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Constant (Constant Flame Duet Book 2) by Christi Whitson (1)

Chapter 1

 

Late January 2012
Saturday

 

Owen Langford tapped a beat on the steering wheel of his Mustang, feeling more optimistic than he’d felt in weeks. Not even the saturating gloom of Seattle’s winter weather could dampen his spirits. Spring classes had begun, and he had been blessed with a slightly lighter schedule for his final semester as a college student. He was using the extra free time to prepare for the school’s annual Business Plan Competition and to work more hours at Gardner Components. It was the latter that had put him in such a good mood that Saturday evening as he drove to Lena’s apartment.

He’d been assigned an important project at GC that he would be handling completely on his own. It was something that generally wouldn’t have been delegated to an intern, but the head of Strategic Development had insisted Owen was the right man for the job. He’d professed complete faith in Owen’s abilities, and now, hours later, Owen was still glowing at the high praise. It made him feel optimistic about his future with GC. Although he didn’t plan to stay there long term, it was nice to know he would have a good job while he saved money and worked to find investors for his own business.

Owen had also been applying the things he’d learned at GC to his business model, and he was feeling more confident about his chances at winning the Business Plan Competition as well. In these parts of his life, at least, things were going very well, and as he made the familiar turns through Lena’s neighborhood, a common phrase floated through his mind.

Fake it till you make it.

That was what he’d been doing for years. Going through the motions, putting on the right airs and expressions to survive and succeed… Until now. Now his poise and positive self-image were genuine. Owen had noticed that his confidence had grown exponentially in virtually all areas of life, and he didn’t have to look far for the reason. It seemed that just about every good thing in his life tied back in one way or another to a single person.

Lena.

It was as though she had been the driving force in his life since the first time he’d met her, peeking over the quilted edge of a foster home bed at a tiny girl who had locked herself away in her own mind, just as he had done. Lena had reached him when no one else could. The memory of her had helped him to survive his horrific childhood and had compelled him to work hard for what he wanted, but her mere memory hadn’t been enough. Now that Lena was a real part of his life, of his future, the possibilities seemed endless.

Owen exited the elevator on Lena’s floor a short while later, waiting patiently as John Cook, the second of Lena’s two bodyguards, unlocked the door and stepped back to allow him to enter the apartment. Nate Gardner had hired Cook for her protective detail, and the sight of him put a slight damper on Owen’s good mood. It was a reminder that while many things were going well, they still had plenty of cause for concern. Aside from the occasional nightmare, he and Lena had been dealing with the aftermath of the parking lot shooting fairly well, but the lack of progress in the case had left them both feeling disheartened.

For the past three weeks, Nate’s security staff had been continuously working with the Seattle Police Department to investigate the shooting. They’d rigorously analyzed the files on every known threat, looking for anyone who might have purchased a gun recently or made a large transaction for a hired hit, but they’d found nothing of consequence.

The police had confirmed the ballistics on the bullet that had been recovered from the scene, and as Logan James had suspected, it had been fired from a 9mm handgun. There were no prints on the truck the shooter had been hiding behind, and no security cameras had managed to catch an image of decent quality. At best guess, the shooter had been a man just over six feet tall and wearing a simple ball cap, the bill of which had obscured most of his face. After firing the shot, he’d sprinted out of the frame and hadn’t reappeared in any of the other cameras.

Owen inhaled the pleasant aroma of food as he shed his coat and briefcase. Lena had left GC early that day so she could stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up a few things for dinner. They were expecting Logan and his new girlfriend to arrive within a half hour or so.

“Hey,” Owen greeted her with a smile, rounding the breakfast bar to slip his arms around her waist. Lena turned away from the stove to kiss him briefly.

“Hey. Can you set the table?”

“Sure. Is it just the four of us, or…?” he trailed off curiously, eyeing the rather large volume of food she was managing.

“Yeah, but I made enough for Cook too. We’ve been busy all day, and I know he hasn’t eaten.”

“Think feeding him will convince him to call you by your name?” he chuckled. Lena gave a little laugh as well.

“I doubt it.”

