Welcome to the first of Rebecca Winters’s brand-new trilogy LOVE UNDERCOVER.
Meet Annabelle, Gerard and Diana. Annabelle and Gerard are private investigators, Diana their hardworking assistant. Each of them is about to face a rather different assignment—falling in love!
Their mission was marriage!
Diana Rawlins had turned up at the hospital with amnesia and a baby in her arms! She didn’t remember how either of them happened. Her husband, Cal, was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery—especially as that seemed to be the only way he could save his marriage!
Rebecca Winters, a mother of four, is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has won the National Readers’ Choice Award, the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and been named Utah Writer of the Year.
What others have said about Rebecca Winters:
Of Undercover Husband*
“Once again Rebecca Winters delivers a topnotch reading experience as she expertly adds a little suspense to a wonderful romance...”
[*Linked to LOVE UNDERCOVER trilogy]
Of Second-Best Wife
“A rare gem with a stand-out premise, memorable characters, and an emotionally gripping story of forbidden love.”
Of Three Little Miracles
“Featuring splendid characters and heart-tugging scenes, Ms. Winters spins a delightful tale in which love conquers all.”
“The first lady of Utah romance novels.”
—Affaire de Coeur
“Winters weaves a magic spell that is unforgettable.”
—Affaire de Coeur
Undercover Fiancee Rebecca Winters
“ANNABELLE? Don’t leave yet. Roman wants to see you.”
Annabelle Forrester had been headed for the back door of the LFK Associates International, Roman Lufka’s detective agency when she heard Diana call her back.
“Do you know what it’s about? I need to get down to the police station.” Today was a black day. The busier she stayed, the better.
Diana Rawlins, the receptionist who was one of Annabelle’s good friends, was finishing up a telephone call. She shook her head, then covered the mouthpiece and whispered, “All I know is that it sounded important.”
Annabelle loved her boss, Roman Lufka. If it were anyone but him asking her to stick around, she would have said she was sorry and left anyway because she didn’t want to inflict her pain on other people. But she admired him too much and owed him too much to ignore his request.
Needing something physical to do, she went in the kitchen and brought Diana a fresh cup of coffee. Not only was Roman’s receptionist the nicest person Annabelle had ever met, she was a real beauty with golden blond hair to die for.
As a little girl, Annabelle had always wanted to look like the princesses in the fairy tales her dad read to her.
He had chuckled, patted her head and told her to be thankful for the lovely brown hair with which God had blessed her.
Not satisfied with that answer, she’d asked him what kind of brown. He’d responded that the color reminded him of the smooth horse chestnuts that fell from the tree outside their house.
At that comment she’d run out the door to examine one closely. They looked kind of reddish brown in the sunlight. There was nothing she disliked more than red hair. From that point on she had worn it short.
Now that she was older, she’d come to accept what she considered her crowning flaw, and had allowed a stylist to make the most of it. But she could be forgiven for wishing she’d been endowed like her friend.
“Finally,” Diana sighed after hanging up the receiver. “Any news yet on Mr. Vanderhoof’s missing Honda?”
“Yes. I found it yesterday morning, but the paperwork hasn’t caught up with it yet. Last night the police got a positive ID on the gang member who had stolen it for a drive-by shooting.”
“You’re kidding! That was fast work. Roman’s going to be impressed.”
“I hope so. Sometimes things fall into place like that.”
“Where did you find the car?”
“At D and G Body and Paint.”
“How did you know to go there?”
“I didn’t. I just started with A and A Paint, and worked my way down the list. The boy who stole it knew it was hot. I figured he would go in for a paint job. I was right. He had it done in fire engine red.”
“But how did you know it was the right car?”
“For one thing, red is that gang’s favorite color. For another, Mr. Vanderhoof lost the cap to his oil a long time ago. All I had to do was look under the hoods until I found one covered in tinfoil and held in place with an elastic band.”
Diana shook her head. “You’re amazing. Have you told Mr. Vanderhoof his car has been found?”
“Yes. He’s pretty happy it got stolen. He always did want to buy a red car but never had the courage. When the police told him he could pick it up this morning, I hear he called in for a substitute teacher. No doubt he’s out cruising around in it right now. Before the day is over, the police will probably have to bring him in on a speeding charge.”
Diana laughed. “By the way, I have a message from Gerard.”
There was only one man who had ever broken Annabelle’s heart and he lived in Phoenix, Arizona, which might as well be on another planet. Since that awful night a year ago when everything had fallen apart, Annabelle hadn’t been able to get emotionally involved with another man. But she had to admit Roman’s top PI, Eric-Gerard, whom she always called Gerard rather than Eric, had come closest to breaking down a few barriers.
“He says he wants to start over again and wonders if you would have dinner with him tonight.”
“I have other plans this evening.”
“That’s what he was afraid you would say. I’m supposed to give him your answer when he calls in later because Roman assigned him to work with Chief Gregory on that Utah Steel bombing case this morning and he had to leave here over an hour ago.”
“Gerard’s not serious about us, Diana. You and I both know he’s never gotten over his wife’s death.”
“The same way you’ve never stopped thinking about your ex-fiancé?”
Diana was too perceptive for her own good.
“Annie? I’m sorry if I said something wrong.”
The constricting band around her chest tightened. “You didn’t. I’m just being extra sensitive because it was a year ago today I broke off my engagement to him.”
Diana’s eyes filled with compassion. She reached out and patted her arm. “I didn’t realize.”
“It’s okay. It should be okay. I should have gotten over him a long time ago.”
“You mean the way Gerard should have gotten over Simone.”
“Apparently you both fell in love with people who were unforgettable.”
“I wish to heaven I’d never met him.”
“Annie? If you’re this broken up after twelve months’ separation, maybe you ought to contact him and find out if he feels the same way.”
Annabelle’s head flew back. “I know for a fact he’s involved with someone else. But even if he weren’t, I would never try to call or see him again. When we said goodbye, it was final.”
