My First 10 Books of 2021

  1. Her Texas New Year’s Wish by Michelle Major (4 stars)
  2. Into the Woods by David Mark (4,5 stars)
  3. This Golden Flame by Emily Victoria (4 stars)
  4. What Now? by Shari Low (5 stars)
  5. The Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan Mallery (4 stars)
  6. Take a Chance on Me by Beth Moran (4 stars)
  7. Stormy Days on Mulberry Lane (The Mulberry Lane series #7) by Rosie Clarke (3 stars)
  8. The Juggle by Emma Murray (5 stars)
  9. The Night we Met by Zoë Folbigg (4 stars)
  10. The Scarlet Dress by Louise Douglas (4 stars).

Today I realised I have finished my first ten books for my 2021 Goodreads challenge. They are all NetGalley Advance Review Copies (ARCs) and the information about each book is on the book’s Goodreads page.

I’ll post full reviews for the books here as I review them. So far, the first two books in the list are on my blog.

Sunday with a Sassy Shopaholic: New Kindle Books!

Today, I was browsing Amazon and knew I had some money left on my gift card. I am a total Friends fan and had been wanting I’ll Be There for You, The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller and it was on my Christmas/birthday list.

It was reduced from £8.99 to £2.99.

I wanted to get some more Jodi Picoult books and found Sing You Home and Shine, A Short Story Based on Characters from Small Great Things, for £1.99. Sing You Home was also reduced from £8.99. I have the NetGalley ARC edition of Small Great Things as well as a signed hardback that I have as a keepsake from a Jodi Picoult book event, so am glad I now have Shine, too.

A saving of £17.98 is pretty good, and they are all books I will listen to again and again via VoiceOver.

I bought a few more books with this gift card and I’ll mention those when I do a review of my first time buying using an Amazon gift card.

Once again, thanks so much to my friend Karin Forno for the gift card.

Into the Woods by David Mark

About the Book:

FROM THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLING RICHARD & JUDY PICK AND KINDLE CHART-TOPPING SENSATION. 

Thirty years ago, three school-friends took a walk in the woods. Only two came back – their memories a jumble of hallucinations and twisted visions. 

There is a chilling reason why nobody looked for the missing girl. 

Now, disgraced investigator ROWAN BLAKE will discover that in the remote and desolate Wasdale Valley, nothing stays buried forever. 

Murder and suspense are entwined with supernatural overtones and blistering social commentary in this fast-paced whodunit set in the rugged surroundings of England’s Lake District 

This is the first instalment in a Lakeland trilogy by internationally bestselling crime writer DAVID MARK, whose “outstanding”, critically-acclaimed McAvoy series is being developed for TV. 

‘Dark, compelling crime writing of 

the highest order’ Daily Mail 

‘Truly exhilarating and inventive. Mark is a wonderfully descriptive writer and an exciting young talent.’ Peter James 

‘David Mark has the potential to be one of the stars of British crime writing’ Shots. (Shots) 

‘His writing is quite brilliant’ (Crime Review) 

“Gory, startling and a complete one-off.” The Sunday Times on Cold Bones 

“To call Mark’s novels police procedurals is like calling the Mona Lisa a pretty painting. Beautifully crafted, filled with flashbacks, horror, angst, and chilling detail” 

Kirkus Reviews on Cruel Mercy 

‘Exceptional… Mark is writing at the top of his game.’Publishers Weekly, Starred Review 

My Review:

Rowan is an author with badly injured hands. That’s a problem when your hands are your livelihood. In debt and struggling with his injuries, he can’t live alone. 

He turns to his sister Serendipity for help. She is also known as Dippy and leads a hippie lifestyle. Figuring out how to physically help Rowan, she realises he needs a place to stay and so he moves in. 

He’s hoping for a good story plot to distract himself with when he hears of events from 30 years ago. Three friends from an alternative boarding school went into the woods and only two came out. What will happen when Victoria breaks her silence? 

The events grab Rowan’s attention and his editor wants a story. But how can Rowan do the job he now has a different love for after good and bad experiences with previously published work? 

Serendipity’s 12 year old daughter Snowdrop steps in. I really liked her. She was honest, curious and enthusiastic as well as helpful. 

This is my first book by David Mark and it’s a STUNNING thriller. Some parts border on the slightly gory such as the first few pages and other references, but if you can stomach that, it’s worth it as continuing with the book is fundamental to know where and how these parts fit into the novel as a whole. 

Tightly woven, suspenseful scary but also full of realistically portrayed characters. 

A lot of the detail is in the dialogue. I found it was well-developed, but some of the transitions between characters were confusing and I had to go back through parts of the book and listen to them again to remind myself of some details or of who was talking. 

The attention to detail and descriptions are excellent. Despite the few shortcomings of the novel that I noticed, it did not limit my enjoyment of it. The friendship between the three girls and the events surrounding the tragedy had me hooked. 

Thanks to David Mark, Aria and Aries and Head of Zeus for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review. 

4.5 stars. 

I’ll be searching for other books by David Mark!

International Day of Acceptance 2020

For years now, I have been a fan of company called 3E Love’s Wheelchair Heart. I have a lot of merchandise from them. Check out their site https://www.3elove.com

Annie Hopkins believed that everyone with a disability should be accepted for who they are and have a voice as we have interests and are way more than our disabilities.

I can’t agree more. Every year, Stevie, who runs the company, asks “What Does The Wheelchair Heart Symbol Mean to You?”

This year is proving to be just as tough as last year for us.

I think the wheelchair heart symbol means unity, love togetherness even though we are apart and wherever we are in the world. It says to me that everyone with a disability or condition deserves to be loved, and is capable of loving.

I know that I have been thorough a lot from birth and in my 39 years. Because of this, I am strong, determined supportive and loving to others and happy to be me.

Cerebral Palsy in all 4 limbs, spasticity and pain or shunted hydrocephalus will not break me.

Being registered legally blind did not break me. Being a wheelchair user and wearing glasses will not break me.

Circulation problems and lack of sensitivity will not break me.

Inturning feet and ankles and fixed hip deformities will not break me. Pelvic issues will not break me.

Surgery that could not be performed because of my conditions will not break me. And surgeries that could did not.

Cranial nerve paralysis will not break me

Scoliosis will not break me

Exaggerated reflexes will not break me

Balance, strength stamina and coordination problems will not break me.

Nystagmus will not break me

Remembering my twin sister will not break me

Because one thing I know how to do is fight. Even if it takes the presence of many others to help me to do so. I fight for myself and for her.

On this International Day of Acceptance I wish for everyone to be as happy as possible within themselves about who and how they are. Because you are unique. And so am I.

Celebrate your uniqueness and be safe.

Blog Spotlight: At  the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman

“At the Edge of the Haight brims with empathy for the overlooked and the underserved. It’s a deep, dark, and necessary look into lives often discarded and disregarded—an urgent and important read and a startling debut.”

— Ivy Pochoda, author of These Women

**The 10th Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction**

AT THE EDGE OF THE HAIGHT (Publication Date: January 19, 2021), the riveting and empathetic debut novel from veteran journalist Katherine Seligman, is the 10th winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction—and the first since Lisa Ko’s The Leavers. Uncompromising in its thorny humanity, this timely work of fiction addresses head-on one of the most urgent issues facing society today: the surge in homelessness amid the rising tide of urban wealth, privilege, and inequity. “To read AT THE EDGE OF THE HAIGHT is to live inside the everyday terror and longings of a world that most of us manage not to see, even if we walk past it on sidewalks everyday,” says Barbara Kingsolver, who established the Bellwether Prize. “As a time when more Americans than ever find themselves on the edge of homelessness, this book couldn’t be more timely.”

In San Francisco, where the unhoused sleep near apartments charging astronomical rents, 20-year-old Maddy Donaldo finds her way to Haight Ashbury, long a haven for young travelers, drifters and seekers. She lives with her makeshift family of fellow homeless citizens in the hidden spaces of Golden Gate Park. The delicate balance of her life, where she knows who to trust, is upended when she witnesses the killing of a young homeless boy. Suddenly, Maddy is the unwilling focus of attention—from the police, from the boy’s parents, and from the killer. When she feels pressured to reveal details about her own past and the family from which she ran away, she must decide the best course of action: to stay lost or be found.

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More about Katherine Seligman: 

Katherine Seligman is a journalist and author who lives in San Francisco. She has been a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and a correspondent at USA Today. Her work has appeared in Redbook, Life, Money, California Magazine, the anthology Fresh Takes and elsewhere.

Early Praise for AT THE EDGE OF THE HAIGHT:

“What a read this is, right from its startling opening scene. But even more than plot, it’s the richly layered details that drive home a lightning bolt of empathy. To read At the Edge of the Haight is to live inside the everyday terror and longings of a world that most of us manage not to see, even if we walk past it on sidewalks every day. At a time when more Americans than ever find themselves at the edge of homelessness, this book couldn’t be more timely.”

—Barbara Kingsolver

“Through careful observation, author Seligman seeks to humanize a community that is often ignored and misunderstood…Winner of the 2019 PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, At the Edge of the Haight is a thoughtful look at modern homelessness.”

—Booklist 

“Unsparing but…an intense, personal drama about wayward lives positioned between redemption and disaster. Putting a human face on those who live at society’s margins, At the Edge of the Haight is an intimate novel whose young characters struggle for survival and a little bit of dignity.

—Foreword Reviews

“Seligman is to be commended for an insightful portrayal of homelessness. She’s at her best when showing just how tenuous life on the streets can be… heartfelt…brave…storytelling.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Earnest … Seligman has a strong sense of the city and of the challenges faced by the homeless … Seligman’s portrayal of life as a homeless young person is immersive.”

—Publisher’s Weekly

“A terrific novel, half murder-mystery, half a tale of growing up.  The heroine and her friends are unique in my reading experience—homeless young people living in Golden Gate Park, with their own community and their own rules—and their story is suspenseful and touching throughout.” 

—Scott Turow

“At the Edge of the Haight brims with empathy for the overlooked and the underserved. It’s a deep, dark, and necessary look into lives often discarded and disregarded—an urgent and important read and a startling debut.”

— Ivy Pochoda, author of These Women

“This book pulled me deep into a world I knew little about, bringing the struggles of its young, homeless inhabitants—the kind of people we avoid eye contact with on the street—to vivid, poignant life. The novel demands that you take a close look. If you knew, could you still ignore, fear or condemn them? And knowing, how can you ever forget?”

—Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound

“I love Maddy Donaldo. I can’t wait for you to meet her. Not since Carson McCullers’s Frankie Addams have I seen a character so defined by her deep dualism—an electric desire to be both invisible and seen, free and bonded.”

—Mesha Maren, author of Sugar Run

“Subtle yet compelling . . . written in delicate, understated prose, At the Edge of the Haight not only offers unexpected insights into the daily life of those who are young and on the streets, but into the confusion of tenderness, hurt, fear and fierceness that tumble within the minds of many. An enlightening read for anyone of any age.”

—Helen Benedict, author of Wolf Season

“I loved this novel: its tenderness, its toughness, its brilliantly-named protagonist Maddy—these days, what thoughtful person isn’t mad?  Maddy is a Holden Caulfield for our times, smart, streetwise, a survivor who is not jaded.  Seligman’s vivid portrait leads us to understand San Francisco’s street people not as “the other” but as extensions of our friends, our families, our neighbors, ourselves.  If there is hope for our species, it begins there.”

—Fenton Johnson, author of At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life

“At the Edge of the Haight is a novel of rare grace and compassion that opens a window onto a world to which we often keep ourselves closed. With a keen sense for setting and state of mind, Kathrine Seligman takes us on a journey into the hidden spaces of America, where the friction created between the need to be seen and to disappear, to remember and to forget sets little fires that help us see better, help us stay warm.”

—C. Morgan Babst, author of The Floating World

The Restarting Point by Marci Bolden Cover Reveal

Title: The Restarting Point (Chammont Point #1)Author: Marci BoldenRelease date: April 27,  Release date: April 27, 2021Genre: Women’s fiction. Pre-order links:https://www.pinksandpress.com/the-restarting-point/ About the Book:  Marketing executive and mother of two, Jade Kelly can now add cancer survivor to her list of successes. But while her life looks good on paper, four months out of treatment, Jade realizes she hardly knows her college-age children and she and her husband Nick are little more than housemates. Determined to start over, Jade schedules a family vacation to a lakefront cabin. When her kids bail and Nick stays home to handle a last minute work crisis, Jade heads to Chammont Point alone, determined to dust herself off and figure out what to do with the rest of her life. While she’s away, the life she thought she had unravels. Secrets, lies, and old wounds drive Jade into new adventures and new relationships. With the help of found family and new friends, Jade learns starting over sometimes means finding a brand new restarting point.

