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Authors: Mia Kay

Soft Target (8 page)

BOOK: Soft Target
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Keeping himself on a ration of water, he put as much distance between them as possible. Sitting at the back of the room all night, he watched Maggie’s interactions in the light of what he’d learned this morning. She laughed, talked and handed out refills. But now he noticed when she singled out the people from her board meeting list. He watched her listen. He watched her work.

When the last patron left, he fell into a routine that had become comforting. The
thump
of chairs on tables, the swish and rattle while she swept, warm water on his hands while he wiped down the bar.

She walked him out, and he locked the door as the bleat of the alarm assured him she was safe. Then he sat in his truck and waited for her to come to the window and wave goodbye.

He was halfway home when his guilt doubled. He’d told another lie, and he wasn’t sure which made him feel worse—lying
to
Maggie, or lying
about
Maggie.

* * *

From under the trees, crouched in the underbrush, the night quieted around him as Maggie’s lights went out upstairs. Now was the perfect time. Picking up the quilt, he stepped out of the shadows. Halfway to the door, the porch light flared to life, twice as bright as it had been yesterday and illuminating the camera aimed at the door.

The upstairs lights came back on. No! She shouldn’t be awake. It would ruin the game. He scrambled around the porch and hid under the eaves as her window slid open.

“Hello?” Maggie called down.

He held his breath and waited until she convinced herself it was nothing. Once it was dark again, he slid around to the office window he’d used in the past. It hadn’t locked properly for years.

There was a security sticker on it, and the red light of a sensor glowed in the darkness.

Damn him! Damn that pushy, nosy man.
Gray.
He’d come in here and changed everything. But that wasn’t enough. He’d locked Maggie away, like a princess in a tower. He was keeping her away from everyone. And if it wasn’t him shadowing her, it was Max.

The patrolman was easier to fool. Maggie had found a way to do it today, hadn’t she? She’d slipped free and managed to play their game this morning.

Draping the quilt over his arm, he walked away, careful to keep clear of the security light and out of camera range. She’d come to him. He could wait.

Chapter Eight

Shelby stared out the windshield at the strip mall housing a truck stop, restaurant and hotel. The squat buildings were surrounded by a freshly paved parking lot. It was the last outpost of civilization. As far from DC as she could imagine. Instead of letting it depress her, she focused on her conversation.

“What if I came alone?” she asked.

“Shelby, my supervisor is a dinosaur. He’s going to worry about training you only to have you move on if you’re not settled. And his wife is leery of any single female agent.”

As she rolled down the window for air, tar fumes stung Shelby’s nose. “I appreciate the insight, Marian. My fiancé and I will discuss our plans and I’ll get back to you before the job closes.”

Disconnecting the call, she stared at the empty road and waited for the approaching vehicle she could hear. It appeared as a spot, grew steadily larger and then roared past—eager to escape. She knew the feeling.

I’m staying to finish my recovery. Of course I haven’t met another woman. A few weeks won’t matter.

She didn’t believe Gray. Something was keeping him here. Without her. She needed to find out what it was.

Last night, she’d met a local from Fiddler in the hotel bar. Kate Fletcher had filled her in on the two places in Fiddler that were hiring—the truck stop or the diner—and the best way to get hired at both. Shelby had immediately ruled out the diner, since it was in town. She couldn’t run into Gray when she wasn’t expecting it. The truck stop was her only chance.

Rifling through the drugstore sack, she laid everything out on the passenger seat. The best disguises were simple. She wiped off her makeup and pinned her hair into a tight knot on the top of her head. Then she dropped Visine in her eyes. Staring into the mirror stuck to the visor of the crappiest rental car she’d been able to find, she watched as wet tracks snaked down her face. Real tears formed as the burn reddened her eyelids.

She pulled a tissue from a travel pack and wadded it in her hand. Then she dropped saline in her nose.

Slipping through the door of the truck stop, she let every muscle sag as she perched on a stool at the counter. At least the place was clean. And Kate had said lots of locals came out here for weekend breakfast. There would still be town gossip to glean.

“Hi, welcome to Rick’s. I’m Rick.” A smile coated the man’s words, but she didn’t dare look. Defeated women never looked people in the eye.