Diana’s brows lifted. “It doesn’t sound final to me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She didn’t want to think about what it felt like to be entwined in his arms, but certain memories continued to flash through her mind without her permission. Memories that sent a wave of suffocating heat through her body.
Annabelle’s face felt hot.
“Roman just buzzed me. You can go in. Since you found the Honda, maybe he’s already heard about it and is assigning you a new case.”
“Maybe.” But I’m working on one for Trina Martin right now. “Thanks, Diana.”
She headed for Roman’s inner sanctum. As she approached the doorway, she could hear another male voice talking. Her boss wasn’t alone.
“Roman?” She tapped on the door which was ajar. Through the opening she glimpsed the back of a tall, dark-haired man in a conservative blue suit who looked like the number one lineman for the Green Bay Packers.
Her eyelids fluttered closed because there was only one man in the universe who looked like that, who had broad shoulders and powerful thighs like that.
But it couldn’t be. He didn’t know where she worked, and he had no reason to be in Salt Lake.
“Come on in.”
She opened her eyes again, but she couldn’t do Roman’s bidding because the other man had turned around, freezing her in place with his brilliant blue gaze which was as familiar to her as her own face.
“Hello, Annabelle,” came the deep, vibrant voice she’d loved so well. “It’s been a long time.”
Dear God. It was Rand.
Her eyes darted back to Roman in absolute panic. He knew she’d once been engaged to Rand Dunbarton and how shattered she’d felt after the breakup. So how could her boss, how could Diana, be so cruel as to spring him on her like this without warning? She’d never known either of them to hurt anyone.
The shock was so great, Annabelle felt her body go from burning heat to icy cold. There was a strange buzzing in her ears. She wondered if she was going to faint even though she’d never passed out before in her entire life.
Rand must have seen the blood drain from her face because she heard an unintelligible epithet escape his lips before he was at her side, helping her into the nearest chair. His large hand slid to the back of her neck with the ease of long accustomed habit.
“Put your head down for a moment and keep it there till the dizziness passes.”
The voice of command. Rand had no idea how he came across to other people. He took charge without even thinking about it. For once she followed his suggestion because she was too weak and lethargic to do anything else.
With his fingers brushing intimately against her skin, his body so close she could feel his warmth, there was an air of unreality about the whole situation.
It didn’t seem possible that Rand was really here, or that he was touching her in an old familiar way, as if he had every right and was truly concerned.
The last time they’d been together, they’d said unforgivable things to each other and she’d given him back her engagement ring.
Rand had been so forbidding in his anger, she hadn’t known he could get like that. It had been a devastating experience, one she’d never been able to erase from her mind. Since then there’d been no contact Nothing.
Roman handed her a glass of water and told her to drink. “If you’re still feeling light-headed, you need to lie down. We can put this meeting off until another time.”
She drank thirstily and handed him back the glass. Rand’s palm was still molded to her neck.
“I’m all right.” She sat straight up so he would break the contact. “I—I went off without breakfast this morning and should have known better.”
For an infinitesimal moment her eyes met Rand’s. His said he knew why she’d almost fainted, but if it made her feel better to pretend otherwise in front of Roman, so be it.
Nothing got past him. He made a formidable adversary. That’s why he was the owner of Dunbarton Electronics, one of the top computer companies in the nation. Even more impressive, he’d been the cover man on the March issue of Today’s Fortune, the computer industry’s vaunted magazine.
It had taken Annabelle a week before she’d broken down enough to read the accompanying article. To her consternation she’d devoured every word, every photograph, hungry for any news of him after such a long time. The bio on him made mention of a special woman in his life who was destined to be his wife in the near future, but it didn’t give a name. The news couldn’t have wounded her more if she’d been stabbed in the heart.
“Annabelle?” Roman interjected. “Since no introduction is necessary, I’ll get straight to the point. Rand has come to us for help with a problem that is right up your alley.”
She sucked in her breath. “I moved back to Salt Lake from Phoenix a year ago...I can’t imagine what any of this has to do with me.”
Annabelle had never been rude to her boss. He was the greatest guy on earth, but he couldn’t possibly know what this unexpected meeting with Rand was costing her.
She didn’t honestly think Roman had engineered it. Which meant it was Rand’s doing. Why?
When they’d parted company a year ago, enough pain had been inflicted to last a lifetime. She’d had to pick up the pieces and start over again. When she returned home to Salt Lake and Roman took her on as one of his PI’s, a certain amount of healing had begun to take place. She’d been making progress.
How dare Rand trespass on her territory after all this time and destroy the world she’d been creating for herself without him!
“The Salt Lake customer service department of my company is in serious trouble.”
She folded her arms in the hope of looking more confident than she felt. “I’m sorry to hear it, but I still don’t know what your problems have to do with me.”
Rand’s jaw hardened perceptibly. For a fleeting moment she derived pleasure because he wasn’t as in control as she’d first assumed.
“It appears a hacker has broken in on the lines and is wreaking havoc with the clientele by giving them false information and causing their hard drives to crash.”
Just last week Trina Martin had called the agency because her eighteen-year-old boyfriend, Bryan Ludlow, a computer genius who didn’t get along with his family, had disappeared from his home and had been missing a week. The police assumed it was a kidnapping case and they were looking for him.
Trina believed he’d vanished on purpose. She wanted Annabelle to find him before he did something bad to embarrass his father, millionaire Daniel Ludlow, a prominent businessman who was going to run in Utah’s next race for the governor of the state. Bryan’s disappearance had made national headlines and now the FBI was involved.
When Annabelle asked what Trina meant about him embarrassing his father, the younger girl said that Bryan bragged a lot about being a hacker. Apparently he’d obtained the password to a major computer company in the Salt Lake area and had already done some things that would make his dad mad with rage if he were ever found out. He sounded too happy about it. That’s what worried Trina.