Harlequin Special Edition Blog Tour: Her Texas New Year’s Wish by Michelle Major

Can you fall head over heels And land on your feet? When Grace Williams topples from the balcony at the soon-to-open Hotel Fortune, the last thing she expects is to find love with her new bosses’ brother. Wiley Fortune is visiting from Chicago, and the polished attorney has looks, money and charm to spare. But Grace’s past makes her wary of investing her heart—and risking her job. Do a small-town Texan and a city sophisticate really have a chance? From Harlequin Special Edition: Believe in love. Overcome obstacles. Find happiness. The Fortunes of Texas: The Hotel Fortune Price: $5.99 ON-sale date: 01/01/2020ISBN: 9781335404589 Author Bio: USA Today bestselling author Michelle Major loves stories of new beginnings, second chances and always a happily ever after. An avid hiker and avoider of housework, she lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, two teenagers and a menagerie of spoiled furbabies. Connect with her at http://www.michellemajor.com. Author Links: My Review: After having reviewed The Last Man She Expected, I was looking forward to another book by Michelle Major. I wanted a book related to New Year and Her Texas New Year’s Wish sounded just the thing to start off 2021.  I thought the way Grace was injured was a little unbelievable because the real-life events I have found online with similar accidents were caused by the weight of more than one person. I expected her to have been more injured and think it would have been better if she was as that would have tested her and Wiley more.  The “insta romance” was too quick, undeveloped and cutesy. The book did not really get going for me until the 20% mark, and it was slow to start with. I enjoyed the family dynamics and Grace was pretty strong-willed which I also liked.  The conflicts over the accident were pretty interesting and the action in the story happened quicker after 30%. Priorities. responsibilities and duty are some of the themes in this book.  The writing was good but too vague on details, and business, pleasure and real life are well intermingled. I enjoyed the horse riding scene with Wiley and his siblings. I would have liked more detail about the setting as Texas is a state I have not yet been to.  I felt things slotted into place too quickly in some places and like I didn’t know much about all the characters but wanted more backstory for all of them and more romance between Grace and Wiley. Things seemed a little too “easy”. For example, what would have happened if Grace had not been able to stay with her parents?  I hoped that opening the hotel went well and that Grace and Wiley got on, but I was expecting more chemistry between them. I loved the detail in Jake’s accident but would have loved similar in Grace’s. What did the cast feel like? What did her pain feel like? Trying to move? Tiredness? I felt like I wanted to know more about what she went through other than the mention of her frustration at living with sudden reduced mobility.  There was not really any mention of the new year or an atmosphere to suggest it. I’m not sure what to think of the ending either but I was not quite convinced.  Even so, I am glad this is first in series so I haven’t missed things if I move onto the next book.  Thanks to Michelle Major and publisher for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review.  4 stars. Excerpt: THE FORTUNES OF TEXAS Follow the lives and loves of a wealthy family with a rich history and deep ties in the Lone Star State THE HOTEL FORTUNE Check in to the Hotel Fortune, the Fortune brothers’ latest venture in cozy Rambling Rose, Texas. They’re scheduled to open on Valentine’s Day, when a suspicious accident damages a balcony—and injures one of the workers! Now the future of the hotel could be in jeopardy. Was the crash an accident— or is something more nefarious going on? Wiley Fortune is a big-city attorney who doesn’t like to lose—in the courtroom or in life. So far, he’s found little to like about the sleepy Texas town most of his family has made their home…until Grace Williams falls (literally!) into his arms. But Wiley’s visit is supposed to be temporary—and he knows better than to date a family employee! The last thing he needs is a relationship that makes him want more… Dear Reader, Happy 2021! I hope this is a wonderful year for you, and I’m thrilled to kick it off with the first book in the latest Fortunes of Texas series. My favorite heroines are the ones who aren’t actually looking for romance but instead want to find their place in the world—and they find a love that helps them get there. Grace Williams has returned to her hometown of Rambling Rose after a few hard knocks. But she’s determined to make a new start at the Hotel Fortune. And when she—quite literally—falls for Wiley Fortune, Grace discovers the perfect man for her. Big-city attorney Wiley Fortune can appreciate that his siblings are happy in the small Texas town, but he doesn’t plan to stay. Wiley values his independence and has worked hard for his career. But when Grace is injured minutes after their first fateful meeting, Wiley learns that when you fall for the right person, fighting to make a love that lasts is more important than anything else. I hope you enjoy reading Wiley and Grace’s story as much as I loved writing it. Please come say hi on Facebook or at michellemajor.com. Happy reading! Michelle Her Texas New Year’s Wish MICHELLE MAJORpage3image49118592 If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.” Special thanks and acknowledgment are given to Michelle Major for her contribution to the The Fortunes of Texas: The Hotel Fortune miniseries.page4image50662576page4image49151744 ISBN-13: 978-1-335-40458-9 Her Texas New Year’s Wish Copyright © 2020 by Harlequin Books S.A. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental. This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For questions and comments about the quality of this book, please contact us at CustomerService@Harlequin.com. Harlequin Enterprises ULC 22 Adelaide St. West, 40th Floor Toronto, Ontario M5H 4E3, Canada http://www.Harlequin.com Printed in U.S.A. Michelle Major grew up in Ohio but dreamed of living in the mountains. Soon after graduating with a degree in journalism, she pointed her car west and settled in Colorado. Her life and house are filled with one great husband, two beautiful kids, a few furry pets and several well-behaved reptiles. She’s grateful to have found her passion writing stories with happy endings. Michelle loves to hear from her readers at michellemajor.com. Books by Michelle Major Harlequin Special Edition Welcome to Starlight The Best Intentions The Last Man She Expected Crimson, Colorado Anything for His Baby A Baby and a Betrothal Always the Best Man Christmas on Crimson Mountain Romancing the Wallflower Sleigh Bells in Crimson Coming Home to Crimson Maggie & Griffin Falling for the Wrong Brother Second Chance in Stonecreek A Stonecreek Christmas Reunion The Fortunes of Texas: Rambling Rose Fortune’s Fresh Start Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com for more titles. To the Fortunes of Texas team— thanks for making this journey so much fun. Chapter One “I wouldn’t drink that if I were you.” Wiley Fortune plucked the glass from his sister’s hand and placed it back on the polished mahogany bar. Nicole gave him a funny look. “It’s water, Wi. Roja is providing the food for this party. I may be a guest, but I’m also still on the clock.” “I know it’s water.” Wiley tugged on the end of Nicole’s long blond hair, the way he used to do when they were kids. “That’s my point.” Nicole, Ashley and Megan Fortune—the triplets— had been born seven years after Wiley, miracle ba- bies in every sense of the word. Their parents, David and Marci, had married after a whirlwind courtship, 8 her texas new year’s wish blending four sons from their respective first mar- riages in a way that would have made Carol Brady’s head spin back in the day. The boys had gotten off to a bit of a rocky start as they attempted to figure out their roles in the new family. Everything had changed when his mom gave birth to Stephanie five years later. One thing all four boys could agree on was how much they adored their baby sister. Mom had hoped to add another sibling to the mix right away, but she’d had trouble conceiv- ing. Although she’d tried to hide her emotional pain and physical exhaustion, Wiley knew that season of loss had taken a toll on her. Wiley loved every member of his family, but he’d been a quiet, introverted kid and it was a lot to grow up in such a big, boisterous family. Maybe that fact had something to do with the distance that had seemed to grow between him and the rest of his siblings. He was the only one who hadn’t migrated to the quaint town of Rambling Rose, Texas, although they’d convinced him to visit over Christmas and return for his cousin Adam Fortune’s son’s first birthday party. “What’s wrong with the water in Rambling Rose?” Nicole asked, scrunching her perfect nose. “It’s obviously tainted,” Wiley said, keeping his features neutral and using the same tone with her that he did for contract negotiations in his law firm back in Chicago. “Look around at all the nauseatingly happy couples here tonight. Something happens 9 when a Fortune drinks the Rambling Rose water. They lose all sense and succumb to Cupid’s arrow.” Nicole rolled her bright blue eyes toward the tile ceiling that had just been installed in the restaurant. “I guess that explains why you’re on your second whiskey of the night.” He lifted the etched-glass tumbler in her direc- tion. “Much safer. Can I buy you a drink?” “I’m running the restaurant and bar tonight,” Ni- cole said with a delicate sniff. “I don’t need you to buy me a drink.” She swatted his arm, then grabbed the water and made a show of drinking down half of it in a few gulps. “Besides—” she delicately dabbed at the cor- ner of her mouth with the flowing sleeve of her batik- print dress “—what’s wrong with love?” “It’s a distraction,” he answered without hesitation. “That’s cynical, Wiley, even for you.” Nicole climbed onto the bar stool next to him and swiveled so that they were both facing out toward the crowd. “Look at how happy Callum and Dillon are.” She pointed toward their brothers, who stood near the front of the banquet room greeting guests. Dillon stood close to Hailey Miller, his fiancée, whom he’d met because she worked at the local spa the family had opened in town last year, while Callum and his wife, Becky, held hands. They’d met and quickly married after Callum moved to Rambling Rose and fell in love michelle major 10 her texas new year’s wish with the sweet nurse and her adorable twin toddlers, Sasha and Luna. “It’s the water,” he repeated. “Or they’ve all been stricken by the Texas heat. Even Steven is all googly- eyed for his lady. I barely recognize my own broth- ers.” A second sister, Megan, let out a mild laugh as she approached from the other side of him and helped herself to a sip of his drink. “If you don’t recognize your brothers, it’s because you spend too much time on your own.” “I’m here now,” Wiley muttered. “Because Mom guilted you into it,” Megan re- minded him. She, Nicole and Ashley looked almost identical with their shiny hair and delicate features. They’d followed their brothers to Rambling Rose and opened a farm-to-table restaurant, Provisions, to a great deal of success. Megan was the most serious of the trio and handled the finances for both Provi- sions and Roja, located inside the Hotel Fortune, which was due to open in just over a month. Nicole was the more flamboyantly creative and was using her culinary skills to create an innovative menu for Roja as the restaurant’s executive chef. Ashley took on the role of bossy micromanager in the best way possible, and as the general manager for Provisions. “Wiley thinks Rambling Rose is a bad influence on all of us because the Fortunes are falling in love here.” “You could use some more love in your life.” 11 Megan poked a finger into his biceps. “You work too much.” “How would you know? I live in Chicago. Don’t tell me you’re keeping tabs on my life from halfway across the country.” Wiley felt heat prick the back of his neck as his sisters exchanged a knowing glance. He didn’t think he’d sounded defensive, but this was the reason he skipped so many family gatherings. There was no privacy to be had once his brothers and sisters got involved. “All you talk about is work,” Megan answered, smoothing a hand over her cream-colored sweater. “I like my job.” Wiley took a long drink of whis- key, welcoming the burn of the liquor in his throat. “It’s fascinating.” “Contract law isn’t fascinating.” Nicole laughed. “The restaurant business is fascinating. It’s always evolving.” “Not to mention there’s no shortage of yummy food to taste,” Megan added. “Being an attorney is fascinating to me,” Wiley grumbled. “Because you need more excitement in your life.” Nicole turned to him. “Don’t you long for a change, Wi? For years, you’ve been at the same firm in the same position—” “And living in the same condo.” Megan fist-bumped her sister. “I’m stable and consistent,” Wiley told them. michelle major her texas new year’s wish “Boring,” Nicole countered. “When was the last time you did something sponta- neous?” Megan demanded, placing a hand on his knee and pinching like she used to when they were kids. “What the hell?” Wiley squirmed and then shooed away her hand. “You’re still girl-crazy,” Megan told him with a laugh. “You always have been.” “You just need to improve your taste,” Nicole ad- vised. Megan nodded. “Maybe then it will last beyond a couple of months.” Wiley resisted the urge to growl or to stomp away the way he had when his baby sisters bothered him when they were younger. He pointed to their cousin, Kane, who’d joined Callum’s construction company last year once Callum moved the operation to Rambling Rose. “Go bother Kane with your meddling,” he said. Nicole laughed. “What are we, the Scooby-Doo gang?” “Those meddling sisters,” Megan said, making her voice low like a cartoon villain’s. “You have so many choices of Fortunes to annoy here tonight.” “But you’re our current favorite.” Megan leaned in and placed a smacking kiss on Wiley’s cheek. “The rest of them aren’t half as much fun now that they’ve found love,” Nicole admitted, resting 12 13 her head on his shoulder as her tone turned wistful. “They’re all so blissed out from true love.” “You’re still an easy target.” Megan smiled at him, but it didn’t quite reach her blue eyes. “Why doesn’t that sound like a compliment?” “We want you to be happy,” Megan told him, but Wiley wasn’t sure if she was truly talking about him or thinking of herself. He wasn’t about to point out that neither Nicole nor Megan had found love in Rambling Rose. Nicole handed him her nearly empty glass of water. “You should have some of this. If there really is something in the water, it will be good for you.” “You know that was a joke.” He took the water from her and finished it in one swallow. “First, I don’t believe in true love. It isn’t pragmatic, and the odds of it being successful are ridiculously bad. Besides, whatever my future holds, I’m pretty sure it doesn’tinclude finding my perfect match in a town that’s no more than a tiny speck on the Texas map. I’m here temporarily to support all of you. Nothing more.” “You have to keep your heart open,” Megan told him. “You never know when love will find you.” She gestured toward Callum, who lifted one of the twins into the air. “When Callum and Becky met, he wasn’t looking for love.” “Now he’d tell you he couldn’t imagine his life without Becky, Sasha and Luna.” Wiley sighed. His sisters were right about Callum. michelle major 14 her texas new year’s wish It still felt strange that his brother had taken on the role of father figure to the pretty widow’s daughters so seamlessly. Not that Callum wasn’t great with kids. He’d had plenty of experience with Stephanie and the triplets. But up until he’d met Becky, Wiley had been certain Callum didn’t want kids. The same went for Dillon and Steven. In fact, it had been the change in each of his brothers that made him feel like even more of an odd man out in his family. He glanced between Nicole and Megan, at the similar wistful expressions as they surveyed the crowd. No way would he rain on their romantic pa- rade, even if he knew their unwavering belief in true love might have more to do with youth and inexpe- rience than anything else. Wiley had been around the dating block enough to know that some people weren’t cut out for love. People like him. His siblings had a lot to be proud of. They’d ac- complished so much in their time in Rambling Rose. He’d watched from a distance with fascination over the past year and half as they’d transformed the sleepy community into a thriving small town. Wiley smiled as Ashley, the third triplet, approached, wagging her finger. “You three need to mingle.” Ashley had always been the bossiest. Now that she was settled in Rambling Rose and happy with her fiancé, Rodrigo Mendoza, and the success of Provi- sions, she was even more confident in her ability to order her siblings around. 15 “We’re doing important work here,” Megan told Ashley with an arched brow. “Convincing Wiley to move to Rambling Rose.” “He’s about to agree.” Nicole nodded. “That’s wonderful.” Ashley gave Wiley a tight hug. “And a total lie.” He extricated himself from her embrace and held up his empty glass toward the bar- tender, silently requesting a refill. He was staying out at the Fame and Fortune Ranch where several of his siblings lived, so Nicole had given him a ride to the hotel tonight. Might as well take advantage, especially with his sisters on a mission. “Larkin is a cute baby,” he said casually, then smiled to himself as the triplets began to talk over one another, extolling the virtues of the birthday boy. Nothing distracted them like an adorable kid. He thanked the bartender when the man brought him a fresh glass and took a step away from the trip- lets. Time to make a quick exit from that conversa- tion. Steven waved to him, and Wiley started in that direction, then paused when a flash of blue caught his attention. A beautiful woman wearing a tailored cerulean sheath dress. The party was being held on the second floor of Roja, the signature restaurant that was part of the Hotel Fortune. The boutique hotel, with its Spanish architecture and Western decor that was a nod to the town’s history, was the crowning achievement for his michelle major 16 her texas new year’s wish brothers. Callum, Dillon and Steven had successfully opened various businesses in town over the past year, from the medical clinic to a spa to several upscale retail shops. He knew they’d received the most push- back from the community about the initial plan for the hotel, and it had been Kane who’d smoothed over the waters in town, convincing Callum to rescale the project to be smaller and more intimate. The Hotel Fortune was set to open in just over a month, and Wiley had no doubt it would be a huge success. His brothers and sisters wouldn’t settle for anything less. There were at least fifty people in attendance for Larkin’s birthday. In addition to his parents, Adam and Laurel, and his immediate and extended family, the pri- vate banquet room on the restaurant’s second floor was filled with friends and hotel employees. The commu- nity had banded together last year to support the baby when he needed a bone marrow transplant. Everyone was thrilled to celebrate the little boy who’d overcome so much. And to Wiley’s surprise, based on how his siblings had talked about the celebration, all the differ- ent Fortune factions seemed to be getting along. He turned toward the wall of windows and patio doors that had been opened for the evening. It was unseasonably warm for this time of year, even by Texas standards. In the center of the exterior wall was a stamped concrete balcony with wrought iron railings that overlooked the patio and pool below. 17 His gaze snagged on the same woman who’d caught his attention a few moments earlier. She had long, bourbon-colored hair, a slender build and creamy skin from what he could see of her arms in the sleeveless dress she wore. She spoke to Cal- lum and Mariana, one of the town’s most illustri- ous residents, who was working with Nicole as the sous chef in the Roja kitchen. For years, Mariana had run a successful outdoor market in downtown Rambling Rose, with vendors selling all kinds of food and wares. And her food stall had been one of the most—if not the most—popular stand of all. It was in no small part thanks to her influence with the local vendors that the Fortune family had been able to go ahead with some of their most successful new projects, all because Mariana understood that they would bring new life to her hometown. Wiley didn’t recognize the woman in blue, al- though he couldn’t help but think they’d met be- fore. There was nothing else that would explain the strange connection when he hadn’t even fully seen her face. Then she turned, and the breath whooshed out of him on a long exhale. It was like a piece of a puzzle snapping together with its perfect match. His heart seemed to skip a beat. No, that couldn’t be right. The woman was a stranger. There was no question, because he would never forget his reaction to her. She might be a stranger, but he had to meet her. michelle major 18 her texas new year’s wish He made his way through the crowd. Mariana walked away, but Callum remained in conversation with the woman as Wiley stopped just behind his brother. “Hey, Wi.” Callum glanced over his shoulder. “Have you met Grace Williams? She’s one of our manage- ment trainees. Grace, this is my brother Wiley. He’s our big-shot family attorney visiting from Chicago.” Wiley barely registered the introduction as Grace smiled at him. Her eyes, the same bright blue of a clear summer sky, crinkled at the corners. “Hi.” He struggled to regain control over the rapid cadence of his breathing. If he didn’t know better, Wiley would think he was having some sort of heart attack. There was no logical explanation for his re- action. He’d met countless beautiful women over the years and dated his fair share of them. But Grace Williams leveled him with just a smile. Callum cleared his throat, and Wiley realized Grace had offered her hand to shake. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said softly, a blush staining her cheeks. He took her hand, almost expecting to feel the zap of an electric current when he touched her. No literal shock, which he realized was a ridiculous expecta- tion in the first place. “Hey, Wiley,” Steven called from a few feet away. “Come over here for a second. I have a couple hotel employees I want you to meet.” Wiley had already met a dozen new people to- 19 night, employees, local business owners and mem- bers of the extended Fortune family. He’d enjoyed the various introductions until this moment. Now he was done talking to people other than Grace. “It’s fine,” Callum told him with a dismissive pat on the shoulder. “Grace and I are discussing some hotel business, anyway.” Wiley wanted to argue, but that would be rude. He looked toward Grace once more and her breath hitched. “I’ll be around all night,” she told him, darting a quick glance toward Callum before her gaze returned to Wiley. “I hope we can chat some more.” “Definitely,” he told her, the band around his heart loosening slightly. He had all night to talk to Grace. That thought calmed Wiley enough so that he could shift his attention to Steven as he walked away. He wasn’t about to lose his chance with Grace when they’d only just met. Wiley Fortune was quite possibly the most hand- some man Grace had ever seen. And in his family, that was saying something. He shared the same tall, lean build as Steven and that innate Fortune spark, but Grace’s reaction to Wiley had been unexpected. As he walked away, she worked to regain control. The last thing she needed was to make a spectacle of herself in front of Callum. She did her best not to fidget as she gave an up- michelle major 20 her texas new year’s wish date on the water heater that had leaked in one of the hotel’s main-floor utility rooms. She hated relaying anything that seemed like bad news, especially in the middle of a first birthday party, but hoped the fact that she had a solution for the potential dilemma would help. “It sounds like you handled it perfectly,” Callum told her, and she let out a small sigh of relief. “Just like tonight. Larkin’s celebration has gone off with- out a hitch.” “I can’t take all the credit,” Grace admitted be- cause that was her way. “The Roja staff has done an amazing job. Everyone’s pitched in where they were supposed to. And a roomful of Fortunes isn’t as in- timidating as you led me to believe.” Callum grinned. “We’re on our best behavior.” He leaned closer. “It’s a bit of a surprise, I’ll admit. This night makes me feel like we’re actually on track for the grand opening next month.” “Definitely,” Grace agreed. “By then, all the de- tails will be ironed out. Everyone in Rambling Rose is going to be talking about the Hotel Fortune.” “I hope you’re right. This venture has definitely given us the most headaches, although it will all be worth it when we have a full slate of guests.” “You and your brothers and sisters have made sure every step of the redevelopment plan for the town has been thoughtfully crafted and executed. I’m honored to be a part of it.” Grace inwardly cringed, 21 hoping she didn’t sound like a total suck-up, but Cal- lum smiled. “We’re glad to have you on the team. I’m sorry things at Cowboy Country didn’t work out, but their loss is our gain.” Grace forced a smile, although mention of her previous job had her stomach tightening painfully. She didn’t think anyone in Rambling Rose knew the full truth of why she’d left the cowboy theme park run by another branch of the Fortune family in the town of Horseback Hollow. There was no way she was going to share her heartbreak and humiliation, not when her life was finally getting back on track. “Take a break.” Callum gestured to the row of food tables. “Have a piece of cake or a drink or just enjoy the beautiful night. You’ve earned it, Grace.” She nodded. “Thanks. I’ll have a piece of birthday cake. I’m glad things are going so well and Larkin’s enjoying the attention.” Someone called to Callum, and she turned for the cake table but first detoured toward the empty bal- cony overlooking the hotel’s impeccably landscaped pool area. She needed to cool off as she could still feel her cheeks burning from the way Wiley had looked at her. She wouldn’t jeopardize her future for any man, no matter how attractive. In some ways, she still felt like pinching herself, because despite all the things that had gone wrong in her life, the three and half michelle major 22 her texas new year’s wish months she’d spent in the Hotel Fortune manage- ment training program seemed to make all the trou- ble worth it. Yes, she’d had to drop out of college to help take care of her older brother after he’d been seriously in- jured in a car accident almost a decade earlier. Yes, she’d struggled to fit in when she’d finally returned to school, unable to enjoy life in the way regular col- lege students did. She’d been too serious and too fo- cused, determined to get her degree but always guilty that she was able to have a life Jake couldn’t due to his recovery. After finally graduating with a degree in hospitality management, she’d landed a job in the Cowboy Country front office. At that point, Grace thought she was finally on her way. She’d had a good job, a handsome boyfriend and a fresh start in life. Discovering that Craig had been cheating on her with a fellow employee—and that pretty much every- one at Cowboy Country knew it except Grace—had been a blow she hadn’t expected. One that brought her to her knees, literally and figuratively. But she was leaving the past behind for her new future with the Hotel Fortune. Although members of the family had been taking the lead on running things during construction, they planned to promote someone from within the training program to the role of general manager as part of the grand opening. There might be other employees vying for the cov- eted position, but Grace was determined to earn it. 23 She stepped to the edge of the balcony, running her palms across the smooth wrought iron railing. She couldn’t remember ever feeling such a sense of anticipation as she did at this moment. Drawing in a long pull of the fresh air from the open patio doors, she turned back toward the party. Pride swelled in her chest at the crowd of happy people. She’d had a lot to do with making this eve- ning a success. Her gaze snagged on Wiley once again as he moved away from the group where he stood. One corner of his full mouth tugged into a sexy smirk, like he could feel the way her body went on high alert from across the room. Grace felt like she was on a roller coaster, climbing the track of the first giant hill. Her heart raced as she thought about the free fall to come. When he started toward her, she turned and leaned forward, gripping the railing with rigid fin- gers. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to meet him. In fact, her body practically yearned to get close to him. But she’d given herself to a man once before with disastrous results. No way would she fall again. A loud crack split the air, and she stumbled as the balcony pitched forward. Then she was falling so fast she didn’t even have time to scream. michelle major Chapter Two “This doesn’t make any sense.” Callum dashed a hand through his hair as he paced the small waiting room in the Rambling Rose Medical Center emergency room. “In all my years of construction, I’ve never had something like that happen on one of our projects.” “We’ll figure out what caused it,” Wiley said from where he sat on a patterned chair situated against the far wall. “But first we need to make sure Grace is okay. She’s the priority right now.” Callum nodded. “You’re right. But what if it had been a hotel guest or one of the kids on that balcony when it collapsed? Can you imagine if there were people on the patio below?” 25 Wiley understood his brother’s train of thought but felt oddly defensive at the subtle suggestion that the accident wasn’t as catastrophic because a mere employee had been injured. As if sensing his irritation, Callum held up a hand. He wore dark slacks and a button-down shirt that was covered with dust from the rubble of the mess that had been made when the balcony collapsed. “I’m not insinuating that Grace is disposable. I would never put her or any employee at risk. You know that, Wi.” “She was unconscious,” Wiley muttered, his nerve endings pulling tight at the memory of the EMTs lift- ing her limp body onto a stretcher. “She could have died in that fall.” The thought of losing her before he got to know her felt like a punch to the gut. “But she woke up in the ambulance.” Callum con- tinued to pace back and forth. “She was obviously in shock but seemed lucid. Her ankle was in bad shape, but I have to believe that’s the worst of her injuries. We need to believe Grace will be okay.” Grace Williams. Callum had shared the woman’s name with the first responders when they arrived at the hotel mere minutes after Nicole made the 911 call. In the chaos that ensued after the balcony’s col- lapse, Callum had been designated to accompany Grace to the hospital while his brothers and sisters dealt with things on-site. Wiley couldn’t explain why michelle major 26 her texas new year’s wish he’d stalked to his car and followed the emergency vehicle, but he couldn’t seem to release the impulse to be near Grace, even if she didn’t want or need him there. “You better hope she’s okay,” Wiley muttered. Callum stopped directly in front of him, his eyes narrowing. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Wiley drew in a breath. How was he supposed to explain the fierce protectiveness he felt toward a woman he’d only just met? He didn’t understand it, so there was no way his brother would. “The hotel bears a responsibility for the accident. If the construction was faulty or the building mate- rials subpar—” “Are you kidding?” Callum’s jaw tightened. “You know I don’t cut corners, Wiley. Everything I build is rock solid.” “Other than the balcony that just collapsed with a woman standing on it.” Wiley rose from his chair to stand toe-to-toe with his brother. “I’m going to assume you’re playing devil’s ad- vocate because you’re an attorney and concerned about the family’s liability. I sure as hell hope you aren’t suggesting that we didn’t take all the necessary steps to ensure proper construction.” Temper flared between them, and Wiley wanted to kick himself in the family jewels for goading his brother at a time like this. The thought of Grace’s injuries made him want to lash out at anyone and everyone. 27 He gave a tight nod. “I’m sorry, Callum. You’re right. I’m worried about your employee and I’m con- cerned about the hotel’s responsibility and the poten- tial negative press of this kind of accident. There’s no doubt about the quality of the work you do. I don’t want a single incident to tarnish your track record in town.” Callum eyed him for a moment longer, then stepped away and began to pace again. “We won’t let it. Of course we’ll take care of any medical bills that aren’t covered by Grace’s insurance and continue to pay her salary while she’s recovering. Once she returns to work—” “You don’t even know the extent of her injuries,” Wiley felt compelled to point out. “I can help with that.” They both turned as a tall man in light blue scrubs entered the waiting room. Callum strode forward and shook the man’s hand, reminding Wiley of his brother’s ties to the town. “Mark, how is she?” The man threw a glance in Wiley’s direction. “This is my brother Wiley. He’s in town for Lar- kin’s party.” “Quite an event,” the other man murmured, which to Wiley’s mind was the understatement of the new year. “Wiley, this is Dr. Mark Matthews.” Callum ges- tured to the doctor. “Becky says he’s one of the best michelle major 28 her texas new year’s wish emergency room physicians she knows.” He turned his attention fully to Mark. “I’m glad you’re on duty tonight. How is Grace?” “Good, given what she’s been through.” The doc- tor looked past Callum and Wiley to the empty wait- ing room. “Have you called her family?” Callum nodded. “Ashley tracked down her par- ents’ number and spoke to her mom. They’re on their way here.” “Can we see her?” Wiley demanded, crossing his arms over his chest when both men gave him a strange look. “I suppose that would be all right,” Mark agreed almost reluctantly. “We’ve moved her to a room on the third floor for the night.” “How bad are the injuries?” Callum asked as Dr. Matthews turned toward a bank of elevators. “You’re not family, so I can’t share any details.” Mark jabbed at the elevator’s button. “Grace will de- cide what she wants to tell you. She was awake when I left, but if she’s fallen back asleep I don’t want you to wake her. She’s in room three sixty-five. I need to check on another patient, and then I’ll be up.” Callum nodded. “Thanks, Mark. We won’t dis- turb her if she’s resting.” The elevator doors swished open as the doctor turned away. Wiley followed his brother into the small space. “I appreciate you being here,” Callum said as he 29 pushed the button for the third floor. “But you don’t have to go with me to see her.” Wiley kept his gaze on the carpeted floor. “I’ll stay.” He could feel Callum studying him but didn’t an- swer. Let his brother think that his interest in Grace Williams was due to concern over the hotel’s liabil- ity for the accident. It made sense, and not only because of Wiley’s career as an attorney. He’d never gotten particularly involved in the details of the lives of his siblings, at least as much as he could help it. After years of being part of such a large family, his identity as a separate individual meant the world to him. He couldn’t figure out why Grace had changed that in a split second, and he wasn’t ready to exam- ine it now. Grace glanced up at the soft knock on the hos- pital door. Her head felt heavy and somewhat mud- dled, but now that the pain medicine had kicked in, at least her entire body no longer throbbed in agony. She expected to see her parents’ familiar faces. Shock rippled through her as Callum Fortune en- tered. She couldn’t imagine that the man responsible for the construction of most of the new buildings in Rambling Rose would be too happy that one of his employees had managed to get herself practically killed in the middle of an important family event. michelle major 30 her texas new year’s wish “Hey there,” Callum said gently as he came closer to the bed. “Are you up for a couple of visitors?” Her gaze moved beyond his broad frame and shiv- ers erupted along her skin as she met the intense gaze of the man who’d captured her attention just before the balcony collapsed. Grace stifled a giggle that she knew must be caused by the pain medicine at the thought that her body’s overwhelming reac- tion to Wiley might have caused the earth to move under her feet. “Grace?” Callum gave her a strange look, and for an instant she worried she’d been singing the words to the classic tune out loud. She swallowed and tried to pull together her tan- gled musings. “Thanks for stopping by,” she said, and immediately thought she sounded ridiculous. As if Callum Fortune had come to her hospital room for some kind of social call. “I’m sorry I broke your bal- cony.” Her voice sounded strange to her ears, thick and garbled. Callum shook his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he assured her. “There’s no reason to be sorry. I’m the one who owes you an apology, Grace. I don’t understand how or why that balcony collapsed. The county building inspector was out before the holidays and we passed everything.” Wiley stepped forward, clearing his throat. “We’re glad you’re okay.” The gentle gleam in Wiley’s brown eyes made her 31 stomach flutter once again. When they’d been intro- duced, his eyes had appeared regular brown, but as he approached the bed she could see flecks of gold in their depths. His lashes were also outrageously long for a man. Cosmetics companies could build entire ad campaigns around the promise of achiev- ing lashes like his. She blinked and tried to focus, realizing she was staring at him like some cow-eyed teenager. “Hi,” she breathed, unable to form a more coherent greet- ing. “Hello, Grace,” he said, lifting her hand and squeezing her fingers with what felt like something close to admiration. She’d always hated her plain, one-syllable name, but on Wiley’s lips it sounded like a poem. “Hi,” she repeated and felt color heating her cheeks. Too bad she couldn’t blame the pain medi- cine for her reaction to him. “How are you?” he asked, like he truly cared about her answer and not just her physical injuries. “Did you two know each other before the party?” Callum interrupted before she could answer, sound- ing both confused and irritated. Oh, I know this man, Grace thought to herself. At least she wanted to know him. Wiley abruptly released Grace’s hand. Immedi- ately she wanted to reach for him again. Something michelle major 32 her texas new year’s wish flashed in his eyes, and she had the thought that he might feel the same as her. He broke eye contact with her to glance at his brother. “No. You introduced us.” “That’s what I thought,” Callum said, his voice f lat. Grace forced herself to focus on Callum. “I know the accident wasn’t your fault, Callum. I—” “Someone is sure as hell to blame.” She winced and brought a hand to her head at her brother’s overly loud words. Jake and her parents hurried into the room, crowding around her bedside as the Fortune brothers stepped back. Grace closed her eyes and wished for everyone to disappear other than Wiley. She wanted him to hold her hand again and ask how she was. She wanted to tell him she felt better when he was with her, even though that didn’t make any sense. Still, it felt totally justifiable to her heart. “Jake, this isn’t the time.” Grace opened her eyes as her mother placed a gentle hand on her brother’s arm. “Our focus right now is Grace.” Her brother, older by two years, crossed his arms over his chest. “We can all agree that she wouldn’t be fighting for her life in this hospital bed if it weren’t for the shoddy construction at the hotel.” “I’m not fighting for my life,” Grace said, lift- ing a hand to cover her mouth when another bubble 33 of laughter threatened to escape. Her brother had always had a quick temper, but she sobered as she noted the look of consternation that crossed Cal- lum’s features. “Oh, sweetheart.” Her mother let out a soft sob, and regret pricked at the hazy fog filling Grace’s mind. The last thing she wanted was to upset her mother. “We were so worried when that Fortune woman called.” Grace searched her brain for the details the doc- tor had shared about the extent of her injuries. “I’m okay, Mom. I broke my ankle and have a minor con- cussion.” Barbara Williams gasped. “A head injury?” “Minor,” Grace assured her, remembering the weeks after Jake’s car accident when he’d lain in a medically induced coma while they waited for the brain swelling to subside. “Plus a few bruises and scrapes. Everything else came back clear.” “Are you sure?” her father asked, his tone gruff. Grace knew that rough exterior hid the heart of a teddy bear. Her parents turned as Dr. Matthews entered the room. “She’s sure. Grace was incredibly lucky that her injuries weren’t worse. We’re going to keep her overnight for observation due to the concussion, but we anticipate a straightforward recovery.” “Thank God.” Her mother leaned forward to brush a kiss across Grace’s forehead. “My sweet baby.” michelle major 34 her texas new year’s wish “I’m not a baby,” Grace muttered. Even the cloud of fogginess from the pain medicine couldn’t dull the annoyance at her mother’s pronouncement, es- pecially in front of Callum and Wiley. Despite the caregiver role Grace had taken on during Jake’s convalescence and the fact that she’d been managing her own life for years, her mom and dad continued to treat her like a dependent little girl. She tried to be patient with them, because she knew how much Jake’s accident had made them aware of the mortality of their children. Things had only been exacerbated when Grace moved back to Rambling Rose after the debacle at Cowboy Country. But her duties at the hotel gave her a sense of purpose and a feeling of indepen- dence once again. Now it felt like everything was in jeopardy. Dr. Matthews frowned as she swiped a hand across her cheek, obviously misinterpreting the reason for her unwelcome tears. Grace didn’t care what had caused the balcony’s collapse, assuming nothing like that happened again. She did worry about what her recovery might mean for her future. “That doesn’t change the fact that someone is re- sponsible for my sister being hurt.” Jake shifted his glare between Callum and Wiley. Callum’s mouth thinned. “The hotel will take care of any medical expenses not covered by insurance. 35 Our priority is that she feels better as quickly as possible.” “To cover your assets,” Jake muttered. “Not at all,” Callum countered. “Do you really need to have this discussion in front of Grace?” the doctor asked impatiently. “Or at all?” Grace added. She sent a beseeching glance toward her brother, silently pleading with him to give it a rest, but Jake only shook his head. “You want to step out into the hall for a moment?” he asked Callum. “Good idea,” Callum agreed, and turned for the door. Grace reached for her father’s hand. “Don’t let Jake be rude, Dad. This wasn’t Callum’s fault. The Fortunes aren’t to blame. I know it.” A muscle ticked in Mike Williams’s bearded jaw. Her father retained the stocky build he’d had as younger man, and added a few inches of girth around the waist. “I’ll try to keep him calm.” He patted the top of Grace’s hand. “We’re glad you’re okay, baby girl.” Her stomach knotted as she watched her father follow the two younger men out into the hall. Dr. Matthews gave her an encouraging smile. “You doing okay?” “Fine,” she murmured. Her mom began to pepper the doctor with a lit- any of questions about her injuries and a recovery michelle major 36 her texas new year’s wish plan. Grace hated that she was causing her family this kind of worry or that she could be seen as a bur- den to the hotel. “That ‘fine’ didn’t seem convincing,” Wiley said as he lowered himself into the chair next to her bed and scooted closer. “You’re going to be okay, Grace. I promise.” She automatically smoothed a hand over her hair as if she had a reason to worry about looking pretty for Wiley Fortune. He was so close she could reach out and touch him. The urge was both overwhelm- ing and nonsensical. “You don’t owe me any promises,” she said in- stead, working to keep her wits about her despite the pounding of her heart and the effects of the pain medicine. “I get that.” He offered a tentative smile. “I can’t seem to help myself.” She blinked and then looked away, wondering if he was truly as sincere as he seemed. Her mother was still talking with the doctor, nodding furiously and taking notes on a small pad of paper she’d pulled from her purse as he spoke in hushed tones. Her fa-ther had closed the door behind him when he’d ven- tured into the hallway. Grace had a feeling Jake was giving Callum all kinds of trouble, and she wished she could make it stop. “My brother is protective,” she told Wiley. “I’m 37 sure he’ll realize that the balcony collapse was an unfortunate accident. Not anyone’s fault.” “It’s good that you have people to look out for you,” he said. “I guess you’re right.” She ran a finger along the edge of the thin blanket that covered her. “Although at the moment, I wish Jake would back off. I do want you to know that his accusations aren’t per- sonal. He doesn’t have it in for your family or any- thing like that.” “Good to know.” Wiley studied her for a long mo- ment and then lifted his hand like he might touch her. With a shake of his head he drew it back again, and disappointment pounded through Grace. “Do you have any other brothers or sisters?” he asked. She got the impression he was trying to distract her from worrying about what kind of scene might be unfolding in the hall. “No.” She flashed a smile. “We’re a small family compared to yours.” “Nothing wrong with that.” He returned her smile. “What about a boyfriend?” She felt her mouth drop open, and he immedi- ately rose from the chair. He scrubbed a hand over his jaw, looking uncomfortable. “I’m sorry. Forget I asked that. It’s none of my business.” “No boyfriend,” she told him quietly, feeling heat rise to her cheeks. “My focus right now is the train- michelle major 38 her texas new year’s wish ing program at the hotel.” She wiggled her toes, which stuck out of the cast on her left leg that stopped just below her knee. “This couldn’t have come at a worse time.” “Is there ever a good time to be standing on a balcony when it collapses?” Wiley asked, smiling again. Teasing her. Possibly even flirting with her? Before Grace had a chance to process that, her father and Callum reentered the room. Her mother took a step away from the doctor and frowned. “Where’s Jake?” “I sent him home,” Grace’s father said with a small shake of his head. Callum’s cheeks were flushed, his jaw taut. He motioned to Wiley. “We should go.” Grace sat up straighter on the bed. She wanted to protest Wiley leaving, but that would be stupid. “Thank you for being here with me.” She looked to Callum first before turning her attention to Wiley. “It helped a lot.” “I’m glad,” he said, and the intensity in his gaze made it feel like they were the only two people in the room. “Grace, I can’t tell you how sorry we are that you were hurt tonight.” Callum’s commanding tone forced her to return her gaze to him. “Like I said ear- lier, anything you need, our family will take care of it. Just focus on getting well again.” “And back to work,” she added quickly. “I want 39 to get back to work as soon as possible. Please let everyone know that.” Callum smiled tightly. “Of course.” “Work is the last thing you need to be concerned with right now,” her father said with a sniff. He gave Callum a sidelong glass. “I want confirmation that your hotel is safe before I let my little girl go back there.” Grace bit back a frustrated groan. Was her father trying to make the Fortunes angry? Her potential fu- ture at the hotel meant everything. She wouldn’t let anything—not even a collapsing balcony—jeopardize that. “I understand, sir,” Callum answered, but she could see by the set of his shoulders that it bothered him to have his workmanship called into question. “It’s fine.” Wiley said, moving close to her again. His fingers brushed the top of her cast and despite the layers of plaster, she felt the touch like he was caressing her skin. “Callum understands that your family is upset. I’ll talk to him.” “Thank you,” she whispered, and bit down on the inside of her cheek to stem her tears. She didn’t want to start sobbing in front of the two Fortunes on top of everything else. Wiley thanked the doctor and offered a heartfelt reassurance to her parents, then followed Callum out of the room. michelle major 40 her texas new year’s wish “I’ll give you all a few minutes,” Dr. Matthews said, “and then we can talk about next steps.” When the door closed behind the doctor, Grace let the tears flow. “Oh, sweetie.” Barbara was at her bedside in an instant. “You must have been terrified.” Grace took the tissue her mother handed her and blew her nose. “It happened so fast I barely had time to be scared.” “The point is it never should have happened in the first place,” her father said, crossing his arms over his meaty chest. “What the hell kind of karma are we saddled with, Gracie, that we almost lose your brother and now you?” “You didn’t almost lose me, Dad.” “A second-floor balcony collapsed with you stand- ing on it,” Mike reminded her—as if she needed re- minding. “You’re very lucky.” “I know.” Grace crumpled the tissue. “My inju- ries aren’t anywhere near what Jake went through. I don’t want either of you to worry about my recov- ery process. I’m going to get back to normal sooner than later.” “You can’t rush it,” her mother said, smoothing the hair from her forehead. “Let me get you a mir- ror and a wet towel. I’m sure you want to fix your face a bit.” Grace lifted a hand to her cheek. Fix her face? What was wrong with her face? 41 “You’ll move home, of course.” Her father’s tone brooked no argument. Grace argued, anyway. “I love my apartment, Dad. I can recover there just as easily.” In truth, she didn’t exactly love the cramped walk-up she’d rented when she returned to Rambling Rose, but it was bet- ter than moving back in with her parents. Her father snorted. “You live on the second floor of a building with a staircase so narrow I can’t be- lieve it’s even up to code. No way can you manage that with a cast.” “I could try,” she insisted, even though she knew her dad was right. “Grace Elizabeth.” She resisted the urge to roll her eyes but knew she had little chance of winning an argument when he used her middle name, as well. “I appreciate the offer,” she said instead. “It would make things easier until I’m out of the cast.” Her parents lived in a quiet section of Rambling Rose in the same house Grace had grown up in. The house, a rancher, wasn’t big, but it did have plenty of space for her. “We’ll take care of packing your things,” her mother said, returning from the bathroom with a small handheld mirror and a stack of wet paper tow- els. “All you need to focus on is resting.” And returning to work, Grace thought to herself. michelle major 42 her texas new year’s wish No point in saying the words out loud and engaging in another argument with her parents. She took the mirror and a paper towel from her mom. “Oh, no.” She glanced up and met her mother’s concerned gaze. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “You’ll clean up in a jiffy,” Barbara said brightly. All Grace could think about was Wiley seeing her like this. The cast was one thing, but her face was a mess. It wasn’t injured—for that she was grateful— but she looked like she’d been on a three-day bender. Her hair hung limp around her shoulders and stuck to her head in several places. Her skin was pasty and pale, and the mascara she’d carefully applied before the event was puddled under her eyes. If she had any question as to whether Wiley For- tune had been interested in her or simply concerned about her being injured at his family’s hotel, she was fairly certain her appearance answered it. Her ruined makeup and the ruined evening seemed to be par for the course in Grace’s life. Finally things had been turning around for her, and then something had to happen to send her veering off her chosen path once again. She began to wipe her face as she listened to her parents make plans for her unexpected homecoming. Grace couldn’t help but wonder if she’d ever truly attain the future she wanted so badly. Chapter Three “That was sure as hell a shock.” Wiley turned as Steven approached from one of the hotel’s patio doors. His brother kicked a small piece of terra-cotta-colored stone as he walked to- ward Wiley. It was nearly nine on the morning after the party. Wiley wanted to survey the balcony rubble in the daylight and had held out an odd kind of hope that things wouldn’t seem as bad in the aftermath of the accident. Instead, they were worse. The balcony’s deck had ripped off the exterior wall, sending thousands of pounds of concrete and 44 her texas new year’s wish metal plummeting to the ground. Grace had fallen a good twenty-five feet, and it was truly a miracle she hadn’t been hurt worse. He said as much to his brother, who nodded. “Cal- lum said she was in good spirits at the hospital. You were there with him, right?” Wiley nodded. “She was also doped up on pain- killers,” he muttered. “I’m not sure we should judge her feelings about the accident based on last night, especially not if her family has any influence on her opinion.” Steven nodded. The two of them had an unspo- ken language. Wiley had been a toddler when their mother married David Fortune, who’d quickly ad- opted both of his new wife’s young sons and given them his name. Wiley was close to all of his siblings,but he and Steven had a special bond. Steven had been a committed bachelor until he’d met and fallen for Ellie Hernandez, the mayor of Rambling Rose. Things had started off rocky be- tween them, but they’d quickly fallen deeply in love. Another Fortune who found his perfect future in this small Texas town. “That’s to be expected, but we’re all committed to doing the right thing by Grace. She’s been a huge asset to the hotel. I know Nicole and Mariana feel the same.” “She’s special,” Wiley said as his gaze zeroed in on a flash of silver under a pile of debris. “That’s an odd description coming from you. I 45 didn’t realize you and Grace had met before last night.” He could feel Steven studying him but didn’t meet his brother’s gaze. “We hadn’t.” Wiley walked for- ward, carefully picking his way through the mess. He wore dark jeans and a cotton sweater plus the cowboy boots the triplets had given him for Christ- mas. As a confirmed city slicker, Wiley felt a little strange sporting boots, but they seemed to be ex- pected in Texas. He bent down and pulled a high heel from the rubble. Clearly one of Grace’s shoes. The image of her unconscious on the ground flashed in his mind again, and his chest clenched in response. “What’s the deal?” Steven asked, sounding both curious and concerned. “You went to the hospital with Callum, and he said you were acting strange. Now you look like you’ve seen a ghost. If you and Grace don’t know each other, why are you—” “She could have died,” Wiley blurted out, then rolled his lips inward. He needed to get a handle on his emotions when it came to Grace Williams. He couldn’t explain to his brother the connection he felt with her. It had been immediate and intense, like a bolt of lightning slamming through him. “She was injured in a fall at our family’s hotel. The hotel that Fortune Brothers Construction built. We’re respon- sible for her, Steven.” His brother’s thick brows drew together. “Are you michelle major 46 her texas new year’s wish thinking about our potential liability in the accident? Is Wiley the attorney making sure we cover our—” They both turned when a feminine throat cleared. “Sorry to bother you, Steven.” A woman walked to- ward them from the far side of the pool. She looked to be in her midtwenties and wore a pencil skirt and a silk blouse that made her seem a bit overdressed for a casual Sunday. “There’s a reporter in the lobby asking to speak to the hotel manager.” She tucked a perfect blond curl behind one ear. “If you’d like I can talk to him?” Wiley frowned at the gleam in the woman’s gaze. “Who are you?” he demanded, not bothering to gen- tle his tone. In the same way that he’d felt an immedi- ate connection with Grace, he had an instant dislike of this woman. She swallowed visibly, her gaze darting from Wiley to Steven, who’d pulled out his phone and was typing in a message. “Jillian Steward,” she said, clearing her throat. “I’m one of the management program trainees at the hotel. I have a background in public relations as well as hospitality at my last position, so I’m more than equipped to deal with the press. That’s part of the role of whoever is promoted to the GM position.” Grace had mentioned something about the trainee program last night. She’d seemed worried about her job given the extent of her injuries. Did she suspect 47 one of her coworkers was going to take advantage of her absence? Wiley didn’t like the thought of that. Steven nodded absently. “I texted Callum and Ni- cole, but if you want to—” “I’ll talk to the reporter,” Wiley interrupted. Jillian’s lips tightened. “I don’t mind.” “Someone in the family should handle the media,” he said. “As hotel counsel, it makes sense that I act as spokesperson.” “Hotel counsel?” Steven whistled under his breath. “Another new development.” Wiley nodded and focused his attention on Jil- lian. “Would you please tell the reporter I’ll be with him in a minute?” “Sure.” The woman flashed a cheery smile. “We won’t let Grace’s absence hold us back. If you need anything else—” “We don’t,” Wiley told her. “She’s just doing her job,” Steven said as Jillian disappeared into the hotel. “It sounded to me like she was trying to encroach on Grace’s role.” Wiley drew in a calming breath. “I don’t like the thought of someone taking advantage of the accident.” “It sounds to me like you have a lot of thoughts where Grace is concerned.” “I’m doing my job,” Wiley shot back. “As far as you being the hotel’s counsel, obvi- ously I’m all for it. You know we’d like you to stick michelle major 48 her texas new year’s wish around Rambling Rose longer. In fact, weren’t you scheduled to fly back to Chicago this afternoon?” “I changed my ticket.” “Seriously?” “Stop studying me like I’m some puzzle to fig- ure out,” Wiley grumbled. He didn’t want to think that his brother could read the feelings he was try- ing to hide. He’d texted his secretary early this morning ask- ing her to change his airline reservation to give him a few extra days in Texas, mainly because he wanted to see for himself that Grace was doing okay. He wanted more than he cared to admit to see her again. No point in sharing those details with his brother. “The Hotel Fortune is a huge deal for the rest of you. That makes it a huge deal for me.” Steven’s shoulders relaxed ever so slightly. “Thanks, Wi.” He clapped Wiley on the back. “Appreciate you stepping in, even if it’s temporary. I know that small- town life isn’t your deal.” “Yeah.” Wiley massaged a hand over the back of his neck. He would have agreed 100 percent with Ste- ven’s assessment before last night. Now he couldn’t say for sure how he felt. “I’m going to go deal with this reporter. He won’t be the only one interested in the accident. Let’s plan to meet with everyone out at the ranch later and come up with some talking points going forward.” He nodded at his brother and then headed for the 49 front of the hotel, his mind wandering to Grace and when he might see her again. Grace tossed her cell phone down on the hospital bed with more force than necessary. “You can’t avoid me forever,” she muttered, then glared at her cast leg. She knew that everyone at the hotel was busy with preparations for the grand opening, but she’d called and texted Jillian Steward, her counterpart in the management program, a half dozen times and had yet to receive a response. Grace and Jillian weren’t the only two trainees, but they were the pair that had been singled out by the Fortunes to be considered for the promotion at the end of the six-month program. That meant Jillian was the competition, and Grace knew the womanwould use every advantage she could to make herself seem more deserving of the general manger position. And Grace was stuck in a hospital bed. She’d received calls from a range of Fortunes since the accident, all of them conciliatory and thoughtful. The family had sent an enormous bouquet of flowers. Grace appreciated the gesture, but when she’d asked about joining the regular Monday staff meeting by phone, Callum had told her that her only focus at the moment needed to be healing. She won- dered if her mom had gotten to him. “Who’s avoiding you?” michelle major 50 her texas new year’s wish Her gaze darted to the open door to find Wiley Fortune standing there, looking just as handsome as he had Saturday night. He wore dark jeans and a gray sweater that somehow made his brown eyes look even darker. “No one important,” she said, and offered him a weak smile, once again aware of the disparity in their appearances. She wore an old flannel shirt over her hospital gown. Although she’d managed a shower earlier with her mom’s help, Grace hadn’t bothered to apply makeup or do anything with her hair. She tucked a thick strand behind one ear, wishing she’d considered the possibility of a visitor she might want to impress. “Are you up for some company?” he asked, al- most hesitantly. It was strange to see a man like Wiley appear any- thing but totally confident. “I’d like that,” she said, and he approached the bed. He’d been holding one hand behind his back and pulled it out to reveal an exquisite bouquet of flow- ers arranged in a beautiful cut-glass vase. “These are for you.” He gave a soft laugh. “Ob- viously.” “Thank you.” She gestured him closer and sat up in the bed. “They’re beautiful. Calla lilies are my favorite.” His smile widened. “You’re just saying that to be nice.” 51 “It’s true,” she assured him. “They remind me of summer.” “They reminded me of you,” he told her. Some- thing in the low rumble of his voice made goose bumps erupt along her skin. She breathed in the sweet floral scent as he held the bouquet close to her. “Mine seem a bit small in comparison.” He touched a finger to the enormous arrangement on her bedside table as he placed his vase next to it. “The hotel sent those,” she said. “Along with a fruit basket.” “Thoughtful,” he murmured. “Everyone is re- lieved that you weren’t hurt worse.” His gaze clouded over as it roamed over the cast. “It could have been really bad.” “If I spent my time worried about things that could have happened, I’d never have the strength to get out of bed in the morning.” She squeezed her hands together and focused on staying calm. “I would have given up a long time ago.” He sat down in the chair her mother had situated next to the bed. “You can’t ever give up, Grace.” “I’ll keep that in mind if I can convince my par- ents to stop coddling me.” She didn’t want to sound bitter but couldn’t help her frustration. “I know I’m lucky, but what good does that do me if I lose my job at the hotel?” michelle major 52 her texas new year’s wish Wiley frowned. “You aren’t going to lose your job. They’ll give you time to heal. Healing is your priority.” She let out a groan of frustration. “I’m so sick of hearing that,” she all but shouted, then realized how she must sound when Wiley’s eyes widened in shock. “Are you sure we hadn’t met before yesterday?” She shook her head. “Because I don’t normally vent to people who are practically complete strangers.” “The first time I saw you was at the party,” he said, his tone gentle. “That brief introduction wasn’t enough, but I thought we’d have all night to talk. Then you walked out onto the balcony and…” He ran a hand through his hair and looked away. “I wish I wouldn’t have left your side.” “You couldn’t have known what would happen.” She reached out and covered his hand with hers be- fore thinking about what she was doing. For several seconds, they both stared at the place where they touched. Hers was paler and looked small against his larger, golden-hued skin. “I still regret not being able to protect you.” “But if you’d been on the balcony we both would have been hurt.” Her heart beat against her rib cage, and she drew back her hand. She liked touching Wiley way too much. “I don’t need to be protected and am doing my best to convince my parents of that.” 53 “Parents worry. It’s part of the job description.” Something in his tone made her wonder what he wasn’t saying. “Do you…um…have kids?” “God, no.” He held up his hands in protest, like she’d just asked if he had cooties. “No wife or girl- friend, either, for the record.” She laughed softly. “Thanks for sharing.” “I’m more the uncle versus father type. Some peo- ple just aren’t cut out to be a parent, you know?” “Some aren’t cut out for monogamy, either,” she countered. “Unfortunately, my last boyfriend was one of those.” Wiley cringed. “Sorry.” “Me, too.” He tapped a finger on the chair’s wooden armrest. “People should know their limits. If a guy can’t be committed, he shouldn’t commit.” Grace wasn’t sure how they’d gone down this path of conversation. But it was par for the course that she was harboring an unexpected attraction for a man who just admitted to basically being allergic to relationships. “That’s why my focus is my career,” Grace said, then cleared her throat. Could she really claim a ca- reer after three months in a management training pro- gram? “My job at the hotel and the possible promotion after the grand opening. It’s everything to me.” “That’s right,” Wiley said with a nod. “They’re going to hire a general manager locally. I met some- michelle major 54 her texas new year’s wish one else today who’s part of the training program. Jillian something or other.” “Steward.” Frustration balled in Grace’s stomach. “Jillian Steward. She also wants the GM role, and I’m sure she’s going to take advantage of me being on leave to ingratiate herself to everyone.” She groaned out loud when Wiley shifted in his chair. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m sharing so many of my per- sonal struggles with you. Jillian is a qualified can- didate. Not more qualified than me, of course. Your brothers and sisters can make whatever decision they want about the promotion. I just hope I’m cleared to return to work sooner rather than later.” “My brothers and sisters think highly of you,” he said with a sincere smile. “Missing a few weeks from work won’t change that.” “Weeks?” She shook her head. “There’s no way I’m waiting weeks. The hotel will practically be open by then. There’s way too much to do and—” She paused, narrowed her eyes at Wiley. “Is that why you’re here? Did they send you to tell me I can’t come back until I’m done with the blasted cast? I know that’s what my mom wants, but she’s—” Grace’s mother entered the room, closing the door harder than she needed to. “Your mother has your well-being at the forefront of her mind. I’m sure Mr. Fortune would agree that your recovery is most im- portant.” Wiley quickly stood and took a step away from 55 the bed. “Most important,” he repeated, and Grace felt her lips twitch at how discombobulated he looked facing down her mother. Barbara Williams was a petite woman, several inches shorter than Grace, with a delicate frame that belied her inner strength. She worked part-time at the high school library and had since Grace and Jake went to school there. Their mother claimed it kept her busy and out of her husband’s hair. Unfortunately, when she arrived at the hospital this morning, she’d also announced she was taking a few weeks of un- paid leave until Grace was up and around. Except Grace wasn’t sure how that was supposed to happen while living under her mom’s overprotec- tive thumb. “I assume that’s why you’re here,” Barbara said to Wiley, her tone cool. “To assure Grace she has no worries about her position since she was injured on the job.” “I stopped by to…” Wiley scrubbed a hand over his jaw, the slight scratching sound doing funny things to Grace’s insides. “That is to say I’m…” “Why are you here?” Grace frowned at how flus- tered Wiley seemed. She certainly hoped that didn’t mean his plan had actually been to give her some bad news about her job. When he’d walked in, she’d been so darn happy to see him that she hadn’t both- ered to question his appearance. She couldn’t deny the connection she’d felt with michelle major 56 her texas new year’s wish him from the moment they locked eyes across the Roja banquet room. Given the invisible thread that apparently linked them together, it had seemed ap- propriate for him to visit her. But her mother’s skeptical gaze made Grace doubt what she felt. If doubts were dollar bills, she’d be a millionaire. “Your job is secure,” he said, sounding less like the flirting man who’d entered her room and more like a stuffy attorney. The type of professional she’d come to distrust during her brother’s fight to en- sure that insurance paid his medical bills after the car accident. Somehow those words did little to relieve her anxiety. “Thanks for relaying that message,” her mother said. “I’m sure the Fortunes who were responsible for the construction are far too busy trying to determine what went wrong to bother stopping by.” “Mom, stop. Callum called earlier and both Ste- ven and Dillon as well as Nicole and Megan have texted. It’s fine.” Her mother sniffed, then sent another glare in Wiley’s direction. “I should go,” he said, offering Grace a wan smile. “I’m glad you’re doing well, Grace, and hope you’ll be out of the hospital soon.” “The doctor wants another round of concussion 57 testing before she’s released.” Barbara flung the words at Wiley like they were a personal accusation. “Do they suspect things are worse?” Grace wasn’t sure what to make of the concern in his gaze, but it warmed her heart. Of course, it could just be that he didn’t want his family on the hook for additional medical expenses. That’s what her brother would say. Somehow, she didn’t believe it. “She’s fine,” her mother said before Grace could answer. “But this is really a situation for the people close to her to handle. Her family.” “I understand,” Wiley said with a pinched smile. “Please let me know if there’s anything I…any of us at the hotel can do to help.” His gaze darted to Grace and then back to her mother before he left the room. As soon as he disappeared, Barbara began to flit about the room, clearly filled with agitation. “Mom, you were so rude to him.” Grace wanted to go after Wiley, but she couldn’t do anything stuck in this bed. The crutches a nurse had brought in rested against the wall, but it would take far too much time to manage them. “Why was he here, Gracie?” her mother demanded, clasping her hands tight in front of her like she had to hold them together to keep in her nervous energy. “To check on me.” “That doesn’t make sense. He barely knows you.” Grace had to agree that in theory it didn’t make michelle major 58 her texas new year’s wish sense, but her heart told her it was perfectly reason- able for Wiley to be at her side. “He’s being nice,” she said, because explaining the feeling of connection she had with him would be a losing argument. “Covering his family’s assets is more like it.” “You sound like Jake.” Her brother had visited earlier, railing about the hotel and rumors of shoddy construction he’d heard from friends around town after reports of the balcony collapse got out. Since Rambling Rose was such a tight-knit community, word spread fast. “What happened at the hotel was a freak accident. The Fortunes are good people, Mom. They’ve already done so much for the town.” Barbara’s mouth thinned, but she nodded. “I agree, but buildings don’t just fall apart for no reason. Jake feels that there’s something suspicious about the bal- cony collapsing the way it did.” “Jake needs more hobbies,” Grace grumbled. “Or to watch less true-crime television.” Her mother’s features gentled. “You have a point, but the Fortunes have had problems in the past. I re- member hearing about some crazy ex-wife causing all sorts of trouble for the family. There was even talk about a kidnapping.” “Those aren’t the same Fortunes.” Grace closed her eyes and silently counted to ten, hoping for pa- tience. “It was Jerome Fortune—the tech giant who 59 reinvented himself as Gerald Robinson—whose family had those issues. He eventually found happi- ness, though, with his first love. And Wiley’s father, David, wasn’t involved in any of that. The difficul- ties haven’t followed the Fortunes to Rambling Rose as far as I’ve heard.” She wanted to strangle her brother for putting these doubts into her mother’s head. Barbara had al- ways been protective, but she’d become even more of a worrier after Jake’s accident. The severity of his injuries and the fear of losing him had rocked their small family to its core. Grace knew her mother’s fear had seeped into her consciousness, as well. It had made Grace hesitant about taking chances, and now that she was finally getting a shot at a real ca- reer at the Hotel Fortune, she wasn’t going to let un- founded rumors derail her. “I thought they were all related in some way.” Grace opened her eyes to see her mother study- ing Wiley’s bouquet. “Distantly,” she agreed. “But Callum and his sib- lings weren’t close to their cousins growing up. From everything I’ve learned working for the hotel, they moved here from Florida with the intent to estab- lish themselves without significant ties to the rest of the Fortune family. No one is out to get them. Why would they be?” “These are pretty,” her mother said absently. “Calla lilies are your favorite.” michelle major 60 her texas new year’s wish “I know.” Warmth infused Grace’s chest once more as she thought about the fact that Wiley had somehow known her preference in flowers. “Mom, tell me you believe what I’m saying. I’m not in dan- ger working at the hotel.” “I believe the Fortunes mean well,” her mother conceded. “At first, I was skeptical of the scope of their plan for the town. It felt like a bit of an inva- sion to those of us who grew up here and were happy with things the way they were.” “The town was dying, Mom.” “That’s going a little far.” “But it’s true. The Fortunes have attracted new residents and visitors from all over Texas and the sur- rounding states. Already-established local businesses have benefited, as well. Even the mayor agrees.” Ellie Fortune Hernandez, the town’s popular young mayor, had expressed doubts about Callum’s plan at the start but had quickly come to be one of the Fortune fam- ily’s staunchest supporters, in no small part thanks to falling in love with and ultimately marrying Steven.“And Mariana is helping with the hotel’s signature restaurant. Everyone in town loves her for all those years she ran her famous market. If she’s behind the project, we know it’s in the town’s best interest.” Her mother held up her hands, palms out. “Okay, Gracie. No need to take out a billboard to advertise all of the wonderful things the Fortunes have done in 61 Rambling Rose. I’m glad for the town to benefit from their efforts, but my main concern is you. It’s all well and good for some new-to-town family to have success, but not if my baby is at risk because of it.” Grace blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m not at risk. And I’m going back to work as soon as the doctor tells me I can. This injury won’t jeopardize my future.” “I heard Wiley say your position is secure.” “My current position,” Grace clarified. “He has no control over the GM role, and he already hinted that Jillian was making a play for it. If she takes over my responsibilities while I’m out as well as handling her own, she could make a strong case for why she’s the best candidate.” “There are plenty of places to work that don’t in- volve the Fortunes,” her mother said, even though they both knew that wasn’t true. At least not places in Rambling Rose that offered Grace the opportu- nities she craved. “Mom, I’m happy to be back here.” She loved Rambling Rose but hated that she’d returned on the heels of her life imploding. It was why she was so determined to earn the GM position. “But I can only stay if I can make a future for myself. I feel like the Hotel Fortune is my best chance for that. My only chance right now. I need you to support me and to make sure Dad and Jake do, too.” Her mother sniffed. “Good luck with that.” michelle major 62 her texas new year’s wish “That’s what I’m afraid of.” Grace leaned forward and touched her cast, blinking away tears. “Please, Mom. I know you’re worried, but this is important to me. After I found out about Craig cheating and resigned from Cowboy Country, it felt like I’d never have another chance to prove myself. I don’t regret coming home from college after Jake’s accident, but my life veered off path after that. I want a course correction. I need it.” “Oh, Gracie.” Her mother lowered herself to the edge of the bed and put her arms around Grace’s shoulders. “You know I support you. Your dad and your brother, too, in their own way. We all just want what’s best for you.” Sloppy tears flowed down Grace’s cheeks, and she didn’t try to stop them. She’d tried for the past twenty-four hours to put on a brave face, but so much felt out of her control. After a minute, she pulled back. She hated that her mother was crying, as well. There had been so many tears during Jake’s recovery. Grace didn’t want to be the cause of any more. “I don’t know what’s best,” she admitted. “But I do know what feels right, and the hotel is a big part of that for me.” She wiped the cuff of her flannel shirt across her mom’s cheeks, earning a watery smile. “I trust the Fortunes, espe- cially Wiley. I can’t explain it, but there’s something about him.” “Well, he’s quite handsome.” Barbara skimmed 63 her thumbs over Grace’s cheeks. “He has a very cute butt.” “Mom.” Grace laughed. “That’s pretty bold.” “I might be middle-aged, but I’m not dead.” Grace hugged her mom again, then blew out a shuddery breath. “It’s more than how he looks. It’s how he looks at me. Like I’m special.” “You are special. But—” “I know nothing will come of it,” Grace said quickly, embarrassed that she admitted so much to her mom. “He was only in town for the birthday party, and I understand he’s checking on me because he’s an attorney and he’s worried about the family’s liability. That’s how lawyers are.” A part of her hoped her mother would argue, but Barbara nodded. “Smart girl. Keep your wits about you when it comes to men who seem too good to be true. I remember how fast you fell for Craig.” Grace frowned, not sure how to explain that her connection to Wiley felt different from anything she’d experienced before. Why bother? Chances were she’d never see him again, anyway. She pressed her fingers to her chest and tried to rub away the sud- den pinch. “Will you help me convince Dad and Jake not to make trouble with the Fortunes?” Barbara looked away for a long moment but fi- nally nodded. “I’m not quite convinced, but you de- serve happiness. As long as you follow the doctor’s michelle major 64 her texas new year’s wish orders and don’t push yourself too much, I’ll sup- port you.” Grace smiled. “Thank you, Mom. I promise I’ll take care.” Chapter Four Wiley sat at the empty Roja bar the following eve- ning, sipping a scotch as he stared out the patio doors to the rubble of the collapsed balcony. Callum’s crew would begin cleanup and new construction tomorrow morning. Although the mess was both an eyesore and, more importantly, a reminder of the accident, they’d had to wait until the insurance adjuster and building inspector gave them the go-ahead. Unfortunately, the inspector’s report had been both better and worse than any of them could have imagined. Better because the man verified that the accident hadn’t been a result of shoddy workman- ship. Worse because his finding indicated that the 66 her texas new year’s wish support beams had possibly been tampered with, rendering them structurally unsafe and likely the cause of the collapse. “Mind if I join you?” Nicole asked as she ap- proached from the restaurant’s kitchen. She wore a white chef’s coat and dark pants, her mass of thick hair pulled back into a tight bun. The restaurant had been open on select weekends but wouldn’t expand its hours until the following month when the hotel officially opened. Nicole spent as much time on-site as their brothers, working on Roja’s menu and train- ing the staff. Sometimes it still shocked Wiley to see his baby sisters functioning as capable adults. He’d left for college when the triplets were still in mid- dle school. While he’d been home for vacations and holidays, he hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that Nicole, Ashley and Megan had grown up while he was away living his life. “It’s your liquor,” he told her, gesturing to the bottle. She scrunched up her nose. “I’m going to have a glass of wine.” “I’ll take a glass of what Wiley’s offering.” Cal- lum appeared in the doorway, his brows drawn to- gether and stress lines bracketing either side of his mouth. Wiley imagined he looked just as tense. Nicole did, as well. They hadn’t shared the news of poten- tial sabotage with anyone outside the family yet, but 67 it was only a matter of time until the information leaked. Wiley wasn’t sure what made him angrier, the idea that Grace had been hurt by some unknown adversary or that other employees at the hotel might still be at risk. “We don’t have enemies,” Callum said as if read- ing Wiley’s thoughts. He took a seat on the plush leather bar stool next to Wiley, and Nicole handed him a glass. “I know the deputy raised questions based on the report, but it isn’t true.” He poured himself a generous amount of scotch, then refilled Wiley’s glass. “Are you sure?” Wiley demanded. “What other explanation could there be?” Nicole added as she came around the bar and sat on Wi- ley’s other side. “I don’t know,” Callum admitted. Wiley under- stood how much it took for his capable brother to say those words out loud. “You told me that people around here weren’t thrilled with your plans for the hotel.” Wiley sipped the scotch, the dark liquor doing very little to warm him. “We handled it.” Callum nodded like he was try- ing to convince all of them. “Kane was instrumental in helping smooth things over. We got input from a whole cross section of the community and imple- mented their ideas into the design. As far as we’ve heard since then, everyone is behind the project. Peo- michelle major 68 her texas new year’s wish ple understand that the hotel will benefit local busi- nesses across the board, not just the ones we own.” Nicole twirled her wineglass between two fingers. “Do either of you think it was strange that the offi- cer asked about the situation with Gerald Robinson and his ex-wife?” “The evil ex-wife,” Callum muttered. “Charlotte,” Wiley said. “I didn’t know the details, so I did a little digging this afternoon and called Dad to see what he remembered about her case.” “Dad and I were together at the wedding when Charlotte tried to kidnap one of the guests.” Cal- lum drew in a deep breath. “That woman was defi- nitely trouble.” Wiley wiped a droplet of condensation from the rim of his glass. “It wasn’t just the attempted kid- napping. Charlotte burned down Gerald’s house and caused all kinds of trouble. She was off the rails.” “But she’s in a psychiatric hospital now,” Cal- lum said. “And why would she want to harm any of us?” Nicole asked. “Dad isn’t even close to his half broth- ers, and we have very little contact with that branch of the family. The Austin Fortunes I’ve met are nice, but it’s a stretch to think anyone from their world has a grudge against us.” Wiley nodded. “I agree, but it would be nice if dis- covering the culprit could be cut-and-dried or if we could say for certain that whatever happened with the 69 beams was a onetime accident. At this point, the idea that someone wants to sabotage us and not knowing who or why isn’t doing much for my peace of mind.” “Imagine how the rest of us feel,” Callum said. “You’re upset, and you don’t have anything at stake in this venture. If we don’t get a handle on what might be happening, I could lose everything.” Wiley’s blood pressure spiked at his brother’s words. He knew Callum was right in a business sense, but Wiley did have something to lose. Some- one, anyway. He’d heard that Grace had been discharged yes- terday after his visit. While he was happy to know she was well enough to go home, he didn’t know what to do with his strong desire to see her again. He couldn’t very well just show up at her parents’ house without a good reason. He also couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her. No point in explaining the attraction to his brother when Wiley still didn’t understand it himself. “We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he promised. Callum gave him a curious look. “What are you planning to do from Chicago?” “I’m actually thinking of staying on in Rambling Rose until the hotel opens next month.” He said the words calmly, hoping neither of his siblings would question him. “Wi, that would be amazing.” Nicole set her michelle major 70 her texas new year’s wish wineglass on the glossy bar top and threw her arms around him. “It will be like old times with all of us together. You’re the last holdout, you know.” Callum clasped his shoulder. “Are you sure?” “I talked to the senior partner today and con- firmed that I can work remotely for a few weeks. I’ll still have to give time to my clients. We’re working on closing a huge deal with a manufacturing com- pany, but I should be able to manage it. That way I can also help with whatever needs to be done around here.” Thinking about having a purpose made him feel calmer. “I’d like to review the employment con- tracts and insurance policies for the various ventures in town to make sure everything is in good shape.” “Sounds great,” Callum told him. “I’d also like to talk to some of the employees,” Wiley said. Nicole gasped softly. “You aren’t suggesting that someone who works for us was involved with the bal- cony?” She shook her head. “This is a tight commu- nity, Wiley. It’s not like the big city where people are out for themselves. Like Callum said, we got people to support the hotel. I don’t want to even consider that anyone would want to do us harm.” “I hope you’re right.” Wiley drained his glass and then stood. “But one of your employees was injured in that balcony collapse. Grace could have died.” His sister’s blue eyes filled with tears, and she glanced away. “I know.” 71 “Don’t get upset.” Wiley wanted to kick himself and even more so when Callum’s fingers tightened around his scotch glass. The last thing he should be doing was making his siblings feel bad. They had the best intentions when it came to their plan for Ram- bling Rose. He knew that. “I don’t believe for a minute that anyone working for the hotel was involved,” Callum said. “Fortune Brothers Construction has never dealt with sabotage, but I know of contractors who’ve had their sites van- dalized and projects derailed. Sometimes the motiva- tion is as simple as someone looking for attention.” Wiley nodded. “The reporter I talked to yesterday was from the local paper, but that doesn’t mean the story won’t be picked up by news outlets in bigger cities around Texas if it’s a slow news cycle.” “I hate having our business out there for pub- lic consumption.” A muscle ticked in Callum’s jaw. Wiley could feel the anger and frustration radiat- ing from both his brother and sister. He wanted to find a way to ease their anxiety, however he could manage it. “The paper here comes out weekly, right?” Nicole nodded. “Hopefully,” Wiley said, clasping his hands to- gether in front of his chest, “this incident will have blown over by the time the story runs. We should come up with an event to bring some positive public- ity to the hotel before the grand opening. Show the michelle major 72 her texas new year’s wish town that the Fortunes are here for the long haul and dedicated to doing what’s right for Rambling Rose.” Callum and Nicole both expressed their agree- ment with his idea. Nicole pulled out her phone. “Grace would have been our go-to for a community event. She has a way with people.” The understatement of the century, as far as Wiley was concerned. “We’ll have to ask Jillian to take the lead. I can text her tonight and then schedule a meeting with her and the other trainees tomorrow for—” “No.” Wiley stepped forward quickly and held up a hand. “We should let Grace handle this if she’s up for it.” He kept his features neutral as his brother and sister stared at him in disbelief. “You must be joking,” Callum said finally. “She was the one hurt in the accident. Why would we ask her to coordinate a publicity event in response?” “She called earlier today,” Nicole added, “and said that she’s staying with her parents while her leg heals. They’re encouraging her to rest and recu- perate for at least a few weeks. Of course I told her that she can take all the time she needs, so I can’t very well turn around and push her to return to work right away.” “I know what her parents want,” Wiley said, thinking of Grace’s distress in the hospital. “But do 73 you think she agrees? When I talked to her, she was eager to return to work.” “When did you talk to her?” Callum’s tone was suddenly suspicious. “In the hospital,” Wiley said with a wave of his hand. “You know that.” He hadn’t told anyone about his visit to her the previous day. “She was loopy on pain medicine.” Callum shook his head. “We can’t trust anything she said that night.” “We should at least ask her.” Wiley pointed at Callum. “As for why, the reason should be obvious.” And it had nothing to do with Wiley’s desire to spend more time with her, or at least that’s what he wanted to believe. “If the employee who was injured is the one representing the hotel, that shows her faith in the family and the Hotel Fortune. You can’t buy that kind of press.” “Good point,” Callum agreed. Nicole didn’t look convinced, but she nodded. “I don’t want to bother her at night. I’ll call her in the morning and ask, but I won’t pressure her.” “Let me talk to her,” Wiley offered with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Since she was such an integral part of the team before the accident, I’d love to ask if she noticed anything suspicious before Larkin’s birthday. I can mention the idea of an event and see what she thinks.” michelle major 74 her texas new year’s wish “I’m not sure,” Nicole said, her tone hesitant. “She barely knows you.” Exactly, Wiley thought to himself. He needed an excuse to spend time with her. Maybe that would quench the thirst he had deep in his soul when it came to Grace. “She won’t think I have an ulterior motive with regards to her job security.” Callum barked out a rough laugh. “You’re an at- torney. She’ll think you have an ulterior motive. Your profession isn’t known for rampant altruism.” “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Wiley grum- bled. “Come on, Callum. I want to help while I’m here, and I’m here until all of this gets settled.” He turned his attention to his sister. “I promise I’ll be nice to Grace and make sure she knows her healing is our top priority. At least let me start the conversa- tion with her. If it doesn’t go well, you can take over.” Nicole looked like she wanted to argue, then glanced at Callum. “We’re overextended as it is. If Wiley wants to talk to Grace, I guess that would be okay. But being nice is no joke.” “Nicole is right.” Callum leveled him with a steely stare. “Don’t go corporate attorney and terrify her or offend her family. The whole point of the hotel’s training program is to generate goodwill within the community by offering opportunities to Rambling Rose locals, and now one of them has been hurt on the job. Any way you look at it, the situation is a PR nightmare. We have to keep Grace happy.” 