For Her Protection

Didn't begin to describe agent Luke Gianetti's day. A drug bust gone dangerously bad and a bullet in his butt had sent him running for his life…and into the arms of Jillian Moseby, the sister of his prime suspect. Then he was forced to flee the scene with Jillian, her nephews and baby niece in tow. Now his only hope to see justice done was to keep his new charges safe long enough for Jillian to testify against her sister's murderer–the same drug dealer Luke had been investigating.But sharing tight quarters with the secretive, beautiful Brit–who suddenly had morphed from a royal pain into a sultry seductress–had shattered Luke's resolve to simply guard her. How was Luke supposed to protect her, when all he could think about were their nights of stolen passion?
Содержание:

For Her Protection


“Haven’t you ever done anything rash?” Jillian asked in mock exasperation.

   “No. I’m not a ‘rash’ kind of guy,” Luke said. “In my line of work, ‘rash’ equates to dead. The reason I’ve lived this long is because I play out every scenario…and when all else fails, I trust my gut.”

   “But your gut may not always be right—”

   “Sweetheart,” he interrupted. “My gut is never wrong.”

   Luke’s smile faded, and she felt the burning intensity of his gaze as he explored her face. They both knew what they were talking about now, and it wasn’t undercover police work.

   His unspoken message was clear. The affair that they were contemplating was wrong. They shouldn’t even be considering it. But, in that moment, she knew she wanted him.

For Her Protection Lauren Giordano

   

LAUREN GIORDANO

   grew up in western Massachusetts, where she spent long summer days imagining she was Nancy Drew. She completed her first novel on a manual Smith-Corona at the age of twelve. These days her imagination still runs wild, but the stories flow easier on her computer. Since she started writing again seven years ago, her romantic suspense stories have won several writing awards. Lauren has also published several non-fiction articles in the area of public safety. She currently works in the field of risk and human resource management, and lives in Virginia with her husband and daughters.

   To Mom and Dad, who always encouraged me to aim for the stars, and to Dan, who lifted me up so I could reach.

Contents

   Chapter 1

   Chapter 2

   Chapter 3

   Chapter 4

   Chapter 5

   Chapter 6

   Chapter 7

   Chapter 8

   Chapter 9

   Chapter 10

   Chapter 11

   Chapter 12

   Chapter 13

Chapter 1

   If only she’d run the red light. Jillian Moseby darted a nervous glance at the man crouched in the passenger seat and willed her heartbeat to slow. The gun was still pointed at her.

   “I won’t hurt you. Do exactly as I say. No sudden movements and no questions until we’re outta here. Got it?”

   She nodded mutely. Dear God, don’t let him harm them. How could this possibly happen? She’d been in the bloody States for less than a week…and now this.

   “Look in your rearview mirror,” he instructed. “Tell me what’s happening at the building on the corner.”

   “Which side of the street?” She was surprised. Her voice didn’t sound completely terror-stricken. His, on the other hand, had been controlled and unwavering. Whoever he was, he certainly wasn’t panicking. Unlike her. And his eyes… Jillian supposed she should be grateful they weren’t glassy and wild from drugs or fear. No, the eyes watching her were the gold of molten metal and came with the most intense, scrutinizing stare she’d ever been subjected to.

   “My side, one block back. Look close.”

   “Uh, right.” She glanced in the rearview mirror, aware that his gaze followed her every movement. There would be no chance for escape. Not from this man. He wouldn’t miss a trick. Her hands tightened on the wheel, her gaze flicking to the back seat. Not that she could ever leave them behind.

   It was a miracle how children could sleep through just about anything. Two sandy heads were lolled over, nearly touching in their side-by-side car seats. And James was sprawled out next to them. He was sleeping, too, thank God. She couldn’t take a round of his six-year-old’s questions right now.

   She knew the golden-haired stranger hadn’t seen the kids yet. He couldn’t have. Why, he’d nearly jerked the door off the hinges when he’d dived into the car. Now he was crouched down so low, he was more on the floor than on the passenger seat. Obviously he didn’t want to be seen.

   “What d’ya see?”

   Jillian adjusted the mirror away from the children and angled it back so she could see the corner. “Three—no, four—men standing outside the building.” She winced when he cursed and prayed he would lower his voice. Another shout like that and he’d wake the babies.

   “Two of them just crossed to the other side.” She bit her lip as the news caused another round of swearing.

   “What now? Where are they?”

   His tone was angry but not fearful, not really. He sounded more…frustrated that he was relegated to the floor of her hire. She had the awful suspicion he would rather be out there—in the thick of it. She shifted her glance from his tawny eyes back to the mirror. “Goodness. One of them is walking straight up the middle of the street. He’s looking into car windows.”

   “Dammit. Watch the light. As soon as it turns, I want you to step on it. Don’t floor it,” he ordered, “or we’ll attract more attention. And don’t let him catch you looking at him or we’ll be in big trouble.”

   “Oh, dear.”

   “What? What the hell is it?”

   His tone was definitely exasperated. She heard him cock the gun in his hand, felt his tension as he readied himself for battle and suppressed a tremor of pure terror. She wasn’t ready for the chaos of America. She’d been very happy living outside of London. Far outside, actually. Away from traffic and guns and violence….

   Still, it might be best to reassure the lunatic before he started firing the bloody weapon with the babies in the back seat. Only a week ago she’d made a vow to Annie that she would protect them with her life. Who knew she’d be tested so soon? “He’s not here yet. He’s about four cars away…and he’s got a gun, too.”

   “No kidding.”

   She kept an eye on the traffic signal. They’d been sitting here forever. It had to change soon. Three seconds later she gunned the engine and the overburdened station wagon groaned, vibrating in protest as it lurched forward. She heard the stranger mutter yet another curse under his breath and was fairly certain his angry glare had something to do with her driving ability.

   “You said floor it, so I did.” She shot him a scowl as his tension began to rub off on her. It evaporated a moment later when she saw his face twist with pain. “Are you all right? Can I drop you somewhere?” Compassion overrode her fear for an instant. Perhaps if she helped him, he would let them go sooner. “I’ve got a long way to go today and I really can’t afford to get sidetracked.”

   “You cahn’t?”

   “No, I—” She hesitated when she realized he was poking fun at her.

   “Goin’ all the way back to England?”

   “No. I’m traveling to New Hampshire. I’m starting a new job there.” She glanced cautiously to her right. His voice had an edge to it that hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier. “What’s wrong, now? You look a little green. Are you feeling all right?”

   “No, lady. I’m not having one of my best days. Matter of fact, I feel like hell.” He ran one hand along his unshaven jawline as though he were uncertain of what to do next. The white lines around his mouth took on stark relief in his coppery, tanned face.

   “I hate to ask, and I hope you’ll understand, but I really must know whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy.” She hesitated a moment and then plunged on before he had time to respond. “And if you are a good guy, then could you please point that thing away from me? It’s rather nerve-racking.”

   His eyes registered shock and Jillian wasn’t sure if it was at her audacity or if he simply found her question too stupid to respond to. Whatever the reason, it had the desired effect. She heard a little click as he did something to the gun and pointed it at the floor.

   “I’m…a good guy, I guess. Although I know I don’t look like one. I’m a special agent with the DEA. I’d show you my badge if I had it, but I’ve been working undercover, so you’re gonna have to take my word on it for the moment.”

   “What’s the DEA?”

   “Drug Enforcement Agency. What you just experienced back there was a drug bust gone south.”

   “Gone south?” Her gaze left the road for a moment to slide over his. She still hadn’t mastered driving on the wrong side of the road, so she didn’t let her eyes rest on him for very long. Just long enough to see the flash of an earring in his ear. A small stud that was nearly hidden by long strands of wavy, golden hair. He reminded her of one of the surfers she’d seen on the telly.

   “Yeah, south. Fu— I mean, screwed up. Those guys back there weren’t supposed to get away. I thought I had ’em, but something went wrong. I was lucky to get out alive.” He shifted uncomfortably on the floor. His frame was so large she simply couldn’t imagine how he’d wedged himself in down there to begin with.

   “You smell sort of…like you’re on fire.”

   “That was the explosion.”

   “Explosion? What explosion?”

   “Jeez, lady. Try to stay in one lane, okay?”

   She righted the car and swallowed hard. Her heart was lodged in her throat again. “I think you can come up now.” She checked the rearview mirror.

   “Is this your car or a rental?”

   “It’s a rental. Why?”

   “I don’t want to get blood all over the seat.”

   “Blood,” she cried as she turned to look down at him. Unfortunately the car moved with her and she careered across a lane of traffic before steadying the wheel. “Good Lord, you’re shot!”

   “Dammit. Stop doing that or I’ll end up with a heart attack.”

   “I’ve got to get you to a hospital.” Lord only knew what this would do to her schedule.

   Jillian bit her lip and carefully glanced down at him. She shouldn’t be thinking like that. The poor man was shot. “Tell me where it is and I’ll take you there, straightaway.”

   “No dice. Not till I know what went wrong back there. I can’t risk going to the hospital.” He stifled a groan as he tried to hoist himself up onto the passenger seat. “Just give me a minute to figure out what to do next.”

   Her gaze ran over him, searching for the gaping hole she knew had to be somewhere on his body. “Where were you shot?”

   The stranger groaned louder and finessed his large frame into the seat. “I suppose I should be grateful. I mean, I wasn’t wearing a vest or anything.” His sigh was one of relief when he finally eased back against the passenger seat cushions. “But it still hurts.”

   “Where? You’re not going to die on me, are you?”

   “No, lady. I don’t think I’m that lucky. He shot me in the ass.”

   It took all the restraint she had not to burst out laughing. But the white line around his mouth and the beads of sweat on his forehead convinced her this was not a laughing matter.

   “Who’s shot in the ass?”

   The stranger nearly flew out of his seat before whirling around to find the voice. The blood had drained from his face when he turned back to face Jillian. “Sweet Jesus! You’ve got three kids back there. Why didn’t you say something?”

   “Well, there really hasn’t been time yet. I mean, what with the guns and the chase thing going on.” She tilted the rearview mirror back to the rear seat and found James’s questioning eyes. “This is James, who is six years old and who is going to be very quiet for the next few minutes, right, love?”

   James ignored her, turning to stare at the stranger. “Are you shot in the ass? Is it a big hole? Can I see it?”

   “James! Please do not say ‘ass’ again. If I hear that word come out of your mouth, I will wash it out with soap.” She darted a reproving look at the stranger. “I would appreciate it if you could please curse more quietly. James knows better, but Samuel is only three.”

   The stranger stared at her as though she’d lost her mind. And frankly, perhaps she bloody well had. Jillian had been thinking for the past several days that she truly must be crazy. To give up her comfortable, predictable life back home to face this…wilderness. She’d inherited not only a new country and a new job, but three small children to boot. And in the move, she’d lost Ian. He’d wanted no part of her adventure. Especially not the inheritance part.

   “What’s his name, Jilly?”

   Her thoughts interrupted, she turned startled eyes to the stranger. “Why, I don’t—”

   “Gianetti. Lucas—Luke Gianetti.”

   He smiled for the first time, a small, tight smile of pain and frustration. But oh, my. What a smile. Why, he’d be absolutely devastating if he put his mind to it. She’d bet he would clean up well, too. He desperately needed a shave and a haircut, although truthfully, his hair was such a wonderful shade of gold that he looked rather dangerous with it long and wild.