Since Trina’s call, Annabelle had run an investigation and she’d turned up some interesting evidence. After listening to Rand, she wondered if there might just be a connection between the two cases.
“The patrons are justifiably angry at what’s been going on.” Rand’s explanation mingled with her own hectic thoughts. “Several dozen people have returned equipment, demanding their money back.
“I’ve put some of my best people to work on the problem, but so far we don’t have any leads. It could be the work of an amateur. But there’s the possibility it might be a group of professional saboteurs out to ruin my company and they’ve picked Salt Lake as their first target.
“I don’t know if my enemy is an employee or not. I intend to find out because as of now, I’m going to be personally involved in solving this case. What I need is an expert to work as a partner with me. It has to be someone no employee of mine knows anything about.”
Annabelle could see where this conversation was headed, and another pain splintered what was left of her heart. If ever she needed proof that the love he’d once felt for her was dead in the water, his appearance in Roman’s office said it all.
They’d broken up because he couldn’t handle her career in law enforcement. Being a PI was tantamount to the same thing. Yet here he was at the Lufka agency for the express purpose of availing himself of the very services he’d once asked her to give up for the sake of her safety and their love!
Obviously it hadn’t been love that he’d felt for her, otherwise he couldn’t do anything this callous and cold-blooded. Crushed by the revelation, Annabelle rubbed her palms against the charcoal fabric of the slim-fit pants covering her hips.
Dear God, what a fool she’d been. All this time she’d secretly nursed the hope that he still cared. Nothing could be further from the truth!
He’d flown to Salt Lake to find out what was going on in his company. For expedience sake he’d sought her out because she was the nearest person available who knew how to deal with this kind of computer fraud.
After graduating from college with a degree in computer engineering, she’d gone into law enforcement work like her dad. After he died, a friend of his on the force had talked her into moving to Phoenix for a time and working for the police department there.
It would provide a change of scene, give her a little more time to get over her father’s death, and she would learn a lot under the leadership of Chief Rivera who was renowned throughout the western states for his success in lowering the crime rate.
Not long after she’d been working there, a bomb threat at the Dunbarton plant in Phoenix had catapulted her into Rand’s world and she’d fallen hard. So hard she hadn’t seen any problems during their whirlwind courtship and premature engagement until it was too late.
When she’d broken off with him, her life seemed to lose meaning. Heartbroken and bitter, she resigned from the Phoenix police force and returned to Salt Lake and the little family home she’d rented out during her absence.
In a perpetual abyss, Annabelle couldn’t seem to pull herself out of it. Though she joined the Salt Lake police department, her heart wasn’t in her work and she simply went through the motions.
That’s when her best friend, Janet, suggested she try something different to get a new perspective in life. Why not become a PI, a job which would allow Annabelle to still work in law enforcement, yet allow her more creativity and the freedom to choose her own hours.
At that point in time, Janet was the one voice of reason in Annabelle’s shattered world. Taking her friend’s advice turned out to be the best thing she’d ever done.
Roman hired her to join his prestigious staff, not only because of her background in police work, but because he needed someone with her level of expertise to handle the electronic fraud cases that came in to the office from time to time. Until now, everything had been going just fine...
Unable to stand it any longer, she jumped out of the chair. “Roman? Could I see you in private? It will only take a moment.” The one thing she could count on with Roman—he would always be loyal to his own.
“Will you excuse us a minute, Rand?”
She didn’t trust Rand’s pleasant smile. It was about as benign as a quiet summer morning before an earthquake.
As soon as she and Roman had moved out into the hall, he put a steadying hand on her shoulder and forced her to look at him. “He walked in here this morning out of the blue. For the record, I’ve never met or spoken to him until a half hour ago. No one, not even Diana, knew he was that Dunbarton.”
Roman was an honorable man. His explanations relieved her more than he would ever know. “Thanks for telling me the truth.”
“You’re welcome. Now that we have that out of the way, you must realize Rand has a serious problem on his hands. He obviously came to us because he needs the best person to help him crack this case and he knows you work for me.”
Roman was a legend with the police force, both locally and nationally. He didn’t hire people for his agency who weren’t the top in their field. She knew he didn’t pay compliments he didn’t mean.
His unstinting praise of her was humbling to say the least. But this was Rand they were talking about, the man who had turned her world inside out.
“You’re a natural for this assignment, Annabelle. I don’t have to point out the reasons why. What he’s hoping is that you’ll put all personal feelings aside. I realize that’s pretty well asking the impossible. I understand if you can’t deal with it, but it might be the best therapy in the world if you did.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been hurt by your relationship with him. Perhaps if you faced him head-on, you would exorcise the ghosts haunting you. I speak from personal experience. Because I waited so long to realize what was most important to me, I almost lost Brittany.” His voice rasped.
She nodded. Roman’s wife had told Annabelle their story in confidence. When they’d first met, Roman had been working as a CIA agent, a dangerous job which prevented him from getting married and putting down roots. The struggle between duty and his growing love for her complicated their relationship and took its toll on both of them. But in the end he gave up his job because he loved her too much to lose her. That was their destiny.
Rand’s and Annabelle’s case was different. He’d never really loved her. All he’d done was make demands. They had no destiny.
“You know what they say about the truth. It will make you free. Maybe you ought to think about that in terms of your own future. But whatever you decide, I’ll stand behind you.”
Annabelle closed her eyes for a moment. She was thinking. If Rand could treat her like this, then maybe it was time for her to take action and show him the same indifference back. Maybe it was the only way to get over him.
Slowly she expelled a sigh. “All right. I’ll take his case.” If my hunch is right and Bryan Ludlow is involved in some way, I’ll solve it so fast Rand will be back in Phoenix and out of my life before he knows what hit him.
Roman’s compassionate smile actually hurt. He saw too much. “You’re stronger than you know, Annabelle. I’ll be behind you all the way.”
Having Roman on her side meant everything. “Before I go back in there, I need to discuss something with you first. It’s about the disappearance of the Ludlow boy.”