75 Wiley wasn’t about to go into all the ways he wanted to keep Grace happy. “I understand,” he said, hoping his expression didn’t give away the anticipa- tion building inside him now that he had a reason to visit her. “Nicole, would you text me her parents’ ad- dress? I’ll stop by tomorrow and then check in with you both and let you know how it went.” He said goodbye and headed for his car. All he could think about was the impending visit to Grace’s house and how he couldn’t wait to be near her again. Grace sat on the overstuffed couch in her par- ents’ cozy family room the following morning, star- ing at the book in her hand and realizing she’d read the same page three times. With a groan, she flung the paperback across the room. It slammed into the wall and dropped with a thud to the floor just as her mother appeared in the doorway. “I guess you’re not a fan of romance novels,” Bar- bara said with a shake of her head. “Grace, if you’re done with the outburst, you have a visitor.” “Sorry,” Grace muttered. “I just hate lying around like this. I feel so useless.” She raised a brow when she finally met her mother’s gentle gaze. Barbara’s cheeks were flushed, and she worried her hands in front of her. “What is it? Who’s here, Mom?” Her mother glanced over her shoulder in the di- rection of the front hall and gestured the visitor for- ward. “It’s…um…” michelle major 76 her texas new year’s wish “Hello, Grace.” Wiley came to stand next to her mom. “I apologize for not calling first. It actually didn’t cross my mind until your mom answered the door. If this isn’t a good time…” “It’s… No…this is…great…fine… I’m happy to… It’s fine…” She started to straighten, nervous energy scrambling her brain cells. Wiley Fortune, the man who had consumed her thoughts since he’d walked out of her hospital room two days earlier, had come to see her. He was standing in her parents’ modest house, staring at her like—well, like she was some- one special. “Grace appreciates you stopping by,” her mother said, the corner of her mouth twitching. Realizing she wasn’t going anywhere gracefully with the cast, Grace settled back onto the cushions and offered Wiley a friendly smile. She hoped it came off as friendly and not deranged, although he made her feel just a touch unbalanced. “What she said,” Grace muttered. Barbara picked up the book Grace had thrown against the wall and handed it to Wiley. “Have a seat,” she told him. “I’ll check on the two of you in a bit. Would you like a glass of iced tea, Wiley?” “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” Color crept up Barbara’s cheeks as Wiley focused his attention on her. See, Mom, Grace thought. You can be suspicious all you want, but a man that hand- some is hard to resist. 77 When her mother disappeared toward the kitchen, Wiley took another step into the room, glancing down at the book he held. “Don’t you dare make fun,” Grace said, tugging on the hem of the Rambling Rose High School sweat- shirt she wore. She hadn’t dressed expecting visitors. Her parents had grabbed a random assortment of clothes from her apartment, so this morning Grace had thrown on an old high school sweatshirt and a pair of baggy sweatpants after cutting off one leg at the knee. Now she wished she’d thought to dab on a bit of lip gloss or at least a spritz of perfume. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Wiley promised. “I as- sume the duke mentioned in the title would be the brawny man on the cover.” “You’d assume correctly.” “I never imagined old-time aristocrats to be gym rats—” He held up the book and tapped a finger on one of the duke’s broad shoulders “—but this one is quite the impressive physical specimen.” “He fences and boxes,” Grace said, hiding her smile. “Ah.” Wiley placed the book on the coffee table. “That explains it. Although not why I heard the book crashing against the wall when I arrived. Too much throwing punches and not enough wooing for your taste?” “Plenty of wooing,” she confirmed. “But I’m al- ready sick of sitting around.” She reached out a hand michelle major 78 her texas new year’s wish and brushed an invisible crumb off the cast. “I’m going to go crazy by the time my ankle heals.” Wiley offered her a smile so sweet it made her knees go weak. “We’ll make sure that doesn’t hap- pen,” he promised. Grace desperately wanted to believe Wiley. Still her family’s warnings ricocheted through her brain, and she told herself not to be taken in by his charm. Was that even possible? “Shouldn’t you be back in Chicago?” He lowered himself into the chair beside the couch, and she tried to see her parents’ house through his eyes. It looked much the same as it had when she’d been a kid, with wood-paneled walls, book- shelves filled with family photos and her father’s collection of historical nonfiction books. “I’ve decided to stay in Rambling Rose until the hotel opens.” She tried to keep her features neutral even as excitement spiraled through her. Did that mean he wanted to see her more over the next few weeks? She should know better than to read too much into the way he looked at her, but she couldn’t seem to stop her body’s reaction to the intensity of his gaze. “I’m sure that makes your brothers and sisters happy.” “For now.” He laughed softly. “I’m going to make sure everything is in order with employment agreements and contracts for the various businesses 79 they’ve gotten involved in. They’ll be happy to have me here unless it makes more work for them.” “I doubt that. I can tell from seeing them interact at the hotel that your family is really close.” “They are,” he murmured. “Why doesn’t it sound like you include yourself in that ‘they’?” He shrugged. “I’ve always been a sort of odd man out when it comes to our branch of the Fortune fam- ily. For me, it was important to feel like I’m making my own way, which is why I left Florida for college and didn’t return even after law school. I wanted my life to be my own.” “I know how that feels.” She swallowed back the emotion that clogged her throat. “You’re lucky you’ve been able to accomplish it.” “Lucky,” he repeated, then frowned. “I suppose you’re right.” A few seconds of silence descended between them, and although it was weighted, the quiet didn’t feel uncomfortable. In fact, Grace’s chest loosened as she drew in air laced with Wiley’s spicy scent. She snapped back to attention at the sound of a bag crinkling. Her eyes had zeroed in on his hand- some face, and she hadn’t even seen the sack he held. “I didn’t come here to bore you with my family dynamics.” Wiley flashed a self-deprecating smile. “I’m here to deliver a get-well care package.” “You’ve already brought me flowers.” michelle major 80 her texas new year’s wish One thick brow arched. “Is there a limit on the number of gifts I’m allowed to bring you?” She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of that ques- tion. “I’m not going to put one on you.” She reached for the bag he now held out. “I’m just not used to being on the receiving end of so much generosity.” She inwardly cringed, embarrassed to admit she was comparing Wiley to her ex-boyfriend. Craig had been steady and reliable—or so she’d thought—but never the romantic type. Grace had convinced herself she didn’t care. She thought it was important to have a man she could build a life with, not someone who lavished her with gifts and romantic gestures. She got enough of that vicariously through books and movies. As she peeked in the brown paper bag with the Hotel Fortune logo stamped on the outside, she tried to remember that Wiley was just being nice because she was a hotel employee. His brothers and sisters were all busy with preparations for the opening and taking care of their other businesses in town. Chances were good that they’d designated him as the family liaison for the injured employee. At least that’s what Grace’s brother would tell her. She put aside thoughts of her ankle and her brother as she pulled out a stack of puzzles, a candle and a box of chocolates. “How thoughtful. I love all of it. You didn’t have to…” She glanced up at him as she continued to remove items from the seemingly bot- 81 tomless bag. “Did you buy one of everything in the hotel gift shop?” Wiley scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Just about. I didn’t know what type of games you might like, so I got word searches, sudoku and cross- word puzzles.” “I like word searches,” she told him with a smile. He nodded. “They had both dark chocolate and milk, and I can tell you my sisters are very specific with their chocolate, so I got a box of each.” “I like both.” She held up two candles. “They both smelled good,” he said, sounding al- most embarrassed that he’d packed so much into the bag. “But not as good as you. You smell like a spring rain shower.” He gave her a sheepish smile. “Do I sound like a sad imitation of your romance duke?” “No, but for the record I smell like water,” she said with a laugh, then reached out and patted Wi- ley’s leg when he frowned. “I’m joking. The lotion I use is actually named Rainforest Mist so you’re right on the money with that.” Wiley’s eyes darkened even more and the space between them seemed to shift—growing thick with a yearning that Grace didn’t understand, although it sent shivers rippling along her skin. “Thank you,” she managed after a weighted mo- ment. “I appreciate all of this and you coming to see me. I haven’t reached out to many friends because I michelle major 82 her texas new year’s wish don’t want to talk about the accident. People are so curious, and I just want to forget.” There was an immediate shift in Wiley, as if she’d just doused him with a bucket of icy water. “I figured people would be talking to you about the incident. In fact, a reporter came by the hotel on Sunday. The local paper is doing an article on the circumstances of the accident.” The thought of having her name associated with the event that was bringing the hotel bad publicity made Grace’s stomach clench, but she nodded. “He reached out to me, as well. He wants to interview me for the story.” “Are you going to talk to him?” She shrugged. “I guess I should, but I’m not ready yet. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be sure to make it clear that the hotel had nothing to do with the balcony’s collapse.” “You don’t have to do that. We appreciate your loyalty, Grace, but you can speak freely.” “I know,” she whispered, distressed by the for- mality that had seeped into his tone. “But it’s true. Obviously, I wish it wouldn’t have happened, but the hotel isn’t responsible.” His opened his mouth as if to deny her claim, then closed it again. “Speaking of the hotel…” He flashed a smile that was different from the one he’d given her before. It didn’t reach his eyes. “I do have a speck of official business to discuss with you.” 83 “Sure.” Grace ignored her disappointment and reminded herself that she could read whatever she wanted into the way Wiley looked at her. That didn’t make the promise in his gaze something real. “Callum, Nicole and I talked about coordinating a small community event before the official grand opening. Nothing elaborate or time-consuming for the staff, but something that would…” “Make people forget that I could have died in the balcony collapse?” He blew out a shaky breath. “Yes.” She nodded, appreciating that he didn’t try to su- garcoat the motivation. There was nothing wrong with what the hotel wanted to do. The Fortunes were running a business, and they needed positive PR. They couldn’t run a successful hotel without paying customers. If the hotel didn’t make money, Grace wouldn’t have to worry whether her injury would prevent her from earning the promotion. There would be no promotion to be had. “It’s a great idea.” She sat forward on the sofa, lift- ing her cast leg and placing her foot on the floor. The doctor had told her it was important to elevate the leg, but somehow she felt too much like a blushing maiden from one of her historical romances sprawled out on her parents’ sofa as she and Wiley discussed actual business. Grace was thrilled to talk about something other than the accident, even if she wasn’t officially on the clock. “I’d actually recommend fo- michelle major 84 her texas new year’s wish cusing on other local business owners. We should also involve the spa and Provisions. Nicole and Roja can provide the food—samplings from the regular menu. I bet even the vet clinic could set up a booth in conjunction with a local animal rescue. It’s important to remind the community leaders how much your family has already contributed to the town and give a glimpse of how good it’s going to be. A Rambling Rose partnership would benefit everyone.” “Those are great suggestions.” Grace held up a hand. “I’m not done.” She shifted again, wishing she could get up and pace as she worked through the possibilities in her head. Her crutches rested against the stone fireplace on the wall across from the seating arrangement, but she didn’t want to bother with hopping over to retrieve them. Plus, she’d look like a complete fool trying to pace using crutches. For what felt like the millionth time since Saturday night, she cursed that blasted fall. “Tell me more.” Wiley reached out and squeezed her hand, as if he could sense her frustration. His touch had the immediate effect of calming her, and she drew in a breath before continuing. “We want Rambling Rose businesess to feel con- nected to the hotel. Do you think your brothers and sisters would consider offering a ‘locals’ weekend’?” “Um…probably.” She clapped her hands together. “I should have thought of that even before the accident. The hotel 85 can give a discounted rate for a particular weekend, one during a slow season where occupancy would naturally be down. They’d get the great deal if they booked during the reception, and we could do a raf- fle for a free dinner for two at Roja.” She paused and scrunched up her nose. “I keep saying ‘we,’ but I mean ‘you’ obviously. The Fortunes and the employ- ees who are actually working. I’m sure other peoplewill have ideas, as well.” Jillian, Grace thought in- wardly, would have plenty. “Are you interested in the ‘we’ part?” Wiley asked and, once more, Grace’s brain seemed to short-circuit. All she could think about was a “we” that involved her and Wiley. She was interested like nobody’s busi- ness. “Yes,” she managed, hoping he assumed she was talking about being engaged on a professional level. “There’s no pressure, of course.” He smiled at her again, encouraging and warm, and she felt it all the way to her toes. “I’m being nice, right?” She frowned. “Is that a trick question?” “Nicole warned me I had to be nice,” he said with another laugh. “Callum told me not to act like an at- torney.” “I actually haven’t been thinking about you being an attorney during this visit,” she admitted. “If that helps.” “Good.” He nodded. “If you think you’re up for it, we’d like you to handle the reception. You can take michelle major 86 her texas new year’s wish care of a lot of the planning from here. Whatever works best for your recovery. Obviously, you’re qual- ified based on the rush of ideas you just offered. Get- ting more buy-in from local business owners makes sense to me, although you’ll have to run that focus by my siblings. Again, only if you feel like it wouldn’t be too much.” “No.” She tried to breathe around the knot that had formed in her chest. This was her dream come true as far as the scenario for the weeks of her re- covery. “No, you’re not up for it?” His brows drew to- gether. “No, it’s not too much. I’d love to be involved in any capacity. If you feel like I can handle it, then ab- solutely yes. I’d love it.” “Absolutely not.” At the sound of the booming male voice, Grace glanced at the door to find her father standing next to her mother, his arms crossed over his chest in a stance Grace knew all too well. Barbara held a tray with iced tea glasses and a bowl of pretzels. The lookshe threw Grace was both resigned and apologetic. This would be a battle, and it was one she didn’t intend to lose. Chapter Five Wiley stood as Grace’s father entered the room. “Hello, sir. Grace and I were just discussing—” “She’s not going back.” Mike narrowed his eyes at Wiley, then switched his glare to Grace. “You aren’t going back.” “Dad, I’m a grown woman.” She made to stand, but her cast hit the edge of the coffee table, and she sat back down, wincing as pain radiated up her leg. Her mother let out a gasp, and Wiley reached for her. “Don’t touch my daughter.” Her father’s voice seemed to reverberate through the room. Grace felt her face color with humiliation as Wiley drew back his hand and took a step away from 88 her texas new year’s wish her. Barbara put the tray of drinks and snacks on a side table and moved closer to her husband. Grace wasn’t sure if it was to lend silent support to Mike or to protect Wiley from him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Williams. I just wanted to help.” “By putting her at risk again? Not going to hap- pen.” “I want to work.” She lifted her hands, palms up. “I can’t sit around here for the next month. I’ll go stir-crazy.” She bit down on the inside of her cheek when her voice caught. No way was she going to start crying in front of Wiley. “Did he tell you that someone’s out to get the For- tunes?” Mike asked Grace the question but looked at Wiley as he spat out the words. “What are you talking about?” “Sabotage.” Mike said the word like it was poi- son on his tongue. “We don’t know that yet,” Wiley argued, then turned to Grace. “The building inspector said it’s possible someone tampered with the balcony’s sup- port beams. The investigation is ongoing, but that could have contributed to the collapse.” “Definitely is more like it,” her father said. “Why is someone messing with the hotel construction?” he demanded of Wiley. “We don’t know, sir.” Wiley scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “But I promise you we’ll get to the bottom of it.” 89 “Not by making my daughter a potential target.” “I promise I would never—” Wiley cleared his throat. “I won’t let anything happen to Grace. I’ll keep her safe. You have my word.” He turned to her fully, and her breath caught in her throat at the fe- rocity in his gaze. “I’ll keep you safe.” “I know,” she said softly. Somehow she had no doubt that Wiley, a man she barely knew, would do everything in his power to ensure her safety. It baf- fled her why she felt so confident in that, but her heart remained certain. “He’s using you,” her father said through clenched teeth. “Mike, don’t.” To Grace’s surprise, her mother stepped forward and placed a hand on her husband’s arm. “What happened to Grace was an accident. The Fortunes didn’t intentionally put her in danger. I agree that she should take it easy.” Barbara glanced at Grace. “You need to rest so that your recovery isn’t impacted.” Grace opened her mouth to argue, but her mother held up a hand. “I also understand that you’re accustomed to being busy, and your job means a lot to you.” She squeezed Mike’s arm. “She’s an adult capable of making her own decisions.” “I know what I’m doing,” Grace said, looking be- tween her parents. “Going back to work will actually be helpful to my recovery.” She ignored her dad’s michelle major 90 her texas new year’s wish snort of disbelief. “I mean it. I can’t do nothing for a month. If the Fortunes are willing to let me make my own hours and work remotely when possible—” “We are.” Wiley nodded. “Whatever you need.” “I want to try.” She got to her feet again, this time careful about her leg, and hopped the short distance to where her parents stood. “I understand you’re wor- ried, and I have no idea who would want to sabotage the hotel or why. But it has nothing to do with me.” “You’ve got a cast on your leg that tells a different story,” Mike said, but his voice had gentled. Grace knew he wasn’t going to fight her on this any longer. “I’ll be careful.” Mike turned to Wiley. “My daughter is old enough and smart enough to make her own decisions. But I’m holding you to the promise to keep her safe. I understand you don’t have skin in the game in Ram- bling Rose the way some of your brothers and sisters do, but consider my girl your number one priority while you’re in town.” “Dad, that’s ridiculous.” Grace cringed even as longing threaded through her like a needle binding two pieces of fabric. What would it feel like to be a priority for Wiley? “Wiley has plenty of other—” “Done,” Wiley said, and held out a hand to Grace’s father. They shook and suddenly Grace felt like some sort of Victorian spinster who’d just been promised to the roguish hero. She needed to lay off the histori- cal romances for a while. 91 “Can Wiley and I have a few minutes alone?” she asked her parents. “To go over next steps.” Mike looked as though he didn’t want to leave them, but Barbara tugged him toward the hall. “Let us know if you need anything. It was nice to see you again, Wiley.” “You as well, Mrs. Williams. Thank you.” When her parents were gone, Grace turned to Wiley, ready to give him a litany of excuses for her father’s behavior. Instead an enormous yawn stretched her lips and exhaustion made her limbs grow heavy. “This is too much,” Wiley said without hesita- tion. “I promise that wasn’t my intention, Grace. Or to upset your father.” She waved away his concern. “I’ll be fine,” she told him with a wobbly smile. “I probably need a tiny nap first. My dad’s worry has more to do with what happened to my brother than this situation. Although I wish you would have told me about the possibility of the beams being tampered with.” “I’m sorry.” He squeezed her fingers. “I should have brought it up right away but didn’t want to upset or worry you. I meant what I said about protecting you, Grace.” “Thank you,” she managed, even though her throat had gone dry. It was difficult to remember that her relationship with Wiley was only professional when he touched her with such exquisite sweetness michelle major 92 her texas new year’s wish and looked at her as though he wanted to kiss her. It had to be the exhaustion making her imagine that. “I appreciate the opportunity to coordinate an event for the hotel. I’m going to take a short rest, and then I’ll put together my ideas and email them to Callum and Nicole. We can schedule a call to discuss their thoughts and go from there.” “All business,” Wiley murmured, dropping his hand. If Grace didn’t know better, she would have sworn she heard disappointment in his tone. “Not all.” She flashed a smile and gestured to the pile of puzzle books on the table. “You’ve given me a lot to keep myself busy. I appreciate it.” She covered her mouth when another yawn escaped. “We’ll talk soon.” Wiley stepped away from her. “Enjoy your nap, Grace. Sweet dreams.” Butterflies fluttered across her stomach as he walked away. If Wiley Fortune was a part of her dreams, they’d be sweet indeed. “I’m still not sure why we couldn’t have taken one of the ATVs,” Wiley grumbled the following night as he tugged on the reins of his horse when the animal once again veered off the path to munch on a nearby bush. “We wanted to give you the full Texas experi- ence,” Megan said, glancing over her shoulder with a wink. “Besides, your boots are too shiny.” Their cousin 93 Kane rode up next to him on his chestnut mare. “You need some more dust to make you look like a legit cowboy.” Wiley barked out a laugh at the absurdity of that statement. “I’m nowhere near a cowboy. Attorneys aren’t cowboys. It’s mutually exclusive.” “Not in Texas,” Megan told him. Her horse came to a stop at the edge of a low rise, the surrounding property spread out in front of them like a postcard. “How much of this do we own?” Wiley asked, somewhat overwhelmed by the wide-open space and big sky. He knew this part of Texas was expansive, especially compared to the crowded high-rises of downtown Chicago. “As far as the eye can see,” Megan told him softly. There was something about the moment and the vista that called for quiet. Wiley suddenly understood what had drawn his siblings to this part of the country. Maybe it was something in the Fortune DNA that made Texas appeal to so many of them. He thought Callum had lost his mind when he’d moved to Rambling Rose over a year ago and then convinced Dillon, Steven and Stephanie to go with him. By the previous spring, the triplets had joined them. Wiley had stayed in the Midwest, telling him- self he was content with his big-city life far away from his family. He loved each one of them, but growing up in a house with so many kids had made him savor his independence and stake it out with all michelle major 94 her texas new year’s wish the dedication of a dogged adventurer. His career and his life belonged solely to him, and that seemed like enough. But spending time with his siblings and the cous- ins he was enjoying getting to know planted tiny seeds of doubt in his mind. Although he was keep- ing up on his regular workload remotely, he didn’t miss the bustle of the city and his busy professional life the way he assumed he would. He’d been going on full tilt for as long as he could remember, never pausing to reflect whether the path he was so intent on taking was the right one. Of course it was right. He’d chosen it. He couldn’t let a few weeks of fresh air and the sweet smile of a woman derail him. Yes, it was fun to be involved in the family business, but that didn’t mean it would be better to return to the life he knew. “I’m happy for you guys.” Wiley leaned forward and patted the horse’s strong neck. “You all seem to have found your place here.” “It’s an easy town to call home,” Megan said, a trace of wistfulness in her voice. “Also easy for some people to find love, apparently.” Kane snorted, adjusting the brim of his hat. “You don’t need love to be happy.” Wiley nodded. “Amen, cousin.” “You are two peas in a pod.” Megan wrinkled her nose. “What do you have against falling in love?” 95 “Not a thing.” Kane shrugged a big shoulder. “It’s just not for me.” “Me, neither, yet,” Megan conceded, “but I’m not opposed to Mr. Right walking into my life. The hotel is going to open right around Valentine’s Day. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a romantic date with the perfect girl to share it with?” An image of Grace popped into Wiley’s brain, and he shifted in the saddle. “I think we need to keep our focus on making sure the grand opening goes off without any more problems. That’s way more important than romance.” Kane nodded, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “I’d feel a lot more confident if we could get to the bot- tom of whether or not someone tampered with the balcony’s support beams.” “I want to believe there’s some explanation for the collapse.” Megan blew out a frustrated sigh. “It’s too scary to think that someone has it out for us or that we might be putting our employees or potential cus- tomers in danger.” She adjusted one of her stirrups and glanced between Wiley and Kane. “Everything is going so well with the businesses, especially Pro- visions. The reservation book is filled almost every night, and the online reviews are excellent. I know Roja will be just as much of a success, assuming nothing else happens.” “It won’t,” Kane promised. Their cousin was tak- michelle major 96 her texas new year’s wish ing the lead on hotel security, and Wiley had been impressed with his attention to detail. “How do you know?” “I met with a security company earlier today,” Kane confided. “Another firm is coming in to look over the property tomorrow. I’m going to fast-track the process of getting bids so that we can have an up- dated system installed by the grand opening. There won’t be any loose ends.” “I’ve started meeting with employees,” Wiley said. “Everyone seems positive so far. No hint of dis- content, which is good. It could be that the balcony was just a fluke or someone looking for attention.” “I hope you’re right.” Megan gave her horse a soft kiss, and the animal turned toward the path again. She met Wiley’s gaze as she passed him, and he hated the anxiety in her cornflower blue eyes. All the brothers were protective of the triplets. He wanted his sisters to be able to focus on the positive aspects of their new business ventures without worrying about potential sabotage. Wiley brought his horse abreast of hers. “It’s going to be okay, Meggie.” “You make me believe that.” She gave him a warm smile. “It’s your commanding attorney presence. I was on the call with Grace this morning. We video- conferenced, and it was the first time I’d seen her since the accident. She looked good.” “What did you expect?” 97 “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I thought maybe she’d seem bitter or angry that she was dealing with a broken ankle.” “Grace has always struck me as a practical girl,” Kane called from behind them. “All of the trainees are great, but she shines under pressure.” “Pressure is one thing,” Megan answered. “Falling from the second story of the hotel is quite another.” “True,” Kane admitted tightly. Wiley knew the accident weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. “How did the call go?” he asked, trying to sound casual. “I felt bad that I couldn’t be a part of it, but a client meeting came up that my assistant wasn’t able to reschedule.” “It’s fine,” Megan told him. “We appreciate you pitching in here while managing your regular life at the same time. No doubt you’ll be glad when the hotel opens, and you can be rid of us and our trou- bles for a while.” “You aren’t a trouble,” he told her. “That’s nice.” She laughed. “But you aren’t fool- ing me, Wi. I remember how crazy our full house drove you when we were younger. You’d hide in the basement with the water heater just to get a little privacy.” “Nothing wrong with a teenage boy wanting pri- vacy,” he muttered, earning a loud chuckle from his cousin. He leveled a stare at Kane over his shoulder. “Not for the reasons you’re thinking.” michelle major 98 her texas new year’s wish “Gross.” Megan snorted. “Enough about teenage boys and privacy. The call went well. Grace put to- gether a really comprehensive time frame and plan for a preopening reception aimed at local business leaders. We’re going to suggest a Rambling Rosepartnership, where restaurants, shops and other local businesses actively work to promote each other. It’s a short turnaround, with her idea to put the event on the calendar for the last week of January, but it will be a perfect lead-up to the grand opening.” “Her parents are worried that she’s going to do too much and compromise her recovery.” A knot formed in his stomach as he recalled the look her fa- ther had given him, like Wiley was the lowest form of scum he could imagine. Wiley prided himself on his moral compass but should probably to do a little more research into the accident Grace’s brother had a few years ago. He could tell by the comments Grace made that Jake’s situation had impacted everyone in the Wil- liams family, and he wanted to understand how trau- matic it had been for them. “We won’t let that happen,” Megan said as the horses approached the barn at the ranch. “You won’t let that happen.” He arched a brow and kept his features bland, hoping to hide the thrill of anticipation that pulsed inside him. Keeping an eye on Grace was the easi- est assignment he could imagine. 99 “I mean it, Wiley.” The three of them dismounted, and Megan wagged a finger at him. “We’re counting on you to take care of her.” “Not exactly a chore,” Kane said as he took the reins of Wiley’s horse and started toward the barn. “Grace is fantastic.” Wiley didn’t like the bolt of jealousy that zipped through him at his cousin’s words. He had no rea- son to believe Kane had designs on Grace. They worked together, just like she and Wiley did. Ugh. That thought didn’t make him feel any better. “I’ll make sure she’s taken care of,” he told his sister as they followed Kane into the barn, reminding himself to keep his attraction to her under control. It would be best for everyone involved—but more dif- ficult for him than anyone would imagine. michelle major Chapter Six Grace sat on the porch swing looking out over her parents’ front yard the next day. Her leg was elevated and her other foot bare as she swung gently in the cool afternoon air. She’d had to put on a heavy jacket, but it was worth it to escape her mother’s fussing, her father’s silent admonishment and her brother’s outright agi- tation at the fact that she was already back to work less than a week after the accident. The doctor had told her to take recovery at her own pace, she’d reminded them, and she was being careful not to spend too much time on the phone or at the computer. She’d even napped for an hour after lunch, even though it frustrated her how weak she 101 still felt compared to her normal energy level. Grace liked moving and working. From the time she’d got- ten her first babysitting job as a teenager, the ability to make her own money and her way in the world had always appealed to her. Her parents had provided a great life for Jake and her, but finances had always been tight. As a girl, she remembered hearing her parents argue about the monthly budget. Her father had a tendency to spend beyond their means, a con- stant source of worry for Grace’s mom. Grace had grown up with the deep desire to never be a burden on anyone. She knew Jake felt the same, and that was part of the reason why his accident had been so difficult. His recovery had taken months and had been a challenge for every member of their close-knit family. That didn’t make it any easier to hear him de- grade Wiley and the Fortunes. The hotel was one of the best things that had happened to Rambling Rose, and certainly for Grace, so she was already tired of having to defend her employer. She blew out a breath and hit Send on the email she’d just written to Nicole, making suggestions of potential offerings for the business reception that would showcase Roja’s planned menu. The Fortune triplets certainly had a way with food, and Grace en- vied their confidence and the bond they obviously shared. She’d met their other sister, Stephanie, as well, and although she wasn’t involved in the hospi- michelle major 102 her texas new year’s wish tality industry, she was helping to coordinate a booth for the local vet clinic where she worked. Grace waved as Collin Waldon walked across her lawn from his father’s house next door. “Tell me you’re not posting cast selfies on social media,” he called to her. Collin was as close as Grace got to having a sec- ond brother. They had been tight friends since she could remember. Her mother loved to trot out photos of Grace and Collin playing together in the plastic baby pool in their diapers, and Grace knew that her parents and Collin’s father, Sam, still held a secret hope that the two of them would eventually end up together. The idea of a match between them was comi- cal. It would be like dating her brother, although she couldn’t deny that Collin had grown into an insanely handsome man. He was tall with a lean build, dark hair and coppery eyes with gorgeous light brown skin. As a captain in the army, he was currently sta- tioned in Germany. His years in the military had honed his body into a network of hard planes and muscles. “I’m working,” she told him, then glanced toward the house. “As well as getting a much-needed break from my family.” “Jake said you weren’t going back to the hotel.” Collin climbed the porch steps two at a time. Grace growled and made a face. “Jake is even 103 worse than Dad right now. He’s not the boss of me, and it’s high time he figures that out.” “Aw, Gracie, he means well.” “Don’t even go there, Collin.” She wagged a fin- ger in his direction. “You’re my friend, so you have to be on my side.” “Always.” He rested a hip against the porch rail- ing. “But you can’t believe that your parents and Jake aren’t on your side. They love you.” “I know.” She blew out a frustrated breath. As aggravated as she was by her family’s fussing, she knew everything they did was motivated by love. “But I want to work, and I love my job at the hotel. I’d love it even more if they made me general man- ager when the hotel opens. I’ve worked so hard, Col- lin. I need a chance to prove myself.” “Even if the hotel is being targeted?” He raised a challenging brow. “Jake needs to stop spreading rumors,” she mut- tered. “You could have died, Grace.” “Why does everyone keep reminding me of that?” She slammed her laptop closed, once again cursing the cast and her limited mobility. There was no way she could stomp off the way she wanted. As soon as the blasted cast was off, Grace would never take walking freely for granted again. That thought took the wind out of her sails of righteous anger in an instant. Of course Jake and her michelle major 104 her texas new year’s wish parents were extra worried and overprotective. He’d battled back after the accident, working with physi- cal therapists and doctors and on his own for months in order to walk again. Yes, Grace had left college and come home to help, but no one could under- stand what Jake had been through during that time other than him. She had no doubt the accident and the ensuing long, painful recovery and legal fight over responsibility had changed her once happy-go- lucky brother. Now she was annoyed by not being able to walk across the front porch without her crutches. She rubbed a hand over the top of her leg and nodded at Collin. “I understand how bad the accident could have been, and I appreciate my family. But I told my- self when I came back to Rambling Rose that I was going to find a way to have the life I wanted, to go after my dreams and not let anyone stand in my way.” Collin frowned. “Are you talking about your jerk- wad ex-boyfriend?” “Maybe,” Grace admitted. “We both worked at Cowboy Country, but I did my job and helped him with his. Did I tell you he got a promotion based off a marketing plan I basically wrote for him?” “Five minutes alone in a room with him,” Collin said with a dark laugh. “That’s all I need.” “You sound like my brother,” she told him, shak- ing her head. “Great minds.” 105 “I’m happy to be back to work, and I can’t wait until I feel strong enough to go into the hotel and have my social life back, too.” She held up a hand when her friend would have argued. “I’ll be safe there, Collin.” He shifted to sit more fully on the porch rail. “How do you know?” Wiley’s handsome face appeared in her mind. “I just do. You should come by and check it out. The restaurant is going to be fantastic. I know you ap- preciate a good kitchen.” “Yeah.” He nodded. “My dad doesn’t exactly have gourmet tastes.” “How’s he doing?” Grace knew it hadn’t been Collin’s plan to return to their small hometown, but when his father had taken a turn for the worse after Collin’s stepmother passed away, he’d come back. Although not officially related, Grace and Collin had the family-duty gene in common. “He seems okay since I’ve been here, but I’ve don’t have a lot of leave time. I’m still worried about how out of sorts he’s been since my stepmom died.” “He loved Sharon very much,” Grace said gently. “I’m sure having you here on leave helps him feel better. I only wish you could stay longer.” They both glanced toward the street as a sleek black sedan pulled up to the curb. Grace’s heart flut- tered against her ribs when Wiley climbed out of the vehicle. He wore a crisp white button-down shirt michelle major 106 her texas new year’s wish and dark pants with aviator sunglasses covering his brown eyes. “What were you saying about a social life, Gra- cie?” Collin lifted a brow. “Because you’re blushing at the stranger in the fancy clothes.” “Shut up, Collin.” Grace returned the wave Wiley gave her as he approached the house. “He’s not a stranger. He’s a Fortune.” Collin elbowed her. “Well, isn’t that interesting.” “Not to you,” she muttered. “Hello, Grace.” Wiley glanced between her and Collin. “You look well.” It was kind of crazy how two words—hello, Grace—could cause a riot of sensation to pulse through her body every time he said them. “I’m working.” She held up her laptop. “On plans for the reception. It’s coming along really well. I’m well, too, of course. Just like you said.” Collin straightened from the porch rail and leaned in. “You’re babbling.” “Go away, Collin.” He threw back his head and laughed. As much as he was annoying her in this moment, it was good to hear him laugh. He’d done far too little of it since returning home. Collin gave the swing a little push, then turned to Wiley. “Collin Waldon,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m a good friend of Grace’s.” 107 Wiley’s chest expanded as he nodded. “I’m Wiley Fortune. Grace and I—” “Are working together on the hotel event,” Grace said, planting her foot on the wood porch to stop the swing. “In fact, we’re discussing plans this after- noon. Collin was just leaving.” Her childhood friend grinned at her over his shoulder. “I’ll talk to you later, Gracie.” She shifted on the porch swing as Collin headed back to his father’s house, moving her cast leg to the ground. “Would you like to sit down?” She patted the cushion next to her and offered a smile. “Does he live next door?” Wiley asked as he moved toward her. A shallow line of tension had appeared between his brows. “Since we were babies,” she confirmed. “We grew up together—best friends for as long as I can remem- ber. Collin’s in town on leave to visit his dad. He’s been in the army for years.” Wiley took a seat next to her. “And now you’re staying with your parents. How convenient for catch- ing up.” She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. If Grace didn’t know better, she’d think Wiley sounded jealous of Collin. A thrill passed through her at the thought of that. She really didn’t want the attraction michelle major 108 her texas new year’s wish she felt for the handsome attorney to be completely one-sided. “Collin’s a good guy,” she said, and maybe she kept her phrasing slightly cryptic just to gauge Wi- ley’s reaction. She wasn’t disappointed. His jaw tightened for several seconds before he finally turned to her with a smile that was patently forced. “It’s important to have good friends in your life.” “Yeah.” She tried to keep her mouth from twitch- ing in amusement, but Wiley’s gaze narrowed on her. “What’s funny?” “Nothing. I’m just happy to see you.” He visibly relaxed at her words. “I didn’t really come here to discuss the hotel event. Although I’m happy to talk about it if you want. Nicole and Megan said you’re doing an amazing job already.” Pride blossomed in her chest at the praise. “We’re just getting started, and I still wish I was coordinat- ing everything on-site. I hope by next week I’ll feel strong enough to come to work at the hotel.” “That’s great.” A breeze blew a few curls across Grace’s face and before she could push them away, Wiley reached out and with a gentle touch, tucked her hair behind one ear. “You have the most beau- tiful hair.” She swallowed back a nervous giggle. “I used to hate having wavy hair. When I was growing up, the popular style was sleek and straight. No matter how 109 much product I used, mine would never behave. But I’ve gotten used to it, although it’s a rat’s nest when I wake up.” She raised a hand to her mouth when she realized she was babbling again, but Wiley didn’t seem to notice. “I’m sure it’s beautiful in the morning, too.” The rough timbre of his voice tickled her skin as she thought about waking up with a man like him next to her. Good Lord, that would be something special. She cleared her throat and gave herself a mental “down, girl” command. “If you aren’t here to talk about the event, is there something else? Do you have more information on who was behind the bal- cony collapse?” “I wish I could say I did. Not yet, though. I stopped by to… I wanted to see you.” Oh. Grace felt heat flame her cheeks. Wiley Fortune wanted to see her. She could definitely get used to that. A tapping sound came from the house, and she turned to see her mother standing at the living room window looking out at them. Grace suddenly felt like she was a teenager again with her nosy parents trying to insert themselves into her business. Wiley waved at her mother, who returned the wave and gave him a beaming smile. At least her mother was michelle major 110 her texas new year’s wish being friendly. Grace didn’t want to think about what would happen when her dad realized Wiley was here. “Would you like to go for a drive?” She stood as she asked the question. “Sure,” he answered, quickly straightening to join her. “If you have time?” She hopped toward the front door, laptop tucked under her arm. “All the time in the world. Just give me a minute to tell Mom I’m leaving and grab my shoes and crutches.” She didn’t really like using them, so she typically hopped around her parents’ house. “I’ll be here.” Great. Wiley would be waiting for her. Her mother opened the door as she reached for the handle. “Wiley is here,” she stage-whispered. “Yes, I saw you watching us from the window.” Barbara winced. “Sorry. That was too much.” “It’s fine. We’re going for a drive.” Grace made her way past her mom and gently closed the door. “Can you grab my crutches from the family room?” “Where are you driving to?” Her mother placed a hand on her arm. “Do you need something, sweetie? Your dad is in the garage. He’d be happy to get you—” “Wiley came to see me.” Grace covered her mother’s hand with her own. “Not to talk about work or the balcony. To see me.” Her mother’s mouth formed into a small O. 111 “Exactly.” Grace bit down on her lower lip. “We’re going for a drive. I don’t know where.” She checked her watch. “Maybe out for dinner. Maybe…it’s a date.” “I’ll get the crutches,” her mother said with an enthusiastic nod. She gently pinched Grace’s cheeks and smoothed a hand over her hair. “There now. You look so pretty with a little color in your face.” “Mom, have you become a Fortune fan?” Grace asked as she bent to retrieve her shoes—or shoe— from under the front table. “I’m a fan of seeing my daughter happy,” Bar- bara said. “You look happy for the first time in a while, sweetie.” “Thanks, Mom.” With a nod, her mother headed down the hall while Grace sat on the chair in the foyer and tied the laces of her sneaker. They weren’t the most ex- citing choice in footwear, but she was still getting used to the crutches. Better to be practical than wind up on her back end in front of Wiley. She glanced at the front door while she waited for her mom. It was probably rude to leave him standing out there, but Grace had needed a minute to com- pose herself. He’d said he wanted to see her. It wasn’t some grand profession of devotion, despite the way her heart reacted. Other than his family, he probably didn’t have many friends in town. Maybe he was just bored, and she was a distraction. michelle major 112 her texas new year’s wish A short-term distraction, she reminded herself, even though her body ignored the warning. Her mother was right. Grace hadn’t felt this excited in a long time. Her mother returned with the crutches. “Have a good time on the drive or dinner or whatever you do.” Whatever. Grace couldn’t even entertain the pos- sibilities of “whatever.” Not with her leg in a cast and her mother standing next to her. She grabbed the crutches and smiled. “I appreciate that,” she told her mom, then scrunched up her nose. “I’d also appreci- ate if you not mention it to Dad or Jake—” “Go have fun with your friend.” Barbara reached around her to open the door. “Your dad and brother don’t need any details.” Wiley turned as Grace hopped out and closed the door behind her. She arranged the crutches under her arms and started forward. “Sorry about the wait.” “No problem.” He glanced between her and the porch steps. “But speaking of problems…” “I can manage.” She gave him a bright smile. Okay, so she hadn’t actually dealt with steps other than when she’d returned from the hospital, but she would make it work. “I appreciate you taking me out for a bit.” She got to the top step and handed him the crutches. “Could you hold these for a moment?” “Of course. Are you sure you can manage it?” No. “Yes.” “I could help you…” 113 “I’ve got it.” Grace was probably a fool for refus- ing an excuse to get close to Wiley, but she wanted to prove to herself that she could handle a flight of stairs on her own—even if it was just five wooden porch steps. If she was going to head back to work the following week, she’d need to get a lot more pro- ficient at moving around on her own. She grabbed hold of the railing for support and hopped down each step, proud when she didn’t once lose her balance. “I didn’t fall,” she announced with a wide smile as he returned the crutches. “You did great.” He looked at her with a huge smile. “That was silly,” she said as they started down the walk toward his car. “Maneuvering down a few steps isn’t a big deal, but this is the farthest I’ve gone on my own since the accident. If my parents had their way, they’d encase me in Bubble Wrap for the rest of my life to make sure I stayed safe.” “It’s an understandable sentiment from people who care about you.” “But not what I want.” He opened the car door for her, and she gave him the crutches to stow in the back seat. The whole pro- cess was slow and awkward. By the time Grace was buckled in next to Wiley, sweat dripped between her shoulder blades, and she felt like she’d run a mara- thon. How could less than a week of inactivity make her feel like such an invalid? michelle major 114 her texas new year’s wish As if sensing her frustration, Wiley placed a gen- tle hand on her arm. “You’ve been through a lot, Grace. Your ankle and the cast are the biggest out- ward signs of the accident, but you fell from the second story.” She offered a wan smile. “I have the bruises to prove it.” “Give yourself a bit of…well, grace.” “I never thought of attorneys as naturally com- forting people,” she admitted. “But you’re good at giving support.” “It’s a hidden skill.” He released her hand and pulled away from the curb. “We lawyers don’t like to let anyone know about our human side. It ruins the reputation of being coldhearted, and then people aren’t afraid of us.” “You’re the opposite of scary.” “Where are we headed?” he asked when he got to the stop sign at the end of the block. “The highway,” she said without hesitation. “As much as I love Rambling Rose, I need a break. Let’s get out of this town, Wiley.” Chapter Seven Wiley sensed the change in Grace as they cruised down the open road. She’d given him directions to the highway, and they were headed west out of Ram- bling Rose, destination unknown—at least to Wiley. He liked giving control to Grace. Wiley’s life was normally a rigid list of schedules and meetings, so the idea of not having to worry about anything for an evening was strangely liberating. The sun was just beginning to set, and fluffy clouds filled the sky overhead, swaths of cotton candy against the blue of the sky. He couldn’t explain how right it felt to have Grace next to him, to finally be alone with her, even on a 116 her texas new year’s wish drive to nowhere special. He wanted to make what- ever time they spent together special. She deserved that, and he had a primal urge to be the man to give it to her. Tiny remnants of jealousy still quivered in his stomach, out of character for him. Even when he dated, Wiley had never been the jealous type, but seeing Collin Waldon lean close to Grace had made him want to lose his mind. She’d described him as a friend, but their connection was obvious. What man in his right mind wouldn’t want more from Grace? Wiley certainly did. “I love this time of day,” she murmured, splay- ing her hand against the passenger window. “It’s amazing how we take for granted the little things in the hustle and hurry of regular life. I never thought about it being a treat to leave the house whenever I wanted.” “I’m honored to be the one to help you escape,” he told her with a wink. Open pastures and fields filled with herds of cattle glided by on either side of the highway. Similar to the trail ride with Megan and Kane, this drive gave him another glimpse into the Texas landscape, and the sheer scope and size of it gave him an unexpected sense of peace. How was it that a self-described city slicker could feel such a connection with wide-open spaces? “You’re being nice again,” she said, a teasing lilt 117 to her voice. “While I appreciate it, I’m sure you have better things you could be doing tonight than this.” “Nope.” He shook his head. “Driving down the highway with you tops my list.” He made the com- ment casually, because he didn’t exactly want to share how much this moment meant to him. “If that’s the case, I bet you’re champing at the bit to get back to your regular life.” “I’m enjoying the break.” “Really?” She shifted in her seat to look at him more fully. “Tell me about Chicago. The city must be so exciting. I’ve always wanted to visit.” “The pace is definitely different than you have around here, but not necessarily better. Just differ- ent.” “What would you be doing on a normal weekday night if you were in the city?” He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “Most likely I’d still be at the office.” “Describe it,” she said. “Did you decorate it your- self?” He chuckled at her attention to detail. “Not really, although I worked with the firm’s interior designer to choose paint colors and a few pieces of generic art. If my diploma weren’t hanging on the wall, the space could belong to anyone.” “But you spend a lot of time there. Are you part of a big firm?” He nodded and explained how he’d interviewed michelle major 118 her texas new year’s wish with several law firms during his final semester at law school and chosen this one because of its size and the variety of clients. At the time, Wiley had been captivated by the thought of working in an of- fice with a dozen other associates. He’d assumed he’d have the chance to work with myriad different types of clients, although in reality the work was more monotonous than varied. As Grace peppered him with questions about his coworkers, his hobbies and his friends, he realized how one-dimensional he’d allowed his life to be- come. Much like a robot, he functioned on autopi- lot. Not that daily life in Rambling Rose was a roller coaster of excitement, but observing his siblings for the past week, he realized that they’d managed to create rich, layered lives filled with friends, new ventures and sometimes love. He had very little to share that made his life sound fun. Hell, he’d even gotten into the habit of ordering the same rotation of meals from the carryout restau- rant around the corner from his condo. He had all the freedom in the world, he realized, but took ad- vantage of none of it. As quickly as possible, he turned the conversa- tion toward Grace’s life. She recounted in more de- tail the aftermath of her brother’s car accident and what it had meant for her. She didn’t complain about having to leave college to help with Jake’s recovery, 119 and he admired her dedication to her family and her positive attitude. He wanted to ask more about her time at the cowboy-themed amusement park his relatives ran in the small town of Horseback Hollow, but she sud- denly sat forward in the seat. “Get off here,” she told him, and he veered onto the exit ramp, although he hadn’t even noticed a sign for services along the empty stretch of ranch land. “We came here when I was a kid,” she told him, looking around with a sentimental gleam in her eye. “Where exactly is here?” “Turn right off the exit.” She pulled her phone from the purse she’d looped around her shoulder. “Shoot. I don’t have service, but I’m pretty sure there’s a restaurant about a mile down the road.” “In the middle of nowhere?” He grinned at her. “Should I be concerned about what they might be serving on the menu?” “It’s part of the adventure,” she told him. “Let yourself go crazy, Counselor.” “So long as crazy doesn’t end up with either of us hugging the porcelain throne later tonight.” She laughed at that, and the sound reverberated through him like music. He still couldn’t tell what it was about Grace, but Wiley felt completely at ease with her. The road wound in a gentle curve, grand oak trees flanking it. He liked the differences in the north michelle major 120 her texas new year’s wish Texas landscape. The way the scenery could change from wide-open fields to rows of trees standing sen- try, their bare branches reaching toward the heavens. Suddenly, a small house—or inn—appeared in a clearing. The decades-old structure was painted deep purple with a yard filled with whirligigs and metal lawn art out front. “That’s it.” Grace clasped her hands together. “I remember the sculptures. I was fascinated with watching them move when we came here.” He pulled into the gravel parking lot, which was half-filled with cars. “I can’t believe you found this place,” he said, grinning at the happiness in Grace’s blue eyes. She looked like a kid about to enter her favorite candy store. “I can’t believe it, either.” She reached out and squeezed his hand. “It must be a sign.” He lifted a brow. “Of what?” “This is the moment my luck changes. No more cheating boyfriends or accidents or dead-end jobs. This place shows that I can find something great if I trust my instincts.” Wiley turned over his hand so their palms touched, once more amazed at how soft her skin felt against his. He wasn’t certain he believed in luck or signs, but he knew enough to savor this moment and his time with Grace. “Then let’s go try your luck with the Oak Tree Inn.” 121 By the time he pulled her crutches from the back seat and made his way around the car, Grace had climbed out, gazing at the inn’s clapboard front like it was the entrance to Shangri-la. She adjusted the crutches under her arm and started toward the building, stumbling slightly when the bottom of a crutch slipped on a large rock. “I’ve got it,” she said before he could offer as- sistance. Her quiet independence was a new experience for Wiley. Although he kept his romantic life casual, he definitely had a type. Gorgeous, young and happy to have him take care of everything from planning dates to choosing menu items and definitely setting limits on how close he would get. He tended to go out with women whom his sisters liked to describe as damsels in distress. It wasn’t as if he purposely sought out the role of “knight in shining Italian loaf- ers” but that was often the position he found him- self in. He expected things to be the same with Grace, especially given what she’d been through. Her inju- ries were the perfect excuse to sit back and let him pamper her, which he would be happy to do. But the more time he spent with her, the more he understood that making her own way was important to Grace. She didn’t want to be handled or coddled, despite all the stumbling blocks life had put in her way. Her determination captivated him. Maybe that’s michelle major 122 her texas new year’s wish why he found himself becoming more and more fas- cinated by her with every passing minute. Grace couldn’t remember a night when she’d had more fun than she had spending the evening with Wiley. They sat near the firepit on the back deck of the cozy inn, the only two people who’d ventured out from the dining room. Dinner had been even yum- mier than she imagined, with the chef offering sim- ple dishes with an Italian flair. Her frustrations and struggles with work and her family seemed a million miles away. To her great re- lief, Wiley appeared just as relaxed as she felt. The inn’s owner had given them a couple of thick fleece blankets to take out with them, and they sat close together on an outdoor love seat. “This is how I want people to feel when they stay at the Hotel Fortune,” she murmured, her breath catching as Wiley shifted so that their thighs pressed against each other. “Blissed out on good food?” he asked with a wink. “Happy,” she answered simply. Her response seemed to catch him off guard, and he gazed into the fire for several long seconds be- fore speaking. “I feel it, too.” His voice was a quiet rumble and did funny things to Grace’s insides. “Happy.” 123 He bent forward to place his wineglass on the stamped concrete patio. “But I think my happiness has more to do with you than this place.” He gestured to the building be- hind him. “Or the food and drinks, although every- thing was fantastic.” Pleasure swirled through her at his words, because she felt the exact same way. Grace reminded herself that she not only didn’t believe in love at first sight, but she wasn’t interested in anything that would take her focus from her position at the hotel and the po- tential of earning the coveted general manager pro- motion. “But if we can offer our guests—both local and out-of-town visitors—an experience that lets them forget the troubles of regular life so quickly, they’ll definitely come back over and over.” Her lips tingled when he placed a gentle finger against them. “I thought we agreed no work talk to- night.” She gave a shaky nod, then wrapped her fingers around his. “Yes, but you know I’m right.” He chuckled. “You’re right,” he conceded without hesitation. “This night is special.” Then he leaned close and brushed his mouth over hers. It was a tentative kiss, a question of sorts. Grace couldn’t tell which one of them he expected to answer. Her body had no doubt, however, and she michelle major 124 her texas new year’s wish reached up and wound her hands around his neck, needing to be close to him. A low groan escaped Wiley’s lips, and it felt like a gift that she could affect a man like him. He cupped her face between his big hands, angling her head and deepening the kiss. Their tongues met and melded, making heat shoot through Grace’s body in a way that shocked and thrilled her. No simple kiss had ever stirred her in this way. Normally, she would wait for a man to push for more, but Wiley seemed content to savor her and the moment like they had all the time in the world to discover each other. Within moments, Grace lost herself in the sensation. After what felt like hours but was probably only minutes, Wiley pulled away. He stared into her eyes without speaking, but his gaze told her everything she needed to know. “Wow,” he murmured, one side of his mouth curving. “Exactly what I was thinking.” She went to shift closer and banged her foot on the edge of the love seat, and muffled a yelp of pain. Nothing like the reminder of her injury to put a damper on the most romantic interlude she’d had in forever. “Are you okay?” Wiley’s hand immediately went to her leg, and Grace lost all ability to think coher- ently. “Fine,” she managed, trying not to wheeze. “But maybe you should kiss me again and make it better.” 125 He flashed a wolfish grin and claimed her mouth again. Grace jerked back when she heard the sound of voices headed in their direction. Two older couples were walking toward the firepit from the restaurant. “We should probably go,” Grace said, although she didn’t want the moment to end. She didn’t want anything about this night to end. “Will your parents be worried?” She shook her head. “I texted my mom while you were in the restroom so she doesn’t worry. It’s weird to be an adult and still check in, but she appreci- ates it.” She stifled a yawn. “I wish I had my nor- mal energy.” “You’re overdoing it.” Wiley immediately shrugged off the blanket, stood and then scooped her into his arms. Grace sputtered out a shocked protest. “I’m not that tired.” “Could you hand me those crutches?” Wiley asked one of the men from the group that circled the other side of the firepit. The stranger did as he was asked while the two women looked on with similar expressions of fasci- nation. “That’s so sweet,” one of them told the other. Color rushed to Grace’s cheeks. “You can put me down,” she said into Wiley’s ear. “Young love,” the second woman responded. “If michelle major 126 her texas new year’s wish Carl tried to pick me up like that, he’d pull out his back.” The women laughed as Wiley started down the back steps and around the side of the inn. They’d al- ready paid their bill so didn’t need to return inside. “Wiley.” Grace squeezed his shoulder. “You don’t need to carry me.” He paused and kissed her again. “I know you’re more than capable on your own, Grace. But please let me hold you for a few minutes.” Well, when he put it like that, how could she re- fuse? Reassured that he wasn’t taking pity on her, she settled into his embrace for the short walk to the parking lot. He was warm and strong, and she couldn’t resist tracing one finger along the strong column of his neck. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “You’re going to cause me to stumble, and we’ll both hit the ground,” he said with a gruff laugh. “I trust you.” His arms tightened around her for a few blissful seconds, and then they were at the car. He deposited her on the ground and rested her crutches against the back door. “Thank you,” he said, and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. “I think I should be thanking you.” She grinned. 127 “As should those two women at the firepit. From the sound of it, you made their night with your heroics.” His gaze darkened. “I’m not a hero. I just wanted an excuse to wrap my arms around you.” “Do you need an excuse?” He turned his head, as if he needed to look away in order to gather his thoughts. “I like you, Grace. A lot. From the moment I saw you at the birthday party, there was something…” “I know,” she said, lifting a hand to his jaw. “I felt the same thing.” He met her gaze once again. “I don’t want to take advantage of you.” Please, her body screamed silently. Take advan- tage. “I’m a big girl, Wiley.” “I’m only in town until the hotel’s grand opening,” he reminded her, as if she could forget. “That gives us a few more weeks.” One side of his mouth twitched. “What exactly did you have in mind during that time?” Heat pooled low in her belly, but there was no way she could articulate all the things she had in mind for Wiley. Her uninjured leg began to ache, an outward sign of her current limitations. The cast was going to make anything physical between them awkward at best. Then she realized that as much as she desired the man standing in front of her, she liked talking to michelle major 128 her texas new year’s wish him and just being around him as much if not more. He made her feel smart and capable. Right now she wanted—needed—more of that in her life. “We could hang out,” she suggested. “Like to- night.” “Tonight was a date.” The words sent pleasure spiraling through her. “Then we could date more.” His thick brows drew together. “Until the open- ing?” She nodded. “You’re returning to Chicago, and I’m focused on my career. Neither of us has time for anything serious, but we have fun together. Right?” “So much fun,” he murmured, still teasing. “It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.” Grace held her breath as she waited for his response. In truth she barely recognized herself, suggesting a short-term fling with a man like Wiley. The brother of her bosses at the hotel. There were so many reasons it might be a bad idea, not the least of which was the way he made her heart stutter and her body ache when he looked at her. And when he kissed her… She couldn’t focus on the risks. Grace had spent so long playing it safe. Her vow when she’d returned to Rambling Rose had been to live life to the fullest, to push herself out of her comfort zone. This was definitely ticking off those boxes. Wiley’s dark gaze searched her face for several 129 seconds, and then he nodded. “This is the start of a few weeks of as much mutually beneficial fun as we can manage.” michelle major Chapter Eight Wiley followed the sound of construction toward the hotel’s back patio two days later. He’d spent most of the previous day holed up in his bedroom suite at the ranch, on a never-ending stream of calls and vid- eoconferences. Working remotely was turning out to be more of a challenge than he’d expected, but the thought of returning to Chicago held little appeal, especially when staying in Texas meant spending time with Grace. He’d walked her to her parents’ front door after their dinner together, and the urge to kiss her again had been difficult to resist. At least until her father opened the door as they climbed the porch steps, giv- 131 ing Wiley a look that clearly communicated Mike’s disapproval. After taking the crutches from him with a sigh, Grace had balanced herself on her uninjured leg and leaned in for a quick peck on his cheek and a mur- mured thank-you before disappearing into the house. Her father had slammed the door in Wiley’s face before he’d even had a chance to say goodbye. He’d climbed in his car and started toward home, pressing two fingers to the place her lips had touched, feel- ing like a lovesick teenager for wanting to vow not to wash that side of his face again. Although Grace’s mother seemed to approve of their friendship, it bothered Wiley that her dad and brother clearly wanted no part of him in Grace’s life. He didn’t date seriously, but Wiley had met his share of parents over the years, and all of them seemed inclined to support their daughters getting serious with an attorney, especially one who came from a well-to-do family. Wiley’s stepfather, David, had made a fortune in the video game industry. He and his siblings were intent on carving their own path, yet there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they came from a good family. Wiley would have thought the Fortune name gar- nered extra approval in Texas, where the expanded family had such a long and illustrious history. He knew better than to take Mike’s and Jake’s animosity personally. The idea that someone might have sabo- michelle major 132 her texas new year’s wish taged the balcony’s structural beams worried him, especially given what could have happened to Grace in the fall. But he was determined to prove that he only had Grace’s best interests in mind. Callum waved to him as he stepped out into the bright sunlight of the mid-January day. Wiley glanced at the workers on ladders affixing new lum- ber to the hotel’s exterior. Once local law enforce- ment and the insurance company finished their investigations, the crew had wasted no time in clean- ing up the fallen balcony and starting to rebuild. “You’re making great progress,” he said as he joined Callum. His brother gave a tight nod. “We need to have the balcony reconstructed completely before the open- ing. I want this place to look like an accident never happened.” Wiley drew in a deep breath. Callum was right, of course. It wouldn’t do them any good for the hotel’s reputation to be tainted even before they had their first paying guest. Hell, that was the whole point of the event Grace was coordinating. But it bothered him that they had no idea what or who had caused the problems with the beams. Their insurance com- pany and the police might suspect sabotage, but they couldn’t prove it. Plans for the opening were moving ahead despite the shadow of potential foul play hanging over them. The fact that Kane had already begun the process 133 of upgrading the property’s security system gave Wiley a measure of comfort. Kane was also recom- mending that they take increased precautions at the other businesses in town, although no one wanted to believe the balcony collapse had been personal. “I’m not saying I want to ignore what happened to Grace,” Callum said, hands on his hips. “The safety of our employees and potential guests is the first priority.” “I know,” Wiley agreed. “But I don’t like loose ends. If we knew for certain what had caused the accident—either way—I’d feel better.” “I feel the same, but we can’t let that derail us from our goal.” They both turned as a feminine voice called a greeting. Mariana approached from the far side of the pool, her bleached blond hair pulled into a loose ponytail and reading glasses resting on top of her head. Her smile faltered slightly as she glanced up to the second floor, but it was bright once more when she returned her gaze to the brothers. “Good morning, Fortunes,” she said, holding up several brown paper bags. “I’ve brought lunch for your crew.” There was a resounding cheer from the men, who’d all turned to watch Mariana. The woman truly was a force of nature and well-loved in the Rambling Rose community. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day,” Callum michelle major 134 her texas new year’s wish said, returning her grin as he took one of the bags. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” She placed a bejeweled hand on his shoulder. “Ah, Callum. I’m here spreading sunshine and light in the form of my famous empanadas.” Wiley chuckled. “Food that makes everything bet- ter. That could be your new tagline.” And he had no doubt it was true. Mariana had run her popular food truck for years at Mariana’s Marketplace, Rambling Rose’s busy flea market. Last year, she took an ac- tive role in the town’s future businesses and even discovered a connection to the Fortunes through the town’s old Foundling Hospital. His brothers and sisters had been wise to involve Mariana in the hotel’s development. She helped Ni- cole run the Roja kitchen and brought her usual en- thusiasm and style to that role. Everyone on staff seemed to love her, and Wiley felt like she might give additional credibility to the venture. Not many people in town would go up against the formidable Mariana. “How is Grace Williams?” she asked Callum. Wiley forced himself not to answer, although his brother sent him a curious look. On the way home from dinner, Grace had told him she wanted to keep anything other than friendship strictly between them. He rubbed the heel of his hand against his chest to ease the ache that suddenly appeared there. It made no sense that he felt disappointed at the thought of 135 not being able to publicly claim Grace as his, even temporarily. He understood the rationale, given her position in the training program and the impending announce- ment about the general manager promotion. Al- though he would never try to influence his brothers or sisters based on his personal feelings, there was no need to in this case. After spending more time with the other trainees, particularly Jillian Steward, Wiley felt even more certain that Grace should earn the new role. Jillian rubbed him the wrong way, al- ways trying to make it seem like she was in charge. He liked one of the other trainees, an easygoing man named Jay Cross, well enough, but Jay seemed more interested in filling in wherever needed than adept at running the entire hotel. “From what she tells us, she’s doing better.” Cal- lum nodded. “The event she’s putting together is going to be a huge success. We had a phone meet- ing yesterday, and she’s gotten the whole thing co- ordinated in less than a week.” “She was always such a hard worker,” Mariana murmured thoughtfully. “I hope she’s not overdo- ing it.” “Me, too.” Wiley could feel Callum’s gaze on him but ig- nored it. “She did look a little worn down on the call,” Cal- lum continued, turning to Mariana. michelle major 136 her texas new year’s wish Wiley sucked in a breath. Worn down? He hadn’t seen Grace since their date, but they’d been texting regularly, and he was supposed to pick her up for dinner after work tonight. “The accident could have been so much worse,” Mariana said. “She needs to make rest a priority.” Callum nodded. “Agreed, although it’s hard to convince her of that. I’m going to ask Nicole or Megan to reach out, as well. We scheduled a physi- cal therapist to work with her on any lingering sore- ness or potential back issues. The ankle is the most obvious injury, but she mentioned the doctor was worried about mobility and her range of motion.” “She told you that?” Wiley ran a hand through his hair and tried to mask his reaction. Grace hadn’t talked to him about other injuries. “Yeah,” his brother answered. “But she hasn’t re- turned the PT’s calls. Knowing Grace, she feels like she’s taking advantage since she knows we’re pay- ing for it.” “The money doesn’t matter,” Wiley said, realiz- ing the harshness of his tone when both Callum and Mariana startled. “I understand,” Callum told him. “We all do. Someone just needs to convince Grace of that. I’m sure one of the triplets can—” “I’ll handle it,” Wiley said. Mariana shook her head. “Grace has always been determined to make her own way. She’d probably re- 137 spond better to one of your sisters since she knows them.” “She knows me,” Wiley said, making his voice gentle. “We’re friends.” “Friends?” Mariana murmured while Callum shook his head. “You don’t have friends,” his brother said. “You have us, coworkers and the arm candy you date.” “Wow. That’s a real shot in the arm. Trust me. Grace and I are friends, and I’ll convince her to work with the physical therapist.” He looked between the two of them. “For the record, she’s not the delicate flower that everyone around here assumes her to be. She’s strong and capable, and it’s about time people stop underestimating her.” When both Callum and Mariana appeared to be shocked into silence, Wiley turned and stalked away. “You saw Wiley a couple of nights ago. I thought we were going to hang out tonight.” Grace paused in the act of applying mascara and looked at her brother in the mirror that hung above the dresser in her childhood bedroom. It still amazed her that their parents hadn’t changed either her bed- room or Jake’s since they’d moved out. She vaguely remembered that her mother had been planning on a whole house clean-out just before Jake’s accident. Everything had been put on hold in the months after michelle major 138 her texas new year’s wish that as they all rallied around him to support his re- covery. “I know you have something better to do than watch movies with your little sister.” She pointed the mascara wand at Jake. “I heard you were becoming pretty chummy with Melissa Wagner.” Jake made a face. “Shouldn’t you be busy resting and getting better? Why do you have time for petty gossip about my love life?” “Because I’ve been doing very little other than resting.” She placed the mascara tube on the glass charger that held her simple supply of cosmetics and turned. “I need to get out more.” “That’s not true.” Jake adjusted the pillow he’d propped behind his head as he sprawled across her comforter. “Mom and Dad are already worried about how much time you’re devoting to this hotel event, and it’s not good for anyone—especially you—to be spending time with some big-city attorney.” “We’re friends.” Grace hopped over to the closet to pull out a jacket, not wanting her brother to wit- ness the heat she could feel crawling up her cheeks at the thought of Wiley. They’d agreed to keep their relationship secret, so she couldn’t give her feelings away to her brother. Feelings that were probably not wise, given that Wiley was leaving town after the grand opening. She might have suggested a short-term arrange- ment with her mind dizzy from his kisses, but in the 139 past couple days she’d realized that wouldn’t stop her heart from wanting more. Jake gestured to the arrangement of flowers that sat on the taller dresser. “Why does a friend send you flowers? And cheesecake?” He snorted. “Who sends a woman cheesecake?” “Um…you better not complain after I saw you scarf down a huge slice when Mom told you about it.” “Well, I love cheesecake.” “Me, too.” Grace pulled on her jacket. “I hap- pened to mention it to Wiley, and he told me about some bakery in New York City that makes the best.” “And then had it sent to you? Classic rich-boy move.” “Don’t be a jerk, Jake. This whole business with the accident has been hard. I hate having people look at me with pity or reminding me that I’m lucky to be alive.” “Trust me, I get that.” She heard the bitterness in her brother’s tone and immediately regretted her comment. “I know you do. So I hope you can also understand that I like Wiley. He’s nice, and he doesn’t treat me like I’m weak. He helps take my mind off of what happened.” “I get it.” Jake sat up straighter with a sigh. “But that’s what I’m worried about, Gracie. I don’t trust the Fortunes, and especially not the attorney. Don’t you think it’s a little too convenient that he just hap- michelle major 140 her texas new year’s wish pened to decide to stay in Rambling Rose after the balcony collapsed?” “He wants to make sure everything goes smoothly with plans for the opening. He’s supporting his fam- ily.” She drew in a deep breath and added, “He’s supporting me.” Jake studied her for several moments, and Grace decided she wasn’t going to hide her emotions from her brother. She was a grown woman and could make her own choices about who she spent her time with. “Don’t let him take advantage of you,” he warned, his gentle tone almost harder to handle than the snarky remarks he’d made earlier. “I trust him,” she said, because that was the only truth that mattered to her at the moment. The sound of the doorbell had her turning for the hallway. “Come back tomorrow night, Jake. I’ll kick your butt in Scrabble.” “You wish.” He climbed off her bed and followed her out of the room. “I don’t suppose you want me to greet the Fortune with you?” “Can you be nice?” she asked over her shoulder. He pounded a fist to his chest like she’d wounded him. “Of course I can. I just prefer not to.” She smiled despite her annoyance and made her way down the hall. Once again, she’d left her crutches in the front entry. Although she didn’t enjoy hopping around her parents’ house, the hallway was 141 narrow, and the rooms were filled with furniture that made it difficult to maneuver with crutches. Her parents were in the backyard discussing plans for a garden bed her mom wanted in the spring. She desperately needed to get to the door and away from the house before they realized Wiley had arrived to pick her up. She knew her mom would be nice but couldn’t say the same for her dad. He was almost as bad as Jake as far as doubting Wiley’s motives. She could only imagine what they would think if they knew she was dating the handsome Fortune. She opened the door and smiled at him, anticipa- tion curling in her belly as she waited for his greet- ing. “Hello, Grace,” he said in that smooth tone, and she felt her grin widen. Did he even realize what those two words did to her? “Hi.” She groaned in frustration when one of the crutches slipped from her hand and clattered to the floor. “I swear I’m going to get better with these be- fore I get to the hotel.” Wiley bent and retrieved the crutch, handing it to her. “I have a better idea.” He reached to one side of the door and pulled a black scooter into view. It had foam handles and a wide pad clearly meant for her injured leg. “I brought you a gift.” Grace’s mouth dropped open. “Oh, my gosh. My own set of wheels?” Wiley nodded. “I called a doctor friend, and he michelle major 142 her texas new year’s wish suggested it. Apparently, it’s a lot easier to maneuver and can help with your mobility. Not that you aren’t doing great with the crutches.” “I hate the crutches.” She put her hands on the scooter’s handle and then lifted her leg onto the long black cushion. It was so easy to push herself to the far side of the porch and then turn the scooter to head back toward Wiley. “I’m a natural on this.” When she got close to the door, she called for her brother. It didn’t matter what Jake thought about Wiley. He had to see her scooter. He appeared in the doorway a moment later. “Wow. That’s cool, Gracie. Where’d you get the spankin’ new ride?” “Wiley brought it for me. It’s amazing, right?” “Yeah.” Jake crossed his muscled arms over his chest as he glanced at Wiley. “Nice work, Fortune.” “Thanks,” Wiley muttered. Grace laughed at the two men, who looked equally uncomfortable exchanging even the most basic pleas- antries. “Tell Mom and Dad not to wait up,” she said to her brother. “Now that I actually get around, who knows what fun we can find.” “It’s Rambling Rose,” Jake said with a wry laugh. “We all know there are limits to the fun you can have in this town.” “I don’t know about that.” Wiley lifted the scooter when Grace took hold of the staircase railing. 