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16

They located Tricia at a city hospital a little before dawn, after making frantic phone calls throughout the rest of the night. A woman of her description had been brought in a couple of hours earlier. Though nearly incoherent, shed come around enough to say her first name.

For what seemed the dozenth time in a week, Alec found himself driving between the nations capital and Baltimore, a panicked Sam sitting beside him. Only now, she wasnt just a witness, not just an attractive stranger. She was his lover, in every sense of the word. And she was on the verge of shattering into a million pieces.

His fault. Jesus, it was all his fault. If he had never shown up at her place, never knocked on her door, never gotten her involved, perhaps she wouldnt have drawn the attention of a madman. A madman who now wanted to punish her by hurting those she loved.

Of course, if hed never shown up at her door, they wouldnt have shared the amazing hour in that hotel bed. But hed trade it in a second to make her happy, safe, and whole again.

He had tried calling Wyatt, but had received no answer. Even after working for him for only a week, Alec already knew that was very unusual for the man. Leaving him a message, hed then called the others, reaching everyone except Lily. They all sounded as exhausted as he felt, but every one of them said theyd be in Baltimore as soon as possible.

What exactly did the police say? Sam asked.

Hed told her twice but knew she needed to fill the time until they got there. That she was found in an alley in a bad part of town, wearing next to nothing, holding a half-empty bottle of booze, with an obscene note pinned to her bra strap.

It was a miracle the woman hadnt been raped. Apparently Tricia had been at the center of a gang of young hoods when a bar owner had spotted them and put a stop to it. The bystander had brought her to the hospital.

I guess Good Samaritans really do exist, he murmured, feeling a quick stab of satisfaction that at least part of the Professors hateful plan hadnt worked.

When they arrived at the hospital, they were escorted to Tricias room, finding a city police officer standing guard, as Alec had requested. He flashed his badge as Sam peered in, her bottom lip between her teeth. When she let out a cry of relief and flew through the door, he knew Tricia wasnt quite as bad off as theyd feared.

He glanced in, watching their reunion for a moment, realizing Tricia, while weak, was conscious and able to talk. Hed need to question her, but wanted to give the women a few minutes alone. In the meantime, he had other things to do.

Can you direct me toward the man who brought her here? he asked.

The officer pointed toward a nearby waiting area. You cant miss him.

Something about the officers tone warned him, so when he walked into the room and saw Tricia Scotts rescuer, he wasnt entirely taken by surprise. Because the Good Samaritan, who immediately rose as he entered, was one of the most intimidating-looking people hed ever seen. Truly huge, he dwarfed Alec in height, and had enormous shoulders, thick hands, and a shiny, boulder-size bald head. He was the kind of man who made nervous women cross the street on sight. But right now, he looked genuinely concerned, worried about the one hed rescued last night.

This guy broke every stereotype the Professor had relied on.

Alec extended his hand to the man. Im Special Agent Lambert, and I want to thank you for doing what you did.

She gonna be all right?

I think so. But I hear it was a close call. You really saved the day.

Those asswipes were too drunk to realize shed been attacked and was drugged out of her head. Like any woman would really write something like that on herself.

The note?

I gave it to the detective who was here earlier.

What did it say?

The other man growled in disgust. My boyfriend dumped me. I need to be fucked bad.

Every muscle in his body flexed. Alec wanted to hurt the Professor. Wanted to take the bastards neck between his hands and squeeze the life right out of him.

But arresting him and throwing his ass in jail was the best he could do. So hed damn well better get to work doing it.

Thanking the other man again, and asking him to wait a little longer until his colleagues could show up for a more thorough questioning, Alec went in search of the detective. The guy was in a nurses station, sipping coffee from a foam cup, yawning between each sip.

You the FBI? he asked.

Yes. Can I see the note?

The man reached for a satchel, retrieving a plastic sheath in which a single sheet of paper had been placed. Despite Alecs first impressions, the guy seemed to be at least somewhat professional. Hed had the common sense to treat the evidence carefully.

Holding the plastic by a corner, Alec lifted it in the air and read the hand-scrawled words. But they were hard to read because light shining through the cream-colored paper made writing on the other side bleed through.

