The clock was ticking...
Detective Rafe Morgan knew that, as a psychologist, Darby Steele was used to people coming to her in need. But now she was the one in danger. A serial killer had made her a pawn in a sick game, sending her photos of his targets with clocks counting down. As a part-time bomb technician, Rafe was uniquely capable of keeping Darby safe. Usually psychologists rubbed Rafe the wrong way, but when it came to Darby, his urge to protect and serve went way beyond the badge. Getting to know the beautiful doctor had opened Rafe's eyes—and his heart. But if their elusive bomber had his way, Rafe would never get a chance to prove just how far he'd go to keep Darby alive.
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Lena was born in Kentucky and has also lived in California, Louisiana, and Florida where she now resides with her husband and children. Before becoming a romantic suspense author, she was a computer programmer. A former Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart® finalist, she also won the Daphne du Maurier award. She loves to watch action movies, garden, or hike in the beautiful Tennessee Smoky Mountains.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The door to Darby's office flew open and banged against the wall. She froze in her chair, blinking in surprise at the man standing there, his dark eyes narrowed, intent, like a predator on the hunt.
Darby very much feared she was his prey.
"Where's the letter?" He stalked across the room, his laserlike gaze settling on her.
Trapped, between the desk and the wall. She pressed back against her chair while she mentally cataloged the office supplies around her for their weapon potential. She was reaching for her stapler when it dawned on her what he'd said, something about a letter.
Her young assistant stood in the doorway wringing her hands, glancing from the stranger to Darby. "I'm sorry, Dr. Steele. He refused to wait. He just—"
"The letter," the man repeated, his deep voice gruff with impatience.
That familiar voice had Darby letting go of the stapler and studying him more carefully. Several days' growth of stubble darkened his jaw. His shaggy, unkempt hair hung just past his ears. His brows were a fierce slash on a deeply tanned face that would have been handsome if he wasn't frowning.
She'd been the recipient of that frown too many times not to recognize it.
Some of the tension drained out of her. "It's okay, Mindy," she reassured her assistant. "This is Detective Rafe Morgan."
A look of relief flashed across Mindy's face. Without waiting to see if Darby needed anything, she eagerly fled the office.
So much for having her boss's back.
Darby squelched her own desire to flee. Having Rafe Morgan burst into her office was only slightly better than confronting the drug-crazed stranger she'd first believed him to be. Especially since Rafe could barely stand to be in the same room with her.
The feeling was mutual.
Giving him the bland smile she reserved for her most difficult clients, she pushed back from her desk to shake his hand. "Detective, I almost didn't recognize you."
When he made no move to take her hand, she let out a deep sigh and dropped her hand to her side. Actually, the slight probably wasn't intentional. He seemed preoccupied, studying every detail in her office, as if he expected someone to jump out from behind a bookshelf or from behind the couch and chairs she used for her therapy sessions.
"You called the police, said someone sent you a threatening letter," he reminded her.
He was on duty, seriously? She glanced at the wrinkled shirt he was wearing and the equally wrinkled blazer that did little to conceal the large gun holstered at his waist. Since when had he started wearing jeans to work? Every time she'd ever seen him he was wearing a suit and tie, clean-shaven, with his dark hair cut military short. Then again, she'd only seen him at the courthouse, when they were both testifying—usually on opposite sides of a case. Maybe this was how he dressed when not in court.
He pulled a pair of latex gloves out of his jeans pocket and tugged them on. His gaze flicked down her suit, slowly, insultingly, past her skirt, down her legs to her heels then back up, before his mocking gaze met hers again.
Point taken. He'd noticed her looking at his clothes and was giving it right back to her. She wouldn't have expected anything less from him.
"I'm in a hurry here, Dr. Steele."
Her fists clenched at her side. "Of course. I wouldn't want to keep you here any longer than necessary."
The corner of his mouth quirked up. "Of course."
She gritted her teeth and whirled around, marching toward the grouping of furniture on the far side of the room. She reminded herself Rafe had lost his wife a year ago in a horrible tragedy. He deserved her patience and understanding. She drew a deep, bracing breath and stopped beside the couch. "I'm sure the letter isn't anything serious. I get things like this every once in a while."
"If you didn't think it was serious, why did you call the police?"
He stopped next to her, and she had to crane her neck back to look at him. In her calmest voice, she explained, "I have clients to think about. I never ignore threats, even if I don't think there's any real danger."
He seemed to consider that for a moment. "You get a lot of threats?" No sarcasm, just what sounded like genuine concern.
Darby let out a pent-up breath and moved past him to the small, decorative table where she kept her mail. "Two or three a year. People pin their hopes and dreams on a therapist. When things don't work out, they naturally blame me.