143 Grace was glad she had her back to her brother, because she couldn’t prevent the wide grin at the thought of all the fun she and Wiley could have to- gether. michelle major Chapter Nine “I’m not sure this is such a good idea.” Grace leaned forward to look at the entrance of Provisions, the farm-to-table restaurant Wiley’s sisters ran in town, along with Ashley’s fiancé, Rodrigo Mendoza. “I thought we agreed to keep our relationship between us.” “We’re friends,” Wiley assured her. “Everyone in my family likes you, and they don’t need to know more than I’m helping you out with a ride. I haven’t had a chance to do more than stop by the restaurant. Ashley won’t quit giving me grief.” He flashed what he hoped amounted to a convincing smile. “You’d be doing me a huge favor.” 145 “I guess,” she relented after a few seconds of chewing on her bottom lip. “I’ve wanted to eat here since they opened Provisions last year. Plus, I need to be familiar with other restaurants in town so I can make recommendations to hotel guests. Right?” “Exactly. This is a perfect excuse for that. But if you aren’t comfortable with it, we can drive out of town and—” “Let’s eat here.” She reached out and squeezed his arm. “But no kissing.” He chuckled. “That’s a bummer. Can we find some place to park after dinner so we can make out in my car like a couple of teenagers?” “You joke, but I’m serious. I don’t want anyone in your family to know we’re dating.” “Our secret is safe with me.” Wiley kept his smile on his face as he climbed out the car, ignoring the pang of disappointment that stabbed his gut knowing that Grace wanted to keep what was between them hidden. Her insistence on secrecy was an unwel- come reminder that their relationship was temporary. Of course, he knew it. After all, he’d be returning to Chicago in a matter of weeks, and Grace would be busy with the hotel. He should be feeling relief. Normally, he was the one placing parameters on his dating life about what he was and wasn’t willing to offer. A few weeks was plenty of time to get a woman out of his system, but somehow Wiley knew Grace wasn’t like other women. michelle major 146 her texas new year’s wish He thought back to that moment he’d spotted her across the Roja banquet room and the word that had whispered inside him like trace of a melody he couldn’t quite place. Mine. The idea was ridiculous, and he knew it. Grace didn’t belong to anyone but herself. That didn’t stop Wiley from wanting her. From wanting more. As he retrieved the scooter from the trunk, he tried to shake off his disturbing train of thought. Ob- viously, he was just reacting to being away from his regular life. He didn’t have his work and his hectic schedule to keep him busy, so he had too much time to think about Grace. Once he returned to Chicago, things would get back to normal. No way was he falling under the spell of this sleepy Texas town the way his siblings had. Grace was already standing next to the car, using the open passenger door for balance, when he got there. She smiled up at him, a teasing light in her eyes. “You might have all the willpower, but it’s going to be hard for me not to kiss you.” Just like that, every last one of Wiley’s rationales about remaining distant or getting her out of his sys- tem disappeared like a puff of smoke in a brisk wind. “Later,” he promised, brushing his hand against hers. “Save that thought for later.” “Who was the first girl you kissed?” Grace asked 147 as they made their way toward the restaurant’s en- trance. “Jessica Meyer in seventh grade. We were in the same math class, and she was way smarter than me.” “You were a late bloomer,” Grace said, clearly de- lighted. “I kissed Miles Spicaro on the playground in second grade.” “Not Collin?” Wiley asked, then regretted the question. He felt like a fool revealing how much her friendship with the boy—now man—next door both- ered him. She gave him a funny look. “Not Collin. And Miles ended up being a onetime interlude. Too much pressure for elementary school. What about this Jes- sica? Was it first love?” Wiley opened the heavy wood door to Provisions and gestured Grace forward. “I’ve never had a first love.” “Oh.” That one syllable conveyed so much about what she thought of his confession, and once more, he wished he would have kept his personal business to himself. It wasn’t like him to share details about his feelings or really anything with the women he dated. He hadn’t planned on not falling in love, of course. He wasn’t completely coldhearted. But love meant compromise, and Wiley valued his independence too much to give it up on any meaning- ful level. At least that’s what he told himself. “Hi, guys.” Ashley met them at the hostess stand michelle major 148 her texas new year’s wish when they entered the restaurant. She gave Grace a one-armed hug and touched a finger to the scab that had almost completely healed on Grace’s forehead. “You look amazing, and I love that scooter. How are you feeling?” “Thank you,” Grace answered almost shyly. “I’m doing better every day and looking forward to get- ting back to work. Wiley found the scooter, and it’s a huge improvement over the crutches. I could never quite find my balance with them.” “Nice work, Wi.” Ashley turned to hug him. “Did you just eat a lemon?” He frowned at the question. “No, why?” “Your face is all puckered. Is something wrong?” He shook his head, willing some random alien ship to appear and beam his sister up into its depths. Grace was looking at him oddly now that Ashley had pointed out his lemon face. Even though he was certain he didn’t have any kind of furrowed expres- sion. He simply didn’t want to think about what he couldn’t give to a woman like Grace. “Everything is great. We’re excited for dinner.” He gestured to the dining room. “You have quite a crowd.” Ashley followed his gaze to the open-concept res- taurant, situated with tables filled with customers. “I hope the hotel does as well as we are. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.” “We’re going to make sure the hotel is a huge suc- 149 cess,” Grace offered. “Your brothers and sisters have been working so hard to get things ready.” “With your help,” Ashley answered. “From what Nicole says, they miss having you at work. Not that the other trainees aren’t doing a great job, but…” Grace nodded, color blooming on her cheeks. “I can’t wait to be back.” “You all need to stop pressuring her,” Wiley grumbled, hating that he sounded like some kind of overprotective grandpa. But he couldn’t stop him- self. After speaking to Callum and Mariana about Grace not following up on the PT appointments, he wondered if anxiety about returning to work was making her sacrifice her recovery. Were her parents actually right? “No pressure,” Ashley promised as she led them through the dining room. “You getting well is the top priority.” “I’m really feeling much better,” Grace assured her, darting a quelling glance at Wiley over her shoulder. Ashley opened the door to a private room on one side of the restaurant. “I hope it’s okay with both of you, but we prepared a special tasting menu for to- night.” She grinned at Wiley. “I want a chance to im- press my big brother and figured you might enjoy a bit of privacy.” She gave Grace a sympathetic nod. “It feels like everyone is still talking about the ac- cident, you know?” michelle major 150 her texas new year’s wish “I do,” Grace agreed with a grateful smile. “I hate being a topic of conversation. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Ashley. I really appreciate it.” As his sister closed the door to the private dining area, Wiley glanced around the space, pleased at how things had turned out. He’d suggested to Ashley that Grace didn’t like the attention she was receiving for her injury, feeling like that was a plausible reason to request a space of their own. The room retained the character of the grain silo that had once occupied the space, with high ceil- ings and painted shiplap on the walls. A white cloth covered an impeccably set table in the middle of the room. Grace wheeled the scooter slowly toward the table, taking in the flowers and candles on the side- board. He wondered what would happen if he told her how he was truly coming to feel about her—the way his heart stammered every time he looked at her and the anticipation of seeing one of her sweet smiles. Would she admit to the same level of connec- tion, or would he scare her away by deviating from the path they’d agreed to? Was he brave enough to risk finding out? Just as he was about to speak, she turned to him, and the anger flashing in her blue eyes took him by surprise. “Do you think I need to be coddled in the same way my parents do?” she whispered, the pain in her voice cutting off all thoughts of a revelation about 151 his feelings. Confusion filled him, and he wanted a do-over on the past few minutes. Apparently, Wiley had misjudged her reaction to his plan for a private dinner in a monumental way. Grace regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. She looked away from Wiley’s shocked ex- pression and took in the beauty of the room. From the soft lighting punctuated with flickering candles to the scent of flowers perfuming the air, she couldn’t have asked for a more romantic setup. Calla lilies took center stage in the flower arrangements, not a surprise since Wiley knew they were her favorite. She had no doubt he’d orchestrated this room and the mood it set. She didn’t want to consider what the attention to detail that had gone into it might reveal to the Provisions staff—and more importantly to his sister—about the nature of their relationship. She’d expect nothing less of her big-city attorney. From food to the little gifts and flowers he’d brought her, it was clear he was a master of thoughtful gestures. As much as she appreciated being spoiled in this way, what Grace liked best about Wiley was that he’d seemed to believe in her. He hadn’t treated her like a child the way her parents tended to. Despite her struggles, he never gave any indication that he thought her incapable of dealing with challenges or making her own decisions. Until tonight. michelle major 152 her texas new year’s wish “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He shook his head. “I’m not trying to coddle you, Grace.” “Then why mention to your sister how I need to make recovering my priority as if I’m not already doing that?” She moved closer to the table. “You sound like my dad or Jake. I thought you believed I could manage my own life?” “I do.” “That’s not what it sounded like.” She dashed a hand across her cheek, cursing the tears that gathered in her eyes. She didn’t want to cry but was working so hard to prove that she could handle everything. The truth was, sometimes she doubted herself. She felt tired and achy and like she wanted to crawl into bed, but she kept going. She wouldn’t have the op- portunity for the promotion at the hotel taken from her because she wasn’t up to the task of it. “Grace.” He stepped closer, and she wanted to back away, but that wasn’t so easy to manage with the scooter. “I know how determined you are to re- turn to the hotel, even though you’re practically man- aging as much as two people working remotely. But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t worried about you.” Betrayal ripped through her, but he held up a hand before she could speak. “Tell me why you haven’t contacted the physical therapist my family arranged.” “How do you know about that?” she demanded instead of answering, hating to be put on the spot in this way. 153 “Callum mentioned it,” he said gently. “You un- derstand that people realize how serious the fall could have been? More serious than it was.” He paused, looked away for moment before his gaze returned to hers. “Deadly.” “Of course I do.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “And I hate it. I hate that people are talking about me or feeling sorry for me.” She slapped her hand against the scooter’s metal frame. “I hate that the cast is a visible reminder of the accident. I’m for- ever going to be associated with this black spot that I’m sure everyone at the Hotel Fortune would like to erase.” “They don’t want to erase you, sweetheart.” He took her hand and lifted it to his lips, placing a kiss on each one of her knuckles. “No kissing,” she reminded him, but didn’t pull away. “You’re too hard to resist.” He inclined his head. “Will you make an appointment with the PT? I know how strong you are. And brave. I know that you’ll work through almost anything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry.” He leaned in, his forehead pressing against hers in a way that felt strangely intimate. “Not like your parents, Grace. I worry like a man who cares about a woman. The fact that I want you to take care of yourself doesn’t mean I don’t believe in you.” “Okay,” she answered, unsure that her jumbled michelle major 154 her texas new year’s wish brain was capable of saying anything more. He cared about her. What did that mean? Because she knew what it meant for her. It meant that her heart was happy when Wiley was around and that the depth of feeling she already had for him scared her to her core. She knew what it was like to have her heart broken, and here she was risking it with a man who’d just blithely told her he’d never been in love. It wasn’t as if she thought he was going to change for her, despite how much she might want him to try. Yet she had to admit he was right about pushing herself. “I don’t want the Fortunes to think I’m try- ing to take advantage of them or that I think they’re responsible for me being hurt. It felt like if I worked with a physical therapist on the injuries I have un- related to my ankle, I’d be admitting that I was hurt more seriously than people thought.” She placed a fin- ger to his lips when he would have spoken. “WhichI’m not, although my back is stiff, and I probably rely on over-the-counter anti-inflammatories more often than I should.” Wiley gave a sharp shake of his head. “That’s it. I’m making sure the therapist is at your house first thing Monday morning.” Grace smiled. “I’m coming into the hotel next week for a meeting about the preopening event.” “No.” She rolled her eyes at him. “Wiley.” 155 “Grace, you just admitted you’re in pain. I hate the thought of you in pain.” She leaned in and kissed him, unable to stop her- self. “I appreciate that and the fact that you’re con- cerned and not overprotective. I’ll call the PT and schedule a session for Monday afternoon, but no more talk about my injuries, especially with your siblings.” He looked like he wanted to argue, so she kissed him again. “You can’t resist me, either,” he said with a sexy smirk as she pulled back. “I guess you’re right.” Her heart hammered in her chest at the thought of how much she was al- ready coming to care for him. A part of her wanted to tell him, but she was too afraid of scaring him off. Instead, she moved aside the scooter and eased herself into the chair. “Let’s leave talk of the hotel behind tonight. I want to enjoy every moment of this friendly dinner.” To her great relief, he nodded and sat next to her. A discreet knock sounded on the door, and the server entered, carrying a tray filled with an assortment of appetizers that both smelled and looked divine. Yes, Grace liked Wiley for the man he’d shown himself to be and the way he made her feel. She also appreciated that he wanted what was best for her, and tonight she was content to let herself be treated like someone special. She couldn’t deny that michelle major 156 her texas new year’s wish she wanted more from him. Tomorrow she’d remind herself that her priority was proving herself at the hotel and winning the promotion. Tonight she’d let her heart lead the way. Chapter Ten “Are you sure you don’t want me to help you in?” her mother asked as they rounded the corner toward the Hotel Fortune. Grace blew out a huff of nervous laughter. “Mom, this isn’t the first day of kindergarten.” “I get it,” Barbara said with a chuckle. “I know you’re a capable adult, Gracie. Your father and I are proud of how you’ve dealt with everything life has thrown your way. A lesser woman would have let it ruin them.” “I learned my strength from you,” Grace said qui- etly. It was true. After Jake’s car accident, her mother 158 her texas new year’s wish had never wavered in her outward confidence that her son would fully recover, despite the grueling pro- cess and all the setbacks they faced. Grace wanted to find a way to have that kind of faith in herself. Her mother pulled to a stop at the curb in front of the hotel’s main entrance. Grace smiled as she saw Jay Cross heading toward her. “I’ve got this,” Grace said as she opened her door, not sure who she was trying to convince. “I love you, sweetie,” Barbara said as she pushed the button to open the sedan’s trunk. “I’d tell you to break a leg, but I’m afraid you might take me liter- ally.” Grace turned to her mother with a smile. “I’ll text you in a bit to let you know I’m fine.” A look of obvious relief crossed her mom’s face, but she shook her head. “You don’t have to, but I’d appreciate the update.” Jay had the scooter out of the trunk when Grace climbed out of the car. “Look at you, Ms. Over- achiever,” he said in his country drawl as she placed her purse and files in the scooter’s wire basket and positioned her cast on the pad. “Are you trying to make the rest of us look like slackers?” Excitement flooded through her as she looked at the hotel’s stucco exterior. She tipped her head to the sky and said a silent thank-you for the ability to return to work and the beautiful day for it. “I’m a twenty-eight-year-old woman getting dropped off at 159 work by my mom.” She lifted a brow. “She even of- fered to pack lunch for me, which is sweet but also humiliating in a humbling way.” “I’ll take your mom’s lunch,” Jay answered with a laugh, running a hand through his cropped hair. “You’ll take free food from anyone.” Grace started for the hotel. “And we both know you aren’t a slacker. You’re just strangely tranquil.” Jay looked startled for a brief moment before his features shifted back to self-possessed. He was her favorite person in the trainee program. His easygoing attitude and willingness to pitch in made everything more fun. He definitely cared about the hotel and he worked hard, but didn’t seem to have the same drive as Jillian and Grace. “Someone needs to be tranquil with Jillian taking the lead in your absence.” Grace let out a small groan. “I was afraid of that.” “I don’t think anyone is buying her ‘I’m the sec- ond coming of Conrad Hilton’ routine,” Jay confided. “But that isn’t stopping her from trying to convince them. It’s like she’s on a mission to suck up to every Fortune in this town.” His derision was clear, and Grace appreciated that he felt the same as she did about Jillian’s attempts to cast herself in the starring role for the hotel. But she wondered if the Fortunes saw it that way. Jillian had positive qualities. She was organized and detail-oriented, but Grace had worked in hospi- michelle major 160 her texas new year’s wish tality long enough to know that Jillian’s snobby at- titude would be a turnoff to certain guests. One of the cardinal rules about the hospitality industry was a focus on service, and in Grace’s opinion, her rival still had a ways to go in learning to put the guests above her own ambition. “I’m back,” Grace murmured, unsure whether she was trying to reassure Jay or herself. “At least for a few hours every morning.” “How are you really feeling?” Jay asked, and she appreciated the concern in his voice. “Other than the cast, I’m doing okay.” She didn’t bother mentioning the aches and pains she still had every morning. True to her word to Callum, she’d left a message for the physical therapist. She hadn’t expected to hear back until today, but the woman had returned her call almost immediately. So fast, in fact, that Grace wondered if the PT had been in- structed to respond as soon as Grace reached out. Either way, she was coming to the house for an ini- tial consultation that afternoon. Although she’d beenassured the hotel’s insurance would cover all of the expenses related to her accident, Grace still didn’t feel comfortable letting the Fortunes pay for the ses- sions, but she’d work that part out later. Jay opened one of the hotel’s large iron doors. She wheeled through and then gasped at the crowd of her coworkers congregating in front of the reservation desk. Everyone clapped for her arrival and several 161 people—Nicole and Ashley included—held up signs welcoming her back. Tears sprang to Grace’s eyes, and she quickly tried to blink them away. Callum stood at the back of the crowd. He gave a slow nod as their gazes met. She’d wondered if anyone would even notice her absence, but this reception made her feel like the people at the hotel were truly a part of her family. “I wasn’t the only one who missed you,” Jay said as he came to stand next to her. “Welcome back, Grace.” Callum stepped forward. “It’s great to have you here again.” “Thank you,” Grace answered, swallowing around the emotion clogging her throat. “A lot of people would be happy for an excuse to spend a few weeks binge-watching television, but it’s a testament to all of you and how amazing this hotel is going to be that I just can’t stay away. The Hotel Fortune will be the crowning jewel of this town, and I’m grateful to be even a small part of our success.” Another round of applause greeted her words, and Callum’s grin broadened. He was such a se- rious man, focused and driven, so Grace felt par- ticularly grateful that he seemed satisfied with her impromptu speech. “We’re the ones who are grateful to you,” he told her, and then stepped aside so that other employees could greet her. It was almost fifteen minutes later before Grace was alone in the lobby with just Jillian michelle major 162 her texas new year’s wish and Jay. She stifled a yawn, wondering if her mom had been right and she was taking on too much. How could talking make her so tired? She blamed it on the emotions of the morning, from returning to the hotel to the warm welcome she received and then being asked to recount the accident for her cu- rious coworkers. “You’re like the mayor of this hotel,” Jay said with a laugh as she turned to him and Jillian. That comment earned a scowl from Jillian. “We have a meeting with Nicole to discuss restaurant lo- gistics for the grand opening.” She eyed Grace’s leg. “I’m sure it will take a while for you to get up to speed. So much has happened since you’ve been on vacation.” “I wouldn’t call it a vacation,” Grace said, forcing her tone to remain steady. Jillian waved a hand in front of her face. “What- ever. You practically just admitted that you’ve been doing nothing but watching television.” “And planning the preopening event,” Jay added quietly. “Busywork,” Jillian muttered. Grace smiled. Kill them with kindness, she thought. “I appreciate the two of you taking care of things while I was recovering. If there’s anything you need me to pitch in on now that I’m back—” “Part-time.” Jillian sniffed. “No, I’ve got it han- dled. In fact, our meeting with Nicole is about to 163 start.” She gave Grace a condescending smile. “I scheduled us to meet in the banquet room upstairs. You probably don’t want to deal with all those steps. They’re doing maintenance on the elevators today, so they aren’t an option.” Grace’s heart sank as she glanced over to the bank of windows that overlooked the lobby from Roja’s private room. The staircase was just off the entrance to the restaurant and would indeed be difficult for her to manage. “How about if we switch the meeting to the first floor?” Jay glanced between the two women. “There are things we need to discuss about seat- ing arrangements upstairs,” Jillian insisted. “Grace can check the hotel’s email inbox while we’re doing the important stuff. Of course, every little detail is important. You know what I mean.” Grace resisted the urge to grit her teeth. As dif- ficult as she sometimes found it to stick up for her- self, she had to start acting like a manager if that’s what she wanted to be. “Jillian, I want to be part of the meeting. I’m sure Nicole will understand if we change the location.” At that moment, Nicole appeared at the Roja en- trance situated off the lobby. She punched some- thing into her cell phone, then shoved it into the back pocket of the stylish trousers she wore. “Did I hear you talking about a venue change?” she asked the three of them. michelle major 164 her texas new year’s wish “Yes.” Grace spoke before Jillian had a chance to. “Would it be okay if we met down here so that I don’t have to contend with the stairs? I have some ideas I think you’ll want to hear.” “Great idea,” Nicole said easily. “I want every- one to contribute.” Jillian’s face went blank. “But we have seating charts to discuss so we should be upstairs if—” “We’ll manage. We can review the charts on the digital floor plan.” Nicole gave a pointed look to the tablet Jillian carried. “Grace, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on plans for the grand opening. You’ve done such an amazing job so far with the pre-event.” “Thanks,” Grace whispered. Clearly annoyed and just as clearly trying to hide it, Jillian followed Ni- cole into the restaurant. Jay held open the door for Grace, who wheeled forward, proud of her tiny vic- tory in derailing Jillian’s attempt at undermining her. Grace was no longer going to fade into the back- ground for anyone. “Thank you for the ride,” Grace said later that afternoon as Wiley pulled out of the hotel’s park- ing lot. “My mom or Jake could have picked me up.” “It’s not a problem,” he told her. “I’m heading back to the Fame and Fortune anyway to work on some contracts that came in for review earlier.” She rolled her head on the seat back to look at him. “It must be difficult to balance everything 165 you’ve taken on at the hotel with the work from your regular job.” He shrugged. “I don’t mind.” “Because it’s temporary?” She couldn’t help but ask, needing the reminder not to get used to Wi- ley’s presence in her life, no matter how much she wanted to. “Because I like the work I do at the law firm, and I enjoy helping my family.” His magnanimous answer made her feel petty and small. There was no reason to goad Wiley, especially when he’d been so kind and helpful. “That’s nice,” she said when her exhausted brain couldn’t come up with anything better. “Are you okay?” He reached across the console and placed a warm hand on the top of her thigh. “Did you have a good morning at the hotel?” She nodded. “Yes. I liked feeling productive, and it was so nice of everyone on staff to welcome me back.” She stifled a yawn. “But it makes me mad to get so tired after only working a few hours. I’m used to being able to go all day and still have energy left over. Now I feel like I just ran a marathon.” “It will get better. Your body is still healing.” “I hate it,” she grumbled, then blew out a breath. “I’m sorry. I know I’m not the best company right now. And the physical therapist is supposed to be at the house in an hour. All I actually want to do is take a nap and then watch movies in bed for the rest michelle major 166 her texas new year’s wish of the night.” She tapped a finger to the top of Wi- ley’s hand. “I think I might need to reschedule the PT appointment.” “Nope.” He shook his head. “It’s set.” “I can call her back.” “But you won’t,” he insisted. “The only way to get stronger is to work at it.” She folded her arms across her middle, irritation crawling through her like an army of spiders. Wiley was right, of course, but that didn’t mean Grace wanted to hear it. “I think I liked you better when you were bringing me flowers and being all sweet and romantic.” “We’re saving sweet and romantic for after the therapy session,” he promised. “Right now, I’m being your friend.” She opened her mouth, then shut it again, his words wiping away the irritation. As much as she enjoyed the kisses they shared, the thought of being Wiley’s friend was just as appealing. “Friend or drill sergeant?” she asked, not bothering to hide the sar- casm from her voice. Sarcasm was an easy mask to hide behind. “A little of both, actually.” He pulled onto her parents’ street. “Text me after the PT leaves, and I’m happy to come over or pick you up.” He stopped at the curb. “Or if you just want a night alone with Netflix, I understand.” 167 She snorted softly. “If it weren’t for this stupid cast, I’d be all about the Netflix and chill with you.” He laughed. “We’re in no hurry.” Those words splashed cold water on the flame that ignited inside her every time she thought about being with Wiley in an intimate way. Maybe there was no hurry, but they did have a built-in end date, and she’d do well to remember that. “Sure,” she whispered. “Grace.” He took her hand, and just that gentle touch sent shivers across her skin. “I mean it. No pressure.” Oh, heavens. He thought she was upset because he might be pushing her for something she wasn’t ready to handle. What would he think if he knew that without the cast, she’d be tempted to crawl over the console and attach herself to him like a barna- cle? Maybe not the most romantic image, but that’s how she felt. “I appreciate it,” she answered, and placed her hand on the door handle. The thought of attaching any part of herself to Wiley had her feeling a bit unhinged. She was tired. And frustrated. And she wanted him more than she cared to admit. “I should go.” Wiley looked past her out the passenger window and gave a little wave. “Your mom is coming.” All thoughts of desire vanished into thin air. Grace sighed as her mother headed down the front michelle major 168 her texas new year’s wish walk toward them. She opened her door and called out a greeting as Wiley went around to the trunk of the car to retrieve her scooter. “How was your day?” her mother asked as Grace climbed out. “I texted you, Mom.” She tried to keep the impa- tience out of her voice. “It was fine.” “You look tired.” “I’m fine.” “She’s tired,” Wiley confirmed. “After the physi- cal therapy appointment, she should rest. If there’s anything she needs—” “I’ll ask for it,” Grace said through clenched teeth. She knew he was trying to be nice and she didn’t want to take his generosity for granted, but being smothered with caring chafed at her, even if it was done with the best intentions. Barbara bestowed a beaming smile on Wiley. “I appreciate you looking out for her. It makes me feel better about her going back to work before she’s fully healed.” “It’s my pleasure,” Wiley answered. “Everyone at the hotel was happy to see her return.” “The photos you sent were adorable,” her mother told him, reaching out to pat his arm. Grace blinked. “Wait.” She looked from her mom to Wiley. “You sent photos? You’re texting my mother?” “I asked him to, sweetheart,” her mom explained. “I didn’t want to bother you.” 169 “So you bothered him instead?” Grace snapped, shaking her head. “It was my pleasure,” Wiley assured her. “Not the point.” Grace placed her purse and files into the scooter’s basket with more force than was probably necessary. “I’m going into the house. Thank you for the ride, Wiley. I think after my appointment, I’ll rest for the night after all.” His gaze clouded. “Whatever you want.” “Other than managing my own business,” she muttered, and scooted toward the house as fast as she could manage. “Gracie, don’t be mad.” Her mother caught up with her in a couple of quick steps. “Wiley was only doing what I asked. I know your father and I are overprotective, but you’re our daughter. Please.” The catch in her mother’s voice wound its way around Grace’s heart. Of course she understood why her parents worried so much, even if she didn’t like it. “I know, Mom,” she said softly, pausing just before the front porch. “Give me a minute out here, okay?” Barbara nodded and waved to Wiley before head- ing back into the house. Grace turned the scooter, not a graceful move by any stretch of the imagination. As always, her breath caught at Wiley’s pure physical perfection. She liked that he always dressed a touch more formally than his brothers, retaining his city polish even in Ram- bling Rose. michelle major 170 her texas new year’s wish “You sent photos to my mom,” she said, more a statement and less an accusation this time. He took a step toward her and nodded. She appreciated that he didn’t try to make excuses or mansplain his behavior. “I appreciate you looking out for me,” she said quietly, looking down to the end of the block when the intensity of his gaze was too much. “But it’s im- portant to me that you understand I can take care of myself.” He moved closer slowly, as if approaching some feral creature. In truth, that’s how Grace felt on the inside. Frustration and fatigue combined to sharpen her edges. “I understand,” he said. “You’ve proven yourself to be one of the most competent women I’ve ever known. You don’t need my help, because you can handle anything.” “Right now it doesn’t feel that way,” she admit- ted. “It hasn’t for a while. I let my prior relationship, and before that my family, dictate what I did in life. People around me were my priority, and I thought I had to put the needs of others before my own. I’m trying to change that.” She reached down and mas- saged a hand along the top of her thigh. “Current circumstances aren’t making it easy.” “I want to make it easier, Grace.” She studied him for a moment, the sophisticated attorney who seemed intent on making her feel spe- 171 cial. It still boggled her mind that Wiley would be interested in a woman like her. In truth, that’s part of why she resisted his involvement. She didn’t want him to see her as a charity case. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.” She crooked a finger, beckoning him closer. “I’m grateful for your help at the hotel. I’m grateful for you.” When her voice threatened to crack, she swallowed back any- thing else she might say to him. Her feelings were too raw, too new at this point. He laced their fingers together. “That goes both ways.” She felt a smile tug one corner of her mouth as butterflies fluttered across her stomach. “I want to kiss you right now, but we’re standing on my par- ents’ front lawn.” “Rain check?” he asked, leaning in close. As an answer she brushed her lips over his, un- able to resist. She drew back quickly, still cognizant of being on display for half the neighborhood. “I’ll text you after my PT appointment.” The look of relief that filled his bourbon-hued gaze surprised her. It was as if he actually worried she might push him away. That he truly cared about her feelings. He carried the scooter up the steps to the porch, and it was difficult to watch him walk toward his car again. Grace could imagine how much good it would do her exhausted spirit to spend an hour nap- michelle major 172 her texas new year’s wish ping in Wiley’s arms. But that certainly wasn’t an option living with her parents. It might be time for a change. Chapter Eleven Are you free for dinner? Wiley blew out a relieved breath when Grace’s sim- ple text appeared on his phone screen the following afternoon. He’d gotten stuck on a series of confer- ence calls with his Chicago colleagues that morning and then had a meeting at the county building in- spector’s office, so he didn’t arrive at the hotel until after lunch. Grace had already left for home. He couldn’t tell why not seeing her for twenty-four hours made him feel anxious. Normally, Wiley set strict limits on his relationships so that the women he dated didn’t get the wrong impression about his level of commitment. 174 her texas new year’s wish Grace had practically accused him of trying to run her life yesterday, a clear sign that he was in too deep with her. He never got involved with women at that level. Flowers and other gifts—like the ones he’d given her after the accident—were…well, Wileywouldn’t describe them as meaningless. But they were superficial in a way that felt comfortable. He liked boundaries and limits. He liked control, espe- cially after feeling he had so little of it as a kid in his overlarge blended family. But the tiny town of Rambling Rose, and Grace in particular, made him want more. He replied to the text that he’d pick her up at her parents’ around six and received an immediate re- sponse with an unfamiliar address along with a mes- sage to come hungry for pizza. The rest of the afternoon seemed to tick by in slow motion. He resisted the urge to google the address she’d sent him to see if they were meeting at a res- taurant or something that would clue him in to her plan for the night. It occurred to Wiley that he might have a bit of an issue with control if he couldn’t re- linquish it long enough to allow Grace to surprise him with plans for the evening. He left the hotel after checking progress on the balcony reconstruction. The painter had put the fin- ishing touches on it, and the structure looked as good as new. Part of why Wiley had gone to the inspec- 175 tor’s office was to discuss the possibility of sabotage in more detail. The man had assured him that they couldn’t make a definite determination on what had caused the collapse. For now they believed the ac- cident to be just that—an accident. Wiley breathed a little easier at that news, al- though the cynic in him had a hard time totally trust- ing it. He would reserve judgment until the hotel opened without incident. But the relief on the faces of his brothers and sisters when he’d shared the news that the balcony may not have been tampered with made him want to believe. There was enough stress in putting the finishing touches on the hotel to have it ready for opening in less than a month. The idea that right now they wouldn’t have to worry about sabotage on top of everything else clearly helped ev- eryone. He also knew that the security system Kane had installed was top-notch. Nothing was going to get past them. Anticipation continued to build in him as he drove to the ranch to change out of his suit and then headed back to town, following his car’s GPS to the address Grace had given him. He parked in front of a nonde- script brick fourplex in a residential neighborhood that he’d never been to before. Why would Grace have sent him there? Frowning as he surveyed the block, Wiley was about to pull out his phone to text her when she called michelle major 176 her texas new year’s wish his name. He glanced toward the house to see Grace waving at him from a second-floor window. “Come on up,” she shouted. “I’ll text you the code for the front door.” “How’d you get up there?” he asked as he ap- proached the house. She grinned, looking more relaxed than he’d seen her since that first night. “It’s amazing what a girl can manage with the right motivation.” He entered the building, using the code that ap- peared on his phone. The converted house had two apartments on the first floor. The staircase that led to the second floor was narrow, and he couldn’t imag- ine how Grace would have climbed the stairs. Ob- viously she’d made it to the second floor somehow. She stood in the doorway of one of the upstairs apartments, looking more beautiful than ever in a simple sweater and a pair of loose sweatpants with the right leg cut off at the knee. Her hair was down around her shoulders, and although he’d seen her al- most every day for the past week, there was some- thing different about her tonight—a light in her eye that hadn’t been there before. “Welcome to my apartment,” she said, backing up the scooter to give him room to enter. “It’s not fancy, but guess what?” She took his hand as he entered and drew him close for a lingering kiss. “We’re alone.” The thought sent a sensation surging through 177 him. He gave his body a silent command to settle down. Being alone with Grace didn’t change any- thing. They were dating or friends or friends who were dating, depending on how he felt at any given moment. “Why the change in location? Is everything okay with your family?” He squeezed her fingers. “I hope I didn’t cause lingering problems between you and your mom because of updating her. Like I said—” “Wiley, stop.” She looked at him strangely, and he realized he was blathering. He wasn’t a man who spoke compulsively or without prior thought. He chose his words deliberately, took action with purposeful thought. Wiley valued control above al-most everything else, and suddenly one soft-spoken woman had turned everything he knew about him- self on its side. “Everything is fine with my family.” She shut the door behind him and released her hold on his hand, moving across the hardwood floor on the scooter toward the small kitchen positioned at the other end of the open space. “Then why are you here?” He looked around the apartment and saw Grace’s personality reflected in almost every part of it. It wasn’t fancy, but from the row of bookshelves to the framed botanical posters above the slipcovered sofa, he could imagine her choosing every item with care. A complete contrast to his apartment in a sleek complex in downtown Chicago. He’d lived in his place for nearly seven michelle major 178 her texas new year’s wish years and had yet to hang a single piece of art on the walls. The more time he spent in Rambling Rose, the more obvious it became that he was living life but hadn’t created a home. “I actually have you to thank once again,” she said, grinning at him over her shoulder. “Thanks to your bullying, I didn’t cancel the PT appointment yesterday.” “Bullying is such a harsh word,” he told her with a grimace. “Can we use support or encouragement?” “Bullying in the best way possible.” She turned to him. “I needed it. You were right. Avoiding therapy wasn’t going to help me heal faster or make anyone forget about the injury. The cast is kind of a give- away, you know?” “That doesn’t explain you moving back to a second-floor apartment.” “The therapist was wonderful. She gave me some exercises to help strengthen my leg muscles for the time I’m still in the cast. I explained to her how much trouble I’d been having with the crutches. She helped me learn to use them more effectively.” Grace pointed to the metal crutches that rested against the wall. “We even did some work on get- ting up and down stairs. Once I felt more confident, I knew I could move back here. I don’t have to stay with my parents anymore.” “That’s great.” The radiant smile she gave him 179 did funny things to his heart. “And your folks are okay with it?” Her smile dimmed slightly. “They aren’t thrilled,” she admitted, “but it’s not their choice. My dad picked me up from work and drove me here this af- ternoon while Mom did some grocery shopping, so I won’t starve.” She opened the refrigerator to re- veal the fully stocked shelves. “Once they saw that I could manage the stairs, it made them feel better about things. I need this so badly. I need to feel like I can make it on my own.” “Of course you can,” he said because even though he didn’t like to think of her struggling, he knew her independence was important to who she was, and he’d never take that from her. “You know I’ll help with anything you need.” “Yeah,” she whispered, biting down on her lower lip. “And I do have a few places that are achy.” He immediately took a step closer. “Have you been overdoing it at the hotel?” She chuckled and tapped a finger to her mouth. “I hurt right here,” she told him with a wink. “Any chance you’ll kiss it and make it better?” Every feeling of desire Wiley had locked down came roaring back to the surface. They were alone in her apartment. The thought of what it might mean made his body grow heavy with need. Just as he reached her, the landline phone on the counter rang. michelle major 180 her texas new year’s wish “Hold that thought.” Grace pointed at him. “I think the pizza just arrived.” Food was the last thing Wiley cared about at the moment, but he opened the door for the delivery guy after Grace buzzed him into the building. To his sur- prise, she’d already paid over the phone, so all that was left for Wiley to do was hand the kid a couple of dollars as a tip. “You don’t have to buy me dinner,” he told her as he carried the box to the two-seater kitchen table positioned in front of a window. “I’m the man. I should pay.” He wanted to slap himself as soon as the words left his mouth, and she flat out laughed at that state- ment. “You need to update your thoughts about re- lationships,” she told him as she pulled two plates from the cupboard. “As much as I appreciate your gentlemanly tendencies, I’m a modern woman.” “I’m an ass,” he muttered. “My mom and my sis- ters would kill me if they overheard that.” “Your intentions are noble.” “That’s something, I guess. Are you sure you want to put up with me?” She laughed again. “It’s only for a couple—” He watched as she closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. There was the reminder of his dwindling time in Texas, which was beginning to feel like a specter haunting the moments he shared with Grace. So many things would be easier once he returned 181 to Chicago. Although Wiley was keeping up with his client load, working remotely meant everything seemed to take longer than it would if he were han- dling it at the main office. Despite that, he found he didn’t want to think about leaving Rambling Rose or Grace. Especially Grace. “Would you like a beer?” she asked when she met his gaze again, her eyes almost aggressively bright. “I had my mom pick up the same brand you ordered at dinner the other night.” “You’re wining and dining me.” He took the plates from her hand and leaned forward to kiss her neck, needing the sweet scent of her to ground him in the moment and help him forget the inevitable end to their time together. “I should push you out of your comfort zone more often.” Her shoulders relaxed, as though she appreciated his attempt to lighten the mood. “Be careful, Coun- selor,” she warned, “or this modern woman might push your comfort zone right back.” Grace couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so content. It was nearly ten and she sat cradled in the crook of Wiley’s arm as the final scene of an old sci-fi movie played on her small TV. He was the first man she’d had in her apartment, and nerves had plagued her after she’d texted him the invitation earlier. She knew her place wasn’t any- thing special, especially for a man who was prob- michelle major 182 her texas new year’s wish ably used to living the high life in the city. Most of her furniture consisted of hand-me-downs from her parents or thrift-store finds. She’d shared a duplex apartment with her ex-boyfriend in Horseback Hol- low and after discovering the depth of his betrayal,she’d been so intent on getting out of town, she’d sim- ply left behind everything that wouldn’t fit in her car. It had only been a year since she’d returned to Rambling Rose, but her relationship with Craig seemed like a lifetime ago. It still amazed her how deeply she’d come to care for Wiley in such a short time. Maybe it was due to growing close to him in the aftermath of her accident, but Grace couldn’t help but believe there was more to their connection. If only she didn’t keep getting the unwanted re- minders that he’d be leaving sooner than later. She snuggled against him, reminding herself to stay in the moment instead of worrying about things she had no control over. That plan seemed to be serving herwell as far as her job. Even though Jillian had found ways to remind Grace every day since her return about all the ways she wasn’t contributing to prog- ress toward the grand opening, Grace stayed focused on the pieces she could do. She’d invited owners of various local businesses, and plans for the Rambling Rose partnership reception were almost complete. When the movie’s credits rolled, Wiley dropped a gentle kiss on the top of her forehead. “This is nice,” 183 he said, one hand tracing lazy circles on her arm. The featherlight touch did funny things to her insides, her pulse thrumming at the thought of being truly alone with this irresistible man. Up until now, the only mo- ments they’d had to themselves had been in his car, and there was only so much that could happen with a console separating them. Not that a lot more could happen with her leg in the cast, but Grace tipped up her chin and trailed kisses along Wiley’s strong jaw. His arms tightened around her, and he claimed her mouth, their tongues meeting as the kiss deepened. She wound her arms around his neck, reveling in the heat that surrounded her. It felt like she could kiss him forever and never tire of it. Her body grew heavy with need and she shifted, wanting to get closer but not quite able to manage it with the cast hindering her. “Are you okay?” he asked her when a frustrated sigh escaped her lips. “Am I hurting you? Is it your leg?” She pulled back to gaze into his dark eyes. “I want more,” she whispered. “What would the physi- cal therapist think of me if I asked her how to man- age…” She broke off and wrinkled her nose. “Being with you despite my cast.” One side of his mouth twitched. “I’m not sure, but I like the way your mind works.” He smoothed michelle major 184 her texas new year’s wish a stray lock of hair from her face. “I like everything about you, Grace. So much so that I don’t want to rush this.” As much as her brain appreciated his chivalry, Grace’s body wasn’t cooperating. “Will you stay with me tonight?” she asked, then felt heat rise to her cheeks at her own bluntness. Grace wasn’t the type of woman to ask for what she wanted or take the lead in the bedroom. But it was different some- how with Wiley. A thought wiggled its way into her mind. Maybe Wiley was being a gentleman because he didn’t feel the same way about her. Although even her dad seemed to be warming to him, her brother still had suspicions about his motives. Jake still seemed to believe Wiley was protecting his family by getting close to her and sent her at least one text a day with some sort of veiled warning about not opening her heart to the Fortune attorney. Grace didn’t bother to tell Jake it was way too late for that. Her heart was already well in the mix. She held her breath as she waited for Wiley’s re- sponse. She could feel his heart beating a rapid-fire pace against his chest. “No pressure,” she added when he didn’t respond. “I’m not expecting anything to happen. Sleeping, of course. But otherwise—” “Yes.” He said the word with a level of rever- ence that sent shivers across her skin, then kissed her again. 185 By the time he finally pulled away, Grace felt dizzy with need. “Don’t ever doubt that I want you,” he told her. “I do, Grace. So badly.” He reached out and placed a hand on her leg just above the cast. “But not until you’re healed totally. What I have planned for the two of us is going to be worth the wait. I promise.” “Okay,” she said, her voice a squeak. How else could she answer? She pushed away from him, needing a little bit of distance because she felt like she was in danger of spontaneously combusting. “I’m going to change into my pajamas and…” She covered her face with her hands. “This is weird, right? We’re two adults—who are dating—and we’re having a platonic sleepover. You must think I’m the biggest dork you’ve ever met.” “I think you’re amazing,” he assured her. He rose from the sofa, grabbed the remote to turn off the television and then extended his hands toward her. She allowed him to pull her to standing but shook her head when he bent as if to pick her up. “I can make it to the bedroom on my own.” “Amazing,” he repeated. She laughed at that. “It’s not far.” “I’m going to text Callum,” Wiley said, “and tell them not to expect me home tonight.” She made a face. “Is that going to be weird?” michelle major 186 her texas new year’s wish “I’m a grown man,” he reminded her. “They might give me a little grief, but no one will be shocked.” As she made her way to the bedroom, Grace wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or terrified by Wiley’s comment. Did he make a habit of spending the night away from the ranch in beds that didn’t belong to him? No reason to go looking for trouble when it had a way of finding Grace without any prompting on her part. It only took a few minutes to change into her pj’s and finish her nighttime routine. Wiley was sitting on the edge of the bed when she came out of the bathroom. He’d taken off his sweatshirt and socks and shoes but still had on a T-shirt and jeans. Somehow the sight of his bare feet on her rug made Grace’s toes curl. “Are you planning to sleep in your clothes?” she asked, trying for a light tone. He shrugged. “I don’t want to make you uncom- fortable.” She kicked out her injured leg. “The cast beat you to it. It’s okay, Wiley. I know nothing is going to happen between us, but I want you to get a decent night’s sleep, as well.” He rose and approached her, running his hands up and down her arms. “Even if I don’t sleep a wink, it will be worth it to spend the night holding you.” 187 Damn, the guy knew what he was doing with the smooth talk. She reached for his belt, slowly unbuckling it as she felt him watching her. “I’m glad to hear you say that. But drop trou, Mr. Fortune. I’m ready for bed.” He grinned at her teasing, and Grace felt her heart tug once more. She liked who she was with Wiley. He seemed willing to let her be who she was in a way that most people didn’t appreciate, and that gave her the confidence to explore her inner strength. Too bad she couldn’t spend the whole night ex- ploring him. She climbed into bed and watched him undress, forcing herself not to whimper as he tugged off his T-shirt to reveal the most perfect physique she’d ever seen in person. He was lean and muscled, hard planes and angles on display in a way that reminded her of an actual sculpture. A smattering of dark hair cov- ered his chest. And he was going to spend the night with her. He joined her under the covers, and she flipped off the light, then sighed with pleasure as he pulled her close. As much as she wanted him, there was something about the comfort of his arms around her that made the fatigue she tried to keep at bay rise up like a wave inside her. “You can sleep, Grace,” he said against her hair, as if he could sense her struggle to remain awake. “I’m not going anywhere.” michelle major 188 her texas new year’s wish She loved the sound of that, although she told herself not to forget that he meant he was with her for now. So for now she cuddled up against him and drifted off to sleep. Chapter Twelve The next week went by more quickly than Grace could have imagined. Between work at the hotel in the mornings and working at home on the business leaders’ event during the afternoon hours, plus the physical therapy sessions and her time with Wiley, it felt like every minute was filled with something. She’d never been happier. It was strange that falling off the balcony seemed to be a catalyst for her newfound sense of confidence. Yet there was nothing like knowing she could have died to make her realize she needed to be willing to take more chances in life. Grace had started to speak up more in meetings 190 her texas new year’s wish and insert her ideas, not only for the opening, but for how she thought things would work best in the daily running of the hotel once they were filled with guests. To her surprise, the Fortunes seemed happy to let her take the lead, and she realized that the point of the training program might have been more than simply familiarizing locals with the business model. Because they were committed to hiring most of the hotel staff locally, the Fortune family needed a way to make sure whoever they chose was going to be up for the job. Grace and Jillian had similar backgrounds and experience in hospitality, but they had very differ- ent methods for how to deal with guests and the ho- tel’s overall ambiance. Jillian clearly felt as though it should be an exclusive oasis that would cater to big- city guests from Houston or other parts of the state who wanted to get away from the pressures of city life but still retain the trappings of privilege. Grace saw the value in that, but because she’d grown up in Rambling Rose, she also understood what the town had to offer. Her idea was to capitalize on the com- munity feel. Yes, the hotel was an escape but one that guests would choose in part because of the charm of the surrounding area. It’s why her Rambling Rose partnership reception felt so important. She wanted local business own- ers to buy in on the hotel so that when it opened and guests came to town, the community would welcome 191 them in a way that would make people want to re- turn over and over. “Am I interrupting?” The soft knock on the office door had her glancing up from her laptop. She grinned as Wiley entered, looking handsome as ever in his dark suit and crisp white tailored shirt. “You’re never an interruption,” she told him, feel- ing the familiar rush of heat that rose to her cheeks whenever Wiley spoke to her. Since she moved back to her apartment, he’d been over almost every eve- ning for dinner. He didn’t always spend the night but stayed long enough to kiss and caress her until her body was on fire with wanting more. “You have the office to yourself this morning?” He gestured toward the other workstations situated around the perimeter of the room. All of the employ- ees involved with the trainee program shared this space, which would be the official management of- fice once the hotel opened. “Jillian and Jay are in a meeting upstairs to final- ize the choice for bed linens for the guest rooms.” She shrugged. “I had a call with Hailey at the spa about the giveaways for the preopening event. I fig- ured they could handle it without me.” “Look at you delegating like you’ve already earned the promotion.” He bent down and gave her a swift kiss. “I like watching you take control.” As much as she wanted to draw him in, Grace michelle major 192 her texas new year’s wish gave him a playful nudge instead. “You can’t kiss me at work,” she admonished. “People will talk.” “There’s no one here.” “Still.” She held up a hand. “And I’m not delegat- ing. We’re dividing and conquering.” He lifted a brow. “Own it, Grace. You want that promotion, and you’re going after it.” “Yeah,” she whispered, delighted that she didn’t have to hide her ambition from Wiley. Her ex hadn’t liked it when she tried to better herself, at least if it made her seem like she was trying to surpass him in any way. Maybe it was because Wiley was already so successful and sure of himself, but he seemed to be attracted to her even more when she stood up for herself or went after what she wanted. It was a heady vote of confidence. “Saturday’s event is going to be great.” She grinned and pushed away from her computer. “Do you know what’s going to make it even better?” Wiley tapped a finger against his chin. “The fact that every time we make eye contact you’ll know that I’m thinking about kissing you senseless?” She laughed. “No, but I’ll keep that in mind. I get the cast off Friday afternoon.” His mouth dropped open and something flashed in his eyes that she didn’t understand—it looked al- most like dismay. “I thought you had a full month in the cast?” “Me, too. But I saw Dr. Matthews early this morn- 193 ing. My mom took me in before work. He did more scans and said the fracture is healing faster than expected. The plan was to make an appointment for next week to get it off, but when I explained about the event on Saturday, he agreed to see me Friday afternoon. I’ll still have to be in a walking boot for another few weeks, but…” She threw up her hands. “Walking, Wiley. Without crutches or the scooter. I’m going to almost be a normal person again.” “That’s fantastic news.” He continued to look shocked and definitely not thrilled the way she ex- pected. “Are you sure you aren’t pushing the recov- ery? What does the PT say?” “Wow, that’s not exactly the reaction I’d hoped for,” Grace told him with a frown. “The doctor is okay with it, so I don’t think I’m pushing anything. We already have physical therapy sessions set up for next week to start working on strengthening my ankle.” She didn’t bother to keep the frustration out of her voice. “This is a huge step forward—literally and figuratively—and comes at the best possible time. Not just because of work.” She swallowed. “I mean you and I can…well, we’ll be free to take the next step in our relationship.” He sucked in a sharp breath. “Yes. That’s amaz- ing.” He waved a hand in the air, looking so dis- combobulated she almost felt sorry for him. “Every part of it is amazing, Grace. I’m really so happy for michelle major 194 her texas new year’s wish you. It’s just a shock, you know? Because the plan changed and all.” “For the better,” she reminded him. “Of course.” Jillian entered the office in her usual flourish, then stopped when she realized Wiley was stand- ing next to Grace’s chair. “Thank God I was at that meeting.” He took a step back and ran a hand through his hair. “Nice work with arranging the spa gift certifi- cate,” he told Grace with a perfunctory nod. She gave him a wan smile, hoping that Jillian was fooled by his somewhat lame attempt to offer a reason for being in here with her. She wished they didn’t have to keep their relationship secret, but until the promotion was announced, she wouldn’t take any chances on her coworkers thinking she would be given preferential treatment during the assess- ment process. Even being with him in secret felt risky, but she also couldn’t imagine not taking advantage of their time together. “Nice to see you, Jillian,” Wiley said, and for a moment Grace hoped Wiley wasn’t a poker player, because the man’s inability to display a convincing game face was comical. He exited the office as Jillian took a seat at her desk. 195 “The linen meeting went well?” Grace asked, knowing that the other woman loved to talk about herself and hoping she’d be easily distracted from Wiley’s presence in the office. “If it weren’t for me, our guests would have been sleeping on discount sheets and scratchy comforters.” Jillian opened her laptop. “The bedding company sales guy was definitely trying to pull something over on us.” “What did Jay think?” Grace valued his practi- cal opinion to balance out Jillian’s tendency toward drama. “He actually agreed with me.” Jillian sounded as shocked as Grace felt. “I would not have expected Jay to be the type of man who understood the value of Egyptian cotton or a high thread count. He seems like a guy who’d change his sheets once a month and only because he got sick of crumbs in the bed.” “Yuck.” Grace shook her head. “You’re selling him a little short.” “He’s just so regular,” Jillian said with a sniff. “Nice enough but definitely not someone with my level of ambition.” Grace inclined her head. “I hate to ask where I rate on your ambition scale, but I’m curious.” Jillian steepled her hands together as she turned her chair fully to face Grace. “Well, you take it to a whole new level.” That didn’t sound like a compliment, so Grace of- michelle major 196 her texas new year’s wish fered her best placating smile. As much as she wanted to earn the promotion, there was no doubt that Jillian would be an asset to the hotel staff in some capacity, so Grace didn’t want to be the woman’s sworn enemy. “You do a great job as well,” she said. “But I don’t do the boss’s brother,” Jillian said with a smirk. “I earn my accolades with hard work and talent.” Anger and alarm rose in Grace like two waves crashing in on each other. This was exactly why she’d been leery of dating Wiley before the grand open- ing. The fact that Jillian could even hint—let alone nearly accuse—Grace of being given some kind of preferential treatment pained her to the core. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, making sure not one bit of emotion seeped into her voice. “Wiley and I are friends. He was kind after the accident.” “I assume you repaid that kindness on your back?” Jillian asked, almost conversationally. Grace gasped. “That’s a horrible thing to say.” “But is it true?” “No, it’s not. I don’t appreciate the insinuation about my character. I’ve earned my place at the Hotel Fortune.” “He’s only friendly to you because they’re afraid you’re going to sue for damages or try to get some kind of settlement from the hotel.” “That’s not true,” Grace whispered even as her 197 brother’s words played over in her head like an an- noying refrain. She reminded herself that Jillian wanted to get under her skin, and Grace had to keep it together. She knew Wiley truly cared about her. He told her as much—maybe not in so many words, but the way he held her communicated everything she needed to know. “I overheard him talking to Callum and Nicole right after the accident.” Jillian stood and moved closer to Grace’s workstation. “He told them that he’d ‘handle you.’ We all know what that means when an attorney says those words.” “You’re lying.” “I’m not. Ask him if you want. But men like Wiley Fortune don’t fall for small-town girls like you, Grace. He’s not even staying in Rambling Rose, so if you can’t see that you’re just an easy distrac- tion with the added benefit that he protects his fam- ily, then you’re even stupider than I suspected.” She pressed her glossy lips together. “I feel sorry for you, actually. I have a friend who works at Cowboy Country and she told me how you were publicly hu- miliated by your boyfriend up there. Some people can’t ever learn the lesson.” Without waiting for a response, Jillian turned and left the room. Grace stared blankly at her computer screen as her body began to tremble. Was it possible Jillian had told her the truth? The woman was conniving michelle major 198 her texas new year’s wish and egotistical, but Grace had never once heard her lie in the months they’d worked together. She hadn’t understood Wiley’s reaction to her news about the cast coming off early. Maybe he liked having an excuse not to be intimate with her. He’d given her too many reasons to believe he was a gentleman for her to doubt him on that front. It would then make sense if he was really stringing her along or getting close to her to make sure she didn’t go after his family for the accident that he wouldn’t want things to go too far. As many times as Grace had warned herself not to let her feelings for him get out of control, that’s ex- actly what had happened. She was falling for Wiley Fortune—falling in love with him. And now she feared she might end up with a broken heart and a betrayal that would hurt far worse than Craig’s. If Wiley was the man Jillian claimed him to be, Grace wasn’t sure if she’d ever recover. The following morning Wiley walked toward a popular barbecue joint in downtown Austin where he was meeting his cousin Gavin for lunch. Gavin was the youngest son of Kenneth, the half brother of Wiley’s dad. Similar to Wiley’s branch of the clan, Gavin’s was a big family who hadn’t known about their connection to the famous Texas Fortunes until the past few years. Gavin and his siblings had grown 199 up in Texas. Like Wiley, Gavin was an attorney and specialized in corporate law. They hadn’t met, but Wiley knew his cousin worked for a prominent firm out of Austin. It was Wiley’s understanding that Gavin had transferred there from Denver when he decided to return per- manently to Texas. After the conversation with Grace yesterday, Wiley had reached out and asked to meet Gavin to discuss possible opportunities within his firm. The news that Grace was getting her cast off early had been a shock, and he knew he hadn’t handled it well. But that wasn’t due to the reasons Grace might suspect. In truth, the thought of making love to her appealed to him more than he could say. He wanted to learn every inch of her body and how she liked to be touched, what he could do to bring her pleasure. He’d forced himself to put fantasies about the two of them to the side out of respect for her recovery. It had been an exquisite torture to kiss her and hold her in his arms each night when he stayed at her apart- ment and know that they couldn’t go any further. But a part of him, a tiny rational sliver of his brain, appreciated having the cast as an excuse not to take things further. Grace was different from any other woman he’d dated. He suspected that being with her intimately, instead of quenching his thirst, would only make him want her more. The thought of taking that step and then walking michelle major 200 her texas new year’s wish away after the hotel’s grand opening made a sharp ache slice across his chest. The alternative—a long- distance relationship—held no appeal, either. Be- cause of that, Wiley had decided to think about his future in a new way. He immediately spotted Gavin as he entered the restaurant since he’d read his cousin’s bio on the firm’s website. Gavin was tall and good-looking, with dark blond hair and air of confidence about him. He waved and then gave Wiley’s hand a firm shake when he got to the table. “I’m glad you called,” his cousin said, and Wiley appreciated the open expression on the other man’s face. “Thanks for being willing to meet me so quickly.” He took a seat, and a waitress put a glass of water and a menu in front of him. “It’s strange to think our fathers are brothers but we’re virtual strangers.” Gavin nodded. “My dad had a bit of struggle get- ting used to being part of the Fortune clan.” “I know how that goes,” Wiley said with a laugh. His father had actively discouraged Callum and the rest of the siblings from getting close to their new- found relatives. “But it’s a hard family to resist.” “How do you like Rambling Rose?” Gavin asked. “From everything I hear, your siblings are making quite the mark on that little town.” “It’s growing on me,” Wiley admitted, glancing at the menu. “Which I didn’t expect.” 201 The waitress returned to take their orders. After she’d gone, Gavin sat back in his seat with a con- tented sigh. “I’m familiar with that, as well. I cer- tainly hadn’t planned to end up in Texas when I came for my sister’s wedding. Denver had been my home since I graduated from law school.” “So what changed?” Wiley leaned in, curious to get the insight of a man who on the surface appeared so like him. “Did the wide-open spaces of Texas call you home again?” “Not exactly. There’s plenty of space in Colorado, although it’s certainly not the same. The truth is, I met a woman. It’s as simple as that.” Wiley chuckled. “In my experience, women are never simple.” “The way I felt about Christine is.” Gavin inclined his head. “Although it took me a bit of time to fig- ure it out. I might be great with contract law, but I wasn’t exactly a quick study when it came to love. Luckily, my firm had a Austin office, so it was easy to transfer without missing a beat. Best decision I ever made.” “I don’t have your luck,” Wiley told the other man, still reeling at the fact that Gavin seemed to be act- ing like it had been no big deal to make that kind of a move for a relationship. “How long have you and Christine been together?” “Two years this month,” Gavin told him with a michelle major 202 her texas new year’s wish smile. “Smartest thing I ever did was make her my wife. We’ll be adding to our family this spring.” “Congratulations.” Wiley rubbed two fingers against his chest, wondering if the emotion there that felt like jealousy could actually be that base. It wasn’t as if he’d completely rejected the idea of someday getting married and having a family of his own. But having his own space and independence had always been more of a priority. As much as he appreciated the sacrifices his mom and stepdad had made, he didn’t know if he was capable of being that selfless. “It’s incredible. Christine is incredible. I really am the luckiest damn man alive.” The waitress brought their food at that moment— brisket for Wiley and a pulled pork sandwich for Gavin. As they ate, Gavin asked Wiley about his work in Chicago and how he was able to balance ev- erything remotely from Rambling Rose. They dis- cussed Gavin’s transition to Texas and what that had meant for his career and his standing in the firm. Before this month, Wiley had never considered that he might want a change from the firm where he was on the fast track to partner. He’d made a life in Chicago that suited him, although he was quickly coming to realize his desire to stay in Rambling Rose was more than just a need for a break from the pace of city life. He wanted a change. 203 As if reading his thoughts, Gavin gave him a knowing look across the table. “You’ve told me ev- erything I need to know about your focus as an attor- ney,” his distant cousin said. “Obviously you’ve had a lot of success in your career and from the sound of it, you have a great life in Chicago. Yet you called to discuss opportunities with my firm in Austin?” As ridiculous as it seemed, Wiley’s first instinct was to deny it. No point, since that’s exactly why he had called Gavin, but saying the words out loud felt monumental, like he’d be making a huge shift from the path that had always seemed solid in front of him. “I think it might be time to consider other op- portunities,” he answered slowly. “I’ve enjoyed re- connecting with my brothers and sisters. Somehow being part of a big family doesn’t quite feel as sti- fling as it once did. Now it’s more of a comfort, and I like the idea of being able to help out legally with what they’re doing in Rambling Rose. But I’m not ready to give up corporate law. I’d like to find a way to do both.” Gavin studied him for several long beats. “You want to move to Texas permanently to be closer to your family?” “Yes.” “That’s the only reason?” Gavin prompted. “I’m ready for a new challenge.” Wiley kept his features neutral. He could tell the other man wanted something more, a revelation about love or a woman. michelle major 204 her texas new year’s wish But Wiley wasn’t ready for that. The idea of taking his relationship with Grace to the next level had cer- tainly contributed to his desire to explore new op- portunities in Texas. She wasn’t the type of woman he would expect to have a casual relationship. Yes, they’d agreed to date temporarily while he was in town, but that arrangement had been made while she was at the beginning of her recovery. He hadn’t expected his feelings for her to grow so deep in such a short time. The idea of making love to herand then walking away after the grand opening held no appeal. Even if he wasn’t ready to talk to her yet about his emotions, he needed to be moving forward. The thought of living permanently in Texas helped him to retain some level of control. “I’d like to set up a meeting with you and one of the senior partners,” Gavin told him. “Our Aus- tin office is continuing to expand, and it would be a huge win to attract an associate with your level of experience.” He leaned forward. “Are you thinking of living in Austin, or do you want to stay close to your family in Rambling Rose?” “Rambling Rose,” Wiley said without hesitation. He knew what working at the hotel meant to Grace. Although Austin wasn’t far, he’d grown accustomed to being able to see her every night. He liked hav- ing dinner with her and hearing about her day and sharing the details of his. He’d always been serious and analytical, comfortable with seeing the world 205 through his view alone. Her mind worked in a dif- ferent way than his did, and it fascinated him. “Okay, then.” Gavin nodded. “Let’s see what we can do to make this happen.” Wiley released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Moving forward with a potential relocation to Texas permanently made him feel like he could take the next step with Grace with no reservations. And his body and his heart wanted that next step in equal measure. michelle major Chapter Thirteen Grace stared at her left ankle as if she’d never seen it before. The feeling of air on her skin after so long was both strange and exhilarating. Although her un- injured leg hadn’t gotten any exposure to the winter sun, the skin on her newly exposed leg looked par- ticularly sallow and a bit pinched. It felt odd to be able to move her foot. Her entire body felt lighter without the weight of the cast. “You’re sure it’s time?” The orthopedic surgeon chuckled. “Normally my patients don’t second-guess me when I remove a cast. They’re too busy thanking me.” She placed a hand over her face and gave him an 207 embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, Doctor. Of course I trust you. You’re the expert. It’s just such a surprise to have it happening earlier than I expected. Now I just need a shower and to shave my legs.” “You’re young and healthy,” he said with a chuckle. “The body is a miraculous healer, and yours did an amazing job at it. Let’s not get ahead of our- selves. You’ll still need to wear the walking boot for another month. Physical therapy is going to be critical to strengthen the ankle. I know you’ve gone back to work, which is fine, but I don’t want you to overdo it.” “I won’t,” she promised. “I’ll be careful. I’m just so excited to not have to use the crutches or the scooter.” “I’m happy to be able to help you.” “What about driving?” Grace said, still marvel- ing at the thrill of being able to return to a some- what normal life. “I would say take it slow.” The doctor typed in a few notes on his laptop as he spoke. “And no stan- dard transmission. The boot and a clutch aren’t going to be a good mix. But if the car is an automatic, then I see no issue.” “I get my life back,” Grace said on a happy sigh. “Listen to your body,” he advised. “If you need to rest, do that. I mean it, Grace. I know that you’re driven and motivated. We want to see the progress you’ve made so far continue.” michelle major 208 her texas new year’s wish “Got it. Thank you so much.” They finished up the appointment, and she sched- uled a follow-up with the desk. The boot was awk- ward, but not nearly as cumbersome as the cast had been. Grace smiled as she walked out to the recep- tion area where her mother and brother were waiting. “No more cast,” her mother said and enveloped Grace in a tight hug. “This is fantastic, Gracie.” Jake playfully ruffled her hair. “I was getting ready to put a bell on your scooter. It slowed you down at bit.” “No more time for slow,” she said, then glanced over her shoulder. She didn’t need the doctor to over- hear her. Of course, she wasn’t going to push it, but Grace felt more than ready to get back to regular life. Especially when that involved taking her relationship with Wiley to the next level. “I even get to drive.” “You behind the wheel is scary on a good day,” Jake said with a chuckle. Grace narrowed her eyes. “Not helpful.” They walked out into the medical center park- ing lot. “I need to stop at the grocery store on the way home,” Barbara said, turning to Grace. “Do you want to go with me? Or Jake can give you a ride to your apartment.” “I’d like to get back,” Grace said. “Wiley is com- ing for dinner so—” “Seriously?” Jake bit back a groan. “Isn’t it time to 209 cut the cord with that guy? You’re basically healed. You don’t need him keeping tabs on you anymore.” “Jake, be nice,” their mother said gently. “Or just be quiet,” Grace added. “I still don’t trust him.” Jake lowered his mirrored sunglasses to look at Grace. “I’m sure he’ll be doing a happy dance now that you don’t seem to have any long-term, potentially expensive injuries for his fam- ily to take care of.” “Wiley has been kind to your sister.” Barbara smiled. “He’s a good friend.” Jake sniffed but Grace held up a hand when he would have argued with their mother. “It’s my life, Jake. I get to live it how I see fit. Maybe I’ll go to the grocery store with Mom just so I don’t have to listen to you.” “Come on, Gracie.” He looped an arm around her shoulder. “Let me drive you home. I won’t talk any more about the Fortunes.” “Call if you need anything,” her mother said. “I expect you both at the house for Sunday supper.” She patted Grace’s arm. “Bring your Wiley if you’d like, sweetie. We can all get to know each other better.” “Thanks, Mom. Love you.” Grace gave her mother a final hug, then followed Jake to his truck. She didn’t like the tense silence that had fallen between them. She and Jake had always been close, even more so when she returned home to help after his car accident. “Will you give Wiley a chance?” she asked softly michelle major 210 her texas new year’s wish as her brother pulled out of the medical center park- ing lot. “Is it actually serious between the two of you?” She bit down on the inside of her cheek, unsure how to answer that question. From the standpoint of her heart, it certainly felt serious. Although it had only been a few weeks since they’d met, she could hardly imagine her life before Wiley or how she’d kept herself occupied. At the same time, she knew he was leaving, so it wouldn’t make sense to become too attached. The sharp ache in her heart told her it might be too late for that. “I like him,” she said, because that was the truth without revealing too much. “I’m not expecting whatever is going on between us to continue after he leaves, although I wouldn’t be opposed to a long- distance relationship.” “Really?” Jake’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “I know I’m rough on him, Grace, but it’s be- cause I don’t want to see you get hurt.” He glanced over at her. “You didn’t talk much about the breakup with Craig, but it obviously was hard on you.” She ran a finger along the seam of her jeans. “The hardest thing about Craig was that he cheated on me and humiliated me in front of everyone we worked with at Cowboy Country.” “Snake,” Jake muttered. “I still wish you would have let me pay him a visit.” “Stop trying to sound like you’re auditioning 211 for a gangster movie,” she said with an affectionate chuckle. Although she and Jake might argue, there was no doubt her brother would do anything to pro- tect her, and she appreciated his unwavering loyalty. “Wiley isn’t like Craig.” “He’s an attorney,” Jake said with a derisive smirk. “If you look up the word in the dictionary, there might be a picture of a snake next to the defi- nition.” “You have to trust me. Wiley isn’t like that. He’s honorable. I might not be able to adequately explain our connection or how instantaneous it was, but I know it doesn’t have anything to do with my injury.” Her gut tightened as she remembered Jillian’s nasty comments about Wiley’s motivations for being with Grace. She tried to put her rival’s suspicions out of her head, chalking them up to jealousy or Jillian’s attempts to undermine Grace’s confidence. “I do trust you. But the verdict’s still out on the Fortune.” “Jake.” As he pulled in front of her apartment building, Grace reached across the console and flicked his arm the way she used to do when they were kids. “Come on. Even Dad had a civil conver- sation with him a few days ago.” “I’m glad you’re happy, Gracie.” Her brother shrugged. “Can that be enough for now?” “For now.” She opened the car door and climbed out. michelle major 212 her texas new year’s wish “I’d ask if you need help, but I already know the answer. Call or text if that changes.” “I will.” Grace turned. “You’re going to come to my event tomorrow, right?” “The one where Fortunes will be crawling all over the place?” Jake grimaced. “The one where you’ll be supporting your favor- ite sister,” Grace countered. Jake gave a mock shudder but nodded. “I’ll be there.” Grace waved as he pulled away, then headed up- stairs. She wasn’t going to win any sprinting contests with the boot, but it was a lot easier to manage the staircase without crutches. She checked her watch as she let herself into her apartment. The doctor’s appointment had taken longer than she expected, so she only had an hour until Wiley was scheduled to arrive. Her plan to go to the grocery store on her own for the first time since the accident so she could make him a proper home-cooked dinner would have to be saved for another night. Once again, she put aside thoughts of how few nights they might have left to- gether. What would Wiley think if she proposed at- tempting to continue their relationship across the miles? She got undressed, undid the Velcro straps on the walking boot and climbed into the shower as she considered that option. For her, a long-distance ro- 213 mance wouldn’t be enough, but she’d be willing to try. Anything so that Wiley could remain a part of her life. He seemed to truly enjoy Rambling Rose, and she knew he loved spending more time with his siblings, so maybe he’d be in favor of visiting Texas on a more regular basis. Hope and trepidation battled silently inside her at the thought of what their future might hold. Her phone pinged as she came out of the bath- room, a series of texts from Callum with a minor cri- sis regarding the setup for tomorrow’s event. Grace didn’t hesitate to begin making calls and sending off messages from her laptop to mitigate any potentialissues. A few months ago, she wasn’t sure she would have had the confidence to take charge without an internal panic attack plaguing her. Her time in the training program and working toward the goal of the manager promotion had taught her a lot about herself and what she was capable of handling. Unfortunately, when the knock sounded on her apartment door, Grace realized she’d lost track of time. Instead of putting on a nice outfit and hoping to impress Wiley before a potential next step in their relationship, she made her way to the door in a fuzzy polka-dot robe with her still-damp hair loose around her shoulders. She didn’t even bother to put on a dab of lip gloss. What was the point? She’d messed up this night before it even started. michelle major 214 her texas new year’s wish *** Wiley sucked in a breath and tried to control his rapidly beating heart when Grace smiled at him as she opened the door to her apartment. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but Grace in a soft bathrobe—and possibly nothing more—with her damp hair cascading over her shoulders and a pink glow tingeing her cheeks definitely was more than he bargained for. “Sorry,” she said immediately, taking a step back to let him enter. “I had to take care of something for tomorrow and lost track of—” She let out a small yelp when he scooped her into his arms, kicking shut the door with one foot. He claimed her mouth with an urgency he hadn’t real- ized he felt until that moment. The entire drive back from Austin, Wiley had been weighing in his mind the pros and cons of making a permanent move to Texas. Was it too much? Too soon? Would he lose the independence and autonomy he’d carved out in his life like he was sculpting it from precious marble if he gave up his life in Chicago? But seeing Grace made him understand in an in- stant that he wouldn’t be giving up anything. In fact, it felt like he’d be moving toward something, claim- ing a future he hadn’t imagined for himself. One that now felt like it was his destiny. 215 He wondered if the woman in his arms might be his destiny. “You are beautiful,” he told her as he trailed kisses along her neck. She smelled clean, like soap and lemons, a combination that had his senses reeling. “I didn’t even do my hair,” she said with a laugh that quickly turned into a moan as he nipped at the sensitive place under her earlobe. “Your hair is perfect,” he said, sifting his fingers through the silky strands. “Tell me you aren’t wear- ing anything under this robe.” He felt more than heard the hitch in her breath. “Nothing.” “Thank God,” he murmured, then forced himself to pause. She wasn’t trying to seduce him, he knew, or be purposely tempting the way some women would. Wiley wanted her all the more because of it. But he also wanted to respect a pace that made her comfortable. Until he talked to his boss back in Chicago and the senior partners from Gavin’s firm in Austin, he wasn’t ready to discuss a potential move with her. He had to make sure everything was going to work out before he made any commitments or promises to Grace. A little voice niggled at the corner of his mind, one that warned him love wasn’t something he could control or put in a neat little box the way Wiley liked to do with the pieces of his life. But he shoved that warning into a dark corner. This was new territory michelle major 216 her texas new year’s wish for him, even being willing to consider a change in his life for another person. He wasn’t quite ready to make the jump without knowing he had a solid place to land on the other side. He would give her at least that same consideration. “Do you want to talk about the issue for tomorrow?” he asked as he put her down, then gripped her arms and shifted her away from him. The robe had loos- ened as they’d embraced, and he tried not to look at the expanse of soft skin he could see in the deep vee where it gaped. She gave him a strange look, although her eyes were still cloudy with desire. “I handled it.” “Of course,” he agreed. “How is your ankle?” He leaned down to take in the black walking boot that covered her leg from midcalf to foot. “Your text said the doctor thinks everything is healing properly?” “Properly,” she repeated, and he heard something in her tone that sounded like amusement. He couldn’t figure out what was funny about the struggle to be a gentleman instead of continuing to ravish her the way he wanted to. “Are you hungry?” He glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen. She’d mentioned making dinner, but by the looks of the clean counters it seemed as though they might be going out. That was fine. He could wait to kiss her—and more. He could wait as long as needed. “Wiley.” She reached out and cupped his cheek 217 in her palm. He leaned in, soothed as always by her touch. “Did you hear the part where I said I’m naked under my robe?” He swallowed and locked his knees as his legs suddenly went weak. “Yes.” “And your reaction is that you want to talk about the hotel event or my ankle or dinner?” “I want to not take advantage of…” He licked his lips. “You lost track of time. The part about the robe…and you being…” Words abandoned him for a few moments as he struggled to retain control. “I don’t want to rush you, Grace.” The corner of her mouth twitched, and he would have given anything to read her thoughts at the mo- ment. “I don’t want to rush, either.” He felt his eyes go wide as she hooked her thumb in the robe’s thick sash and undid it. “In fact…” Her smile widened. “I hope that what comes next takes us all night.” Then she pushed the robe off her shoulders. Grace waited for Wiley’s reaction to her bold move with her heart practically beating out of her chest. She wasn’t normally one to make the first move—or any move—and certainly not to be as- sertive when it came to intimacy. Her ex-boyfriend had been her first and only part- ner, and their intimacy had always been more about michelle major 218 her texas new year’s wish his pleasure than hers. She figured that was simply how it worked for a woman like her. As Craig had told her when she confronted him about his cheat- ing, there were women men dated because they made good girlfriends and women men wanted because they were desirable. He’d left no question that Grace fell into the for- mer category. But she wanted more from Wiley—with Wiley. She wanted more from herself and was quickly learn- ing that the best way to achieve what she wanted was to take risks. Standing naked in front of a man who looked like he belonged in some sort of catalog for genetic lot- tery winners, the lower part of one leg still encased in an orthopedic boot, definitely felt like a risk. One she realized was worth it when Wiley’s dark gaze traveled over her body, and his chest began to rise and fall in ragged breaths. “I never expected…” He broke off, gave a small shake of his head and reached for her. “Me, neither,” she said against his mouth as he drew her close, his warm hands splayed across her bare back and bottom. He muttered a curse low in his throat as he lifted her into his arms. “I can’t wait,” he said. “I want you so badly, Grace. I’ve wanted you since that first mo- ment I saw you at the hotel.” She wrapped her arms tight around his neck, in- 219 haling his scent as sensation swirled through her. She should feel vulnerable. After all, she was completely exposed while he remained fully dressed. But in- stead, she felt powerful in a way she didn’t recognize. Like she was finally claiming a part of herself that had been waiting for her to realize it was important. Wiley gave her the confidence to step into the woman she was meant to be. He paused when he came to the door of her bed- room. “I want you, too,” she told him, brushing a kiss over his lips. “No more waiting, Wiley. We’re in this together.” “Together,” he repeated on a rush of air. He pulled down the covers and placed her on the bed with exquisite care. But when he reached for the strap of her boot, she placed her hand over his. “You have too many clothes on,” she told him with a smile. “Easily remedied.” He stood without hesitation, loosened his tie and then unbuttoned his shirt, paus- ing halfway through. “My fingers are shaking,” he told her with an almost shy smile. “That’s what you do to me.” Heat infused every part of her body at the thought of having an effect on this man. Then her chest tightened as he continued to divest himself of his clothes, and Grace realized that they michelle major 220 her texas new year’s wish were truly taking the next step in their relationship. Sex meant something to her, and a moment of panic broke through the desire filling her brain, at the re- alization that she was embarking on this act with a man who might willingly walk away from her. As he sat on the edge of the bed and placed a gentle hand on her booted leg, she realized it didn’t matter. She might want more than they’d agreed to at the beginning of their time together, but she had to believe that he wanted it, too. There might not be words yet, but the tenderness of his touch and the intensity of his gaze on hers were enough to make her trust that she was choos- ing the right path. He undid the straps of the boot and slipped it off her leg. “Is this okay?” he asked softly, then bent to place a soft kiss on the top of her knee. “I don’t want to hurt you, Grace. I’d never purposely hurt you.” “It’s fine,” she said, surprised when emotion clogged her throat. She didn’t want to read more into his words. She knew he wouldn’t hurt her deliberately, but she also understood that didn’t mean she wouldn’t end up with a broken heart. But as his hand moved across her skin and he kissed a path up her body, nothing else mattered. He lavished attention on all the most sensitive parts of her, like he wanted to memorize her with his tongue and fingers. 221 “Stay still, sweetheart,” he whispered against her. “We’re going to be gentle with your ankle.” Gentle was the last thing on Grace’s mind, but she did her best not to writhe under his kisses. It felt as though he was undoing her, desire thrumming through her like the crest of a wave. The pressure built inside her as he continued to explore her body, and minutes—or hours—later he drove her to the edge and over, and a cry broke from her lips. Still it wasn’t enough. As mind-blowing as her release had been, she wanted more. She wanted all of him. It might only be for now, the time he was in town, but Grace wouldn’t consider that. All she knew was at this moment, they were meant to be together. “Now, Wiley,” she said. “I need you now.” “I’m here,” he told her, and captured her mouth. “More.” He pulled away and reached for his wallet on her nightstand and pulled out a condom. A few moments later he was poised between her legs, and Grace had never wanted anything more than she wanted this man inside her. His hands were braced on either side of her head and he entered her in one long stroke. She breathed him in and then lifted her head to kiss him, needing to be joined with him as much as she could manage. Her eyes drifted closed as the rhythm of their kiss synced with the motion of their bodies. They moved together like they were built for each other, and in michelle major 222 her texas new year’s wish some ways Grace wondered if that were the truth. Had she been made for this man? Had everything that had come before led to the moment when their eyes met across that crowded party? Because she’d never been certain what her place in the world was, but there was no doubt she’d found where she belonged in Wiley Fortune’s arms. He whispered little nothings into her ear between kisses, his hands holding her like she was the most precious thing in the world to him. Passion skyrock- eted inside her until it felt like electricity coursed through her veins. She wasn’t certain how much more pleasure she could take. The depth of it was like nothing she’d ever experienced. And then she fell over the cliff she’d been racing toward, her body dissolving as if it were made of champagne bubbles fizzing into the air. Her body tightened around Wiley and a few seconds later, he cried out her name. It was the most amazing thing she’d ever heard. They might not have made promises to each other with words, but Grace had no doubt that his body had just pledged something to her that guaranteed she would never be the same. Chapter Fourteen “The timing couldn’t be worse,” Wiley muttered as he packed his suitcase the following morning. Megan flopped onto his bed in the suite where he was staying at the ranch. He’d been as skeptical about the property as he had about his siblings settling in Rambling Rose when he’d first come to Texas. The idea of his brothers and sisters living together seemed like a recipe for disaster to Wiley, who had far too many memories of their bustling house grow- ing up and never being able to get a moment’s peace. But the arrangement worked—surprisingly—in large part because the setup of the house allowed whoever was living there to have their own private 224 her texas new year’s wish space while still being under the same roof. He’d en- joyed reconnecting with his siblings on a daily basis, sharing coffee in the morning and whatever was on the menu for dinner. The ranch employed a caretaker, who took care of most things, including meals, although Nicole and Megan took their turns in the kitchen because they found great pleasure in feeding the people they loved. Wiley wondered if his memories of childhood weren’t exactly accurate. Had he been the only one to feel stifled by their crowded, sometimes overbearing family? Or had he just been so committed to finding his own way and establishing an identity away from his successful stepfather and the rest of the family that he’d gone too far in the other direction? “You’ll be back for the grand opening though?” she asked, her tone sympathetic. “Yes.” He zipped shut the suitcase. “Well before that, I hope. I’m not sure exactly how the other as- sociate botched the contract negotiations so badly. I’d given him everything he needed. Landing this client should have been a slam dunk.” “Obviously, your coworker doesn’t have your level of skill,” Megan said without a trace of sarcasm or irony. That was the other nice thing about family— even if they argued and teased, when the chips were down they had his back without question. Right now he needed all the support he could get. He’d set his phone to silent when he and Grace 225 went to bed last night and had woken this morning to a barrage of angry texts and messages from the firm’s senior partner. Wiley had been leading a team over the last six months to land one of the biggest clients in their history. His extended stay in Texas had complicated the process, but he’d been diligent about conveying information to the associate who was the local point of contact in Chicago with their potential client. Much of Wiley’s remote working had centered on this deal, which was set to close in two days. For some reason the client had pulled out without warning and no one at the firm could get a straight answer as to why. He’d tried to convince his boss that he could han- dle the emergency from Texas, but the man gave him no choice. Hence, he was booked on a flight leaving early that afternoon. Leaving today meant he’d miss Grace’s preopen- ing event, and he wanted to be there to watch her shine. There had barely been time to say goodbye to her before he’d had to bolt from her apartment that morn- ing, leaving her sleepy and rumpled in the bed. He couldn’t believe how amazing it felt to finally make love to her, and he would have been happy to spend all weekend with her. Wiley almost never spent extended periods of time with the women he dated, but as with every- michelle major 226 her texas new year’s wish thing, Grace broke the rules he’d set for relationships. He wanted her more for it. He hadn’t known when he’d left her that the work emergency was so dire that he’d be flying back to Chicago, and he wished he’d had time to call and explain it to her. “I appreciate your vote of confidence,” he said to his sister. “Just make sure to give my note to Grace, okay? I’m sure I’ll talk to her before the reception, but I want her to have it.” Megan sat up on the bed and plucked the thin en- velope from the nightstand. “I’d ask if you were with Grace last night, but she’s staying at her parents’, and I figure you’ve outgrown sneaking out of your girl- friends’ windows so angry dads don’t catch you.” He snorted. “Grace moved back to her apartment.” “Ah.” Megan gave him a knowing smile. “There’s no ‘ah,’” he muttered. “But I have to go. Just give her the note.” “I’ll walk you out.” “No need.” “Sure there is.” She followed him out of the room toward the front of the house. Everyone else was going about their daily business, so at least Wiley only had one sister to deal with. But one was more than enough. “You like Grace.” He tried to ignore the way his heart began to beat a staccato rhythm in his chest, telling him in no un- certain terms that he more than liked Grace. 227 “Everyone likes Grace. Don’t you have some- where to be?” “Not at the moment. It’s okay to fall for a woman, Wiley. Especially one as sweet as Grace Williams. You were bound to find the right one at some point. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve found her in Ram- bling Rose.” He’d just gotten to the front door but paused with his hand on the knob. “It’s not wonderful. I’m leav- ing before her big event today, and I’m going back to Chicago for good once the hotel opens.” He wasn’t ready to reveal his meeting with Gavin. What if things didn’t work out and he disappointed his sib- lings as well as Grace? He looked toward his sister, figuring her pained expression mirrored his. “Tell me how that’s anything but the opposite of wonderful.” “Oh, Wi.” “Why?” he repeated, purposely misinterpreting her shortening of his name. “That’s exactly what I’m wondering at the moment.” “You know Chicago isn’t the only city that em- ploys attorneys,” Megan told him, her voice gentle. “Even towns like Rambling Rose have need of them. You’ve done so much to help at the hotel so—” “My time here is temporary.” He walked out of the house and squinted against the bright light of morn- ing. “Grace and I both know it. Hell, it’s what we agreed to in the first place. I’m not even sure she’d want me for longer.” michelle major 228 her texas new year’s wish “Don’t be ridiculous. Women fall all over them- selves for you. They always have.” He hit the button on the key fob to open the trunk. “Grace doesn’t.” He couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his lips thinking about the way she didn’t let him off the hook about anything. “She’s stronger than people give her credit for,” he said as he stowed the suitcase. It was the same thing he’d told Callum and Nicole, but he’d never get sick of saying it. “In- dependent, too. She’s already told me she wants to focus on her career.” “Here’s a pro tip.” Megan placed a hand on his arm. “Women can have careers and successful rela- tionships. Look at Stephanie and Ashley. Don’t sell Grace short.” “I’m not.” He opened the door to the car. “I just told you I thought she was strong.” “And don’t use her strength and independence as an excuse.” Wiley shook his head. “Since when did my baby sisters grow up and get so smart?” “We’ve always been smart.” Megan rolled her eyes. “Me in particular.” “I’ve got to go. Give Grace the note and please tell her I’ll be thinking of her. I’ll call as soon as I can.” “Have a safe trip.” She blew him a kiss. “We’ll expect you back here as soon as you can make it.” 229 *** Grace smiled as another coworker came up and congratulated her on the success of the local busi- ness owners’ reception. There was no doubt she’d exceeded everyone’s expectations. She gave partial credit to the beautiful weekend weather. It was un- seasonably warm for the last weekend of January, even by Texas standards, with temperatures hov- ering in the low seventies and a cloudless blue sky above them. Although the trees planted around the hotel’s pool held no leaves, they’d been strung with party lights, giving the impression of stars twinkling when they caught the sunlight. The other businesses owned by the Fortunes had come out in force, from Stephanie giving informa- tion on local rescue animals to the spa staff doing five-minute chair massages and offering samples of the products they used with their clients. There had been a steady stream of local business owners who’d meandered through the booths and demonstration tents that she’d had set up along the patio’s perimeter. Jillian and Jay had done a great job with the photos of the hotel’s interior they’d dis- played on easels. According to Jay, they’d taken over two dozen reservations for the special local employee weekend Grace had arranged, and even more people had filled out tickets for the raffle to win a romantic dinner for two at Roja. Every business owner she’d in- vited had agreed to be part of their local partnership. michelle major 230 her texas new year’s wish Grace had no doubt this gesture of good will would go a long way to encouraging Rambling Rose business owners to feel a sense of pride in the hotel once it opened, which would be key to making sure that out-of-town guests had an unforgettable expe- rience during their stay in town. She was also happy that no one had asked her spe- cifically about the rumor of sabotage that had ini- tially swirled around the balcony collapse. Grace did her best to reassure people that the accident hadn’t been as bad as some wanted to believe and that she’d healed without any lingering issues. The only thing that marred her happiness was that Wiley wasn’t there with her. She’d received a voice message and text from him earlier explaining that the work emergency that had forced him to rush from her apartment early this morning had turned into something even bigger and he had to return to Chicago for a few days. The timing couldn’t have been worse, and not just because it meant he was missing today’s preopen- ing reception. Last night had been one of the most amazing in Grace’s life. She’d felt so close to Wiley, like their connection would last beyond his stay in town. For him to leave the way he did… Well, she didn’t want to read anything into it but couldn’t seem to stop herself. He’d seemed to enjoy himself as much as she had, but in truth Grace didn’t really have the experience 231 to judge that. Was their night together a onetime thing of finally being able to scratch an itch that had plagued them both? Or could it be more? Was it the start to the next step in their relationship that she desperately wanted? “You don’t look like someone who is basking in the glow of her success.” Grace turned to find her friend Collin standing next to her. “You came,” she said, and reached out to hug him. “What do you think?” He glanced around, lifting his sunglasses from his nose so she could see his dark gaze. “I think the Fortunes are lucky to have you working for them,” he said. “Everyone I’ve talked to is suddenly huge fans of the hotel.” “Were people not fans before today?” The sug- gestion genuinely confused Grace. She thought the locals had overcome their concerns about the hotel when the Fortunes had changed plans based on com- munity feedback. “No one was talking too publicly about your ac- cident,” he said gently. “But it’s a small town. Peo- ple were still talking. I get the sense that the local business leaders now see that the hotel won’t just be good for the Fortunes. The fact that you’re here look- ing happy and toeing the Fortune line gives them a lot more confidence that everything’s well with the construction.” “It is,” she assured him. “They still don’t exactly michelle major 232 her texas new year’s wish know why the balcony collapsed. But from now on, it’s going to be all good news coming from the hotel.” “Like you earning the general manager position,” Collin said with a wink. “No one can hold a candle to the partnerships you’re creating here, Grace.” Pride bloomed in her chest at her old friend’s com- pliment. “Do you think so?” she asked, biting down on her lower lip. “I really want that job.” “You’re going to get it.” He nudged her shoulder. “I have a feeling about it.” She laughed. “Then I’m going to trust your feel- ing. We’ll have to celebrate when you come back to town.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “I’m not sure your special Fortune friend would want you and me celebrating together. I could tell Wiley wasn’t a fan of our friendship.” “That’s not true,” she argued, although she re- membered Wiley’s reaction to finding Collin sitting with her on her parents’ porch. At the time, she’d been charmed by the fact that he might be jealous of her childhood friend. She’d wanted to believe it meant he didn’t like the thought of her dating other men. Not that she and Collin were dating, but that wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. “So where is your new man?” Collin made a show of glancing around. “It seems like I can’t trip with- out falling over a Fortune at this event, but I haven’t seen Wiley.” 233 “He’s not my man,” Grace clarified. “We’re friends.” Collin lifted a brow. “Like you and I are friends?” “Not exactly.” She did her best not to squirm. “But he’s not here. He had to fly back to Chicago for work.” “With no warning?” “It was an emergency.” “Must have been important if he took off the morning of your moment in the spotlight.” “This partnership plan isn’t about me,” Grace said, forcing a neutral tone. She wasn’t about to let anyone know that it hurt that Wiley wasn’t here. “The point was to draw positive attention to the hotel. We did that. Joint effort.” “Grace.” Collin gave her a gentle elbow jab. “We’ve been friends for a long time. You don’t have to pretend with me.” She waved to Mariana and Jay, who were standing with Callum on the far side of the pool, then blew out a breath and turned to face Collin. “I’m upset that he had to leave, okay? Does that make you happy?” “You know it doesn’t.” “I’m sure it really was an emergency,” she said, as much to convince herself as Collin. “He seemed worried about whatever was going on with his firm.” “But he didn’t share details with you?” “No,” she admitted. “He called as he was getting on the airplane, but I missed it. His message didn’t tell me much.” She glanced up at the blue sky over- michelle major 234 her texas new year’s wish head, then checked her watch. “He’s probably in the air right now.” “I hope he gets it worked out quickly. If not and he hurts you, I’ll kick his butt.” “You’ll have to get in line behind Jake,” she said. “Please don’t mention this to him. He still doesn’t trust Wiley or the Fortunes, and I don’t want to give him any more reason to be a jerk.” “Your brother isn’t a jerk,” Collin reminded her. “He cares about you. Just like I do.” “I know.” Grace gave Collin a hug before he walked away. She turned back to the crowd to see Nicole, Ash- ley and Megan watching her. Ashley and Megan waved, but Nicole’s attention seemed to be focused on Collin’s retreating back. Strange, Grace thought. She didn’t think her friend knew the Fortune sisters, but she figured there were plenty of things going on that she wasn’t aware of thanks to her own busy schedule. Just as she was about to turn away, Megan called her name. “Hey, Grace,” the slender blonde said as she ap- proached. “You’ve done such an amazing job today. Everyone’s talking about the hotel but also about the spa and Provisions. It’s like the other business owners finally see we want to work with them and they’re willing to give us more of chance to prove it.” “That’s great.” Grace smiled again but this time 235 noticed how the muscles in her face were beginning to feel sore. Her leg ached, and her lower back was stiff from standing for so long today. She wondered if she’d feel so tired if she had Wiley at her side, then chided herself for even feeling a hint of depending on him. She’d learned that lesson with Craig. Grace knew she could only depend on herself. She had to be her own number one priority, not expect any man to make her his. Even if Wiley had given every impression that he was doing exactly that. “Are you okay?” Megan asked, concern obvious in her tone. “Of course. I’m happy today has gone so well. I know the grand opening is going to be a huge suc- cess. Every business we invited today has agreed to be part of the downtown partnership so that should garner even more positive word of mouth for the hotel. You and your siblings have done so much for Rambling Rose. I’m honored to be a part of it.” “I know we’re all glad to have you on the team.” Megan pulled a thin envelope out of her purse. “I’m sorry but with all the excitement today, I forgot to give this to you.” She handed the envelope to Grace, who was surprised to see her name scrawled across the front. “It’s from Wiley,” Megan explained. “He felt bad about having to take off this morning. I know he wanted to be here for you today.” michelle major 236 her texas new year’s wish “Oh.” Grace took the envelope and held it between two fingers. The urge to tear it open was strong, but she didn’t want to read the note in front of Wiley’s sister. Her emotions were jumbled at the moment, and she might reveal too much about her feelings for the missing Fortune. “Don’t worry.” Megan patted Grace’s arm. “I told him he has to come back to help with the last- minute grand opening preparations. He’s not getting off easy with us. He can go back to his fancy big-city life when the work here is done.” Grace smiled, because that’s what the other woman obviously expected, but inside her heart cracked. Megan had given her exactly the reminder she needed that even if Wiley returned, his time in Rambling Rose—and with Grace—was coming to an end. And so were Grace’s secret dreams for any pos- sible future between them. Chapter Fifteen Two days later, Wiley popped the last bite of a stale turkey sandwich into his mouth and washed it down with a swig of cold coffee. He glanced at the clock on his phone, not sur- prised to find that it was nearing midnight. He’d been working around-the-clock since he’d landed in Chicago on Saturday afternoon. In almost a decade of practicing law, there had never been a deal that had gone so far south so quickly. The associate who was supposed to be man- aging the client while Wiley handled the bigger con- tract stipulations had wound up getting himself and their potential client’s twenty-one-year-old son ar- 238 her texas new year’s wish rested in a gentleman’s club Friday night. It had been a stupid, thoughtless rookie mistake, especially con- sidering Ron Burnett, the company’s CEO, had built his business on a motto of “family values.” Now the entire deal was in jeopardy. To make matters worse for Wiley, his boss had fired the associate, Jon Kirchman, after threatening to have him disbarred, and the young associate had taken every paper file he had regarding the contract with him and deleted all of the electronic correspon- dence and documents. Wiley had spent the past twenty-four hours in constant contact with the firm’s technology special- ist in an attempt to recover the data. He’d reached out to Jon, hoping to convince him to turn over his files, but there had been no response yet. Although no one specifically blamed Wiley for the crisis, he couldn’t help but think that things wouldn’t have gone so far off the rails if he hadn’t been trying to manage the project remotely. He’d never given less than 110 percent to his ca- reer but had to admit now that he’d returned to the office that the past few weeks in Rambling Rose had put that dedication to the test. “Burning the late-night oil, I see.” Wiley stifled a yawn as Derek Curtis entered his office. Derek was a year older than Wiley, and they’d been hired with the firm at approximately the same time. Wiley respected the other man’s instincts for 239 negotiating contract transactions, although Derek had a tendency to start each week a bit slow on the uptake, often coming off a weekend of partying. “We have a meeting with Ron Burnett and his board tomorrow. They’re going to make the final vote on new corporate counsel.” Wiley tapped a fin- ger on one of the stacks of files that he and the para- legal staff had compiled. “I’m trying to make up a lot of ground from the hole Jon left us in.” “I still can’t believe the guy just took off when he got fired. Who does that?” Wiley shook his head. “Someone who isn’t plan- ning to have a law career in Chicago anytime soon.” “You need any help?” Derek lowered himself into the chair on the other side of Wiley’s desk. “I think I’ve done everything I can. I hope it’s enough.” “This isn’t your fault,” Derek reminded him. “Why does it feel that way? If I’d been here to head up the deal instead of trying to manage it from Texas…” “Tell me about Texas.” Derek sat forward. “You never explained exactly why you extended your stay. When we talked before you headed down there, you were planning on doing the family duty stuff, then heading back as soon as possible.” “It ended up being important for me to help with a few things at my family’s hotel.” “A few things? Legal issues?” michelle major 240 her texas new year’s wish Wiley shrugged. He didn’t really want to share details of his life in Texas. It felt so separate from his life in the city, and he had no doubt his coworker and sometime-friend wouldn’t understand the appeal. “A construction accident.” “Was anyone hurt?” “One of the employees broke her ankle.” “Ouch.” Derek whistled under his breath. “Sounds like a workers’ comp lawsuit waiting to happen. You’re making sure to cover your a—” “Grace isn’t going to sue the hotel,” he said through clenched teeth. “How do you know?” Derek shook his head. “I once saw a guy trip over his own two feet on a build- ing site and then sue for six figures.” “I know her,” Wiley said, then immediately re- gretted the words based on the smile Derek gave him. “Is that so? Smart move, Counselor.” “It’s not like that. We’re friends.” Derek chuckled. “I get it.” “No, you don’t.” Wiley couldn’t decide whether the exhaustion of working so many hours or the stress of the deal or simply missing Grace so badly was making him want to stand up and punch his colleague in the face. Maybe a combination of all those things. “Come on, don’t get bent out of shape,” Derek said. “I’ve heard how you talk about your family, 241 even if you don’t see them a lot. We both know you’re going to protect blood over some piece of—” “Stop talking.” Wiley pushed back from his desk. “Grace isn’t going to come after the hotel, and I’m not friends with her for any other reason than I like spending time with her.” “But it’s not serious, right?” Derek leaned back in his chair, and Wiley had the secret wish that he’d topple backward. “I know you, Wiley. You don’t do serious. We’re the same. Relationships are a distrac- tion and never worth the trouble. You know that.” Wiley stared at the other attorney. Derek gestured to the papers piled all over the desk. “If nothing else, the situation you’re in now proves it. The reason you stayed in Texas was a chick, and look at what it’s led to. You could lose ev- erything you’ve worked for over one deal that wasn’t managed right.” “I’m not going to lose anything,” Wiley said, al- though he knew Derek was right. Wiley had taken his eye off the ball, and now he was struggling to make sure he kept it in the air. “Let me know if you need help,” Derek offered again as he rose from the chair. “My focus is right where it needs to be. Always.” “Thanks,” Wiley muttered, then sank back down in his chair as the other man disappeared into the hall. He shut down his computer and began to pack up his briefcase. The rest of what needed to be re- michelle major 242 her texas new year’s wish viewed before tomorrow could be handled in the morning. Right now, he needed a few hours of rest to get his head on straight again. He didn’t want to admit that Grace had been the reason he’d prolonged his stay in Rambling Rose or that his preoccupation with her had affected his work. He’d continued to manage his clients and his job from the tiny Texas town. More importantly, he’d been able to reconnect with his brothers and sisters. That was worth more than anything else. Although perhaps not more than the career he’d dedicated the last ten years of his life to. He had to keep focused now. Get through tomor- row and land the client, then he could think about what came next. He was supposed to meet with the senior partners at his cousin’s firm in Austin in a couple of days, but Wiley wasn’t even sure what he wanted now. Could he really close the biggest deal of his life and then walk away to start over halfway across the country? His brother and sisters had made it work, but he’d always been different. The odd Fortune out, so to speak. What would happen if he tried to start over? What would happen if he told Grace the truth about his feelings for her? As he flipped off the light to his office, his phone buzzed with an incoming text. A message from Grace. Simple, to the point, and the words utterly gutted him. michelle major 243 I miss you. How could one simple sentence possibly convey so much? His heart seemed to skip a beat as he ran a thumb over the smooth screen, as if he could somehow reach out and touch her across the miles. He gave his head a hard shake and pocketed the phone. As much as he wanted to respond or to call her, he’d promised himself that his focus would re- main on work until he salvaged the deal with Ron and his company. The firm was counting on him, and he already felt as if he’d let them down. Grace knew how he felt about her. She would wait. He had to take care of his current life if he was going to truly choose a future with her. “I think we’re nearly there,” Nicole announced as she placed plates filled with roasted chicken and Brie over pasta on the table in front of Grace, Jil- lian and Jay. “Everything we make is delicious,” Mariana said with a genuine smile as she poured sparkling lem- onade into their glasses. “Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.” Jay scooped another huge bite of chicken into his mouth. “Seriously the best.” “Not that you probably have much to compare it 244 her texas new year’s wish to,” Jillian said with a delicate sniff. “I’ve actually traveled to both London and Paris.” Jay gave a haughty sniff. “Well, la-di-da then,” he said, his Southern accent especially thick. Grace pressed a napkin to her mouth to hide her giggle. “I’m certain Jay has a very discriminating palate,” she said, wanting to be loyal to her friend in the face of Jillian’s snobbery. “Very,” he agreed with mock severity, then winked at Grace. She grinned and took a bite of the pasta, which truly was delicious. Mariana and Nicole discussed the dish as a potential winter season special while the three trainees enjoyed their lunch. Nicole was continuing to refine the Roja menu with the grand opening around the corner. Her at- tention to detail and understanding of how to meld flavors together to showcase a variety of refined but still comforting foods amazed Grace. She had nodoubt that the restaurant was going to be a huge suc- cess and bolster the hotel’s reputation. Jillian and Jay continued to banter back and forth. It amused Grace to no end how much Jay seemed to enjoy irritating their uptight coworker. He might joke about his country roots while Jillian took great pleasure in giving him grief over his lack of world- liness, but there was something more to Jay Cross. Beyond his easygoing manner, Grace sensed a depth of experience he didn’t want to share, so she never 245 pushed him to reveal what had led him to Rambling Rose in the first place. She understood the desire to make a fresh start without the past coloring every step. Something caught her attention, and she turned in her seat to see Wiley entering the restaurant. He’d been gone almost a week. In that short time her emo- tions had run the gamut from disappointment to anger to heartbreak to resignation. Grace wanted to believe she’d settled on acceptance, especially when they’d barely spoken on the phone and he’d only sent a few short texts that told her no details of the emer- gency that forced him to leave so suddenly and when he would return. Her brain might have taken the hint about him walking—or literally running—away the morning after making love to her, but her body hadn’t gotten the message. Not when he looked as handsome as ever in a dark sweater and jeans with cowboy boots that finally appeared to be broken in. Like he be- longed in Texas and in her world, although his ab- sence this week had told her that wasn’t true. Grace had been thrown back into the same emo- tional turmoil she’d felt after her breakup with Craig. Of course it was different with Wiley, because he hadn’t cheated on her or made her any promises about the future. Somehow that only made her heart hurt more. She’d told herself after returning to town that she michelle major 246 her texas new year’s wish was going to focus on herself and not let anything distract her from her goals. Instead, she’d spent the past few days making excuses to go to the bathroom at the hotel and fight back tears. Everything about her daily life reminded her of Wiley. The way she’d looked forward to seeing him in the hall, to stealing kisses in the office and to spending her evenings in his arms. The Hotel Fortune had been her chance at a brand- new life, but she couldn’t even walk into the lobby without thinking of Wiley. It had gotten so bad that she’d actually considered quitting her job and leaving Rambling Rose to reinvent herself again in a place that held no emotional pull for her. It had been Collin who’d talked her off that ledge, reminding her that this was her home and she be- longed here as much as any member of the Fortune family. Everything had made sense when Wiley wasn’t nearby, but watching him walk toward the table, his gaze intense on her, her thoughts and feel- ings scattered like dandelion fluff in a strong wind. “You’re back,” Nicole called to her brother as she turned. Grace hated the jealousy that stabbed at her heart when Nicole gave him a huge hug. Grace yearned to touch him, but she had no right. They’d agreed to date secretly—her plan—but it hadn’t been nearly enough. She wanted more. More than she should and 247 likely more than Wiley was capable of giving her. It was time to remember that. “Something smells amazing,” he said. “Your sister has outdone herself with this dish.” Mariana came to stand next to Jay’s chair. “We have three discerning customers right here.” She patted Jay’s shoulder. “If an empty plate is any indication, Roja is ready for business.” “I have no doubt,” Wiley said, offering his sis- ter a proud smile. “Any chance you have leftovers? I haven’t had a decent meal in what feels like days. I’ve been living off takeout the entire trip.” Grace tamped down her sympathy. Now that she looked at him more closely, she could see the lines of exhaustion fanning out from his dark eyes and bracketing his mouth. It only made her want to pull him to her and offer whatever comfort she could. Stupid, she reminded herself. She wasn’t a love- sick schoolgirl anymore. The man had made it clear where his priorities were, and she needed to do the same. As if reading her thoughts, Nicole pushed away and wagged a finger in front of Wiley. “I shouldn’t give you even a bite. I forgot that I’m mad at you. You practically ghosted us this week. We didn’t even know if you were coming back before the opening.” “Of course I was coming back.” He looked genu- inely surprised. “I told you I’d be here to help.” “Give your brother a break,” Mariana said with a michelle major 248 her texas new year’s wish gentle tsk. “He’s here now.” Her knowing gaze met Grace’s across the table. “When the three of you are finished here, I’d love to get your thoughts on some of the grand opening events.” Grace pushed back from the table. “I actually have a meeting scheduled with Ellie to finalize plans to put a link for the hotel on the town’s website.” “Smart plan.” Nicole gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Jillian’s lips pursed but she didn’t say anything or try to one-up Grace, which made Grace suspicious. “Jay and I can take care of whatever Mariana needs,” Jillian offered, then rolled her eyes when Grace gave her a shocked look. Grace could feel Wiley’s gaze on her but pur- posely didn’t make eye contact with him. If Jillian was being nice enough to give her an out, Grace must not be doing as good a job at hiding her feel- ings as she hoped. She thanked Nicole and Mariana for lunch, then hurried from the restaurant and out the hotel’s front entrance, not even bothering to grab her purse from the office. She needed fresh air and a few minutes to gather her thoughts. Wiley was back. She shouldn’t be surprised. He had told her—and clearly his siblings—that he planned to return before the opening. She just wished she could turn off her feelings for him as easily as he seemed to be able to manage it. 249 The afternoon was cloudy, and a brisk breeze whipped down the town’s main street, making her regret the choice to rush out without a jacket. At least the cool air felt good on her heated skin. “Grace.” Her stomach pitched and tumbled at the sound of Wiley’s voice behind her. She turned, forcing a bland smile on her face as he jogged toward her. “Hi,” he said, and lifted his hand as if to reach for her but then lowered it again. He searched her face as if he couldn’t quite understand why she wasn’t greeting him with more enthusiasm, but Grace had finally gotten her body and heart under control, eventhough it felt like it was shattering inside her chest. “How was your trip home?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Home,” he repeated with a frown. “You mean back to Chicago?” “Your home,” she said, nodding. “I hope it was productive.” “We closed the deal. The firm is now the counsel for the largest plexiglass manufacturer in the US.” “Congratulations.” Grace made a show of check- ing her watch. “I need to go. I don’t want to be late for my appointment with Ellie.” “I’ll walk with you,” he offered. “No.” His frown deepened. “What’s wrong, Grace? Is michelle major 250 her texas new year’s wish it your leg? Are you doing too much? If you need a break, I can talk to—” She held up a hand, hating that her body re- sponded to his offer of support. Hating that she didn’t trust that he wasn’t being kind to make certain she didn’t cause trouble for his family. As much as she wanted to deny Jake’s suspicions about Wiley’s mo- tives, his lack of communication had made her doubt everything she felt for him. “I don’t need you to talk to anyone on my behalf. I can manage my life and my career on my own, Wiley. I’ve been handling things just fine without you here.” “I know you can manage on your own,” he said gently. “But I want to help, Grace. I care about you.” “Right.” She bit off the word and forced her voice not to tremble. “We’re friends.” “More than friends.” “Friends,” she repeated, because if she allowed herself to entertain the thought of more, she’d be a goner for sure. “That’s all.” “I don’t understand. I missed you, Grace. Every moment away from you was—” “Don’t.” Don’t say sweet things. Don’t look at me with confusion and pain in your eyes. She swallowed, knowing she needed to be able to mutter more than one-syllable words at him. She needed to end this. The torture of being so close and yet feeling so far away from what she wanted her 251 life to be. “I had some time to think about the fu- ture while you were gone, Wiley. I wasn’t distracted by—” she waved a hand in his general direction “—by anything. The truth is we agreed what was between us would be temporary, and it’s better that it end sooner rather than later.” A muscle jumped in jaw. “Better for whom?” “Me,” she whispered. “Both of us, I’m guessing, but I have to think about myself and my future. I can’t… I won’t put you ahead of me. Do you under- stand that?” He shook his head. “I don’t understand anything apparently.” “We’re friends,” she repeated. “That’s all we were ever meant to be.” He stared at her long and hard like he wanted to argue. A piece of her wanted him to argue. She wanted him to fight for her, but she should have known better. Grace wasn’t the type of woman that men fought for. She was a woman who fit herself into the compartment the people in her life needed her to be in. But no more. “Welcome back, Wiley. I’m sure your brothers and sisters will be thrilled to have you here again.” Without waiting for his response, she turned and walked away. michelle major Chapter Sixteen “I’m mad at you.” Wiley continued to stare at the basketball game playing on the television of the sitting room in his suite at the ranch, ignoring his sister’s arrival. “Really mad,” Nicole said, walking into the room and picking up the remote from the side table. She pushed a button, and the TV went dark. “Big brothers are supposed to make sisters mad,” Wiley said. “It’s part of the job description.” “Do you want to know why?” She sat on the chair next to the sofa. “Not really.” He took a long pull on the beer he’d been nursing for the past hour. “You know I was watching that game?” 253 “What was the score?” she demanded. He shrugged. “One of the teams was winning.” Nicole’s mouth curved into a smile. “Yeah, you were real invested in the game, Wi. Seriously, we need to talk.” “Not in the mood,” he told her. Since Grace had basically broken off their temporary relationship in the middle of the street two days ago, Wiley hadn’t been in the mood for anything. He’d kept himself busy and tried not to think about Grace, which wasvirtually impossible, especially when she seemed to be involved in almost every last-minute detail of the hotel’s grand opening. He’d found himself following her scent through an upstairs hallway yesterday until he’d heard her voice in one of the guest rooms, discussing something with Jillian and Jay. Wiley had ducked into a housekeep- ing closet when they came out to avoid being spotted. As he stared at shelves filled with crisp white linens and tiny bottles of toiletries, he’d realized how bad off he was with missing her. Unlike him, Grace didn’t seem the least bit af- fected by their breakup, if that’s what he could call it. She appeared completely focused on making sure the grand opening went off without a hitch. Despite his heartache, he was so proud of her for the leader- ship role she’d taken on and the way her confidence had bloomed. He only wished he could share in the success with her. michelle major 254 her texas new year’s wish “What did you do to Grace?” Wiley sucked in a breath as he straightened. “Nothing. Not one damn thing, Nicole.” “It’s obvious she’s hurting.” “Not to me,” he countered. “Then you’re a bigger fool than I suspected. Even Jillian is being nice, so you know Grace must be re- ally upset. I thought you liked her.” “I did. I do.” “Then why dump her, Wiley? Especially right before the opening. I understand that commitment isn’t your thing and being back in Chicago probably had you missing the city, but—” “You have it wrong.” He pointed the tip of his bottle toward his sister. “I was the dumpee in this situation. Grace broke up with me.” “Impossible,” Nicole said immediately. “Women don’t break up with you.” “I guess there’s a first time for everything.” “What did you do?” He placed the beer bottle on the coffee table with distinct thud. “Nothing.” His sister’s blue eyes narrowed. “Are you sure?” “How could I have done anything?” He lifted his hands, palms up, and didn’t bother to hide his frus- tration. “I was working around-the-clock in Chicago to salvage the deal. There was no time for anything, not that I would have wanted it, anyway. I missed her.” michelle major 255 “Did you tell her that?” He nodded. “Right in front of the hotel when I got back. Just before she cut me off at the knees.” “And she gave no indication of being unhappy while you were away?” “I don’t know, Nicole. I was away. Maybe her brother convinced her not to trust me. Maybe she realized she doesn’t want to deal with the complica- tions of our family.” “Grace isn’t the type to shy away from things that are hard,” Nicole reminded him. “In fact, we all keep forgetting she’s wearing the boot, because she doesn’t let it slow her down one bit.” “She’s amazing,” he murmured. “Probably too smart to want something long-term with me.” “I don’t believe that.” Nicole tapped a finger against her chin. “You two were the worst-kept se- cret in town. Everyone could see she was crazy about you. Did she say anything when you talked to her during your trip that would give you a clue—” “We didn’t talk while I was gone.” Nicole’s mouth dropped open. “You were in Chi- cago for nearly a week.” “I’m aware.” “How could you not talk to her?” He shrugged. “It wasn’t purposeful. I was busy.” “Not an excuse.” Agitation rolled through Wiley like a tidal wave. He didn’t want to think that he was at fault. How 256 her texas new year’s wish could that be? No, he hadn’t told Grace how he felt before he left. But she had to know, or at least have an idea. He’d never devoted so much of himself to a woman before. In fact, it had scared the hell out of him, especially when he returned to Chicago and saw the mess his firm had almost ended up in because he’d been distracted by his family and Grace while in Texas. Guilt had eaten at him, which was part of the reason he hadn’t done the best job of communi- cating while he was away. But still… He stood from the sofa and paced to the edge of the room. No way would he believe that he was the reason she’d broken things off. That simply couldn’t be the case. “I did call, Nicole. Or I tried.” He heard the edge in his voice but regaining control was the last thing on his mind. He had to understand why she’d ended things between them. He had to know if there was a chance at winning her back. “We had trouble con- necting because of how much I was at the office. It wasn’t like I slept with her and then took off with- out a backward glance.” He cringed when Nicole sucked in a harsh gasp, realizing exactly what he’d just blurted. Wiley would give anything if he could take the last ten seconds back. “You slept with her?” Nicole moved to the edge of the seat, looking like their mother used to when she wanted to throttle one of the boys for making a stupid mistake. 257 “Forget I said anything.” He shook his head. “I’m not thinking clearly, obviously. I shouldn’t have—” “She’s our employee,” Nicole reminded him through clenched teeth. “Yours,” Wiley countered. “Not mine. My rela- tionship with her has nothing to do with the hotel.” “Does she know that?” He opened his mouth to answer then shut it again. Nicole’s eyes widened. “Did she tell you about her ex-boyfriend?” “The one who cheated on her?” Wiley nodded. “That has nothing to do with me, either.” “How much did she share about their breakup?” “She didn’t need to explain much. He cheated. End of story.” “Wiley.” “Stop sounding like Mom,” he told her. “Your tone is freaking me out.” “I did Grace’s reference check at Cowboy Coun- try,” Nicole said quietly. “The story she gave me about how things ended there was a little convo- luted. I spoke with her boss in Horseback Hollow. Grace was an exemplary employee, just like she is for us. But when she discovered that her boyfriend was cheating on her with another coworker, there was a bit of a scene.” “What kind of a scene?” Wiley asked, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. “I only heard the details because the amusement michelle major 258 her texas new year’s wish park manager felt bad for Grace and wanted her to get the position in the training program. Apparently, the whole thing blew up at an employee picnic. The ex very loudly blamed Grace. He made it known that he was cheating because Grace lacked—” she made a face “—spark in the bedroom.” Wiley breathed out a string of curses that would have horrified his mother. “She doesn’t lack spark. Grace is the sparkliest damn woman I’ve ever known.” “Too much information.” Nicole stood, making a show of covering her ears. “I don’t want to talk about you and Grace and sparks. But think of the timing, Wi. The two of you…” She shrugged. “Took things to the next level and then you left town and didn’t call her.” “I called. We just didn’t get to talk.” He cursed again because he hated knowing that he’d made Grace doubt anything about herself. Making love to her had been the most wonderful time of his life. Not that he had any intention of discussing details with his sister. “Maybe you should try talking to her again,” Ni- cole suggested gently. “If you really care about her.” “I care.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I more than care about her.” “You can say the word.” Nicole crossed to him and patted his arm. “It won’t burn your tongue to speak it out loud.” 259 “It might,” he muttered, then sighed. “I love her, Nicole. I’m in love with her. I didn’t expect it, and I’m not sure I want it.” His sister squealed with delight. “I knew it. We all knew it. Ashley, Megan and I knew it before you did. We’re so much smarter than you.” He pulled away, although he couldn’t help the way his mouth curved. “Why do you all have to keep pointing it out? I should mention it’s annoying. If you’re finished gloating, can we talk about how I’m going to fix this?” “Do you want to fix it?” He thought about it for a long moment. Although he expected panic to rise up inside him, instead he felt a sense of peace settle in his chest. “Yes.” She inclined her head. “Why do I think there’s a ‘but’ coming?” “More like an ‘and,’” he admitted. “I need to figure some things out. I haven’t done a great job of making her feel like she’s a priority for me, and Grace deserves that. I want to give her that, Nic. I don’t want to mess it up.” “What if Grace says no? Will you go back to Chi- cago?” He shook his head. “My time in the city is fin- ished. No matter what happens with Grace, I’m mov- ing to Texas. Our big, crazy family used to feel like something I needed to escape. It didn’t feel like I michelle major 260 her texas new year’s wish could have my own life when I was just one of the Fortune brothers.” “You’ve always been more than that,” his sister said quietly. “Took me a bit of time to realize it.” He grinned at her. “It really grates on my nerves that my baby sisters are so smart, but you’re right. I’ve had a great life in Chicago, but it’s never been home. Home is where family is, and I want to put down roots in Texas. I want this place to be my home.” Grace climbed the stairs leading to Roja’s banquet room on Tuesday morning, trying hard to control the nerves fluttering through her chest. Callum had texted her last night, asking her to arrive at the hotel early the following morning for a private meeting. With less than a week until the grand opening, she couldn’t imagine why the head of Fortune Brothers Construction would want to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with her, un- less he’d found out about her relationship with Wiley. After their breakup, Grace had done her best to go back to business as usual at work. It wasn’t easy, because her body and her heart seemed tuned in to his presence like a radio dial. If he was anywhere nearby, awareness shivered across her skin, and it was difficult to draw a steady breath. Yesterday she’d overheard Nicole tell Mariana that Wiley had gone to Austin for business. Of course, it 261 was silly for Grace to be disappointed that he hadn’t said goodbye to her. She’d told him she just wanted to be friends, but they both knew they couldn’t go back to simple friendship after what they’d shared. She’d walked away before she was tempted to ask Nicole how long he’d be gone and what his plans for the future were. Anything Grace heard was bound to hurt, since she understood his future wouldn’t involve her. The timing of this meeting seemed a bit of a co- incidence, and part of her feared that the Fortunes would blame her for Wiley leaving again. She knew he would never try to put her in a bad position or do anything that might jeopardize her job, but after the way things ended in Horseback Hollow, it was dif- ficult for her to trust that. She’d thought her future at Cowboy Country was secure until Craig had pub- licly humiliated her. Her anxiety went into overdrive when she turned to find Callum seated at a banquet table along with Nicole and Kane. It felt like Grace was facing the Fortune tribunal. “Good morning,” she said, clearing her throat when the words came out sounding like a croak. “Hey, Grace.” Callum and his cousin stood as she approached. “How are you doing?” Callum glanced at her leg. “Damn, I’m sorry. I figured there’d be more privacy up here, but we probably should have met downstairs. I keep forgetting about your injury.” michelle major 262 her texas new year’s wish “It’s fine,” Grace assured him. “The walking boot makes it relatively easy to get around, and I’m slow on steps, but I can manage.” “Of course you can,” Kane agreed with a chuckle. “These past few weeks have proven that you can manage just about anything.” Except holding on to Wiley, she thought to her- self. “Thanks,” she answered Kane. “What can I do for all of you today?” Nicole offered a kind smile and gestured to the seat across from them. “Let’s talk for a few minutes.” Grace’s heart sank, and she wanted to run in the other direction. That’s exactly how the conversation with her bosses at the amusement park had begun, during which it had become painfully obvious that the best course of action for everyone would be her resignation. She did not want to give up her future at the hotel. An image of Wiley flashed in her mind. Would she walk away from the Fortunes if it meant another chance with him? Probably, although that might make her a fool. She’d never felt anything like she did when she was with Wiley. Regret made her chestpinch, and she wondered for the millionth time if she’d given up on him too easily. Slipping into the chair, she kept her hands clasped tightly in front of her. “Is there a problem with last- minute details for the opening?” Nicole shook her head. “Everything is right on 263 schedule. You, Jillian and Jay have done an incred- ible job.” “Far surpassed our expectations,” Callum added. “I’m glad.” Grace forced a smile. “So what I am doing here?” “The plan had been to choose the employee who would be promoted to the general manager position after the grand opening,” Nicole explained. “It made sense to get through this last push and then focus on the future.” Grace nodded. “But recent events have made us rethink the tim- ing of our announcement.” Callum inclined his head. “We want to show stability, to make sure that people understand we have things well under control at the Hotel Fortune.” “We’re moving forward and expecting nothing but good things.” Kane glanced behind him at the doors that led to the balcony. The balcony that had collapsed with Grace on it. “Okay.” Grace’s cheeks started to throb as she tried to keep her smile in place. Recent events? They had to be talking about her accident, and it felt as though her fall from the second floor was a meta- phor for her life. Just when she thought she had time to pause and enjoy the view, she went tumbling off the edge. She should have known this would happen. Of course they wouldn’t choose her for the general manager position. She was the physical representa- michelle major 264 her texas new year’s wish tion of a public relations nightmare. The Fortunes would be smart to promote someone who was untar- nished by any scandal. Jillian fit that bill without— “What do you think, Grace?” She blinked as Callum leaned forward, giving her an odd look, and she tried to catch up with the thread of the conversation. “I think it’s a wise decision.” His mouth twitched. “Then you’re accepting the position?” She blinked. “I think I missed something.” Nicole laughed. “He just offered you the general manager job.” “Oh.” Grace sucked in a shallow breath. “I thought you were telling me I wasn’t a fit because of the ac- cident. I’m bad PR.” “On the contrary,” Callum told her. “You’ve done more to bolster the hotel’s image in town than we could have imagined. The partnership with the local businesses is going to be integral to our reputation as we open.” “Thank you,” she whispered. “I’d be honored to accept the promotion. But…” She bit down on the inside of her cheek as she tried to determine the best way to share this next bit. Kane sighed. “I hate a ‘but.’” “What is it?” Nicole asked gently, placing her hand on her cousin’s beefy arm. 265 “I’m in love with your brother,” she said, and Kane choked on the sip of water he’d just taken. “Which one?” “She’s talking about our brother,” Nicole clari- fied. “Wiley. You love Wiley.” “Yes.” Grace nodded. “But we broke up.” Callum’s mouth dropped open. “You were dat- ing Wiley?” “Get with the program,” Nicole said, swatting his arm. “What did he do?” Kane demanded. “Do I need to kill him?” Grace almost laughed at the absurdity of that statement. “No, of course not. He didn’t do anything. I just chose… My priority is the hotel. I want you to know that. I don’t want there to be any doubts.” “You can have both,” Callum said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. Grace squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them again. She could be the biggest idiot in the world for revealing all of this in a meeting where she was being offered her dream job. “That hasn’t worked so well for me in the past.” “Wiley isn’t him,” Nicole told her with so much understanding that it felt like Grace’s heart might break all over again. “Who?” Kane and Callum asked in unison. “I know.” Grace kept her gaze focused on Wiley’s sister. “I just wanted you to know where things stood. michelle major 266 her texas new year’s wish It’s meant a lot to Wiley to reconnect with all of you. As much as I’m looking forward to a long career at the hotel, it won’t be at the expense of his relation- ship with his family.” Nicole leaned forward. “Are you saying you’d give up the promotion if he wasn’t comfortable with you working here?” Was that what Grace was telling them? How was that possible? The general manager job was every- thing she’d wanted for her life and a vindication of what she’d been through in Horseback Hollow. Wiley hadn’t given her the impression that he wanted her to forgo her dream for him. Not once. He’d only been supportive and proud as she dedicated herself to her job. But she knew how important his family was and understood the toll that feeling distanced from them had taken on him. She wouldn’t be a part of that. “Yes.” The pain she expected at saying the word didn’t materialize. Instead, she felt as if her world had stopped spinning and righted itself in a way that put her exactly where she wanted to be. “That’s ridiculous.” Callum shook his head. “Wiley is a grown damn man. You’re important to the hotel. To our family. He’ll deal.” “But if not—” “Thank you, Grace,” Nicole said. “You’ve proven even more why you’re the right person for this job. 267 We appreciate your loyalty and look forward to many years of you being part of Team Fortune.” “Really?” Grace swallowed. “I mean, that’s what I want, as well.” She pushed back from the table. “Just know that I have the best interests of the hotel at the forefront of my mind. Always.” “We know.” Nicole stood and then came around the table to hug her. “And we appreciate it. We’ll talk to Jillian and Jay as well and then plan to make the big announcement to the staff. Congratulations.” michelle major Chapter Seventeen “Oh, hell, no.” “Hi, Jake.” Wiley stepped out onto the path in front of Grace’s brother, ignoring his less-than-cordial greet- ing. “Mind if I join you?” Jake didn’t break stride as he ran past Wiley on the dirt trail that wound through one of the local parks. “If you can keep up, Wyatt.” Wiley also didn’t correct the mistake of his name. He simply ran alongside the other man, grateful for his almost-daily runs along Lake Michigan when he’d lived in Chicago. Jake set one hell of a pace. They did a fast loop around the park’s perime- ter, passing a few families and slower joggers. The 269 exercise actually helped to clear Wiley’s jumbled thoughts. He was clear about what he wanted, but how to convince Grace’s recalcitrant brother that his intentions were honorable was another story. “We need to talk about your sister,” Wiley said, huffing for breath, as they approached the parking lot where the trail ended. “You hurt her,” Jake said, and then bent at the waist. At least Wiley wasn’t the only one sucking wind, a small consolation when it felt as though his lungs were on fire. “I want to make it right. I love her.” Jake glanced up at him, a sneer curling one side of his mouth. “You don’t have to say that. She’s not going to come after your precious family and the hotel. Even if they wouldn’t have handed her the promotion she—” “Grace earning the general manager position had nothing to do with her injury.” Wiley placed his hands on his hips and drew in big gulps of air, struggling to keep the temper out of his voice. He was here to win Jake over to his side, not to antago- nize him further. But Wiley couldn’t tolerate the sug- gestion that Grace had been offered the manager role at the hotel for any other reason than she deserved it. “I know she’s qualified,” her brother conceded. “But even you have to admit—” “I don’t have to admit anything. Grace worked her butt off, both before and after the accident. She’s michelle major 270 her texas new year’s wish a huge asset to the hotel, and everyone in my fam- ily sees that. We’re not the ones selling her short.” Jake straightened. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Why are you so hell-bent on convincing her that she can’t make it on her own?” “I’m not—” “How do you think it makes her feel when her family is constantly telling her that the reason she’s being recognized has more to do with her injury than her talent and skills?” For the moment, Wiley put aside trying to smooth the waters with Grace’sbrother. He couldn’t stand to listen to one more sug- gestion that she was anything less than fully capable on her own. “We don’t do that.” “Are you sure? Because that’s how it sounds to me. I fell in love with your sister and not because I was trying to protect my family or any other sort of cheap attorney tricks you might want to accuse me of. The fact is she’s the most amazing woman I know. She’s smart, strong and creative. She doesn’t give up or give in, and we both know how big her heart is. She’d do anything for the people she loves.” Jake stared at him for several long moments, then looked away. “Did your brother or sister mention that Grace told them she wouldn’t take the promotion if it upset you to have her at the hotel?” “Yeah.” Wiley kicked a small rock with the toe of 271 one sneaker, sending it skittering across the grass. “I would never let that happen, and neither would they. I want another chance with Grace, but it’s her choice. If she’s truly moved on from me, I’ll respect the decision. Her place at the hotel is secure, and my brothers and sisters would never treat her unfairly.” “I know.” “In fact—” Wiley broke off as he tried to digest those two words coming from Jake. He was ready to argue as long as he needed to in order to convince her brother that his family had Grace’s interests at heart. “You know what?” “I’m not fully sold on the Fortunes,” Jake said, wiping a sleeve across his forehead. “Trusting people outside my close circle of friends and family…well, it’s been a struggle since the accident. Grace gave up a lot to come home and help during my recovery.” “She told me about that time,” Wiley said. “I know she was happy to have the chance to pitch in and remains grateful that everything turned out okay for you.” “She’s the best.” Jake flashed a rueful smile. “We can agree on that.” “Yeah.” “And even though you aren’t the man I’d choose for her, you’re the one she’s chosen.” Wiley mulled that over for a few seconds, then chuckled. “I can’t decide if that’s a compliment or an insult.” michelle major 272 her texas new year’s wish Jake’s grin widened. “We’ll call it a compliment. My sister deserves to be happy more than any person I know. If you make her happy, that’s good enough for me.” “I appreciate that, Jake.” Wiley held out a hand, and the other man shook it. “Family is important to Grace and to me. I want us to get along. You can be- lieve me when I tell you I’ll do my best to make her happy every day if she gives me another chance.” “I believe you, Fortune.” Jake nodded. “You should know that if you ever hurt her, I’ll be there.” Wiley shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. You’ll have to get in line behind most of my siblings. But all of this is moot if I can’t convince her to try again. To be honest, I’ve never had to work very hard with women. That’s another thing I love about your sister. She makes me want to try.” “What you need is a plan,” Jake said, clapping Wiley on the shoulder as they headed toward their cars. “Grace is used to being the one to put in the effort. I think your willingness to try will go a long way.” “I hope it goes far enough,” Wiley murmured, then stopped walking as an idea popped into his head. He turned to face Grace’s brother, an unex- pected ally but the perfect one for what Wiley wanted to accomplish. “And I hope that you’ll help me make sure it does.” 273 *** “Jake, are you sure we can’t just get him some- thing from the hardware store in town?” Grace drummed her fingers against her jeans and tried not to sound as impatient as she felt. Her brother had asked her to drive with him to pick up a gift for their dad’s upcoming birthday. Even though Grace had what felt like a never-ending to-do list with the opening in a few days, she’d agreed to accompany Jake on his errand. She and her brother hadn’t been on the best terms lately, and she didn’t want any more animosity between them. Unfortunately, Jake hadn’t mentioned that the place he was picking up some vintage baseball glove for Dad was a good half hour out of town. He’d been in a strange mood since picking her up at her apart- ment, uncharacteristically peppy one minute and then anxious the next. “It’s important, Gracie,” he said, and gave her a bright smile. Way too bright for her to believe it was sincere. “This is going to be the best surprise ever.” “You’re acting weird,” she said as she looked out the window of his truck. The last time she’d driven this stretch of highway had been with Wiley on their first date. A dull ache filled her chest at the thought of Wiley Fortune. The past few days without him had been awful. Grace missed him like crazy, even though michelle major 274 her texas new year’s wish she saw him around the hotel almost every day. But it wasn’t the same. Jillian and Jay had taken her out for a drink to celebrate her promotion. It astounded Grace that Jil- lian seemed to accept the decision the Fortunes had made without complaint. Grace realized that she had Jillian to thank, in part, for the opportunity. Their rivalry had pushed Grace outside her comfort zone and motivated her to go the extra mile with every task she was assigned. Obviously, it had paid off, but the price for her success was steep. Grace wondered if she should have given Wiley more of a chance after he returned from Chicago. She’d been hurt and felt rejected be- cause he hadn’t called while away, but part of her knew she was transferring her emotions about her last relationship onto this one. Her ex’s betrayal made her so sensitive to any slight. She’d built giant walls around her heart because that had seemed like the best way to protect it. She was coming to understand that keeping po- tential hurt out almost meant that the love she had to give someone was trapped inside her. Yet as much as she wanted to risk her heart for Wiley, it was dif- ficult to imagine how much it might shatter if he didn’t want to try again. She’d told herself she would wait until after the grand opening celebration and then reach out to him. 275 That way she’d have the time to fall apart in a way she didn’t at the moment. “You’re so quiet,” Jake said as he pulled into the right-hand lane of the highway and turned on his signal to exit. “Are you tired?” “I’m fine.” She leaned forward in her seat. “Where are you going? Why are you getting off here?” “It’s our exit.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” she lied. It was the exit for the Oak Tree Inn. As Jake turned at the end of the ramp, she realized they were going to drive right past the con- verted farmhouse on the way to wherever this spe- cial baseball glove was located. It shouldn’t bother her to see the place that she and Wiley had shared their first kiss. She’d handled much more challeng- ing situations than a simple driveway. So why was her heart practically beating out of her chest? “I want you to be happy, Grace.” Jake’s voice held a note of tenderness she wasn’t used to hearing from her tough brother. “You deserve that.” “We both do,” she answered. “Wiley made you happy.” Her mouth dropped open at those words. “I don’t want another lecture about the Fortunes, especially Wiley.” “It was an observation,” he countered. “Not a lec- ture.” michelle major 276 her texas new year’s wish She smiled despite the sadness coursing through her. “I figured the lecture was coming next.” “You have no idea what’s coming next,” Jake said softly, and then shocked Grace by pulling into the parking lot of the Oak Tree Inn. “Jake…” “Happiness,” he repeated. “You’re a big girl, Gra- cie, and it’s about time we all start treating you like one. I have a feeling I could learn something from Wiley Fortune in that regard. It’s not up to me to de- termine what makes you happy. That’s your decision. Now you just have to be brave enough to make it.” Her breath was coming out in shallow puffs. “What are you doing, Jake?” After pulling to a stop in front of the inn, he reached over and opened the passenger-side door. “Hopefully giving you a little nudge in the right di- rection.” Too shocked to argue, Grace stepped out of the car. She’d barely closed the door when Jake took off, leaving her standing in the middle of nowhere in a cloud of dust. “That wasn’t exactly how he and I planned it.” She whirled around to the inn’s front door to see Wiley walking toward her. “You planned this?” Her brain felt like it was full of cotton, and her knees had gone weak. The thought that she could actually use her scooter or the crutches to help her balance almost made her smile. Almost. 277 “Jake agreed to bring you out here,” Wiley said, his tone tentative. “I thought he was going to stay until we had a chance to talk.” “What if I don’t want to talk?” she demanded, be- cause it irritated her how good it felt to see him. She didn’t want it to feel good. She wanted to stay strong and focused on the grand opening. That was her plan. Wiley reached into the pocket of his dark jeans and pulled out a set of keys. “Take my car.” She narrowed her eyes. “So you had my brother drop me here, but you don’t expect me to stay? I get that I’m tired, but I really don’t understand what’s going on right now.” “I should have asked Nicole or Megan for help,” Wiley muttered, running an agitated hand through his hair. “They would have come up with a better plan. I’m sorry, Grace. I wanted tonight to be per- fect. I thought if we were at a place that held goodmemories…” He gestured to the inn. “That first night we had dinner was one of the best nights of my life.” “Me, too,” she whispered, suddenly nostalgic for the night when things had seemed so simple. He took a step forward, then stopped again. “I asked your brother to help me win you back.” Grace choked back a snort. “And he agreed?” Wiley shrugged. “He brought you to me, right?” “I suppose he did.” She glanced behind her, half expecting to see Jake come tearing back into the michelle major 278 her texas new year’s wish parking lot. “Wait.” She turned back to Wiley. “You want to win me back?” “More than anything,” he confessed. “The fact is I’m miserable without you. It’s like you brought the color to my life and now I’m stuck with boring black and white. I miss the color, Grace. I miss you.” She swallowed as emotion welled up in her throat. “It felt like you walked away without looking back,” she told him. “You left for Chicago. You left me be- hind like I was nothing.” “I’m sorry.” He moved closer until she could look up into his handsome face and see the golden flecks in his eyes. Heat radiated from him, and she had to force herself not to reach for him. She needed to stay strong. “I thought about you all the time. I hated being away from you.” “Why didn’t you call?” “I’m an idiot,” he said with a harsh laugh. “I felt guilty that things had gone to hell back in Chicago while I was here with you. I told myself that I needed to make it right for the firm before I left the city. I thought you knew how I felt, Grace.” She shook her head. “I love you,” he whispered. “I think I fell a little bit in love that first night. Then I almost lost you be- fore we ever had a chance.” Hope unfurled in her chest like a flower after a rainstorm. “What do you mean left the city?” As much as Grace loved hearing those three words from 279 him, she was having trouble following this conver- sation. Did Wiley really— “I quit my job,” he said. “I’m going to join a firm out of Austin. Most of the work I do will be from Rambling Rose. I want to be here with you…for you.” He held up a hand when she would have spoken, and thank heaven for that because she had no idea how to respond. “But I’m staying no matter what you decide, Grace. I love you. That won’t change. But even more, I respect you. I respect your strength and your integrity and the way you never give up. I don’t want to give up on us, but the choice is yours.” Hers. He was giving her the power to decide her own fate, although Grace now realized she’d had it all along. She’d just been too scared to truly claim the life she wanted. Wiley had helped her see that she deserved to do just that. Unable to resist one more moment, she threw her arms around him and pressed her mouth to his. “I love you, Wiley,” she said against his lips. “I love the man you are and the way you believe in me. I love how you make me feel like I can do anything.” “You can, sweetheart.” His arms tightened around her, and she could feel his heart thumping in his chest. “You can do anything, and I’m so damn grate- ful that you’re choosing me. I will love you for al- ways, Grace. I’m going to spend the rest of our lives proving that I’m the man who deserves you.” michelle major 280 her texas new year’s wish “You don’t have to prove anything to me.” She nuzzled her face into the crook of his neck, feeling like she’d finally come home. “I love you just the way you are.” He claimed her mouth again, kissing her until they were both breathless. “Would you like to go upstairs?” he asked as he pulled away with a sexy grin. “Did you get us a room here?” She grinned. “I rented out the entire inn,” he told her with a wink. “The whole place is ours for the night.” “And you’re mine forever,” she said. Joy exploded through her entire body, and she kissed him again. **** * Look for the next book in the new Harlequin Special Edition continuity The Fortunes of Texas: The Hotel Fortune Their Second-Time Valentine by Helen Lacey On sale February 2021 wherever Harlequin books and ebooks are sold.