   “And you’re Jilly?”

   “Jillian, actually. Jillian Moseby.”

   “S’nice to meet you, Jillian.” He reached across to shake her hand and she noticed he’d left the gun on the floor. He turned and waved over his shoulder to James. “Nice to meet you, James. What’s the other little one’s name?”

   “That’s my baby sister, Sarah. She’s only four months old. She cries a lot when she’s not sleeping.”

   Luke’s forehead wrinkled at that bit of news and his voice dropped to a whisper. “I see. Well, let’s not wake her up, okay?”

   James giggled in the back seat and Jillian actually smiled. It was the first time since she’d arrived that she’d heard the little boy laugh or seen him fascinated by anything. Of course, it had taken an armed intruder with a gunshot wound to his buttocks to do it.

   Luke’s suddenly intent gaze zeroed back in on her. “Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do. The closest big city is Charleston. Let’s get out to the highway and zip up there. I’ll show you where to drop me and then you guys can take off. I’ll need your name and address, just in case I have to reach you about this case I’m workin’.”

   “But what about your…wound? Will you be all right?”

   He shrugged it off as though they were discussing a splinter. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

   “Wow, Luke, can I see it? Before you leave, I mean?”

   Luke shook his head in disbelief. “I dunno, kid. We’ll have to wait and see.”

   Jillian followed his directions and soon they were cruising up the highway, north to Charleston and eventually all the way to New Hampshire. To a new life. One involving far more responsibility than she’d ever been charged with before. A new job and a new mother. To three children. How would she possibly hold it all together?

   They’d travelled nearly thirty minutes when she remembered something Luke had said earlier. James had been peppering the poor man with questions nearly nonstop since he’d wakened. And, she was forced to admit, Luke had been very patient, taking the time to answer each one. Unfortunately, each question grew more gory than the last.

   “What’s it like to shoot someone? Have you ever killed—”

   “James, hush for a minute,” she interrupted. “What did you mean about that man back there?”

   “What about him?” She felt the intensity of his gaze shift to her.

   “You said we’d be in trouble if he saw us.” She made sure to hold the wheel in place when she turned, her glance seeking confirmation.

   Luke’s eyes narrowed when he caught her troubled gaze. “And?”

   “Well, he saw me looking at him in the rearview mirror.”

   She sensed him stiffen in the seat beside her. “Are you sure about that?”

   She nodded. “Very sure. It was just a tiny peek, actually. But his eyes met mine for a second before I could look away. It’s funny…he even looked familiar, but that’s rather impossible, don’t you think?” She felt the tension vibrating in him, felt it coil around her in the little car and felt her heart speed up in response. Her gaze left the road again. “Is that very bad?”

   His face had gone tight, his features hardening like one of those ancient stone carvings her father’d insisted she study as a child. “Get off the highway at the next exit. Do it fast.”

   “Look, I appreciate your concern—truly, I do. But it was a terribly small glimpse and I simply can’t afford to get sidetracked. I’m not exactly sure how far New Hampshire is and I need to get us all settled before I begin my new job.”

   “Lady, you’re not goin’ anywhere.” He glanced over his shoulder, craning his neck to get a look out the rear window, but not before giving James a nod and a quick smile. Then he rolled down the passenger window and readjusted the side mirror.

   “I don’t think you understand—”

   “Here. Get off here.” When she hesitated, he shifted in his seat to face her and she nearly shivered at the expression in his eyes. The mesmerizing golden eyes had turned flat and cold. Luke now appeared ready for battle. He looked…deadly.

   “I’m taking you into protective custody. You will do exactly as I tell you until such time that I deem it safe to release you.”

   “But—”

   “Here.” He jerked the wheel to the right. “Now move it.”

   

   Luke couldn’t believe the streak of bad luck he was having. First, the bust had gone haywire for no apparent reason. There had been no screwups on his end, of that he was damn sure. But the vibes had been off from the beginning, starting when he’d woken up this morning. Something had gnawed away at his gut and it hadn’t been nerves. He was ready for this op. Hell, it was a piece of cake compared to some of the others.

   He’d infiltrated Sloan’s group without a hitch. Everything had been building to this day. Every piece of evidence. Every witness. Every damn buy he’d been forced to make. It had been smooth. Maybe that was the hitch. Maybe it had been too easy. Easy that was, until the moment he and Murphy had heard the rumbling of the building coming down around them. Then they’d run like hell. He knew Murphy’d cleared the building, had seen him and the Assistant Special Agent in Charge running for cover—

   His thoughts were jarred by the shrill cries of a baby. Oh, yeah. Baby Sarah had quite a set of lungs on her. He shook his head and tried to block out the sound. His butt was on fire. That had been the second thing to go wrong. It was bad enough the bust had gone bad, but then to get shot, and in the ass, no less.

   He hobbled into the bathroom and swallowed three more Tylenol. Anything to take the edge off the throbbing pain. The bleeding had stopped, but the bullet was still in there. Had been in there for more than twelve hours now. It had to come out or he’d be in worse trouble. Soon he’d be forced to ask the harried-looking English chick for help. Oh, how he dreaded it.

   He limped back out to the main room. Had they been the best of friends or a tight-knit little family, the motel room would’ve been much too small for the five of them. But they were virtual strangers. The room felt like a closet. He glanced over at Jillian. She was trying to soothe the baby, but her awkward, rocking motions seemed to be jarring Sarah rather than calming her.

   “Here. Give her to me. I’ll try to shut her up while you make a bottle.”

   Her glance was grateful, but laced with guilt. He winked at her to take the sting out of his words and was rewarded with a small, wan smile. Mary Poppins looked pooped. Still, she was surprisingly resilient. It couldn’t be every day she was waylaid by a federal agent and forced into hiding. So far she seemed to be making the best of it.

   He couldn’t let them go…not until he knew for sure it was safe. And nothing about this op felt safe, at least not yet. His stomach still felt as though he’d had too much caffeine. He still hadn’t made contact with the rest of the team, hadn’t been able to reach his partner. Since the explosion, every number was relentlessly busy. Hell, they could be dead for all he knew. Very little was being said on the television news, but he knew for a fact the explosion had collapsed half the building.

   Jillian turned to face the next set of clinging hands. Samuel was still awake and rarin’ to go. Luke watched in amazement while she settled the rambunctious three-year-old at the tiny kitchenette with a box of crayons that seemingly materialized out of thin air. James was busy mixing the bottle. He wondered about that. Did all kids that age help so much? James seemed far older than six years. Six going on forty. Then again, what did he know?

   So far, in his thirty-two years on the planet, all he’d managed to achieve was one former wife. They’d never gotten around to having kids. Never had the chance, he corrected. If it’d been up to him, it would’ve happened eventually. If Linda had only waited.

   His thoughts returned to Jillian. A pretty name, just unusual enough to be memorable. And if her name hadn’t caught his attention, her accent would have. He was surprised to learn she’d been born in the States. When he’d asked, she’d said Kansas. Of course, it had come out like “Cahnsus” and he’d thought for a second she’d been messing with him.

   But her big eyes had gotten all wide and she’d said that no, really, she had been born there and moved back to England when she was two. She had pretty eyes, actually—a stormy gray-blue that seemed to change with her moods. He watched her smile at James and tussle his hair. She was lanky and lean, but in a careless, nonathletic sort of way. And she looked nothing at all like her three children, he realized. The kids could’ve been his, if genetics were based solely on their coloring. They were all blond, pink-cheeked cherubs with hazel eyes, while Jillian’s hair was long and brown and untamed.

   “You’re good at this.” Jillian appeared again, testing the bottle on her arm. “She’s stopped crying. Have little ones of your own, do you?”

   He smiled and continued to bounce Sarah. And wondered if she could see the regret he always felt when he allowed himself to think about it. “No. Just a lot of practice with my nephews.”

   Her smile was genuine when she moved closer to stroke Sarah’s fuzzy head. “Perhaps you can give me lessons? I’m still learning all this.” She leaned into him, brushing his shoulder as she planted a kiss on Sarah’s cheek and lifted the baby from his arms. “Time for dinner, sweetheart.”

   “I’d figure with three of them, you’d be a pro by now.” Man, she smelled great. A tantalizing aroma of something sweet and fresh washed over him and he had to consciously fight the urge to inhale her scent again. He ignored the tingle of current that shot down his arm, choosing instead to grope for a logical reason. Static electricity. That made sense. Or close quarters. Perfectly good reason.

   That, or the fact that it had been a ridiculously long time since he’d been to bed with a woman. He took a long, slow breath. No chance of that happening anytime soon, not with a bullet in his ass. Not with a day-care center at ground zero of their musty-smelling motel room.

   “They’ve only been mine for three days now,” Jilly admitted as she accepted the baby from Luke’s outstretched arms, unsure whether she wanted to delve into such a personal situation with a complete and utter stranger. Since she’d picked the children up at social services, there’d been one ordeal after another to deal with and an absolute mountain of paperwork.

   “Wait a minute. I’m confused. Aren’t these your kids?” The poor man seemed to be in agony. Luke hadn’t said much, but she could tell by the way he limped that he was in a great deal of pain. For a fleeting moment, though, his grim expression was replaced with one of confusion.

   “Well, they are now. I’ve already filed the papers to adopt them.”

   “You flew all the way over here to adopt kids? What made you do that?”

   Her gaze shifted to the corner of the room where James sat in a squeaky armchair, his eyes glued to the telly. In three days James hadn’t so much as mentioned his mum. But she knew Annie’s death had hit him hard. Good Lord, she was still reeling herself. But instinct told her he would speak of Annie when he was ready. Still a complete novice at the motherhood thing, she’d cautiously followed his lead.

   Luke’s gaze travelled to James before returning to settle on her. She hoisted Sarah awkwardly onto her shoulder. “M-my sister. She passed away two weeks—”

   “I didn’t mean to pry,” he interrupted, clearly uneasy. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

   The flash of compassion in his eyes nearly undid her composure. Her gaze still on James, she blinked back the tears that lately seemed to be too readily available. Lowering her voice, she continued. “I promised my sister I’d come over here and—”

   He held up one hand. “I get the picture. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

   When she allowed herself to think about it, Annie’s death was like a raw gaping wound. Not that she’d had all that much time to think about anything. For once, she was grateful when Sarah began fussing. There was nothing like a hungry baby to get her mind refocused on priorities. She would have a lifetime to grieve for all she’d lost. A lifetime to wonder over what might have been. If she’d only come sooner.

   Crossing to the bed, she sat and slid across the spread to lean back against the headboard. She snuggled Sarah into one arm before slipping the bottle into her mouth. Her sweet little face unscrunched immediately as she began happily sucking. And Jillian sighed with relief.

   “She’s a noisy little thing, this one. I wonder if all babies are this loud.”

   “I wouldn’t be the right person to ask that question. But if I remember correctly, my nephews’ screams came damn close to shattering glass when they were hungry.” Luke sat hesitantly on the edge of a chair, wincing when his rear end made contact with the vinyl. “I guess that’s nature’s way of ensuring they get what they need.”

