CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

He found Jenny in the cafeteria. She was sitting alone in a booth, a deep sadness lining her face. He slid into the seat opposite her and laid the briefcase next to him.

       "Hey Jenny," he said softly.

       She looked at him, and over at the briefcase. Her face brightened. "You found it, oh thank God. When Dad awakens he'll be so grateful."

       So she held hope that her father would recover, Alex thought. Had the doctor encouraged such a hope?

       She tilted her head. "May I have it please?"

       "Not, 'hi, Alex, how are you, where have you been?' " His smile was teasing, yet his eyes were grave.

       "Hi, Alex, how are you, where have you been?"

       "We made an agreement to wait for your father, didn't we?"

       Her green eyes were flashing again. "And we will, but I'd like my briefcase."

       He leaned across the table. "Jenny, that's not possible. This briefcase obviously holds important information for our investigation."

       "What investigation?"

       Alex drew in a breath. "You might be interested to know that we operated a sting on Sammy Gavota and one of his men tonight. Took them into custody. So, if I look a little haggard and seem on edge, you'll understand why."

       "I'm sorry, Alex, I didn't realize."

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       "Gavota accused your father of stealing millions from them. We need the truth. We must see the contents of the envelope. It's an integral part of our investigation."

       Angry tears sprang to Jenny's eyes. Pushing her coffee mug to the side, she stood and walked swiftly away. Alex sighed deeply as he watched her go. O'Reilly had ordered him to open the envelope with or without her permission. He hadn't completely followed his orders but he had opened the briefcase, discovered a manila envelope sealed with masking tape. He'd fingered the contents and found a key buried among some papers.

       Now he lifted the briefcase and ran up the stairs to the fourth floor. He chuckled aloud. If this keeps up, he thought, I won't have to go to the gym for a month.

       He caught up with Jenny at her father's door. "Will you please stop resisting me. We must find a quiet place to talk."

       "Yes, you're right. There's a visitor's lounge around the corner."

       The lounge was filled with anxious people. It seemed impossible to talk here, but they found two seats and Alex set the briefcase on Jenny's lap. "You may open the envelope now."

       Jenny drew the briefcase to her. "Thank you."

       "It's a bit hard to talk here, but there seems no other place to go. Unless..." he paused, "Yes, that's it. We'll go to my car."

       Jenny sighed. "No, I can open it here because we'll find nothing." She snapped her briefcase open and reached for the envelope.

       Before she could unseal it, Dr. Hopkins walked brusquely into the room and spotted Jenny. Glancing briefly at Alex, he directed his conversation to her.

       "I'm sorry," he said, "but I suggest you come to your father's room. He's not responding as he should, his blood pressure has dropped, and his kidneys are failing. I think you'll wish to be with him now."

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       Jenny quickly stood and with Alex beside her they followed the doctor. "Is he going to die, Dr. Hopkins?"

       The doctor wore a rueful expression. "Sometimes there are miracles." His grey eyes reflected he didn't expect one in this case. "I'll be in the hospital for a while. The nurse will call if I'm needed."

       "Would you rather go in alone, Jenny?" Alex asked.

       The doctor intervened. "She may need your support."

       Her tear-filled eyes agreed. I need you, they said, I need the comfort of your presence. Alex walked into the darkened room with her.

       Jenny took her father's hand and looked down into his face. It had turned an ashen gray and his cheeks were contorted over the respirator in his mouth. Jenny watched the wavering bleeps on the heart monitor. No doubt, there was cause for alarm.

       Setting the briefcase on the floor, Jenny gently stroked her father's arm.

       As the night deepened, Alex kept vigil with Jenny. The only sound in the room was the bleeping, monitors and the gasping sound of impending death. They were aware that Philip Lansing was losing the battle.

       In the stillness of dawn, Jenny thought of her father's urgent phone call. He'd been in a panic, insistent that she meet him and bring him the envelope. Why? She passed her hand over her eyes at the troubling memory of the stalker, the fright of the shaking earth, the horror of a hand clamped over her mouth, and the terror of finding herself the hostage of a maniac.

       And through it all, Alex was there. Taking charge after the initial earthquake, sticking with her against orders, and now, as exhausted as he was, quietly waiting with her. If only he hadn't accused her father of theft. If only he wasn't an FBI agent doing his duty. She closed her eyes and fantasized what their relationship could be if he were an ordinary man she'd met, say, at a dinner party.