“His parents have already asked me to look into it.”
Annabelle blinked in surprise.
“What do you know about it?” he asked in a wry tone of voice.
In a matter of seconds she related the crux of her meeting with Trina, and the possible link to Rand’s problem.
He grinned. “This is one for the books. Technically speaking, our hands are tied because of FBI involvement. Unofficially however, you can stay her confidante and continue to probe, in case you should find a connection to Rand’s crisis which would be a real coup.
“We’ll both keep the lines of communication open with Trina and the Ludlows and see where things lead. If you can prove a tie-in, you’ll actually be helping two people without getting your hands slapped by the authorities for withholding evidence.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“Triple kudos for tracking down that Honda. Someone downtown called me on my cellular this morning. Apparently Mr. Vanderhoof has been singing your praises. You’ve made quite a conquest there. Better be careful. He’s a widower, and thinks you’re the most adorable creature to come along since Marilyn Monroe.”
“As I’ve said before, it’s good to have you on the team. Rand knew where to come to get results, Annabelle. Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’m going to need it.”
“Any time you want to talk, I’m available.”
“I know that.”
“Good. So I’ll leave you to deal with him.” There was a slight pause. “It isn’t often that a PI and her client have already made a connection which is so vital in our business. Because the ice has already been broken, so to speak, let it work for you, Annabelle.”
She nodded. In Rand’s case it was more like an iceberg that had been split apart by nature’s force. What you saw jutting above the surface of the water was pure camouflage for the huge mass of indecipherables below.
Praying she could carry this off so he would never know what his unexpected entry into her life had done to her, she walked back to Roman’s office where Rand lounged indolently in a chair, waiting...
She refused to look him in the eye. “Roman has asked me to take your case and I’ve agreed. Leave a number with the receptionist where you can be reached. Before the day is out, I’ll make contact with you. Goodbye.”
On that succinct note she hurried to the back room, pulled her cropped jacket from the rack and slipped it on over the fluid jersey top, both in a claret color. It was a good thing she didn’t pause for a bagel from the kitchen on her way out. Even if she had wanted one, three of the PI’s had already shown up for work and the food was fast disappearing.
The guys tried to get her to hang around and talk to them, but she told them she was working on a new case. Her best strategies for cracking one usually came when she went for a long ride on the old BMW. She had inherited the motorcycle from her dad. He’d died of a heart attack four years ago last January.
Annabelle had never known her mother, she had passed away following complications in childbirth. Her dad had chosen not to remarry. It had been the two of them all the way. Many was the time they’d ridden in tandem. She felt close to him whenever she got on it, like they were still a team, like he was whispering ideas to her, watching out for her.
It was Spring now. She always started to feel a little better by then. But come September and the blues attacked. By December she was in a dark funk. She couldn’t tolerate the blackness of January.
That’s when she went on vacation. She saved up all the time coming to her, then flew to Florida with Janet who was a bankruptcy attorney. The two of them lay out on a beach while they took turns reading books to each other.
This last January had been different. The loss of Rand had made it the bleakest, loneliest period of her life. She hadn’t been able to get interested in anything, least of all reading. Being on a trip only reminded her of things she wanted to forget. Even Janet proclaimed it a miserable failure and they’d gone home early.
Now, unbelievably, he was back in her life.
She headed into the towering Wasatch mountains east of Salt Lake. Snow still covered their peaks. Halfway up Parley’s canyon she happened to look in her sideview mirrors and saw that a motorcyclist was gaining on her. All in black, he looked big and dangerous.
Lots of cyclists tended to ride in packs, enjoying the camaraderie. But without her dad around, Annabelle preferred to be left alone. She couldn’t believe it when he sped up and pulled alongside her on the inside lane, adjusting his speed to match hers.
The Lamb’s canyon turnoff was coming up. She looked through her mirrors once more to make sure the light traffic was far enough away, then she headed for the side road.
Ten seconds later she saw that the dark stranger was still following her. Surprised at his aggression, she slowed down to negotiate a turn, then came to a stop and steadied her cycle with her shoe.
Still he rode closer.
When he was a yard away from her, he stopped and lifted his goggles. Only one man she knew had eyes that blue. She had to be hallucinating again. Since when did he ride a motorcycle?
“Rand—None of your stockholders would recognize you in that gear. I told you I would call you later.”
His mouth quirked. “I know that, but I felt like a breath of fresh air myself. When I saw you head for the mountains, I couldn’t resist joining you. Do you mind?”
He sat back on his bike and folded his arms. While he spoke, his eyes darkened with an intensity that she’d once come to recognize as desire.
Annabelle trembled. “That’s rather a moot point since you’re already here.”
She felt his gaze studying her features. “I’ve hired myself a crack PI and think the time could be more profitably spent by discussing the case over a late lunch.”
Actually, he was right. There was little point in running away from the inevitable. “Do you feel like a hamburger? I was planning to buy one when I reached Park City.”
His smile melted her bones. “Anything would taste better than falafel.”
“Isn’t that vegetarian?”
He nodded. “A woman I used to date was a vegan.”
Her body quickened. “Since you used the past tense, I assume she’s not the one mentioned in the Today’s Fortune article.”
He eyed her intently. “So you did read it. What did you think of the write-up?”
“The reporter did an excellent job of covering the facts.”
“Except for the part about there being a Mrs. Dunbarton in my near future.”
“Really.” Her heart was pounding so hard she feared he could hear it.
“That’s right. As for the vegetarian, her eating habits were not the reason we stopped seeing each other.”
She didn’t see at all. In fact the mention of any other women pierced her to the quick.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why?”
“It’s not something I need to know to help solve your case.”
“But you’re dying of curiosity.”
“What makes you say that?”
His eyes held a dangerous gleam. “Because you’ve been sending out vibes so strong, I could feel them through the walls of Roman Lufka’s office. Admit you’re glad to see me again.”