“I’m Elaine Thomas.” She sniffed loudly and shuffled the tissue to her other hand. “I’m here about the waitress job.”

Thirty minutes later, Rick Marcus had fallen all over himself to help abused wife “Elaine” by paying her under the table. An additional crying jag and cash payment had gotten her out of providing identification when she’d rented a room at the roadside motel. Her dilapidated rental car was dwarfed in a lot full of tractor-trailers.

She’d go get a manicure tomorrow at the only place in town. Beauty shops were another gossip source, and Gray wouldn’t be caught dead in one.

This was just like winning on the shooting range or setting the record on the obstacle course. Practice, discipline and determination would pay off. She’d have to move fast, though.

Those spots in the DC office wouldn’t stay open for long.

They’d leave the memories of Chicago behind, and Gray would come around. All it would take would be one case, and he’d be bitten by the bug. He’d get back to what he’d been—a combination of confidence, ambition and sex appeal.

He wasn’t himself right now. The shooting had shaken his confidence, and therapy was screwing with his head. He needed her help, whether he’d admit it or not. All she had to do was get him out of Idaho.

Chapter Nine

On Saturday night, Gray stood in the doorway of the country club ballroom, his head spinning from the enormity of the job ahead of him. Behind him, a too-serious matron reiterated the rules of dancing, bidding and winning a date to yet another bachelor.

Gray did his best to ignore it. He was not a bachelor, at least not in this sense of the word. He wasn’t here to dance. He wasn’t here to win. He was only here to keep an eye on Maggie.

The melee of last-minute preparations faded, leaving white tablecloths bathed in dim light and a dance floor lit as the central attraction. The back of the room was too dark, there were too many exits and all the tux-clad men looked the same. Faces would be visible when they were dancing, but the bright light was disorienting on its own. It would be worse when they added music and movement.

Skirting several groups, he made his way to Nate’s waiting friends, returning Tiffany’s gleeful wave and Charlene’s slow, wry smile. Faith hugged him as the guys returned with drinks.

“You’re going to be glad this isn’t a Sadie Hawkins dance,” Charlene teased.

“Say that a little louder, Char,” Maggie quipped as she joined them. “If that trend catches on I could sit back and watch everyone else dance.”

As she talked, she used her chair for balance and alternated feet, rotating her ankles like she was warming up for a run. She wasn’t dressed for a run. Her beaded dress was white and gold, with most of the gold clustered at one shoulder and the bottom edge. Once both feet were on the ground, Gray held her chair.

“I worked with this DJ at a wedding recently, and he didn’t interrupt my playlist with a lame stage show. We’ll dance a lot more this year,” she said as she sat.

Her dress was too short and it was missing most of its back. His fingers grazed her skin, and he tingled to his elbows. He glanced up into six sets of grins and stares as their friends gauged their interaction. His discomfort grew when Maggie looked up at him.

“Do you know the rules?”

Gray struggled to recall them. “It’s five dollars a dance, and we give that to the woman we’re dancing with. Even taken guys can dance, but only bachelors can bid on a date, which we do over there.” He pointed to the row of tables. “Those can go as high as we need to win. Each woman has a number, and each bachelor has a number so we’re anonymous. Highest bid wins a date, and we get to decide when and where. And no one knows who won whom unless we tell them.” He grinned. “Did I forget anything?”

“Nope.”

“Where’s your number?” he asked as he got a better look at her dress. It covered most of her front, but it was so tight he wondered how she breathed.

She tapped her shoulder and grumbled, “They made them magnetic this year instead of tags.”

“What did you expect after last year?” Nate’s question jostled another round of gentle laughter.

“What did you do?” Gray asked.

“Nothing,” she mumbled.

“Maggie,” Tiffany chastened her. “You wore it in your ear like a livestock tag.”

Gray choked on his drink. “You’re joking.”

“Just for the first dance. It went back in the right spot for the rest of the night.”

As they talked, his spine softened and his fingers relaxed around his glass. Then Rhett slid into the last empty chair at the table and looked Maggie over with a low whistle.

Nate should have told her not to do this. She should know better than to take this risk.

