Alpha one, p.11
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       Alpha One, p.11

           Cynthia Eden
 
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  Juliana had been twelve. Her mother’s death had torn her whole life apart.

  And her father—he’d become someone completely different. He’d stopped caring about people. Only focused on things. More wealth. More houses.

  “It was never home,” she said, staring at all the windows. “And it always smelled like a funeral.” Because of the flowers. So many had come after her mother’s death. For weeks the house had been overflowing.

  Then the flowers had started to wither and die.

  She glanced back at Logan and was surprised by the pain she saw flash across his face. “Logan?”

  “I’m sorry about your mother. I heard...she was a great lady.”

  This part she could remember so well. “She was.” Her mother had been the good that balanced out her father. She’d always made him be better. Without her, he’d fallen apart.

  Juliana reached for her door. Her shoes made no sound as she headed up the elaborate walk. Logan was at her side and—

  “You’re alive!”

  The woman’s high cry had Juliana’s head jerking up. Then she saw Susan Walker, her father’s assistant, rushing toward her.

  Susan caught her in a big, tight hug, a hug that smelled of expensive body lotion and red wine. “I thought you’d died! You disappeared after the explosion and no one would tell me anything....” She pulled back, gazing up at Juliana with wide, worried eyes. “I mean, on the news, they said that you’d survived. But I never saw you!” Susan’s words tumbled out too fast. “And I was so worried!”

  Susan’s perfectly smooth face gave no hint to her age. She could have been thirty; she could have been forty-five. The woman had been a fixture in her father’s life for the past eleven years.

  His closest confidant. The person who organized his life.

  And...

  Juliana was pretty sure, her father’s lover.

  “We need to go inside,” Gunner said in a quiet voice.

  Susan jumped, as if she hadn’t even noticed the men surrounding them. Then, after a frantic look around, she said, “Yes, yes, of course...” She ushered them inside the house. She was in a robe. A white silk robe that skirted around her ankles.

  When Juliana entered the house, she heard the faint strains of music playing in the background.

  They entered the den, and Juliana saw the wineglass on the table.

  “I, um...I was just trying to relax a bit.” Susan’s lips pressed together for a moment. “You knew I moved in last spring, right?” She asked as her fingers nervously toyed with the robe’s belt. “I mean, it just... The move gave me better access to your father. There was so much work to do and I—”

  “You were sleeping with him.” The words just came out. She wasn’t in the mood for more lies or sugarcoating. Her mother was gone. She’d known her father had lovers, and Susan—well, the woman had always been kind to her.

  Susan paled. “I was his assistant! I was—”

  “His lover.” Juliana rolled tired shoulders. “It’s all right. You don’t have to pretend with me.”

  Logan and Gunner were silent, assessing. She knew they’d run a check on Susan, on all the employees who worked so closely with her father.

  All of the employees had turned up clean, no connection to Guerrero. But Logan was still suspicious, and she knew the EOD was still digging deep for dirt.

  “Who are these men?” Susan glanced first at Gunner. Then Logan.

  “Her protection,” Logan said with a smile. “In light of all that’s happened, I’m sure you understand why we’ll be staying here with Juliana.”

  “Here?” Susan parroted as her eyes widened.

  Right. Well, with her father dead, the house was technically Juliana’s. Even if he had been sleeping with Susan. Talk about awkward. She didn’t want to make Susan feel uncomfortable, but this was where they needed to be, at least for the next few days. Just tell her. “We’re going to be moving in for a while.” Hopefully, it wouldn’t be for long. But in case it was longer, Juliana desperately needed a base to use so that she could get back to her life. She wanted to paint. Painting was her livelihood and she had work to deliver, but more, painting gave her a release. It could help take her mind off all the death.

  Logan had told her that supplies would be brought in to her. When he’d said that, she’d almost kissed him. She’d caught herself, though, because she knew just where a kiss would have lead them.

  To us both being naked. The awareness simmered between them.

