The Man from
Harlequin Intrigue - May
Text Copyright © 2011 by
Paula Graves. Cover Art Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises
Limited. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All
rights reserved. © and ™ are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises
Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.
Alicia Solano looked up from the
file contents spread across the table in front of her and gave a
small start at the sight of her own reflection in the psychology lab
windows. Inky twilight had fallen outside the building while she'd
been working, catching her unaware.
Her pulse notching upwards, she gathered her papers into a neat
stack, forcing herself to move with deliberation rather than speed.
If she took her time now, her files would be in order the next time
she opened her briefcase and then she wouldn't have to spend time
she didn't have trying to remember where she left off.
And moving faster wouldn't make it any easier to step out into the
darkness that loomed between her and the safety of her apartment.
Snapping the briefcase closed, she paused for a second in the
stillness of the empty lab and listened carefully for sounds of
other people remaining in the building. There would be few here this
time of night; at a school as small as Mill Valley University, night
classes were rare and usually limited to the business school or the
continuing education classes that convened in the liberal arts
building across campus.
As she headed for the exits, the faint sound of a cleaning crew
chatting in rapid-fire Spanish floated from somewhere down the hall,
easing her sense of isolation. Alicia relaxed, at least until she
reached the heavy double doors of the exit. Once she stepped into
the mild evening air, tension crept back into her spine.
It's not the right set-up, she reminded herself, images
from her files flashing through her head. She was still within
earshot of students moving about the quad a hundred yards away.
There was also the cleaning crew in the building she'd just exited
who could come quickly if she cried out. The other women had been
utterly alone, in secluded places where nobody could hear their
She gripped the handle of her briefcase more tightly, grateful for
its solid heft. It would make a good weapon if she needed one.
Her apartment was within walking distance of the campus, though
secluded, tree-lined Dogwood Street was narrow and tunnel-like, an
attribute she enjoyed during daylight hours but regretted now as she
navigated the deep shadows inking the sidewalk between her and the
relative safety of her apartment.
The four-unit apartment building came into view, a two-story
structure rising up in the gloom like the phantom of an old Southern
mansion, complete with tall white columns supporting a white-railed
porch on the bottom floor and matching balconies on the second
floor. The muddy golden glow of the streetlamp on the corner didn't
penetrate the canopy of hickory, oak and pecan trees towering over
the building, though somehow the ivory columns seemed to glow in the
dark like moon-bleached bones.
Alicia quickened her pace at the corner, her low heels clicking
loudly on the sidewalk. She had almost reached the steps to the
apartments when she realized her footsteps were not alone. Her steps
faltered, but the footfalls behind her kept coming, the pace even
She slipped her hand into the pocket of her light cotton jacket and
closed her fingers around the small canister of pepper spray. Taking
a deep breath, she turned to face her unknown companion.
He was little more than a silhouette in the cool purple shadows
behind her, backlit by the shaft of streetlamp glow several yards
beyond. Definitely male. Built well. Short hair, powerful shoulders,
narrow waist, long legs.
Alicia's heart hammered against her rib cage, but she squelched the
urge to run up the steps to her apartment. She knew she'd never make
it before he caught up with her, and she'd lose whatever advantage
she had gained by facing him head-on.
"Can I help you?" she asked, hating the quiver in her
"I'm looking for Bellewood Manor." His voice was deep,
friendly and deliciously Southern. A California girl, born and bred,
Alicia had discovered a soft spot for a deep, slow drawl. She fought
against letting her guard down, however. A sexy Southern accent
didn't preclude very bad intentions.
"May I ask why?" she countered warily.
"My niece asked me to meet her here. Cissy Cooper—do you know
her? She's a student at Mill Valley University—"
Alicia dropped her guard a notch. Cissy Cooper was one of the
students in the second-year criminology lab she taught. She lived
two doors down from Alicia. "I've met her."
He stepped toward her. Her heart rate edged upwards again. "My
name is Gabe Cooper. I'm sorry if I scared you."
She lifted her chin. "You didn't."
"She wasn't sure she'd be here when I arrived—her shift at
the library ended at seven, but she said she sometimes has to stay
late." He cocked his head, gazing up at the apartments.
"Do you know which apartment is hers?"
Alicia's tension rose again. "She told you to meet her but
didn't give you the address?"
"My cell signal was bad when she called."
Alicia edged backwards, suspicion eclipsing attraction at the
moment. "Perhaps you should try calling her again."
