Double Take

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“What the hell are you doing here?”

[Just outside her apartment, she whirled around.]

Every time Cameron saw a U.S. Marshal, it meant trouble.        Despite that, she had to admit, J.C. Ransom was one intriguing hunk of obviously red-blooded male, and she couldn’t help noticing—though she certainly tried.

Instead, her senses clanged like a five-alarm fire bell.

Tall, lean, but broad-shouldered and sleekly muscled, he sure fit the Marshal’s Service profile. His sun-streaked hair, on the other hand, didn’t. He could never blend into the background. Thick and silky, his hair always drew her gaze first, gleaming like a California surfer boy’s. But the lethal gun he carried under his jacket ruined the effect. As did the hard metal badge clipped to his belt that glinted in the hall light. Just when she thought she had control of the situation, she made the mistake of gazing into his eyes.

Oh, God.

She shouldn’t have looked. Dark, enigmatic, almost navy blue, they wore that intense look of purpose that Cameron identified with him. The look that had always meant another relocation, another move away from new friends and treasured new belongings. Another escape under darkness to somewhere else, to somewhere safe. Where did he get such eyes? Were they military—or no, U.S. Department of Justice—issue?

That blue gaze could burn a hole through titanium, but the most Ransom had ever gotten from her in return was a heartfelt glare of rebuke for destroying her security, her life, again. Carefully chosen from her repertoire of careful looks. Nobody saw anything in Cameron McKenzie that she didn’t want them to see.

She’d learned that when she was three years old.        Yet at twenty-eight, a woman not a child, she saw the world through newly changed lenses. Those blue eyes looked different now, not only his usual sexy as sin but…haunted. Yes, that was it. And that was new.

“What happened to you?” was the next thing she managed to say.

Cameron busied herself opening her lock with shaking fingers, hoping to slip inside and shut the door in his face.        Ransom was everything she hated, everything that reminded her of being afraid.

Her ploy didn’t work. He straight-armed the steel door panel and followed her inside, so close behind her that she could feel his body heat through her winter coat. Had his footsteps been the ones on the street behind her moments ago?

[Following her home?]

In the foyer Cameron faced him.

“I suppose you have some reason for scaring me half to death.”

“Maybe you’d better sit down.”

“I’m fine standing up.” She wasn’t on a level with him—Ransom stood just over six feet—but she managed to meet his gaze squarely, hoping he wouldn’t hear the pounding of her heart. “Make it quick. I’m tired. I’d like to go to bed.”

 “So would I,” he murmured.

Cameron blinked under his steady regard. He couldn’t mean that the way it sounded in that husky tone, but his eyes held hers and it wasn’t his official government-agent gaze she saw either. Those blue eyes had warmed with what Cameron recognized as desire. Her pulse pounded harder…A dozen images of him flashed through her memory.       [Just as quickly] his gaze cooled and he was back to business again. The way she knew him best. And liked him least. Cameron tossed her coat over a chair in the living room. “Well?”

“It’s about your father.”

“God. I should have known.” Cameron sank onto the arm of the chair, her legs suddenly weak. “You’ve never minced words before.” In fact, he was one of the most straightforward people she’d ever met. “Why start now?”

“Look, I’m sorry, Cameron. I don’t know how to tell you this except to just—say it.” He stepped closer to her and she tilted her head to look up at him. “You know [Venuto] Destina was released from federal prison last week?”

 “Yes. I did read the papers.” To be honest, she’d stayed glued to CNN for days, hoping for any scrap of information, any statement from Destina that would allay the last of her fears. “There wasn’t much reported. What they didn’t tell me was why.” “Supposedly he earned an early parole for health reasons. Compassionate release. Nobody believes that,” he said, “but it’s the official word.”

“That means he’s ill?”

“Usually means it’s terminal.”

“My father is already dead. Destina killed him.” He’d always said he would.

Ransom lifted his eyebrows. “There’s no physical evidence—but I agree with you. Destina may have been in prison at the time but he has a long reach. His organization employed any number of assassins even when James testified against him.”

She couldn’t keep the reminder to herself. Her voice shook. “And Destina vowed revenge because my father spoke the truth.”

“All I know is, your father died in Denver and you’re in New York.” He hesitated, as if he had decided to keep something more to himself. “That’s why I’m here.”

Her mouth thinned with disapproval. “The U.S. Marshals to the rescue?”

Cameron cautioned herself to hold her temper. Ransom knew how she felt, but he was no longer her keeper. Twenty-two years in WP had been that many years too long. Now, he had no jurisdiction over her. She tried to forget looking over her shoulder on the way home.

 “News flash, Ransom: We lived in fear for my father’s life every day, of his being found and killed. Well, it finally happened. And for what? Because he testified in a federal trial to get you a conviction.”       “Not my conviction,” he said. “The government’s.”

“You are the government.” She rose from the chair, still shaking. “It wasn’t you who spent all those years hiding behind closed blinds, afraid of every slam of a car door or backfire in the street! Afraid of telling something—anything—to a neighbor or a friend that would indicate another life.”

“I know that wasn’t easy. But putting that bastard behind bars, making a serious dent in Venuto Destina’s multi-crime organization, had to seem worth it.”

“Spoken like a man who’s never lived behind closed doors.”

Ransom ran a not-quite steady hand through his sun-streaked hair.

Cameron knew she was close to losing the last of her own self control. She didn’t want him to know how shaken she’d felt tonight. Didn’t want to hear what else he’d come to say…didn’t want to look into those haunted blue eyes.

When he said “Destina,” the name again shot fear along her nerve ends. “I think you’re in danger,” Ransom said, holding her gaze. “I think you’re next.”

© Leigh Riker    All Rights Reserved