  “You can’t stay here.” Susan’s rushed denial had Juliana blinking. “This isn’t... You’ve never stayed here, Juliana.”

  It was late. Juliana was exhausted. She wanted to hit the bed and fall into oblivion. “I’m going to be staying here now. So are they.” Simple.

  Susan just shook her head.

  “Which rooms are free?” Juliana asked her. “There should be more than enough for us to use.” She was already getting a chill from being inside the house. The place was always so cold. Her father had restored every inch of the old antebellum. Or rather, he’d paid folks to restore the house. Maybe it was cold because the place was so big and drafty.

  Maybe.

  She knew her father kept a small staff in the house. A driver. A housekeeper. A cook. And—

  “Take any room you want,” Susan said softly as her shoulders sagged. “Take everything... It’s yours, anyway.” Then she brushed by Juliana. “I’m in your father’s room.”

  Juliana felt badly about upsetting Susan. She knew the woman was hurting, too. She was pushing into this place—where I don’t belong—and ripping into Susan’s life. Bringing her hell right down on the hapless woman. “Susan...” She wanted her to be safe. Juliana took a breath and though she hated to say it, she forced the words out. “Maybe you should leave for a few days, until...” Until it’s safe. Until I’m not afraid you’ll get caught in the cross fire when Guerrero attacks.

  Susan truly had always been kind to her, and when this nightmare was over, Juliana would give her the house. She could take it and be happy.

  Juliana sure didn’t want the place. She much preferred her small house on the beach. It never seemed cold there.

  Susan’s pretty face tightened. “You’re kicking me out?”

  And she’d screwed up. Juliana tried to back up. “No, no, that’s not—”

  “For your protection,” Logan inserted smoothly. “The government will be happy to provide you with temporary lodging for a few days, until the situation becomes more stable.”

  Susan just shook her head. Her gaze seemed to swim with tears. “I’m not in any danger. No one would want to hurt me!”

  “I’m sure that’s what Charles thought, too,” Juliana said quietly. She’d arranged to send flowers to his family, but she’d do more for them, too. When her father’s estate was settled—after the government had their turn to go through everything, she’d see that they were taken care of.

  “Wrong place,” Gunner added darkly. “Wrong damn time.”

  Susan flinched. Then her eyes focused on Juliana. “Why? Why is this even happening?”

  “Because my father was involved with some very dangerous people.” Susan would have been the prime person to realize that truth, only, she seemed clueless. “Now they want me dead.”

  “We’ll be escorting you out tonight, Ms. Walker,” Gunner said. “Just show us to your room, and I can help you pack up.”

  Susan was still staring at Juliana. “I told you. I shared a room with the senator.” Then she turned away, moving toward the circular staircase with her head up. But at the stairs, she paused with her hand on the banister. “He was going to marry me.”

  Juliana barely heard the quiet words.

  “We’d planned... He was going to give up his office. Retire. Stay with me.” Her head tilted and Juliana saw her scan the house. What did Susan see when she looked around?

  Not death and ice, like Juliana saw.

  Antiques, wealth, good memories?


  “It’s all gone,” Susan whispered and she climbed up the steps.

  Juliana’s gaze darted to the closed study door. Her father had died in that room. He’d put one of his prized guns to his head and squeezed the trigger.

  Susan had found his body. So that meant she must have found the suicide note, too. She knew that the senator had fallen far from grace.

  It’s all gone.

  Yes, it was.

  * * *

  THE LITTLE BITCH was back.

  Susan closed the bedroom door behind herself. Flipped the lock—then slapped her palm against the wood.

  The pain was fresh, staggering, and it helped her to push back the fury that had her whole body shaking.

  Juliana had just marched in...and kicked her out.

  After all of these years. After all the work she’d done.

  Juliana hadn’t stayed around to look after Aaron. She hadn’t been there, day in and day out, working to keep the man on a leash. Working to make him look sane when the man hadn’t cared about anything.

  Or anyone.

  Susan glanced at the ornate bed.