       She sank into the chair and drifted into a light sleep. In a vivid dream her father was standing before her. With a thumbs up gesture of approval as he looked at Alex who was sprawled in a bedside chair.

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       She jerked awake. Tiptoeing to her father's bed, she knew instantly what her heart wished to deny.

       "I'm sorry, Jenny." Alex was behind her, gripping her arms and turning her around toward him.

       Sobs wrenched her body. Tears formed a river down her face and onto his shirt. He smoothed her hair, pushing it from her face. "I'm sorry," he repeated.

       Jenny glanced at the wall calendar. Only a few days had passed since her father's phone call. She had so longed to see him, to speak with him. For whatever reason, fate had intervened. She remembered her mother's gentle admonition when she had questioned the ways of God. "Sometimes He says no, Jenny. And even His no's are for the best."

       She couldn't understand it then and she couldn't understand it now.

       Alex released her and left the room, returning with Dr. Hopkins and a nurse.

       "Dr. Hopkins," Jenny said. "I'm taking him home to Chicago. I want him buried next to my mother."

       The doctor nodded. "That's understandable. We'll take care of things on this end. I suggest the two of you get some rest, then make arrangements."

       "Jenny," Alex said as they walked down the stairs. "The doctor's right. You need sleep. I'll handle the arrangements for you to ship his body back to Chicago."

       Jenny shook her head. "That's kind of you, Alex, but now that Dad is gone, isn't your work finished?"

       Alex stopped in the middle of the stairway and looked long and hard at her. He said nothing and the very silence made Jenny's head spin.

       She'd lost both her parents in little over a year. Her tomorrows would be rough. The prospect of flying back to Chicago with her father's body seemed unbearable.

       "Let me take care of the details, Jenny," she heard Alex say. "But for now, we both need food and sleep."

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       "No food, but sleep, yes."

       "In the morning, you'll be rested and we'll both have clearer minds."

       "Alex," Jenny said on the drive to her hotel. "We should get our luggage from the Marriott."

       "Done." Alex smiled at her and felt a jolt of pleasure when she smiled back, the first smile he'd received in days. "Jenny, I'm sorry about your father."

       "I can't believe it," her voice broke. "I can't imagine life without Daddy."

       Jenny's childhood name for her father floated on the edge of her mind as she reached back into the past. Memories of her daddy laughingly lifting her high on his shoulders, of tossing a ball to her, of holding her hand as she skipped along beside him to the ice cream shop. She'd repeatedly heard the story of her parent's great love, of their instant attraction blossoming into love. Suddenly she was weeping. Great, huge sobs, incapable of speech. Alex pulled into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn and stopped the car. Reaching for her, he drew her into his arms and gently stroked her hair, bent and brushed his lips against her forehead.

       He kissed her tears, and whispered softly, "Jenny, I wish I could take your pain."

       Her sobbing subsided and she lifted her face to his. "Alex, you've been so kind to me, supporting me through it all. I mean, I know this is an important case to you and..."

       Alex smiled. "You mean I've gone beyond the call of duty? Why do you think that is?"

       When she didn't respond, he lifted her face and gently kissed her. She touched his face, the signal Alex was waiting for. He drew her close.

       "Well, I'll tell you since you won't ask. Yes, I've gone way beyond the call of duty, I knew the moment we met in the airport that you're the girl for me. No, don't pull back. I'm in love with you, Jenny, and if I read the signals right, I think the feeling is mutual."

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       Jenny looked deep into his eyes and longed to tell him what he wished to hear. She couldn't, not yet, not with her father's guilt or innocence between them.

       She withdrew and turned her head. Yes, she wanted to whisper, I'm in love with you and I cannot say it. Not now, maybe never.

       "I'll get your suitcase from the truck." Alex said in his professional voice, as if he hadn't just declared his love for her. "And I'll make arrangements for you and your father to return to Chicago as soon possible."

       After carrying her suitcase to her room, Alex turned at the door. "There's a restaurant in the hotel. Freshen up and let's get some food in you."

       Jenny sat on the edge of the bed and looked up at him. "I couldn't eat a thing."

       "When did you eat a good meal last, Jenny?"

       "I don't remember."

       "Do you think your father would want you to become ill? You have some trying days ahead. You need food. I'll be back in ten minutes."

       Jenny nodded. After Alex closed the door, she curled on the bed and let her tears fall in a bitter flood. Oh, Daddy, she thought, why did you go, why did you leave me? How did this happen? What kind of hold did those terrible men have on you to pull you down into their criminal world?