   “So what happens now, Mr. Gianetti? Have you made contact with your captain, or whatever he is?” Sarah’s eyes seemed to follow the sound of her voice and she giggled in spite of her exhaustion. Lord, she felt like a limp dish rag. No wonder Nanny Margaret had always been so foul come suppertime. After all these years, she finally understood why Nanny’s evening sherry had been such a sacred event. She’d probably been bloody worn out after endless days spent chasing around after her and Annie.

   “He’s called a SAC…not a captain.”

   “What’s a sack?” Leave it to the Yanks to abbreviate everything. Why did everything have to be shortened to initials? What was their damn hurry?

   “Not sack,” he answered patiently. “SAC—Special Agent in Charge. He’s the boss. Then there’s an ASAC—Assistant Special Agent in Charge. Then way down the totem pole, there’s me.”

   “And what initials are you?” she interrupted.

   “I’m just an SA… Special Agent. Actually I’m a UCSA.”

   “A what?”

   A fleeting smile crossed his features. “An Undercover SA.”

   It was a code she’d have to break. Why, it would probably be even worse on a college campus. Kids today spoke a completely different language. With any luck, she’d be able to hide out in her library. Although she doubted it. She’d been thrilled to accept Dartmouth’s offer. Archiving one of the finest collections of eighteenth-century papers was a dream come true. But then Rosemary had gone and ruined it. Her mother’s catty reminder of their lineage had planted a niggling worry in her mind. Had they only wanted her because of who she was?

   Sarah gurgled, catching her attention, and Jilly was content to let her suspicions slide away. Rosemary wouldn’t ruin this for her. She would prove to Dartmouth—and to herself—that they’d made an excellent choice.

   “So, SA Luke, were you able to reach any of your initial friends?” She tore her gaze from Sarah and glanced around their meager room. The furniture was threadbare and probably decades old. And the overriding scent was one of mildew. The smell reminded her of the ancient castles her father had dragged his daughters across the continent to visit. Every school holiday had been spent “appreciating” another dreary estate. The only difference now was the temperature. The castles had been cold and dank. Here in the States, it was warm and far too humid for her taste.

   “When can we leave this fine establishment?”

   “I still don’t know yet.” Agent Gianetti’s tone was clearly defensive.

   “We simply can’t stay here indefinitely.” She raised one eyebrow when Sarah belched indelicately. “Well, excuse you, young lady.”

   That got a smile out of Luke. “She’s not half bad. With a little practice, she just may have a future.”

   “Mr. Gianetti, please. Sarah is going to wear dresses and have tea parties, not learn to burp and spit.” She narrowed her eyes. “Now, please tell me what’s going on.”

   “The good news is that we’re safe—temporarily.”

   “Safe? From what? You said no one followed us.” He settled back in his chair and then sucked in a sharp breath of pain. “Are you all right?”

   He gritted his teeth and nodded. “I’m okay.”

   “You don’t look okay,” she persisted.

   “I just need to stand up.” His eyes glazed with pain, he grasped the table and hoisted himself from the chair. “The bad news is that I haven’t reached anyone on the team. It’s like the call won’t even go through. All the circuits are down, or some damn thing. And my cell phone isn’t working.”

   “You don’t think that man will actually look for us, do you?”

   How much did he risk telling her? For the moment she was calm, rational. And Luke wanted to keep it that way. The last thing he needed was a hysterical woman on his hands. Hell, yes, Sloan would be looking for them. He was probably searching right now. Sloan abided by the drug dealers’ creed. No witnesses.

   “Until I’m positive it’s safe, we’re not going anywhere. As soon as it gets dark, I’ll try to contact my partner from the pay phone out front.”

   Luke was not operating from a position of strength. He had to come up with a plan. They were all dangerously vulnerable to Sloan and his gang of rent-a-thugs. He was saddled not only with the sexy Jillian, but with her three children—babies, actually. A fast escape would be out of the question, so he had to make sure they wouldn’t need one. A quick inventory had already confirmed he didn’t have much cash and until he connected with his partner and found out what had gone wrong, he wouldn’t risk using a credit card. Even his undercover card would be too easy to trace.

   He had no surveillance. No survival equipment and only one gun, and even that wasn’t a good one. It was a street piece, no serial number—exactly what a small-time dealer would use to protect himself, to delude himself into thinking he was safe. Luke hated being without his pistol, but his government-issue was too easy to spot. Drug dealers were a very suspicious lot.

   If Sloan had made Jillian’s car, they were in it even deeper. And they wouldn’t have much time before the goons came searching. If Luke’d had more time, he could’ve lifted another car, but Jilly’s station wagon had been packed to the rafters. It would have taken half the night to move her stuff. He would feel a whole lot better with another hundred miles between him and Sloan. The bastard was way too close for comfort, but Baby Sarah’s shrieks of protest had put an end to their travels. He shook his head in memory. The kid’s voice could’ve registered on the Richter scale.

   He’d finally settled on this dump because it was off the main road. He’d parked the station wagon around back. The gravel lot backed up to a tobacco field. No one would be able to see the rental car without skulking around to find it. Visibility from the room allowed him a full hundred and eighty degrees. He’d see anyone coming in.

   If Sloan was on to them, he’d already be scouting the highway, knowing that was the easiest escape route. He would already have found the rental company and—

   He’d already know Jillian’s name. “Jill—what address did you use on the car rental application?” He felt her hesitation, watched her frown as though he’d asked her to solve an algebra problem without a calculator.

   “It was out of Raleigh.”

   “Why’d you go way up there?”

   “Well, I needed a flight fast and everything out of London to the east coast was already booked. Raleigh was the closest city I could get to South Carolina. I wasn’t exactly sure how far I’d have to drive to pick up the children. It turned out to be quite a distance after all.”

   Luke rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. The woman spoke in absolute riddles and he was beginning to suspect the language barrier had nothing to do with it.

   “So, what address did you use on the rental app?”

   She shook her head in exasperation. “Right, of course. Your original question. Let’s see, I wasn’t quite sure of my address in New Hampshire, so I used my old address in England. Was that all right? The rental place didn’t seem to mind.”

   “No…no. That’s good.” Sloan would spin his wheels tracing her back to England and then he’d come up empty-handed unless he found someone there who had her new address. He sighed as he gingerly eased onto a vinyl-coated chair with far too little padding and winced at the now familiar ache.

   Problem number two: what to do about the slug? It was still lodged in his right thigh. Extremely upper right thigh. Obviously, it hadn’t hit anything too important because he hadn’t bled to death yet. He’d barely bled at all from what he could see. Of course, not being a sideshow contortionist, he hadn’t been able to see much.

   If he only knew for sure they were safe, he could check into a hospital. An agent shot in the line of duty. He was legit. But he still hadn’t raised Murphy. Hadn’t reached his SAC—or any of the rest of the team. Another bad sign that something was seriously wrong. Which meant no hospital. But the pain would only worsen until he removed the bullet. It had to be soon. He couldn’t risk an infection, not with four people’s lives in his hands.

   It was his fault they’d seen Jillian. The blast had caught him off guard, otherwise he never would’ve jumped in the car of an innocent bystander. She’d done remarkably well, all things considered. It couldn’t be everyday that a wild-eyed stranger hijacked her vehicle at gunpoint. Come to think of it, she’d probably remained calm because of the kids. She’d been praying he wouldn’t hurt her children.

   Still, she’d had the guts to ask him to lower his gun and to chastise him for cursing in front of James. Luke shook his head, hiding his sudden smile. Oh, yeah, Lady Jillian was an English rose and she had some thorns to her, too. He wondered how wide her eyes would get when he asked her to remove the bullet from his ass.

Chapter 2

   “You want me to do what?” Jillian continued backing up until she was all the way in the corner, and still he followed her. Mother of God—he couldn’t be serious.

   “I know you heard me the first time.” Luke’s eyes were deadly serious.

   “I can’t possibly…I don’t know the first thing about—”

   “Look, we don’t have a choice,” he interrupted. “The bullet’s got to come out. It’s already been in there too long. I explained why we can’t risk going to a hospital.”

   “Can’t you try to reach your friend again? I mean—” She swallowed hard. “Maybe he got your message. Maybe he’s on his way…”

   “He’s not on his way. He would have contacted me.”

   His tone was clearly exasperated, but she didn’t give a damn. This was simply too much to ask. Perform surgery? Agent Gianetti was stark raving mad. No way in hell was she going to attempt to get a bloody bullet out of his behind. Her stomach roiled at the mere thought. Out of sheer desperation, she glanced around the room. She needed a diversion. Why couldn’t Sarah cry now?

   “B-but you said your cell phone wasn’t working properly. It’s probably bodged up. I think you should try the pay phone again.”

   “I’ve already taken too much risk. That phone out there can be traced in a heartbeat.”

   She took another step back and was cornered. Literally. The wall was at her back and a glaring Agent Gianetti stood towering over her. “Are you sure they’ll search for us? I mean, I only saw that man for a moment. I don’t know that I could identify him.”

   He gentled his voice at her obvious confusion. She didn’t want to believe him. Heck, her safe little world had just been blown wide open. A dangerous drug dealer and his pack of thugs were looking for Mary Poppins and her three charges. He’d be fighting it, too.

   “He can’t take that chance. And I can’t take the chance that he finds you.”

   “B-but I haven’t done anything wrong,” she stammered. “I’ve only been in the States for six days. How can a person get in this much trouble in such a short time?”

   Her eyes were big as saucers as she chewed nervously on her lower lip. They were both whispering because the children were finally asleep. James and Samuel were in the double bed and Sarah in the portable crib they’d managed to wedge in the corner.

   “If there were any other way, believe me, I’d do it myself. But I can’t keep you safe, not feeling like this. If the bullet stays in much longer, I’m gonna get really sick and I won’t be able to protect you. I won’t be able to protect those babies.”

   He read the uncertainty in her eyes and realized he was getting nowhere. It might take all night to convince her. Perhaps what she needed was a challenge. “If you’re gonna get all squeamish and faint on me, then—”

   “No, no. It’s not that. It’s just…I don’t want to hurt you and I see no way around the fact that it’s going to hurt dreadfully.”

   Dreadfully. Yeah. A far more civilized word than he would’ve chosen. It was gonna hurt like freakin’ hell. But there was no other choice. Fourteen hours and he still hadn’t reached Murphy or his commander. That fact alone had alarm signals crawling up his spine.

   He had to get them out of here…the sooner the better, but he couldn’t drive any distance with a bullet in his butt. They were wasting valuable time. It had just gone dark. They should be making tracks instead of talking. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “Into the bathroom. We can turn on the water to cover our voices.” He tugged on her arm, leading her to the closet-size bathroom. “You got any Band Aids in that bag?”

   She nodded and immediately went to work, digging through her travel case for supplies. Luke sighed and turned on the faucet. He’d have to sterilize his knife with hot tap water. If he didn’t get an infection out of this, it would be nothing short of a miracle. When he turned back, a small mountain of first-aid supplies was stacked on the counter. He blinked and shook his head in amazement. Jillian was prepared for war-zone triage.

   “You always carry so much stuff?”

   She raised startled eyes to his in the mirror. Her skin was so pale it made her eyes appear even bluer, like the sky just before a storm. “Well, with the children and everything, I thought it best to be well prepared. I bought one of each kind.” She blew out a nervous breath. “I’m ready.”

   He smiled at her reflection in the mirror and watched her pull her hair back in a lopsided ponytail. The color wasn’t brown at all but a beautiful cinnamon. It was long and wavy and just a little bit wild. He’d bet the strands would slide like silk between his fingers.