"Don't you live here? I mean, you looked as if you were heading
right here." He waved his hand at the building.
A car rounded the corner and started coming up the street behind
Alicia, headlights briefly illuminating the stranger. He had hair as
dark as her own and clear blue eyes that met hers without any
shiftiness. He was trim and tall, dressed in snug-fitting jeans and
a heather gray polo shirt worn untucked. The car passed, plunging
them back into darkness.
"I have to go," she said, turning away from him. She'd
circle the block and come back from another direction, see if the
stranger had moved along or if he was still lurking there. Or maybe
she'd go back and find a campus security officer to walk her safely
to her doorstep.
"Is this about the murders?"
His soft query halted her steps. She turned to look at him.
"Cissy said something about some murders. She wanted to tell me
about them. It was all very cryptic."
Alicia eyed him warily. Cissy knew about Alicia's theories, of
course. The last time they'd spoken, Cissy had mentioned she was
debating telling her father about Alicia's research. But she hadn't
mentioned anything about an uncle.
"So you came all the way here to Millbridge because your niece
cryptically mentioned murders?"
"Cissy calls and asks for my help, I come," he said
"Nice uncle," she murmured. She wasn't even sure her
parents would come if she called, much less any of her uncles from
either side of the family tree.
"Look, I've clearly spooked you. And I guess if there are
murders going on here that Cissy thinks I need to know about, you've
got good reason to be a little freaked."
"I told you, you didn't scare me."
"I'm afraid I don't believe you," he answered in a slow,
devastating drawl. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans. As
he did so, the side hem of his shirt lifted to reveal a handgun
tucked into a slim holster attached to the waistband of his jeans.
Alicia's heart skipped a beat. She pulled the pepper spray canister
from her jacket pocket, ready to press the button and run like hell
at the slightest provocation.
But the man who called himself Gabe Cooper merely brought out a
thin, dark-colored wallet. He flipped it open with one hand and
flashed a small penlight onto the contents. Alicia saw a photo ID
"This is me," he said, moving closer.
She settled her trembling finger over the button of the pepper spray
dispenser, but stood her ground as he came close enough for her to
see the ID. It was an Alabama driver's license, with a Gossamer
Ridge address. The photo of the man was impossibly good for a
driver's license photo, making Alicia hate him a little in envy.
The name on the license was definitely Gabe Cooper, and she knew her
friend Cissy was from Gossamer Ridge.
"Would a second ID help? I have a lifetime Alabama fishing
Her tension eased again. "What do you do for a living?"
He hesitated a second, as if realizing this was a test. "I'm a
fishing guide and sometimes professional angler. I also pull
volunteer shifts as an auxiliary deputy at the Chickasaw County
"What's Cissy's father's name?"
"J.D.," he answered patiently. "James Dennison,
actually, but we've always called him J.D."
"What about her mother?"
He hesitated again, this time answering in a faint, emotion-tinged
voice. "Brenda Alice Teague Cooper. She died twelve years
"How'd she die?"
"She was murdered."
Pain etched every word into the darkness between them, reminding her
of the way Cissy spoke of her mother, in a voice raw with sadness.
Only with this man, the pain was rawer still, edged with a
bitterness that made Alicia's stomach ache.
This man couldn't take a person's life with the impersonal ease of a
serial killer. Alicia put the pepper spray back into the pocket of
her jacket. "I'm Alicia Solano."
"So you're Professor Solano?" He sounded surprised. Alicia
guessed his niece had mentioned her to him at some point.
"Instructor, actually. No Ph.D yet." She tried not to
bristle at his skepticism. It wasn't an insult to be thought too
young to be a college instructor, or so her older colleagues
insisted. She was a young-looking twenty-five, especially when she
eschewed makeup, as she'd done today.
"Cissy speaks well of you."
"She's a good student," she answered automatically, then
softened her voice. "Good person, actually."
The shadows of his face split to reveal a flash of white teeth that
even the gloom couldn't conceal. "We're kind of fond of her our
"Cissy shares Apartment D with a couple of other Mill Valley
underclassmen." Alicia waved at the apartment on the far left.
There were no lights burning inside on either floor of the two-story
apartment. They were nearing the end of the spring semester, so any
of the girls might still be at the library studying for end of term
"Looks like no one's home," Gabe murmured.
"You can wait for her at my place."
He looked surprised. "You don't even know me."