Her mouth had gone too dry to say anything else and he knew it.
“At this juncture I think it’s important we start off with a clear understanding of certain fundamentals since we’re going to be working closely together from here on our.”
Her hands gripped the handlebars tightly. “Your love life is not relevant to our business.”
“I disagree. Since we’re going to have to come up with a strategy to catch this hacker, I wanted you to know that I’m available on a twenty-four-hour basis. My sources tell me that you’re not seriously involved with another man at the moment, either, which means you can devote your full time to my case. As I see it, with both of us unattached, it makes things less complicated all the way around.”
Annabelle couldn’t take much more of this. “I don’t know about you but I’m hungry. If by any chance we get separated on the mountain pass, I’ll meet you at Madson’s Dairy Freeze at the south end of Park City.”
“Have no worry. I’ll find you.”
Her eyes closed tightly as those words resonated in her heart.
THEY were the same words he’d said to her at the close of the bomb scare investigation she’d headed on the first day they’d met in Phoenix.
When she’d finished filling out the incident report, she’d told Mr. Dunbarton to call into the police station if he had any more concerns. Someone would know where she was.
As she had started to leave his office he’d said in a deep, rich voice, “Have no worry. I’ll find you.”
The very next day, as she was getting ready to go off shift, Paco, one of her colleagues said, “Annie? There’s someone waiting for you out by the Sarge’s desk. I didn’t know you had a hot date tonight.”
She couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. There hadn’t been an important man in her life either before or after her move to Phoenix to join the police department. Though some of the officers were attractive, they didn’t count because of the department’s rule about “no dating among the staff.”
Actually she had to take that back. Yesterday, while she was on a bomb scare case, she had met one man not in uniform.
He was the kind of male you knew existed, but for an act of nature, you would never meet except in your dreams.
Just the thought of him did strange things to her heart. She didn’t like the feeling and had tried hard not to think about him. To her chagrin he refused to go away. It meant she hadn’t tried hard enough.
“I don’t have a date. I’m going bowling with you and the guys.”
“That’s good because I have big plans for us after I allow you to win.” Paco was very dashing with his dark eyes and mustache, and he knew it.
“Forget them, Romeo. Two games and I’ll be ready for a shower and bed.”
“My idea exactly.”
She grinned. “It’s never going to happen. I’ll get my bowling bag and meet you guys in the parking lot.”
“We’ll give you five minutes to get rid of whoever.”
She made a detour to the lockers, then hurried out to the front desk with her bag to see who had been asking for her. As she rounded the corner and caught sight of the man responsible for last night’s lack of sleep, her legs came to a standstill. She honestly couldn’t make them move because they were shaking so hard.
Yesterday he’d been wearing an expensive-looking gray business suit and tie. Tonight he was informally dressed in a black silk shirt and tan chinos. It didn’t matter what he wore. He had the rugged features and powerful build of an athlete who played contact sports, like football or ice hockey.
No one seeing him would dream he was the head of the nationally reputed Dunbarton Electronics Corporation. His mind fascinated her. His body excited her. In more ways than one, he was larger than life.
He started walking toward her. “Is that a bowling ball in there?” His blue eyes danced between lashes as black as his curly hair.
“Yes.” The ability to talk had left her.
“Did you have to have it custom made?”
“No.” She was losing the battle not to smile.
“I didn’t know they came that small. It makes me wonder if I could even get my pinkie in the holes.”
“Probably not,” she chuckled. He had large hands, just like the rest of him. Because of her diminutive size, her mouth went dry just thinking about the rest of him. “How can I help you, Mr. Dunbarton? Do you have a lead on the person who called in that bomb threat?”
“No. I doubt I’ll ever know who it was.”
She doubted it, too. “Then I don’t understand why you’re here.”
“I found out you’re off duty now, and hoped we could go to a movie together. That is, if you don’t have other plans.” His gaze wandered to the bag she was clutching.
Annabelle stared up at him in shock. To her mind, the Rand Dunbartons of the world traveled in exclusive circles with exclusive kinds of women who didn’t have to work for a living.
As far as going to a film, the mere idea of sitting next to his big, solid frame in the dark had already started to constrict her breathing. A movie theater provided a certain atmosphere of intimacy that would be dangerous.
Surely he was joking. He might not be sporting a wedding band, but a man like him would never be without a gorgeous, ultrafeminine creature in tow. At five foot two with short curly hair and wearing a police officer’s uniform, Annabelle hardly qualified.
“Actually I’ve already made plans to go bowling with the guys, but thank you anyway.”
“Maybe I could bowl with all of you, then you could accompany me. It’s a new film just released called The Cop. I’d rather see it with the bona fide article like yourself. That way you can tell me what’s wrong with the film, how outrageous and impossible it is.”
By now her heart had slammed into her ribs. He was the one who was outrageous and impossible. I want to go with him more than anything I’ve ever wanted to do in my whole life.
“I’m sure the guys won’t like me tagging along,” he murmured, “but since it’s a group date, I can’t see a problem with adding one more. Unless you’re not at all interested in spending off-duty time with me.”
“Annie? Are you coming or not?”
She had no idea how long Paco had been standing there eavesdropping. His scowl was meant to intimidate, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on the man waiting for her answer.
“Ms. Forrester was just making up her mind.”
Paco’s black eyes flashed impatiently before he looked at Annabelle. “Everyone’s outside ready to take off.”
I should go with you guys. I know I should.
“Maybe you’d better go without me, Paco.”
After a pause, “All right. See you tomorrow.” He wheeled away from them and disappeared around the corner of the hallway.
“He has too short a fuse to be a police officer.”
“He’s one of the best!” she defended, furious with herself for not listening to the little voice inside telling her to end this now, before she got in over her head.
“My car’s right out front. We can go to the movie, then I’ll bring you straight back here.”
Annabelle was tempted. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t already been introduced. She’d spent all of yesterday afternoon with him looking for a bomb that didn’t exist. It had been her job to take down the background information on him as part of the paperwork. Everything she’d learned proved him to be an upstanding citizen and member of the community.