Harlequin Series Blog Tour: Agent under Siege by Lena Diaz

AGENT UNDER SIEGE by Lena Diaz About the Book:  Can they outsmart a killer …who’s already escaped justice? The Kentucky Ripper is in prison…or is he? When no one will help Teagan Ray find the man who really abducted her, former profiler Bryson Anton agrees to investigate. But soon their search takes two jolting turns—brutal attacks from a cunning suspect…and a powerful mutual attraction. Price: $5.99 ON-sale date: 01/01/2020 ISBN: 9781335401489 Where to Buy: About the Author: Lena’s heart belongs to the rolling hills of her homestate of Kentucky. But you’re more likely to see her near the ocean these days in northeast Florida where she resides with her hubby and two children. A former Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart® finalist, she’s also a four-time winner of the Daphne du Maurier award and a Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller. When not writing, she can be found sprucing up her flower beds or planning her next DIY project. Contact Lena: My Review: Teagan is a survivor. She was kidnapped by the Kentucky Ripper years ago. She was humiliated and tortured. She got out of that nightmare but has never forgotten her ordeal.  Bryson is the FBI agent who worked on the case. He tried to save Hayley but got shot in the hip. He has to adjust to life in constant pain and as a cane and wheelchair user.  He’s determined, focused and also a fighter. Some may say he has a temper. But I see things from his point of view as pain and muscle stiffness can be a real issue and something that people who aren’t wheelchair users may not understand. As a fellow wheelchair user, I am able to understand how these two things can affect how I feel.  There are some points when he’s tender and understanding. The chemistry between them and depth and intricacies of relationship is expertly dealt with by author Lena Diaz. There is so much action in this book. It really is non-stop. The trail and house where Teagan was kidnapped are really atmospheric and I felt fear and unease as they were mentioned.  The investigation has a lot of twists and turns and I was hooked by it and wanted Teagan and Bryson to be OK. The medical side of Bryson’s life is realistic and I went through the same nerves as Teagan waiting for him to recover from surgery.  Love, suspense, action and real-life issues combine in this very well thought out book with unforgettable characters.  Thanks to Lena Diaz and Harlequin Suspense for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review.  5 stars. Excerpt: “Teagan,” he whispered. “Look at me.” She opened her eyes and stared up at him. The moon’s light wasn’t enough to see the beautiful blue of his eyes, but she remembered how ruggedly handsome he was. He was so sweet and smart and…and he was going to die. “We have to kill him,” she whispered. Bryson’s arm stiffened against her, but he didn’t say anything. “We have to kill him,” she repeated. “Before he makes us go into that horrible shack. He wants me. He won’t shoot me, not right away. We’ll refuse to go inside and he’ll have to come close. As long as you duck down in front of me, I can shield you—” “The hell with that,” he hissed. “I’m not using you as a human shield. The answer is no. We’ll survive this, somehow. I don’t have a plan yet, but putting you in the line of fire sure isn’t at the top of my list. It’s not even on the list. Forget it.” AGENT UNDER SIEGE Lena Diazpage3image36551488 If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.” My prayers and condolences to all who have lost loved ones and friends during the horrendous, unimaginable pandemic that gripped our world in 2020. I hope that this story gives you a few hours of escape and that it puts a smile on your face. God bless.page4image63065152page4image36350656 ISBN-13: 978-1-335-40148-9 Agent Under Siege Copyright © 2020 by Lena Diaz All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental. This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For questions and comments about the quality of this book, please contact us at CustomerService@Harlequin.com. Harlequin Enterprises ULC 22 Adelaide St. West, 40th Floor Toronto, Ontario M5H 4E3, Canada http://www.Harlequin.com Printed in U.S.A. Lena Diaz was born in Kentucky and has also lived in California, Louisiana and Florida, where she now resides with her husband and two children. Before becoming a romantic suspense author, she was a computer programmer. A Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® Award finalist, she has also won the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. To get the latest news about Lena, please visit her website, lenadiaz.com. Books by Lena Diaz Harlequin Intrigue The Justice Seekers Cowboy Under Fire Agent Under Siege The Mighty McKenzies Smoky Mountains Ranger Smokies Special Agent Conflicting Evidence Undercover Rebel Tennessee SWAT Mountain Witness Secret Stalker Stranded with the Detective SWAT Standoff Marshland Justice Missing in the Glades Arresting Developments Deep Cover Detective Hostage Negotiation Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com. CAST OF CHARACTERS Bryson Anton—This former FBI profiler’s redemption hinges on him saving the young woman who believes her attacker is the killer Bryson failed to capture years ago. Teagan Ray—This criminal justice student puts her life on hold to convince Bryson to help her catch the man who attacked her. But her decision sends them both down a path that could cost them their lives. Mason Ford—After his life is nearly destroyed by a corrupt small-town government, this former chief of police uses his lawsuit winnings to form the Justice Seekers. He offers former law enforcement officers a second chance to redeem themselves and obtain justice for others. Avarice Lowe—He was once suspected to be a serial killer but managed to disappear when the police turned to another suspect. Now more people are dying with the same signature used in the original murders. Leviathan Finney—Imprisoned as the Kentucky Ripper, is he really the serial killer who once terrorized his state? Or, as Teagan believes, did the real killer get away? Gage Bishop—One of the Justice Seekers, he helps Bryson and Teagan when they need it most. But will his help come too late? Chapter One Long before the shadow fell across the end of the dock and hovered over Bryson Anton’s wheelchair, he knew the man was there. Motion sensors and security cam- eras had made Bryson’s watch buzz against his wrist when the man parked his car in the driveway. More messages warned when the man crossed the back patio. And again, when he’d descended the gently sloping lawn that ended at the creek. Bryson didn’t care who was now standing behind him, as long as he didn’t have to engage in conversation. “Nice place,” the man’s voice rang out. “Probably one of the highest views in the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains. I’ll bet at night you can see nearly every light in downtown Gatlinburg from here.” Bryson sighed but didn’t turn around. “My former boss took pity on me after I got myself hurt on the job. He gave me a boatload of money, and I was selfish enough to take it and buy this property. But that doesn’t mean he can drop by any time he wants.” “I’m still your boss. I haven’t accepted your resig- nation.” 8 Agent Under Siege “That’s not how it works, Mason. I resigned, whether you accept it or not. I’ll never be a Justice Seeker again. I’m not going back to Camelot. You and your knights of the round table are better off without a washed-up former profiler jacking up your investigations.” “Is that why you’re sitting out here drinking like a fish, because you think you jacked up everything?” “Something like that.” Bryson grabbed a can of beer from the cooler beside his wheelchair and popped the top. He took a deep long swallow, more to irritate his unwelcome visitor than because he wanted it. Mason retrieved a beer and eyed the label, then tossed it back unopened. “Fish biting?” “Do you see a fishing pole around here somewhere?” Bryson emptied his can in the water and dropped it on his lap before wheeling around. “Enjoy the view as long as you want. You paid for it.” He rolled his chair up the flagstone walkway toward the house. “Dalton and Hayley missed you at their wedding last week.” Mason fell into step beside him. “Yeah, well. I didn’t have time to learn the latest dance steps.” He stopped at the sliding glass doors and tossed the empty beer can in the recycle bin. When he reached for the door handle, Mason leaned past him and held it closed. Bryson swore. “What do you want from me?” “I want you to do your job. A new client came to Camelot yesterday. She specifically wants to hire you.” He scoffed. “You expect me to believe she asked for a washed-up former FBI agent to screw up her case so Lena Diaz 9 someone else will die? If she did, send her on over. I can accomplish that without lifting a finger.” Mason leaned back against the door. “That’s a heck of a guilty conscience you’re nursing. Or are you just feeling sorry for yourself?” He waved toward the wheelchair. “If you’d actually go to your physical ther- apy appointments instead of being a no-show half the time, you’d be out of that thing by now. Don’t look so surprised. I pay your insurance premiums. I see what’s billed. And there’ve been a surprising lack of medical invoices lately. You’ve given up, Bryson. The ques- tion is why?” “Why?” he gritted out. “Let me remind you that when I was the FBI’s golden boy, everyone treated my pro- files like biblical text. So when I presented them with a profile for the Kentucky Ripper, they focused all their efforts on Avarice Lowe, the suspect at the top of my list. Meanwhile, Leviathan Finney—the real Ripper— was no longer under surveillance. To celebrate, he kid- napped and gutted another woman. Because of me, he was able to kill again.” “Because of you, the police were able to signifi- cantly narrow their list of suspects much faster than they could have otherwise. The choices they made after that weren’t your fault. Hell, Bryson. If it wasn’t for the work you did, it would have taken far longer to catch the Ripper and put him in prison.” “Tell that to the family of the last woman he killed.” Mason shook his head. “I hear someone anony- mously sends money to the last victim’s family every month. While I admire the generosity and kindness of 10 Agent Under Siege the gesture, that person is making payments on a debt he doesn’t owe. The only person responsible for that woman’s death is the man who killed her—Leviathan Finney.” Bryson fisted his hands on the arms of the wheel- chair. “Are we about done here? It’s getting late.” “Big plans tonight?” “I have to wash my hair.” Mason let out a deep sigh. “Just explain one thing, then I’ll go. Why now? You left the FBI over three years ago and started working for me as one of the Justice Seekers. Why is the Ripper case bothering you again after all this time?” Bryson stared at him incredulously. “Bothering me again? It never stopped bothering me. But I tried to make something good from the bad, atone for my sins by working investigations for you. And what did I do? I nearly got Hayley killed, got myself shot and here I sit with shrapnel they can’t dig out of my hip without risking the loss of my leg. Do I sit here feeling sorry for myself? No. I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy, least of all my own. The people who deserve sympathy are the ones I’ve hurt, those who nearly died because of me, and the one who did. Accept my resignation and leave me alone. I’m not going to risk hurting anyone else. I’m done.” Mason’s jaw worked as he stared past him toward the creek. A full minute passed in silence before he finally met Bryson’s gaze again. “Sounds like you’ve made up your mind.” Lena Diaz 11 Bryson arched a brow. “Sounds like you’re finally listening.” “Oh, I’ve been listening. I just don’t like what I’m hearing.” He pulled a thick neon green folder covered with pink polka dots out from beneath his suit jacket and dropped it onto Bryson’s lap. “Guess you won’t be needing this.” He eyed the folder like he’d eye a coiled rattlesnake. “What is that hideous thing?” “I was asked to give it to you. It’s from the client I told you about, the one who requested that you work on her case. She put her pursuit of a master’s degree in criminal justice on hold to perform research on an al- leged serial killer. She believes that you’re the only per- son who can convince the police that her conclusions are reasonable and help her catch him. She provided a summary of her research in that folder.” Bryson snorted and shook his head. “If she’s con- vinced that a failed criminal profiler is the key to her theory, then she needs to go back to school. Her deduc- tive reasoning is skewed.” “Personally, I found her work intriguing, her theo- ries compelling. And I’ve already got my master’s in criminal justice, not to mention a decade of experience as a chief of police and another seven years after that running The Justice Seekers.” Mason straightened and tugged his suit jacket into place. “But I can see that I’m not going to change your mind. The funny thing is, I never took you for a quitter. Even after the FBI.” “Yeah, well. I never thought I’d be responsible for 12 Agent Under Siege another innocent person almost being killed either. Guess we were both wrong.” Mason stared at him a long moment, then looked past him again toward the dock. “That really is a gor- geous view. Let me know when you decide to go fish- ing. I can bring a pole, throw out a line.” He gave him a hard look. “All of your brothers and sisters at Camelot would love to toss you a line, including Hayley. You just have to ask.” He shoved his hands in his pants pockets and strode away without waiting for a reply. Bryson dropped his gaze to the ridiculous-looking pink-and-green folder in his lap. He stared at it long after he could no longer hear the sound of Mason’s car driving away. Long after the sun began to set and the mosquitos started buzzing around his ears. Long after the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg reflected in the slid- ing glass door, studding the night sky like glitter on a black velvet canvas. Then he tossed the folder in the trash. Chapter Two Teagan whistled as she stepped out of her car onto the brick-paved driveway. It was as if she was standing on top of the world, with the entire Smoky Mountains range spreading out around her in 360-degree views. There wasn’t another house in sight, just the rambling one-story stone-and-brick mansion set so far back from the main road that she hadn’t seen it until she’d almost passed it. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected of the home of a former FBI special agent, but it wasn’t this. Either the FBI was paying way better than most people realized, or Bryson Anton’s post-FBI career paid extremely well. He’d spent three years so far with The Justice Seek- ers, an agency of former law enforcement officers and ex-military whose professed goal was to obtain justice for people who couldn’t get it via the traditional route. Having seen their quirky, state-of-the-art headquarters that they’d dubbed Camelot, she figured it was a safe assumption that’s where Bryson had made his money. When she reached the front porch, she was surprised that in addition to the broad front steps there was a 14 Agent Under Siege ramp concealed behind the landscaping. No rocking chairs dotted the wide expanse. No flowers decorated the empty cedar window boxes, even though it was the middle of spring. If she had to describe the expen- sive, sprawling home in one word, it would be…lonely. She was about to knock on the frosted glass double door when the left side jerked open. She blinked in slack-jawed admiration at the incredible work of art that greeted her wearing nothing but a frown and a white towel draped around his hips. His dark, shoulder-length hair was damp. Beads of water clung to the hair on his golden, sculpted chest. It almost killed her not to reach out and trace the trail of one very happy bead that ran toward his six-pack abs and disappeared below the top of his towel. On a scale of one to ten, she rated him sexy-as-hell. “Hi.” Of all the compelling, intelligent, well-formulated introductions that her summa cum laude education could have provided her, she came up with that one-word bit of brilliance. She cleared her throat so she could properly introduce herself. “It’s about time you got here,” he practically growled. “I’ve been trying to work the cramps out of my hip all morning. If the muscles aren’t loosened up soon, I’ll end up in the wheelchair the rest of the day abusing an exquisite bottle of scotch.” Leaning heavily on the cane in his right hand that she only just noticed, he limped across the expensive- looking shiny white floor before stopping beside one of the biggest black leather couches she’d ever seen. Except for the other couch in the room, which was just Lena Diaz 15 as big. The two of them formed an L with their backs to the bump-out of windows near the garage. “Where do you want me?” he asked. Was that a trick question? On a bed, on the kitchen counter, anywhere. Since he appeared to be waiting for an answer to his ridiculous query, she had to rewind the brief conversation in her head and remember what he’d said when he’d opened the door. Her previously absent brain clicked into gear, and she realized he was likely expecting either a massage therapist or a per- sonal trainer. For his left hip, the one he was favoring as he leaned toward the cane on his right side. Appar- ently he wanted her to tell him where he should sit, or lie down, or whatever was required so that she could work out his muscle cramps. Her ovaries screamed at her to say yes to anything he wanted. But it wouldn’t be ethical to let this go on any longer when it was obviously a case of mistaken identity. All she had to do was tell him who she was and why she was there. Now if she could just stop drooling long enough to remember her name. He frowned. “What’s wrong?” He glanced down at his towel. “I’ve got boxers on if you’re worried that I’m naked under here.” “Oh, no, trust me. That wouldn’t bother me at all.” Drop the towel. And the boxers. Please. She cleared her throat. “What I meant to say is that—” The doorbell rang, followed by a knock on the glass. He swore. “Ever since my old boss came by yester- 16 Agent Under Siege day, you’d think this was a Walmart on Black Friday. This makes the third person to come by in two days.” “Three visitors in two days. A veritable siege.” He gave her an odd look. She smiled. It was either that or give in to the bar- baric urge to grab his towel and toss it away. She curled her fingernails against her palms, trying her best to keep him safe. His face was a study in pain as he limped to the door. She wondered at the source of that pain. His employer hadn’t mentioned anything about an injury. Mason had only stated that Bryson was on temporary leave, but that he’d be more than happy to return to take her case. She had a feeling that Mason might have stretched the truth. A lot. He opened the door with a bit of wariness this time, keeping his lower half hidden behind it. Unable to make out what was being said, Teagan imagined it was far more clever than her conversation since they spoke longer than it took to say, “Hi.” When he stepped back, a rather impressive woman entered. Bright, attention-getting red hair floated above baby- blue scrubs. She marched across the room with the au- thority of someone who had a legitimate reason to be there. Teagan was quite certain that the woman’s mus- cular arms would have made a linebacker blush with envy. After snapping a white linen in the air and tuck- ing it around the couch cushions, she ordered Bryson to lose the towel and lie down. Teagan debated what to do. Should she go or should she stay? Lena Diaz 17 “You.” Bryson pointed at her. “Sit over there until I can stand again without wanting to drown myself in a bottle of tequila. Then we’ll find out who you are and what you’re doing here.” He dropped his towel and lay down on the couch, his left leg facing out toward the room. His thighs were just as muscular and beautiful as the rest of him. Wowzah. The woman that Teagan mentally dubbed “Helga” placed a pad on the floor by the couch and propped her knees on top of it. Strong, man-size hands were stuffed into latex gloves. Then she shoved the side of Bryson’s boxers up his leg and proceeded to squeeze and pummel his hip. Personally, Teagan wouldn’t have bothered with the gloves. She tossed her purse onto the other couch and plopped down to enjoy the show. It was over far too soon. She almost groaned in disappointment when Bryson pushed to his feet, then pronounced his cramps gone and thanked the therapist. A few minutes later, Helga had left and Bryson returned from his bedroom in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt. Since the jeans caressed his muscular thighs and tight rear end and the T-shirt did nothing to hide the perfection of his pecs, Teagan decided that she didn’t mind that he’d put on some clothes. It was a pleasure seeing the perfect male specimen in varying stages of undress. She just wished she could see him completely undressed for a fair comparison. He limped to her couch, looking just as adorably grumpy as he had when he’d jerked open the front door 18 Agent Under Siege and complained about her taking so long to get there. Well, complained that Helga had taken so long. “Spill it,” he said. “Mason sent you, didn’t he?” “I wouldn’t put it that way.” “How would you put it?” “I’d say that I went to Mr. Ford and asked if I could hire you. He said he was certain that you’d be interested, but that I’d have to ask you personally. He graciously provided your address and here I am. Technically, I sent myself.” She remained seated on the ultra-plush couch and offered her hand. “Teagan Ray. Nice to meet you.” He didn’t bother with a handshake. “Bryson Anton. I don’t work for Mason Ford anymore. Get out of my house.” Chapter Three “No.” Bryson stared at the defiant young woman sitting cross-legged on his couch. There was nothing about her sensible flat shoes, her conservative navy blue dress pants and short-sleeved white blouse that buttoned all the way to her neck to indicate that she was a radical militant bent on destroying the rest of his miserable morning. Even her black hair, which appeared to be curly based on the little wisps that framed her face, was mostly tamed in a tight braid that hung down the middle of her back. So why wasn’t she cowed by his sour disposition and gruff commands? And why was she still sitting on his couch? “Perhaps you didn’t hear me correctly, Ms. Ray.” “Call me Teagan. I’ll call you Bryson.” She flashed a bright white smile that probably cost her parents a second mortgage. “Ms. Ray, you may call me Mr. Anton, or the jerk who’s throwing you out of his house. Because that’s exactly what I’m doing. Tossing you out. I didn’t in- vite you here so—” 20 Agent Under Siege “Actually, you did.” “Excuse me?” She tapped her temple as if that would explain ev- erything. “I have a photographic memory. I basically see words—” “I know what a photographic memory is,” he bit out. “Excellent. It’s good to use terminology we’re both familiar with for the absolute best understanding, with no confusion. A common frame of reference will help us communicate better. Don’t you think?” “You lost me at no confusion.” She grinned. She seemed to do that a lot. “Let’s go back to the part where you invited me here.” “I didn’t invite you.” “When Mr. Ford told you about me, you told him, ‘You expect me to believe she asked for a washed-up former FBI agent to screw up her case so someone else will die? If she did, send her on over.’” She spread her hands out beside her. “Here I am. Plus you invited me in at the front door. It’s kind of like with vampires, once you let them in, that’s it. You can’t just throw them out.” “Watch me.” He tossed his cane on the other couch, then scooped her up in his arms. Her dark brown eyes got so wide he could see the beautiful little golden flecks around the irises. He whirled around, then stumbled and had to steady his shin against the coffee table to keep from tipping over. She boldly looped her tawny-brown arms around his neck and stared up at him with a look of concern. “I’m not sure you should be holding me like this with- Lena Diaz 21 out your cane. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Plus, even as gorgeous—with a capital G—as you are, I still think we should get to know each other better before we jump into each other’s arms. Don’t you?” She flut- tered her impossibly long, thick eyelashes. Actually fluttered them. “Has anyone ever accused you of insanity?” he asked. “All the time. It’s one of my best qualities—the abil- ity to act crazy while I outmaneuver and outsmart ev- eryone around me.” He scowled down at her. She tightened her arms around his neck. “I could literally do this all day. We fit together perfectly. My soft curves, your hard muscles. Very comfy.” “Are you flirting with me, Ms. Ray?” “I believe I am, Mr. Anton.” “Because you’re trying to confuse and outmaneuver me so I’ll let you stay?” “Mostly. Is it working?” “The jury’s still out on that. But my hip’s starting to hurt like the devil again, so I’m either going to drop you or set you down. I’m leaning toward dropping.” “I prefer setting.” “No sense of adventure.” He let her legs slide down until she was standing. Then he gingerly let her go, try- ing not to move too fast and lose his precarious balance. She grabbed his cane and handed it to him. “Is this one of those cool FBI things? Like if you twist the head it opens and becomes a rifle? Or maybe the tip has poison 22 Agent Under Siege in it? You jab the bad guy and he dies a horrible death a few minutes later. Am I right?” “It’s a gun, of course. Poison is so beneath an FBI agent.” Her grin widened. “James Bond has nothing on you guys.” He rolled his eyes. It was all he could manage with the pain slicing through his muscles. When he thought he could shuffle across the room without falling to the floor in an embarrassing heap, he headed toward the kitchen. He eyed her morosely as she used her two per- fectly healthy hips to hop onto one of the bar stools at the marble-topped island. “Don’t get too comfortable,” he warned. “You haven’t achieved victory. Once I liquor up enough to be able to haul you to the front door, I’ll be throwing you out as promised.” “I consider myself forewarned.” She motioned to- ward him. “Mind if I ask what’s wrong with the leg? I noticed the ramp outside, and a wheelchair in the cor- ner of the family room.” “You can ask all you want. And I can choose not to answer.” Bypassing the scotch that he preferred for late-night drinking—alone—he grabbed a bottle of te- quila along with a shot glass. She motioned toward the cabinet. “Can you at least pretend that you have some manners and act like a host for a few minutes?” “Are you even old enough to drink?” She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I don’t look that young.” Lena Diaz 23 He sighed and reached for a second glass. After pouring two generous helpings, he set the bottle be- tween them. “Ms. Ray. You seem like an intelligent young woman—” She grimaced. “You say young as if you think I’m a child. I can’t imagine that I’m more than ten, maybe eleven years younger than you.” He arched a brow. “Meaning that while you were in elementary school, I was losing my virginity to the homecoming queen at my high school.” She hesitated with a shot glass halfway to her mouth. “Can’t top that. But I did have my first kiss quite early. Third grade. Behind the jungle gym. Ricky Southern- ton.” She tossed her shot back with one gulp. “On the lips?” “On the cheek.” “Doesn’t count. I was in second grade when I kissed Becky Louis. She bit my tongue.” “Maybe you shouldn’t have shoved it down her throat.” He reluctantly smiled. “Maybe not.” He tossed his own shot back and reveled at the smooth burn as it went down. A few more shots and he might be able to avoid the wheelchair until at least the dinner hour. “Have you thought about getting prescription pain- killers instead of drowning the pain with alcohol?” He shot her a look that should have frozen her to the bar stool. She held up her hands in a placating gesture. “Sorry. The filter between my brain and my mouth is defec- tive. I shouldn’t have asked.” 24 Agent Under Siege The completely unrepentant look on her face, in direct opposition to her words, forced a laugh out of him. How long had it been since he’d laughed, or even smiled? He had no idea. But the novelty of both had him starting to relax, if only a little. “I was on pretty strong pain pills in the beginning, but it was like liv- ing in a brain-fog all the time. Had to wean myself off them. Drinking works better for me, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun.” He refilled his glass, then paused in question with the bottle poised over hers. “Yes, please.” He topped off her shot, then drained his while watching her. If he hadn’t been paying close attention, he wouldn’t have noticed the tiny, involuntary shudder when she tossed it back. “That’s a waste of some pretty great tequila for someone who doesn’t even like it.” She shoved the glass across the island for more. “What makes you think I don’t like it?” He poured more for himself, but not for her. “When you have ten or eleven more years of experience be- hind you, maybe you’ll figure it out. Go home, Teagan. There’s nothing for you here. I can’t help you.” “You mean you won’t help me?” “The intent doesn’t matter. The result is the same.” “Then I guess we’re back to drinking. Shots with a hot guy before noon. I can think of worse ways to spend my morning.” She grabbed the bottle. He tugged it away from her. “If you’re trying to win me over with the hot guy talk, you can stop right now. Like I said, I’m not going to help with your case. And Lena Diaz 25 I’m not buying this over-the-top happy, flirty person- ality you’re presenting. Nobody’s that cute. You’re try- ing too hard.” “You think I’m cute?” She grinned and fluttered her long lashes again. “I think you’re nervous and overcompensating. It’s time to drop the act.” Her smile dimmed and she seemed genuinely con- fused. “What do you mean?” He rested his forearms on the island. “Profiler, re- member? At least, I used to be one. It took me a few minutes to realize what was happening. Probably be- cause I’m out of practice and I do my best to avoid people these days. But you don’t have to keep pre- tending, trying to be something you’re not. Maybe it’s the tequila that I drank, maybe it’s that I admire your spunk and the effort you’ve put into this. Whatever it is, you’ve earned a slight reprieve. I’ll listen to your spiel so you can get it out of your system. Then I’ll throw you out.” She stared at him, wide-eyed, then grabbed his full shot glass and tossed it back before he could stop her. He silently cursed himself for not being more care- ful. Given her small stature and the strength of the te- quila, her ability to safely drive herself home was now seriously in question. “Better?” he asked dryly. “Better. Although I’ll admit that scotch I saw in your cabinet is more to my taste.” “Don’t even think about it.” She grinned. 26 Agent Under Siege “This is where I warn you that I haven’t read the in- formation that Mason left me.” “I kind of figured, since the folder I gave him is hanging half-out of your garbage can on your back patio.” She motioned toward the glass doors on the far side of the kitchen. “Observant, I’ll give you that. Then again, it’s hard to miss a neon green folder with hideous pink polka dots.” “Not a polka-dot fan?” “Not in the least.” “Pity.” He shifted his weight to help ease the tightness in his hip. “Maybe you can brief me on what’s in the folder. Mason mentioned you think you’re on the trail of a serial killer.” She nodded and ran her hands up and down her arms, looking slightly less eager now that the discus- sion was at hand. She reached for the tequila. He swore and placed the bottle on the counter be- hind him. “Trust me. You’re already going to have a heck of a hangover. No more alcohol. Now, for a com- mon reference, so there’s no confusion, what name are you dubbing your alleged killer?” She drew a deep breath, then straightened her shoul- ders as if she was about to head into battle. “The Ken- tucky Ripper.” Chapter Four Bryson froze, then slowly straightened. “That’s not funny.” Teagan’s eyes widened. “I’m not making a joke. I’m serious. The Ripper is the killer I’ve been researching.” “At least now I know why you asked Mason for me, specifically. Well, forget it. Rehashing past failures isn’t my idea of fun.” She held up her hands. The overhead lights winked off several gold rings. “Just hear me out. I’ve been researching this for a long time. I’m not here to cast blame. I’m here for your insight. And I’m here to ask a very important question.” She squeezed her hands together. “What if the guy they thought was the Rip- per is actually a copycat and the real serial killer is still at large?” He winced, then eyed his empty glass with long- ing. “If that’s true, then I screwed up even worse than I thought.” “Not at all. You didn’t make the mistakes during the Ripper investigation. The police did.” He tore his gaze from the shot glass. “Maybe I drank 28 Agent Under Siege too much tequila too because that one went right over my head. I’m lost, in spite of our common frame of reference.” “Then I’ll be happy to explain. First, profiles are tools, not biblical text.” He stared at her as his own words were thrown back at him. “Did Mason say that to you?” She frowned. “No. Why?” He shrugged. “Just wondering. Go on.” She crossed her arms on top of the island. “When your profile indicated that one of the two top suspects was the most likely killer, the police went after him with everything they had. Meanwhile, their other prime suspect was no longer under surveillance. He took advantage of their mistake to abduct and murder a woman. Instead of thinking of your profile as a di- vining rod, they should have stayed the course, kept their surveillance on both suspects until some evidence tipped the scales.” She motioned in the air as if waving away her words. “Regardless, my point is that, based on my research, I think your profile was spot-on. The first guy was the real Ripper. The guy they put in prison is a copycat. The police got sidetracked by the last mur- der and pursued that killer to the exclusion of everyone else. So, while there’s plenty of blame to go around for how everything turned out, none of it should have ever blown back on you.” He was going to filet Mason for giving this mis- guided, albeit beautiful woman his address. Her the- ories were bogus. Unfortunately, he could tell how vested she was in them and he didn’t want to destroy Lena Diaz 29 her confidence before her law enforcement career was even off the ground. Using his nonjudgmental teaching voice, the one he’d adopted while presenting guest lectures at Quan- tico, he explained, “For that theory to hold water, the first requirement would be that the Ripper is still ac- tive. But no other women have been tortured and bru- talized per his specific signature since he was put away. Explain how your theory addresses that.” “No other women that you know of.” “Fair enough. That I know of. But if new cases had popped up, I can’t imagine the media not making a connection even if the police didn’t. The Ripper case was bread and butter to them. It made for great ratings. If something that sensational happened again, they’d be all over it.” “The media in Kentucky, yes, absolutely. Other places, not necessarily. They don’t know about the original cases and wouldn’t realize there was a serial killer operating in the area.” “Maybe.” “Definitely,” she countered. He admired her confidence, even if she was dead wrong. “Why would the killer change locations?” “Because he’s smart. He knew he’d been given a tremendous opportunity, that a mentally disturbed fall guy had taken credit for his crimes and turned atten- tion away from him. He knew that if he killed again in the same area, the police would know right away that they’d caught a crazy guy bent on enjoying the spot- light and confessing to crimes he didn’t do. They’d be 30 Agent Under Siege back on the trail of the real Ripper, reassemble the task force. But stopping, not killing anymore, isn’t an op- tion either. Our psychopath is driven by an urge to kill that he can’t control. So in addition to changing loca- tions, he also changes his MO, his modus operandi, the way he kills.” He could see why Mason had found her compelling. She spoke with authority, like someone who’d had real- life experience with this sort of thing rather than just book knowledge. He decided to press her some more, see whether she’d backtrack and second-guess herself, or hold firm and defend her theory. “Don’t serial kill- ers always keep the same MO?” She gave him a wounded look that almost had him feeling guilty. “You’re treating me like a student, test- ing me, aren’t you? Pushing to see if I know what I’m talking about.” “Do you? Know what you’re talking about?” Her gaze dropped to the island. “Yes,” she whis- pered. “I do.” Her ragged tone put him on alert, had him studying her body language. The best indicator of honesty and genuine emotion as opposed to lies and bravado was how a person moved, how they spoke, not the words they used. Her body language told him that something else was at play here, something she wasn’t yet ready to say out loud, something that had dread curling in his chest. “You were talking about modus operandi.” She cleared her throat. “What I was saying is that serial killers don’t always maintain the same MO, their method, how they kill. Modus operandi is a conscious Lena Diaz 31 choice. They can change it if necessary. Like if a killer starts out tying his victims with shoelaces. If one of them manages to break a shoelace and escapes, the next time he abducts someone he’ll use handcuffs. Differ- ent MO, same killer.” “That’s a good way to explain it,” he allowed. “But I’d add that MO is more about what’s necessary, or what the killer feels is necessary, in order to carry out his crime. Outside of forensics, with no fingerprints or even DNA, what would convince you that some murders were done by the same killer if the MO had changed?” Again, he watched her closely, trying to decipher the subtext, the meaning beneath her words. “Signature. A serial killer, a true psychopath, is driven to kill. He can change parts of what he does, but the signature is an intrinsic part of his killing rit- ual. It’s the part of his crimes that he can’t change. Sig- nature is a subconscious action, something he doesn’t choose to do or not to do. It’s something he’s compelled to do.” She clasped her hands on top of the island. “Like the Ripper carving an across the abdomen of each of his victims after he abducts them. That’s his way of branding them, of letting them know that he… he owns them.” She wasn’t meeting his gaze anymore. Instead, she slowly traced the veining in the marble top of the is- land. Her stark words had his throat tightening as he carefully watched her, weighing every move, even the tone of her voice. “Signature is often a reliable means for linking crimes,” she continued. “But the police often confuse 32 Agent Under Siege MO with signature, or assume something is the signa- ture when it’s just another thing the killer does each time, but isn’t compelled to do. And even though it’s been documented many times that serial killers can and sometimes do change their victimology, go outside their comfort zone and choose a victim that doesn’t fit with their history, the police automatically think that means it’s a different killer. It’s not their fault. Most will never come across a serial killer case their entire career. They’re not equipped to evaluate the complexi- ties, dive deeper, weigh a killer’s thirst to kill versus his desire not to get caught. They don’t understand his willingness or ability to adapt.” “You’ve circled back to the Kentucky Ripper again.” He kept his voice gentle, encouraging her to finish what she came here to say, what she so obviously needed to say. And all the while he cursed Mason for sending her, for using her to get to him. “His original victimology included Caucasian women in their mid- to late thirties, married, with children. They all lived within the same fifty-square-mile geographical region in Eastern Kentucky. None of them worked outside the home.” She nodded. “Yes, but I’m saying he could have changed all of that. He could have moved to another state, gone after someone who was younger, single, without children. Someone who worked outside the home, even if only to take temporary odd jobs to make ends meet. Even if the signature was the same, most people in law enforcement would think it was an- other copycat, a one-off, since the alleged real guy is Lena Diaz 33 in prison. They wouldn’t realize what they’re dealing with, or even that they have a serial killer operating in their midst.” What he’d started to suspect just moments ago had solidified into a cold hard knot of dread that had him clenching his teeth so hard they ached. Holding on to the edge of the countertop to maintain his balance, he limped around the island until he was standing beside her. Then, keeping his voice as gentle as possible, he asked, “How old are you? Don’t give me a flippant answer either. I’m serious.” His question didn’t seem to surprise her. “Just turned twenty-six. My birthday was last month.” Younger than he’d thought. Her guesstimate of their age difference was off by several years. “You’re not Caucasian.” Her perfectly shaped brows rose. “Gee, what gave that away?” Her sarcasm did little to hide the underly- ing pain in her tone. “Mason didn’t mention where you’re from. I’m guessing it’s not Kentucky.” “Never even been to Kentucky. My home is in north- east Florida, Jacksonville.” Her bottom lip trembled. He tightened his grip on the island. “Single?” She nodded, her eyes over-bright, as if she was fight- ing back tears. “No kids?” She squeezed her eyes shut, then shook her head. “No kids.” “You take odd jobs to make ends meet while doing your investigation?” 34 Agent Under Siege She slowly nodded. “Show me,” he whispered, still praying that he was wrong, but just as certain that he wasn’t. Without hesitation, she gripped the hem of her blouse, then pulled it up to her chin. Angry puckered welts marred her skin, forming a five-by-five-inch X on her abdomen. His hands shook as he gently pulled her blouse back down. “When?” “Two years ago.” Pain leached from every word. “I was halfway through my master’s degree program. But I had to put it on hold until…until I recovered. But after that, I couldn’t focus, couldn’t even think about going back. The police had no leads, no suspects. They still don’t.” She shook her head. “That’s when I put my education to the test, began my own investigation. That folder I gave you is a year and a half of my life. My conclusion is that the man in prison known as the Kentucky Ripper killed one person, even though he claimed responsibility for many more. The real Rip- per changed locales and victimology.” She finally looked up, her tortured gaze meeting his. “I believe that I’m a victim from his second spree. There are probably others as well, cases no one has connected, including me. And more women will suf- fer and die if I don’t stop him. I’m also worried that I’m a loose end for him, that he’ll come back to finish what he started.” Her gaze searched his, as if looking for answers. “Please, Bryson. Help me find him and send him to prison. I don’t want to die.” The tears she’d Lena Diaz 35 been holding back spilled over and streamed down her cheeks. He swore and lifted her into his arms. Daring his hip to interfere, he cradled her against his chest and strode from the kitchen. Chapter Five Teagan rubbed her bleary eyes and rolled her head on the pillow. She was in Bryson Anton’s bedroom. In his bed. But he wasn’t there, and his side of the bed hadn’t been disturbed. She didn’t know whether to applaud his old-fashioned gentlemanly conduct or curse him for it. She sighed and threw the covers off her before shuffling to the open bedroom door. Bryson glanced up from the couch behind the cof- fee table, a stack of papers in his hand and more spread out across the wooden surface. She stretched her arms above her head as she pad- ded across the family room in her dress socks. She had no idea where her shoes and purse were. “Not to bruise your ego, but after you took me to bed, I don’t remember anything. Maybe we should have a redo so you can refresh my memory.” He gave her the side-eye. “Trust me. If I took you to bed, you’d remember.” She grinned. “I have a feeling you’re right.” He rolled his eyes. “You passed out in my arms, and Lena Diaz 37 I generously allowed you to use my bedroom to sleep it off. You’re a lightweight when it comes to alcohol.” “Won’t argue that.” She yawned and gestured to- ward the cup on the table beside him. “I don’t suppose that’s coffee?” In reply, he held the cup out to her. She took a huge gulp before handing it back to him. “I think I’m half in love with you.” “That’s the tequila talking. You’re still drunk.” “Can’t be. Had to have slept it off by now. How long was I out?” He glanced at his watch. “Seventeen minutes.” “Oh. Then I’m definitely still drunk. More please.” He handed her the mug without looking up. She shifted around to see what he was doing, then sat beside him, her thigh pressed to his. “Boundaries, Teagan.” He glanced pointedly at their legs, plastered together. She sighed and moved over, just enough so they weren’t touching. “You’re either married, have a girl- friend, or we play for the same team, because nothing I’m trying is working.” “Never married. My girlfriend dumped me months ago because hanging with a guy with a limp cramped her style. And, trust me, you and I are definitely not playing for the same team.” “What is it then? I haven’t struck out this many times since high school softball.” “Maybe you’re not my type.” “Pfft. Have you seen me? These legs go all the way up.” 38 Agent Under Siege He arched a brow. “We need to work on this low self-esteem of yours.” She laughed and shuffled through some of the pa- pers he’d spread out in front of him. When she real- ized what he was looking at, hope flared in her chest. “You’re reading my file?” He shrugged. “I was bored. I had seventeen min- utes to kill.” “Does this mean you’re going to help me?” “My history of helping people isn’t exactly stellar. I’m only committing to looking through your research to offer suggestions that you can take or leave. Maybe I can put a different spin on it so you can think in new directions. I wouldn’t get excited, if I were you. Like I said, I don’t have a great track record. This ruined hip is because I messed up a pit maneuver a rookie could have performed in his sleep. I managed to knock the killer’s vehicle into a ditch, but knocked myself silly in the process. Before I could even scramble for my gun, I’d been shot, shoved out the door, and the killer was taking off in my car with a hostage. The only reason the hostage survived is because one of my coworkers was able to rescue her after I nearly got her killed.” “I have a feeling there’s way more to it than that.” She started to pat his leg, then jerked her hand back at his reproachful look. “Have I mentioned that I’m a touchy-feely sort of person? I’ll try to behave.” She bit her lip. “You’re still going to help me, right?” He blew out a breath. “I thought you were acting earlier, that you were overcompensating.” “Sorry to disappoint. This is the real me.” Lena Diaz 39 “I didn’t say I was disappointed.” She stared at him, hoping he’d explain that com- ment. But instead, he turned back to the papers in front of him. After a few minutes, she said, “If you change your mind about you and me, and I miss a signal, just let me know, okay?” He let out a deep sigh and pinned her with an exas- perated look. “Teagan?” “Yes, Bryson?” “Shut up.” She grinned and scooted back on the couch to sit cross-legged while he reviewed her research. It was taking him far longer than she’d expected. The folder wasn’t that thick. She’d brought the summary, not the detailed reports. But he kept thumbing through the pages, comparing things, rereading. She was dying to know what he thought. She was also dying for an en- tirely different reason. She climbed off the couch. “Where’s the nearest toilet in this monstrosity? I’m about to pee my pants.” She hopped back and forth from one foot to the other. “Never mind, I’ll figure it out.” She ran into his mas- ter bedroom and chose door number one. “Found it!” she called back, before slamming it closed. Bryson stared at his bedroom doorway where Tea- gan the Tornado had just disappeared. He’d expected a different woman when she woke, figuring her earlier actions were a type of bravado, a coping mechanism because of what had happened to her. Then again, she hadn’t slept long enough to sober up. 40 Agent Under Siege He took his cell phone from one of the piles of paper on the coffee table, idly rubbing his aching hip as he re- luctantly pressed a programmed number that he should have deleted months ago. When the line clicked he said, “You’re trying to kill me.” “Delightful, isn’t she?” Mason chuckled. “You mean she’s always like this? There isn’t a cure?” “I’m not taking her back. If that’s what you want, I’m hanging up.” He turned his head, looking through the glass doors at the back of the kitchen. The creek was too low to see from here unless he stood. But the pilings holding the dock in place reached like spindly fingers toward the bright blue sky overhead, a reminder of his last conversation with Mason. Had it been only yesterday? “Bryson? You still there?” “I’m here. You mentioned when I was ready, that you’d throw me a line. Looks like I’m going to at least dip my toes in, whether I want to or not.” “She’s a hard person to say no to.” “Yes. She is.” “Whatever you need, it’s yours. Just name it.” Ma- son’s tone was all business now. “My files, all those boxes I foolishly—and against FBI policy—saved from the Ripper case with the Bu- reau. I asked you to store them along with other case files you archived for The Justice Seekers. Is it possible to get them sent here, when you have time?” “You’ll have them within the hour.” Teagan appeared in his bedroom doorway, look- Lena Diaz 41 ing slightly green and more than a little woozy as she gripped the doorframe. She really didn’t know how to hold her liquor, which for some reason he found ador- able. “Thanks, Mason.” “For the files?” He tightened his hand on the phone. “We’ll start with that, for now.” He hung up. Then he grabbed his cane and laboriously climbed to his feet. Teagan trudged toward him and stopped a few feet away, her hand clutching her stomach. Bryson had a feeling he was about to finally meet the real Teagan. She looked up at him, misery drawing tight lines at the corners of her eyes. “Did I really tell you I had to pee?” He smiled. Maybe he’d already met the real Teagan after all. “Come on. I’ll make you some fresh coffee and my special hangover blaster.” Chapter Six When Bryson had mentioned a hangover blaster, the name alone should have warned Teagan to just say no. But she had to admit, even sitting on his master bathroom floor with her head hanging over a toilet, that awful concoction had done the trick. Too bad that meant throwing up everything she’d eaten or drank for the past week. She shuddered and sat back. At least she could be grateful that the man was a neat freak. Either that or he hired really great cleaning people. His bathroom floor was spotless. She winced. Or it had been, until she’d come along. With her tummy finally settling, she pushed herself to her feet and then wobbled to the sink. After rinsing her mouth out with some mouthwash that she’d found in a cabinet and brushing her teeth with her finger and a dab of toothpaste, she felt almost human again. She washed her face, made sure her stub- born hair hadn’t escaped its braid, then did a quick re- fresh of the bathroom. The sound of voices engaged in conversation had her hurrying through the master bedroom and opening the door. Lena Diaz 43 The front double door was wide open. Bryson was in his wheelchair directing a man with a hand truck full of bankers boxes toward a hallway that ran across the back of the house. Careful not to get in the way, she plopped down cross-legged on a leather padded bench just outside the bedroom and waited. By the time the man was finished and Bryson locked the door behind him, she’d counted over a dozen boxes. He wheeled his chair up to her. “Feeling better?” “Much. Although I’m not sure whether the cure is worse than the hangover.” She motioned toward his chair. “I see you ran out of tequila and traded in the cane.” “My liver cried uncle for the day.” “If you strip, I’d be happy to play Helga and mas- sage your hip for you.” She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “Helga?” “The masseuse from this morning. What I lack in professional training I’d more than make up for with enthusiasm.” He coughed as if to cover a laugh. “Yes, well. I ap- preciate the offer but another massage isn’t going to do the trick at this point. The hip gives out once the mus- cles get overworked and won’t support me anymore.” “Are you doing physical therapy?” “Let me guess. You can help me with that too?” “If I’d known I’d meet you one day, I would have changed majors in college so I could say yes.” This time he laughed out loud. “Let me worry about the therapy, or lack thereof.” He waved toward the back 44 Agent Under Siege hallway. “Go on. Ask me about the boxes. I can tell that your curiosity is eating you alive.” She frowned. “Your earlier theory about your girl- friend dumping you because of your limp probably isn’t right. I think she left you because you’re always profiling people and reading their minds. Okay, yes, the curiosity is driving me batty. What’s in the boxes?” “I don’t read minds. Profiling, or more accurately, Criminal Investigative Analysis, is science, not art. Although some might argue it’s both. And the answer to your question is that the boxes contain my research on the Kentucky Ripper. I was fresh out of polka-dot folders.” “All you had to do was ask. I could have let you borrow some of mine.” She waved toward the cased opening where he’d directed the man with the hand truck. “Did the FBI send over copies of their research on the case?” “The FBI doesn’t allow former agents access to their case files. Those are copies I made of everything that passed my desk back when I worked on the investi- gation. Well, more accurately, when I worked on the profile. Technically, I wasn’t an investigator. But the case consumed me and left me with more questions than answers, even after the killer was convicted. I re- ligiously copied as much as I could and snuck it home every chance I got. From start to finish, the case took two years. Those copies added up.” She put her hands on her hips. “I knew it. You don’t think the right guy was put away or you wouldn’t have Lena Diaz 45 risked your career taking that stuff home. Admit it. My theory holds water.” “I admit nothing. But I’m willing to take a fresh look, which is why I had this stuff brought out of stor- age.” He motioned toward the doorway at the end of the room. “Come on. Might as well give you a tour of this monstrosity and show you where those boxes went.” “That monstrosity comment I made earlier was under duress. I didn’t mean it.” “Yes, you did. And I don’t take offense. It is a rather large house, too big for one person. But it met my re- quirements when I was house shopping.” “Let me guess. Requirement number one, no car- pet, for easier mobility with the cane and wheelchair?” “Anyone could have guessed that.” “Requirement number two,” she said. “It’s only one story. You’re not ready to tackle stairs just yet.” “Again, too easy. What about the third require- ment?” She shook her head. “Stumped on that one.” “The isolated location so people wouldn’t bother me.” He arched a brow at her. She winced. “Ah, well. Two out of three isn’t bad. That’s sixty-six percent, still a passing grade, in high school at least.” “Somehow I can’t imagine you ever being satisfied with anything less than an A. You were valedictorian, weren’t you?” “Takes one to know one?” He smiled. “Come on. You’ve already seen the kitchen, family room, and made yourself completely at home in 46 Agent Under Siege my master bedroom and bathroom.” He waved toward two more doors on the far right wall. “Closet and half bath.” “I was so close earlier. Didn’t realize there was a half bath over there.” “At least you made it to a bathroom. Can’t complain about that.” He wheeled his chair toward the back of the room. She fell in step beside him. “What is this floor made out of? I can’t figure it out.” He leaned over the side of the chair as if noticing the floor for the first time. “Beats me. Came with the house. Come on, right turn, obviously, since the hall starts here.” Along the way, he pointed out the various rooms but didn’t stop until they reached the far end. “He motioned toward the door in front of them. This leads—” “Let me guess. Man cave?” “Home office.” “Oh. Kind of anticlimactic after walking all this way.” “It wasn’t that far.” She gave him a droll look. “Says the man who rolled all the way here. I’ve already gotten my ten thousand steps for the day. And that’s just since I walked out of your bedroom.” “Do you want to see the coolest part of the house or not?” “Coolest? Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man cool or Keanu Reeves in John Wick kind of cool?” “More like Bruce Willis in anything kind of cool.” Lena Diaz 47 She grinned and they fist-bumped. “Then my an- swer is most definitely yes.” He shoved the door open. Then he moved back and motioned her forward. “After you.” The excitement on his face had her expecting some- thing amazing when she stepped inside the room. She wasn’t disappointed. Chapter Seven Bryson rolled into his office behind Teagan and did something he rarely did these days. He simply enjoyed the moment. He didn’t worry about his aching hip or rehash the would haves, could haves, should haves of his life. Instead, he basked in the sheer joy on her face as she turned in slow circles, taking it all in. There was a lot to take in. The expansive room was a microcosm of the house itself, fully contained with a kitchenette in one corner, a bathroom, a bedroom intended for those all-nighters if he needed a quick nap before heading back into the main room to continue his work. On the left side was the library. Floor-to-ceiling cherrywood bookshelves were filled with all kinds of law enforcement textbooks on topics like foren- sics, crime scene analysis, and profiling. Past the li- brary, nearly every inch of wall space was adorned with matching cherrywood cabinets, drawers and open shelving. Storage would never be a problem here. The boxes that Mason had sent over were neatly stacked beside some of those storage cabinets. Something for Lena Diaz 49 him to tackle later, after everything was scanned elec- tronically. That was the real beauty of this room—the technology. A large round stone table in the middle of the room was control central for the massive daisy-chained moni- tors that took up most of the opposite wall. From that table, he could bring up reports or photographs or even the internet and display the information on any indi- vidual monitor, or slide it across all of them to form one picture. It was a profiler’s dream, to be able to have everything at his fingertips at one time so he could make comparisons and see the entire case at a glance. Too bad he’d never actually used the darn thing on a case. Teagan had made a full circuit of the room, open- ing doors and checking behind them, looking into the storage cabinets. But she surprised him by returning to the library, rather than the round table. She traced her hands almost reverently across the books, like a beau- tiful butterfly, flitting from tome to tome. When she finally turned around, she motioned toward the two leather wing chairs and circular rug that completed the library effect. “This is amazing. You have books I’ve only dreamed of reading, rare ones that my college couldn’t even get their hands on when I tried borrowing them through our library system. Two of the books have your name on them. I didn’t know you’d authored any texts.” “Neither do most people,” he said dryly. “My pub- lisher lost a fortune on those.” “Then they don’t deserve to be your publisher. They 50 Agent Under Siege obviously don’t know how to market your work or it would have sold a gazillion books.” “Are you one of the six people who bought a copy? Is that how you know they’re amazing?” She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating.” “Not by much, unfortunately.” “Well, based on your reputation in the field, I’d love to become reader number seven, if you’ll let me bor- row them.” “You can have them. I’ve got plenty more. What about the rest of the room? You don’t seem as impressed as I’d hoped. My ego’s a bit deflated. I thought you’d run straight to the table and start salivating.” “I would have, if it wasn’t for your library. I’m a book lover, through and through. But the entire room is incredible.” She strode to the table and ran her fin- gers across it. “You must have enjoyed being a Jus- tice Seeker more than you’ve let on. This is fit for the knights of the round table, just like the one that Mason told me that you all have in some super-secret hidden room at The Justice Seekers’ home base.” “Almost. It’s not quite as large as his since I don’t have twelve Seekers, or so-called knights, to fill it up. But I admit I enjoyed his flair for the medieval and the fun of the whole Camelot concept, so I stole some of that for myself. I converted an existing study and two bedrooms into this office with the intention of using it to work from home while recuperating from being shot. But the recovery has been slower than I’d expected, and I ended up with way too much time to Lena Diaz 51 think about my failures. Resigning seemed like the reasonable thing to do.” “Wait. Are you saying that you’ve never used this office, or great hall, if you call it that like Mason does? Once it was finished, it just sat here unused?” “I don’t call it a great hall. It’s got the stone floors, walls and table, but nothing else that resembles a castle like Mason’s does. And, yes, you’re absolutely right. I can’t remember the last time I’ve traipsed across the house to this room. If it wasn’t for the cleaning com- pany that comes in once a week, there’d be cobwebs and dust all over the place.” “Wow. If I’d known that, I’d have snuck in through a back window and claimed squatters’ rights long ago. I could happily live here for weeks and not come up for air.” She lowered herself into one of the cushy leather chairs at the round table. “Ahhh. World class. You have great taste.” She waved toward the monitors. “Feel free to feed your ego by giving me a demonstration. How big are those screens anyway? Six or seven feet tall?” He rolled one of the other leather chairs out of the way and positioned his wheelchair beside her. “Each one is six feet by three feet. I wanted twelve, to keep with the Camelot theme. But it seemed like overkill and would have restricted the space too much, so I settled on nine. They work together as one monitor if I want, or I can load something different on each one. That’s the real benefit, being able to put up information about different crimes on each screen and compare them. I can use a computer tablet at the table to select which 52 Agent Under Siege screen I want and use a light pen to draw circles around different items or highlight them, edit them, whatever.” “Definitely cool. Can I drive?” She held out her hand. “Give me the reins. Let’s do this.” Instead of popping up one of the computer tablets from a hidden compartment in the table, he adjusted his chair to face her and took her hands in his. Her eyes widened and a slow grin spread across her face. “Don’t,” he said. “Whatever sexy, funny, or smart- ass comment you’re about to make about me holding your hands, just wait. I need to have a serious conver- sation with you. Can you focus for a few minutes with- out any wisecracks?” A look of wariness crossed her face. “Why do I feel like I’m about to be sent to the principal’s office?” He sighed and let her go. “Okay, okay.” She grabbed his hands with both of hers. “No jokes, no tangents. I’m listening.” He arched a brow, not sure whether or not to be- lieve her. “Really,” she said. “I can be serious when I need to. Go on. What is it?” “I just want you to be sure that you know what you’re getting into before we go any further. You’ve been like a whirlwind, blowing into my life. I met you, what, a few hours ago? And somehow you’ve managed to make me excited about working again. That’s why I brought you to this room, to show you the tools we’ve got at our disposal so we can work together, if that’s truly what you want to do.” Lena Diaz 53 “Are you kidding? It’s all I’ve wanted since I first came across the Ripper case and saw your contribu- tions to the investigation. I want to work with you to catch the Ripper before—” “We’re not going to work on the Ripper case.” She blinked. “My turn to be confused.” He gently entwined their fingers, trying to convey that he was there for her if she needed his support. “I’m going to hire a temp to scan in and catalog the data in those boxes. That will take several days, maybe even a week. In the meantime, the only case that I’ve had a chance to scan is yours. While you were recovering from your tequila binge, I used the scanner in my study to process your folder. That’s what I want to bring up on these screens. But there’s a world of difference be- tween looking at something on an eight-by-ten sheet of paper, and seeing it on a six-foot-tall screen. A lot of this stuff is deeply personal. Are you sure you can handle it?” “I don’t understand your concerns. I put that folder together. I know what’s in it. I want you to see it, to review it with me.” “Your descriptions of the most recent attack that you allege was made by the Ripper didn’t mention you by name. That’s quite telling. And there’s far more de- tail to what happened to you than what you had in that folder. A lot more. We have to review all of the infor- mation, not just some of it, if we have a chance at solv- ing this thing.” “Well of course there’s more, all the detailed re- 54 Agent Under Siege ports that support the summaries I wrote. I didn’t bring those with me.” “That’s not what I mean. There are other details, things you didn’t reference even at a high level in your summaries.” “Like what?” He squeezed her hands before letting go. Then he pushed down on top of the table in front of him and the section flipped over to reveal a computer tablet. He typed some commands into the control program, then pressed enter. Teagan looked up at the screens. Her eyes widened and she put a hand over her mouth before turning away. “Where did you get those?” she whispered. He tapped the tablet and the screens went dark. “I still have a few contacts in law enforcement.” She crossed her arms over her middle. “Well, they shouldn’t have shared my hospital photos with you. They’re—” “Too personal? None of my business?” She flinched and dropped her gaze. He rolled back from the table. “Come on. It’s okay. Forget all this. You’re not ready.” “Wait. Just…give me a minute to catch my breath, okay? I can handle it. Really.” “Teagan. There’s no reason for you to have to catch your breath, to handle it. You lived through the ab- duction, the torture, once already. You shouldn’t have to do that again, reopen old wounds. Leave the inves- tigation to me. Maybe because I admire your spunk, or maybe just because I’m ready to jump back in the Lena Diaz 55 game and didn’t realize it until now. Regardless of the reason, I want to do this. But the only way I can is by going through every piece of data surrounding your ab- duction, everything that happened to you. Everything. It’s the only way to make sure nothing was missed, that every possible clue has been considered. Mean- while, you can go back to Florida, get on with your life. When I have something to report, I’ll contact you.” He wheeled to the door and held it open for her. “Come on. We’re done here.” Chapter Eight When Teagan crossed her arms and gave him a muti- nous stare, Bryson sighed and let the office door close. She’d made no move toward the doorway. She wasn’t backing down without a fight. But neither was he. “Tea- gan, we should—” “You caught me off guard. That’s all. I didn’t ex- pect to see…those pictures, okay? You should have warned me.” “If I’d warned you, I might not have received an honest reaction. You would have covered up your true emotions, or at least tried, with false bravado. Now I know the truth. This is all still too raw for you to be in- volved in the investigation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Victims don’t typically work on their own cases, for good reason.” “I’m not a victim,” she snapped. “I’m a survivor.” “Fair enough. That doesn’t change anything that I said.” She waved toward the stacks of boxes. “Why can’t we start with these? I already know the man who at- tacked me is the real Kentucky Ripper, not Leviathan Lena Diaz 57 Finney, the guy in prison. There’s no reason to review every nitty-gritty detail about what happened to me. We’re past that. We know who did it, that first guy you profiled back in Kentucky, the one the police let get away, Avarice Lowe.” “Did you tell the detectives on your case that you believed Lowe was the one who’d abducted you?” “Yes. I did.” “And? Let me guess. They did a cursory look at him and either couldn’t locate him at all or said he had an alibi. And they went no further than that.” “They couldn’t find him. But they didn’t try very hard.” “Why do you suppose that is?” She threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know. Prob- ably because they’re lazy and wanted to work on eas- ier cases.” He wheeled over in front of her. “Can you think of another reason? Come on. Set aside emotion and use that valedictorian mind of yours.” She gave him another mutinous look. “They don’t believe Lowe is the Ripper and had no evidence to tie him to my case. But that’s because they refused to lis- ten.” “Detectives, good ones at least, follow the evidence. The only reason you feel that the Ripper is the one who abducted you is because the man who hurt you carved that X on your abdomen. Everything else about your case is different, including the fact that you survived.” “Then let’s go through your case files and find more similarities. That’s why you brought them here.” 58 Agent Under Siege He shook his head. “I brought them here to review after I review your case, and then, only if we decide the two cases are connected, or highly likely con- nected. What happens if we do it your way, spend all our time on the Ripper case, and discover that you’re wrong? We’ve wasted weeks, or longer by that time going through all of the Ripper’s cases. We’d be starting over at ground zero without having made any progress figuring out who attacked you. If you truly want my help in finding out who hurt you, I’m all in. But I have to do it my way. I follow the evidence. And that means, starting at the beginning, with what happened to you.” She stared at the stacks of boxes for a long mo- ment. When she finally met his gaze, naked pain ra- diated back at him. “I spent over a year and a half on this to find the man who hurt me. I don’t want to start over. I can’t.” Disappointment shot through him, but he forced a smile. “Then don’t. Keep doing what you’re doing. Fol- low the leads where you believe they’ll take you.” “Without you.” He nodded. “Without me.” “Bryson’s way or the highway, is that it?” He hated the hurt in her voice. He especially hated that he was at least partly the cause. But it would be far worse if he gave in, if he went against everything he’d learned as a Justice Seeker in how to run inves- tigations as well as his profiling experience with the FBI. She’d managed to awaken a hunger in him for justice again, a desire to right the wrongs of his past and prove he was better than the mistakes he’d made. Lena Diaz 59 Starting out by making another mistake wasn’t how he’d atone for his sins. Steeling himself against the censure and sense of betrayal in her beautiful brown eyes, he responded to her accusation. “Bryson’s way was to enjoy his hermit- like existence and never talk to another human being again. I was perfectly happy here all by myself until you showed up. So don’t act like I’m suddenly pushing you to do something that I want you to do. You came here for my help. I was willing to help you the only way I know how, by using my training and experience and following the right steps from beginning to end to build a profile. I would have gathered as much evidence along the way as I could. Then, I would have worked with the police to get them moving on it. None of that is sexy or flashy. It’s a heck of a lot of work. But that’s the way it’s done. Period. And you said you can’t do that, which means we’re done. Follow your own path and I’ll follow mine. There’s a creek full of fish in my backyard. Maybe I’ll get a pole and cast a line. There are worse ways to spend my time. Go home. I mean it. I wish you the best, I truly do. But when I come back inside, I want you gone.” He wheeled out of the room and a few minutes later he was on the dock, nursing a can of beer as if the twenty-four hours since Mason’s visit had never hap- pened. But as he listened to the creek splashing over the rocks and watched the cars far below that seemed like toys from this distance, he realized that everything had changed. There was no going back. Mason had started a quiet rumble inside him. Teagan had built that rum- 60 Agent Under Siege ble into an earthquake that had rocked him from his complacency. She’d reminded him of the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, and the rea- son he’d gone into his line of work to begin with—to help people. But just as he hadn’t helped Hayley when he’d gotten shot, he hadn’t helped Teagan. He swore and crumpled the now-empty can in his hand. He’d been far too rough on her. Every word he’d said had been true, his truth at least. But she obviously wasn’t ready for that kind of honesty. She wasn’t one of his peers, a hardened or jaded agent who he could talk to without guarding his words. She was a victim, a survivor. She deserved nothing but respect and kind- ness as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened to her. If going after the Ripper was her way of coping, then who was he to stand in her way? He should have encouraged her. Instead, he’d lectured her on the “right” way to conduct an investigation. The distant sound of her car starting up in his drive- way had his shoulders slumping in disappointment. Not with her. With himself. She’d probably head back to her hotel room, or wherever she was staying, and continue her research like a hamster on a wheel never getting where they truly wanted to go. She needed guidance from someone willing to pursue the angle she wanted to pursue, not the angle that Bryson had insisted was the right place to start. So how could he help her? It all boiled down to contacts. He’d joked earlier that he still had a few contacts in law enforcement. In reality, he had far more than a few. After all, he’d only gone on hiatus as a Justice Seeker Lena Diaz 61 six months ago. Before that, with his combined years as a Seeker and an FBI special agent, he’d worked with hundreds, maybe thousands of peers in his field. Many of them had become close friends that he still had to this day. Maybe, just maybe, he could give Teagan what she wanted—someone to talk to who’d worked on the Ripper cases. He pulled out his cell phone and placed a call to Special Agent Pierce Buchanan. There was the usual small talk, asking about Pierce, his wife, Madison, and their toddler, Nicole. That was followed by some grov- eling and apologizing for Bryson having refused the couple’s many requests to let them visit him after the shooting. But they worked out an agreement. In ex- change for Pierce contacting Teagan and offering her an insider’s view of the Ripper murders, Bryson would fly to Pierce’s home in Savannah for a long weekend later this summer. Bryson wasn’t sure if he was the winner or loser in that negotiation. Three of Pierce’s four brothers and his father were in law enforcement. They’d likely show up and grill him about every detail of the shooting and its aftermath. After ending that call, he made one more. To the airport. Chapter Nine Death and its close cousin, extreme violence, had walked this meandering path before. They’d held hands in the dark shadows beneath these towering live oaks. They’d carefully avoided the bulging tree roots that lifted and cracked the concrete, quietly stalking their prey. Here, in the near-darkness where thick branches and leaves blotted out the hot Florida sun overhead, they’d crouched in this ten-foot-wide space lined on both sides by six-foot-tall wooden fences. The fences were supposed to ensure the privacy of the homeown- ers whose properties backed onto the nature trail in The Woods subdivision while joggers and walkers enjoyed these paths. But two years ago, these same fences had protected and concealed evil. This was where Teagan Ray had been attacked, bru- talized and then abducted. There were theories that extreme violence, whether or not it ended in death, left an indelible mark on a place. It tainted the soil, the trees, even the air with its negative energy and could be felt for years afterward. Standing here now with a sense of dread and oppres- Lena Diaz 63 siveness weighing down on him, Bryson was more in- clined to believe those theories than to dispel them. Because it wasn’t the GPS coordinates that had made him stop when he’d reached this spot. It was an over- whelming feeling of doom. He shook his head at those thoughts. It was more sci- entific than that. He’d stopped here because he’d tried to mentally place himself in the role of a man stalking prey. This is where he’d have lain in wait for a poten- tial victim. It was a particularly dark spot, with thick overgrown bushes providing the perfect cover. And over two years ago, unfortunately, Teagan was the one who’d happened through here at just the wrong time. And she’d paid for that dearly. After the initial attack, the belief was that she’d been drugged. Still able to walk with assistance, but not co- herent enough to fight back or even understand what was happening to her, she was led by her abductor to wherever he’d parked his vehicle. Or, at least, that was the theory. There weren’t any witnesses to fill in those details. Her first lucid memories, after the attack on the path, were that she was blindfolded and tied up in the shack where he’d taken her. Two weeks later, when he’d left on one of his so-called supply trips that he took every few days, she’d miraculously escaped. But she’d got- ten lost in the wilds of the Florida backcountry for days. By the time a hiker had found her, she was dehy- drated and sunburned and half out of her mind. Once she’d recovered enough in the hospital to explain that she’d escaped a kidnapper, over two days had passed. 64 Agent Under Siege The police used scent dogs to backtrack to the shack where she’d been held. Turns out she’d been about an hour and a half from her hometown of Jacksonville, deep in the woods outside of Live Oak, near the Su- wannee River. But the abductor wasn’t there, and he never came back after that. The owner of the shack was cleared. Not because Teagan couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. She couldn’t pick anyone out of a lineup. She’d been drugged, blind- folded, deprived of water and food. Her abductor had kept the shack mostly dark, with room-darkening drapes and few sources of light. He’d told her from the beginning that he planned to kill her. But until then, he was super careful, obviously in case she somehow escaped, which she did. Because of his extreme care to conceal his identity, she’d told the police she could probably pass him on the street and would never know it. That was likely one of the reasons she had put her education and the rest of her life on hold to try to find the man who’d attacked her. Knowing he was in prison and could never hurt her again would no doubt be the only way she could ever live without the fear of him finding her again, and finishing what he’d started. Too bad her abductor hadn’t been the owner of the shack. That would have made everything neat and tidy and it would all be over by now. But the owner lived in Canada, where he went to work every day and had plenty of people to vouch for that. The shack was where he stayed two or three times a year when he came down Lena Diaz 65 to work at clearing the land around it in preparation for building the retirement cabin he dreamed about. Bryson made some notes on the police report, mark- ing things on the map of the trail that he’d noticed today. Then he tucked the report into his jacket pocket and took one last look around. He intended to walk all of the paths in this community today if his hip could handle it, or use his wheelchair if he had to, which seemed likely by how badly his hip was already throb- bing. He wanted to see whether there were other good ambush spots on other trails. If so, then maybe some- one with homes backing up on those paths might have spotted a man walking the trails back then, choosing his ultimate hiding place. There could be some wit- nesses who didn’t even realize they’d seen something important. There were 4.1 miles of nature walks and trails in this community, according to its website. Other sta- tistics that he’d gleaned about The Woods were that it had 811 homes and 18 man-made ponds. It boasted a so-called natural setting, thus the name. From his per- spective, that meant there were a heck of a lot of trees and overgrown bushes, providing great hiding places for would-be attackers. But because the community was gated, the residents had been lulled into thinking they were safe. Maybe that explained why Teagan had thought noth- ing of walking through this overgrown, dark, far less traveled section of the trails as the sun was going down. Her parents lived just a few streets away, and she’d been home from college on a visit. Having grown up 66 Agent Under Siege here without any major crime incidents in an upper- middle-class area that was generally considered safe, she had felt there was nothing to worry about. In a perfect world, there shouldn’t have been. But unfor- tunately, there were some very bad people sharing the same air as the rest of them, and Teagan had the mis- fortune of coming across one. Wrong place, wrong time. Or did that really explain it? Could the attacker have been after her specifically? That was one of the questions Bryson needed to an- swer. The assumption all along in the police reports, and by Teagan and her parents as well, had been that she was a randomly chosen victim. There wasn’t any evidence to the contrary. But Bryson wasn’t the type to assume anything. A low growl had him turning around, leaning on his cane with one hand as he flipped back his jacket with the other to grab the pistol holstered on his hip. But he didn’t pull his weapon. Instead, he let his jacket fall back into place and rested both of his hands on the cane to steady himself as he glanced from the impres- sive, still-growling German shepherd to the gorgeous young woman holding its leash. Teagan. The accusation that she might have somehow gotten Pierce to tell her where he was and then followed him to Jacksonville died on his lips unspoken. She hadn’t expected to see him here. It was evident by her wide eyes and the way her left hand was pressed against her throat. Lena Diaz 67 “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “I thought you’d be in Savannah by now.” His accusatory tone did exactly what he’d intended. It gave her something to focus on instead of the fright from seeing a man stand- ing in the shadows where she’d once been attacked. She dropped her hand and gave the dog a command that had him sitting on his haunches. His tongue lolled out as if he hadn’t been poised to rip out Bryson’s throat seconds earlier. “Why would I be in Savannah?” She sounded genu- inely confused. It was his turn to be surprised. “Didn’t you get a call? From FBI special agent Pierce Buchanan?” She shook her head. “No. But I haven’t checked my messages since leaving your place yesterday. My phone number listed in the folder I gave you is a landline at my apartment. It’s not one that I share with many peo- ple. And it’s not registered under my name.” The truth sent a wave of anger and sympathy straight through him. “You carry a burner phone, don’t you? You’re worried that your attacker might trace you.” Her gaze was her answer, darting toward the fences on either side of the path and the thick trees and bushes blocking the view of anyone behind them. He won- dered why the homeowners association hadn’t voted to clear out these dangerous hiding places, especially after what had happened to Teagan. But mostly, he wondered why she was here. He took a step forward, hesitating when her dog emitted another threatening growl. “Zeus, stop.” She shook the leash and the dog qui- 68 Agent Under Siege eted, but his dark eyes followed Bryson’s every move. “Why would an FBI agent be looking for me?” Her eyes widened again. “Have they found something? In Savannah? Oh no. Someone else wasn’t attacked, were they?” Ignoring the new round of growls from her dog, he limped toward her, stopping just out of lunging dis- tance. “No. I’m not aware of any more attacks linked to the man who hurt you. Pierce is a good friend of mine who lives in Savannah. Because of his experi- ence with serial killer cases, he ended up assisting on the task force in Kentucky. We worked the Ripper case together. After you left yesterday—” “After you threw me out, you mean,” she accused. “I thought you Justice Seekers were supposed to be honorable and help people in need.” He smiled, pleased to see a return of the sassy con- fident woman he’d met in Gatlinburg. “Yes, well. I was on hiatus from the Seekers at the time. So you weren’t officially my client. But I did want to help you. So after I threw you out, I called Pierce and asked him to give you an insider’s reading of the Ripper cases and to an- swer any questions that you had.” Her brows crinkled in confusion. “Why would you do that? You told me that looking into the Ripper case was the wrong approach.” He started to move closer, but Zeus stood up, his ears flattening. Shooting her dog to defend himself was the last thing he wanted to do, so he took a step back. “I’m glad you have Zeus with you, for protection,” he told her. “That’s smart.” Lena Diaz 69 She winced and looked away. Understanding had him filled with regret. “I wasn’t trying to say that you shouldn’t have been out here without him that first time.” When she didn’t answer, he leaned to the side, trying to get her to look at him. “Teagan?” She sighed and met his gaze. “What?” “It wasn’t your fault.” He waved his hands along the path. “None of this is your fault. A woman should be able to dance naked through the streets without wor- rying about some Neanderthal attacking her. It’s never the victim’s fault. The only person to blame is the mon- ster who hurt you.” A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “You sound like my parents.” Now it was his turn to wince. “Ouch.” She laughed, then winked, looking more like her old self again. “Don’t worry. There’s exactly zero chance of me confusing Hot Guy with my parents.” “Good to know. I think. Assuming I’m Hot Guy?” She grinned. “Definitely.” Her smile dimmed, and some of her earlier uneasiness had her glancing around again. “I’m staying with my parents for a few days. And like I do every time I see them, I walk this trail. Not because I want to go…where it happened…some sur- vivor’s weird hang-up or something. But because it’s the same routine I had before the attack. I’ve walked these trails almost daily since I was a little girl. And I refuse to change that because of…because of what happened. He took so much from me. It might seem silly, but letting him take away my joy of nature and 70 Agent Under Siege long walks would be letting him win.” She patted the dog beside her. “My only concession now is to bring my mom’s dog Zeus and Annie along.” The dog seemed to be licking his lips in anticipa- tion of sinking its teeth into his hide—if dogs had lips. “Wait. Annie? Who’s Annie?” She slid her hand into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a compact .22-caliber pistol. “Meet Annie.” “Let me guess. After Annie Oakley?” Her gorgeous smile made another appearance. “Very good, Sherlock. Maybe you should be an FBI agent.” She shoved it back into her pocket. “Been there, done that.” He gestured toward her pocket. “Should I ask for your concealed carry permit?” “That depends. Did you become a police officer since the last time we met?” “Touché. Don’t worry. Your secret’s safe with me. I won’t call any of my JSO contacts to tell them about Annie.” “Is that how you got past the gates? Someone from the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office told the guard to let you through?” “Actually, I got in the old-fashioned way.” “The old-fashioned way?” “Ben Franklin. A bribe.” He’d expected a laugh. Instead, her face turned ashen. “Teagan? Are you okay?” Risking the wrath of Zeus, he leaned toward her. Predictably, the dog barked and pulled against the leash trying to reach him. Lena Diaz 71 She frowned and yanked him back. “Zeus, enough. Friend. He’s a friend.” She motioned toward Bryson. “Hold your hand out for him to sniff, palm down.” “You’re kidding, right?” “No. I’m serious. Let him smell you.” She slipped her hand under the back of the dog’s collar. “Friend, Zeus. Friend.” Telling himself he was an idiot, he did as she’d asked, holding his hand out. Zeus snuffled his hand for a good ten seconds, then his tongue lolled out and he gave it a long sloppy lick before sitting back on his haunches. Bryson made a face at the saliva on his hand, then looked up in time to see Teagan trying to hide a grin. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You did that on purpose.” “Yeah, well. It’s kind of funny, seeing you dressed up in a business suit with dog slobber all over your hand.” After a quick glance at Zeus, who seemed far more interested in a butterfly flitting around a nearby bush now that he’d supposedly accepted Bryson as a non- threat, he reached out and wiped his hand on Teagan’s shirt. She gasped in dismay at the wet stain on her for- merly white blouse. “I can’t believe you did that.” “We’re even now. Don’t go planning your revenge.” “Hmm. We’ll see about that.” She glanced around again. “You said you bribed the guard at the gate to let you in? You didn’t show him some kind of old FBI credentials or anything like that?” 72 Agent Under Siege Now he understood why she’d paled earlier. “You’re surprised at how easy it was for someone who doesn’t live here to get in. Is that it?” She nodded. “Not that I should be surprised. After all, the police ruled out the suspect as living in the community. They supposedly researched every single resident. We knew he had to have come from outside somehow. I just didn’t think it would be that easy to drive on in.” “Yeah, well. It’s not like you have to be a former cop to be a security guard. Pretty much anyone can be one. And they aren’t paid enough to make them above re- proach, some of them anyway. I’m sure most are great people and genuinely try to do a good job.” She snorted. “Now you’re pandering, trying to make me feel better. I preferred it when you were being bru- tally honest.” “Brutal? Ouch again.” “If the truth fits.” She shrugged, then winked as if to soften her criticisms. “This isn’t going at all the way I’d planned when I flew down here late last night.” “You thought I was in Georgia. You didn’t plan on running into me.” “No. I didn’t. But now that I have, I’m wondering why I did. After being so intent on finding information on the Ripper, why would you come back to Jackson- ville? Are you taking a break from the investigation? Returning to school to finish your master’s?” She straightened her shoulders. “No break. I’m digging Lena Diaz 73 in harder than before. And I’m taking your advice. I’m starting at the beginning. And this—” she waved her hand toward the trees and bushes around them “—is where it all began.” Chapter Ten The look on Bryson’s face had Teagan stiffening. “Why are you so surprised? I went to you for help and advice because I respected your experience and expertise. Did you think I’d completely ignore your suggestions?” He nodded, surprising her with his honesty. “I as- sumed anyone stubborn enough to work past my an- noyance over the mistaken identity thing and then pretend they liked tequila enough to make themselves sick would be far too one-track minded to give up over a year of research to essentially start over.” “Yeah, well. Maybe you shouldn’t judge people so fast when you meet them.” His mouth quirked up in that sexy half-smile that had her practically drooling again just like the first time she’d seen him. Good grief he was dangerous, the kind of danger that had her wishing she’d worn shorts instead of jeans. She was actually sweating now, and it couldn’t be more than eighty degrees. A mild spring day around here. “Looks like my profiling skills are even dustier than I’d realized,” he said. “My apologies for making as- Lena Diaz 75 sumptions.” He shifted on his feet, and she didn’t miss the telltale wince as he rested both hands on the top of his cane. “Your hip is bothering you.” “Are you playing Watson to my Sherlock now?” “Oh heck no. I’ll never be the sidekick. If anything, I’m Wonder Woman and you’re Steve Trevor.” “Doesn’t he die in the end?” “Everyone dies in the end.” His grin faded. “I didn’t mean to bring up bad mem- ories again.” She shook her head. “Trust me. You didn’t. They’re always there, in the back of my mind. That’s why I’m doing this investigation. When I escaped that day, I got out of the shack. But I didn’t escape him. He’s still out there. Until he’s put away for good, I’ll never be able to move on. Not really.” He sighed heavily. “I was worried that might be a big part of this for you. What happens if you never find him?” Zeus whined beside her and she realized she was unconsciously tugging his leash, transmitting her agi- tation to him. She forced her hand to relax and rubbed his head. “That’s a problem for future Teagan to worry about. Right now, I’m on the case, determined to do everything I can to bring this guy to justice. The real question is, now that we’re both committed to this en- deavor, do we work on it together or go our separate ways again?” He subtly shifted, resting his back against one of the live oaks lining the path. This was the longest that she’d 76 Agent Under Siege seen him standing without giving in to his wheelchair, and he’d been out here before she’d arrived. He had to be about ready to collapse. “How about we discuss it over dinner?” he asked. She blinked. “Dinner? Did I miss a signal some- where?” He laughed. “It’s just dinner. I’m hungry, and to be honest my hip is going to give out soon if I don’t sit. Rather than fall down in an embarrassing heap on the concrete, I’m inclined to head to my car then off some- where to eat before my next appointment which isn’t for—” he glanced at his watch “—another two hours. What do you say? Want me to drive you home so you can put up Zeus and then go eat with me?” “What appointment?” “It was too much to hope you’d let that pass.” He pushed away from the tree and leaned on the cane. “I’m interviewing the Brodericks tonight, a couple who used to own one of the homes that backs up to this spot on the path. They moved shortly after everything happened, to one of the homes in the back of the sub- division, on Beautyberry Circle. Tomorrow I’m inter- viewing some other people who live along this path to see if they’ve remembered anything in the years since your attack. But also to get more of a lay of the land, try to get more of a sense of what your abductor may have been thinking back then.” She stepped toward him, not stopping until she had to crane her head back to look him in the eyes. “Don’t tease me, Bryson. You’re mentioning these interviews because you’re offering to let me participate. Is that Lena Diaz 77 right? You wouldn’t be cruel enough to bring them up otherwise, would you?” He smiled sadly and feathered a hand across her cheek. The touch was so unexpected, so soft and gentle that she’d swear her heart skipped a beat. Even more of a surprise, he leaned down and pressed an equally soft kiss against her forehead before straightening. But he didn’t drop his hand. Instead, he left it there, cup- ping her cheek, his thumb gently stroking her skin as if he didn’t want to break the connection between them. “I’m not teasing,” he said, his voice a strained whis- per. “And I would never deliberately be cruel to you. I shouldn’t have been so harsh, so short with you in Gatlinburg. I thought I was being noble, protecting you. But I had no idea that instead of influencing you to go off in an innocuous direction where you’d be safe, you’d come back here to start over on your own. If the man who hurt you is still around here, and he realizes you’re back in town trying to find him, then you’re put- ting yourself in danger.” She frowned, ready to argue. “But I can—” “Let me finish. While I’m not trying to send any signals…” He dropped his hand, his face reddening slightly as if he just realized that he was still touch- ing her. He cleared his throat. “I’ll admit that there’s something about you, something special, that has me thinking about you far more than I should in ways I really shouldn’t be thinking, not when I’m working a case. It’s hell on my focus.” She blinked up at him. “You think I’m special?” His gaze dropped to her lips. “No question.” He 78 Agent Under Siege shuddered as if waging some kind of internal war with himself. Then he moved back a step. “The point I’m trying to make, and not doing very well, is that it would be really hard to work this case with you and to also stay objective the whole time and not get…sidetracked. But it would be even more impossible to work the case alone, knowing you were somewhere out there poten- tially putting yourself in danger with no one to watch your back. I’d worry about you the whole time and wouldn’t get anything done. So, I guess you’ve won this particular battle. To be crystal clear, no misunderstand- ings, I’m inviting you to work with me on your case, starting with the homeowner interview this evening. But only if we agree to keep our relationship profes- sional.” His gaze dropped to her lips again. “At least until the case is over.” Her stomach jumped at his last statement. She couldn’t stop smiling. But not just because she now realized he was as interested in her as she was in him. Far more important was that he was going to help her find and put away the monster who haunted her dreamsat night, who cast a pall of fear over her every waking hour no matter how hard she tried to pretend that he didn’t. Bryson was the answer to her prayers. And she was going to enjoy every single minute that they were together, because the man was hopelessly fun to tease. Keep their relationship strictly professional? Pfft. Not a chance. But, of course, she wasn’t going to admit to that. He’d figure it out eventually and by then he’d be so hooked on her that he’d be helpless to do anything about it. Lena Diaz 79 That was her hope at least. “I’ll be crystal clear in my response.” She hooked her right arm around his left one as if to flirt, when really she could tell he was struggling to remain upright and was probably too proud to ask for help. “I would love to work with you, starting with dinner, and then conduct- ing the interview tonight. But first, as you mentioned earlier, we need to drop Zeus off. Like I said, he’s my mom’s. I just borrow him when I visit.” They started down the path together, him leaning heavily on the cane, her holding on to his left arm to keep him from falling over, and Zeus happily sniffing and following along at the end of his leash. When they reached his rental car, she was surprised and a little disappointed to see that he’d chosen a luxury BMW sedan. Its dark blue color and the four doors gave it a decidedly mature, boring appearance even though it was definitely a nice car. Bryson Anton was still a young guy, in spite of his teasing her for being several years younger. And he really was hot. He’d look much better sitting in a red, sporty convertible with the top down than a glorified grocery-getter. Or maybe even a jacked-up four-wheel-drive truck with a gun rack in the back, although that seemed a little too country for him. He was refined, but not upper-crust. Definitely the convertible sports-car type. But after he insisted on holding the door open for her, then slid into the driver’s seat, his deep sigh and the look of relief on his face explained why he’d cho- sen this car. He needed the plush seats and comfort of 80 Agent Under Siege a vehicle that would smooth out a bumpy road because of his bad hip. “Have you thought of getting a second opinion on your hip?” she asked. “I mean, there has to be a way to fix it so it doesn’t hurt so much all the time.” “I’ve had second, third and fourth opinions. The bul- let is lodged close to my spine and presses on a nerve that makes the hip ache. Surgery isn’t an option. I’m told there’s a fifty-fifty chance that it will loosen on its own one day and then be removable and I’ll be good as new, or it will loosen on its own one day and nick my spinal cord, putting me permanently in a wheelchair.” She pressed a hand to her mouth. “Oh my gosh. I’m so sorry.” He shrugged. “I’m learning to live with it. Partly thanks to you. I admit to wallowing a bit in self-pity before you came along. Now, if the bullet shifts and I can’t walk anymore, at least it will happen while I’m trying to do something good rather than sitting around my house all day drinking tequila.” He put the car in drive but kept his foot on the brake. “Enough about me. Where to, Ms. Ray?” “Do a U-turn, Mr. Anton.” With Zeus taking up the tiny space behind the seats and lolling half-across the console that separated them, Bryson followed her directions to her parents’ home, at the end of a long pond on Birch Bark Court, and pulled into the driveway. Beautiful mature crape myrtles dot- ted the sides of the yard, their hot pink flowers waving in the warm spring breezes. And standing out front on the walkway between the garage and entry were both of Lena Diaz 81 her parents, currently in the process of planting a batch of white and pink periwinkles in one of the flower beds. “Give me a minute to get your door,” he said as he popped open the driver’s door. “Please don’t embar- rass me by getting out first. My mother would never forgive my poor manners if you do.” She grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. Of course she didn’t need him to get her door. But she didn’t mind the show of chivalry and old-fashioned manners, espe- cially since he thought that she was special and made it hard for him to focus. She couldn’t help chuckling at that declaration as he leaned on his cane, obviously struggling not to limp very much as he rounded the car to her side. Behind him, her dad and mom were star- ing with unabashed curiosity at the gorgeous white guy who’d brought her home, no doubt wondering what was going on. After she and Zeus got out and he closed the door behind her, she gathered the dog’s leash to keep him from taking off and looped her arm around Bryson’s left one again. He arched a brow in question. “That’s probably not a good idea. You might give your parents the wrong impression about our relationship.” He kept his voice low even as he nodded in answer to her father’s wave. Instead of letting go, she tightened her hold. “Did I ever mention that my dad has a bad heart?” His eyes widened as they started up the driveway toward her parents. “I’m sorry. I had no idea.” “Oh, it’s under good control. But it would probably 82 Agent Under Siege make his heart go into palpitations if he realized that I’m investigating the killer again.” He stopped beside her. “They don’t know?” “Nope. And I aim to keep it that way. To protect Daddy.” She tugged his arm to get him going again. “Then what are you going to tell them about why I’m here?” he whispered harshly before passing his cane to his left hand so he could do the expected handshake with her father. Her mother hung a few feet back, glanc- ing curiously between the two of them. “I’m Nick Ray, Teagan’s father. That’s her mom, Sylvie.” “Nice to meet you both. I’m—” “Bryson Anton, from Gatlinburg.” Teagan flashed her best smile at her parents before dropping a bomb- shell. “My boyfriend.” Chapter Eleven “Your boyfriend?” Bryson hissed almost two hours later as he was finally driving Teagan away from her parents’ house. “And after telling that zinger you left me at the mercy of your very curious mom and dad while you disappeared to take a shower. I haven’t had to dance that loose with the truth or change the sub- ject so many times to avoid being pushed into a cor- ner in, well, ever.” “But you did it. You managed to get through the inquisition and dinner while spinning the truth like a practiced politician—minus the lies. I especially liked it when my dad asked how long it had been since we’d first met and you said it felt like only yesterday.” She flashed her magazine-cover smile at him. He swore beneath his breath. “Why did you do it, Teagan? Lying by omission, or by not correcting what someone else said, is still a lie. And why trap me there for dinner when we were supposed to be there just long enough to drop off Zeus?” Her smile faded and she looked out the window as he wove through the maze of streets toward the back 84 Agent Under Siege of the development where the newer houses were built, where the Brodericks now lived. They didn’t want to be reminded of what had hap- pened any more than Teagan did. It had taken quite a bit of cajoling to get them to agree to talk to him tonight. Thankfully, when he’d stepped outside of the Rays’ home to make a call to ask them whether it was okay to bring Teagan, they’d said it was. He didn’t want to surprise them by showing up with her. And he hadn’t wanted to disappoint her either, since she was so set on going. “Teagan?” he pressed, when she didn’t answer. She finally sighed and turned in her seat to face him. “I’m not going to apologize for doing it. Because I’d do it again if given the choice. But I do regret that I didn’t warn you, and that it was so difficult for you. Honestly, I was selfishly focused on myself. I love my parents and assumed you’d enjoy their company. And my mom is a terrific cook. I hoped you would love herzucchini lasagna as much as I do and have a fun couple of hours before we—” she waved her hand toward the road as he made the last turn “—dove back into…this. I needed that break, that moment with my parents to prepare for the interview.” The sound of dejection in her voice had him feeling like a jerk. He pulled to the curb a few houses short of their destination, but left the air conditioner running to beat back the heat. He didn’t know how people lived here in the summer. The humidity in March made it feel like he was stepping into a sauna every time he went outside. Lena Diaz 85 “I liked your parents very much. Or, I would have, if I wasn’t working so hard not to tell a bunch of lies that I’d have to apologize for later. And your mom is a fabulous cook. We couldn’t have bought something at any restaurant around here and had better. But that’s not the point. I’m already getting over my anger. But I deserve the truth. Why tell them I’m your boyfriend when I could have just been a friend or a friend of a friend? Now, when they ask you about me later and you tell them we broke up—or whatever your cover is going to be when I don’t come back around—it will be that much harder. And it will probably make me look like a heel, thank you very much.” She clutched her hands together in her lap, and he suddenly felt like the heel he’d just described. After everything she’d been through, and the upcoming in- terviews about her ordeal, here he was dumping on her. Regardless of the little drama that had just played out, it was nothing compared to what she’d endured. He placed his hand over the top of hers. She glanced at him in surprise. “I’m sorry, Teagan. I’m making it out to be far more important than it was. Let’s just drop it and—” She shook her head. “No. I owe you an explanation. And it was far more important than you realize. Yester- day, at your house, you mentioned that your girlfriend left after your injury. Well you’re not the only one. Except it was my longtime high school sweetheart. It wasn’t official yet, but we’d always assumed we’d get married after we both graduated from college and got our careers going. He couldn’t…he couldn’t handle 86 Agent Under Siege knowing what happened to me. Or how messed up I was for so long afterward.” He took her hand in his and entwined their fingers together. “You don’t have to do this. It’s okay. I un- derstand—” “No. You don’t. Look, I’m over him. Way over him. Anyone who can’t stick around through the bad isn’t the one you want with you during the good. It was a blessing that I found that out before vowing to spend the rest of my life with him. The breakup was just a few months after the attack. I barely even think about him anymore. But I’ve never…since then I haven’t… well, it’s been hard to—” “You haven’t dated since?” She squeezed her eyes shut, then nodded. He waited in silence until she looked at him again. He tugged one hand free and gently smoothed back a recalcitrant curl that had escaped the long braid down her back. “Since someone as gorgeous and bubbly as you could have a date any time she wants, that’s obvi- ously a personal decision. But your parents don’t un- derstand your choice, do they? They worry about you because you haven’t, in their eyes at least, moved on.” She blinked as if in surprise. “How did you figure all that out so fast?” He glanced down at his shirt and frowned. “Where’s my I’m a Profiler badge? I could have sworn I was wearing that today right along with my Eagle Scout badge.” She managed a weak laugh and it warmed him in- Lena Diaz 87 side to see her smile again. “You, Bryson Anton, were never a Boy Scout.” He pressed his free hand against his chest. “You wound me to think I couldn’t be a scout.” He winked. “What gave me away?” She shook her head, her smile more carefree. “You’d have been bored to tears doing all the things they make you do to earn a badge. Instead, you’d rather be out there in the thick of things, getting lost in the woods just to see if you could find your own way out. Or set- ting a fire to see if you could put it out. Not exactly good scouts material.” “Looks like I’m not the only profiler around here.” He squeezed her hand before letting it go. “If using me helps to make your parents worry less about you be- cause they think you have a boyfriend, then I suppose the subterfuge is okay. Just give me some warning be- fore you throw me in a fire next time, okay?” He barely had time to blink before she was strad- dling the console, one thigh plastered against him, her generous breasts flattened against his chest. All his logical, well-thought-out arguments about not getting involved with her, especially while working the case, were incinerated the second her lips touched his. So much for warning him before throwing him into another fire. His whole body was being scorched from the out- side in, her tongue doing amazing things with his, her long nails raising goose bumps of pleasure across the back of his neck. But he wanted more, so much more. He groaned deep in his throat and wrapped his arms 88 Agent Under Siege around her sensuous body. Then he half turned, pull- ing her the rest of the way onto his lap. He kissed her the way he’d wanted to since the moment she’d stood in his doorway looking so adorable as she breathed the word “Hi.” If the pain from his hip hadn’t stopped him that day, he’d probably have done something juvenile, like drool. Instead, he’d focused on the pain to keep from acting like a letch. Teagan was unlike any woman he’d ever met. He never knew what to expect from her. Half of him was annoyed that he couldn’t predict her reactions even with his years of training as a profiler. The other half of him was sliding his hands around to the front of her shorts, grasping her zipper. Realizing what he was about to do, he drew on deep reserves of strength and forced his hands to release her zipper. Instead, he gently grasped her shoulders and eased her back to straddling the con- sole instead of him. His lungs labored in his chest as they blinked at each other from only a foot apart. And he couldn’t help but be pleased that she seemed to be struggling for air just as much as him. “Holy smokes,” she whispered, her voice break- ing. She cleared her throat, her hands shaking as she reached up to check her hair. “Lennie what’s-his-face was junior high compared to you. Heck, elementary school. That was amazing. I can’t even remember what he looks like anymore. And we were an item for over eight years.” He grinned, his ego ridiculously inflated by her compliment. “Wait. Lennie? Your old boyfriend’s name was Lennie?” Lena Diaz 89 “No judging. People don’t choose their own names.” Her tongue flicked out to wet her lips, making him groan. “Kiss me again, Bryson. Before I start remem- bering what what’s-his-face looked like.” He grabbed her upper arms and gently but firmly pushed her back. “Hell, no. We need to talk about this… thing going on between us before it goes any further. Besides, another kiss like that and I won’t be able to walk for a week.” He grimaced and shifted in his seat. “As it is, I won’t be able to walk for a few minutes, at least.” Her gaze flew to his lap and her eyes widened. “Oh, mercy. Lennie really had nothing on you.” He laughed and pushed her farther away. “I’m start- ing to feel sorry for this Lennie guy.” Her lips firmed. “Don’t. Trust me. He doesn’t de- serve your sympathy.” She settled back down on her side of the car and drew a ragged breath. Seeing her mood change so quickly, as if swimming through a layer of dark memories, had an ice water ef- fect on his traitorous body—which was a good thing right now. But it also had him wanting to punch her ex-boyfriend for the hurt he’d obviously caused her. “I’ve got a few friends at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “Where’s Lennie live? I bet I could rack him up enough speeding tickets so he’d be riding the bus to work for the next six months.” Her mouth quirked in a reluctant smile. “Mercedes- Lennie on the city bus. Now that might be fun to watch.” “Just say the word.” 90 Agent Under Siege She laughed, then pointed to the digital clock on his dash. “Didn’t you say the interview was supposed to start about now?” He noted the time and grimaced. “Hopefully a cou- ple of minutes won’t make them change their minds. You sure you want to do this? You can drop me off and pick me up when I call.” “I’ve never wanted something this hard in my life. I’ve been in limbo for years. If you can help me end that, put this monster in prison once and for all, it will make all the difference. I can handle it. I promise.” He wasn’t nearly as optimistic as she seemed to be. But he wasn’t going to argue with her. If she wanted to be a part of this, as far as he was concerned, she had every right to be. Because it was her life and all about making her feel safe again. “It’s that gray-blue stucco over there, two houses down. Close enough to walk but with my hip, I’m going to be lazy and drive the last fifty yards.” Once they were parked in the driveway, he grabbed his briefcase from the floorboard behind her seat. Unlike at her parents’ home, she didn’t wait for him to open the door. He silently cursed his hip for slowing him down. But there was no way he could go even one more step without his cane. He hefted it from the back seat and limped after her, pain his constant companion. He’d pushed himself harder today than any day since he’d been shot. And it showed. His hip was so stiff and ached so much that he was running more on willpower than physical strength. And after that little stunt that he Lena Diaz 91 and Teagan had just pulled in his car, he was practically a cripple. But he’d grit his teeth and keep going, somehow. At least until this interview was over. And the moment he reached his hotel room he was going to collapse on his bed, down some painkillers and not move until morning. At the door, he rang the doorbell then started when Teagan clutched his right arm. “Teagan—” “Don’t fuss at me. I’m not flirting, Bryson. Just give me a second.” He noted the stress lines around her eyes, the ashen gray tint to her brown skin. He wanted to take her hand in his, offer his strength. But he didn’t have any to spare. If he let go of his cane he was afraid he’d fall down. All those times he’d blown off a rehab appoint- ment were really coming back to bite him. “It’s okay, you’ve got this.” He offered a reassuring smile. “We’ve got this. We’re a team, together. I’m here for you, all right? Trust me.” She blew out a shaky breath and nodded just as the door opened. A woman stood there, looking even more stressed than Teagan, her face so pale it was shockingly white in the dimly lit foyer. Bryson lamely nodded rather than hold out his right hand since it was currently clutching his cane so he could remain upright. “Mrs. Broderick, it’s nice to meet you in person. I’m Bryson Anton. This is Teagan Ray. Is this still a good time to speak with you and your hus- band about Teagan’s abduction two years ago?” 92 Agent Under Siege “Of course.” Her gaze darted from one to the other, then behind them before she stepped back. “We’ve been expecting you. Please, come in.” Without waiting, she turned and strode through the long, dimly lit foyer away from them. Bryson hesitated. “It seems as if this impending in- terview is far more upsetting to Mrs. Broderick than I’d expected. Maybe you should wait in the car.” “No way. I don’t want to blow my chance. If I can’t handle the emotions of this first interview, you won’t let me go to the ones tomorrow. I’ll be okay. You’ll make sure of it. We’re a team. That’s what you said. Right?” He regretted agreeing to take her with him for so many reasons. But they couldn’t stand here waiting and make the Brodericks think they’d changed their minds. He motioned for her to step inside. She gave him a tight smile, and they started down the foyer to- gether. Mr. Broderick’s deep voice sounded from the fam- ily room that was just visible through the arched open- ing a few feet away. Teagan gasped and stopped. He turned to see what was wrong. Her eyes were opened wide, a hand pressed to her mouth. She looked absolutely terrified. “Teagan? What’s wrong?” “That v-voice,” she croaked, obviously struggling to push any sounds out. “His voice.” Bryson swore as understanding dawned. He dropped his cane and clawed for the pistol holstered at his waist Lena Diaz 93 as he struggled to turn around without falling. White, hot pain exploded in his head and his hip crumpled be- neath him. Teagan’s scream was the last thing he heard as everything went dark. Chapter Twelve Teagan stood frozen, the horror of what was happen- ing—again—seeping into her bones like leaden con- crete, anchoring her in place. Her pulse hammered in her ears, blocking out the sounds around her. It was as if her mind had separated from her body and all of this was happening to someone else. Bryson. Sweet, wonderful Bryson lay dead at her feet, his dark hair matted with blood. She’d only caught a glimpse of his battered body before jerking her gaze up toward the man who’d hit him, fully expecting the next blow from the baseball bat to land on her. Even so, she couldn’t raise her arms to defend herself. She. Couldn’t. Move. Instead of hitting her, he’d taken Bryson’s pistol out of his holster, then shoved his hand in her pocket and yanked out her gun too, all before she could even blink. How had he known she had the gun when even she, in her moment of need, had forgotten it? He’d been just inches from her but after taking the guns, he’d walked away. She watched helplessly, uselessly still as a statue, as the man—oh God, that Lena Diaz 95 voice—crossed the family room to the woman cower- ing in the corner. What was her name? Broderick. Mrs. Broderick. A trap. She’d led Bryson and Teagan into a trap. Why? Why would she do that? The woman’s lips moved. She was looking up at the man, hovering over her with the bloody baseball bat in his right hand. She was saying something, pleading? The words were lost in Teagan’s fractured mind, unable to penetrate the sound of her own heartbeat rushing in her ears. Thump. Thump. Thump. Her heart pounded against her rib cage, white noise that masked every- thing around her. The tableau played out like a silent movie before her, a nightmare. Because surely none of this was real. It couldn’t be. Not again. Not again. She couldn’t survive this again. The man lifted the bat. No. Teagan tried to yell, to get her legs to move. She had to help the lady. But her throat was so tight she couldn’t make a sound. Her legs were shaking so hard she couldn’t take a step. He brought the bat down in a deadly arc. Bam! Bam! Bam! Oh dear God, please, no! The bat. The woman. Bile rose in Teagan’s throat. A low-keening moan filled her ears, and the man jerked around to look at her. She re- alized that she was the one making that awful sound. The room around her darkened, like a tunnel, nar- rowing down to one point where all she could see was the man across the room, watching her. Everything cen- tered on what she’d never seen until this very moment. 96 Agent Under Siege His face. She’d known that voice, the devil’s voice. To this day, it haunted her dreams. But that face. How could such evil hide behind such an average, kind- looking face? There was nothing remarkable about it. He was white, clean-shaven, his light brown hair streaked with blond that had no doubt cost a fortune at some expen- sive salon. Which meant this man had money, a job, likely a home, a car. A family? He was just like anyone else she’d pass on the street. Except that he wasn’t. The eyes. The eyes gave him away. They were dark, almost black, completely devoid of warmth. An abyss of emptiness, a deep well of evil with no soul to warm them. They were the eyes of the monster who’d hurt her two years ago. The same monster who’d just bru- tally killed Mrs. Broderick. And the wonderful man lying at Teagan’s feet. She couldn’t look down. Couldn’t stomach seeing the damage the bat must have done. She didn’t want that image burned into her retinas. Bryson. Smart, gor- geous, sweet Bryson Anton, who wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for her. Forgive me, Bryson. Evil stared back at her from twenty feet away. Blood dripped from the bat in his hand. She shuddered as a wave of nausea gripped her. He smiled, as if pleased at her distress. Then he started toward her, still holding that awful bat. Slowly. Like a lion stalking the weakest member of the herd, separating it out, readying for the kill. Lena Diaz 97 Her mind screamed at her. Move. Run. Do something. But she couldn’t. Why not? She’d run before. Two years ago, when her attacker injected drugs to put her to sleep, but missed the vein, she’d taken advantage of his mistake. She’d pretended to be asleep. And then, after hearing the sound of his car driving away, she’d forced one foot in front of the other. She’d gotten away. There were neighbors close by. Some of them had to be home. Most of them had to be home. The work- day was over for the nine-to-fivers. All she had to do was turn around and…no. She couldn’t leave Bryson. She didn’t deserve to survive yet again when he lay at her feet in his own blood. It was her fault. This, then, would be her penance. Face the monster. Pay the price for bringing Bryson here, for destroying a won- derful man. Shoes echoed against the floor. Hardwood. Like her parents’ house. He was coming closer. Relentlessly. Slowly. Savoring her fear. She whimpered, and hated herself for it. She was about to die. She wanted to face him with dignity in her last moments. But the wounds of the past were too much to overcome. Her body wasn’t her own anymore to command. She couldn’t stop shaking. Maybe she was already dead. Evil stopped three feet away. She forced herself to meet his gaze, to memorize every line, every bump, every angle of his ridiculously ordinary face, refusing to look away as fate raised the bat once more. If she couldn’t run, at least she could 98 Agent Under Siege stand here and pretend courage she didn’t possess. There would be no defensive wounds for her. But as she stared at him, a strange sense of déjà vu swept through her. She’d seen him before. Not at the shack. He’d always concealed his identity back then. So she had to have seen him somewhere else. But where? Who was he? He raised the bat higher, watching her, as if waiting to see what she would do. As she remained motionless, his smile faded. She wasn’t giving him the satisfaction of cowering. She was ruining his fun. Hooray for her. Finally she’d beaten him. If only in a very small way. This time it was her turn to smile. Hate glittered in his eyes as he slowly lowered the bat. He tossed it onto a nearby chair and reached behind him. Metal glittered in the overhead lights. A gun? No. Silver circles. A short chain connecting them. Hand- cuffs. He’d bound her last time, tied her with strips of cloth. But never handcuffs. She’d cut through the strips with her teeth after the drug had failed to knock her unconscious. Perhaps he’d changed his routine since then. He’d learned from his mistakes. He moved with a swiftness that was terrifying. Too late, she tried to twist away. But the sound of one of the cuffs ratcheting onto her left wrist echoed in the foyer. He yanked her wrist down toward the floor. She fell to her knees, sliding in the sticky wet blood. Bryson’s blood. Dear, sweet Bryson. Lying on the floor, his face turned toward her. Eyes closed forever. His murderer slapped the other handcuff onto Lena Diaz 99 Bryson’s right wrist and ratcheted it closed, anchor- ing her to his body. She looked up in question. He’d retrieved the bat, but instead of slamming it down on her, ending this, he turned away. His shoes clomped across the floor as he headed down the hall to the left. Dress pants. He was wearing gray dress pants and a white shirt. A formerly white shirt. Had he just left work? What kind of person did this—entered some- one’s house and beat them to death after getting off work, like it was a normal part of their day? A hysterical laugh bubbled up in her throat, but died before reaching her lips. The monster had opened a door and headed inside. A muffled sound echoed from the room. Was someone else there? The sickening un- mistakable crunch of wood on bone had her gasping in horror. The other half of the couple who lived here, Mr. Broderick. He must have been in the room, prob- ably tied up. A bribe so that his wife would do what the monster told her to do. Bile rose again in her throat. She turned away from Bryson’s body just in time to empty the contents of her stomach against the foyer wall. She shuddered and wiped her mouth. “Dear Lord,” she prayed, the whisper finally pass- ing through her tight throat. “Please let me die quickly. And don’t let me grovel or beg for my life. Give me strength. Please, God. Help me.” Something fluttered against her shoe. She gasped and whirled around. The fingers of Bryson’s right hand moved against her, tapped her toe. 100 Agent Under Siege She shot him a look of shock, and met his pain-filled startling blue gaze. “Bryson,” she whispered. “You’re alive. Oh my God. Bryson.” She lifted her shaking right hand to his face and gently cupped it. “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” His eyes seemed unfocused. He coughed and blood dribbled out of his mouth to the floor. “Shhh,” she whispered. “Don’t try to talk.” She jerked her head up, realizing there weren’t any sounds in the other room anymore. He’d be coming out soon. Coming for her and Bryson. “Close your eyes,” she whispered. “Play dead. He thinks you’re dead. Just, no matter what happens to me, just lay there. Don’t move. Do you hear me? Play dead. It’s your only chance.” His fingers tapped her again and his lips moved. She glanced down the hall, then leaned down, try- ing to hear what he was saying. “Run. Get. Away.” His whisper was so low she could barely make it out. “Go.” Tears splashed onto his face and she realized she was crying. “Oh, Bryson. I’m sorry. I thought you were… I thought it was too late. And I couldn’t make myself leave you. And now, I can’t.” She lifted her left hand, showing him the handcuffs that bound them together. “It’s okay, though,” she whispered, looking down the hall again. What was taking the monster so long? What was he doing in there? “It’s okay,” she re- peated. “There’s nothing I can do to save myself. I ac- cept that. But he thinks you’re already dead. Lie very still. No matter what. You’ll make it. Just play dead.” Lena Diaz 101 His lips moved again, his eyes pleading with her to listen. “Cane. Get. Cane.” “You think you can stand?” A rush of hope flooded through her. “Here. I’ll help you.” “Cane,” his hoarse whisper was louder now. “Get the cane.” She stretched out their linked hands and scrambled over, reaching out her right hand as far as she could. It took some contorting, but she was finally able to grab it. “Got it.” “I’ll take that.” The monster jerked it out of her hand and backed up several feet. “Getting feisty, Teagan? Planning on trying to beat me over the head with this like I did your friend?” He chuckled and motioned to- ward Bryson. “Give me his cell phone. And yours. Hurry.” “Mine is in my purse.” She motioned toward her purse where it had fallen to the foyer floor earlier. “Prove it. Turn your shorts pockets inside out.” She did as he asked. “Now his. Get his cell phone and toss it to me so I can verify that you don’t do something stupid, like try to press 911 before you give it to me. If you do that, you’re both dead. Understood?” She drew a ragged breath and nodded, then dug in Bryson’s suit jacket pockets until she found his phone. For the briefest second, she hesitated, desperately want- ing to press the three precious keys that would call for help. But the monster was watching. And he’d shifted the aim of his gun toward Bryson’s head as if in warn- 102 Agent Under Siege ing. She hurriedly stood as best she could with her arm cuffed to Bryson and tossed him the phone. After checking the screen, he threw the phone on the couch, then motioned toward Bryson again. “Take that watch thing off his wrist and get rid of it. I don’t know what it can do, whether you can make calls with it. I’m not taking chances.” She quickly took it off and tossed it down the foyer. “Help him up. We’ll bring him with us. I need to know how much he knows before I kill him.” She hesitated. “He’s already dead. Just uncuff me and I’ll go with you.” He made a clucking, disapproving sound with his mouth. “Now, Teagan. Don’t lie to me. I doubt I hit him hard enough to kill him. But if you’d rather I take care of things right now, to make it easier for you so you don’t have to help him walk, I can get the bat—” “No!” She shook her head. “Please. Don’t. Just… give me the cane. I’ll help him. But I need the cane to get him on his feet, to help him walk.” He tossed the cane down beside her. “I’d help but I don’t want to get his blood on my nice clean shirt.” She blinked and realized he was wearing a different shirt now, a light blue one tucked into navy blue dress pants. Even his shoes, which had been black earlier had been exchanged for gunmetal gray ones. He must have washed himself off and changed into some of Mr. Broderick’s clothes. Right after killing the poor man. Swallowing hard, she looked down. Bryson’s eyes were open again. He was staring at her. I’m so sorry, she mouthed, regret heavy in her heart Lena Diaz 103 that she’d wasted her chance to get help for him. Had she suspected he was still alive, she would have forced herself to turn around, to run to the nearest neighbor and call 911. Instead, she’d been frozen by fear and the belief that he’d been killed. She’d given up. And be- cause of her cowardly actions, now he was still in horri- ble danger, when she might have been able to save him. “Get him on his feet. Now. If you take too long, I’ll shoot you both and be done with it.” She wanted to demand that he be done with it right now. But that was no longer an option. It wasn’t just her life on the line now. She had to be brave, strong, and somehow figure out how to get Bryson out of this mess. She awkwardly straightened his legs, apologiz- ing profusely every time she jostled him because of their hands being handcuffed together. Finally she got him into a sitting position with his back pressed against the opposite wall of the foyer from where she’d been sick. White lines around his mouth clearly mirrored his pain. His hip had to be excruciat- ing right now, on top of the awful bump on his head. She reached up to test it and he winced, ducking away from her hand. “You’re not bleeding anymore,” she whispered. “That’s a good sign.” “Hurry up,” the monster ordered. “The daughter will be home soon.” Teagan and Bryson exchanged a look of horror. The idea of a daughter coming home to find her parents slaughtered by this man was beyond awful. But still being here when she got home would ensure that she 104 Agent Under Siege too would be killed. As if coming to the same realiza- tion, Bryson began pushing against the wall, struggling to get to his feet. She faced him, their hands clasped together as she helped him up the rest of the way. As soon as she was sure he wasn’t about to fall, she got the cane and put it in his left hand. He normally held it in his right, to compensate for his bad left hip when he raised his right leg. But with his right hand cuffed to hers, that wasn’t an option. It would be rough going. She hoped she had the strength to keep him from falling. “Come on. Out the back.” The monster was hold- ing a gun now. Bryson’s gun. He motioned with it and stepped out of reach of the cane or a well-aimed kick, not that they could manage either one shackled together with Bryson hurt. More from willpower than physical strength, the two of them managed to hobble out the open French door, across the patio, all while being directed by the gunman. He closed the door behind them, probably to throw off anyone trying to find the perpetrator who’d murdered the Brodericks. But where was he going? He stopped at the six-foot-tall wooden privacy fence that encircled the large backyard. He motioned them forward with the gun. When they stopped a few feet away, he lifted one of the sections of fence back from the post it should have been nailed to. Perhaps this was the way he’d gotten into the Brod- ericks’ home? He’d come from behind them, loosening the section of fence to act much like a gate. Just the way he’d abducted Teagan years earlier? Lena Diaz 105 Until this very moment, she’d never remembered how he’d managed to get her off the path without anyone seeing her. It had always been a confusing image in her mind—a creaking sound that she’d attributed to the breezes in the branches overhead, but that she now realized must have been him opening a pre-loosened section of fence; her turning around just as the bite of a needle plunged into her neck and a hand clamped over her mouth. Darkness descending around the edges of her vision as he’d tossed her over his shoulder. That creaking sound again. He’d closed the fence behind them. That must have been what happened. “Teagan?” Bryson whispered, between lips white with pain. “We have to move.” The gunman was pointing the pistol at her. He must have told her to get going and was threatening to shoot her. She squeezed Bryson’s hand, then struggled for- ward with him leaning heavily against her, their cuffed hands clutched tightly together. The gunman waved them toward the back of the house whose yard they were now in while he secured the section of fence behind them. As they reached the screened-in porch, the cut screen on the door told the story that she had feared. She exchanged a look of mis- ery with Bryson before helping him through the door that the killer had obviously gone through earlier. But how had he known that she would be at the Brodericks’? That question was eating at her. And she had no an- swers. She wanted to ask Bryson, but doubted he could think much beyond the pain that was clearly radiat- 106 Agent Under Siege ing through his whole body. It was taking everything he had to remain upright, as evidenced by how hard he was leaning on her and how often he stumbled. It didn’t help that the house was carpeted. It was much harder for him to keep his balance, and he fell against the wall more than once. “To the garage, that door over there.” The gunman motioned ahead to the right, then ducked through an archway to their left into the kitchen. “Where are we?” Bryson whispered as they hobbled toward the garage. “Bentwater Place,” she whispered back. “The sub- division directly behind The Woods. The entrance to this subdivision is about a mile, maybe more, from the Hodges Boulevard entrance to The Woods.” He nodded as they reached the door that led from the house into the garage. It was standing wide open, revealing a small package delivery truck inside. Any hope that Teagan had that he hadn’t hurt the driver died when she saw the piles of packages taking up most of the space on the other side of the garage. No driver would have willingly allowed someone to dump the contents of his truck. How many people had to be hurt or die because of whatever sick fantasies this guy had? “Find the button that opens the garage door,” Bryson urged. “If someone’s outside, we can try to get their attention.” “Do it and I’ll shoot both of you,” the killer said from behind them. Teagan stiffened and looked over her shoulder. His Lena Diaz 107 dark, empty eyes bored into hers. The maw of the pis- tol was pointed directly at the back of Bryson’s head. “What do you want us to do now?” She steadied Bryson’s shaking body against the garage wall beside the doorway. He was so pale she was afraid he was about to pass out. “Get in the back of the truck.” The sound of sirens filled the air, coming from somewhere behind them. The killer froze, cocking his head to listen. The sirens got louder. There could be no mistake. They were rac- ing toward the Brodericks’ house. The daughter must have gotten home and called 911. And the police had to have been close by to be responding this quickly. Any minute now, they’d be standing in the home that was separated from this one by about fifty feet of grass and a privacy fence. If she screamed, would they hear her? As if reading the intention in her expression, the killer shoved the gun’s muzzle against the back of Bryson’s head. “In the truck. Now. If you scream, if you do anything to alert the police, I’ll shoot both of you, him first. Then I’ll find another family a few houses down to kill and drive away in their car as the police try to figure out where the shots came from. You’ll be dead, another family will be dead, but I’ll be just fine. Is that what you want? Me to kill your boyfriend and another innocent family, all because you refuse to fol- low instructions?” “We’re going.” She forced the words out between clenched teeth. Bryson looked like he wanted to argue. But he was 108 Agent Under Siege in no physical condition to do so. They hobbled to the end of the truck. The gunman twisted the handles and yanked open both of the doors. Just as expected, it was empty. No windows. No pass-through to the cab. Just a metal box, with no way out but the back doors. Which required getting past their armed escort. It took some grunting and contorting because of how their hands were cuffed together to get both of them into the back. As soon as their feet cleared the doors, one of them slammed shut. The gunman paused in the opening of the other door. “I’ll take that cane for now. Don’t want you trying to poke me with it when I open the door again.” He yanked the cane away from Bryson and sealed them inside. Chapter Thirteen “He didn’t blindfold us,” Teagan said. Bryson hated the fear in her tone. He knew exactly what she was afraid of, that because the man who’d abducted them hadn’t blindfolded them, it meant he intended to kill them. He wasn’t worried about wit- nesses, or that they could identify him later. But reas- suring her right now was beyond Bryson’s abilities. He was struggling just to stay conscious. That blow to his head had really done a number on him. The darkness in the back of the truck was absolute, which was disorienting enough. But his aching hip and throbbing head were each trying to outdo the other in the pain department, which made his efforts to wrangle his scattered thoughts next to impossible. “Bryson?” She moved her left hand against his right one and interlaced their fingers. “How bad does it hurt? Your head?” He gently squeezed her fingers. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” “Maybe if you said that without pain making your voice so raspy I’d believe you.” She clasped her right 110 Agent Under Siege hand over their joined hands. “I’m so sorry. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for me involv- ing you. I never should have gone to Gatlinburg and interfered with your life. That was beyond selfish. And now, we’re both going to die—” “Hey, hey. Stop that. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m the professional. I should have been on guard against this type of possibility. But what matters right now is that you don’t give up. You hear me, Teagan Ray? Don’t you dare give up.” He waited, but when she didn’t respond he said, “If you’re nodding or shaking that beautiful head of yours, or making some kind of rude gesture, your effort’s wasted. I completely forgot to pack my night-vision goggles this trip.” A brief laugh reassured him like nothing else could have. He needed her present, engaged, not frozen and helpless the way he’d seen her in the foyer after he’d finally managed to swim through the darkness that had threatened to drag him under. He wasn’t sure how long he’d lain there after that awful slam of the bat against his head. He hadn’t even seen the bat until later, when they were leaving, lying on one of the chairs. It had shocked him that he was still alive with the amount of blood covering the bat. Then he’d seen Mrs. Broderick. She’d been curled in a lifeless heap on the other side of the room. He knew then that not all of the blood on the bat was his. The poor woman had been brutally at- tacked. Even though it didn’t feel like it, he was lucky to be alive. For now. Lena Diaz 111 “Aren’t you going to say I told you so?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts. He had to draw several deep breaths to push back the hazy fog that kept trying to drag him into uncon- sciousness. What had she said? Something about I told you so. “What are you talking about?” “Avarice Lowe. I’d pegged him all along as the man who’d abducted me. But I was wrong. It’s this man. Whoever’s driving this stupid truck. The thing is, Lowe never seemed to fit the image of the monster in my head. I know it sounds wonky. But I always thought I’d know my abductor if I ever saw him, by the way he was built, his profile, something. Nothing ever clicked for me when I saw Lowe’s pictures. And, to be hon- est, nothing clicked when I saw this guy today. Not re- ally. I mean, his voice, yes. Definitely. And yet, even though he seems familiar, he doesn’t seem…right. It’s still not clicking.” He could feel her shoulders move against him as she shrugged. “Listen to me. I’m not even making sense.” “Always…trust your instincts.” He swallowed hard against the bile rising in his throat. Obviously he had a concussion. All he wanted to do was lie down and sleep. Or throw up. Or both. He cleared his throat and tried again to follow the conversation. “Instincts. They’re telling you something. What did you mean when you said he seemed familiar?” “His face.” “His face?” “It just seemed…familiar. He’s the kind of guy you could pass on the street a bazillion times and you might 112 Agent Under Siege think, okay, he’s kind of good-looking. Clean-cut. But nothing amazing. Just a typical, white-collar kind of man, you know? And yet, I would swear that I’ve seen him before. Not just once. Several times.” He rubbed his left temple, desperately trying to beat back the throbbing pain and focus on what she was say- ing. There was something important here, more impor- tant than her thinking she’d seen him before. But he couldn’t seem to grasp what was bothering him about what she’d just said. Finally he dropped his hand to his side, giving up for now. Whatever was bothering him would come to him, eventually. “Maybe he lives in The Woods,” he offered. “You’ve passed him on the street, on the sidewalk. Or saw him at that amenity center. Do you ever use the tennis courts, the pool?” “The pool sometimes. But I haven’t in a long time. Not since, well, I never was a fan of a one-piece bath- ing suit. Too grandma for me. But I don’t think wear- ing a bikini is exactly a good idea now.” He wanted to reassure her, tell her that no one would notice the X that had been cut into her skin. But peo- ple could be cruel. Some probably would stare. Others might ask a question, innocently thinking she’d had that X carved there on purpose, like a tattoo. They might wonder at the symbolism and significance, without re- alizing they were bringing up a horrific memory that she’d rather forget. He’d just started to doze off again when she asked, “What are we going to do?” Her voice was a low whis- Lena Diaz 113 per, as if to keep the driver from hearing them. “Please tell me you have a plan.” He didn’t have a clue. He tightened his hold on her hand. “We’ll figure it out. Together. Two against one. We’ve got this.” The truck hit a bump in the road, knocking them against each other. He scooted back against the wall, trying to keep from slamming into her. But she had no such compulsion. She moved closer, her body plastered against his side. But unlike earlier, there was nothing suggestive about her actions. He could feel the slight shaking of her shoulders and realized she was silently crying. Carefully, so he wouldn’t hit her face, he ma- neuvered their handcuffed hands so that he could put his arm around her, pulling their linked hands tight against her belly. She cradled her head against his neck. He tried to pay attention to the changes in road noise, traffic sounds, the turns the truck made. But everything was so muffled that he had no clue where they might be. Had it been an hour? Two? He had no idea. With his watch gone, and his mind a fog, time as he knew it didn’t exist anymore. His every moment was measured by stabs of pain that shot through his body with every beat of his heart. His hip had long ago gone numb. But, if anything, the pain in his head was worse than before. He felt every shift of the truck’s wheels on the pavement, every pothole, every slide of gravel. Wait. Gravel? “We’re slowing down,” she whispered. He nodded, then remembered she couldn’t see him. “Yes. We are. And we’ve turned onto a gravel road. 114 Agent Under Siege Wherever he’s taking us, we’re close.” He carefully pulled their linked arms over her head so they were side by side again, instead of nestled against each other. The brakes squealed as the truck lurched to a halt. Her fingers clenched his. “Now would be a good time to share your plan.” Right. If only he had one. His thoughts were so jum- bled. “Stay alert. Be observant. As soon as that door opens, evaluate your options and react. If he’s stupid enough to stand in striking distance, we tackle him. But I don’t expect he’ll do that.” “So we have no plan.” He sighed. “Pretty much. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. All it takes is one mistake on his part, one moment when his guard is down. Then we’ll get the upper hand.” “Do you really believe that?” “I have to. We both have to. I’m not operating on all pistons right now, and my vision was blurry at the Brodericks’ house so I’m not expecting much better when he lets us out of here. I need you to fill in the gaps. Pay attention when he opens that door. Get a three-sixty view. We need to know what’s around us. Where to run if we get a chance.” “Okay. I’ll… I’ll do my best.” The driver’s door creaked open. “Come on,” he urged. “Let’s scoot to the end in case we can surprise him, take him down.” Getting to his knees was beyond his capabilities at the moment. Instead, he had to scoot across the metal Lena Diaz 115 floor of the truck. Thankfully, it wasn’t that large and they were soon positioned beside each other at the doors. The sound of shoes crunching on gravel came from outside. He was heading toward the back. Bryson could feel her shivering against him. He si- lently cursed the man with all the power right now, the man who’d hurt her more than most people endured in their entire lifetime. He gritted his teeth and braced himself, hoping she was ready to dive with him to tackle the man. There was no other option since they were still handcuffed together. The left door flew back. Bryson hadn’t planned on near total darkness and hesitated for a moment. But Teagan was already hopping out of the truck. He hur- riedly followed and together they rushed forward, hop- ing to wrap arms around their attacker. They both met empty air and stumbled against each other before fall- ing back against the closed right door. It was the only reason Bryson managed to remain upright. Laughter sounded off to the left. A powerful flash- light switched on, forcing them to squint and shield their eyes against the brightness. “Good try.” The man chuckled again. “But I as- sumed you’d pull a stunt like that so I stayed behind the door, out of reach.” He lowered the light to point at the ground, directly in front of them. Dirt and gravel mixed with pine needles and other debris. Since the only sounds were insects buzzing close by, it was a safe bet that they were somewhere outside of town, an hour, two, maybe more from Jacksonville if his judg- 116 Agent Under Siege ment on how much time had passed was accurate. But he couldn’t be sure. Their captor may have driven in circles to disorient them and then drove to some rural part of town. Jacksonville was the largest city in the country by landmass, so they could easily still be in Duval County but nowhere near any homes or busi- nesses. Teagan’s fingers curled around his. Perhaps she was beginning to realize how isolated they were, and won- dering the same thing that he was—what happens next? Without the flashlight in his eyes, he was able to make out more details now. The moon and stars pro- vided enough light to see that they were surrounded by trees and Florida scrub, mostly small thin bushes and sharp palmettos ready to skewer anyone foolish enough to go for a walk in the woods. The gunman stood about twenty feet away, out of reach, a dark silhouette with his arm extended, pistol gleaming in his grip. “Get moving.” He motioned with the flashlight to their right, aiming it at what was ap- parently their destination, a tiny cabin. “I need my cane,” Bryson called out. The flashlight swept back toward their captor. He aimed it up toward his own face, a slow smile spread- ing across his cheeks as he pulled something out of his pocket. “Let me guess. Because you wanted these?” He shook the two tiny keys on the end of a chain, making them click against each other. “Handcuff keys hidden in the cane’s handle. I knew you were awfully insistent on wanting that stupid thing. Took me half the trip fid- dling with it to figure it out.” Lena Diaz 117 He threw the keys into the trees, then leaned down and grabbed the cane, which had been lying at his feet. “Afraid you’ll have to do without it. I’m not risking an- other trick in that thing that I haven’t figured out yet.” He tossed the cane into the woods behind him. “Now go on.” He swept the flashlight in an arc toward the cabin again. “Teagan, stop standing there like a statue and help your boyfriend before he falls down.” He chuckled. Bryson looked at her. She hadn’t moved since they’d tried tackling the gunman without success. Her fin- gers holding his were cold, stiff. Her body shook as she stared wide-eyed at the little house in the clearing. And then it dawned on him why. He’d seen it before, in crime scene photos. The killer had brought them back in time, two years to be exact. He’d brought them to the infamous shack where he’d once held Teagan captive. Chapter Fourteen The world had disappeared for Teagan. Everything had faded away the moment she’d jumped out of the truck and the flashlight revealed what she should have expected, but hadn’t allowed herself to believe. He’d taken her back to the dilapidated shack where she’d spent two weeks in a drug-induced stupor, drifting in a haze of pain from the torture that her captor had put her through. She pressed a hand to her belly, remembering that first night, when he’d slowly carved the X in her flesh. The pain had been excruciating. With her arms and legs tied and him straddling her, there was nothing she could do to escape the slow awful burn of the blade. She’d screamed so loudly that something in her throat burst and she’d almost drowned in her own blood. After escaping this hellhole, she’d charted a new path for her life. She’d focused her energies on becom- ing stronger, both physically and mentally. When the police seemed to be getting nowhere with the investi- gation, she’d taken it over herself, doing everything she could to try to discover the identity of the man who’d Lena Diaz 119 reduced her to the broken woman she’d become for those fourteen days. And she’d thought she had. She’d been so sure that Avarice Lowe was the real Ripper, the man who’d branded her like a steer. The fact that no one else believed her didn’t dissuade her. Instead, it made her angry, and even more determined to find someone who’d help her put Lowe away. She’d thought Bryson was that someone, the one person who would read her file and finally tell her that she was right. But she wasn’t right. Bryson was right, had been all along. It was as if everything she’d done for the past twenty- four months and nineteen days was a sham, a waste, a farce. Here she was again, where it had all started. And she’d managed to condemn Bryson to share this hell with her. This time, both of them would die. “Sweetheart, look at me,” Bryson’s whispered words seemed to come to her from the end of a long tunnel. “Come back to me. Don’t give up. Don’t let him win.” She couldn’t see him, couldn’t see anyone, or any- thing. Not the dark shapes of the trees, or the twinkling lights of the stars, or the moon, or even the gravel rocks at her feet. The devil himself, the one who’d brought them here, had faded too. All she saw was the little shack. Hovel was more accurate. Four walls covered in weathered gray wood that was splintered and warped. No electricity, which meant no air-conditioning, unless that had been changed. The inside consisted of a small bedroom and bathroom on the back left corner, a tiny main room and a kitchen up 120 Agent Under Siege front. Although calling the cooking area a kitchen was being generous. It consisted of a handful of homemade- looking cabinets and drawers, a tiny refrigerator like those in hotel rooms and a compact gas stove fed by a propane tank outside. The bathroom, as she remem- bered it, was so filthy she’d had to close her eyes when he’d shoved her inside and stood guard at the open door, watching. Always watching. Or touching, hurting her in unspeakable ways. Dear Lord, please, let me die. Strike me with light- ning, something, just don’t let him…touch me…not again. Please. “Teagan, look at me. Open your eyes.” Bryson’s gen- tle but firm voice cut through her terror, snapped her out of her semi-stupor. She openly stared up at him. The moon’s light wasn’t enough to see the blue of his eyes, but she remembered their beautiful color, and the kindness in them. She re- membered how ruggedly handsome he was. He was so sweet and smart and…and he was going to die. A low keening moan slipped out between her clenched teeth. Her hands shook as she started to lift them. But her left hand pulled up short because of the cuffs. He bent his arm to allow her more movement, frowning, apparently wondering what she was doing, but helping her. Always helping her. She lifted her arms again and this time she was able to cup his face. “We have to kill him,” she whispered. “Before he makes us go into that horrible shack. He won’t shoot me, not right away. That would spoil his fun. We’ll re- Lena Diaz 121 fuse to go inside and he’ll have to come close. As long as you duck down in front of me, I can shield you—” “The hell with that.” His clipped tone brooked no argument. “I’m not using you as a human shield.” He grabbed her left hand and pulled it down with his, their handcuffs rattling against each other. “I don’t have a plan yet but putting you in the line of fire isn’t at the top of my list. It’s not even on the list. Forget it.” “Hey, you two. Get moving.” Bam! The warning shot kicked up dirt near their feet. Tea- gan threw herself against Bryson’s chest, desperately trying to shield his body with hers. He swore and shoved her as far from him as the cuffs would allow. His glare told her exactly what he thought of her attempt to protect him. But without her to lean on, he stumbled. She rushed forward and jammed her left shoulder beneath his right, bracing him again. The pained look on his face told her he hated that he needed her help. But he didn’t push her away again. “Next one goes in your head, FBI guy. Or Justice Seeker. Is that what you go by? Seems I heard that somewhere. You need to do what I say, when I say it. Or you can seek your justice six feet under.” Justice Seeker? Bryson probably mentioned that he was a former FBI profiler when he spoke to the Brod- ericks to lend him credibility so they’d agree to speak to him. But would he say anything about being a Justice Seeker? Not likely. It had taken her months of digging to track Bryson to the Seekers. How did this animal know about them? “I need my cane.” Bryson’s voice was hoarse, a tes- 122 Agent Under Siege tament to the amount of pain he was in after their lit- tle dance in the dirt. “I can’t walk without it. Unlock these handcuffs and send Teagan to retrieve it for me.” “So she can take off and escape? I don’t think so. Good try though. But I’m tired of waiting.” He aimed the gun at Bryson’s leg. Teagan rushed in front of him to his left side to better help him, their cuffed hands pulled awkwardly across his waist. He was really struggling, his left leg shaking as if it was about to collapse. His look of regret confirmed that he realized the same thing. He gave her a curt nod of thanks, then lurched forward. The thirty or so feet to the shack felt more like a mile trudging through wet cement. But finally they were at the two steps that led up to the tilted, rotting front porch. There was no railing, nothing for Bryson to cling to except her. But they made the climb together, pausing just outside the front door. Instead of the dry-rotting wood she remembered, this door was shiny and new, its glass front encased in a black wrought-iron frame with a network of verti- cal bars just like she’d expect to see on a jail cell. And both of the small front windows, to the left and right of the door, were covered in the same black bars. He’d converted the shack into a jail. There’d be no escape this time. She pulled the door open and glanced up at Bryson. His eyes were glazing over, unfocused. He tried to say something, but couldn’t seem to get the words out. She practically dragged him inside as he teetered Lena Diaz 123 back and forth. Thankfully the couch was right where it had been the last time, four or five feet from the door. If turned sideways, it would probably scrape both walls, if it would even fit. He fell from her grip onto the cushions, pulling her down with him. She managed to push off the back cush- ion so she didn’t fall on top of him. Instead, she slid to the floor, her left arm raised to not jerk his right arm. Not that he would have felt it. His eyes were already closed. He’d passed out. The sound of metal grating against metal had her jerking her head around to see what the gunman was doing. To her relief, he hadn’t followed them inside. But to her horror, he’d just locked the door. He grinned as he pulled his key out of the round lock that required a key on both sides—not the kind where you could flip it from the inside. He aimed the flashlight up, casting an eerie, sinis- ter look across his face. “I’ll give you two lovebirds some alone time,” he teased, adding a wink that had her wanting to throw up again. “Make sure he’s ready to answer my questions when I get back. I want to know what the cops know. If he can’t talk, he’s of no use to me.” She’d wondered why he’d gone to the trouble of tak- ing both her and Bryson instead of killing him at the Brodericks’. Now she knew it was because he wanted to interrogate him. “Today caught me off guard, I gotta admit,” he continued. “I’m not really prepared. Don’t have my… supplies handy. But don’t you worry. I remember every- 124 Agent Under Siege thing you like. I’ll make sure I come back with just the right stuff.” He leaned closer, pressing his face against the glass. “How’s my mark on your belly looking?” She automatically pressed her hand against her stomach, her entire body shaking as she stared at him. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks in spite of her ef- forts to hold them back. His grin widened, his bright white teeth sparkling in the light. “Don’t worry. I’ll freshen it up a bit, make sure it hasn’t…faded, since our last meeting.” He chuckled and hopped off the porch, the flashlight’s beam bouncing across the gravel as he headed toward the truck. Chapter Fifteen Bryson blinked in the near darkness, a fog of confusion roiling through his mind. Where was he? How did he get here? And why was he lying on a couch that, judg- ing by the lumps and musty smell, clearly wasn’t his? He braced his hands on the cushions to push himself up but the tug of a cold chain against his right wrist had him stopping to look down. A small form lay curled up on the floor, her left arm propped against the couch. As his eyes adjusted to the dark and he was able to make out more details, he noticed the gleaming silver circle around both their wrists. They were handcuffed together. Still confused, he leaned down for a better look. Teagan. She was on the floor, without even a pil- low for her head. What was going on? Her eyes were closed and she was asleep, albeit a fitful one, her elegant brows drawn into a frown. Hav- ing never seen her hair anything but perfect, he was surprised to see curls forming a halo around her face, escaping the tight braid that hung down her back. Even worse, there were dark splotches on her blouse. The 126 Agent Under Siege color was lost to him in the darkness, but there was no mistaking the metallic smell. Blood. Memories slammed into him. Awful glimpses of the reality that had happened, and where those dark splotches had come from. He softly touched one to make sure it wasn’t wet, then pulled his hand back in relief. It wasn’t her blood. It was his. Thank goodness she hadn’t been hurt. But that would change the mo- ment their captor returned. Careful not to jostle their joined wrists, he managed to push himself to a sitting position so he could take stock of their situation. It didn’t look good. The front iron-barred door was closed, no doubt locked, but the glass provided a moonlit view of the gravel road and clearing out front. They were empty, the delivery truck nowhere in sight. He studied all four walls in the main room as best he could in the limited light. Both of the front windows were covered in bars. He imagined the one other win- dow that he’d seen in police photos, the one in the tiny bedroom down a short hall, was also barred. The ad- jacent bathroom didn’t have a window, unless that had been changed over the past two years. The place was too small to be called a hunting cabin, which was what the owner had called it in the police reports. Had he been the one to install the bars and new door after what had happened here? Or had he sold the cabin, unknowingly, to the very killer who’d been using it all along as his own? Maybe the original owner was the killer, and the police had mistakenly cleared him. Lena Diaz 127 Those were only some of the questions going through his mind. Along with the one that had been niggling him since the tragedy that had happened at the Brodericks’: How had the killer known that Tea- gan would be there? “Bryson, are you feeling better?” Her voice sounded groggy. She was shoving to her knees, already reaching up to check on him. He grabbed her hands in his and kissed them before letting go. “I hate that I slept at all. But I needed it. I’m think- ing more clearly.” “What about the pain? Your head? Your hip? I could massage—” He stopped her wandering hands and teased. “Boundaries, Teagan.” She smiled, somewhat reluctantly. “I sure never thought our first time sleeping together we’d actually be, well, sleeping.” “Maybe next time it will be different.” Her eyes widened like an owl’s in the darkness. “If you really mean that, I’ll bust out one of these walls to get us out of here. And I’ll hold you to your word.” He laughed, amazed that he could in a situation like this. “Now there’s the sassy, sexy, smart woman I re- member. I think that sleep did both of us some good. But we can’t sit around any longer. We have to get out of here before he comes back.” She moved her arm, frowning when the short chain between their wrists stopped her movement. “You had handcuff keys in your cane. Why didn’t you tell me?” 128 Agent Under Siege “I wasn’t even sure they were still there. It was a gag gift from Bishop, one of the Justice Seekers, after the shooting. He gave me a set of handcuffs and put the keys in the head of the cane, teasing that I could use them to keep my girlfriend at my side through my convalescence. That was after the nurses complained about how bad a patient I was in the hospital.” The corners of her mouth turned up in a small smile. “I can imagine that. I’ve seen how grumpy you are when your hip hurts.” “I never thought about those handcuff keys again until I was lying on the floor in the Brodericks’ foyer and realized we were cuffed together. That’s the main reason I kept asking for the cane. But he kept us under such close scrutiny that I never got the chance to get them out. You have to twist open the top and tilt the cane up in the air. Not something you can do on the sly. Once he put us in the back of the truck and kept the cane, I figured I’d lost my opportunity so there was no point in bringing it up.” “I don’t suppose there was a gun in there too,” she said. “I asked you in Gatlinburg if there was a gun hid- den inside and you said there was.” “I was joking. Being a jerk, really.” “No. Never a jerk.” She squeezed their joined hands. “We need to get these handcuffs off. It’s the only way we’ll have a fighting chance if he comes back be- fore we get out of this shack.” “You really think we have a chance?” Her left hand clutched his right one so hard that his Lena Diaz 129 fingers started going numb. She was trying to put on a brave front. But inside, she was obviously terrified. He leaned down and tilted her chin up, their eyes meeting with understanding, before he pressed a soft kiss against her lips. He’d only meant to distract her for a few seconds, to make sure she knew that he was here for her and would do whatever he could to protect her. But with both their emotions running high, touching her was like putting a match to gasoline. Suddenly she was straddling him like she’d done in his rental car. And the temperature went up a thousand degrees as they tangled against each other like two horny college kids on spring break. It was only when she moaned into his mouth that he realized he’d slid his hands up her belly and was working on the front clasp of her bra. The logical part of his brain was yelling at him to stop this madness, that they were wasting valu- able time. The rest of him, which seemed to be win- ning, was arguing that maybe this was exactly what he should be doing in case these were his last moments on earth. What better way to go out of this world than making love to the most amazing, interesting, adorably sassy woman he’d ever met? “The back,” she whispered against his mouth. “The clasp is in the back.” What few brain cells he had left registered what she’d said, that to take off her bra he had to slide his hands around to her back. But if that was the case, what was the hard part in the front of her bra he’d just felt? Underwire. He broke the kiss and stared down at her. Some- 130 Agent Under Siege where along the line, either she or he had discarded her shirt as best they could. It was hanging over his forearm caught in the handcuff chain. And in the dim light filtering in through the windows and front door, two perfect breasts sat in all their glory, exposed, freed from the cups of her bra that was still fastened beneath them. More than almost anything, he wanted to pull each nipple into his mouth, treasure those soft, warm, incredible curves. But, as impossible as it seemed, there was something else he wanted more. Her underwire. He slid his hands around her back and fumbled with the clasp. She sighed with pleasure as he pulled her bra off, but her eyes flew open in surprise when he sat back. He held the bra up, felt where the underwire ended, then tore at the delicate fabric with his teeth. She stared at him in confusion. “What…what are you doing? If you want to put your mouth on some- thing, trust me, there are better places to put it.” She motioned toward her breasts. He grinned even with the fabric in his mouth. She was definitely the type of woman who knew what she wanted. If he could go back in time and keep her at his house instead of turning her away, he’d probably still be in bed with her days later. “Bryson?” She was frowning now, obviously get- ting annoyed. He made one last tear and the wire hit his teeth. He sat back, working at it with his fingers now, pulling it out of the fabric. Lena Diaz 131 She gasped in dismay. “That bra cost over a hun- dred dollars.” He hesitated. “You’re kidding. You wear hundred- dollar bras?” “It’s my only hundred-dollar bra. I was saving it for a special occasion.” She arched a brow. “Why do you think I took a shower at my parents’ house? Who do you think I put that bra on for?” She waved her hand toward her shorts. “I have matching panties too.” Boy oh boy did he want to see those matching panties. But more than that, he wanted her to live. He glanced toward the door, and the blessedly empty gravel road out front. “I’ll buy you another hundred- dollar bra, a dozen. And matching underwear. But rightnow, I need this.” He finally yanked the wire free and held it up. “Handcuff key.” Her eyes widened in surprise. “Hold up your wrist. I’ll try your side first.” She did as he’d asked, and he ran his fingers along the flat side of the metal circle until he found the little slot for the key, just where the metal was locked into the hole. He slid the end of the underwire inside, then carefully worked it back and forth. The cuff backed out one slot with a loud click, giving her a little more wiggle room. “It’s working!” Her voice was full of awe. “Long way to go. Give me a minute. I have to be careful or the wire will break.” He ratcheted the metal back one slow click at a time. “I’m guessing our captor took Annie from you at 132 Agent Under Siege the Brodericks’,” he said as he twisted the wire in the cuffs. “Otherwise you’d have shot him full of holes.” “Annie? Oh, my gun?” At his nod, she shook her head. “I don’t understand it. I had so many opportuni- ties to get away, to get help. But I just…froze. In that foyer. He took your gun and mine before I even thought about trying to use them. Or run out the front door to a neighbor’s. I can’t believe I just…stood there.” The handcuff loosened another click. “It’s the trauma from before. If he’d been anyone else, I imag- ine that wouldn’t have happened. But your brain shut down the moment you realized who he was. That’s not your fault. It’s not something you could control.” “Nice of you to say, but I’m not so sure that—” Click. He pulled the handcuff off her. She rubbed her wrist and grinned. “I’m free!” “Not quite. That was step one. Step two is getting out of this shack. Step three is disappearing into the woods long before he gets back.” He slipped her end of the handcuffs over his still-cuffed wrist and clicked them loosely into place. “What are you doing!” she exclaimed. “Why did you do that?” “To save time. I can do whatever I need to do with both cuffs on the same wrist. I’ll worry about getting them off later.” He waved toward her shirt, which had fallen to the floor. “I’m having enough trouble focus- ing with this concussion without your gorgeous breasts distracting me. Mind putting your shirt back on?” Her smile beamed at him, full wattage. “You think my breasts are gorgeous? What a sweet thing to say.” Lena Diaz 133 She winked and grabbed her shirt. “Let’s get out of here, Bryson. I want you to buy me those matching un- derwear sets so you can take them right back off again.” He laughed and tried to shove himself to his feet, but his hip gave out and he collapsed against the cushions. His face heated with embarrassment as he cleared his throat. “Looks like I’ll need a little help standing. I should be able to walk but getting up off this couch is beyond my current abilities. I always get stiff after lying down for a while.” “I sure hope you do.” He glanced at her in confusion, then realized what she meant when she winked. He shook his head, grinning. “You’ve got a one- track mind. Help me up.” He held his hand out to stop whatever she was about to say. “Without another sexual innuendo. We’re running out of time.” Her smile faded and fear took its place. He regretted being so blunt, but even though her natural tendency to block out her fears and worries by flirting and teasing was adorable in most circumstances, they were a lia- bility in this one. Especially since the blow to his head had him thinking far less clearly than usual. She helped him up, and thankfully he was able to limp unaided to the door. “What do we do now?” She settled her shirt into place. “Try to pull out the hinge pins?” He was already sticking the underwire into the door lock when her innocent question had him glancing up in surprise. The hinges were on the inside. Because doors like these were intended to keep people out, not in. Their abductor might have finally made a mistake. Chapter Sixteen “You, Teagan Ray, are brilliant,” Bryson told her. “I’ll try the lock first, but I was worried this metal will be too soft for this. The hinge pins will likely be our ticket out of here. But we have to find something to use to pop them out.” He motioned toward the stove, which was only about three feet from the door, and beyond that to the handful of cabinets that formed the tiny kitch- enette. “Look through this kitchen, in the bedroom, under the couch. We’ll need something we can either wedge under the end of the pin to pull it or something to stick in the hinge on the bottom to push it.” “I’m on it.” She moved past him and started slamming open cabinets and drawers. He could follow her progress through the tiny shack by the sound of her cursing and the sounds of her either kicking or hitting walls. He blocked all that out and focused on trying to pick the lock using the underwire. After half a dozen attempts, he realized it wasn’t going to happen. The metal was just too soft and kept Lena Diaz 135 bending. He tossed it aside as she ran to him holding up a long metal rod and a foot-long piece of wood. “Will this work?” She was breathing heavily from exertion. “I figure you can stick the metal up the bot- tom of the hinge and use the wood like a hammer to push out the pin.” “Do I even want to know where you got the steel rod? And why it’s wet?” “Probably not.” “Were you in the bathroom?” “Like I said. You don’t want to know.” He grimaced. The rod looked like one of those old- fashioned toilet-tank float rods that controlled how the toilet flushed. As to the wood, it was either a piece of baseboard or a piece of the floor itself. Judging by the dilapidated shape of the building, neither would sur- prise him. The steel rod was the perfect size and slid in place beneath the middle hinge pin with ease. Hope flared in his chest as he slammed the wood against it. He slammed it over and over and over, but the pin wasn’t moving. He finally stopped and leaned in close, try- ing to see if there was something keeping it in place. Then he took a closer look at the hinges in the door frame and cursed. “What is it?” she asked. “Locking hinge pins.” “Never heard of them. But I don’t like how that sounds.” He tossed the wood and rod on the floor and wiped his hands on his dress pants. “I thought our captor 136 Agent Under Siege made a mistake with the hinges on the inside. But he didn’t. There’s an extra screw that prevents the pin from being backed out. We’d need an Allen wrench and a screwdriver to get it out. No homemade tools are going to back out that screw. It’s drilled into the wrought-iron frame.” Her shoulders slumped. “That’s why he didn’t try to drug us, or tie us up. He knew there was no way to escape.” “Don’t give up on me now. I haven’t thrown in the towel just yet.” She nodded. But he could tell she was rapidly los- ing hope. “Talk to me,” he said. “Tell me how you escaped the last time while I see what else is in here.” “There’s nothing. Just the couch and a few alumi- num pots and pans. The utensils in the drawer are plas- tic or rubber. There’s nothing we could use to stab or hit him.” “He’s got a gun. Nothing much trumps that. We need to get out before he returns. We have to think outside the box.” He limped past the front door and the stove, then yanked open one of the cabinet draw- ers in the kitchenette. “Tell me about the shack, and how you got out.” “It’s basically the same. Well, the bars are new. And the iron front door. There isn’t a back door. He tied me up when he left, with cloth. He didn’t use handcuffs. Mostly he used drugs to keep me docile. He’d knock me out for hours, and I wouldn’t wake up until he was back. I was in detox for weeks after I got away.” Lena Diaz 137 He pulled the hardware, tested the corners of the drawer boxes. “Go on. What else.” She sighed heavily. “I was blindfolded whenever it was light outside. And he wore a hooded mask most of the time. That always gave me hope, thinking he’d eventually let me go because he was keeping his iden- tity secret. But I don’t know that he ever would have. He was just extra cautious, in case something happened and I got away. He’s not worried about us identifying him. He’s going to kill us.” He’d just started into the bathroom but turned around when she said that. “Not if I kill him first. Do not give up on me.” Her eyes widened, but he didn’t stand around talk- ing. The sense of time passing was making him feel edgy and nervous. He couldn’t imagine that whatever their captor was doing would keep him gone much longer. The bathroom was a total bust. It was pitch dark, for one thing, but tiny without even a cabinet under the sink to hide anything. No bleach or cleaners that he could toss in the gunman’s face. He didn’t know how Teagan had managed to think about the toilet rod or even how she’d gotten it out of the back of the tank in the darkness. He had to give her a lot of credit for ingenuity. The bedroom was much the same as the rest. Bars on the lone small window. An empty closet. No bed, just a mattress lying on the floor. It looked new, thank- fully. Not the one that had been here two years ago. He paused in the tiny hallway outside the bedroom. 138 Agent Under Siege As run-down as the place was, maybe they could push through a wall like Teagan had teased about earlier. He doubted it, but he sent her off to look for weaknesses in the walls while he returned to the kitchen corner of the main room. With her distracted, he leaned down to study the two-burner gas stove. It had caught his attention earlier as he’d considered what he could do given the lit pilot light and the fact that the gas line ran through the wall to a propane tank on the outside. Filling the cabin with gas and causing an explosion would likely burn the dry-rotted cabin like kindling. And the fire could be seen for miles around. It would get first responders out here for sure. But being blown apart in the explosion or burning alive were both wholly unappealing. “What are you looking at?” she asked. “Nothing helpful. I’m going to check the bedroom again. Did you find any weaknesses in the walls?” She followed him as he limped into the bedroom. “No. But I’m no expert at building construction. And it’s still so dark in here that I might have missed some- thing. Unless you want more baseboards.” He straightened from his study of the wood beneath the window where he’d been hoping moisture might have rotted out the frame. “Baseboards. That’s what you handed me to use as a hammer. Where did you find it?” She pointed toward the closet. “In there. The board was broken already so I was able to kick out that piece I gave you.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “He’ll be back soon, won’t he?” Lena Diaz 139 The wobble in her voice had him longing to hold her, to try to comfort her. Instead, he dropped to his knees to study the baseboards, grimacing at the jolt of pain that sizzled through his hip. “You didn’t finish telling me how you got away.” He felt along the bottom of the closet as she talked behind him, telling him how her captor had missed the vein the last time when he’d tried to drug her. “He was going on one of his supply trips,” she said. “The injection made me groggy but didn’t knock me out like usual. I pretended to be unconscious. After he left I shoved the blindfold up and used my teeth to loosen my bindings and got myself untied. The old front door was mostly rotten so I kicked it until it split away from the frame. Then I took off. Nothing amaz- ing. I just ran until I couldn’t. Then I walked. Then I crawled. A hiker found me several days later. Not that any of that matters. Our situation is different. We’re good and stuck here.” He tugged on the board he’d been testing, pulling as hard as he could. It broke in half with a loud crack. She jumped beside him. “What was that?” He glanced over his shoulder. “The walls might be solid. But the floor isn’t. Those baseboards came out easily for you because the whole floor in this section has been eaten up with termites.” He waved toward a foot-long, four-inch-wide hole he’d made in the floor. “That’s dirt down there. The crawl space under the cabin. This is how we’re going to get out.” She was shaking her head before he finished. “No, 140 Agent Under Siege Bryson. That’s not the sound I heard. There was some- thing else, out front.” He lurched to his feet, then limped as fast as he could into the main room. She ran after him and they both stumbled to a halt when they saw the headlights bouncing crazily across the trees. A vehicle was com- ing up the gravel road toward the shack. They were out of time. Chapter Seventeen Teagan watched the lights bouncing across the trees. The road faced those trees but ran perpendicular to the front of the shack. They wouldn’t be able to see the truck until it made the last turn and pulled up. But there was no reason for anyone else to come down this road. The killer was back. And when he came inside and saw they were out of their handcuffs, he’d cuff them again. Then he’d make a circuit of the shack and find the small hole that Bryson had started. He’d decide Bryson was too big a liability to keep around. He’d kill him for sure. And then he’d come for her. “Kill me, Bryson.” She grabbed his arm. “Please. I can’t do this again. Choke me. Hit me over the head. Something. It will be a mercy killing. Please.” He shook her hand off his arm. “This isn’t over. You hear me? Don’t you dare give up.” He pointed to the couch. “We have to block the door. As small as this room is, we should be able to jam one end against the wall and the other against the door. He won’t be able to get inside.” She looked from the lights outside to the couch 142 Agent Under Siege and back again. “We’d just be delaying the inevitable. What’s the point? I have a better idea. I’ll make him so angry he has to shoot me. Then at least I won’t have to bear his touch again.” He yanked her around to face him as the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires echoed outside. “All we have to do is break three or four more boards in that closet and we’re out of here. But we have to buy some time. Help me get this couch into place.” He grabbed her arm and tugged her away from the door as the head- lights turned toward the shack. “Grab that other end,” he yelled. “We’ll have to slide it past the hallway to turn it. Hurry.” She ran to the other end and together they slid the couch across the floor. “It’s clear,” he said. “Now, turn it, turn it. This end toward the door.” They slid the couch sideways, one end facing the door, the other the hallway. “He’s here! He’s here,” she yelled. The truck had parked in front of the cabin. “Slide it back. We have to wedge it between the wall and the door. Hurry!” She pushed her end but couldn’t get it against the wall. “It’s too long. It won’t fit. He’ll be able to push the door and the couch will slide down the hall.” The engine cut off outside. A loud creak sounded. The truck door opening? She started to shake. “Oh, God. He’s here.” Bryson leaped over the back of the couch, stumbling and nearly falling before catching himself. Then he Lena Diaz 143 limped to her end. He bent down and somehow lifted the couch in spite of his bad hip, his face turning red as he shoved the couch up in the air. Then he dropped it against the wall just past the hallway opening. It fell down, but stuck with another foot to go. She didn’t see how it would hold. When the killer pushed the door, if he pushed hard enough, the couch would slide up the wall and he’d still be able to get inside. Bryson must have thought the same thing because he climbed onto the end of the couch that was against the wall and hopped up and down, one-legged, favor- ing his hip. He jumped again, and again. The couch springs squeaked in protest. Then it dropped down into place, wedged tight. Keys rattled outside. “Hey, what are you doing in there?” Bryson grabbed her arm and tugged her toward the hallway. “Go, go, go.” “Open the door!” The gunman pounded against it, his voice thick with rage. Once they were inside the bedroom, Bryson released her and limped into the closet. Jamming his bad hip against the wall to keep his balance, he slammed his right heel down on the boards beside the hole, over and over. Wood crunched beneath his boot, dropping below. But the hole wasn’t large enough for them to get through. Not even close. Bam! Bam! Bam! Teagan jerked around as bullets burst through the wall from the front of the shack and plowed through the opposite wall, throwing splinters up in front of her face. 144 Agent Under Siege “Down, get down!” Bryson tackled her to the mat- tress on the floor behind her. More shots exploded through the wall, right where she’d been standing. She buried her head against his neck as he covered her with his body. The front door rattled, followed by furious curs- ing and shouting. Then, nothing. Silence fell over the shack like a heavy blanket, except for the sound of their breathing and the blood rushing in her ears. “What’s he doing now,” she whispered. “Where is he?” He lifted off her and held a finger against his lips, telling her to be quiet. She nodded to let him know she understood. A thump sounded outside. Bryson grabbed her, stumbling and limping as he pulled her into the cor- ner away from the window. Moments later, a flash- light shone through the glass. They both scrunched up against the wall, watching the light as it moved around the room. Then it stopped, shining directly on the hole in the closet floor. The light flicked off. “Oh, no,” she whispered. He swore softly. Then he pressed his fingers to his lips again, and edged to the window to peer out. A thump sounded from somewhere beneath them. She covered her mouth to keep from screaming. He grabbed her, pushing her in front of him toward the door, motioning for her to be as quiet as possible. He was obviously struggling to keep up, his unbal- anced gait evidence of just how badly his hip must be Lena Diaz 145 hurting. But they made it to the hall, then hurried into the main room. He limped to the door and tugged the handle. It moved just enough to prove it wasn’t locked. But there was no way to open it with the couch against it. He mo- tioned for her to put her hand on the knob, then bent down next to her ear. “When I lift the couch, run like hell. Get out of here. Run to the woods and don’t stop for anything.” “What about you? You can’t run.” “Don’t worry about me.” “Bryson, I can’t leave you—” The sound of wood splintering in the other room was followed by a guttural yell. “You’re dead, you hear me? I’m going to kill both of you!” Shots rang out. Glass shattered. He must have shot out the window. “He’ll be through that floor soon. I need you to run. I need to know you’re safe. Then I’ll run a different way and hide. Our best chance is to split up. Promise me you’ll run and won’t look back. Promise!” More wood splintered in the other room. “Promise me.” He lightly shook her. “Okay, okay. Promise.” Bracing his left side against the door, he grabbed the bottom of the couch and pulled and tugged, wres- tling to get it to move after being wedged in so tight. A shot rang out. She ducked, then looked at Bryson, who’d frozen in place. “Are you okay?” His mouth tight, he nodded. “Get ready. Remem- 146 Agent Under Siege ber what I said. Run as fast as you can. Don’t stop for anything.” She nodded and tightened her hand on the doorknob. He heaved again. The couch finally jerked free and seemed to practically fly upward and over on its side, out of the way. As soon as it cleared the door, she tugged it open and ran. She ran as if the hounds of hell were on her heels, because that’s exactly what it felt like. She didn’t stop until she reached the far end of the clearing. Even though she’d promised not to stop, she did. She had to make sure he was okay. Ducking be- hind a pine tree, she peered around it at the shack. The front door was hanging open and the headlights didn’t reveal anyone inside. He’d made it. He’d gotten out. She turned and ran. as soon as Teagan took off running, Bryson dropped to his knees, grimacing as he scooted himself back against the wall, tucked between the door and the stove. He hadn’t lied to her, not at first anyway. He’d thought he could run, or at least limp really fast. With a head start, he would have had a chance. But then things had changed. He slid his hand inside his suit jacket. It came away sticky and wet. That last bullet had hit its mark. He wiped the blood on his pant leg and closed his eyes. Another shout of rage sounded from the bedroom. The man sure had an anger problem. Bryson wondered what he did for a living, because it would be really hard to hide that type of a temper in a nine-to-five office job. Something or someone would be bound to set him off. Whatever he did, it would be a solo kind of job. He’d Lena Diaz 147 have the freedom to set his own hours so he wouldn’t be missed for weeks at a time when he was on a so- ciopathic spree. He’d have made an interesting profile. A series of loud thumps and cursing echoed from the back room. The gunman was finally breaking through the floor. Bryson coughed and blood sprayed out of his mouth. Not a good sign. Darkness was closing in on the edges of his vision again. He shook his head to stay awake. He still had one more thing that he had to do. Step one had been to get out of the handcuffs. Step two was to get Teagan out of the shack to safety. Step three was still to come. He had to ensure that first responders came out here to help her so she wouldn’t die in those woods. And at this point, there was only one way he knew to do that. He slid his hand behind the stove beside him, then yanked hard on the gas line. Like most things in this shack, it was old and brittle and much easier to pull loose than he’d expected. Finally something was going his way. “I’m coming for you now!” the killer yelled from the other room. Shoes stomped on the hardwood floor and a hulking dark shape appeared in the hallway. Dawn was finally breaking on the little glade in the woods. And the first rays of sunlight shone through the door, glinting on the pistol in the other man’s hand. He narrowed his eyes at Bryson, his face red with anger and exertion. He looked left and right, not that he needed to in such a small space. One glance could clearly show that they were alone. 148 Agent Under Siege “Where is she?” He lifted his gun, aiming it at Bryson. “Tell me right now or I’ll shoot.” Bryson smiled and held up the gas line, which was hissing and spewing out foul-smelling propane. “She’s gone. Go ahead and shoot me. The flare from the muz- zle will take us both out. And Teagan will never have to be afraid of you ever again, you scum-sucking, piece of human excrement. You’re not even fit to lick the bot- tom of her shoes, pervert.” The other man’s gun started shaking. His face was so bright red it looked like he would have a stroke at any moment. As gas continued to fill the room, Bryson piled on more insults, trying to prod the killer’s temper so he’d shoot. He wanted him to shoot. Because Teagan would be safe. She could finally live the life she deserved, without fear. And the explosion would bring the help she’d need to make it back to civilization. “You stupid cop.” “Is that the worst you can think to say? Really?” Bryson clucked his tongue. “You’re dumber than I gave you credit.” He roared with rage, then strode across the room toward Bryson and shoved the gun against his tem- ple. But when he glanced at the gas line, he swore. He tossed a few more curses Bryson’s way, then yanked open the door and headed outside. Bryson swore a few choice curses himself. He hadn’t defeated the devil after all. But he’d get the help Teagan needed. Of that he was sure. As soon as the gunman was far enough from the cabin to feel safe, he’d shoot Lena Diaz 149 that propane tank. He was too mad not to. The explo- sion would be spectacular. Half the firefighters and cops in the county would be here in minutes. “Bryson, what are you doing?” His eyes flew open. Teagan was running toward him from the hallway. “What the hell? The place is full of gas and he’s going to—” “Shoot the propane tank, I’m guessing? Was that your stupid plan?” She put her hands beneath his shoul- ders and hauled upward. “Help me. Hurry.” He swore a blue streak and drew on reserves of strength he never knew he had to push to his feet. “Go, go, go,” she yelled, repeating his earlier words to her. They hobbled into the bedroom and she hopped down into the hole. He winced as he tried to lower him- self, then gave up and went headfirst. She was reaching back to help him, but he shoved her toward the patch of sunlight just a few feet away. She hurried forward and he half-scrambled, half-crawled after her. Out front, the truck engine started up. Tires crunched and the engine roared as he drove away from the cabin. They cleared the structure, him leaning heavily on her once again as they stumbled toward the tree line. Just past the first stand of trees, palmettos viciously scraped their flesh. “Down,” he yelled. “Over here!” He yanked her be- hind a fallen tree log and rolled on top of her. A shot sounded. The shack exploded, turning the clearing into a fiery inferno. Chapter Eighteen Teagan restlessly paced the hospital conference room. From the exasperated looks on the faces of most of the men sitting at the table, she knew they were getting tired of her jumping out of her chair. But she was too nervous, too freaking scared about what was going on with Bryson that she couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes. “Ms. Ray,” one of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detectives called out to her. Which one was he? Burns, Rodriquez, Bunting? The names of the other two sitting at the long table had been forgotten right after they’d introduced themselves. How many detectives did it take to question one lone abduction victim? How many did it take to change a stupid light bulb? “Ms. Ray,” he called out again. Burns. That was his name. He motioned toward the other side of the table. “Will you please sit and answer some more questions?” Five against one. JSO on one side, her on the other. Not that they were enemies, exactly. But their lack of Lena Diaz 151 interest, or ability, to solve her abduction and torture two years ago didn’t make her much of a fan now. The only reason she was talking to them was because Bryson was in surgery after being life-flighted from Live Oak to the trauma unit at UF Health Shands Hos- pital here in Jacksonville. It had nearly killed her watching the helicopter disappear in the sky with him on board. And she’d hated being stuck with a Florida Highway Patrolman as her assigned bodyguard, wasting time making her get checked out at a local Live Oak emergency room. When the doctors there confirmed what she’d said all along—that she was fine—the patrolman had finally taken off down Interstate 10 to drive her to Jackson- ville. They’d arrived two hours ago, and she still didn’t have an update on Bryson’s condition other than that he was in surgery. “Ms. Ray—” “Tell you what, Detective Burns.” She flattened her palms against the table but didn’t sit. “How about you get me a real update this time on Mr. Anton’s condi- tion. Something more detailed than a simple acknowl- edgment that he’s still in surgery, and then, maybe I’ll answer more of your endless questions.” He sighed heavily, then left the room, presumably to get the information that she’d requested. Another detective motioned toward her seat. “There are three murders attributable to your abductor—Mr. and Mrs. Broderick and the driver of the delivery truck that he hijacked. We need to catch this guy before he hurts someone else.” 152 Agent Under Siege “Don’t you think I know that?” She shook her head at his seeming callousness. Her heart ached over the senseless, brutal murders her kidnapper had carried out while trying to get to her. She wanted him caught just as badly as anyone else, probably more so. Because even though she wasn’t the one who’d hurt those peo- ple, she’d always wonder whether she could have done something differently to prevent their deaths. “Ms. Ray,” he began again. “I know this is nerve- racking, especially when you’re worried about your fiancé. But we really need your help.” A twinge of guilt shot through her over the fiancé lie. But she’d wanted to make sure that the hospital would share information with her on Bryson’s condi- tion. Not that it had served her well so far. She’d been stuck in this room, answering dozens, maybe hundreds of questions during this inquisition. There just wasn’t anything else she could tell them. Maybe if they’d ac- tually work on the investigation, using the informa- tion that she’d already given them, they’d figure out the killer’s identity and arrest him. She plopped down in her chair. “I honestly don’t know what else you think I can tell you. We’ve been over the timeline again and again. I told you the guy looked familiar but I couldn’t figure out why, still can’t. I sat with your sketch artist and you’ve got his likeness now. Why don’t you put an APB out based on that and try to find the guy?” “They don’t use the term APB anymore, Ms. Ray,” a familiar voice spoke from the doorway. “It’s called a BOLO—be on the lookout.” Lena Diaz 153 Relief had her slumping in her chair at the sight of Bryson’s boss from The Justice Seekers, Mason Ford. “Mr. Ford, thank you so much for coming.” He stepped inside the room. “I’m just glad that I was already in the state working a case when you called.” “Who the heck are you?” one of the detectives de- manded. Rodriquez, she believed. “A friend of the family. If you don’t mind, I need to speak to Ms. Ray.” He opened the door wider when they didn’t move. “Privately.” The detectives shot sour looks at both of them but finally got up. As they headed out the door, Rodriquez turned back to Teagan and slid a business card across the table. “When you’re ready to cooperate, give me a call. We need to jump on this case fast. Please don’t take too long.” With that he headed out the door. She threw her hands in the air. “When I’m ready to cooperate? I’ve done nothing but cooperate. They keep asking me the same questions over and over.” Ford shut the door behind him and gave her an apol- ogetic look. “And I’m about to ask you to repeat ev- erything you just told them. Sorry about that. But you did call. I’m here, and the full force of my company is at yours and Bryson’s disposal. I’m pulling everyone off noncritical cases effective immediately. We’ll do everything we can to catch this guy.” Some of the tension that had taken hold of her for the past twenty-four hours began to melt away at his words. “Thank you, Mr. Ford. I can’t tell you how good it is to hear someone say that. Those detectives treated me as if I was a suspect, the jerks.” 154 Agent Under Siege His mouth tilted up in what she assumed passed for a smile for him. Back at The Justice Seekers head- quarters he’d never cracked even a shadow of a smile. But he’d been nothing but courteous and had jumped at the chance to help once she’d called him on the way from Live Oak to Jacksonville to tell him that Bryson was hurt. He set a leather portfolio on the table and sat across from her. “First, please call me Mason. After all, you being Bryson’s fiancée makes you family, more or less.” She felt her cheeks heat. “I’m sure you realize we aren’t really engaged. I made that up so the hospi- tal would share updates about his condition. Not that they’ve bothered.” “Since you only met a few days ago, I kind of fig- ured that was a ruse. The offer to call me Mason still stands.” “A few days ago? It feels like I’ve known him for- ever.” “Not surprising, given the trauma and emotional turmoil you’ve weathered together. As to those detec- tives being jerks, I’m sorry it feels that way. They’re under a lot of pressure to solve this thing and proba- bly don’t even realize how they come across. Not that it excuses poor manners. As for Bryson’s condition, I can update you on that.” She straightened in her chair. “The hospital gave you information?” “Let’s just say that I got the information from the hospital and leave it at that. Sometimes the end justi- fies the means. Don’t you think?” Lena Diaz 155 She grinned. “I like how you work, Mason. Please tell me how he’s doing. Is he…is he going to—” “He’s going to be fine.” She dropped her face in her hands, unexpected tears flowing down her cheeks. He waited silently until she regained control of her emotions. A few minutes later, she drew a ragged breath and sat back. “That’s very good to hear. Thank you.” “Of course. He’s actually in recovery now and should be awake soon.” He placed his cell phone on the table. “The second he’s lucid, that’s going to vi- brate. I’ll take you right to him.” “Thank you,” she whispered, fighting to hold back more tears. “The bullet nicked his spleen but no other organs,” he continued. “It went through and through. He lost a lot of blood. That on top of the concussion pretty much shut him down. That’s why he was unconscious after the blast. Luckily you were both behind a log when the tank exploded, which shielded you from the shock wave. Otherwise, your insides would have liquefied.” She winced. He smiled apologetically. “Sorry. That was graphic. Bottom line, he’s going to be okay, eventually. He was lucky. You both were. If the explosion and resulting fire hadn’t alerted authorities so that help arrived quickly, he’d have bled out.” She wrapped her arms around her waist. “Once again, he saved me, in spite of how badly he was hurt. He saved both of us. He’s an incredible man.” 156 Agent Under Siege “Yes. Yes, he is. And I want to do everything I can to protect both of you. We need to catch this guy and get enough evidence to ensure he’ll either be executed or locked up so he can’t hurt anyone else ever again. I know you’re weary of answering questions. But I’m coming in late on this. So I’d very much appreciate it if you’d start from the top, right after you left my of- fice in Gatlinburg.” He pulled a computer tablet from his portfolio and set it on top of the table. Then he took out a small electronic device and set it a foot away from her. “To save time briefing my team, and to make sure I don’t miss anything, I’m going to record this as well as take notes. If you’re okay with it?” “Absolutely.” Covering the same ground yet again didn’t bother her since it was Mason who was asking the questions. She believed that he’d actually do some- thing with the information. None of the detectives she’d spoken to earlier had inspired that kind of confidence. “Did the police give you a copy of the likeness their sketch artist came up with?” “Not yet.” He picked up his phone. His fingers prac- tically flew across the screen as he typed out a text. He waited a few seconds, then the phone buzzed. He checked the screen, then set it down. “My team will have the sketch within minutes.” He poised his hands over the virtual keyboard on the tablet. “You were going to tell me the timeline. Don’t leave anything out.” Half an hour later, a knock sounded on the door. Mason was out of his chair, gun in hand but hidden behind him before the door opened. The detective who’d gone for a status update stood Lena Diaz 157 in the opening, a look of surprise on his face when he saw Mason. He took a quick glance into the room. “Where is everyone?” “Not here. What can I do for you?” “I, ah, wanted to let Ms. Ray know that Mr. Anton is out of surgery.” “Thank you.” Mason closed the door before the de- tective could say anything else. He holstered his gun, then sat down. “You were saying?” She clenched her hands together beneath the table. “You drew your gun. You think he’ll show up here? At the hospital?” “It’s possible. Don’t worry. I had a guard stationed outside the surgery room. He’ll stay with Bryson in recovery as well.” She blinked. “How do the police feel about that?” “I’m always as accommodating as possible with law enforcement. But I’m not about to leave the security of an injured member of my team to their care. The hos- pital administrator was more than okay with it after I offered a substantial donation in Bryson’s name.” He winked. “Now, if you don’t mind. Please continue.” “Yes, of course. I, um, I guess I was up to the point of where I ran like a coward for the trees.” “No. I think you were telling me that you did exactly what Bryson asked you to do, so you wouldn’t put him in more danger by making him worry about having to protect you rather than make his own escape. But I’m puzzled. If you ran into the woods at the front of the clearing, how did you end up behind the shack when it exploded?” 