Understandable." She reached for the large, padded manila envelope sitting on top.
Rafe grabbed her wrist in an iron hold.
She glanced up in question.
"The perp's fingerprints might still be on the envelope," he said.
"My prints are already on the envelope because I opened it. There's some kind of watch inside, and a piece of paper. I didn't pull either of them out, though, because as soon as I opened the envelope and saw what was printed on the paper, I put it down and called the police." She expected he'd praise her for her quick thinking in preserving the evidence, but he didn't say anything.
Instead, he picked up the envelope and peered inside. His entire body went rigid. "You saw the word boom written on the paper inside and didn't mention it when you called the police?"
She stiffened at his incredulous tone. "It's obvious there's nothing dangerous in there. I didn't want to raise alarms over a watch and a piece of paper."
He shook his head as if in disbelief. "Lucky for you, I'm a bomb tech and can verify the envelope does not contain a bomb. But you shouldn't have made that assumption. You should have reported exactly what you found and let the police handle it. If it had been a bomb, the person who responded to your call could have been killed if they weren't wearing a bomb suit or using the proper equipment."
Meaning he could have been killed. And of course, that she could have been killed when she'd first opened the envelope. Or even Mindy—a single parent with three small children—when she'd brought the mail in.
That thought had Darby swallowing hard against her suddenly tight throat. "You're right. I'm so sorry. I didn't think about it that way. I would never purposely put anyone in danger."
His eyes widened at her apology. "No harm done," he said, sounding as if the admission had been wrung from him.
She frowned, thinking about his earlier statement. "Why would the police send a bomb technician without me mentioning the word boom?" She cocked her head to the side. "For that matter, when did you stop being a detective?"
"They sent me because I was the closest detective when your call came in. The bomb-tech part of my job is part-time, as needed." He reached into the envelope for the piece of paper.
"Makes sense, I suppose." She watched him pull the paper out and hold it up toward the light. "Actually, in a city as small as St. Augustine, I wouldn't expect we'd have a bomb squad at all. Doesn't the St. Johns County sheriff's office handle things like that?"
"We're perfectly capable of handling most suspicious-package reports without their help," he said, his tone sharp. "We just don't have the money for all the fancy equipment they have."
Sensing she'd stumbled onto a sensitive topic, she nodded and watched him examine the paper. But when he flipped it over, she quickly realized it wasn't just a piece of paper. It was a five-by-seven photograph.
Even with heels on, Darby had to stand on her tiptoes for a good view of the picture. In the middle of a large, empty room, a man sat in a chair, his posture stiff and oddly strained. The low quality of the photograph reminded Darby of one of those cheap, do-it-yourself picture-printing machines found in drugstores. She squinted, wishing the exposure wasn't so dark. "He looks familiar."
"You know him?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe."
She reached for the picture but he pulled it back.
"Fingerprints," he reminded her, holding the edges with his gloved fingers. When she lowered her hands, he held the picture in front of her.
She tapped her nails against her thigh. "Why would he have his picture taken sitting in the middle of an empty room?"
"That's a concrete floor. And those are industrial-style windows across the back. Probably a warehouse." His jaw tightened. "And he's not sitting there because he wants to." He pointed to the arms of the chair. "He's tied up."
She let out a gasp and leaned closer to get a better look. Recognition slammed into her, stealing her breath. Was this some kind of joke?
"You know him," Rafe said, not a question this time.
"Who is he?"
"An attorney, Victor Grant. He used to be in private practice, but he made assistant district attorney last week. I saw him at the courthouse just yesterday."
He set the photograph down to reach for the envelope again. When he pulled out the watch, she realized it didn't have a wristband connected to it. Rafe's eyes widened and he let out a vicious curse. He grasped the watch in one hand and yanked his cell phone out of his jeans pocket with the other.
"What's wrong?" Darby hated the alarm in her voice, but what had seemed like a harmless prank a few minutes ago now seemed like something far more sinister.
Rafe issued rapid-fire instructions into the phone to someone named Buresh. In answer to Darby's earlier question, he held the watch down where she could see it.
A stark, digital readout flashed against the white background, displaying 00:00:15. The last number was decreasing—fourteen...thirteen...twelve. Rafe wasn't holding a watch. He was holding a timer.
And it was counting down.
He ended the call and looked at the timer. The corners of his eyes tightened and his gaze shot to hers. "Time's up." Boom.
Darby ducked at the loud sound, which seemed to have come from right outside.