He turned the page around. Realized what he was looking at. And his heart stopped.

Looks like a page torn out of a book, the detective said, not noticing Alecs shock. Autographed. Maybe we should talk to the person who signed it, the Sam Dalton guy.

Thats a good idea, Alec whispered. A very good idea.

Though Alec let her spend a half hour alone with Tricia, Sam knew he needed to question her. She had been loath to leave her poor, bruised, battered friend, but at least knew shed be in good hands. Still, before she could leave, shed needed to apologize, to explain as well as she could why she was partially to blame for what had happened.

Bullshit, girl. Tricia showed a hint of her usual spirit and her no-nonsense attitude. Nobodys to blame for this except the prick who did it.

I provoked him.

If you hadnt provoked him, maybe hed have stayed underground a little longer, slaughtering a few more people along the way before he popped his slimy head up out of his hole. Tricias voice was weak, but her grip pretty strong as she clenched Sams hand. Dont you regret this. Im fine. A little banged up, but-Tricia released her hand and glanced at her own lap-the doctor says I wasnt, uh, violated in any way.

Thank you, God.

I know thats all my parents will care about, Tricia added. Theyll be here in a couple of hours-theyre driving up from North Carolina.

Sam bent to kiss her cheek, whispering, I know youre all tough and bad, but I also know that your mind was raped even if your body wasnt.

Thick tears fell from her friends pretty eyes, confirming what Sam had suspected: Tricia wasnt as okay about this as she was trying to pretend.

Ill be there for you, Sam added. I promise. As soon as you get out of here, Im coming over to take care of you, nurse you back to health.

Tricias bruised mouth quirked. You? Leave your cocoon?

No more cocoon for me. This caterpillar has become a butterfly at last.

Its about time. I gotta meet this guy.

Youve met him, Sam said, not surprised at how well her friend knew her, either.

Sex on a stick?

Uh-huh.

Tricias wan smile and murmured, You go, girl, revealed how tired she was.

Regretting keeping her from sleep, Sam stood, kissed her forehead, and left the room. Tricia would be okay; she was a survivor. But oh, God, had it been another close call.

Hearing Alecs voice, she wandered toward the waiting room. Most of his coworkers were there: Jackie Stokes, Mulrooney, and Taggert. They were huddled together, talking in whispers.

What is it? Sam asked.

As if they were being jerked by the same string, all four immediately focused their attention on her. Sam, I need you to look at something. Alec lifted a clear plastic Baggie that contained a single sheet of paper.

Seeing a few scrawled words, she swallowed hard and crossed her arms over her chest. Is that the note?

Yes, it is. He flipped it over, showing her the other side.

She had to look twice before she grasped it. Then she realized what it was. Somehow, she felt no surprise. Nothing this psychotic madman did could surprise her anymore.

Hes met me, she said flatly.

Apparently so.

The sheet was the inside title page from one of her books. It had been torn out; the top area, where she usually personalized inscriptions, was missing. All that remained was the title, and her cheerily scrawled, Stay safe in cyber land! Below it was her signature.

I know it will be next to impossible for you to remember whom you signed it to, but if you could give us information on any of your book signings

She shook her head. No.

You cant?

I mean, no, its not impossible. A bitter pleasure rose up within her. That bastard may have made the mistake that will lead you right to him.

All the other team members listened closely.

I have a special brand of pen I use for my signings. Very specific, smooth, just the right texture and consistency. She nodded toward the page. And its not red. Not ever.

This is a forgery? Jackie Stokes asked.

She shook her head. Its mine. I did a signing after giving a guest lecture right after my book came out, almost a year ago. My trusty favorite pen sprang a leak and got black ink all over my skirt. Someone stuck a replacement in my hand so I could finish the autographing.

Alec muttered a triumphant, Yes! A red pen.

It gets better. The event was part of an attendees-only legal symposium at a local college, for the police, lawyers, judges, and the like. Uncle Nate was involved; he brought me in to talk about cyber crime.

Excellent. Mulrooney chortled. Well get hold of the list of attendees.

And your unsubs name should be on it, Sam said.

Whats your uncle Nates number? Alec asked. He can tell us who the organizers were.