Owen had yet to form a solid opinion of John Cook, but they’d had a slightly rocky start. Despite his increasing maturity when it came to his jealous tendencies, Owen doubted he would ever be able to shed his possessiveness entirely where Lena was concerned. He had given Cook several glares to warn him to keep his eyes where they belonged, which was most assuredly not on Lena’s ass. Cook seemed to get the point fairly quickly, and he’d done better to mind his manners since then.

In the case of Lena’s other bodyguard, Owen had found Seth Wyatt to be likeable enough, under the circumstances. Wyatt remained mostly silent in an effort to keep his presence as unobtrusive as possible, but on the occasions he did voice an opinion about anything, it was clear to Owen that he was very loyal to both Nate and his daughter.

In spite of her professed hatred for the constant presence of private security, Lena was very friendly and accepting of both Wyatt and Cook. Owen had recognized the same business-like grace she extended to all of GC’s employees, though admittedly she and Wyatt were on more personal terms. While Cook had thus far refused to bend to Lena’s requests to call her by her first name, Wyatt had greeted her with a familiarity similar to that of an old friend.

Owen set the table for four, leaving a fifth plate on the breakfast bar for Cook in case Lena succeeded in persuading him to accept a home-cooked meal. He went to change out of his suit, pulling a more casual outfit from the drawer she’d emptied for him. When he returned to the kitchen, Lena was moving the various pots and dishes to the table so everyone would be able to fill their own plates.

“How was the rest of your work day?” Lena asked him as they waited for their guests to arrive.

“Wonderful, actually. I have some news,” he grinned. She lifted her brows quizzically and sipped her iced tea. “Martin put me in charge of the re-org project for the Everett plant.”

“Seriously? That’s amazing! Congratulations!” Her eyes shone with pride, and she was out of her seat and in his lap before he could blink, kissing him deeply. They separated only when the front door opened and Logan’s teasing voice forced them back to reality.

“Hey, now! Do I make out with your sister in front of you, Langford?”

“You could’ve knocked,” Lena retorted, kissing her boyfriend once more for good measure. “And since his sister is thirteen, I’d certainly hope not.”

“Ew, yeah. Sorry about that,” Logan winced, shaking Owen’s hand.

“We’ll call it even,” he laughed.

They had all been doing their best to move on from the revelation of Logan’s misplaced feelings for Lena, and the young woman now standing behind him had contributed greatly to their success in that area. Valerie Bennet had certainly had a profound effect on Logan in a remarkably short period of time.

“Lena Gardner,” Lena greeted the woman kindly, offering a handshake of her own. “It’s great to meet you.”

“You, too. Valerie Bennet,” she replied as she took Lena’s hand. “I’ve heard so much about you. Thank you for having me.”

“It’s actually Doctor Valerie Bennet,” Logan beamed proudly. “She just doesn’t lead with that so people aren’t intimidated.” Everyone chuckled.

“I completely understand,” Lena assured her. She’d unintentionally intimidated more than her fair share of people when it came to explaining who her father was. “Please sit down. Dinner’s ready! I’ll be just a moment.”

Owen watched her fill a plate for Cook and walk to the front door, smirking when he heard the firm tone she used with him.

“I insist.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I’m fine,” Cook tried to decline.

“When did you last eat?”

“Well—”

“You’ve been with me since this morning, Cook. I know for a fact you skipped lunch, and you didn’t have time to grab anything this afternoon. Just take the food. Please.”

“I…”

“I’ll stand here until you take it,” Lena threatened. Owen heard the man sigh, and he and Logan grinned at each other across the table.

“Thank you, Miss Gardner,” Cook replied humbly.

“Lena.” There were several beats of silence before his reply finally came.

“Thank you, Lena.”

When she came back to the table, she smiled pleasantly at her guests, shrugging slightly at Owen’s amused expression. As they began to eat dinner, Valerie still looked slightly confused, so Lena explained the stalemate she’d just resolved with her bodyguard.

“I can’t say I blame you,” Valerie admitted. “I get a little weary of the titles at work sometimes, so I can imagine how frustrating it would be to have someone around all the time who refused to call you by your name.”

“Exactly! ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel so old too. Logan told me you’re a scientist, but he didn’t go into detail about your field of expertise…?”