Another blink of the lights created a flurry of activity. While Nate doled out saltshakers, Maggie handed out shots. They all raised their glasses in a toast. “We who are about to die,” Maggie muttered.

Lick...shot.

As she shoved the sliver of lime into her mouth, Maggie’s gaze locked on to his.

Holy shit.

He stuffed the fruit between his teeth to keep from making a fool of himself. The heat under his skin had little to do with the tequila.

“Ladies, take the floor.” A disembodied voice echoed through the room as the lights went down.

Maggie walked away, and his fingers twitched as the shadows swallowed her. When she came back into view, it was worse. The dress glinted with every sway of her hips and the muscles in her back rippled under caramel skin.
She might as well be wearing a Come and Get Me sign across her ass.

The music started, and someone else took her hand. Gray made his move. Straight to the bidding table.

Charity. It’s for charity.

* * *

Maggie checked the clock, relieved to see the night was almost halfway over. Counting the minutes to intermission, she forced a smile as Barry Stanley talked about her interest rates and stepped on her toes.

She’d danced with almost every man at least once. The doctors liked her because she talked without flirting, didn’t fish for compliments and obviously wasn’t trying to snag a husband. Tom Tyler Jr. welcomed an ear to complain about Susan, his almost ex-wife. Rhett was an excellent partner, but his overwhelming quality was his good humor. The guys from the bar always made sure she didn’t have time to stop. Even Kevin and Michael got into the act. It was a holdover from the first dreadful year, when they’d all been worried she’d dissolve into tears.

She stared over Barry’s shoulder, watching Gray pay rapt attention to his partner. All evening he’d sought girls who weren’t getting asked as often as others. Of course that meant she wasn’t on his dance card. He never waited on her. But he waited on Amber Kendall.

The lights came up for intermission and she walked to the table, wincing internally. Sinking into a chair, she propped her feet in another and fought the urge to slip from her shoes. As if anyone would notice. They were all in the buffet line.

The light touch on her shoulder dragged her eyes open. Gray put a whiskey in front of her next to a heaping plate of appetizers and a bottle of water. She slid her feet to the floor, making room for him at the table.

“This was thoughtful, thank you.” She watched him watch her, both of them suddenly shy. She slid the plate between them, and he helped himself to artichoke dip and crackers.

“What are we raising money for?” he asked as he looked around the room.

“The hospital’s angel fund. It helps with life flights and expenses for families who have a financial hardship.” She directed his attention across the room. “See that woman in pink? The fund helped her buy an almost new car so she could take her mother to radiation treatments in Boise.” She indicated another dancer. “We got him to Coeur d’Alene for back surgery. Michael’s brother is his surgeon.”

When the lights flashed, Maggie groaned. She wanted to spend the rest of the evening sitting here, talking to him and listening to her favorite songs. Duty and pride pulled her spine straight and her butt from the chair. They also kept her from limping. The hand at her elbow helped, too.

“Is it unfair for me to escort you to the floor so I can claim the next dance?” Gray asked.

She shook her head and let him tuck her hand into his arm. Once the music started, her body quieted in his warm, strong grasp. He smelled like fall nights outside. She melted against him, inhaling deeply. His arms softened, become a cradle rather than a cage.

“You dance well,” he said, the compliment rumbling through her. “But are all the dances box steps?”

She wouldn’t mind if they were, as long as she could dance them with him. Maggie reined in her imagination and focused on the song and the list in her head. “The next one’s up-tempo.”

“Good to know.”

They fell into silence, and Maggie let him lead. Really lead, not like she “let” Barry or Carl. Every shift, every subtle direction, brought them into closer contact and fueled her fantasies. His warm breath heated her skin. His long fingers covered hers.

“Are those skulls?” She blinked and the macabre marcasite cuff links winked at her.

His amusement accompanied the soundtrack as his fingers tightened. “Now you know what lurks under my tax nerd exterior.”

“Like thong underwear.” The words were out before she could stifle them.

Choking, he stumbled and stepped on her toes.

“Sorry.” His fingers tightened on her waist as he regained his composure, and Maggie wished, for just a second, they’d go lower.

He continued in a whisper, his words brushing her skin just like his hands. “You’ll have to give me a little more information on that one.”