She gave it to him, feeling so confident theyd finally made a breakthrough, she wanted to throw her arms around Alecs neck and kiss him. She didnt, of course. His boss might not be here, but it was still inappropriate.

Curious about that, she asked, Where is Agent Blackstone, anyway?

I have no idea, Alec said, sounding thoughtful. Strange that hes been out of touch for this long. Brandon said he was going to keep trying to reach him. Maybe thats why hes not here yet.

The others echoed him, Jackie adding,Ive left three or four messages. I couldnt get in touch with Lily, either.

Alec frowned. I hope nothing happened with that other case she was working on.

The rest of the group appeared curious, but didnt ask questions. They all had other things to do. Alec got on the phone with Uncle Nate. Jackie interviewed Sam about Tricias life and habits. The others talked to the detective.

When they were finished, Sam asked, Where is the man who brought her in? I want to thank him.

He went for coffee, Jackie said. Hes a good guy, doesnt want to leave until he knows shes okay.

Remembering what Alec had muttered in the car about the Good Samaritan, she felt the same rush of pleasure, not only because Tricia was okay, but that the Professor had failed. He hadnt anticipated a good guy, only rapists and killers who might easily have attacked Tricia, or left her for dead.

And while they hadnt confirmed that the man her mother had intended to meet was the same one whod attacked Tricia, Sam would lay money it was true. Meaning the bastard had been foiled twice in one night. That made her doubly grateful. Somewhere, someone was watching out for those Sam loved. She only hoped the guardian angel stuck around long enough to ensure she survived, too.

A short time later, as Sam stood in Tricias room, watching her repeatedly thank her rescuer, Alec entered. Were going to take off now.

We?

I want you here, safe and sound, with the detective and the officer watching you. Jackie, Kyle, Dean, and I will go to the college. He frowned. I hate for all of us to go, but without Wyatt, Brandon, and Lily, were a little shorthanded. The professor who organized the symposium sounds very disorganized. There are apparently a bunch of boxes to sort through, and I want to get through them as quickly as possible.

Youre sure you dont need my help?

Im sure. I just want you protected, Sam. Right here, with lots of people-and police officers-around you. Ill come back here with any lists we can get, copies of credit card slips, whatever, and together well go over the information, okay? You stay here with your friend.

Her friend was still softly chatting with the big, dangerous-looking man whod saved her, eyeing him as if he were a cuddly teddy bear. Shes going to be okay, Sam whispered, as much to herself as to Alec.

Yeah, she is. And were going to find the man who did this to her and stop him from hurting anyone again.

Alec reached for her hand and squeezed it. His colleagues were right outside, her friend and a witness just a few feet away, so there was no way he could kiss her the way his glittering eyes told her he wanted to. God, in all the insanity, it had actually slipped her mind that shed made incredible love with this man a few hours ago.

She smiled and shivered in satisfaction at the very thought of it.

Stop it.

Stop what?

He leaned close. Stop looking at me the way you did when I was inside you.

Get used to it.

He pulled an inch away, met her gaze, asked a dozen questions without ever opening his mouth, then turned and walked out of the room.

After he was gone, she wondered where that sassy, sultry comeback had come from. Because when hed commented about being inside her, shed turned to mush.

I could probably use a little sleep now, Tricia told her rescuer. Thank you again. Call me soon, okay? I want to take you out to dinner to thank you when I dont look like somebody ran over me with a truck.

Thats a deal. You concentrate on getting better, the big man said.

Once he was gone, Sam stepped to her friends bedside. Ill let you sleep. I want to call Mom and tell her what happened.

Tell her I really need that plastic surgeons number now, kay? Tricia cracked, her voice weak but her wit still sharp.

You got it. But not too soon. Youre so damned gorgeous, the rest of us finally have a shot at getting some attention.

Tricias eyes were closed, but she said, Id say youre getting more than that.

Even woozy and injured, the woman had damned good perception.

Sam slipped out, realizing her friend was already drifting off. Smiling pleasantly at the police officer stationed at the door, she said, Ill be in the waiting room.

Ill be right here, maam.