How could it hurt to go to one little movie with him before they went their separate ways for the rest of their lives?
Surely she could handle two hours while she pretended she wasn’t affected by everything he said and did, the way he moved and breathed. In the dark she could watch him out of the corner of her eye while he watched the movie. Just anticipating that pleasure made her insides melt.
“I’ve never had a date with a woman who could protect me before. It will be a novel experience.”
So that’s why he’d asked her out. His life experiences hadn’t paired him with a policewoman yet. Curiosity, not attraction, had brought him to the police station.
If it came down to who could protect whom, even with the moves she’d learned and a weapon in hand, she would place her bets on him any time of the day or night.
“A cop movie sounds like a good way to unwind. I can enjoy the chase without doing any of the work. Let me put my bag away and I’ll meet you out front. What kind of a car do you drive?”
She noted a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes. For no particular reason it made her nervous, which was ridiculous. After all, she wouldn’t have liked it if he hadn’t been pleased she’d accepted his invitation. Face it, Annabelle. You’re hooked.
“A dark blue BMW sedan.”
What else? “I’ll be right out.”
It had only taken her a minute to stash her bag before she joined him. Because she was so used to doing everything herself even though she worked with a partner on duty, it felt nice to be treated like a woman for a little while. He opened and closed doors for her, cupped her elbow to usher her into the theater. If only her body would stop reacting to the contact.
No doubt they made an interesting sight. A big, gorgeous man escorting a little woman still dressed in uniform. While they stood in line for their tickets she noticed a lot of females staring at Rand, then more enviously at her. Annabelle would have done the same thing if she hadn’t been his date. He was really something to look at.
The film turned out to be a cliffhanger. In fact it was so good she forgot he’d brought her along to help him pick it apart afterward. Oddly enough, he didn’t appear to be nearly as involved. To her surprise, during several shoot-out scenes he dropped comments about hoping she didn’t expose herself to those kinds of dangers. At one point she heard him say that he couldn’t imagine her making police work a lifetime career.
His reaction was typical of most men when they found out what she did for a living. The women on the force had to get used to those kinds of asides to survive in a male dominated profession. She didn’t really take Rand’s comments seriously. At the time she’d thought he’d been teasing her. That had been her first mistake.
“Do you go off duty at the same time tomorrow night?” Quiet had reigned in the car until he’d pulled up next to her compact car in the station’s parking lot.
Her heart thundered out of control. “Yes.”
“Good. We’ll get a bite to eat and go bowling.”
She’d been so terrified of never seeing him again, it took her a minute to realize he wasn’t prepared to walk away yet, either.
“Have you ever been bowling?” She hated it when her voice shook like that.
“Not in years. But it doesn’t matter. I’d just as soon watch you. In fact, I’d ask you to breakfast, lunch and dinner tomorrow if I thought it were possible. When’s your next day off?”
By now her whole body was shaking, not just her voice. “Monday. But I have things I have to do.”
“So do I. We’ll do them together. I promise not to touch you until you tell me I can. I’m letting you set the pace.”
Annabelle knew exactly what he was talking about. She knew that he knew how much she wanted to touch him, to be touched by him. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before. It was a revelation. Unfortunately her desire to be with him above all else had blinded her to certain unassailable truths.
He’d been deadly serious when he’d expressed his opinion about the dangers of her work and the hope that she would eventually give it up. Six weeks later, after they’d spent every conceivable moment together, he’d proposed.
When he’d put the diamond ring on her finger, he’d let her know that he expected her to have resigned from the police force by the time they were married. “I want a full-time wife, sweetheart.”
Aghast that he’d actually made such a stipulation, she spent the next week explaining what her job meant to her, how happy it made her. Why would she give it up? He had his work and loved it. Couldn’t they both do what they wanted and enjoy their marriage, too?
The more she tried to reason with him, the quieter he grew. Their relationship underwent a drastic change. At one point they agreed that dinner was a mistake and he’d driven her home without taking her in his arms.
Devastated by his reaction and desperate to get back what they’d shared, she went over to his condo that night, unannounced, offering a compromise. She would talk to the captain about working part-time.
“No,” was all Rand said, his face hardened by lines. “Don’t you understand? I don’t care if you only worked one hour a week. In that length of time you could be hurt or killed. Police work isn’t like anything else. If you loved me,” his voice grated, “you wouldn’t want to put me through torture every time you left our bed to report to your job.”
“If you loved me you’d accept it... I love what I do, Rand.”
“More than me?” he almost shouted, his eyes dark slits from the strength of turbulent emotions.
“Can’t I love both?”
“Of course. But you don’t offer me the same choice,” he bit out. “When you leave the house in the morning, there’s every chance that by the end of the day, you’ll have been shot by some lunatic. Should that happen, and statistics have proven that it will, who’s going to be in our bed to comfort me at night after a hard day’s work?”
“Don’t you have any faith in me at all?” she cried out. “I’m good at what I do.”
“You think I don’t know that?” His hands had formed fists. “But the percentages work against you no matter how expert you are, no matter how well trained.”
Her chest heaved. “Is that your final word on the subject?”
“Then this is mine!”
Her pain combined with the adrenaline rushing through her body, caused her to tear the ring from her finger and throw it at him.
White-faced he’d said in a forbidding voice, “If you walk out that door on me, Annabelle, I won’t come after you and beg you to come back.”
“Did I ask you to?” she flung at him before she fled his condo in agony.
Within the week she’d thrown out every reminder of Rand. After resigning from her job, she’d made arrangements to move back to Salt Lake.
The only thing she couldn’t bring herself to part with was her mother’s wedding dress, the one Annabelle had planned to wear when she took her vows with Rand. Just a few days earlier Janet had gone to Annabelle’s house in Salt Lake and had sent the dress Express Mail.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she’d packed it in the wardrobe part of her suitcase to take back home with her. It would remain a memento of her mother’s, nothing else.
