strolled across the yard toward the garden shed. His double-take was comical.

“Who the hell are you and what you doing at Maggie’s house?” The aggressive posturing wasn’t as funny.

Gray raised his hands in surrender. “I’m the Mathises’ new business manager. I’m renting the house.”

The newcomer fumbled at his belt, and Gray wished he’d brought his gun outside rather than a Danish. He kicked himself when the kid produced a phone.
Fabulous. First day on the job and I shoot a yardman armed with a cell phone.

“Maggie? It’s Carl. There’s someone at your house. He says he’s supposed to be here.” Carl’s gaze never left Gray as he listened. “Yeah, tall, skinny, pale, dark hair.”

Annoyed by the unflattering description, Gray snatched the phone Carl shoved at him and snarled into the receiver. “Skinny?”

“You need a few extra sandwiches.” Her raspy sentence ended in a yawn. “Carl takes care of things at the house. I forgot today was yard day. Sorry.”

“Sorry we woke you. I’ll see you in a bit.” He returned the phone to its owner and kept his hand extended. “Gray Harper.”

“Carl Griffin. Sorry about that. You can’t be too careful nowadays.”

“No, you can’t.”

He was in his mid-to-late twenties, and his shirt was pressed and tucked in. Even his jeans had creases. Carl was the best-dressed yard man Gray had ever seen, but his walk was ponderous and his movements slow and measured. Rather than staring, and grouchy because his peace was ruined, Gray excused himself to start the day.

Sitting on the bed, he grimaced as he bent to lace his steel-toed boots. He’d purchased them years ago for a construction site raid. The guys in the office had thought he was crazy until he’d become the agent of choice for every man on the site. Clad in jeans, a T-shirt and work boots, he hadn’t looked like a Fed. He’d kept the boots as a reminder to follow his instincts.
I should have kept them at the front of my closet in Chicago, or right by the door, or under my desk.
Now he had to wear them to work every day. He’d use them as a reminder here.

Carl was already on the mower, a zero-turn monster, and focused on his path. Gray shook his head. His dad would give him six kinds of hell about someone else mowing his yard.

Not my yard, not my yard man.

He pulled onto the highway and rolled down the window. The air wasn’t flavored with machinery and other people but with wet grass, livestock and dirt. Rather than the drone of traffic, the wind washed through the trees and birds warbled good morning. Other Mathis employees lifted their hands in salute, recognizing the truck if not the driver. Gray returned the laconic greeting.

As he entered the city limits, the sign reminded him of the speed limit and the population. Three thousand people called Fiddler, Idaho, home. In town the lots were smaller, the houses were older and the familiar pattern of crisscrossed asphalt was comforting.

At the center of town was the courthouse, a gray limestone building surrounded by hardwood trees. Bright waves of flowers flowed around the building and the flags snapped in the breeze.

Shops ringed the square, but instead of focusing on their names, he looked down alleys and up at the sometimes vacant windows of second floors looming over colorful awnings and blooming window boxes.

He explored further. Large trees, wide sidewalks and planters around each light post concealed an organized city plan. All the medical facilities were on the same street, the same with the technical companies and utilities. Accountants and lawyers were just a few buildings apart. The restaurants were in easy reach of the grocery store.

Did the stalker shop when Maggie did? Did he bag her groceries? Did he use a disposable phone? Did his job allow him to see her with the flowers?

On Broadway, Gray slowed to a crawl as he approached the bar. The library was on this street, too—a Carnegie contribution with Grecian columns along a brick facade. Most libraries provided the Internet. Were the flowers ordered there?

It was a neat, clean orderly town. The police report in the paper consisted of speeding tickets and traffic stops, or kids racing on the stretch of road next to the high school. It reminded him of his hometown in Nebraska, without the cornfields. How on earth could a stalker hide here?

Orrin’s back lot changed his mind. Maggie’s car was parked close to the door, but it meant she couldn’t be seen from the street. Thick undergrowth hulked under the trees and crowded the asphalt. Bigfoot could hide back here.

His scowl deepened as he reached the back porch. It was lit, but not by a motion-sensitive light, and the door had a large glass pane covered by a sheer curtain. At least the wood was sturdy, and the knob and lock were sound.

Inside, Nate was waiting at the corner of the bar, reading the paper. Safety glasses and earplugs already dangled around his neck, and his well-worn work boots made Gray embarrassed about his shiny ones.

After helping himself to coffee, he surveyed the debris at Nate’s elbow. Another set of safety gear waited for its owner. Out of curiosity, Gray spun the hard hat so he could read the name. He blinked.
Harper.

“I thought you’d like to get out rather than being cooped up in here all the time,” Nate explained with a smirk. “The guys would expect it, and it will give you a chance to blend in. Plus, you can see how things work. This week you can meet me in the afternoons, and from there you can make your own schedule. Just ask the managers first. If I need you, we’ll work it out.”

“And if I’m in the office?”

“Make it up as you go.” Nate looked over his shoulder before he continued, “She’ll keep you busy, and I know you’ll find a way to stay occupied. Now, let’s talk about my bachelor party.”

Squeaky stairs and floorboards warned them of Maggie’s approach, giving Gray time to grab part of the paper before she walked around the corner wearing her plastic smile. “Good morning.”

Her damp hair was darker, golden and copper, and she was in a tie-dyed T-shirt and cut-off shorts. She had amazing legs.
You have a job to do, Harper
.