Before she had even stepped away, though, her cell phone rang. She cast a quick, guilty look around. She was not supposed to use it inside the hospital, and had intended to use the complimentary landline in the waiting area. When she saw the name on the caller ID, though-MD HOUSE OF CORRECTIONS-she answered in spite of herself.

The reception wasnt great, with static on the line, but she finally heard, Mrs. Dalton? This is Dale Carter, Jimmy Flynts attorney.

Yes, of course. What can I do for you, Mr. Carter?

Maam, sorry to bother you so early on a Sunday

As if she hadnt been up almost all night, anyway. Its all right.

I have some bad news. Im at the prison, got called down here first thing this morning. Jimmy passed away during the night.

Hes dead?

The officer tensed, and Sam waved to let him know all was well.

Hes been very sick, as Im sure you noticed. Im told he took ill last evening; he was brought to the infirmary and he expired at around two oclock this morning.

Sam didnt know what to say, what to think, what to feel. She had never liked Jimmy, and had always known he liked her too much. But her visit yesterday had thrown her, made her wonder if he had been less full of crap than shed assumed him to be.

It was nice of you to call, Mr. Carter, she said, though Im not family or anything. In fact, I barely knew him.

Thats not why Im calling. They contacted me about Jimmys belongings, since he has no known family. He left a thick envelope with your name on it.

She froze. Love letters from a dead inmate did not appeal in the least.

As if reading her mind, the attorney said, I glanced through them to make sure there was nothing objectionable or criminal. There doesnt appear to be, just some odd ramblings that dont make much sense to me, but might to you.

Ramblings?

Papers shuffled. Something about your being careful, danger heading your way.

She had been only half paying attention to what the attorney said, still trying to believe Jimmy had died, but his words made her straighten up and take notice. Danger?

Yes. He mentioned e-mail scams, that some people might use them to hurt people rather than just robbing them.

Good God. What else?

He cleared his throat. This part says, Theres rumors. Somebodys watching you and Im worried for you.

Was it really possible? Could Jimmy have known something about this case? It seemed crazy. Then again, so had the idea of him finding the man whod ruined her grandmother and taking vengeance on him. Yet she had begun to believe it had happened.

Can you come down to the prison to retrieve this? he asked. Since it is addressed to you, the prison wants to release it to you directly.

I dont know

I will understand if you cant. Jimmy was a rather unlikable person. Just because he fixated on you as an ally doesnt mean you have any obligation to him now that hes gone.

Rather than making her feel better, the attorneys words made her feel worse. As if she owed Jimmy something. Hell, maybe she did. She just didnt know. Ill try. Maybe later today?

Very well, he said. You should call and let the prison know youre coming, since its a Sunday and there arent a lot of administrative people here.

All right. Thank you, Mr. Carter, she said, hanging up.

The officer, who had been watching her closely, asked, Everything okay, miss?

She rubbed her temple. Im not sure.

Not at all sure. One thing she did know: She wanted Alecs opinion. She quickly dialed his number, but got only his voice mail. She left him a detailed message about what had happened, asking him to call back.

Damn it, she muttered as soon as shed hung up, heading to the waiting room to think things over. Sam wanted to read Jimmys letters. More so with every passing minute. The wording had been too precise to be completely coincidental. Whoever Jimmys contacts were on the inside of that prison, they seemed to actually be aware of what was happening out here.

Maybe because one of them had contact with the Professor? Was it possible?

It could be.

Alec and the others could be another couple of hours. She was doing nothing but worrying in a hospital waiting room. Rather than wasting time with the trip when they returned, she should go and be back here with the documents before their arrival.

But she couldnt. She certainly wasnt stupid enough to leave by herself, and didnt have a car to do so, anyway.

Hey, maam, just wanted to let you know Im heading out of here, a voice said. Officer Gilbert will stay in position at your friends door until the FBI agents return.

Seeing the detective, to whom she had been briefly introduced earlier, Sam had a sudden thought. Are you still on duty, or are you going home?

Gonna be working all day. Never-ending paperwork.

She hesitated, not wanting to put him out. Then, knowing it could be important, she bit the bullet and asked, Is there any chance you could give me a ride somewhere?


| Pitch Black | c