Rafe dropped the timer on top of the photograph and rushed to the window to look through the blinds. He turned and headed to the door, but paused in the opening. "Don't touch the evidence. And stay put. Don't go anywhere until I get back."
With his words of warning hanging in the air, he ran out of the office. Too curious to sit and wait, Darby hurried to the window. Normally, she could see the glint of the bright Florida sun sparkling off the Intracoastal Waterway behind the office buildings across the street. But instead she saw a small, dark cloud of smoke rising from one of the warehouses.
Her stomach clenched and her fingers curled around the windowsill. Sirens sounded from a short distance away, getting louder and louder. Images flashed through Darby's mind—the word boom on the back of the photograph, that horrible sound. It couldn't be a coincidence that there was smoke rising from the warehouse across the street.
Rafe had ordered her to stay put, but the bomb, if that's what she had heard, had already gone off. And there was a small crowd gathering outside. As she watched, a police car pulled up. A uniformed officer and a man in a business suit got out and ran toward the warehouse. Rafe met them at the doorway and they went inside.
Several more minutes passed and more police cars arrived. A white van with the words St. Augustine Police Department printed on the side pulled up. A man in what Darby believed was a bomb suit was helped out of the back. He hurried through the same doorway where Rafe had gone earlier.
The smoke was clearing, and the only visible damage to the outside of the building was a few broken windows. The police weren't evacuating the area. The growing crowd was still on the street watching. And when the man in the bomb suit came back outside and pulled off his protective gear, Darby knew it must be safe.
Her stomach twisted into knots at the idea that a man she'd spoken to just yesterday might have been hurt—or worse. She couldn't stand here, waiting. She had to know if he was okay.
And whether, somehow, this was her fault.
She headed out her office door. Mindy was staring out the window in the empty reception area since they'd already seen all their clients for the day. She looked up in question when Darby marched past her.
"Dr. Steele... Darby, wait. Detective Morgan said to—"
"Stay put. Yes, I know. You do that," Darby said, still miffed that Mindy had abandoned her with Rafe earlier. "I'll be right back." She opened the door and headed outside.
Rafe used his tweezers to pick up a small bomb fragment and drop it into an evidence collection envelope. Fellow detective and bomb tech, Jake Young, was also on his hands and knees a few feet away in the small warehouse, doing the same thing—picking up pieces of the bomb so the two of them could reassemble it at the police station.
Judging by the shrapnel and bits of threaded pipe they'd already found, there was little doubt this had been a pipe bomb. But to figure out the bomber's identity, Rafe needed to know exactly how the bomb had been constructed. Bomb makers tended to settle on a favorite design and stick with it. The bomb's design was like fingerprints, or DNA.
"Nice of you to dress up for work today."
Rafe glanced up at the sound of his boss's voice. Captain Buresh was just stepping inside the warehouse. Although he was only twenty feet away, it would take him a good half a minute to maneuver through the minefield of debris to reach them.
Rafe peeled off his gloves and set his supplies on the jacket he'd already discarded because of the heat. Without bothering to respond to his boss's teasing about his appearance, Rafe stood to greet him. Buresh knew exactly why Rafe was dressed the way he was, and why he was sorely in need of a haircut and a shave.
Blending in with the local criminal element in some of the rougher areas of town was crucial when trying to establish new contacts—future informants—which had been Rafe's assignment for the past month. If he hadn't been sidetracked by Darby's call, he'd be home right now enjoying a long, hot shower. Or he might have already gotten his hair cut short again, which would have made it much easier to bear the Florida summer heat, especially in this warehouse that captured heat like an oven. He ran the back of his hand across his forehead, wiping off the sweat.
"Bring me up to speed," Buresh said, stopping in front of him.
"The coroner took the vic, or what's left of him, out the back a few minutes ago."
"Was the vic the assistant D.A. you mentioned on the phone?"
"Can't be certain yet, but that would be my bet. There was a wallet in the corner, sheltered from the blast, with Victor Grant's driver's license and credit cards inside."
"Whoever did this wanted us to know the vic's identity."
"Looks that way."
Jake paused with tweezers in hand. "If you're not going to help, get out of my way." His voice carried more irritation than warranted. Jake didn't have much use for Rafe, not since Rafe had survived a brutal home invasion a year ago and his wife hadn't.
Shelby Morgan had been Jake's sister. With the killer still at large, and no one else around to target his anger, Jake blamed Rafe. Rafe wished he had the same patience and empathy for Jake that Darby had shown when talking about her clients blaming her. A year of Jake's insults and snide remarks had frayed Rafe's nerves and temper to the breaking point. The only thing holding him back now was that he knew how much his wife had loved her only sibling.
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