   “Okay, tell me what you want me to do.”

   “All right. In the next minute or so, you’re gonna get to know me real well.” He paused when her gaze dropped and noticed the telltale pink flush flare across her cheekbones. He hadn’t thought it possible for a woman her age to blush. “Try not to be nervous. It’ll hurt, but I swear I won’t make a sound,” he promised.

   “Oh, God.”

   Impulsively he grabbed one of her hands. “Look, if you hesitate—if you go slow—it’ll hurt worse. I want you to make a crisscross cut over the hole about this big.” He drew on her palm while she listened intently, hanging on every word, and he felt a measure of her tension dissipate.

   “It was a small-caliber bullet and it was shot from a pretty far distance. It can’t be in there very far…maybe an inch. Once you make the cut, I want you to take the edge of the blade and probe in there like this.” He pointed the blade down and gently touched her palm, careful not to press too deep. “The sooner you find it, the better.”

   “What then? When I find it, I mean?”

   She blanched again and her eyes carried a hunted look, as though she knew there was no way to escape. “As soon as you feel it, try to get the blade underneath and lever it out that way. If not, we’ll use those evil-looking tweezers you’ve got there.”

   She jerked her hand from his and raised it to her mouth. “Ohmigod, Luke—I don’t know if I can…”

   He reached out and gently pried her fingers from her lips, giving them a little squeeze. “You can do this. I know it.” He waited while she composed herself once again, watching as she took a shaky breath. “You need to wash your hands really well and then I’m gonna lean way over the counter and you’re gonna go to work. Okay?”

   She swallowed convulsively and shook her hands, as though shaking the jitters out of her fingers. “Right. I’m ready.”

   Luke took a deep breath and unbuttoned and unzipped his pants. Sweet Jesus, could this be any more awkward? A beautiful woman was about to carve up his butt in the shabby little bathroom of Jethro’s Rent-A-Shack. If the guys ever found out about this, he’d never hear the end of it.

   He noticed that Jillian played it cool. She’d averted her eyes when he’d dropped his pants and bit her lip when he’d grunted and launched himself up onto the counter. At least he could keep his underwear on…what little was left of the blood-soaked cotton. He tried not to wince as she peeled them away from his right buttock. Once she was finished, he’d cut them off and burn them in the sink. Unfortunately he’d be forced to go commando for a day or so until it was safe to buy underwear.

   “How’s it look back there?”

   She stifled a chuckle. “How exactly do you mean? It’s a rather fine-looking butt, if that’s what you’re hinting at.”

   Could this get any more embarrassing? He shook his head and tried not to watch her in the mirror. “What I mean is, how does the bullet hole look?”

   “Don’t clench up. I’m just cleaning the area with alcohol.”

   Right. She pours something freezing on his ass and she doesn’t want him to react? “Well?”

   Jillian raised her gaze to meet his in the mirror. “It looks…angry.”

   “Angry? What the he—” He took a deep breath, blew it out, and tried to remember that she was very nervous. “What does ‘angry’ mean?”

   “It looks red and very tender and much smaller than I thought it would be, actually.”

   “I’m lucky the shooter was so far away. Otherwise, you’d see a whole lot more damage back there.”

   “You saw the person who shot you?”

   He cocked one eyebrow. “He shot me in the ass, remember?” Her disgruntled sigh was clearly audible. Mary Poppins didn’t have much of a sense of humor. If anyone should be pissed about this turn of events, it should be him.

   “I’m not a ninny. I meant, how do you know where the person was shooting from?”

   Her voice floated up from down near the floor. “The building was caving in…I was running away from it…I just know.” In spite of himself, he tensed when she made the first incision. The area was throbbing so badly that it was almost a relief when she made the cut. He heard her take a deep breath before making the cross incision.

   “Lord, it’s really bleeding now.”

   Luke gritted his teeth and fought to school the pain. He tasted the sweat beading on his upper lip and experienced the faint, floaty feeling that came with shock. He tightened the muscles in his chest and arms as a countermeasure to the excruciating pain. If he focused on contracting those muscles, he could disassociate from the torture that was sure to come.

   “Just swipe it and keep going. It’s gonna keep bleeding until you’re done.”

   Jillian took a shaky breath at the pain she heard in his voice. Dear God, if she could only run away. She fought to keep her hands from trembling while sweat trickled down her back and into her jeans. He flinched when she slid the knife in like he’d shown her. She dug in again and heard him bite back a moan. Lord, she was hurting him badly.

   On the third try, she felt rather than saw the bullet. She’d found it. Now, to get the blasted thing out. She said a quick prayer to her Maker. If only He’d get the bullet out…she’d never ask for another thing. Just this one favor. Please, Lord.

   Unfortunately, He must have been working miracles elsewhere because she came up empty-handed.

   “You’re stopping?”

   She startled at the sound of his voice and paused to stretch the cramped muscles in her back and legs. They were locked with tension. She made the mistake of glancing into the mirror. Dear Lord, his face was gray with agony. “No. I’m…I was…I needed a minute. I’ll try again.”

   She would have bent immediately had he not grabbed her arm. She noticed then how large his hand was. His fingers gripped her entire forearm with relative ease as he tugged her up to his face.

   “You’re doing fine. Don’t worry about me. It’ll be over soon. Just keep goin’.”

   She blinked back tears as his magnetic eyes willed her to be calm. She took a deep breath and nodded. Luke was still in control. She could be, too. She could do this.

   “Right.” She squatted again and said another prayer. This time she managed to get his knife under the bullet. She felt the tug of resistance as the bullet rebelled against the blade. This ordeal could be over if she didn’t panic. Her gaze still locked on the bullet hole, she reached up with her free hand and groped the countertop. She heard supplies scatter as her fingers wrapped around the tweezers and pulled them down. With one hand lifting the knife blade, she poked through the blood and dug the tweezers into the wound to grab the bullet.

   Jillian felt his whole body jerk and then tighten and heard his stifled groan. Ignoring his pain, she blocked it out and concentrated on the sound of running water. Dammit, she had to finish this before she passed out. Or killed him. At last, the tweezers found the bullet. Not daring to release her sweaty grip, she yanked the metal slug out.

   It was over.

   “I’ve found the bloody thing.” She sagged to the floor, her thigh muscles screaming when they finally unclenched. Nearly light-headed with relief, she waited several seconds before staggering to her feet, her legs still rubbery when she tried to stand.

   “Please tell me you got it.” His voice was tight with pain.

   She loosened her grip on the tweezers and the bullet clanged on the Formica counter. “I’ve got to clean you up…down there. Then we’re through.”

   “Thank God.”

   It seemed like forever before the bleeding stopped. When it had slowed to a trickle, she swabbed the area again with alcohol, starting at Luke’s sudden indrawn breath. “Sorry about that. I should have warned you.”

   When he didn’t respond, she made a makeshift bandage and taped it down with the neon Band Aids she’d picked up for the children. She managed a half smile and wondered what Agent Gianetti would think if he knew his butt would glow in the dark that night. She suspected he felt much worse than he was planning to let on. He’d been too quiet for the last few minutes. Lord knew she was ready to faint simply from performing the surgery.

   “Can you move or are you too weak?”

   “I—I’m fine. Once you finish, I…I need a minute to clean up. Just close the door behind you when you leave.”

   Luke’s eyes were closed, his pale, clammy face resting on still-tense forearms, his body straddling the counter. His voice was muffled and miserable and she knew she couldn’t risk leaving him alone in the bathroom. He did not have the strength he pretended to have. Jillian eyed the blood-soaked underwear and made a quick decision. She grabbed the scissors and before she could change her mind, swiftly sliced up the sides of his underwear.

   “What in the sweet hell are you doing?”

   “Don’t move or you’ll show me far more than you intended.” She peeled the underwear off his well-developed and very clenched muscles and pretended not to notice how lean and hard he looked. Dear Lord, this was just his backside. Though she tried desperately not to, she couldn’t help but wonder about the rest of him. Forcibly discarding the images, she wet a washcloth with warm water and sponged the dried blood from his skin. Still averting her eyes, she snatched a towel from the rod near his head. Now that she’d stripped him, she was rapidly losing her nerve.

   Without meeting his gaze, she wrapped the towel around him and tied it loosely at his waist. Then she dropped to the floor and tugged his jeans from his feet. “I’ll wash these in the sink. I can probably get most of the blood out so you’ll have something to wear later.”

   With another washcloth she carefully rinsed his forehead and face with cool water. He startled when she scooped up his long, golden hair and washed the back of his neck.

   “That feels good.”

   His mumbled comment sounded faraway and sleepy. When she had done all that she could to make him more comfortable, she dug through the cosmetic bag again while he awkwardly lifted himself from the counter. He staggered a little and she ducked under his arm, forcing his weight onto her.

   “Here. Take these before we go out to the bedroom.” She handed him three blue pills. It wouldn’t do much for the agony he must be experiencing, but it was all she had. His face was white with pain and his eyes grim as he scooped them up and brought them to his mouth.

   “What the hell are these?”

   Jillian felt her face flush with color again. “They’re…you know. They, uh, help with cramps…when I, um, have my monthly. I’m sure they’ll take the edge off.”

   His eyes bleak, Luke swallowed them without comment. He must have felt terrible, because he didn’t even argue when she led him to the empty bed. She didn’t dare let go of him as she tugged the bedspread back and snatched the sheets apart. He was very woozy. He just didn’t want her to know it. He sat heavily, careful not to put any weight on his right side. She punched up a pillow and gently pushed him back against it. He collapsed onto the pillow and she helped him pull his legs up, pushing them under the covers.

   As soon as he was safely in bed, she raced back to the bathroom for a glass of water and the washcloth. She soaked it in cold water and wrung it out before taking it back to Luke. He was still conscious, but just barely. She laid the cloth over his eyes and set the waterglass on the nightstand within his reach.

   “Where’s my gun?”

   “Right here. I’ll put it in the drawer.”

   “No. Gotta have it.” His words were slurred, but they were still adamant.

   “No. If James or Samuel wakes up and sees—”

   “Okay. You’re right. Forgot ’bout…kids.”

   She sighed with relief when he gave in, rolling over onto his side and finally shutting his eyes. A hot shower was next on the list. She was sticky with perspiration and still shaking from the whole ordeal. She stepped away from the bed but was startled again by the strength of his grip when Luke jerked her back to his side. She hadn’t even seen him move.

   “Wha…what is it? Are you ill?”

   His hand was warm where it stroked her wrist, his voice even warmer when he finally spoke. “Thanks for what you did. You’re all right, Lady Jillian.” His hand slowly dropped away and his breathing deepened. She listened for a moment, absently rubbing her arm where he’d held it before heading back to the overly bright bathroom.

   Lady Jillian, indeed. Lady Jillian Moseby would’ve had the bloody vapors if she’d been asked to remove a bullet. From a man’s bum, no less. Agent Gianetti was lucky she’d left Lady Jillian back in Sussex. She was Jilly now. And out of sheer necessity, Jilly would have to learn to be ready for anything. Tonight had proven it. Three children. Good God, how would she do it?