  I was here.

  And everything—it was supposed to be hers now. Aaron had promised to take care of her. Only, he hadn’t.

  He’d been weak until the end. Weak and desperate, and he’d taken the easy way out.

  A bullet to the brain. She would have made him suffer more. He’d dangled his promises in front of her for so long.

  It should all be mine. The money. The houses. The cars. Every. Single. Thing.

  She was so tired of pretending. She’d pretended for years. Yanked herself out of the gutter. Pushed her way into Aaron’s life.

  His weakness had been an advantage for her, at first.

  But now...

  Her gaze roamed around the room. Right past the paintings that he’d ordered hung on the wall. Juliana’s paintings. Her precious work.

  Did the girl even realize her father had bought them? That he’d ordered the pieces, paying far too much, and had them delivered back here?

  Susan hated them. Storms, dark skies and threatening clouds.

  Susan had been so tempted to slice the paintings in the past few days. To just rip them apart.

  Payback.

  But she’d kept up her image, for all the good it had done her. Kept it up even when she’d shattered on the inside.

  “Ms. Walker.” A rap sounded at her door. “We’ll be leaving soon.” An order.

  She recognized the voice, of course; it belonged to the first man who’d come into her home. The dark man with the darker eyes.

  His stare didn’t scare her. She’d seen plenty of darkness as a kid.

  “Just a minute,” she called, trying to keep her voice level. Now wasn’t the time to lose her control. Now was the time to keep planning. To keep her focus.

  She headed for the nightstand and the small safe that she knew waited inside.

  There were files in that safe. A small handgun. Sure, the police and the FBI and who the hell knew who else had been in the house, and they’d searched everywhere, but...

  But they didn’t see the papers inside the safe.

  She’d made sure of it. She’d taken those papers, hidden them, then brought them back when the agents backed off.

  I knew I could use them.

  Another rap. “You need to hurry, Ms. Walker. A car’s waiting downstairs for you.”

  Her jaw ached, and she forced her teeth to unclench. She’d recognized the other man downstairs. He’d changed over the years, yes, but she’d still remembered him.

  His eyes were the same.

  She pulled out the papers from the safe. Flipped open the file.

  Logan Quinn’s eyes stared back at her.

  Once upon a time, Senator Aaron James had wanted Logan Quinn eliminated from his daughter’s life.

  Susan had taken the necessary steps for that elimination. She’d been the one to do the research. To destroy the budding romance.

  She knew all about Logan’s secrets. It was time for Juliana to learn about them, too.

  You think you’re safe, don’t you? Her gaze darted back to the paintings. You think he’ll keep you safe. But what happens when you learn about all of his lies?

  Susan left the safe open just a few inches, and she left the manila file pushing out.

  Juliana would find it soon enough.

  Then she’d be vulnerable.

  And Juliana wouldn’t survive the next attack on her life.

  Susan exhaled slowly and made her way back to the door. She flipped the lock and opened it carefully. “I’m sorry...” A quaver entered her voice. “It’s been a...rough few days.”

  He nodded. “I understand, and the move—it’s just for your safety.”

  She looked at him from beneath her lashes. Not her usual type. Too rough. She’d felt the calluses on the man’s fingertips, but...

  Sometimes it wasn’t about what you liked.

  It was about what you could use.

  Susan rested her fingers on his chest. “I’ll be able to come home again soon, right?”

  He glanced at her hand, then back up to her face. The guy’s expression hadn’t thawed any. “When it’s clear.”

  It would be clear, just as soon as Juliana was rotting in the ground.

  * * *

  JULIANA WAS STANDING at the foot of the stairs when Susan came down. Gunner was just a few steps behind, carrying her suitcase in his hand.

  It looked as if Susan had been crying.

  Great. Juliana shifted her body and blocked the bottom of the stairs. “It’s just temporary, Susan.”

  Susan’s eyes were red. She had been crying. “It’s not going to be my home. You and I both know...in the will, he left everything to you.” Anger thinned her lips. “You couldn’t be bothered to see him, but it all still goes to you.”