When Annabelle finally boarded the plane, she felt shattered and broken. Her world had exploded and nothing would ever be the same again.
Rand stayed where he was, preferring to watch the expert way she handled the cycle in spite of her small size. It had been a long time since he’d been able to feast his eyes on her alluring body.
A pocket Venus. That’s what he’d thought of her the first time he’d met her dressed in a police officer’s uniform. Everything was there in exquisite abundance, in all the right places. Just sort of in miniature. Amazing.
In her boots she stood about as high as his heart. Her heavily lashed eyes glowed a greenish-yellow color like those of a calico cat. She possessed a generous mouth and a cap of curly auburn curls he had to resist tousling. Her small hands fascinated him. Hell. Everything about her fascinated him.
She’d been part of the bomb squad which had arrived on the scene after Roman’s private secretary had received a bomb threat. In surprisingly short order Annabelle had determined the scare to be a hoax.
Adorable beyond belief, he discovered her intelligence and humor to be as intriguing as her looks. He’d never met a woman like her. She had a mind of her own and could have cared less about his money. Her advent into his world changed his life.
An elusive creature, he started out right away to pursue her in earnest. During the chase scene at the first movie they’d gone to together, he’d fallen in love with her and had never recovered.
Much as he might want to catch up with her now and give her a run for her money on his newly purchased Kawasaki, he decided that would be pushing it. Better to give her five minutes of lead rope before he slowly tightened the noose.
There was no doubt in his mind that he was definitely going to tighten the noose.
Twelve months ago, when she’d thrown the engagement ring in his face and walked out on him, his pride couldn’t take it. He’d told himself he was better off without a woman who didn’t need him or anything he had to offer.
She could stay married to her career as a policewoman and go to an early grave with nothing to show for it but a bullet in her back. He’d convinced himself that he didn’t care what she did.
For the last year he had immersed himself in work, expanding his company with a speed his board of directors could scarcely handle. Staying hellishly busy staved off the pain. Until he’d left for Salt Lake, Caroline had been there to provide a feminine distraction.
But now he realized she had been a mistake. He should never have gone out with her in the first place. Six months after his breakup with Annabelle, they’d met at a mutual friend’s pool party. She’d made it clear she’d like to see more of him. Though he found her attractive and interesting, he told her up front that he didn’t believe in love and had no intention of getting serious with any woman.
She immediately assured him that she wasn’t looking for commitment, only companionship. She, too, preferred an open-ended relationship. Both of them could go and come as they pleased, date other people at any time, no questions asked.
He’d taken her at a word and they’d started seeing each other casually.
But when he called Caroline from his Phoenix office and told her he was leaving for Salt Lake on business for an indefinite period, she’d treated him to the emotional side of her nature.
In a tearful outburst she admitted she was in love with him. Then she accused him of not loving her the way she loved him or he would have asked her to go to Salt Lake with him.
For some time his subconscious had sensed she was getting too involved. He should have done something about it sooner, but he’d been too driven by the pain of Annabelle’s rejection to act on those instincts.
At that point he confessed that he was in love with someone else and had been for a long time. He was sorry if he’d hurt Caroline. Under the circumstances this separation was for the best. He hoped she would be able to forgive him and get on with her life.
As for Rand, he could no longer deny the truth to himself or anyone else. Annabelle was his heart and soul. If the Fates were kind, he would get her back in his life for good.
On that note he gave his bike more gas, his thoughts flicking to the angry customers out there ready to vent their spleen on the powers that be at Dunbarton’s. After arriving in Salt Lake and talking to his manager, Rand had hired a local telephone engineer to hook up a phone line which could be patched through to the main office where he was working alone.
The service people on duty for Dunbarton’s had no idea he was in town, let alone what was going on. He could imagine their surprise at such a quiet night, especially when there would be no explanation for it.
So far he’d answered fifteen calls, eleven of them complaints about the wretched way they’d been treated on Dunbarton’s software lines within the last week. Naturally he wasn’t about to let any of those patrons know they weren’t alone in their frustration.
The criminal out there doing his best to ruin Rand’s company had already created minor havoc in the Salt Lake region. To Rand’s chagrin he wouldn’t be able to put out any fires, not until he had answers to several questions. Chief among them was whether the hacker worked independently or was part of a ring intent on infiltrating his company which had service centers from coast to coast.
He supposed the person responsible could have picked Dunbarton’s on a whim, but Rand couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t a troubled former employee who had been let go from the Salt Lake service center at one time or other and was out for revenge.
That kind of retaliation was common enough. Just tonight the headlines in the Salt Lake Tribune had announced Utah Steel’s plan to lay off several hundred employees. Two hours later all the TV channels were covering a warehouse fire on Utah Steel’s property. So far an estimated million dollars in damage had been done by a pipe bomb.
As far as Rand knew, there had been no sign of trouble at any other Dunbarton plants in the country, but he wasn’t ruling out that possibility, and had his top people working on the problem right now.
Much as he hated to admit it, Salt Lake could be the first in a series of problems. That was one of the reasons he was here. To get a handle on what was going on and begin damage control.
But if the truth be known, he’d come for Annabelle. He’d never gotten her out of his system. When word came that the Salt Lake customer service center was having problems, Rand had leaped at the chance to fly here himself.
For the first time in a year he actually exulted over the trouble in his company because it provided him with a legitimate excuse to see her again.
Through a mutual friend on the Phoenix police force, he found out she’d gone to work in Salt Lake as a PI. While on the plane he came up with the plan to hire her to help solve the crisis. He was desperately in love with her and always would be. No matter how long it took, or what he had to go through, one day she would be his wife.
If she needed a dangerous career to make her happy, then so be it. That issue was no longer important as long as they could be together. Asking her to collaborate on his case would prove that he had changed, that he accepted her desire to work at a high-risk job because it made her happy.