There was a knock on the door, and she was halfway there before he could move. “Stay put. It’s for me.”

She kept the interaction brief, but the conversation echoed through the silent room. So did the
thump
as the vase and its cardboard carrier hit the countertop. Silence fell, and they all three stared at the tall bouquet of daffodils. Nate challenged her first. “Are you going to open the card?”

She rolled her eyes but plucked it from the bouquet as if it held Venus flytraps. She read it, made a note and tossed it in the drawer, but not before Gray saw her fingers shake.

“Margaret Anne,” Nate said, leaning up in his chair and preparing to argue.

“I’m not ignoring it. It’s just more of the same, and all we do is fight about it.”

Gripping his coffee cup, Gray counted to ten to avoid interrogating her. “Persistent, isn’t he?”

She soaped and rinsed her hands until they were an angry red. “Where was I?” She sipped her coffee and glared at them in a challenge to ignore the flowers. “Oh yeah, I thought maybe Gray would enjoy going up to Baxter to meet Rhett and talk about the merger.”

“Merger?” Gray asked. What the hell did he know about mergers?

“Sorry. I forgot to tell you,” Nate grinned. “We’re forming a joint venture with Rhett’s company, Maxwell Limestone. Maggie can take you up there after lunch.”

“Me?” Maggie asked as she faced her brother. “I thought you’d want—”

Nate shook his head. “I need to go look at a stand of timber.”

“Then I’ll draw him a map.”

Gray sipped his coffee and watched them negotiate over him the way they’d negotiated taking out the garbage at home.

“Have some pity,” Nate wheedled. “You know what Rhett can be like.”

“Fine. I can give him hell for not being at lunch yesterday.” Maggie’s grumbling concession made it unclear whether she considered herself the winner or the loser. She snagged the cardboard carrier without touching the vase. “I’m getting rid of these. I’ll be back by noon.”

Without a backward glance, she carried the bouquet like she’d carried the garbage to the curb.

Nate plunked his cup in the sink. “I’m leaving, too. Sherlock and Watson isn’t my thing.”

World of Warcraft would be more his thing. “No problem. I’ll get started reviewing the Maxwell file.”

“You don’t have to tell me what you’re doing,” Nate said as he got his hat. “The whole thing with Rhett was an attempt to ditch you. You’ll get used to it. I’ll see you tonight.”

Alone. At work. Unsure of what to do, Gray washed and dried Nate’s coffee mug. Flowers. He should get the notes. She might not be gone long.

He opened and closed drawers until he found the pile of florist cards. Scooping them up, he continued to the copy machine behind his desk. While the machine warmed up, he flipped through the cards. On each, she’d written the date and what flowers had been delivered. His mother had done the same thing with every bouquet his father sent her, marking the memory and saving it in a scrapbook. Maggie’s handwriting was a quick, shaky scrawl. These weren’t keepsakes, they were evidence.

You are a ray of sunshine whenever I see you...

Your new haircut is pretty...

A few weeks in, they got worse.

I’ll take you away...

I love the way you smile when I’m near you...

A few more weeks, and the threat worsened.

I’ll come get you...

You’ll be mine forever...

And the most recent ones made his skin crawl.

I can’t wait to touch you...

I’m here for you...

And today’s...
I’ll surprise you soon.

Gray’s gut twisted. Nate should have called him sooner. As he worked in the quiet, a slimy film coated his conscience. He was sneaking around Maggie’s home, looking at things most women considered private treasures. After returning the pile to its drawer, he grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler to wash the bitter taste from his mouth. He tested his theory—yellow dress, yellow flowers. Could it be that simple?

When someone knocked on the front door, Gray opened it to a middle-aged man in a standard issue police uniform and a Fiddler Miners baseball cap.

“Glen Roberts, Fiddler PD,” he said as stuck out his hand. “Is she gone?”

“Gray Harper. She is. Daffodils today.”

Gray walked back into the room and stood behind the bar while Glen sat on the corner stool. They both stared at the latest note.

“This whole thing bugs the hell out of me,” the chief snarled. “Ron Mathis trusted me to take care of his kids, and I’m screwing it up. I’m glad you’re here.”

“I’ll help where I can, but I’m not the cavalry. I can’t even call the cavalry,” Gray reminded him. “But I know it can be difficult to be stuck between the wonder twins.”

Glen snorted. “You got that right. I catch hell from him every Monday that I’m not doing enough, then I catch hell from her for the rest of the week for
babysitting
.”

They drank coffee and devised their plan for surveillance and investigation, each taking turns leading the conversation. At the end of their debriefing, Glen accepted a refill and went on his way.

Gray returned to his office, shoved all the copies into his briefcase and sat behind his desk. Now what? The butter-yellow walls stared back, eventually revealing holes where nails had been pulled from the plaster. Who’d worked in here? Nate? What had he hung? Gray thought about his office in Chicago. What was there?
Pictures of him and Shelby
. That wouldn’t work.
Photos from training
. No.
Diplomas
... Maggie would never believe he was staying if he didn’t hang his diplomas in his new office.

Opening an email window, he typed a quick email to his secretary asking her to ship them. Satisfied, he turned his attention to the paperwork that made up the rest of his new—
temporary—
job.
It didn’t take long for the puzzle of numbers and facts to draw him in.

* * *

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