  “I don’t...” Want it. “This isn’t my home any longer. As soon as Logan and his team stop the man who’s hunting me...”

  Susan’s gaze flickered to Logan. “I remember you.”

  He was by the door. Arms crossed over his chest. At her words, his head cocked toward Susan.

  Susan stared right back at him. “Aaron always told me that you were dangerous.”

  Juliana eased to the side, blocking her view. This wasn’t about Logan. “Susan, when this mess is over, I’ll call you. We’ll sort everything out. The house, the will—everything.”

  Susan’s lips twisted in a sad smile as her gaze focused on Juliana. “He loved you. Probably more than you’ll ever realize. It’s too bad you didn’t know anything about him.” She brushed by Juliana. “Maybe you should take a look at what’s on the walls of his room. It might surprise you.”

  Then she was gone. Gunner followed behind her, shaking his head.

  But Juliana saw Logan grab Gunner’s arm before he could walk through the doorway. “Find out what she knows.”

  Gunner gave an almost imperceptible nod.

  The door closed behind him with a click.

  Juliana rubbed at the bandage on her neck. She’d almost forgotten about her injuries. Her head had finally stopped throbbing. She just—

  “Don’t.”

  Logan stalked toward her. He caught her fingers, pulled them away from the small bandage. “Don’t do anything to draw attention to it.”

  “No one’s here to see.” His team had cleared out the house. They were alone—all of the guards were stalking along the exterior of the place.

  Alone with Logan. When he was this close, the awareness between them burned. But she turned away. “I’m...I’m going to shower.” She didn’t want to see what waited in her father’s room. Not then.

  She wanted to wash away the memories of blood.

  Logan’s fingers curled around her wrist. “Are we going to talk about it?”

  Her throat went desert dry. “It?”

  “You...almost coming...”

  There’d been no almost about it. She glanced back
, and from the look in his eyes, Juliana knew he realized that truth.

  “Or are we just going to pretend that it didn’t happen?”

  Juliana gave a slow shake of her head. “I’m not that good at pretending.”

  His gaze searched hers. “You’re mad because of the setup. I get that.”

  Good for him.

  “But I swear, I wouldn’t risk your life for anything. You’re my priority.”

  She believed that. After all, wasn’t keeping her safe his job?

  His fingers tightened around her wrist. “You’re just going to walk away, aren’t you?”

  It was what he expected. She knew that. But there was more at stake right then.

  Juliana had realized just how vulnerable she still was to Logan. He’d gotten into her heart once, and no matter how hard she tried, she’d never been able to shove him out.

  She still cared for him, probably always would.

  But she couldn’t let herself love him again. It was too dangerous. Too painful.

  Take the pleasure he can give you. A tempting whisper from inside. Then you be the one to walk away.

  Only, there was a problem with that plan. If she took him back to her bed, Juliana was afraid she might not want to walk away.

  So she pulled her arm free, and before she gave in to that temptation, she headed up the stairs.

  I can walk away now.

  Juliana just wasn’t sure that walking away was what she really wanted.

  * * *

  DIEGO SHOOK HIS HEAD as he stared at the man seated in front of him. McLintock couldn’t even keep his head up anymore. Blood and sweat coated his body.

  “I didn’t have anything to do with that explosion at the cemetery. I promise!” Ben McLintock mumbled, voice rasping. He’d already said this over and over, and Diego actually believed him.

  Why keep lying at this point? McLintock had no one to protect. No family. No lover. The guy had always just been out for himself.

  But if it hadn’t been McLintock... Diego’s eyes narrowed.

  He waved the guard back and strolled toward McLintock. He put his hands on the other man’s shoulders and shoved him back. McLintock blinked blearily as Diego leaned in close. “This can all be over,” Diego promised him. “I just want to know who’s after Juliana James. I want to know who set that bomb in her car.” Who’d almost screwed his plans to hell.

 
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