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The chances of catching her ex-husband at work were slipping away as Rachel Hartline sat in rush hour Philadelphia traffic. She gripped the steering wheel, frowning against the October sun dazzling her windshield, willing the cars to move. Only one last thing remained to be done between her and her ex—for Paul to sign the agreement to put their house on the market. That would end the connection between them.
Would that end the pain of failure that had dogged her since the divorce? Somehow she doubted it. It would take more than selling the house they'd bought together to do that.
Rachel couldn't help wincing at the thought of putting the house on the market, of seeing strangers walk through, commenting about her decorating and her taste. The Craftsman bungalow in West Chester had been the only real home she'd ever known, the only place that had been truly hers. The prospect of losing it was a stone in her heart. Still, she had no choice. She couldn't afford the payments on a teacher's salary.
Paul had, after much delaying, agreed to meet her after work at his office in Attwood Industrial Designs. But the renovated warehouse that housed the small company was in another of Philadelphia's suburbs, miles from the charter school where she was the kindergarten teacher, and traffic on the Blue Route was going from bad to worse.
She couldn't have gotten away any sooner, not with one of her kindergartners standing there in tears because her mother hadn't come to pick her up. Rachel had held her close, comforting the child with the reminder that Mommy was on her way. She'd shaken her head at the offer of Lyn Baker, her head teacher and close friend, to wait with her instead. Alissa was already shy and withdrawn, struggling to adjust to a new home and a new school. Rachel couldn't find it in her heart to leave her, even with Lyn.
Traffic finally started moving again, and Rachel fought to control her impatience. She'd tried to call Paul from the school to let him know she was running late, but as usual he hadn't answered, and she wouldn't call from the car. People did, of course, but she would never take the risk of one of her students seeing her doing something dangerous. A teacher had the responsibility to do the right thing.
And if she didn't settle this today…well, she'd just have to hope Paul had waited.
When she pulled into the nearly deserted parking lot, she glanced at her watch. Half an hour late. Well, she waited longer than that for Paul. Rachel slid out and hurried to the door, but a yank told her it was locked.
Suppressing the urge to pound, she pulled out her cell and keyed in a quick text. Paul might still be in the building. She waited, seconds ticking away, for a response that didn't come. Of course not. Paul was a past master at avoiding unpleasantness. If something threatened to be uncomfortable, he'd slide out of it with that charm that had captivated her the first time she met him. But charm, she'd discovered, did not mean a man was marriage material.
Glaring at the glass panel in the door, she started to turn away when she caught a glimpse of movement inside. Charlie Booth, the elderly security guard, was coming slowly around the corner from the workrooms. She pounded again, and then waved frantically.
Charlie looked, did a double take, and then hurried to the door. In a moment it swung open, and Charlie stepped back in invitation.
"Ms. Hartline. Haven't seen you in an age." His broad smile slipped, as he obviously remembered why he hadn't seen her. "I mean…"
"I know. It's all right."
She was touched by his concern. Charlie was probably not the most effective security guard in the world, with his failing vision and his tendency to fall asleep on the job. But he'd been with James Attwood from the beginning, and Attwood showed an unexpected loyalty to the old man.
"I was supposed to meet Paul here after work, but I'm late. Do you know if he's still in?"
She nodded upward, toward the offices on the second floor. The rest of the sprawling cement block building was taken up by the workshops, where Attwood's designs were implemented and tested.
"Haven't seen him leave," Charlie said, and then turned toward the desk as the phone began to ring. "If you can wait until I get that…"
"No need to trouble yourself." Rachel hurried toward the metal stairs that were probably left over from warehouse days. She was eager to get this over with. "If he's not there, I'll be right back down."
For a moment Charlie looked as if he'd object, but then he nodded, grabbing the phone.
Already halfway up, Rachel hurried on, through the glass door that led to the executive assistant's domain.
No one was there, and that in itself was a relief. Claire Gibson—an elegant, polished redhead—always made Rachel feel like a grubby teenager. Not, she had to admit, that she looked all that great in her school garb of khaki pants and a cotton sweater, her long hair in a braid, but a kindergarten teacher had to dress for practicality and for small, sometimes grubby, hands tugging at her.
No lights were on, but enough illumination came from the high windows to see that the complex of offices had a deserted look. Rachel let out a long breath. It was quiet, almost too quiet for comfort. Always before she'd been here during the work day, when all the doors were open and the clatter of metal could be heard from the workrooms. The stillness seemed wrong, like the school building when emptied of its cargo of lively young bodies and high voices.
Shaking off the thought, Rachel crossed to Paul's office and eased open the door, her rubber-soled shoes making no sound on the carpet. No one was there. As marketing director, Paul often worked odd hours, but apparently not today. He'd always said he had to adjust his schedule to the whims of Attwood, whom he described as an eccentric genius who was going to make them all rich.