“Forensic pathology and toxicology. I work in the forensic lab at the FBI’s Seattle field office,” she explained. Logan turned to look at her affectionately, unintentionally allowing his napkin to fall to the floor. Valerie stopped him from leaning over to retrieve it with his uninjured arm and handed it back to him.

“That’s very impressive,” Owen praised her. “What sort of cases do you usually work on?”

“Homicides, mainly, but we do all sorts and can be called in for a variety of purposes. We have a great team with a collectively diverse background, so the work is rarely boring.”

“Shame the shooting is being handled by the local PD,” Logan grunted, digging into his potatoes.

“Is that something your team could help with?” Lena asked curiously.

“Only if local law enforcement requests our help. I’m not sure we’d be able to provide more answers for you anyway, though,” Valerie said apologetically. “From what Logan has told me, it sounds like there wasn’t much evidence at the scene.”

“Yes. I’d hoped when they found the bullet that they’d be able to figure out something, but everyone seems to have come up empty-handed.”

“I’m assuming the ballistics didn’t match up with evidence from other crimes… Do you know what other testing was done?”

“What else is there?” Owen asked.

“Well, I’m not specifically trained in ballistics, but that’s part of what our team does. It might be possible to deduce the height of the shooter based on the trajectory of the bullet and the blood spatter pattern on the pavement.” She winced a little as she spoke, glancing at Logan’s injured arm, which was still resting in a sling. “Aside from that… With no prints or other physical evidence left behind, they’re limited to whatever showed up on the security camera footage.”

“Which was not much, from what I gather,” Logan said wryly. He’d already shared the information with Valerie, and the other two nodded in agreement.

“If there was a suspect, it might be possible to confirm the ID based on the assailant’s kinetic markers.”

Kinetics?” Lena echoed. “You mean the way he moved?”

“Yes. Kinesiology studies the mechanisms of human movement. Since the camera recorded the shooter fleeing the scene, a comparison of certain traits might be possible. Unfortunately, until they have a suspect for comparison…” Valerie trailed off, shrugging apologetically.

“So, in the meantime…?” Owen prompted.

“They’ll enter the details of the crime into the system, and if a similar incident takes place, they’ll check for similarities in the evidence.”

“Which means there’s a good chance they’ll never find him,” Lena concluded aloud, frowning down at her nearly empty plate. She’d already deduced as much, but hearing it from an actual forensic scientist made it that much more disheartening.

“There’s no way to say for sure, but you shouldn’t give up,” Valerie said kindly. “Cold cases are solved all the time.”

The two women smiled at each other, and Lena had to stifle a giggle when she glanced at Logan. He was gazing almost dreamily at Valerie, clearly besotted. Lena had always been rather hard on Logan’s high school girlfriends, having been certain that none of the airheaded cheerleaders he’d hooked up with would ever be good enough for her best friend. She was very pleased to find that Valerie was remarkably different from anyone she had ever seen him with. It wasn’t so much that Valerie looked different than the other girls, but rather that she made Logan look different. There was a light in his eyes that had been absent since his return from duty, and Lena was relieved to see it again. He looked a little more like the big brother she’d adored so much.

As she and Owen lay in bed later that evening, Lena stared up at the ceiling, lost in her thoughts. Her life had changed so much in the months since they had found one another again. In many ways, she was a different person, and the same could be said for Owen. Love had transformed them both.

“What’s on your mind, baby?” Owen whispered in the darkness. She smiled as his breath tickled her ear.

“I think you should move in.” The hand that had been caressing her stomach paused in mid-stroke.

“What?”

“You heard me. I think you should move in. Soon. We’ve talked about it, and we’re both in agreement. You’re here all the time anyway… Why waste money on rent?”

“Well, honestly, I’ve been thinking about it a lot more lately,” he admitted. “I just didn’t know if you were ready. It’s a big step.”

“It is, but I don’t see a reason to wait. This is for keeps, right?” Lena smiled and pressed her lips to his cheek.

“Hell, yes, it is,” he grinned widely, pulling her back to him for a proper kiss. “For keeps and forever.”