   She methodically scrubbed the countertop and put away her supplies. Try as she might, she couldn’t find the bullet she’d tossed on the counter. She gave up and began scrubbing Luke’s jeans. Once they were dry, the blood stain would barely be noticeable. She held his pants up to the light. The bullet hole was tiny. How could something so small inflict so much damage? She shuddered as she remembered her sister and what Annie had done with a gun in her hands.

   Finally she stripped off her clothes and stood under the shower for a long time, letting the warm water sluice over her in an attempt to wash away the horror of the past hour, of the whole day, actually. Dear Lord, it had been bloody awful. Ever since she’d arrived in the States, it had been one nightmare after another. She had absolutely no idea how to be a mother. What if she bodged it up? Three little lives were depending on her.

   No one had ever depended on her to do anything. As far as parenting skills, she had none that she knew of. How would she ever live up to her promise to Annie? Jillian was beginning to wonder if she’d ever be anything other than too late. Too late for Annie. Nearly too late for the children…

   The terror she’d experienced earlier when Luke had hijacked her car was nothing compared to removing that bullet. Tears sprang to her eyes when she remembered the pain in his eyes. She’d hurt him terribly. The sobs finally came and she allowed herself a good long cry before she methodically conditioned her hair and finally stepped out of the shower. It was nearly midnight. With any luck she could fall into bed for a few hours before Sarah woke her at three. At least that was what the baby had done the previous three nights. She could only assume it would happen every night.

   Her eyes were pink when she examined them in the mirror. Her gym shorts and T-shirt would have to suffice for pajamas. It wouldn’t be worth the effort of dragging the suitcase in from the car. And where would she put it anyway? The room was ready to explode.

   She rinsed out her blouse and brushed her teeth before leaving the claustrophobic bathroom. She left the door slightly open, allowing a crack of light to remain in case the boys got up during the night.

   Luke’s bulky frame took up most of the bed but she was too tired to pretend she cared about modesty. Lady Jillian or not, there was no way she was sleeping on the floor, not after the day she’d had. And she’d already seen the man’s naked butt, for goodness’ sake. She shook her head and slipped between the sheets on the other side.

   Here she was, across the Atlantic only six days now, and already in bed with an American stranger. She smothered a giggle as a vision of her mother floated in front of her eyes. Rosemary Moseby would still manage to look dignified and oh, so proper, even with her mouth hanging open and her eyes bugged out. She would be appalled. Her worst nightmare come true: her precious Jillian in bed with a man…and a bloody Yank to boot.

   She sighed and settled back against the pillow. If Rosemary only knew. Try as she might, Jilly couldn’t picture removing a bullet from Ian’s butt. Her fiancé—no, make that ex-fiancé, thank you very much—had been far more like her mother than she’d ever realized. She covered her mouth when another giggle erupted. Ian was so proper and reserved, why he could’ve simply squeezed his cheeks together and the bullet would’ve popped out straightaway. Hard to believe she’d contemplated marrying him. Why, they were complete opposites. What could she possibly have been think—

   “Are you always like this? First you’re cryin’ like you lost your best friend, then you’re laughing so hard you shake the bed?”

   Startled, she rolled over, immediately contrite. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize—”

   “S’all right. It’s not every day you pull a slug out of a guy’s butt. Least you can laugh about it.”

   “Oh, no. I wasn’t laughing at you—” His deep sigh told her he was nearly asleep again. She didn’t bother to finish her sentence as she snuggled under the covers, shivering in the air-conditioned coolness of the room. Her last thought was of Ian. It was one of tremendous relief.

   

   She was still asleep. He’d awakened to find her curled up behind him, her arm wrapped tightly around him, her face pressed into his back. Her soft breathing was hot against his shoulder blade, the curves of her luscious body slowly branding him with the promise of something incredible. Luke wanted desperately to move. He’d been on his left side for hours and his body ached from sleeping in one position. But he didn’t want to wake Jillian.

   It was murky and gray inside the slumbering room, and he guessed it was still before dawn. He was pretty sure she’d gotten up during the night with the baby. He’d heard Sarah whimper once and then he hadn’t heard anything. Jillian must have been waiting, ready to snatch up the baby before she cried and woke everyone up.

   He took a deep breath and rolled slowly onto his back, careful not to disturb his bedmate and at the same time, testing how much weight he could tolerate on his butt. The incision had stopped throbbing during the night and now, he discovered with relief, the pain had subsided to a dull ache when he lay back against the pillows. He released the breath he’d been holding and turned his head cautiously toward Jillian. She was lying half on top of him, with one hand pressed over his chest. Her legs were still curled in to his and he confirmed they were just as soft as he’d imagined, like warm satin against his skin.

   She had freckles across the bridge of her pale nose and long, sweeping eyelashes that appeared dark against her soft pink skin. A delicate English rose with freckles. The scent of her hair was slowly driving him mad. He’d dreamed of rainstorms and wildflowers. Hell, he knew he shouldn’t have taken that cramp medicine. Who knew what was in that chick stuff?

   Luke swallowed hard and forced himself to look away from her mouth. One thing was abundantly clear. He still felt like a guy—a guy who hadn’t slept with a woman in…forever. Her perfectly shaped lips were parted, her warm breath fanned the side of his neck. Her mouth was soft and pink and ready…

   He jerked his thoughts away. He’d better create some distance and quick, before his body took over and did something stupid on his behalf. He slid noiselessly from the bed. Jillian sighed in her sleep and burrowed down under the covers. Forcing himself to refocus, he adjusted his towel and limped into the bathroom. It was time for a security check. And maybe a brisk walk in the cool morning air to clear his head.

   

   The perimeter was secure. The car appeared untouched. He’d shimmied underneath, just to be sure, spending twenty minutes making certain they were safe. But something was off. His gut thrummed with an uneasy sense of warning. Luke just couldn’t figure out why.

   He scratched his two-day growth of beard and sighed. Maybe it was him. He’d had trouble settling in since he’d arrived from the D.C. office. Usually he fell into the role without a problem, adapted and blended in with his new territory. Maybe he just wasn’t cut out for the Southern mentality. It was too peaceful down here, too sleepy. Nothing was as it seemed. There were too many undercurrents. On the surface, things appeared civilized and tidy, while everything underneath had gone to rot. Even the drug deals he’d made held an air of casualness, of laid-back Southern hospitality that had seemed unfamiliar.

   He’d been edgy since the op started a month ago. And he’d worked too many years off his intuition, it had saved his hide too many times to question the feeling. He was highly trained, certainly. But it went deeper than that. Luke had taken that training and internalized it, until it became so ingrained it was second nature. He’d learned to never discount his gut. And his gut told him something was wrong.

   He pushed off the stucco wall where he leaned, careful to avoid the huge puddle of water that had accumulated under the wheezing air conditioner. The parking lot was quiet, dark and cool, even the birds still silent despite the pink slivers of dawn that crept through the trees on the far side of the lot. He’d quietly checked each motel unit, just in case. There were only seven cars in the lot. And judging by the whine of the air conditioners, there were seven rooms accounted for.

   “Maybe some coffee will help,” he muttered. There’d been a hot plate in the office when he’d registered the day before and the sign had claimed the office was open 24/7. He just hoped they actually brewed a fresh pot each day. He walked silently around the L-shaped motel, cautious when he passed a room where the AC was running. Occupied units. He heard the steady drip of water as he slipped by each one.

   He winced when a cow bell clanged noisily against the office door and he reached up to silence it. His head already ached from the musty, permeating smell of this dump. The night clerk must’ve decided on a nap because the front counter was quiet. He sniffed the air as he headed across the lobby. Coffee didn’t smell scorched. He poured a second cup for Jilly and paused to tuck some stale-looking cookies into a napkin. There wouldn’t be time for the kids to eat breakfast.

   He’d already kicked himself for sleeping the whole night. As soon as he got back, he was gonna wake ’em all up. Not knowing what had happened to Sloan was driving him crazy. Had the team managed to arrest him? Why hadn’t he been able to reach Murphy? Something about the bust was eating away at him. It was almost as though Sloan had been expecting him—or worse. As though he’d been expecting narcs.

   His senses were screaming to make some tracks. He wanted out of here, and fast. He crammed the napkin into his shirt pocket and felt for the gun hidden at the small of his back. He hesitated. If he carried coffee to Jilly, his hands would be full. He wouldn’t be able to reach for his gun. Of course, if he didn’t bring her coffee he’d be labeled insensitive, or some other female variation of cad. “Insensitive” had been one of Linda’s favorites.

   Either way, he’d be in trouble. Luke rolled his neck to loosen his tight shoulders and then hoisted the cups. He let himself out, taking care not to clang the damn cowbell. He was halfway to the parking lot when he stopped in his tracks, staring at the seven cars in the lot. Seven. And their car was parked out back. That made eight. The hair on the back of his neck stood at attention.

   Maybe there was nothing to worry about. Maybe a family was staying at the Fleabag Inn and they’d arrived in two cars. Yeah, right. Or maybe he’d better go back and check out that office again. His gut notched up to red alert. He retraced his steps and slipped inside. The cowbell didn’t even budge. Luke set the coffee on the counter and vaulted over the locked half-door. There was a light burning in the paneled office down the hallway, but no signs of life.

   He withdrew his gun and crept into the office. His hand shook slightly when he nudged the body on the floor by the desk. The night clerk’s body was still warm.

   The phone call.

   A sizzle of warning crawled down his spine. His phone call to Murphy. One little phone call and now a man was dead. The clerk’s only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The hit had Sloan written all over it. Why pay for a room you wouldn’t be using long when it was so much easier to shoot someone? The bastard didn’t care who got killed, so long as he achieved results. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in his way—nuns, small children, innocent motel clerks—was expendable. They were treated equally. Equally ruthlessly.

   Luke scanned the hallway and quickly hustled back to the counter. He paused to take stock of the missing keys. One of them belonged to a killer.

   A killer who was looking for him.

   His stance resolute, he tucked his gun back in the waistband of his jeans and pulled his shirt free to cover the bulk. Luke hoisted the coffee and left the office. He forced himself to stroll along the sidewalk, taking care not to look directly at the motel rooms, keeping his gaze to the ground while he checked the water under each air conditioning unit.

   Number six. Only four doors away from theirs. There was barely a drip from the AC. Probably because it had only been turned on recently. He wondered how many goons waited, sweating behind the door. Knowing Sloan, he’d probably only sent one or two. A dealer of Luke’s caliber wouldn’t have been worthy of more effort. But regardless of his rank in the organization, regardless of the magnitude of the slight, Sloan would’ve dealt with the double-cross. It was one of the rules of the game.

   He tensed when he noticed the minuscule twitch of the curtain and forced himself to take a careless sip of the scalding coffee.

   It was going down now. Luke felt the certainty pump through him like a shot of adrenaline. They would take him out and then they’d walk four doors down, where Jilly lay tangled in the sheets. And they’d take her out, too.

   He jerked his thoughts away from the kids. They were all in big trouble. He took another sip of the coffee and grimaced as it burned all the way down his throat. He heard the door creak open and said a silent prayer as he slowly turned around.

Chapter 3

   Jillian bolted upright when the door bounced back against the wall. Sunlight streamed into the room, blinding her for a moment. When she opened her eyes, a large shadow blocked the doorway. She hadn’t even caught her breath before he was on her, shaking her, pulling her from the bed.

   “What! What is it?”