“Well—” even her vowels were blushing “—sometimes a specific outfit calls for a thong to avoid VPL.”

“Which is?”

She was tempted to look up for the smile she could hear, but she didn’t want to move.

“Visible panty lines. If something is really form fitting or light colored, then you don’t want people to stare at the outline of your underwear.”

“Ahh, okay. And the other times?”

“Other times, it’s like your own sexy little secret under something no one would expect,” she said as the music ended.

“You’re an evil woman,” he said, his laughter shaking both of them. “I’ll never again look at your overalls without wondering.”

Summoning courage she’d forgotten she had, she winked. “Why wait until then?” She walked off with an extra sway to her hips, knowing he wouldn’t find a visible line anywhere. When he kept hold of her hand, she turned to see him with another five dollar bill between his fingers.

The next song began, and Maggie paused. It was her favorite, and she really didn’t want to box-step to it. She was already moving to the beat. As he slid the money into the pouch at her hip, his fingers stroked her dress—forward, then back. Her nerves sparked to life, and she looked up into his bright blue eyes.

“Would you like to
dance
?” he purred.

“God, yes.”

He kept paying, and she kept dancing. Then she kept dancing and shoved his money back into his pocket. It was the most fun she’d ever had at this damn awful function.

When the music slowed, she stayed in his arms.

“Has anyone told you how beautiful you are?”

His question rippled through her even as she felt his breath stop.

“Not yet,” she joked. It was true, though. Pretty, cute, sparkly, nice—Rhett had added
hawt
just to make her laugh. No one had said beautiful. Ever.

“Tease,” he rumbled, then grew quiet for several seconds. His breath tickled her ear. “You’re beautiful, Maggie.”

Tears pricked her eyelids. “Thank you.”

He led her into a shadowy corner, continuing to dance, not looking at her, while he stroked her back with featherlight touches. Her insides wavered between quivering and melting, but at least her tears dried.

God, she wished she’d never introduced him to Amber.

The sight of Carl on the edge of dance floor, wriggling in frustration as he tried to get her attention, pulled her back to reality. As much as she wished she’d asked Gray to be her accomplice, she hadn’t. When the song ended, she sighed and stepped away. “This is your last chance to bid. You’d better go.”

He left the floor without looking back. Maggie turned to Carl and tried not to groan as he fell into a box step. It was what he knew, and dancing with him was better than having Barry Stanley step on her toes.

“You’ve got a full sheet,” Carl hissed as soon as the music started. “We’ve had to flip it over.”

“What?”

“I’ve been taking it up in fifty-dollar increments like you said, but I’m having to keep a close eye on it.”

“Is it just one person?”

“No, it’s like three or four besides me.”

Panic itched along her palms.
What if he’s here?
What if
I end up on an honest-to-God date with my honest-to-God stalker? Why stop there, Maggie? What if you end up dead in a ditch with your body covered in wilting flowers?

“I used all the money on my last bid. It just has to hold for this song.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. Thanks for doing this.” The effort to inject life into the words drained her. Fighting self-pity, she gave in to exhaustion instead, moving on autopilot as Carl rambled on.

The music finally stopped. Another year was in the books. Maggie slipped from her shoes and padded toward the table. The beats of music had been replaced with the crashes and thumps of cleanup. The lights had come up, banishing the shadows. It was time to go home.

Her friends were always the last to leave. Everyone was gathering jackets and shoes and lingering over their goodbyes. Even Gray was slouched against the table with his hands in his pockets. Maggie was the only one in a hurry.

“I’m going to go find Beverly and see if I can wheedle the name of my date. See you all tomorrow.”

Her shoulders sagged as she limped away.

“Why wait until then?”

Gray’s quiet question made her turn. In his fingers he held a tag neatly stamped 17. Her number.

“You can’t be serious,” she whispered as he closed the distance between them.

“I pick my own dates,” he replied as he slid his hand to the base of her spine and turned her toward the door. “Why don’t I make sure you get home?”

“I don’t need a guard dog,” she protested.

“At least you don’t think I’m a lapdog,” he drawled.

“Evil man.”

He leaned close, and his warm breath heated her through. “Woof.”

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