CHAPTER NINE

Waiting at O'Hare for the United flight to be cleared for takeoff, Jenny thought of the grave risk her father had taken by calling her, and she was overjoyed that he'd had the courage to take that risk. Calming the suspicion that she was being followed, she yielded to her excitement that soon they'd be together again.

       At last, the January storm subsided and an announcement came over the intercom.

       "United Flight 845 is cleared for takeoff. We'll be loading in five minutes. All passengers scheduled for this flight must return to the gate immediately."

       Jenny retrieved her briefcase from the locker and as she walked into the aircraft, Alex Kendall fell into step with her. She glanced over her shoulder. The husky stalker was directly behind them.

       Filing to their assigned seats Jenny took one look at her seat partner and almost groaned aloud. He was smiling broadly and seemed the epitome of the talkative traveling salesman.

       She was surprised when Alex bent toward him, and handed him a card. The man quickly nodded and offered Alex his seat. A tingling shiver ran up Jenny's arm. Who was this man? Why had her seat partner moved so quickly?

       Alex settled next to Jenny with a satisfied smile.

       "How did you get that man to exchange seats?"

       "Maybe he's a romantic at heart and thought he detected the beginning of romance."

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       "Do you always get what you want?"

       "It's necessity in my line of work."

       "And what line of work is that?" Jenny really wanted to know. She'd mentally pegged him as a salesman or corporate attorney.

       "I'll tell you before the trip is over." He smiled at her, and though she tried, she couldn't read his eyes.

       Once during the flight, Jenny walked back to the ladies room. The husky stranger was sitting three rows behind them in the aisle seat of the center row. She stared hard at him, hoping to generate a reaction. He glanced at her briefly, adjusted his in-flight headset, then quietly returned to the airline magazine he'd been reading.

       On the way back to her seat, the plane hit an air pocket. Jenny scrambled to sit and stumbled over Alex's feet. She fell in and quickly buckled her seatbelt.

       Alex grinned. "No pun intended but I've had my share of ups and downs during years of flying coast to coast."

       He kept her occupied by relating humorous tales of his travels. The more he told her of his adventures, the more her curiosity heightened over his business. One thing was certain. He was a world traveler. Yes, she now decided. He was a journalist for CNN or one of the other networks. But weren't reporters usually curious about others? He'd never once asked what was taking her to Los Angeles, not that she'd volunteer any information.

       "Then your line of work takes you on a lot of these flights?" Jenny asked.

       "Ah, you're fishing again." Alex laughed. "I promise you'll know, when we arrive in L.A."

       Jenny reached for a magazine and flipped through the pages. As if I care, she thought. I'll probably never see him again.

       As the jetliner made its final descent, Alex leaned over to look out the window, pointing out the patchwork landscape below. A river of automobiles, like miniature toys spiraled on the winding ribbon of freeways.

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In the sprawling horizontal city of Los Angeles, mountainous terrain faintly outlined the hazy sky. A multitude of skyscrapers stood like giant boulders, their concrete heads in the clouds.

       "It's an amazing city," Alex said. "There's no place like it on the planet. It's enormous and strung out, it's beautiful and it's ugly. A city of contrasts. The very wealthy and the very poor call this home. Somewhere along the way, this city developed a superiority complex. I'm not sure whether it's the temperate climate or because it seems to lead the nation, but in my opinion it seems out of touch with small town values."

       Well, Jenny thought, Chicago wasn't exactly small potatoes, but she had no wish to defend her views with this stranger, especially when she wasn't sure if she could trust him. Instead she asked. "Do you live in Los Angeles?"

       "Off and on. My business demands that I travel often. I have an apartment in Chicago and stay at a hotel when I'm in L.A."

       Since he was from Chicago, Jenny thought, he'd probably followed the Berkowitz trial. She hoped he wouldn't recognize her from her pictures and link her to that nightmare. But something nettled her about him. She must discover if this man had a hidden agenda in sticking so close to her.

       She tried again. "You promised to tell me your line of work before the trip was over."

       "I did, didn't I?" Alex smiled. "And I shall, but we haven't reached our final destination, have we?"

       Jenny drew in a sharp breath. He had evaded her question again. She was about to mention that the plane was making its final descent, but Alex diverted her attention by pointing out the limitless expanse of the approaching landscape.

       "Where are you staying?" she asked.

       His answer seemed too casual. "At the Marriott in Woodland Hills."

       Jenny's pulse quickened. "That's interesting."

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       "Interesting? How so?"

       "That's where I'm staying."

       "Great." A smile played about his lips. "We'll have dinner together."

       Jenny shook her head. "Thank you, but I have an appointment. I'm here on business."

       "Really? What kind of business are you in?"

       She looked directly at him. His eyes were unreadable. Was he asking because he wanted to know or did he already know all about her? Since she had arrived at the airport, she'd imagined that the husky stalker was one of O'Reilly's men? Stop it Jenny, she scolded herself, you've simply read too many mysteries.

       Jenny stepped lightly on her briefcase and leaned her head back on the seat. From beneath her lids she could see Alex watching her. Or had he been staring at her briefcase?

       "What did you say?" he asked.

       "Pardon?" Jenny sat up. Had she drifted off to sleep and mumbled something?

       "I asked what kind of business you were in."

       "I'll tell you when we land." Jenny teased.

       Alex chuckled. "Touche."

       The giant jetliner made a smooth landing and passengers stood to scramble for their coats and carry-on luggage.

       As they filed out of the plane, Jenny glanced over her shoulder and caught the eye of the stalker. Or was this handsome smooth talking gentleman the real predator? She capsized her thoughts. Why did she think it strange for him to book a room at a well-known hotel like the Marriott? Of course it was entirely appropriate if he had business in the San Fernando Valley.

       Glancing at her watch, Jenny's anticipation of dinner with her father brought swimming tears. Alex saw her tears, gently took her elbow and guided her to the luggage rack. He was certainly a take-charge man, she

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thought, but if he was after her father, of course he'd take charge and wouldn't let her out of his sight. Well, she sighed, in moments they'd say goodbye.

       Jenny tilted her head to look up at him. "Here we are at the end of our journey."

       "Not quite." Alex guided her toward the luggage carousel. She spotted her luggage, and before she could retrieve it, Alex reached for it and set it beside them.

       "Let's find a cab."

       "But..."

       "Well take one together since we're both headed to the same destination."

       This man was not easily dismissed. She looked beyond Alex to the revolving carousel. Her heart dropped.

       The husky stranger was standing a foot away, staring intently at her.

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