       When her sobbing finally subsided, she touched her lips, remembering Alex's mouth on hers, his arms holding her close. His gentle declaration of love lifted her heart momentarily. She hurried out of bed to change her clothes for dinner. How could she sit across from him after the past moments of intense emotion? Had he only been lost in pity for her loss and spoke of love to comfort her?

       She scolded her reflection in the mirror. Her father was dead and she must mourn. How could she possibly be thinking of love at a time like this? She couldn't listen to this FBI Agent, this man who had accused her father of fraud express his feelings. Could she?

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       As she waited for Alex, her mind spun with questions and dropped into a single thought. The briefcase! Where was it? The last she remembered, Alex had it in the hospital cafeteria. She'd asked for it and he'd insisted he needed it for the federal investigation.

       She rubbed her forehead as if to recover her memory of subsequent happenings. Oh yes, they'd returned to her father's room. Then, a dense tangle of intertwining events. Alex sprawled in a chair as they kept vigil over her father. Now she remembered. She'd drifted to sleep. Yes, she'd had a vivid dream. Daddy had appeared and nodding toward Alex, he'd signaled thumbs up. That dream had startled her awake. She relived the moment she'd tiptoed to his bed and reached for his lifeless hand. While she dozed, her beloved Daddy had slipped into the next life. And yet in some mysterious way, he'd come to her in her sleep. Looking at Alex, Daddy had signaled a positive message.

       But in her fresh grief, she'd forgotten the briefcase, the reason she'd flown to Los Angeles. Would Alex really turn it over to the FBI? And if he did, she reasoned, what did it matter? Nothing in that case could hurt or help her father now. Or could it?

       She opened her suitcase and slipped on a pair of blue jeans, a white turtleneck sweater, and a red wool blazer.

       A short rap sounded at the door and she scolded her heart for its erratic beat. A part of her wanted to greet Alex put her arms around him and feel his lips on hers again. Another part, the sensible part, said to behave like a bereaved daughter. Which she was.

       When she opened the door, Alex greeted her with a smile. "Ready?"

       He looked boyishly handsome in khaki pants and a navy blue polo shirt under a tan sports coat. She tried to block her thoughts of their sweet exchange in his car. Had his kiss and words of love been a fleeting emotion? And the dream of her father's signal of approval? Just a dream, a silly dream.

       The air was cold, invigorating. There had been innumerable aftershocks throughout the day and strangely enough, neither mentioned

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them. Jenny, wrapped in her grief, could think of little except the loss of her father.

       Alex was wrapped in his own emotions. He'd found the love of his life, the girl he wanted to marry. Yet, there were barriers between them. He must convince her of his duty to search for the truth of her father's involvement with the mafia. But how could he persuade her of anything? She became quietly hostile when he broached the subject. And what of the briefcase? She would soon remember and ask him to return it.

       He had called O'Reilly from his room and told him of Lansing's death. As always, Tim was brief and brusque. "I'm sorry to hear that, Alex, but it's time you came home."

       "Jenny's having a bad time, Tim. She wants to bring his body back to Chicago."

       O'Reilly sighed deeply. "I wonder what possessed Lansing to get mixed up with the mafia. A well-known author, a businessman, a husband, a father."

       "He felt he had no choice, Tim."

       "We all have choice. Hey, Kendall, I thought I gave you time off. What's with Jenny and you?" O'Reilly paused and chuckled. "My sixth sense was right again. You're crazy about the girl."

       "Uh, Tim, I can't discuss my personal feelings just now. But I will help her with arrangements."

       "Do that. We'll investigate further when you return."

       That conversation was spinning in his mind as Alex sat across from Jenny in the hotel restaurant. She nibbled on a chef salad without looking at him. They were physically so close so he could reach out and touch her, yet she seemed more distant then ever. Not thirty minutes ago, he'd said words to her he'd never said to another woman. He'd declared his love, kissed her sweet mouth, felt her hand on his face, yet now...nothing.

       He finished his sandwich and sat back. She pushed her plate away, and suggested they leave.

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       Back at the hotel, Alex inserted her key into the lock and stepped aside.

       "Thank you for dinner," Jenny smiled. "We'll talk in the morning."

       "I'll be at your door at ten. Try and sleep in."

       "Make it nine, if you don't mind." For the first time, Jenny looked him steadily in the eyes. "And when you come, bring the briefcase with you. It's time we open it together."

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