She was a little surprised herself, remembering the hol-stered gun
she'd spotted. But she was convinced he really was Cissy's uncle and
he'd said he was a volunteer deputy sheriff. If Cissy had asked him
to visit, he must be a pretty good guy, packing heat or not.
Besides, she had a million questions for him. Cissy had been seven
when her mother died, and from what she had told Alicia, she'd been
sheltered from a lot of details of the murder. What little she did
know, she'd gleaned mostly from snippets of her father's
conversations she'd overheard over the years and from a series of
newspaper articles she'd looked up at the local library when she was
in high school.
But Gabe Cooper was old enough to know everything that happened. He
could answer some of the questions she had about Brenda Cooper's
murder. And maybe, if she asked the right questions, he could help
her catch a couple of killers.
The outside of the apartment may have been all shabby Southern
charm, but inside, a riot of color greeted Gabe Cooper, nearly
scorching his retinas. Pale yellow walls were the extent of subtlety
inside Alicia Solano's apartment, providing a neutral backdrop for a
variety of bright furnishings, from Caribbean dancers writhing in
frenetic joy across a wide canvas hanging over a bright orange sofa
to the lime green area rug covering the hardwood floor underfoot. It
reminded Gabe of an outdoor market he'd visited in South America the
last time he'd gone fishing down there, all vivid colors and kinetic
"I don't drink coffee," Alicia said over her shoulder,
moving out of the living room into the smaller, open kitchen area,
"but I have iced tea. Or I could make some lemonade—"
He could tell by her accent that she wasn't from anywhere near the
sleepy college town of Millbridge, Alabama, but she'd apparently
picked up the local customs of hospitality somewhere along the way.
"Or maybe you're hungry?" she added. "Had dinner
He laughed softly. Yes, she'd learned the Southern way very well.
"I'll wait and have something with Cissy when she gets
home," he answered.
She paused in the middle of the kitchen, turning to look at him.
"Oh, okay. Sure you don't want something to drink?"
"Ice water would be great," he answered, mostly so he
wouldn't disappoint her.
She turned toward the cabinets, standing on tiptoe to reach the
glasses on the top shelf. She seemed relieved to have something to
do with all the bottled up energy radiating from her compact body.
He'd scared her earlier, despite her protestations to the contrary.
He should have identified himself first, put her at ease. He
sometimes forgot, having grown up in a little town where everyone
knew everyone else, that the world could be a very different place
for other people.
Brenda's murder should have etched that life lesson into his soul a
long time ago.
She came into the living room bearing a glass of water and ice, a
paper napkin under the bottom as a makeshift coaster. She waved for
him to sit on the sofa and dropped onto a bright green ottoman
"I'm not keeping you from anything, I hope." He eyed the
neon blue briefcase she'd set on the coffee table when they entered.
She followed his gaze. "Just brought some notes home to work on
He took a sip of the water. She didn't put a lot of ice in, which
meant wherever that accent had come from, it probably wasn't
somewhere particularly hot. "Where are you from? Originally, I
She watched him with a narrowed gaze, her mind working visibly
behind a pair of dark, observant eyes. She didn't have any makeup
on, though with her thick black eyelashes and honey-toned skin, she
didn't need much. It had been hard to tell at first glance what sort
of body lay beneath the loose-cut gray blouse and plain black skirt
she wore. But watching her move, as he'd done when she went to the
kitchen for his water, he'd quickly seen the graceful curves of her
hips and spine, the straining of her round breasts against the front
of the blouse when she'd risen to reach the glasses.
Surrounded by the riot of color in her apartment, she seemed almost
unnaturally still in contrast, a little sparrow sitting quiet and
watchful in the midst of chaos.
A shrill sound emanated from inside the blue briefcase, making her
jump. "That might be a student—I have to get that." She
snapped open the case and retrieved a small silver phone. She
flipped it open. "Hello?"
As she moved toward the kitchen, Gabe glanced at the contents of the
open briefcase. A stack of files and papers lay within, nondescript
at first glance. But the edge of a photo peeked out of one folder.
The only thing he could make out were a patch of tall grass and a
woman's single shoe.
But it was enough to make his blood run cold.
He glanced up at Alicia. She'd moved all the way into the kitchen, her back to him as she spoke in low tones on the phone.
Gabe reached into the case and pulled out the file containing the photo. He took the photo out and stared at it, his pulse hammering in his head.