   He jerked her face up, trapping it between two very large hands. Hands that were spattered with blood. She opened her mouth to scream and he quickly clapped his fingers over her lips.

   “Not a sound,” he breathed in her ear. She nodded and he slowly removed his hand.

   “Luke, for God’s sake! What the hell is going on? You scared—”

   He put his hand back over her mouth. “Not now. There’s no time. I need you to listen. Can you do that?” She nodded again.

   “We’re leaving. Right now.”

   “But why—”

   He held up his hand in warning. “Later. Get the kids up. I’m gonna move the car. When I pull in front of the door, you haul ass out there and toss ’em in to me. Got it?”

   “They need to dress and brush their teeth—”

   “Screw their teeth! Do you see this blood? I didn’t cut myself shaving.”

   Jillian felt her blood pressure skyrocket. “Well, fine, then. You’re in such a blasted hurry. Go get the car.” She hadn’t been awake two minutes and he’d already managed to make her lose her temper. What kind of mother woke her children and threw them into a car? With no breakfast? Without a washup? Why, the child authorities would be all over her in no time.

   “And take the overnight bag with you. It’ll save a trip.”

   “How soon can you be ready?”

   She stripped off her gym shorts right in front of him. If he was going to make her rush, well then, dammit, she would show him a thing or two. She flung the shorts into the overnight bag and yanked out her jeans. Without stopping to put them on, she turned back to the dresser and with a scowl, swept all the kids’ loose items into the duffel, clearing the top in a heartbeat. She zipped the bag angrily and hurled it across the bed at Luke, who caught it in the chest, watching her with something close to shock in his eyes.

   “How about two minutes? Is that bloody quick enough?”

   “Look, there’s no need to go off.”

   “Go off? You burst in here, scare the daylights out of me. It’s not even dawn yet and I am so not a morning pers—”

   He held up one hand and the look in his eyes was enough to silence her. “Not now. You can chew me out in the car. Get the kids up.”

   His grim, no-nonsense stare made her bite back the argument she wanted badly to start. She glared at him as she shimmied into her jeans and rammed her T-shirt into the waistband. He was still watching her when she pulled her hair back into a lopsided ponytail.

   “You can have three minutes,” he countered.

   “Your generosity knows no bounds.” Luke’s eyes narrowed at her waspish tone and she sensed that he was barely hanging on to his temper.

   “Look, honey, I don’t need this right now. I just took out two guys who were about ten minutes from breakin’ down the door and killing all of us.” He nodded at her startled gasp. “Yeah, that’s right, Your Highness. So if it ain’t too friggin’ much trouble, I’d like to get the hell outta here as soon as possible.”

   Jilly swallowed hard. Lord, she’d really gotten into it this time. “Luke…I—I’m sorry.”

   “Forget it.” He turned on his heel and strode to the window, stopping to peer cautiously through the curtain before he cracked the door open. “Three minutes,” he reminded her.

   “Whatever,” she muttered, irritated all over again at his orders. “You’re the one with the blasted stopwatch.”

   

   It had been more than an hour and she still hadn’t spoken. It was just as well, Luke conceded. He needed to concentrate. They’d cleared the motel without any incidents. Well, if one considered neutralizing two enemies and pissing off Jillian as incident-free, then he was golden. He still hadn’t quite recovered from her impromptu striptease. Damn, she was hot. Burning hot. She had legs that went on for miles—legs that ended with a tiny pair of bikini panties that barely managed to cover her curvy butt. Along with those million-dollar legs however, went a very cranky morning disposition.

   He took a deep breath and blew it out. Focus. He had to stay focused. They were safe for now. The road was clear behind them, and there wasn’t a single car in sight up ahead. He hadn’t seen anything to indicate they were being tailed. Another hour and they’d cross into North Carolina. Then he’d try Murphy again. Try Duncan. Hell, try anyone. Pretty soon they’d have to ditch their ride and find another.

   As much as he was dreading it, he’d have to ask Mary Poppins how much money she carried. He prayed it was a lot—and that she’d converted her cash at the airport. If they were forced to convert British pounds or Euros to cash, they’d stand out like a sore thumb. And right now, he didn’t want to be remembered by anyone.

   Hopefully, it would only be another day or so. There was a DEA office in Charlotte. He’d contact the agent in charge and request a safe house…just until he found out what the hell had happened down in Spartaville. Nothing since yesterday morning had gone according to procedure. And he’d just thrown the rulebook out the window back there at the Fleabag Inn.

   Just as he’d suspected, Sloan had sent a couple of goons after him. One little explosion, and all of a sudden, Billy T. Lathrop, drug dealer extraordinaire, had been expendable. Luke knew Sloan had been growing suspicious of him, had sensed a distinct wariness on the supplier’s part over the last week or so. What he couldn’t figure out was why. Why now?

   As far as he knew, his cover was solid. Murphy’s, too. They’d tag-teamed Sloan from the beginning but he and his partner had never even been seen together. There hadn’t been any outward signs to indicate he’d been made. But suppliers were an edgy bunch, and for good reason. There was always someone looking to take their place.

   Luke had done everything Sloan had asked, passed every test. As Billy Lathrop, he had painstakingly won his trust. It was what the Gianetti boys did best. Luke had discovered long ago that he had the ability to persuade just about anyone to do just about anything. Well, he conceded, maybe not everyone. It hadn’t worked on Linda, at least not at the end.

   Jillian was a piece of cake. She was wide open to suggestion. It hadn’t taken ten minutes before he’d convinced her she could perform surgery. And damn if she hadn’t risen to the challenge. He made a mental note to thank her later. Of course, she was miles apart from his former wife. Jilly was clearly somewhat of a free spirit. Even if she was a little scatterbrained, she’d jumped on a plane and crossed the ocean for those kids, and he’d be willing to bet the trip hadn’t been planned for a year—like Linda would’ve done. That’s assuming Linda would’ve actually taken a trip anywhere. In the end, she’d been afraid of her own shadow.

   He risked a sideways glance at the free spirit and discovered she’d fallen asleep. No wonder she hadn’t given him a piece of her mind yet. He smiled then. Jilly trusted him, all right, but she sure didn’t like him very much. She’d managed to get the kids into their car seats without stirring them. He still couldn’t believe that one. Only James had awakened, and then only briefly. She’d calmly shushed him back to sleep with a kiss and a pat on the head. Then she’d made sure Luke caught her scowl of disapproval before fastening her seat belt and turning toward the window.

   “Where are we?” The sleepy voice came from the back seat.

   “Almost to North Carolina. You getting hungry, James?”

   “Kinda. I guess I am.” Luke watched in the rearview mirror as his little friend rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “But you don’t hafta stop for me. Wait till Sarah gets to crying. Then you’ll hafta stop anyway.”

   “Sarah will need her nappie changed. I should’ve seen to it before we left.” Luke heard the husky thread of sleepiness in Jilly’s voice and resolutely chose to ignore the jolt of awareness that crawled through his system.

   “It’s a diaper, Jilly. Not a nappie. If you’re gonna live here, you gotta learn to talk like us.”

   Out of the corner of his eye, Luke saw her wince, but then she straightened and smiled. “Good morning to you, too, James. I’m simply divine. Thank you ever so much for asking.”

   The little man received her message loud and clear. James scowled and his cheeks got pink, but he muttered a surly good morning under his breath.

   “Good morning to you, too, Luke. I feel I must apologize for my rude behavior earlier. I should have warned you that I tend to be rather foul in the mornings, especially before I’ve had any caffeine.”

   He knew the coffee thing would come back to haunt him. He glanced over and was surprised to discover the halfhearted smile that had formed when she began lecturing James had broadened by the time her gaze met his. Her eyes were smiling, too.

   “Perhaps we can start over. I promise I’ll be much less grumpy for the rest of the day.”

   “You’re forgiven. In the future I’ll try not to wake you like I did this morning.” He shot a careful glance to the rearview mirror. Jilly caught his look and nodded slightly. With James awake, their talk would have to wait until later.

   “We’ll need to stop soon for gas. I promise I’ll get you a big cup of coffee then. I had one for you this morning but I spilled it on my way back to the room.”

   Flung, actually. Into the face of one of the hitmen Sloan had sent to track him down. Sadly, Luke’s cup had spilled into the crotch of the other moron who’d made the huge mistake of going for his gun. The wheezing air conditioner had covered the sound of his screams. That and the pillow he’d pushed into his face before knocking them both out for good. On the plus side, he’d gained two more weapons. A Glock 9 mm and a relatively decent-looking .45. He just hoped he wouldn’t end up needing to use them.

   They’d left too many bodies behind at the motel. Only one dead one, but that would be enough to trigger an all-out man-hunt as soon as the night clerk was discovered. The agency would be there by now. Sloan’s thugs were long gone, but Luke sensed they wouldn’t give up anytime soon. If there was one rule in the drug-running handbook it was that witnesses couldn’t live. Sloan’s failure to kill him this morning had only upped the stakes. But he didn’t waste time worrying about that. By tonight the whole thing would be over. Jillian and the kids would be safe. And as for him…if Sloan found him, so be it. He didn’t particularly care one way or the other.

   He shot a quick glance at Jilly. She was humming softly as she gazed out the window. He found it incredible that she wasn’t mad anymore. It made him wonder how she let go of her anger so quickly. How it disappeared—leaving no bitterness, no sarcastic aftereffects to keep it brewing. No cold shoulder that would take on a life of its own. Hell, nearly every argument he’d ever had with Linda had ended in a silent treatment that lingered so long he eventually forgot what the original disagreement had been about.

   “How come we got up so early?” James’s voice had him glancing in the mirror again.

   Luke shot a subtle warning look at Jilly. “I don’t know about you, kid, but I like driving in the morning. The road’s clear and it’s nice an’ quiet.”

   James thought about it for a minute before slowly nodding his head. “Yeah, you’re right, Luke. Me, too.” He yawned again and then directed his attention at the back of Jilly’s head. “Jilly, I think we should drive in the mornin’ when we go to New York.”

   “You’re probably right,” she agreed as she glanced at Luke. “As soon as Mr. Gianetti says we’re able to leave, we’ll get up very early and drive while it’s still dark, like we did today.”

   “Cool. Maybe I could sit up front? You’ll need a good copilot.”

   Jilly appeared shocked, but then quickly flushed with pleasure at his suggestion. Luke noticed she didn’t correct him on the New Hampshire part. He’d sensed the resentment James had toward her, and was curious as to the cause.

   “Why, I’d love to have you as my copilot, James. You can hold the maps for me.”

   “Mama? I need go potty. I gotta go real bad.”

   Luke adjusted the mirror to include Samuel’s sleepy face. His eyes were wide and blue, the color not unlike Jill’s. The poor kid musta had six different cowlicks to go along with his morning bedhead.

   “She’s not our mother, stupid!” James’s voice went from friendly to enraged in half a second.

   “I not ’tupid.”

   “James, he’s half asleep, for goodness’ sake. He made a mistake. Leave him alone,” Jilly instructed gently. She glanced at Luke for confirmation before turning to smile at Samuel. “Can you hold it, lovey? Just for a few minutes?” She grinned when he nodded his head. “Luke will be stopping just as soon as he spots a safe place.”

   “You’re not our mom. You’re n-nothing like M-Mommy.” James gulped in a rush of air. “She was beautiful an…and…”

   Luke watched her eyes soften as she directed her attention to James, who had started sniffling. She tried to hand him a tissue, but he turned away.