But wanting her back and getting her back were two different things. She’d had a year to harden. Softening her up wasn’t going to be easy. Today would set the tone for the way things were going to go until she ran willingly into his arms once more.
He had no idea how long it would take, but he recognized that infinite patience would play the key role in obtaining his heart’s desire. Rand couldn’t afford to make one wrong move. Otherwise he’d lose the only thing that truly mattered to him...
He waited until she was out of sight, then headed toward the main highway. When he reached the turnoff, he opened up. Before long he was passing a lot of semitrucks and the occasional four-wheel drive full of teenagers anxious to get in some late spring skiing.
As his cycle ate up the miles, the cool mountain air cleared his lungs and his head. He experienced a feeling of well-being. Annabelle had the right idea. Nature had a way of putting things into perspective.
Whether. she liked it or not, she was part of that perspective.
At the thought, a sly smile broke out on his face and stayed there all the way to the old mining town of Park City which had been turned into a playground for the rich and famous.
The place seemed crowded, even for a weekday. Two blocks up the main street and he spied her BMW parked between two vans in front of the Dairy Freeze.
Rand rode around the corner and found a spot for his cycle. Wedging his helmet under his arm, he strode across the street. The local hamburger stand appeared to be a favorite retreat for teenagers.
After a cursory glance, he found her in the last booth and took the seat opposite her. “I ordered for both of us when I first came in,” she announced. “Two bacon deluxes, French fries and a chocolate malt. I hope that’s what you wanted.”
“I’m glad to see you still remember.”
Her head was bowed. “Rand? Shall we talk about your case? The only reason we’re together now is to try and figure out who is sabotaging your company and stop them. I know how much your company means to you, because of your dad.”
“You’re right. We were a very tight team. When he suffered that fatal embolism two years ago, I felt like I’d lost my best friend.”
He noticed she wasn’t saying anything. Good. He had her full attention.
“One of the reasons I wanted you to work with me on this case is because you understand things no one else does.” The waitress chose that moment to bring their food. “We connected on a very basic level from the first moment you arrived at the building to find that bomb.”
She took a long sip of the cola she’d ordered, then raised her head. “I think it would better to leave the past alone. By the way, while I was sitting here, I remembered some important business I have to do downtown. Why don’t you stay where you are and finish your lunch in peace.
“Since I assume you know my address, let’s plan to meet back at my house in an hour. We’ll discuss your case there. How does that sound?”
“An hour it is.”
Rand fought to contain his excitement. He’d purposely brought up the past to satisfy a hunch that she still had feelings for him. Judging by her behavior, the past was too painful for her to get into. That was all he needed to know.
As she started to walk away with her hamburger in hand, she paused to say, “When you’ve finished your meal, have a fun ride down the canyon, but a word of warning. Every trucker in America knows Parley’s is a death trap. In case you lose your brakes, there’s a road for runaway vehicles about halfway back on your left.”
He practically fell out of the booth. “Thanks for the inside information, sweetheart.”
“Since I read about the expansion of your company in Today’s Fortune, and found out you’re worth another ten million dollars since the last time I saw you, I realize you’re the wealthiest client I’ve ever worked for. I wouldn’t want to lose you now. I need a good bonus so I can take my trip to Florida next January.”
So that’s where she’d gone.
“By the way. Lunch is on LFK. Enjoy.”
I’m going to enjoy it all right. And then I’m going to enjoy something else even more.
In fact her mouth was about all he could think about as he roared out of Park City a half hour later. Catching the culprit responsible for the mayhem on his support lines might take weeks. Anything could happen while he fought to win Annabelle’s love all over again.
If his cycle had wings, he’d be flying about now because in a little while he’d be alone with her in the house she’d grown up in.
He’d driven past it yesterday, but he’d never been inside. Before he could take the time to visit Salt Lake with her, their engagement had ended in disaster. But that was history.
Rand realized he’d been given a second chance to make things work between them. As far as he was concerned, that meant being with her day and night, for as long as it took. After a year’s deprivation, he found her more beautiful, more desirable than ever.
Being with her made him feel like a much younger man in the throes of first love where anything and everything was possible.
He would never let her go again...
Once back in the city, Annabelle stopped at the police station to finish up some paperwork. With that accomplished she headed home, willing her heart to stop hammering because Rand would be meeting her there shortly. But where he was concerned she discovered she couldn’t dictate the state of her emotions.
As she turned onto her street, she could hear the bleeping of her house siren rending the air. Rand must have beaten her home and had started poking around her property.
She grinned, wishing she could have seen the look on his face when he triggered the alarm.
The siren was set to go off if someone stepped on either her front or back porch, or approached any windows. Roman had rigged her home with a dozen different devices so she’d feel safe. It shut off after thirty seconds, just long enough for everyone to look out their windows and see what was going on.
By now the neighbors were used to it, and her friends had learned to call first before dropping in. But it always gave any delivery people, or even the Girl Scouts selling cookies a good scare. That made her feel bad, but since she lived alone, she didn’t feel she had a choice but to protect herself.
The best part though was the first time Gerard had sneaked around her house at night unannounced, and it had gone off. After he’d recovered, he’d told her she’d better take out another insurance policy. The chances of a person suing her for giving them a heart attack were much greater than if they had slipped and fallen on the ice on her property.
He had a point, but she’d been putting it off.
As she pulled into her driveway she caught sight of Rand leaning against the brick wall at the back of the house, his arms folded.
When she got off her bike, she had to gaze a long way up to see his face. He’d never fit her image of a computer wizard, the nerdy kind of character in school who was painfully thin and wore glasses.
Rand’s big strong body, good looks and black curly hair put him in a class all by himself. He was her idea of male perfection. No other man came close.
NOW that she had arrived, Rand was trying not to laugh, but it was hard. The siren had caught him off guard and he’d let go with a belly laugh. He couldn’t remember laughing like that since before he and Annabelle had broken up.
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