If Attwood did, Paul would gamble his share away, just as he had already gambled away practically everything else they'd owned. So far, it seemed his compulsive gambling hadn't affected his work. Maybe gambling was easier to hide than some other addictions.
She crossed to the desk, thinking of leaving a note. No, better not. A note would be too easily ignored. She'd send Paul a text and insist on a meeting tomorrow. If he didn't respond to the text, she'd keep calling him until he found it easier to deal with her than avoid her.
Funny, that he was dragging his heels on this final step of severing what had been between them. They'd been apart for over a year. She'd actually expected him to be eager to get his hands on his share of the house's value.
Heading toward the outer office she closed the door behind her, not giving in to the impulse to see if he'd replaced the photo of her on his desk with something else. It wasn't her concern, not anymore.
The smallest of sounds reached her—no more than a click, coming from Attwood's office. Chilled, she froze where she was. It might be foolish, but she'd always been awed and a bit intimidated by James Attwood. It wasn't the genius part that troubled her. The man had the coldest pair of eyes she'd ever seen, and he looked at other people as if they were a lower form of life. She was not eager to explain what she was doing here to him.
Rachel had made up her mind to retreat as quickly as possible when a muttered exclamation, in a voice she knew only too well, reached her. Paul. He was still here. But what was he doing in Attwood's darkened office?
She didn't care. He was here, and at least she'd be able to settle with him. Hand on her bag where the contract rested, she moved quickly to the office.
As she touched the knob, some instinct made her hesitate. What was Paul doing in Attwood's office? Something he preferred to do without turning a light on, it seemed.
Rachel turned the knob gently and eased the door open a couple of inches. Paul stood at Attwood's computer, an oddly furtive look on his face. His fingers were on a flash drive inserted in the computer.
"Paul! What are you doing?"
He jerked compulsively at the sound of her voice. Rachel pushed the door the rest of the way open, staring at him.
The hastily arranged smile he gave her was a dead giveaway. She'd seen that same smile too often before, such as when she'd caught him taking the only piece of valuable jewelry, a diamond bracelet he'd given her, from her jewelry box.
"Rachel. I'd about given up on you. I thought you were eager to get my signature."
"Never mind about me. Why are you copying something from Attwood's computer?"
"This?" He pulled out the flash drive and slid it into his pocket. "Nothing, nothing. James asked me to look over some thoughts he had on a new project."
He turned away for a moment to exit the file, but Rachel had seen enough. Paul had lied to her so often that she couldn't fail to recognize the symptoms, and her stomach churned. How had she ever been so naïve as to believe him at all? For a woman who claimed she valued honesty above every other trait, she'd been remarkably stupid about Paul.
He came toward her. "Did you bring the papers?"
It wasn't her business, not any longer. She should just get his signature and walk away. But somehow she couldn't.
"I don't believe you. Honestly, Paul, of all the foolish tricks--I thought this company was everything you'd always wanted. If Attwood finds out you've been in his files…"
Paul opened his mouth, probably to deny it, but no words came. Rachel heard the sound at the same time he did. Footsteps, moving slowly up the metal stairs. Charlie was coming to see what was taking her so long.
Before she realized what he was up to, Paul had shoved her out into the reception area and was hurrying toward the door that led to the cavernous work area.
"Don't say anything," he whispered. "Please, Rachel. I'll call you and explain. Just don't give me away."
He was gone before she could refuse to tell any lies for him. Not that he'd have believed her anyway. That sweetly boyish smile of his had been getting him out of trouble all his life. Even now, he couldn't believe she was immune.
Fighting down the urge to throw something, Rachel reached the outer door before Charlie could. He stopped partway up, looking at her with a question in his face.
"I'm so sorry." She hurried down to him. "I didn't mean to make you walk clear up here."
"No problem." He let her precede him down the flight. "Paul gone already?"
She nodded. That, at least, had the virtue of being true. He was gone by now.
"I'll have to call him later." He had a lot of explaining to do. "So how's your grandson? This is his senior year of high school, isn't it?"
A glance over her shoulder told her that Charlie's lined face was wreathed in smiles. "That's right. Out for track, he is, and with a good chance for a scholarship, the coach says."
Rachel responded appropriately, and the talk of his grandson's prowess on the track and in the classroom lasted until Charlie had locked the outer door behind her. Only then could she let the smile slide from her face.
Paul was in trouble. She had no doubt about that, because she'd seen it too often in the five years they'd been married. He was in trouble, and thanks to her deplorable sense of timing, she'd landed herself right in the middle of it.
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