   “James, I know I’m not your mum. I know you miss her. I miss her, too. But someone has to take care of you three and I’m the only one here to do that.”

   “There’s my dad! If he kn-knew what you’d d-done…he’d come get me. He’d come for me, I know he would have. If you h-hadn’t made us leave.” James was crying in earnest now. “Now he’ll never find me. I hate you!”

   Jilly’s eyes filled with tears and she quickly scrubbed them away as she turned back to face the front. Luke shot her an inquiring look, but she refused to meet it. “James, please…try and keep your voice down. Let’s not wake up Sarah. We can talk about it when we stop in a few minutes.”

   “I don’t wanna t-talk to you. I wanna live with my d-daddy.”

   “Hey, buddy. Let’s cut her some slack, okay?” Luke paused for a moment, unsure whether or not he should interfere. But frankly, he had enough to deal with just keeping them all alive. He’d get a monster-size headache if he had to listen to wailing kids. “Listen, pal, Jilly’s just trying to protect you.”

   “I don’t need protectin’.”

   “Maybe not,” he conceded. “But what about your brother? What about your baby sister?” He didn’t give James another chance to argue. “Since you’re the oldest, I thought maybe you could help me.”

   “You want my help? Is this like…with bad guys?”

   He did a quick mental shrug. If it gained him some quiet time, who was he to argue? “Sort of,” he said cautiously. “This mission involves driving you guys and Jilly to a safe place…and we need to get there as soon as possible. And we need to keep it secret.”

   “You mean, like spies?”

   “Yeah, we need to move quickly and quietly. So I need your help keeping your brother occupied.” He glanced at James in the rearview mirror. “That way, no one will notice us very much.”

   “You gonna show me that bullet hole in your ass?” he asked as he sniffed away the last of his tears.

   “James! For the last time, if I hear any more cursing out of you, you’ll be chewing on a bar of soap.” Jilly’s eyes snapped with temper.

   Luke tried hard not to crack up. He swallowed the laughter that threatened to erupt from his chest. His lips still twitching, he forced himself to look out the window. The kid was funny as hell, yet still so innocent. And Jillian, with her very proper British accent sounded like she was ready to explode. Sweet Jesus… Just what kind of mess had he gotten himself into this time?

   “You know, James, I’d listen to her if I were you. I’ve had the soap-in-the-mouth treatment.” He slid his glance over to Jillian and found that her frown included him. “And it really suck— It’s pretty bad,” he quickly corrected as she rolled her eyes.

   “I can see it worked like a bloody charm on you,” she muttered under her breath. “Every other word out of your mouth is foul.”

   “Trust me. You’re not gonna like it,” he finished, ignoring her. “Tell you what.” He paused to see if Mary Poppins was listening. “I’ll do it, too.”

   James’s eyes got huge in the rearview mirror when Jillian burst out laughing. “You will? For real, Luke?”

   “Yeah. If I say a bad word, then Jilly can wash my mouth out with soap, too. Is that a fair deal?”

   “Do I still get to look at your a—your bullet hole?”

   The kid had a one-track mind. “Yes, James. When we stop, I’ll let you see the bullet hole, all right?”

   “Actually, now that you mention it, I need to take a look, too. Your bandage probably needs to be changed.”

   Mary Poppins’s words were spoken crisply and matter-of-factly but he could see the color rise in her cheeks. Little Miss Efficient. If it were possible, she was dreading the task even more than he was. “That’s okay. I think I can handle it from here. You give me the stuff and I’ll take care of it.”

   “How will you reach—”

   “Jill, I said I’ll handle it.”

   “Very well then.” He nearly grinned when she nodded and abruptly turned to the window, suddenly fascinated by the endless miles of green pasture that blurred past the window.

   

   They all felt considerably better after the rest stop. Samuel got to pee, Sarah got a fresh diaper and Jilly finally got her coffee, which she sipped gratefully, waiting for the caffeine to make its presence known. Even James had declared a truce with her, albeit a grudging one. She wondered how long it would take to break through his stony silence, how long before he trusted that she wouldn’t leave them. Before he trusted anyone to stay.

   Despite the considerable distance they’d covered, Agent Gianetti still appeared to be rather cautious. He’d insisted they get their breakfast to take away, choosing to head for a deserted park down the street from the fast-food place rather than eat inside the restaurant. Inadvertently he’d scored high points with James and Samuel who were thrilled to eat outside.

   “Just because we’re eating at a picnic table doesn’t mean you should chew with your mouth open, Samuel.” Over the past three days she’d begun the arduous task of instilling in the children the most basic of table manners and the boys hadn’t been eager to embrace her instruction. Good Lord, if Rosemary Moseby could see them now, she would surely die of the shame.

   “Jilly? Can we go play on the swings?”

   “I’m sorry, did you ask that question with your mouth full?” She hid her smile as she bent over Sarah on the blanket she’d spread on the ground near the table. Even the little one appeared thrilled to be out of her car seat.

   James chewed vigorously, swallowing the lump of biscuit in one gulp. “No, it’s gone, see?” He opened his mouth wide for her perusal and she shuddered visibly. Behind her, Luke smothered a chuckle.

   Rome wasn’t built in a day, she reminded herself. At least he’d asked her permission. She glanced at Luke for confirmation and he nodded. “Very well then, James. You may take your brother over to the swingset for a little while.”

   “Just a couple minutes, okay, guys?”

   “Uh-huh. Thanks, Luke.”

   “Take Samuel’s hand so he doesn’t fall,” she reminded James. He grabbed his brother’s hand, nearly jerking him off his feet, and launched across the field toward the swings.

   “Did you make contact with your friend?” Her gaze still on Sarah, who was kicking up a storm, she heard Luke slide down the picnic table bench.

   “Yeah, finally. Murphy—he’s my partner—said we left behind a big mess. Two guys are dead and two more are in custody. Said all hell—heck—broke out,” he quickly corrected when she smiled. “Somehow a transformer blew and the power grid went out for almost twenty blocks. That’s why I couldn’t reach anyone by phone.”

   “How many bars of soap is that now?” She glanced up, shading her eyes to search the deserted playground for Samuel and James.

   “I’m doing pretty well so far,” he countered.

   She shot him a reproving look. “It’s only been two hours and you’re on at least your third bar.”

   He grinned. “Like I said, I’m doing pretty well.”

   “What happens now? Are we free to leave? Can we continue north or must we go all the way back to South Carolina?” She picked up her coffee, took a sip and then carefully set it back on the table near the blanket. “Can we drop you off in Charlotte, like you said earlier?”

   “For now it looks like Charlotte,” he answered. “I’m not going back to Spartaville yet. At least not with the four of you in tow.” Luke set his juice down on the edge of the picnic table and smiled over the hopeful tone of her voice. “Murphy’s setting up a meeting with the SAC in Charlotte to take your statement.”

   “But I don’t have a statement. I barely saw the man. I couldn’t possibly recognize him.”

   “I know you’re eager to hit the road.” He hesitated, appearing to choose his words carefully. “I know this is inconvenient, but I still don’t like it. Duncan, my boss, seems to think this thing is under control. But those guys this morning…” He shook his head. “There’re too many missing pieces, if you ask me.”

   “What exactly did happen this morning? Are we still in danger?” It didn’t feel as though they were. Yet when he’d burst through the motel room door this morning, she’d been terrified. His demeanor had been that of a warrior, the expression in his eyes deadly serious. And the intensity of his aura had been enough to make her skin prickle with fear.

   “I don’t know. That’s why I’m being so cautious,” he admitted. “Ever since the explosion yesterday, nothing has gone according to plan. Now someone’s after us. Most likely it’s Sloan or someone who works for him.”

   “Sloan is the drug dealer?” She picked up a rattle and gently shook it over Sarah’s face.

   “Yeah. He’s pretty nasty on a good day, but he’s unbelievable when his plans get fouled up. Right now, he’s ticked at me.”

   “Because you were trying to arrest him?”

   “Sloan is one of the biggest heroin dealers in the southeast. Yeah, I was trying to nail him. If I hook him then I can finally get a lead on the supplier. There’s one guy—one freakin’ guy running this ring and we can’t figure out who he is. Goes by the name of Castillo. I don’t know if it’s really his name or if it’s a place—nothing. Whoever he is, people sure as hell fear him.”

   “Well, did you get him—this Sloan person?”

   “No. Murphy said we got a couple of his flunkies, but Sloan disappeared.”

   Luke was clearly displeased with the outcome of his mission thus far. “Once we drop you off in Charlotte, we should be safe enough, right? I mean, if he’s after you…” She felt guilty even voicing the statement. Here he was, protecting them and all. But dammit, she hadn’t asked for any of this.

   “Maybe.” To his credit, Luke didn’t appear angered over her disloyalty.

   “Then we can go?”

   “We’ll see.” His noncommittal response sent angry heat to her cheeks.

   “What does that mean? You can’t hold us indefinitely.”

   “I cahn’t?”

   “Stop teasing,” she ordered. “Why can’t we leave?”

   “Are you forgetting that you saw him, too? I can’t be sure that he’s only after me. If I let you leave, he could just as easily send someone after you.”

   “Well, if he’s on the run like you say—”

   “It doesn’t mean a thing,” he interrupted. “Last night two men were ordered to take me out,” he emphasized. Several seconds passed before he spoke again. “Those orders may have included you.”

   “But that means we’re in danger whether we’re with you or not.”

   The sun shone warm on the back of her neck, mocking the shiver that jolted up her spine. The sound of mingled laughter carried across the field from the swingset, blending with the birds chirping in the magnolia tree behind them. It felt completely safe.

   Yet the blood on his hands had been incredibly real. The spatters on his shirt defied the illusion of safety. “Your shirt…I mean the, um, blood and everything. Those men— Did you…I mean, you didn’t have to—”

   Jillian glanced up, her expression clearly anxious. Christ, she was actually worried that he’d killed those scumbags. It was the typical bleeding-heart reaction Luke saw all too often and he could feel his blood pressure rising. Drugs and drug dealers were a plague that needed to be dealt with harshly. Drug abuse was not a feel-good social cause. Period. Luke mused that Jillian was probably one of those types who thought addicts should be coddled rather than tossed into jail. Her Ladyship didn’t want to believe those guys would’ve killed her in a heartbeat. She didn’t seem to appreciate the fact that he’d probably saved her royal ass.

   “You weren’t hurt again, were you?”

   Hold everything. She was worried…for him? “Nah, I’m fine. And I didn’t have to—you know, kill anyone.” He paused then and frowned. He shouldn’t be telling this woman anything. He had a job to do, no matter what it took to accomplish it. Why was he wasting time trying to reassure her?

   “But the blood on your—”

   “I just had to disable them. There’s a big difference.” It probably wasn’t a good time to tell her about the desk clerk’s fate. Or how close they’d come to meeting the same end. He glanced down at the front of his shirt, noticing the faint spatters of blood for the first time. “Is it really noticeable from where you’re sitting?”

   She squinted up at him, shading her eyes from the sun that rose behind him. Luke’s nerve endings felt her perusal all the way to the top of his head and he mentally cursed himself for being so stupid. Hands down, when this op was over, he was gonna find himself a woman. The dry spell had obviously gone on for much too long.

   “No,” she said finally. “It’s sort of faded and brown. Looks more like you spilled something all over you.” Her expression changed to doubt as she wrinkled up her nose. “I have an old shirt that might fit you. My suitcase is in the boot. Before we start up again, I’ll look for it.”

   “I can’t imagine you’d have anything that would fit me.” Not with that body. She was built like a dream. He stood and stretched his legs, dispelling his fantasy and draining the last of his juice before he tossed the cup in the trash can.

   “I’ve got a few of Ian’s old shirts. They might work.” Jilly picked up a plastic key ring and shook it as Sarah cooed.

   His interest perked up another notch. “Who’s Ian?”

   She sighed and he noticed that she seemed to want to look everywhere except at him, instead choosing to scan the playground for the boys. “Oh, that’s a long story. He’s an old friend.”

   Luke sat gingerly on the end of the picnic table and forced himself to drop it. This girl was none of his business. He didn’t want to know anything about her or the kids. Only what he needed to keep them alive. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter how many damn boyfriends she’d had. It didn’t matter one freakin’ bit.

   After tonight, Jillian would spend a day or so in Charlotte for debriefing. Then they’d head north to resume life in what was probably a quaint little New Hampshire town. And he’d never see any of them again. The days they’d spent with him would fade in their memories until it became just another funny story of Jilly’s adventures.

   But just because they were safe for the moment, didn’t mean he could afford to let down his guard. He needed to stay focused. Nothing about this op had been routine. Even Murphy had been reluctant to start the final reports on the failed mission. Something wasn’t right. He just didn’t know what. But his gut still strummed on red alert, telling him to keep them out of sight. He’d never ignored his gut before. He sure as hell wasn’t about to start now.

   Annoyed with himself, he readjusted his position on the end of the table. Despite the gauze padding and the glow-in-the-dark Band-Aids, his butt was still pretty sore. What he really needed was underwear. When James had discovered in the men’s room that Luke wasn’t wearing any briefs, he’d wanted to rid himself of his Spider-Man underpants. And Samuel would’ve followed right along. A trio of men going commando. Now wouldn’t Her Ladyship have appreciated that?

   She glanced over just in time to see him wince. “What is it? Is your wound hurting? I knew you should’ve let me clean it.”

   “What is it with this fascination for my butt? You took one look at it and now that’s all you can think about,” he said, forgetting that he was trying to maintain a professional distance. Something about that British accent made him want to prod her. So cool on the outside…so prim and proper. But just under the surface—lava, baby.

   She pressed her lips together and frowned. “Yes…well, as fascinating as I found your backside, it simply didn’t stop traffic for me—if you know what I mean.” She finally turned to stare at him. “I realize it’s probably not possible, but if you could be serious for a single moment…”

   “Sure. Try me.”

   “I’m trying to determine whether or not you’re in pain. I have more of those pills.”

   “The chick stuff?” He shook his head. “You know, all of a sudden, my cramps are much better.” Her Ladyship had a damn fine temper, he noted. He couldn’t tell whether she wanted to laugh or haul off and smack him.

   “Is your injury hurting worse?”

   “Oh, that.” He waved away her concern. “Nah, it’s fine. Just a little sore, that’s all. It’s draining okay and I cleaned it with the stuff you gave me. Stop worrying about it.”

   “It sounds like you’ve had some experience. Have you been shot before?”

   He limped over to the blanket and gingerly sat down, and before he realized it, he’d reached out a finger and was tickling Sarah’s belly. “Only a few times.”

   Her eyes were incredulous. “Only a few? Good Lord. What does your wife think about your line of work?”

   He smiled at the now chortling Sarah. “Not very much. She, uh, left me four years ago.”

   Jilly tsked under her breath. “I’m sorry about that. Were you married long? You don’t look very old.”

   “Six years. We met in college.” He glanced up, reading the sympathy in her eyes. She really was way too soft.

   “And how long have you been doing this drug thing—chasing dangerous criminals?”

   “This thing I’ve been doing is called drug enforcement and I’ve been doing it for ten years, since I graduated from college.” He knelt down on the blanket and made a face at Sarah and was rewarded with a smile.

   “Well, you must be pretty good at it,” she answered as she tucked a strand of hair back into her ponytail. “Or I guess you would’ve gotten yourself killed by now.”

   Luke did a double take and then realized she wasn’t being sarcastic, only direct. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. What about you?” he challenged. “Ever been married?”

   She made a face as though she’d just sipped bitter lemonade and wanted to spit it out. “No, thank goodness. I almost did, though. What a mistake that would’ve been.” She shook her head ruefully. “How’s that for absurd? I’m twenty-seven years old and I still have trouble saying no. My mum nearly had me talked into marrying the man she wanted. In her eyes, he was bloody perfect.”

   He smiled over her disgruntled expression. It wasn’t hard to believe at all. Jillian struck him as the kind of girl who leaped first and then thought about looking when it was too late. “So, what stopped you?”

   The gray-blue eyes grew very wide, almost startled. “Why, the children, of course. I mean, I was going to break it off anyway. We were so completely different,” she added absently. “But then I got the call about my sister.”

   Her voice catching, he watched her eyes grow suspiciously misty. Warning bells jangled in his gut. Somehow he’d managed to push the wrong conversational button. She rubbed her arms, as though she’d suddenly realized she was cold.

   “She…passed away two weeks ago,” she said, her voice starting to break. “I only learned of it, um, a week ago, Tuesday.”

   Ten days ago. And she’d already been here a week. Luke rocked back on his heels, stunned by the enormity of what she’d been through, surprised by the courage it must have taken to hop on a plane and fly halfway around the world to tend to her sister’s children. He watched as she took a deep breath and forced back the tears that threatened to spill over. Watched in amazement when she regained control almost instantly.

   Jillian hadn’t just learned that trick on the transatlantic flight. He recognized a control freak when he saw one—he’d had the misfortune of living with one—and realized that his initial impression of her was probably wrong. Despite her flighty exterior, Mary Poppins was very tightly wrapped.

   “How come you’re here alone? Isn’t there anyone who could help you?”

   “My mum—she’s…busy with things back home.” Jilly averted her eyes and he knew instinctively that it was with shame. His thoughts drifted to his own family. For the most part, the Gianettis were a traditional Italian-American family, but due to the sheer volume of them, there was definitely a strong dysfunctional element. Yet he couldn’t help wondering what the hell had gone down in the white-picket-fence Moseby house. Judging by the way her eyes were swimming, this was definitely the wrong time to ask.

   “So what happened with the guy? The one your mother picked out for you.”

   “Oh, Ian didn’t want— He thought three chil—” Jilly clamped her mouth shut and suddenly stood, her movements jerky. “We broke up.”

   This was getting interesting. He settled himself more comfortably on the blanket. So Ian was an ex-fiancé…not simply the old friend she’d claimed.

   “Uh, could you watch Sarah for a minute? I really should fetch the boys back over here.”

   “Sure. Tell ’em they’ve got five more minutes.” He watched her walk away while his brain automatically began processing what he’d just learned. His mind filtered everything as though it were a giant puzzle, the unfortunate byproduct of too many years as an operative. He couldn’t shut it off, so he’d learned to use it to his benefit. Once a puzzle piece fell into place, everything else became sharper, more focused.

   For some strange reason, Jilly’s mother hadn’t thought her dead daughter worth the effort of an overseas trip. Nor, apparently, her three grandchildren. And loverboy Ian didn’t want to be saddled with someone else’s kids. Luke was willing to bet they’d both applied pressure on Jilly, tried to convince her to stay home. And she’d still chosen to go it alone. With that piece of information, he added “stubborn” to the mental column marked Jillian.

   He checked his cell phone for the millionth time, grateful the damn thing was finally working. His fingers itched to call his partner. He wondered if Murphy had come up with any new information to fill in some of the holes in the investigation. Anything that would take the edge off his jumpy stomach.

   According to Murphy, the junkie grapevine was abuzz with news. Notorious for both good information and bad, the top story today was about Billy T. Lathrop. Word on the street had him on the run with a price on his head, a damn high price, now that he thought about it, and that he was as good as dead.

   Sarah chose that moment to grin up at him, cooing as she reached for his finger. The tiny little tug on his finger caused an even stronger tug in his chest, in the vicinity where his heart had once resided. He would’ve sworn on a stack of bibles that Sarah was looking straight into his eyes when she smiled. He jerked back in reaction.

   The sooner he got back to the streets, the better. He’d dealt his hand in life. And he meant to play it out until the end. The faces on his cards were pushers and pimps, not angelic children, not beautiful women who would need him too much.

   Dammit to hell! He didn’t want to be interested—in any of them.

   But there were still too many unanswered questions. Like why Sloan had seemed to know the bust was coming? Or, where the hell the backup team had been when the building had blown to smithereens? As he replayed the takedown in his mind, he fingered the slug in his shirt pocket, a growing sense of uneasiness trickling through his brain.

   Who the hell had shot him?

Chapter 4

   “Are you boys nearly ready? Luke says we’re leaving in five minutes.”

   Jillian strode over to the swingset and flopped down in the empty swing near Samuel. Dear Lord, she must be crazy. Why had she prattled on about her life to Luke? His questions were deceptively simple and before she knew it, she was talking too much. It was painful enough to realize—to finally admit—that her mum didn’t give a damn about Annie. That Rosemary Moseby had considered her eldest daughter dead years earlier when she’d had the cheek to leave them all behind for the wilds of America.

   “She must’ve written me off now, as well,” she muttered to herself as she pushed off the ground and pumped her legs. James hopped on the other swing and immediately followed suit while Samuel followed their progress with his eyes.

   Her mother had all but demanded that she remain in England…that heading to America would be to her peril. That Jillian would be “on her own.” That Rosemary would not come traipsing across the ocean to look for her.

   “Thank God for that.” Jillian smiled sadly and shook her head, letting the breeze catch her hair as the swing climbed higher. It was about time. Anyone would’ve thought that she was still a child. The parental noose had only cinched tighter after Annie’d made her escape all those years ago. Jilly had been thirteen…but thanks to Annie’s stunt, she’d been relegated to the status of an eight-year-old—and a juvenile delinquent one at that, kept on a tight leash and under constant surveillance.

   “Jilly, look at me!”

   She shook off the memory as she turned toward James. Her eyes widened in shock when she realized how high he was climbing. “James, slow down,” she cried.

   Lord, he was so high, he was going to flip off the bloody swing. Jilly immediately quit pumping her legs, trying to slow down enough to jump off. The wind whistled in her ears as her hair blew in her face.

   “I’m higher than you are. I’m higher than you are.”

   “Honey, stop. You’re going to fall.” She was too afraid to wait any longer. Without thinking, she threw herself from the swing, surprised at how long she was airborne before she crashed to the ground in a heap. She ignored the wrenching pain in her shoulder and staggered to her feet, not bothering to brush off the mulch. When she hobbled back toward his swing, she noticed for the first time that Samuel was staring at her, his mouth dropped open.

   “What in the sweet hell did you think you were doing?”

   Luke jogged over to her side with Sarah perched in his arm like a sack of groceries. The baby was laughing and waving her arms in the air. He’d clearly run across the park, yet he wasn’t the least bit out of breath. She hadn’t run anywhere and she was gasping for air as though someone had held her head under water.

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