158 Agent Under Siege Her face heated. “I didn’t exactly follow Bryson’s instructions. I know he wanted me to keep going, to run as far away as I could. But I hadn’t seen him leave the shack, and I was worried that he might have been pretending to feel better than he did, just to get me out of danger. All throughout our ordeal, he kept telling me to have faith, that it was two against one, that we could beat the bad guy together. And there I was run- ning away. I just couldn’t do it.” He crossed his arms on top of the table. “So what did you do?” She wrapped her arms around her middle, remem- bering. “I circled through the woods to the back of the shack.” “Where was the gunman?” “I wasn’t sure. The truck was still parked out front. I didn’t see him anywhere.” He stared at her, waiting. “I got down on my belly and tried to see beneath the shack, through the crawl space. When I didn’t see anyone moving around under there, I was terrified that the gunman was inside with Bryson. So I ran to the shack and crawled up into the closet through the hole in the floor.” He still didn’t say anything. But his eyes widened slightly. “I heard the gunman shouting in the other room. And I smelled gas. It was filling up the cabin. A mo- ment later, the front door creaked. I peeked around the corner and saw the gunman running for his truck.” She Lena Diaz 159 swallowed hard. “And Bryson, he was just sitting there, his back to the wall, holding the gas line in his hand.” She swiped at the tears in her eyes. “For a split sec- ond, I thought he was dead. But then I saw his chest rise and realized he was still alive. I yelled at him to get out. We dropped through the hole in the closet floor and made it to the woods just before the explosion.” She wiped her tears again. “Like you said earlier, if it wasn’t for Bryson getting both of us behind that log when he did, we’d both be dead. He deserves a medal of honor. Not a bullet in the back.” He cleared his throat. “That’s quite a story. I gather you sat with him until help arrived?” “Of course. I know CPR. But that’s about the lim- its of my nursing abilities. He was breathing, and his heart was beating. But he wouldn’t open his eyes. I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was to apply pressure to the wounds, even though they didn’t seem to be bleeding all that much. I had no idea he was bleeding internally.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and let out a shuddering breath. “Thank goodness the fire depart- ment and police arrived so quickly. I heard the sirens and ran to the clearing. They were amazing, ran with me around back, no questions asked. They immedi- ately started an IV and got him on a gurney. I think they flew him out in a helicopter within a couple of minutes. They saved his life.” He slowly shook his head. “No, Ms. Ray. I think that distinction belongs to you. If you hadn’t been stub- born enough and brave enough to go back into that 160 Agent Under Siege shack to check on him, he’d be dead right now.” His voice sounded oddly hoarse, and he cleared his throat before continuing. “Thank you. On behalf of all the Justice Seekers, thank you for saving our dear friend and coworker.” She was about to argue that he wouldn’t have even been in danger in the first place if it wasn’t for her, but his phone vibrated against the table. He picked it up, then stood. She shoved out of her chair. “Bryson’s awake?” He shook his head. “Not yet. But I’ll go check on him right now. Meanwhile, you have visitors.” “Visitors?” She frowned. “The police are back?” He hesitated at the door. “When you called me to help Bryson, I took the liberty of calling someone to help you. But I asked them to give me time to inter- view you first. They’ve been very accommodating. But they’re out in the hall now, demanding to see you.” He smiled his first real smile. “You’re an incredibly brave and smart young woman. Thank you again for every- thing you did.” Without waiting for her reply, he left the room. A moment later, two people rounded the corner and paused in the doorway. She let out a shriek and ran around the table, tears flowing again. Her mother and father gathered her to them in a bone-crushing hug. Chapter Nineteen Teagan sighed deeply and shifted positions in the plas- tic chair a few feet from Bryson’s hospital bed as he slept the morning away. Three days. It had been three days since she’d cried all over him in the recovery room after he woke up from surgery, only to have him gruffly tell her that he needed his sleep. Since then, he’d hardly spoken a word to her. He was acting just like the surly bear she’d encountered the first time they’d met. But they’d moved beyond that. Far beyond it. So why was he acting like they were strangers and he was the grouchy hermit again? She’d asked him that very thing. His answers were many. He had a headache. He was feeling fuzzy from the concussion. The pain from his surgery had him feeling bad and he just needed to sleep. All of that was probably true. But he was a strong man, and had overcome far worse to save both their lives. And he’d been at his kindest in the past when he was in tremendous pain, because he’d risen above it to save them. So none of his actions now made sense. Thankfully, his boss—Mason Ford—didn’t seem 162 Agent Under Siege worried about Bryson’s less than friendly attitude that seemed to extend to anyone unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity. He simply ignored Bryson’s gruff responses and went about his business. And he kept Teagan up to date on everything going on with the investigation. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t much. Even with half the Justice Seekers working the case here in Jacksonville, none of them seemed to be mak- ing any more headway than JSO. No one had discov- ered the identity yet of the man who’d abducted them and killed three innocent people. But Mason assured her they were doing everything they could and weren’t giving up. And he did something else—he gave her a company credit card to use for all of her and Bryson’s needs. He told her the card had no limit and to use it for anything at all, no questions asked. He’d also ordered Bryson to let her make all the arrangements to get him set up at a local hotel after being discharged so he could get strong enough for the trip back to Gatlinburg. Teagan decided that she liked Mason Ford very much, especially since he made no secret that he was rooting for her to win this little cold war between her and Bryson. She crossed her arms and waited another half hour before the doctor’s morning rounds finally brought him to Bryson’s room to perform a final evaluation before giving him discharge papers. Miraculously, he woke up just as the doctor stepped into the room. Teagan snorted and looked out the window, pretending indif- ference, when she was fuming inside. The hurt had long ago faded. Or, at least, it was bur- Lena Diaz 163 ied down deep. No more crying in front of him. She had her pride after all. And no crying on her mama’s shoulder either, given that her mother now thought— along with the hospital staff—that she and Bryson were engaged. That was going to be a huge disappointment for her parents once he went back to Gatlinburg and she told them the “engagement” was off. They’d half fallen in love with him when he’d had dinner at their home. They fell the rest of the way after hearing everything he’d done to protect their only child. But they wouldn’t be the only ones nursing a bro- ken heart. She kept her face averted, pretending interest in something out the window while she wiped the wetness from her eyes. How could she still have all these in- convenient feelings for a man who didn’t return them? She took a few deep breaths and reached down for her anger again, wrapping it around her other emotions like a shield, to keep her safe. “All in all, you’re an incredibly lucky man,” the doc- tor said behind her as he apparently finished his exam. “Any one of your injuries—the blow to the head, the gunshot, the half-dozen pieces of wood that the explo- sion drove into your back—could have killed you. You might not feel lucky right now, but once the pain fades and you’re back on your feet, I think you’ll begin to realize just how fortunate you are. Someone was look- ing out for you.” She turned around, but steadfastly looked at the floor while he thanked the doctor and discussed the discharge instructions. Her anger had evaporated beneath the shock 164 Agent Under Siege of what she’d just heard. She hadn’t known about the wood driven into his back. On top of everything else that he’d endured, he’d basically been stabbed, six times, as the remnants of the shack rained down on them. But not one of those pieces of lethally sharp wood had hit her— because he’d protected her. Again. She had no right to be angry with him. And he had every right to be angry with her. He’d be sitting on his dock enjoying a cold beer right now, listening to the rippling water of the stream behind his house if it wasn’t for her. Healthy, content, his only worry the ache in his hip when the tequila and scotch weren’t enough to dull the pain. What a selfish immature idiot she’d been, thinking only of herself. The squeak of metal had her glancing up to see him struggling to lower the railing. The doctor must have left while she was consumed with her own thoughts. She rushed over to him. “Here, let me.” She gently pushed his hands away and lowered the railing. “Just, please, don’t try to get out of bed on your own. I know you don’t want my help, so I’ll get the nurse to help you get dressed.” “Teagan, I—” “It’s okay. I understand. I’ll have the car brought up and will meet you and the nurse out front.” He frowned. “What do you think you understand?” Without answering, she hurried from the room. Bryson eased Back against the pillows that Teagan had just stuffed behind him so he could sit up in the hotel bed. “Thank you.” He motioned toward the impressive Lena Diaz 165 fifteen-hundred-square-feet, two-bedroom suite that she’d reserved for them at the Omni hotel. The accom- modations were luxurious, but more important, it was close enough to the hospital that he hadn’t had to en- dure the agony of a long car ride. And since she’d in- sisted on him taking more pain pills after reaching the hotel, he was feeling pretty good right now. Physically at least. “Thank you for everything, Teagan.” She seemed surprised by his words, acknowledg- ing them with a quick nod. Then she turned to finish putting away his clothes that she’d had brought from the other hotel he’d originally been staying in, closer to The Woods subdivision. Her surprise that he’d ac- tually thank her had him feeling like even more of a jerk than he had since the moment he’d woken up in the recovery room. All the memories of what had happened had slammed into him, stealing his breath. He’d made so many mistakes that could have cost her life. The very first one was in agreeing to take her with him to that ill-fated interview at the Brodericks’. Everything had gone downhill from there. The worst part was knowing what had driven him to include her, to give in to her request even though he was the one experienced in law enforcement and knew bet- ter, knew the dangers. What had driven him was pure selfishness, his ridiculous fixation on her and desire, no—need—to be around her as much as possible. His obsession had clouded his reason. And just as soon as he was able to manage on his own, he’d set her free, break this tenuous bond that had developed between 166 Agent Under Siege them. He’d ensure that none of his bad decisions could ever risk her life again. Obviously he hadn’t learned the lessons of his past—from his sloppy handling of the Kentucky Ripper case to his failure to save Hayley from the person who’d ended up shooting him in the hip all those months ago. He had no business thinking he could really protect Teagan. She was much better off without him. Finally she stopped running around the suite put- ting things away, and stood by his bed. “I guess it’s good that you already had a wheelchair and had it at your other hotel,” she said. “Saved me from having to rent one while you’re here. Goodness knows you’ll need it for a while until you’re back on your feet.” She motioned beside the bed where she’d stored it within easy reach. “There’s a cane too, for when you’re feeling good enough to try to walk. It’s nothing fancy. I got it at the hospital gift shop. Your other one, unfortunately, is locked up in evidence. It practically took an act of Congress just to get my purse released after the police took it from the Brodericks’ home. They wouldn’t even discuss the cane, for some reason. Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten your discharge instructions, they’re in writing in the top drawer of your bedside table. But part of it is that the doctor wants you to try to stand and take at least a few steps several times a day. If you’re in bed the whole time you could get blood clots and—” “Teagan.” “Do you need something? A glass of water? Soda? There’s a bar over there but you really shouldn’t have any alcohol with the pain meds you’re—” Lena Diaz 167 “No. Thank you. I don’t need anything. I—” “Okay, then. I’m going to explore my room, catch up on some sleep. I haven’t slept well at the hospital and—” “Teagan.” “—if you need something, just text me on your phone. I left it on the nightstand. The police have both our phones in evidence so that’s a new one. I had Mason program your team’s numbers in there, so that should help. My new number’s in there too, obviously, so you can text me. I’ll check on you in a couple of hours.” “I need to talk to you.” “No, right now you need to sleep. We both do.” “Wait, please. Just give me a minute to—” She hurried into the other bedroom, shutting the door hard behind her. But she hadn’t turned fast enough to hide the tears in her eyes. He swore and punched a fist into the mattress be- side him. Chapter Twenty After spending five grueling days and nights in a tension-filled hotel suite with Bryson, Teagan was more than ready to see the last of the place, no matter how amazingly luxurious it was. She could have had a home health-care nurse take care of him while he re- cuperated. But since part of the reason that Mason had suggested they stay there together was to ensure that both of them were out of sight in case the killer came looking for them, it just made sense for her to take care of him herself. But it hadn’t been easy. They’d hardly said two words to each other after their arrival. And since it wasn’t looking promising that the killer would be found any time soon, it was time for both of them to try to get on with their lives. Well, as much as possible anyway. The police would have someone watching her parents’ home while she was here, not that anyone expected the killer to be bra- zen enough to try to hurt her again. He was long gone, on the run. Now, as the rented limo pulled up at her parents’ Lena Diaz 169 home to drop her off so Bryson could fly in Mason’s private jet back to Gatlinburg, she was so antsy to get away from him that she was pulling open the door be- fore the driver had even come to a complete stop on the street out front. “Wait,” Bryson called out. “Let me walk you to the door.” “I’ve got it. No need.” She grabbed her one piece of luggage from the seat beside her and hopped out, not even giving the driver a chance to open the door. “Take care, Bryson.” She heard him swearing as she slammed the door shut. Tears were already running down her cheeks by the time she sprinted across the front lawn and threw open the front door. “Mom, Dad, I’m home. Don’t get up,” she yelled, hurrying toward her old bedroom on the right side of the house. “I’ll put away my stuff and freshen up. Talk to you in a few.” “Teagan? Are you okay?” her mom called out from the kitchen where insanely amazing smells were com- ing from. She must be cooking dinner. “I’m great. Need to use the restroom, that’s all,” she lied, hurrying to toss her bag on the bedroom floor then running into the bathroom before her mother could stop her. She shut the door, then turned around and slid to the floor, finally letting the tears fall that had threat- ened all morning. She hated crying, especially since she’d probably cried more lately than most people cried an entire lifetime. But it seemed to be the only outlet for her tumultuous emotions. Admitting to her mom 170 Agent Under Siege that she was more upset over the way the relationship between her and Bryson had ended than the fact that a killer was still out there wasn’t something she was keen about. Especially since the so-called relationship had never really begun in the first place. It wasn’t real, none of this. It couldn’t be. They hadn’t even dated. So how could she possibly be in love with him? It wasn’t love. It was lust, and shared trauma. In a few weeks, or months, this ache deep in her soul would be gone and she’d forget all about Bryson Anton. Now if only she could convince her heart of that brazen lie, she’d be just fine. After crying for a ridiculously long time, she actu- ally felt better. She blew out a shuddering breath, then climbed to her feet. The mirror above the sink was not her friend. Her eyes were puffy and red. Her hair was escaping her customary braid. And her makeup was a disaster. Thankfully, her mom and dad wouldn’t care about her makeup. But they would care if they realized she’d been sitting in here crying for the past ten minutes. She grabbed a washcloth from the cabinet under the sink and washed her face, scrubbing off all of the makeup she’d painstakingly applied in the hotel bathroom. Not that Bryson had noticed. Her throat tightened. Good grief. Stop it, Teagan. He’s not worth it. She lifted her gaze to the mirror and shook her head. Maybe if she kept lying to herself, she’d eventually believe the lies. Straightening her shoulders, she drew a bracing breath and headed off to find her parents. Her mom smiled at her from the archway into the kitchen. Lena Diaz 171 “Teagan, baby. Finally you’re home.” Her mom tossed a dishcloth onto the countertop and wrapped her arms around her. “It’s so good to be here. I missed you and Daddy so much.” After a good long hug, she let her mom go and glanced around the kitchen. “It smells amazing in here. Did you cook all my favorites?” She crossed to the stove and bent down to smell the tantalizing aroma rising from the huge pot. “Jambalaya. You’re the best, Mom.” “There’s apple pie baking in the oven. It’ll be ready by the time we finish supper.” She turned around to hug her mom again, then froze. Bryson was leaning against the wall beside the table at the other end of the kitchen, looking like a model out of a magazine in his charcoal gray tailored suit. He straightened away from the wall and smiled. “Hello, Teagan.” “What…what are you doing here?” she demanded. “You’re supposed to be on your way to the airport.” “I wanted to pay my respects to your parents and they invited me to dinner. You don’t mind, do you?” “Well, of course I mind.” She put her hands on her hips. “You need to leave.” “Teagan Ray,” her mother chided her. “That’s not how we treat our guests, especially your fiancé.” “He’s not—” “Teagan!” Her father had just stepped inside from the backyard, holding a pitcher of sun tea that her mom must have had steeping on the porch table. Behind him, Zeus lay on the grass, sunning himself. Her father’s 172 Agent Under Siege mouth widened in a broad smile. “Your mom said you were finally home. Come over here and give dear old dad a hug.” He nodded at Bryson, apparently unsur- prised to see him, and set the jug on the table. She reluctantly stepped into his embrace, glaring at Bryson over her father’s shoulder. This farce had to end now. No way was she going to sit through dinner pretending everything was okay. When he let her go, she moved back beside her mother. “Mom, Dad, there’s something I need to tell you.” “You can relax,” Bryson said. “I already told them.” Her jaw dropped open. “You told them?” She glanced from her mom to her dad. “Neither of you look furious with me. What exactly did he tell you?” Her mom pressed a kiss against her cheek. “The truth. That you were never engaged, that you weren’t even boyfriend and girlfriend. He explained how you told the hospital you were his fiancée so you could be in on his care plan, which I think is really sweet. I was just teasing you a minute ago about being engaged. I shouldn’t have done that.” She blinked at her mom, then shot Bryson a con- fused look. “What did he tell you about why I said that he was my boyfriend?” “He is standing right here and can speak for him- self,” Bryson teased, sounding lighthearted, which had her even more confused after everything that had hap- pened. “I explained that you didn’t want them to worry about you because of the bad breakup with your ex. You wanted to protect them, to keep them from think- ing you hadn’t moved on in your life.” Lena Diaz 173 “You said that?” she whispered, her throat tight. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” She slowly nodded. “I still don’t understand why you’re here. You should be on the plane.” He stepped toward her, his limp barely noticeable. Then, to her complete and utter shock, he took both her hands in his. “I couldn’t leave with things the way they are be- tween us,” he said. “I need to explain why I’ve been a complete and utter jerk since waking up in recovery.” Her chin wobbled, and to her horror she realized she still had tears left to shed. She furiously blinked them back and glanced at her parents, who were both av- idly watching without making any pretense at not try- ing to listen. She leaned forward, lowering her voice, even though she was certain they could still hear. “You don’t owe me any explanations.” “Yes. I do. We can talk now, in front of your par- ents. Or somewhere private. But I’m not leaving until I apologize and give you an honest explanation.” “Why are you being so nice all of a sudden?” She leaned in so close she was almost touching him and whispered, “You don’t owe me anything, Bryson.” He slowly shook his head. “I owe you my life.” “Damn it,” she muttered, stepping back. “You’re making me cry again.” “Teagan—” her mother began. “I know, I know. Language. Sorry, Mom.” She won- dered if her mother would still treat her like a kid when she hit thirty. She swiped at her wet eyes. “We’ll talk in the backyard, Bryson. Then you can go.” 174 Agent Under Siege “After dinner,” her mother said. “Whatever you two have to say can be settled later. Now go wash up. Henry, show Bryson to the other bathroom so he can wash up too.” Teagan’s face heated with embarrassment at being ordered around in front of Bryson. But since he was currently following her father to the master suite to the second bathroom, at least she wasn’t the only one being bossed around like a child. “You can thank me later,” her mother whispered. “Now go fix your face before that handsome man comes back.” She gasped in dismay, remembering that she’d washed off her makeup, and ran for the bathroom. “you didn’t need to put on any makeup, you know,” Bryson said after dinner as they both rested their arms on the top of the picket fence and stared out over the backyard pond. Her face heated yet again. “I’m amazed you even noticed.” He sighed heavily. “I owe you a tremendous apol- ogy. I’ve been an absolute beast since waking up after the explosion.” She hesitated, his words surprising her. “I didn’t think of it that way, that when you woke up in recovery it was your first time being awake since the explosion. You must have been really confused. In your place, I think I would have been terrified. Not knowing what had happened.” Lena Diaz 175 He turned to face her, his left hand braced on top of the fence. “I was beyond terrified, about you.” “About me? But… I was right there in the recovery room. You saw that I was okay.” “By the grace of God, yes. Teagan, what were you thinking coming back inside that shack? Just a few seconds earlier and that madman would have still been there to kill you or take you with him. A few seconds later and you’d have been killed in the explosion. You shouldn’t have risked your life like that, especially after promising me you’d run as fast as you could and wouldn’t stop.” “Sort of like you promised me that you’d run out of the shack too? If you’d told me you’d been shot, I would have helped you instead of running off and leaving you. If you’d been killed, how do you think that would have made me feel? How could I live with that kind of guilt on my conscience? If you think I’m the kind of woman who thinks it’s romantic for a guy to die for her, then you don’t know me at all. I don’t want you to die for me. I want you to live.” His jaw tightened, and he turned to face the pond again. She did the same, counting silently until she could speak again without her voice shaking. “So that’s it then?” she finally said. “You’ve been mad at me ever since then because I couldn’t bear for you to die if there was anything I could do to prevent it? Is this your apol-ogy? Because as apologies go, it totally sucks.” He suddenly turned and grasped her forearms, pull- ing her close. “Don’t you get it, Teagan? When you 176 Agent Under Siege walked in my door in Gatlinburg, you changed every- thing for me, everything. You made me care when I didn’t want to. You made me want…you. And instead of shutting myself away to protect someone else from being hurt by another one of my lousy decisions, I decided to give it another try. I thought maybe, just maybe, I could help you and not be a bringer of doom. But look at how that worked out? I’m a jinx. Bad luck. Whatever you want to call it. If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have been at the Brodericks’.” She shook her head. “What you’re saying doesn’t even make sense. Mason told me what happened with Hayley, when you were shot in the hip. You were the only person for miles around who saw her with the kid- napper. You rammed her truck with your car to try to save her, and paid for it by getting shot.” He started to interrupt, but she pushed his hands away to stop him. “The only one who thinks you were a failure in that incident is you. From what Mason said, the delay you caused before the abductor took off with Hayley again was enough of a delay to save her life. It gave other Seekers the time they needed to catch up to them. She’salive because of you. Period.” His jaw tightened. “Are you done yet?” “No. I’m not. I won’t bother getting into the details about the Ripper case. I already told you my own in- vestigation proved to me that you were the only one who had that right. And, hey, look at me, I was the one who was dead wrong on who abducted me. It certainly wasn’t Lowe. But as far as me going with you to inter- view the Brodericks, give me a break. You know me Lena Diaz 177 well enough by now to realize that if you hadn’t agreed to work with me after running into Zeus and me on that path, I would have continued my investigation on my own. So what do you think would have happened when I took the steps you did, set up an interview with the Brodericks, and others. Eventually I’d have stumbled onto the killer, like you and I both did. But I’d have done it alone. How do you think that would have turned out? Without you to save me, I’d have never figured out how to get out of handcuffs, or thought to make a hole in the floor to escape the shack. Without you, I’d be dead right now. Don’t you see that?” His gaze searched hers. “After everything that’s hap- pened, how can you have such faith in me?” “You’ve never let me down, not once. Why wouldn’t I believe in you?” He lifted her hands and gently pressed a kiss on the back of each of them. “I’ve been angry at myself, angry at you, because I care so much about you. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” She tugged her hands free and cupped his cheeks. “Then maybe instead of pushing me away, you should be pulling me close. Because there’s no one I’d ever trust more than you to keep me safe.” He groaned before taking her in his arms and kiss- ing her. The kiss was so sweet, so tender, that she was crying when it was over. He frowned and gently wiped away her tears. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. What is it? What did I do?” She laughed through her tears. “You did everything exactly right. These are happy tears, for once.” 178 Agent Under Siege He pulled her against his chest. “I don’t know that I deserve your trust. Or that I deserve you at all. But you make me want to.” He pressed a kiss against the top of her head. She reveled in the feel of him in her arms, finally. The sweetness of his hug, and the kiss they’d just shared, melted away the hurt of the past week. Finally, she was exactly where she wanted to be. And it felt far better than she’d ever imagined it would. “I’m so glad I took Zeus for a walk that day,” she said. “And that you were with me when the killer found me. You’re an amazing man.” He grew still, then gently pushed her back. “That’s it. The missing puzzle piece. The path where you were abducted the first time, and where we met while you were walking Zeus. That has to be it.” She stared up at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?” He pulled out his cell phone. “It’s always bothered me that the killer knew you’d be at the Brodericks’. And that he had enough lead time to have carjacked the delivery guy and hidden the truck in that garage. He also had time to loosen a section of fence, all in an- ticipation of us coming over. Who knew you’d be with me that night?” She shook her head. “No one. No one but you and me. I didn’t even tell my parents where we were going.” “Exactly. You and I didn’t talk to anyone about our plans. And there’s no reason to assume the Brodericks would have told anyone either, or that they’d just hap- pen to mention it when the killer was nearby.” Lena Diaz 179 “Okay, then the killer would have had to hear you and me discussing it. Is that what you’re saying?” “Bingo.” He pressed a speed-dial number on his phone. “Mason, yeah, it’s Bryson at my new number. Listen, are any of the Seekers in The Woods subdivi- sion right now, maybe interviewing witnesses?” He shook his head for her benefit. “Okay, right. That’s fine. I can—” He listened for a few moments, nodding. “JSO. Of course. I forgot they were conducting extra patrols out here. I’ll call them now. I’ll catch you up later. It’s just a hunch.” “Bryson, what’s going on?” “Just a minute, sweetheart. One more call.” He pressed another speed-dial number. “Detective Burns? Bryson Anton. Yes. I have a favor to ask.” He idly turned away, slowly walking down the length of the fence as he explained whatever hunch he had to the detective. She leaned against a post, smiling as she noted how well he was walking, without using his cane. His limp was barely noticeable. The last several days of rest had done wonders. And thankfully his surgery had been laparoscopic, making the recovery much easier. Still, he hadn’t had a miracle cure. If he pushed too hard he’d end up having to use the new cane she’d gotten him to replace the old one. Or, worse, end up in his wheelchair for the rest of the day. What he really needed was to go home, to get on that flight to Gatlinburg, and give his body more time to fully recover. As he turned back toward her, still talking on the phone, she wondered what was going to happen next. 180 Agent Under Siege Not with the case. She was content to let others han- dle it at this point. What she wanted to know was what would happen with them. After all, he’d kissed her, in full view of her parents who were no doubt watching them through the back sliding glass doors this very minute. And he’d called her sweetheart. Twice in as many minutes. That had to mean something serious, didn’t it? He stopped a few yards away and leaned against the fence looking out at the water, phone still to his ear. But he wasn’t talking. He seemed to be waiting for something. He suddenly straightened and looked at her, a slow smile spreading across his face. He said something else to the detective, then shoved his phone in his pocket and closed the distance between them. “What is it?” she asked. “Did they…did they catch him?” “Not yet. But we’ve got a great lead. I asked JSO to look for some kind of camera tucked up in the trees that overlook the path, at the spot where we were that day I met you with Zeus.” “And where I was abducted.” “Yes. It dawned on me that the only reasonable way the killer could have known about you going to the Brodericks’ was if he heard us talking about it. And the only place we spoke about it was—” “On the path.” “Exactly. The camera was about twenty feet up in an oak tree, tucked into a juncture with two other branches, with a fake bird’s nest concealing all but a small hole for the lens. And it has audio capabilities as Lena Diaz 181 well as visual. He was watching and listening. There may be other cameras along the path too. Now that JSO knows what to look for, they’ll be able to find them, if they exist. More importantly, they’ll be able to get an expert on this, figure out the camera’s range and tri- angulate the area where someone would have to be in order to receive the transmission.” “Wouldn’t he have to be close by?” “Probably. Which means it’s likely he lives or works in this subdivision, and I’m guessing he did two years ago, as well. I doubt he targeted you specifically, not the first time. You just happened along the trail and met whatever criteria he has for his preferred victims.” She pressed a hand to her throat. “I’m still stuck on the first part, about him living or working here. JSO cleared everyone back then, everyone in the whole de- velopment.” He cocked his head. “They didn’t clear everyone in the one next door.” She gasped. “Bentwater Place. The house where he took us and put us in the truck. He might live there?” He shrugged. “JSO’s looking into it. I would have thought if he did, they’d have figured that out already as part of the Broderick murder investigation. But it’s possible he lives in one of the homes next door and would have known the house was empty the night we were doing the interview. Then again, he may live here in your subdivision and the police cleared someone they shouldn’t have when your case was being actively looked into. Like you, I’m a bit skeptical since they missed that camera and it’s remained there all this time. 182 Agent Under Siege But from what the officer said who found it, he never would have seen it if I hadn’t specifically told him to look for one.” “Wait. Are you saying it’s been there for years? Not that it was put there recently?” He clasped her hands in his. “Based on the condi- tion of the outside casing, it was probably there back when you were abducted. My guess is when the po- lice didn’t find it, the killer didn’t risk going back to get it. And when months passed without it being dis- covered, he kept it active and checked in on the video every now and then.” “Which is how he knew I was here in Jacksonville, and where we were going that night.” He squeezed her hands. “I believe so, yes.” She stared up at him. “I was bound and determined to walk that path all week for my planned visit with my parents. I naively assumed I’d be okay with Zeus and my gun. But the way I froze back at the shack, and at the Brodericks’ house, we both know I wouldn’t have drawn my gun in time to protect myself. And knowing what I do now, I don’t think Zeus could have stopped him either. Thank God you were there that day.” He leaned down and pressed a quick kiss against her lips. “That camera will hopefully lead them to the killer. And the BOLO they have with the police artist’s sketch will ensure he doesn’t get very far. But I’m not taking any chances. Pack a bag, Teagan. You’re going with me to Tennessee.” Chapter Twenty-One If any other man had informed Teagan that she was going to do something, or go somewhere, without ask- ing her, she’d have ripped right into him. But this was Bryson. She knew his authoritarian dictate wasn’t his typical way of operating, that he wanted to keep her safe, which was incredibly sweet. Besides, flying on a private jet to his home for who knew how many days or weeks of seclusion with him wasn’t exactly a hard- ship. Especially since they’d worked through the ten- sions and self-recriminations of this past week. She was looking forward to this time alone with him. But as she watched him snoozing in the limo seat across from her on the last leg of the trip to his house, she couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment. Between the toll that his injuries had taken on him and the effects of the pain pills and antibiotics, he’d slept most of the way here. He needed the rest to get better. But she was so hungry for time with him, quality time. She wanted that get to know you phase of the relation- ship that they’d skipped during their life and death struggles. She was greedy to learn the little things. 184 Agent Under Siege Like his favorite color. His favorite food. Was he partial to country music as so many people around here were? Would it shock him to know that she hated country music but loved classical? Since he hadn’t mentioned his family before, and none of them had called or visited him in the hospital, was that because he didn’t have any family? Or was he just trying to keep them from worrying? Did his boss know that he wouldn’t have wanted them told about what had happened? She couldn’t help feeling jealous if he had siblings. She’d always wanted brothers and sisters. Well, mostly sisters. Brothers could be so mean, at least from what her dad said about her uncles. But growing up an only child, she’d always longed for more. She wanted a house full of her own children one day. Did he want children too? Would he love and cherish them and protect them from a world that could be hateful and mean when people didn’t fit into those neat little racial categories? “Want to talk about it?” She met his questioning gaze. “You’re awake.” “I am.” “How’s your pain level? Need some pills?” “I need to know what’s bothering you.” He grimaced as he straightened in his seat, but shook his head when she reached for the bottle of pills in her purse. “Don’t. A little twinge here and there is better than sleeping my life away. Those things knock me out.” He glanced out the window. “Almost home. But we still have time for Lena Diaz 185 you to tell me what has you frowning as if you want to kill someone. Hopefully it’s not me,” he teased. When she didn’t answer, his smile faded. “Seriously. What’s wrong?” “Nothing. Random thoughts. Silly things.” “You can be outrageous and deliciously sassy. But you’re never silly. What are these random thoughts? If you have questions about the investigation—” “What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, even though it was the least important question rolling around in her mind right now. “Ah. Now I understand the frown. You’re contem- plating some of life’s most vexing problems.” “How do you feel about interracial marriages, and children?” His eyes widened. “Well, Okay. That was unex- pected. The answer is gray, by the way.” “Gray?” “My favorite color.” “Gray can’t be your favorite color. Gray isn’t a color. It’s a…shade.” He shrugged, unconcerned with her assessment. “As to interracial marriages and children, I’m against chil- dren getting married regardless of their race.” She stared at him deadpan. “When did you develop a sense of humor?” “Apparently never. You’re not laughing.” She looked out the window. “How much farther to your home?” In answer, he tapped on the glass partition. It low- 186 Agent Under Siege ered and the driver met his gaze in the rearview mir- ror. “Yes, Mr. Anton?” “Take the long way to my house.” “But, sir. We’re already—” “Up and down the mountain, then. We have a few things to settle before we arrive.” “Of course sir. Just let me know when you’re ready to get there.” The glass went back up, sealing them in privacy again. He moved from his seat to settle beside her, then took her right hand in his left. “I’m assuming this is a hypothetical question. Or is there something else you want to add, so that it’s more specific?” Her face grew warm. “Forget I asked. It was a ridic- ulous question and completely inappropriate.” “It’s a serious question, a deep question, and it de- serves a serious, respectful and honest answer. As to being inappropriate, I can’t imagine how it could be, unless maybe it’s not hypothetical after all and you’re talking about you and me—and you’re worried about how I would take it?” It didn’t seem possible for her face to get hotter, but it did. “Like I said, forget I asked. It was inappropriate, because it assumes all kinds of things, like that what- ever this is between us could ever grow into something to where the answer to that question would matter.” “You’re talking marriage, between you and me.” She crossed her arms. “You don’t have to sound so stunned. It’s a logical progression in relationships. Not that I’m saying we’re in a relationship, exactly, or that it Lena Diaz 187 would become a logical step for us. I mean, if we ever even, you know, dated. Which we haven’t, really—” He covered her mouth with his and gave her a slow, lazy and incredibly thorough kiss. When he pulled back, all she could do was sigh, and melt against the buttery leather seats. “Wow,” she finally managed to say. “If I could bottle you up and sell you, I’d make a fortune.” He laughed, then grew serious. “I’m not going to pretend that I can see into the future and tell where you and I might end up. We’ve had a rocky couple of weeks, and that’s the biggest understatement ever. But I can say with absolute certainty that we are definitely in a relationship.” She swallowed, and managed a shaky smile. “Good to know.” “As to your other questions, the first one is easy. In case you haven’t figured it out, I think you’re one of the smartest, funniest and hottest women I’ve ever met.” She blinked up at him. “You think I’m hot?” “Oh. Yeah. And that’s not in spite of your brown skin or any other feature that makes you different from me. It’s because of those features, because of all the things that make you uniquely you. You’re an amazing, sexy, wonderful woman, Teagan Ray. Whoever you end up marrying, if you decide to marry, that man would be incredibly lucky and should feel honored that you chose him. And if he doesn’t feel that way, then he doesn’t deserve you.” She settled against him, resting her head in the crook 188 Agent Under Siege of his shoulder as he put his arm around her. “You’re an amazing man, Bryson Anton.” “You’re not so bad yourself. And, Teagan?” “Yes, Bryson?” He kissed her neck just below her ear, making her shiver. “I couldn’t begin to understand the ugliness the world may have shown you, the prejudice you’ve likely faced in your life, or the fears you live with every day about things I would never encounter, simply because we were born looking different from each other. But I can tell you this. Hypothetically, if you and I, for example, were to marry and were fortunate enough to have children, I would do everything in my power to protect them in every way. Above all, I would love them, and make sure they knew they were loved, al- ways, unconditionally. And that I’ve got their backs, no matter what.” He kissed the top of her head. “Does that answer all your questions?” She shook her head. “Not even close. I have doz- ens more.” “Dozens?” “Scores, actually.” He laughed. “Then I guess we’ll be riding around this mountain for a good long time.” He settled back more comfortably, pulling her with him. “Go ahead. Ask your questions. But be prepared. I might have a few of my own.” Chapter Twenty-Two Teagan had learned so much about Bryson during that conversation in the limo two days ago. It had been fun learning about his family, his rather large family of three younger brothers and two older sisters who were both married and had six kids between them. His family was spread out across the country from coast to coast. While his parents split their time be- tween Canada and traveling all over the US, fully en- joying their retirement, they popped in throughout the year to visit their children and grandchildren. Bryson had explained that after seeing how difficult it was for his family when he’d been shot during his last Justice Keepers assignment, he’d made Mason promise not to tell them if he got hurt again. That was why they hadn’t been at the hospital. While she couldn’t fathom not keeping her family informed about something like that, she respected his decision. But in spite of the many new details that she’d learned about him, she realized she’d already known everything that really mattered. He was smart, loyal, considerate, and a million other wonderful things rolled 190 Agent Under Siege up in an incredibly mouthwatering package that she wanted to devour. Except that she couldn’t. Not yet. It was torture not being able to move their relation- ship forward the way she wanted to. But he couldn’t stand the way the pain pills made it hard to focus and concentrate on the investigation, so he’d all but stopped taking them. And that meant he was hobbling around on an aching hip again in the mornings, stuck using the wheelchair most afternoons. Her heart ached for him as she watched him limping across the family room right now with the aid of his cane, smiling at her and pretending he wasn’t in pain. But the small white lines around his mouth weren’t something he could hide. “Ready?” He paused by the front door where she’d been waiting for him. “Ready.” She took his cane so he could grab his suit jacket from the hall tree and shrug into it. She picked up her purse and let him open the door. It seemed to matter to him to open doors for her, so she’d stopped trying to run ahead or open them her- self. As they crossed the front porch, she asked, “You really think a brainstorming session with the Justice Seekers is going to crack the case open?” “We have to try something new to shake things loose. Plus Bishop texted me that he’s back from in- terviewing Leviathan Finney and wants to talk about what he found. He’ll meet us at Camelot.” “First of all, I forget, who’s Bishop? Second, he in- terviewed the Kentucky Ripper in prison?” He stopped on the walkway at the end of the porch. Lena Diaz 191 “Gage Bishop. He’s one of the Justice Seekers, the first one Mason hired when he created the company. Every- thing I know about him would fill about a third of a sheet of paper. He keeps to himself, doesn’t socialize with the others outside of work. Mason’s the only one who knows whatever traumatic event ended his law enforcement career before he started over as a Justice Seeker.” He limped down the path again, toward the drive- way. “I’m confused. Traumatic event? I thought you didn’t know anything about him.” He stopped again, leaning heavily on his cane. “I assumed if Mason was impressed enough to give you carte blanche with a company credit card after I was discharged from the hospital that he would have con- fided in you. I thought you knew.” “Knew what? I’m lost.” “The Justice Seekers. The whole reason the com- pany was formed was to give a second chance to peo- ple who’d had their law enforcement careers destroyed through no fault of their own. It’s a second chance for all of us.” “I had no idea. But I guess it makes sense. You felt you’d failed as a special agent—” “I did.” “No. You didn’t. But I understand now why you became a Justice Seeker. After you quit the FBI, you felt you had something to prove. And Mason gave you that chance.” 192 Agent Under Siege “Not that I’ve done much with that second chance. He probably regrets hiring me.” They’d started down the path again, but she moved in front of him, blocking his way. “Don’t you dare talk like that. I’d have been killed half a dozen times by now if it wasn’t for you. I’m not going to listen to any more self-recriminations. You’re an amazing guy with fan- tastic instincts. It’s time you gave yourself some credit.” His jaw tightened, telling her he didn’t agree. But to his credit, he didn’t argue. She stepped aside and followed him toward the driveway where she’d backed his metallic-blue Ford pickup out of the garage in preparation for the drive into town. It was decked out, with all the options. It wasn’t the red convertible she’d pictured him driving. But Hot Guy in a pickup revved her engines even more than she’d thought possible. A luxury car, like the rental he’d had in Jackson- ville, would have been much easier on his hip. But the car that he’d owned, a classic older car he’d planned on restoring, had been totaled that day he’d been shot try- ing to save Hayley from a kidnapper. So it was either take his truck or hire another rental. She wished he’d opt for the rental because she knew it would be easier for him to climb in and out, and the bumps in the road wouldn’t hurt so much in a car. But she also knew he was a proud man and didn’t want to look weak in front of the team. To him, renting a car to drive when he had a perfectly good truck in his garage would be a neon sign that he wasn’t okay. At least he was letting her drive. That was the one Lena Diaz 193 concession he’d made. She was pretty sure he was re- lieved when she’d asked, even though he pretended to debate her question. Her insistence that she loved trucks and wanted to drive this one, which was certainly true, wasn’t completely accurate since her main reason to drive was to help him save face. It was obviously much more comfortable to be a passenger than to pump his foot on the pedals. Twenty minutes later they were at The Justice Seek- ers’ headquarters, an enormous two-story modern-day castle that fully lived up to its nickname of Camelot. Even though she’d been here once before when she’d met with Mason Ford about hiring Bryson, she was still in awe. Especially when Bryson took her into a secret passage to a room few clients ever got to see, a truly medieval looking meeting room with an enor- mous round table in the middle. It had been dubbed the Great Hall. It was a much bigger version of Bryson’s so-called office at his house. And judging by the enor- mous monitors forming a semicircle a short distance from the table, this Great Hall had all the technologi- cal gadgets that Bryson’s did, maybe more. “Welcome to Camelot,” he whispered in her ear as they stood off to one side, just past the secret passage they’d walked through. “What do you think of Mason’s pride and joy?” “Stunning. A bit overwhelming, really. But super- cool.” She waved toward the round table, where three other people were seated. “Are those Justice Seekers?” At his nod, she said, “I thought they were in Jacksonville.” “Five of them are. The rest were working cases here 194 Agent Under Siege and couldn’t leave right away. There’s one more Seeker we’re waiting on before we start. When fully staffed, there are twelve of us, plus Mason, our fearless leader.” “Fully staffed?” “One of our Seekers was killed last year. Mason’s just now looking for a replacement. But let’s not dwell on that. Like I said, there are basically twelve of us, plus the boss.” “The knights of the round table. And King Arthur?” He smiled. “Yes. But if you call Mason King Arthur he’ll never forgive you. That’s the one part of his little game he hasn’t adopted. He thinks it’s pretentious.” He motioned toward the right side of the table where a man just as broad-shouldered and tall as Bryson was pulling up a chair. “That’s Bishop over there. When we sit down, you’ll see that everyone has an assigned seat with their name and their moniker engraved on the stone table in front of them.” “Moniker? Like, what, Hot Guy?” He laughed. “Don’t say that too loudly or I’ll never hear the end of it. The monikers are based on their for- mer occupations. Bishop is The Bodyguard.” “I thought you didn’t know what he did before he became a Justice Seeker?” “We know he protected people, but we don’t know who he worked for. A good guess is one of the alphabet agencies—FBI, CIA, NCIS. But only Mason knows for sure. That extremely extroverted lady on the left who’s waving at you is The Cop, Brielle Walker. She used to be a Gatlinburg police officer.” Lena Diaz 195 She smiled and returned Brielle’s wave. “And the guy beside her?” “Han Li, The Special Agent.” “You both have the same moniker? Special Agent?” “No. He was a special agent with Homeland Secu- rity. And he started here first, so he got to choose The Special Agent for his title.” “Then what are you?” His mouth tightened. “The Profiler. Not my choos- ing. Mason stuck me with that title.” She splayed her fingers against his chest. “You’re an amazing profiler, Bryson. If I have to tell you that a hundred times until you believe it, I will.” He arched a brow. “A hundred times, huh? That im- plies you’re planning on sticking around for a while.” “If you want me to stay, I’m sure I’d enjoy you try- ing to convince me.” She gave him an outrageous wink. He was about to say something but the door to the hidden passageway opened and another man, wearing a Stetson, stepped into the room. Bryson’s grin faded and his answering nod in response to the other man’s friendly “hello” was decidedly cool. “Who’s that?” she kept her voice low. “The Cowboy, Dalton Lynch.” “Why don’t you like him?” He gave her a surprised look. “What makes you think I don’t like him?” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because it felt like a polar vortex descended on the room when you barely re- turned his greeting.” His jaw tightened. “I have no problem with Dalton. 196 Agent Under Siege But I don’t go out of my way to inflict my presence on him. His wife is Hayley, the woman who almost died because of me.” She blinked in surprise. At the table, Dalton’s ex- pression as he eyed Bryson seemed to be more of re- gret, maybe even frustration. But there was absolutely no animosity or reproach. When he caught her look- ing at him, he nodded, then turned toward the others. “Bryson, I don’t think he blames you for what hap- pened to his wife any more than you should blame yourself.” He put his hand on her back. “You’re sweet to worry about me. But the only thing that matters right now is figuring out the identity of the man who almost killed you. And putting him away for a very long time. Come on, they’re waiting.” He introduced her to the others. Then they all got re- ally serious, really fast. She sat in the chair beside him, in the seat for Zack Foster, The Tracker. He’d whispered that Zack was the one who’d died, which had her feel- ing like an interloper. But he insisted no one minded her sitting there and it seemed to be true. They were all very respectful and nice to her. Each of them had a computer tablet in front of them, and what they brought up was displayed on one of the huge screens at the front of the room so they could see everything at the same time. As efficiency went, it was amazing. They shared reports, pictures, investigative notes, all at the touch of a button or the swipe of a fin- ger across their tablets that were each-hardwired into the computer for security. Lena Diaz 197 She was a bit overwhelmed hearing what they’d been doing. Every one of them was working her case now. It was humbling that they were all so vested in help- ing her. But then again, they were doing it for Bryson too. He was their brother-in-arms. The man they were after had almost killed him. And it was obvious that none of them were going to let a stone go unturned in their quest to bring the killer to justice and avenge their friend and fellow Seeker. The hours ticked by, with short breaks here and there so everyone could use the restroom or make phone calls. Lunch was brought in by some efficient person who suddenly appeared from the secret passageway and qui- etly set the food and drinks down on a table against one wall, then quietly disappeared. They seemed to have exhausted just about every lead and angle possible by midafternoon. But there was one person who hadn’t presented his findings yet— Bishop. The others sat back and the room went quiet as his notes from the prison interview with Finney, the Kentucky Ripper, filled the screen. Chapter Twenty-Three “A few days ago,” Bishop began, “Bryson requested that I look into Leviathan Finney in relation to this case. The reason is obvious. Ms. Ray was abducted two years ago by a man who carved an X on her stomach, just like the Kentucky Ripper did to his victims. But since that same man abducted her again, and Finney is in prison for the Ripper’s crimes, the question is whether Finney is the real Ripper or a copycat. The reason that matters is that if he’s a copycat, then it’s possible that the man who abducted her is the Ripper. Knowing that provides a lot more data to use to find this man. But we don’t want to send ourselves, or the police, down the wrong investigative path. So it was important to figure out whether we could rule in her abductor as the Ripper, or rule him out.” He typed a few buttons on his tablet, then a table of dates, names and comments appeared on the screen. “Those are the Ripper’s victims,” Teagan said. “They are,” Bishop agreed. “Along with the dates of their abductions and murders. I created this table to keep track of what Finney was supposedly doing at Lena Diaz 199 the time of each abduction or murder. It’s his alibi list, basically. Or it was supposed to be. When I checked through court transcripts, the alibi information was rather thin. His lawyer didn’t present much of a de- fense. Regardless, I dug as deep as I could in the time that I had. And then I went to the psychiatric hospital where Finney was being held before being deemed fit enough to be placed in the general prison population. I spoke to his doctors and was able to convince them to share information to help with my victim/alibi matrix.” Teagan blinked and shot Bryson a look, but he didn’t seem fazed by Bishop’s last statement. As far as she knew, doctors, especially a psychiatrist, would never disclose that kind of information about a living patient without a warrant. She wondered what Bishop had done to “convince” them to talk. “After that,” Bishop continued, “I spoke to Finney, for hours.” He highlighted a handful of rows in the table on the screen. “After piecing together witness state- ments from the investigations, court transcripts, what his doctor said, and then interviewing people to cor- roborate what Finney told me, these four rows are the only ones where I couldn’t positively alibi him out. But even these I’m fifty-fifty on.” He sat back and glanced around the table, apparently finished speaking. Teagan looked at the others. Brielle was furiously typing on her laptop. Han was swiping through screen after screen on his, as if searching for something. And the guy in the Stetson, Dalton, had jumped up from the table and was standing off in a corner on, of all things, a wall phone. She hadn’t seen one of those in years. 200 Agent Under Siege At her questioning look, Bryson asked, “The phone? Most of Camelot is a giant Faraday cage.” “Fair a what?” “Faraday. Electronic signals can’t get in or out. We have to use dedicated landlines. It’s for security. Even the computer tablets are hard-wired through the table to the main computer.” She thought that seemed like total overkill, but didn’t really care at the moment. What mattered was that she was completely lost. “Why does everyone else seem to understand whatever Bishop just said about Finney? I’m confused.” Bishop remained silent, apparently content to let someone else explain. Bryson took her hand in his. “To sum it up, he was able to prove, maybe not court of law proof, but proof to us, that Finney couldn’t have killed most of the vic- tims that he’s accused of killing. He had solid alibis that either weren’t presented at trial or weren’t known at trial. There are only a few that Bishop couldn’t speak to. Which goes to say that you were right all along. Le- viathan Finney very likely isn’t the Ripper. But he’s not a copycat either. He was set up. Framed.” “By the police?” “Doubtful. Most likely the real killer, to take the heat off.” “An innocent man is in prison. That sucks.” “We’ll contact one of the Innocence Project groups to look into his case.” “Already did,” Bishop chimed in. “Great,” she said. “I guess. But what does all this Lena Diaz 201 mean as far as finding the guy who abducted us? Are you saying he’s the real Ripper?” “It’s a definite possibility, highly likely actually. The police never linked your case with the others in spite of the signature X because the Ripper was already in prison. But now that we know the Ripper was never caught, all of the murders attributed to him have to be reexamined in relation to your abduction. This is a huge break. There’s an FBI field office in Jacksonville. Once our team brings them up to speed on this devel- opment, they’ll be back in the game, looking into your case and reopening the Ripper investigation. Obviously there are formalities, like convincing JSO to call them in to help. But Mason will get that done. Just a mat- ter of time. The number of people working this case is about to quadruple, easily. With some of the bright- est law enforcement minds around. They’ll catch this guy in no time.” Dalton returned to his seat. The others turned their attention toward Bryson. “What about you?” Dalton asked. “Any theories about who this guy might be?” “A few,” Bryson said. “It’s been bothering me that he was able to abduct Teagan two years ago without anyone seeing him. She was apparently drugged. She thinks she remembers him injecting her right after he accosted her on the path. After that, her memory is blank until she woke up at the shack. But that path through her neighborhood is well-traveled. And the entrance to the path on both ends is in even busier sec- tions of the neighborhood. It seems far-fetched that he 202 Agent Under Siege could have led or carried a drugged woman from the path without anyone seeing her. Which is why I called Mason early this morning and asked him to have our Seekers in Jacksonville re-interview everyone who lives close to that part of the trail and ask very spe- cific questions.” “Like what?” Dalton asked. “Like whether he could have loosened a section of fence like he did behind the Brodericks’ house and taken her through the opening to someone’s backyard. From there, if he did the same trick he pulled with us, he could have gone through someone’s home while they weren’t home and into their garage where he had a car waiting. Then, all he had to do was drive out of the subdivision. There’s a guard shack at each of the two entrances. But the cameras only record people coming in, not going out. If he came in via the subdivision be- hind The Woods, like he did recently, he wouldn’t be on any of the guard gate’s cameras.” Teagan raised her hand. Bryson smiled. “You don’t have to ask permission to speak.” She felt her face heat and lowered her hand. “You said earlier that you thought he might live in one of the houses in Bentwater Place, near the one we went through to that delivery truck. Did anything ever come of that?” “The police ruled that out. He definitely isn’t one of the homeowners on that street or the neighboring streets. But one of those homes was vacant because it’s for sale. He could have seen that for sale sign and Lena Diaz 203 broke in to conduct quick surveillance on the house next door. Once he was sure the owners weren’t home, he used that house as part of his plan to abduct you.” Dalton tapped on the table as if in deep thought. “How close is that path to the Bentwater subdivision?” Bryson looked at Teagan in question. “What do you think? Half a mile? The Woods is huge. That path is in the center of the subdivision.” She nodded. “Maybe even a mile, or more really if you consider all the twists and turns you’d have to take because of all the streets in between.” “He didn’t walk from Bentwater to the path,” Bryson concluded. “It’s too far. There would have been multi- ple reports in the interviews that the police conducted after your abduction, reports of different people see- ing a man walking toward that trail. There weren’t any reports. None.” “Then how did he get in?” she asked. He sat back, considering the question. “Getting back to basics, we have two choices. He walked or drove. Since no mysterious strangers were seen on the cam- eras at the guard shack, driving is out. But since he wasn’t seen walking through the subdivision by any- one interviewed after your abduction, walking is out too. Which leads to one conclusion. The time frame that the police covered when canvassing the neighbor- hood was inadequate.” A few chairs over from him, Dalton nodded. “That’s the only explanation. He was already in place. He went into the subdivision before the time range that the po- lice checked.” He turned toward the former police of- 204 Agent Under Siege ficer. “Brielle, I think you had that report on the video from the guard shack. How far back did they check?” She was already typing. Then she punched a but- ton and a report popped up on one of the big screens. “One week. Our killer had to be in place prior to that.” She turned her focus on Teagan. “I haven’t been in that development. But from what I’ve read, there aren’t any actual woods where someone could hide out that long and not be found, are there?” Teagan shook her head. “No. I mean, there are plenty of areas with lots of trees and bushes. But it’s all per- sonal property, or it backs up behind a strip mall on one side. The community areas are too heavily trav- eled, like those walking paths, to allow someone to camp out and not be seen.” “I agree,” Bryson said. “And it goes back to the sheer volume of witnesses in that area. Even if he camped out, someone would have seen him at some point and reported it. Nothing like that happened. Which means he was in one of the houses. We already know he’s not one of the owners, based on the extensive reports the police did on every homeowner. If he was visiting someone who lives there, again, they would have men- tioned it to the police. That leaves one last possibility. He was using someone’s house when they were out of town. We need a list of everyone who was out of town over a week before the attack.” “On it.” Brielle started typing on her computer again. “I’ve got all of those types of records already from our earlier canvassing but didn’t put it together Lena Diaz 205 the way you just did. I just need to cross-reference a couple of spreadsheets and I’ll have it.” A few minutes later, the dejection on her face told the story even before she spoke. “Sorry, guys and gals. As impossible as it seems in a place with that many houses, no one was on vacation in that time span. At least, no one who didn’t have a house sitter or friend at their place while they were gone.” Bryson sat forward in his chair. “Then the house was empty. Whoever owned it didn’t live there anymore. How many homes were vacant, either for rent or for sale during that time frame?” The tension was palpable in the room as they waited for Brielle once again. She popped up the latest search results. “Three. All for sale, all vacant.” “Bentwater Place, the house that was empty and for sale that the police thought our killer might have used as his home base with the Broderick murders,” Bryson said. “Does anyone have any additional information on that house?” “Like what?” Dalton asked. “The realty company. Better yet, the Realtor who listed it.” Dalton smiled. “Of course. On it.” “I’m on it too, for the ones in The Woods,” Brielle said. A few moments later, Dalton sat back. “Pine Acres Realty.” “Dang, I almost beat you,” Brielle said. “I’m calling it a tie. Two of mine are with Happy Meadows Prop- 206 Agent Under Siege erties.” She rolled her eyes at the name. “My last one, which happens to back up directly onto the path where Ms. Ray was attacked, is Pine Acres Realty.” Teagan blinked in shock. “He’s a Realtor?” “It appears likely,” Bryson said. “And he probably works for Pine Acres Realty. We need pictures.” Bishop, who’d been quietly working on his own computer all along, punched a button. The screens filled with pictures of the smiling men and women who worked for that realty company. Bryson arched a brow. “Thanks, Bishop.” Bishop nodded. “Bottom row.” Teagan’s voice was hoarse. “If the screen wasn’t so huge, I wouldn’t have even noticed. And now I know why no one in the neighborhood rec- ognized the police sketch.” “Why?” Dalton asked. Bryson reached for Teagan’s hand beneath the table and she gratefully clung to it. “Because he looks com- pletely different in that picture. Hair color, hair style, glasses. There’s only one thing that’s the same.” “What’s that?” Dalton pressed. “His eyes.” Teagan’s hand tightened on Bryson’s. “Pure evil, dead inside. That’s him. It’s definitely him. I’ve probably seen him on real estate flyers in the neighborhood. But I never connected the dots. His name?” She paused to draw a choppy breath. “I need to hear his name.” “Chris Larsen,” Brielle announced. She shook her head. “So average. So…normal.” Lena Diaz 207 Brielle started typing again. “I’ll get this informa- tion to Mason and the team in Jacksonville right away.” “I’ll give him a call,” Dalton added. “I’ll answer any questions he has about our thought processes and how we arrived at this conclusion.” He smiled. “HowBryson arrived at it. Good job, Profiler. And it’s good to have you back.” Bryson seemed surprised by Dalton’s statement, but he nodded his thanks. “Call me with Mason’s update on the hunt for this guy?” “You don’t want to hang around? If our team’s in on the takedown we might get a live feed.” “I would, but my hip’s aching something awful.” He pushed to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane, and mo- tioned to Teagan. “I know you’d rather hang around, but I don’t think I can drive right now. Do you mind?” She was struggling to maintain her composure with all of this information crashing down on her. And here he was, pretending that he was the one who needed to leave. She gratefully went along with his ruse. “I can get the updates later. I don’t mind.” Once they were in his truck, the stress and worry that had been eating at her seemed to magically fade away. He had that effect on her, made her feel safe, more in control. “I know your hip really does hurt. But I also know you’d never admit that in front of your team. You did that for me, because you saw how I was struggling to hold it together. Thank you.” “It was nothing. But you’re welcome anyway. How are you holding up? I can drive if I have to.” “I know, but I’m fine. It was all so…intense back 208 Agent Under Siege there, finding out who he was, and realizing he’s just a person. You know? Not some mythical monster im- possible to stop. Hearing he’s a Realtor kind of takes the drama down a notch. Makes it somehow bearable, especially knowing it’s only a matter of time now be- fore this is over.” When they pulled into the driveway, his phone buzzed in his pocket. She parked while he spoke to Dalton. When she got out, he frowned, obviously wish- ing she’d wait so he could open her door. He’d just put his phone in his suit jacket pocket and grabbed his cane when she opened his door and offered her hand. “There’s no one here but us, Bry. You can suck up your pride for a minute and let me help you. It is okay for a woman to help a man sometimes, you know.” He avoided her hand and hopped out on his own. She rolled her eyes and moved to his side. “What did Dalton have to say? Is JSO cooperating? Did they put out a new BOLO on the killer now that we know his identity?” He smiled and unlocked the front door. As he pushed it open for her he said, “Yes, JSO is cooperating, al- though I’m sure they think it’s the other way around. A new BOLO was put out, but they already contacted the realty company to see if they had a lead on his whereabouts. That’s why Dalton called, to give us an update about the realty company.” He shut and locked the door, before giving her his full attention. “They got him, Teagan. He’s on his way downtown right now in the back of a squad car. It’s over.” She burst into tears. Lena Diaz 209 Bryson tossed his cane to the floor and lifted Teagan in his arms. He couldn’t make it very far, but he man- aged to stumble to the couch without dropping her. He settled back with his precious burden and held her while she cried out the hurt and the fear and the anxi- ety she’d been suffering for years. It was a long time later before he settled Sleeping Beauty in his master bedroom that he’d given up while she was here. She’d readily invited him to stay with her in his bed that first night. But he knew the dangers. It didn’t matter how his head hurt, or the wounds on his back, or his hip, or where the bullet went through him, or, good grief, how sore his belly still was from the sur- gery. He was a mess, physically. But if he got horizontal next to her none of it would matter. There’d be no stop- ping either of them from taking full advantage of that situation. And then he’d probably end up in the hospi- tal again. But oh how he wished it could be different. He quietly shut the door. But he didn’t head to the guest room where he was staying. He had another des- tination tonight. And this one was too far for him to make using his cane. He’d used up the last of his stam- ina carrying Teagan. It was time to admit defeat, for now, and get the wheelchair. A few minutes later he reached his office. As he opened files on the computer and began moving bits of information onto the various screens, he reflected on what Dalton had said at Camelot. He’d referred to his old moniker, Profiler. That one word, spoken by a fellow Seeker, had started an avalanche of thoughts in his mind. 210 Agent Under Siege Even though he’d been trying to work this case as best he could with a lingering concussion and his other injuries, he hadn’t tried to approach it as a profiler. He was too used to scorning his previous profession, think- ing of his failures instead of focusing on his successes. But he didn’t think of it the same way anymore. Tea- gan had done that for him, made him start to accept that maybe he wasn’t the big failure he once thought himself to be. And Dalton, of course, welcoming him back. That had been a surprise. If Dalton didn’t blame him for Hayley’s near miss, maybe he needed to rethink that whole episode. But mostly it was Teagan’s faith in him that was giv- ing him a new perspective. Like that maybe he should trust himself, listen to the warning bells going off in his head. They were telling him that something wasn’t right. They’d caught the man who’d abducted Teagan. They’d caught the man who’d killed the Brodericks. So why did he feel like there was something left unfin- ished? The niggling feeling wouldn’t leave him alone. So he was going back to the beginning as he’d once told Teagan to do. He was reexamining everything. And once he did that, he’d do what he hadn’t done in years, and had never thought he’d do again. He was going to build a profile. Chapter Twenty-Four Teagan finished brushing her teeth just as the morning sun began to peek through the windows. After giving her braid one last adjustment, she left the master bed- room to find Bryson. Much to her frustration, even though he’d ensconced her in the master suite since she’d come here, he was sleeping in a guest room. She understood it was because sleeping together was too tempting. Neither of them would want to sleep. Which would just set his recovery back. But she was getting so frustrated wanting him to get better, and just plain wanting him. Everything about him appealed to her. And the more she got to know him, the worse her obsession became. Whether he was in butt-hugging jeans and a T-shirt or one of those sexy tailored suits that showed off his broad shoulders, she wanted to peel off his clothes and explore every inch. As if his sexy exterior wasn’t enough of a turn on, Hot Guy was also intelligent, with a kind soul and the heart of a steadfast, loyal, intensely protective warrior. It was becoming nearly impossible 212 Agent Under Siege not to weep with longing and desire every time he en- tered a room. She could definitely fall in love with him. She was more than halfway there already. But she had no clue whether he felt the same. Oh, he liked her, a lot. And he wanted her. There was no denying the hungry look in his eyes that he tried so hard to hide. Clearly he suffered from the same affliction that she did. If they ever really got together, they’d probably spontaneously combust. But did he care about her? Really care, as in I could love you forever kind of care? She just didn’t know. Shaking her head at her fruitless thoughts, she headed to his room just down the hall. He wasn’t there. The bed didn’t even look as if it had been slept in. Growing concerned, she checked the main rooms in this part of the house. She even looked out the back door at the dock, where he could be found most eve- nings. But he wasn’t there. She was just passing the little alcove to the left of the TV when she realized it was empty. Each night he stored his wheelchair there and used the cane the next day until the pain forced him to use the chair once again. But the wheelchair wasn’t there. Why? Had he suffered a setback to his recovery? Increasingly anxious, she headed down the back hall and looked in every door that she passed until she reached the end, his office. Light shining under the door had her letting out a relieved breath. He must have come here last night for some reason, then ended up sleeping in the attached bedroom rather than head all the way to the front of the house. She knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked Lena Diaz 213 again. When he still didn’t answer, her overactive imag- ination conjured up all kinds of awful scenarios, like him lying on the floor in a pool of blood, his wounds ripped open. Just the thought of him in pain, needing her, had her opening the door. He wasn’t on the floor dying. And he wasn’t sleeping in the guest room. He was in his wheelchair at the round table, oblivi- ous to her entry as he spoke to someone on his cell phone. All nine of the giant monitors were filled with documents. But that wasn’t what had her gasping in surprise. It was the pictures. He glanced over his shoulder, then punched a but- ton on the control panel, clearing the screens. “Mason, I’ll call you back in a few minutes. Send me that list of dates as soon as you have it, all right? Yeah, thanks. Bye.” He set the phone on the table. “Sorry. I didn’t realize you were there or I wouldn’t have had those pictures up.” She fought against the nausea the graphic, violent images had awakened in her as she joined him at the table. So many women. So much…carnage. “I heard you talking to Mason. Does he have you working on a new case already and you stayed up all night studying crime scene photos?” He hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with her ques- tions. “I’m not working a new case, not exactly. I’m… reexamining an old one.” “Why would you do that?” Again, he paused. 214 Agent Under Siege She glanced at the blank screens, her mind’s eye trying to reconstruct what she’d seen seconds earlier. But she’d been too broadsided by the unexpected tab- leau to recall many details, even with her photographic memory. “How old is this case you’re looking into?” He looked at his wrist as if to check the time. But he hadn’t replaced the fancy computer watch yet that Larsen had taken from him. “Is it morning already? I can whip us up something to eat.” He backed his chair away from the table. “How about omelets? I can’t re- member the last time I—” She leaned past him and punched the same key that he had earlier. The pictures popped back onto the screens. He swore and cleared them again, but not before she saw a bloody X carved on one of the women’s bellies. “The Kentucky Ripper,” she accused. “You’re look- ing at the Kentucky Ripper cases. Why? The FBI is covering that angle. You said so at Camelot yesterday. And don’t try to change the subject by acting like you suddenly love to cook. We both know better. You for-get we played twenty questions times ten in the limo on the way home from the airport. I know a lot of things about you now that I didn’t before. Like that you hate to cook. So spill. Why have you been here all night looking at murders that happened years ago instead of celebrating that the man who tried to kill both of us is sitting in a Jacksonville jail cell?” He sighed heavily. “I didn’t want to wait for a re- port from the FBI. I needed some answers now, to quiet Lena Diaz 215 some doubts I had, and make sure we’d covered every angle.” “What doubts? What angles?” “Little details that don’t add up. With Finney possi- bly innocent, the FBI is focusing on Larsen as the real Ripper. And it makes sense, given the signature and other details about the crime scenes, plus things we’re starting to learn about Larsen.” She pulled out the chair beside him and sat down. “If it all makes sense, then what’s bothering you?” He hesitated. “I’m not dropping this. You might as well tell me now or we’ll be here all day,” she warned. He grimaced. “All right. What’s bothering me is the puzzle pieces that don’t fit. It’s like with the origi- nal Ripper investigation. There are things that never matched Finney. But there was enough so-called evi- dence that some other evidence was basically ignored. And once he was in prison, the murders stopped. Ev- eryone was content to let it drop, to ignore the incon- sistencies.” “Not you,” she reminded him. “You kept looking at the case long after it was over. You stored all those copies of the case files. That’s what you were going through just now, isn’t it? I’m guessing that means you hired that temp you talked about when I first arrived, to key everything into the system.” “I had Brielle work with someone while I was in the hospital,” he admitted. “I’d always wanted every- thing digitized to make examination of the evidence easier. With you having been abducted again, I wanted 216 Agent Under Siege to have the previous case information handy when I got a chance to review it. The obvious conclusion at the time was that Larsen was likely the Ripper, even before Bishop spoke to Finney. I expected when I eventually got home and went through this stuff, that conclusion would be cemented in my mind.” “But it wasn’t.” “No. Far from it.” She shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “The man who attacked me, who attacked us, is behind bars. It shouldn’t matter whether he’s the Rip- per or not. So why do you look so serious? And why am I starting to feel concerned?” He took her hands in his. “Whatever I’ve found, or think I’ve found, there’s no reason for you to worry. You’re safe here, with me. There are four fellow Seekers twenty minutes away if we need them, which we don’t. And I’ve got a pistol in the nightstand in my bedroom.” “Then why have you been up all night looking at the case file?” A flicker of unease crossed his face before his ex- pression cleared. “I like being thorough. And, as I said, I don’t like puzzle pieces that don’t fit.” “Show me those pieces.” “Teagan—” “We’re in this together. And we’ll still be in this to- gether when Larsen is brought to trial and we’re both called to testify. Don’t shut me out now. Show me.” His reluctance was obvious, but he wheeled back in front of the computer tablet. “I can clear the pictures. There’s no reason for you to look at those. I was using Lena Diaz 217 them to double-check details in reports.” His fingers flew across the keyboard as he closed files and moved things around on the tablet in front of him without shar- ing them to the big screens. Then he punched one of the keys, and the various Ripper case files appeared on the large monitors. True to his word, there weren’t any pictures. He continued to move things around, mostly clos- ing out various documents until he was left with only one screen of data. It was essentially a huge list with different headings with bullets of information beneath each one. She read some of the headings out loud. “Race, sex, age, marital status, victimology, criminal psychopathy, location, signature…” She shot him a look of surprise. “A profile. You’re working up a profile.” “More or less. I compiled the information from the Ripper murders along with what we know about Lar- sen’s recent crimes.” He scrolled to one of the sections labeled Organized vs. Disorganized. “I’m sure you re- member a lot of this from your criminal justice classes. An organized killer is one who plans his crime ahead of time, brings his weapons with him. The disorganized killer grabs a knife out of a victim’s kitchen drawer to stab her. He’s more spontaneous, less controlled and tends to make a lot of mistakes. A disorganized killer is generally easier to find than the organized one be- cause of those mistakes. Which one would you say Larsen is?” “Easy. Organized. He planned everything down to the last detail, from the camera hidden in the tree over 218 Agent Under Siege the path where I went walking to the section of fence he loosened behind the Brodericks’ home. He had to have spent months getting that shack set up as his own personal prison, installing the bars on the windows and doors.” “You get an A plus. He’s definitely an organized killer, which gives us insight into his mind and how he thinks. Mason confirmed that Larsen purchased that shack over a year ago. I don’t know whether he planned to go after you again, or someone else. But he was defi- nitely preparing it well ahead of time for another vic- tim. Knowing he was an organized killer helps predict other things, like that he probably had a steady job.” “He worked for a realty company,” she said. “Not exactly nine to five, but he would have had some kind of schedule, checked in now and then, attended meet- ings.” She crossed her arms, remembering what she’d researched on the Kentucky Ripper’s crimes. “But that doesn’t fit what I know about the Ripper.” “Maybe. Maybe not.” He punched a few buttons and a list of names and dates appeared on the screen to the left of the main one they’d been looking at. “You should recognize those.” “The ripper’s victims. Six of them.” “What do they have in common?” “Other than the obvious? The carved X’s in their bel- lies, the fact that they were abducted for days or weeks before being killed? That all of them were stabbed, including the ones you haven’t listed. Some were shot too.” “Other than all of that. What type of killer was re- Lena Diaz 219 sponsible for the kinds of crime scenes we found in those examples?” She thought about it, then shrugged. “You’re going to say whoever killed them was organized. I remember those crime scenes were pristine. Very little forensic evi- dence was found. No weapons were left behind. I could go on, but I can’t argue that point. Those particular crime scenes were indicative of an organized perpetrator. But there were eight more killings. And those were the op- posite of organized. They were…sloppy.” “Yes. They were.” He displayed another list of names on the monitor to the right of the main one, the eight victims she’d just mentioned. “All of these were simi- lar because they seemed to be the work of a disorga- nized killer.” “Right,” she agreed. “Given the mix of organized and disorganized crime scenes, the conclusion goes more to a mental disease, like Finney suffered from. He was, is, bipolar. The theory was that he killed some in his manic state—the disorganized killings—and some in his depressive state—the organized ones.” “It’s a popular theory, one the police bought into back then.” He motioned toward the first list. “Con- sider these victims again. Although they were brutally killed, the number of stab wounds is low. Only three for the first victim, six on another, and something in between for the rest.” He waved toward the second list. “These, however, had anywhere from twelve to thirty- one stab wounds in addition to being beaten in two of the cases. One victim even suffered cigarette burns all over her back.” 220 Agent Under Siege “I remember.” That sick feeling was roiling in her stomach again. “It’s called overkill,” he said. “The killer inflicted far more wounds than necessary to kill his victims. Normally, that might suggest that he knew them, had personal feelings of hate toward them. But it can hap- pen with a disorganized killer as well, with or without a mental defect. He kills in the heat of the moment, because of some imagined slight or explosive anger over something seemingly inconsequential to you or me but that is blown all out of proportion in his mind.” Again, he motioned toward the screen on the list, the names of the six victims that he’d grouped together. “Here’s another take on these. In each of these cases, there’s evidence that the killer spent a lot of time in the victim’s home during the stalking phase while the vic- tim wasn’t there. What does that indicate?” “I’m not sure. Maybe I need a refresher course on my college classes.” He smiled. “I’m sure it will all come back to you when you go back to finish your master’s degree. Fa- miliarity is the missing link here. We spend time some- where when we feel comfortable there, because the location isn’t foreign or unknown to us.” She stared at him a long moment. “I’m trying to fol- low, but all that tells me is that the Ripper likely lived in Kentucky, close to the crime scenes. That was part of the original geographical profiling. That’s why Finney was such a good fit.” “And Lowe. Don’t forget him, the second potential Ripper on the original suspect list. He was from Ken- Lena Diaz 221 tucky too, born and raised in the same general area as Finney.” “Okay. Yes, I remember that. It’s part of the reason that I thought Lowe might have been the one who ab- ducted me.” He swiveled his wheelchair to face her. “Think about the other things we know about those crime scenes. In the first list of victims, the bodies were left where they’d be easily found, potentially indicating the killer had some religious background, that he wanted them to get a Christian burial, or whatever religion he fol- lowed.” “The bodies weren’t hidden in the rest of the kill- ings either. They’re the same.” “I’m going to disagree on that,” he said. “In the over- kill list, the victims were, well, slaughtered for lack of a better description. Discarded. There was no caring emotion behind that action. The bodies were easily found only because the killer couldn’t be bothered to try to hide them. Not so with the organized killer list. Those bodies were treated, after death anyway, with a modicum of respect. Left clothed or covered, lying down, almost as if they were sleeping as opposed to being tossed out like garbage. It’s subtle, but it’s a dif- ference. If you look at every kind of comparison that can be made, those two lists of victims each present evidence of a very different kind of killer. In fact, it’s my opinion that it proves there wasn’t one Kentucky Ripper. There were two.” She sucked in a breath. But it really shouldn’t have been a surprise after everything he’d just shown her. 222 Agent Under Siege She glanced from list to list, read the headings on the middle screen, the bullets beneath them. “But, if you’re right, then your original profile was wrong.” He surprised her by smiling. “Don’t look so wor- ried. You’re not dashing my newly found confidence. There’s more to the original profile than appeared in any police reports.” “Okay. Now you’ve lost me.” He shifted in his chair, a quickly hidden grimace telling her how much his night of research had cost him physically. His hip was aching. He needed a hot soak in a tub and a long nap. But she didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing out the obvious, so she remained silent. “When I profiled the murders allegedly attributed to the Kentucky Ripper,” he continued, “I presented the police with two profiles. Two different killers. When Finney was arrested, it was the profile I gave them that most closely matched his characteristics that they used. The other profile I gave them was ignored. That’s why you never saw it in any of the official case files that you researched.” “I still have to wrap my head around this. You’ve turned the investigation I did upside down.” “No. I haven’t. I’ve proved that your original con- clusions were right all along.” She threw her hands up in the air. “Now I’m be- yond lost.” “Sorry. I’m not explaining this very well. To try to put it succinctly, if I look at Larsen and everything we now know about him, including that he used to live in Kentucky, he fits that first list of victims to a T.” Lena Diaz 223 “Larsen is the Ripper.” He sat forward in his chair. “He’s one of them. That’s where your research comes into play. Everything about that second victim list—if we consider that Bishop is right and Finney was a mentally ill fall guy who didn’t kill anyone—that second list fits the man you believed all along was the Kentucky Ripper.” She pressed a hand to her throat. “Avarice Lowe.” He nodded. “All I’m waiting on for confirmation is a list of dates and alibis for Larsen. Mason’s work- ing on that to see if Larsen was on vacation or sick or whatever on the dates when the first set of victims was abducted. I’ve already cross-referenced everything I had on Lowe.” She glanced up at the dates he’d mentioned, the ones beside the disorganized list. They all had check marks beside them. “Lowe doesn’t have alibis for the sec- ond set?” “No. He doesn’t.” She sat back. “Two Kentucky Rippers, and a third guy in prison who had nothing to do with the murders.” “It’s worse than that,” he told her. “There’s one more puzzle piece that you haven’t seen.” He typed on his computer tablet again. “What could be worse than two killers?” she asked. He hesitated with his finger poised over one of the function keys. “How about this?” A picture displayed on the screen. She stared at it a moment, trying to figure out what was supposed to be significant about what she was seeing. There was a small crowd of people standing behind yellow crime 224 Agent Under Siege scene tape. Behind them were homes and police cars parked up and down the street. “One of the Ripper’s crime scenes? A crowd shot?” “That’s exactly what it is. Standard operating proce- dure in a case like this. The police photographer hides out of sight and takes pictures of any people watch- ing the activity, just in case the killer ends up being in the crowd.” “Because killers often come back to the scene of the crime,” she said. “They get a thrill from watch- ing the police.” “Now observe the cropped, close-up version I made of that same picture.” He pressed another key and the screen changed. “What’s worse than two different killers?” She gasped in shock. “A tag team of killers, part- nering together.” She stared at the close up of Avarice Lowe and Chris Larsen standing in the crowd, side by side, watching with riveted interest as the police worked one of the Kentucky Ripper crime scenes. “Congratulations, Teagan.” She tore her gaze from the screen. “For what?” “You were right all along. Lowe was the Kentucky Ripper. But so was Larsen. None of us saw that coming.” “You did,” she said. “You created two profiles.” “Yes, well. My mistake was in not following through and pursuing both after the police went after Finney. I assumed I’d messed up. Instead, I should have pushed for more investigating. Maybe then, Finney wouldn’t be in prison. Lowe would be in prison, along with Larsen. And then you’d have never been hurt. I’m so sorry.” His jaw tightened. Lena Diaz 225 She shook her head. “No. Don’t you dare go there. What happened to me was not your fault. It was Larsen’s.” He swallowed. “Thank you for that. But it gets even worse. I’m not sure it’s just Larsen’s fault. It may be Lowe’s too. Remember that you said, even after know- ing Larsen had abducted you, that he didn’t seem like the right man, that he didn’t fit your memories except for his voice?” It took a moment for his words to sink in. When they did, she pressed a shaking hand to her throat. “Oh my God. You think that I was abducted by…both of them?” He gave her a short, clipped nod. “I don’t have any real proof. Just theories. But I think we should tell the police and the FBI to consider that they may have been a tag team on some of the same crimes, including what was done to you.” He took her hand in his again. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have even told you that.” “No, no. I don’t want any secrets between us. I want to be included in everything.” She forced a smile. “Hon- estly, it’s not as huge of a shock as you’d expect. I was wrestling with my own doubts because some things didn’t seem to fit with Larsen. Now, well, it kind of all makes sense.” She squeezed his hand. “I assume you already told Mason about this?” He kissed the back of her hand before letting go. “I was discussing it with him when you walked in. He’s corroborating some data, but as soon as he saw that pic- ture of Lowe and Larsen together, he was convinced. He’s pulling the Seekers onto this right now.” “I guess everything’s in good hands, then.” “The best.” 226 Agent Under Siege She pushed to her feet, still feeling a bit nauseated and shaky after the latest revelations. “I need to push all of this ugliness out of my head for now. I’m going to go call my mom and let her know I’m still alive. She’s gotten a bit paranoid after this last…episode. She made me promise to call her every day, but I fell asleep last night and never did. I’m surprised she’s not already blowing up my phone this morning.” Her face heated. “Sorry about falling asleep with you as my pillow. But thanks for putting me to bed. Next time maybe you can join me.” She gave him an outrageous wink, desper- ately trying to lighten the mood. He gently cupped her face and pressed a soft kiss against her lips. “One day, very soon, sweet Teagan. I’ll do more than just join you in that big bed.” She sighed with longing, already feeling better. He always made her feel better, even in her darkest mo- ments. He put his phone in his pocket before turning off the equipment. Backing away from the table, he said, “Hop on. I’ll give you a ride.” He arched his brows in a suggestive manner. She laughed and eased herself onto his lap so she wouldn’t jar his incisions. When they reached the fam- ily room, she carefully got up. “I’ll call Mom from the bedroom.” “And I’ll make breakfast. Toast or an omelet? Those are the only two breakfast meals in my culinary arsenal.” “Omelet. Always.” “Good choice. My toast always comes out burned. Lena Diaz 227 Meat lover, veggie lover, or deluxe?” He wheeled to- ward the kitchen. “Deluxe. With sour cream on top, if you have it.” “You got it,” he called back. She smiled and went into the bedroom. But after three tries on her cell phone without the call going through, she gave up and headed to the kitchen. He’d left his wheelchair sitting by the island and was leaning on his cane as he pulled ingredients for the om- elets out of the refrigerator. He glanced up in surprise when she started helping him. “That was a quick call.” “It wouldn’t go through. I think there must be a prob- lem with the cell tower or something.” He frowned as he set a carton of eggs on the counter. “Is your battery low?” “No. But there weren’t any bars. No connection. I tried three times. All I got was static.” “Static?” She nodded. He pulled out his phone and checked the screen. Then he punched a button and held it to his ear. He swore and tossed his phone on top of the island. “Run back to the office and lock yourself inside.” He hobbled to his wheelchair and plopped down. “Why? What’s going on?” He wheeled around the island. “Someone’s jamming the cell signal. And there’s only one person I can think of who would have a reason to do that.” The blood rushed from her face, leaving her cold and shaking as she hurried after him into the family room. “Avarice Lowe. You think he’s on his way here?” 228 Agent Under Siege “No.” He glanced up at her as he wheeled past the L formed by the two couches. “I think he’s already here. Probably lurking outside, gathering his courage.” He glanced at his wrist and swore. “I should have replaced my computer-watch the moment I got back. It would have warned me if someone was on the property. Go to the office, Teagan. Hurry. There aren’t any windows in there. Lock the main door, then lock the doors that lead into the bathroom and bedroom. Wedge a chair beneath the door to the hallway. Go.” Ignoring his dictate, she ran after him into the mas- ter bedroom. “I’m not leaving you. Come with me.” He wheeled to the nightstand. “I’ve got this. I’ll take care of Lowe. But I have to know you’re safe, out of harm’s way. Go on.” He yanked open the top drawer. “Okay, okay.” She headed toward the door. “But I wish you’d let me help you instead of—” He was suddenly beside her in his wheelchair, shov- ing her back into the room. She stumbled but caught herself in time to see him shut the door and lock it. His face was drawn and pale as he met her question- ing gaze. “My pistol’s not in the nightstand. He’s in- side the house.” Chapter Twenty-Five He’s inside the house. Those horrifying words ran through Teagan’s mind over and over as she watched Bryson leaning against the master bathroom counter after ditching the wheel- chair because it was in his way. He was using duct tape to secure the thick towels that he’d wrapped around her arms. She didn’t ask why. She knew why. The dis- organized killer, the one who’d murdered eight of the Kentucky Ripper’s victims, was quite the fan of knives. Bryson was using the towels to protect her in case Lowe got past him and came after her next. As to why he had duct tape in his bathroom, that was a discussion for an- other day. If they lived another day. The psychopath in the main room had already tried to get into the bedroom once. He’d scraped knives un- derneath the closed door, swiping at Bryson’s feet. Then Lowe had used his body like a battering ram, screaming obscenities as he tried to crash through the door. It was only because Bryson had used his own strength against the door that Lowe had given up. But not for long. He was still out there. Planning his next 230 Agent Under Siege assault. Even now she could hear his shoes thumping and squeaking across the floor as he paced back and forth mumbling incoherent words to himself. Dear God. Please help us. Bryson tossed the roll of duct tape onto the counter and reached under the sink. “This is a last resort.” He handed her an aerosol can of deodorant. “I don’t want you near enough to him to use this. God willing, when you climb out the bedroom window, he’ll be so busy with me that he won’t get a chance to go after you.” She sucked in a breath, fear for both of them mak- ing her flush hot and cold. “But if he gets past me,” he continued, “and he catches up to you, spray his eyes. He won’t expect that. It will hurt like hell and he’ll be temporarily blinded. Run past him and go for the truck.” He dug the keys out of his pocket and shoved them into her jeans pocket. “Drive down the mountain like a bat out of hell. Don’t stop. Go straight to the police station. You hear me? Do not stop at some neighbor’s house or a little country store. If he ends up following you, he could go after you again. Go straight to the police. It’s almost a straight shot once you reach the bottom of the mountain. You remember the directions I told you?” He lightly shook her when she didn’t answer. “I do. I remember,” she said. “But none of this makes sense. Why don’t you put towels on your arms too? And climb out the window with me?” He gave her an exasperated look. “I was up all night. My hip never had a chance to recuperate. I’m not run- ning anywhere. And the towels would make it too hard Lena Diaz 231 for me to maneuver in a fight. This is the way it has to be. He’s already cracked the doorjamb. The next time he tries to get through the door, he’ll be inside the bedroom. While I keep him occupied, you’re going to climb out that window and run for the truck.” “I don’t want to run away like a coward and leave you. Don’t ask me to do that again.” He grabbed a small pair of scissors from one of the drawers and set them on top of the counter. Next he grabbed a folded sheet from beneath the cabinet and tucked it under his arm. “You have to leave me. It’s the only way.” She frantically shook her head and set the can back on the counter. “No. It’s not. Two against one, remem- ber? You and me against the world. He can’t kill both of us. If we attack him together, we’ll defeat him.” “No, Teagan. You heard his roar of rage earlier. You saw the knives he was shoving under the door. Prob- ably the only reason he didn’t shoot his way through is that he doesn’t want to end his fun that quickly. He’s a cutter. He wants to enjoy himself first. But if he sees you running for the truck through the front windows, he’ll use the gun. You can’t outrun a bullet. I have to distract him, try to get the gun to give you a chance.” He shoved the can in her hand, grabbed the pair of scissors and pulled her out of the bathroom. A shoe squeaked against the polished floor outside the bedroom door. Bryson scowled and dropped the folded sheet on top of the bed. He limped to the window and quietly eased it up. Rather than risk the noise of loosening the 232 Agent Under Siege screen’s frame and dropping it outside, he used the scis- sors to cut an opening. He motioned for her to stand in front of the window. “The truck will detect the key fob in your pocket,” he whispered. “All you have to do is press the button under the door handle and it will open. The engine’s a push-button start. You remember, right? You’ve got this.” He framed her face with his hands. “All you have to do is run, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be okay.” Tears spilled down her cheeks as she looked into his beautiful blue eyes. “Bryson, I—” Another squeak sounded outside the room. Lowe was getting restless, working up his courage for another as- sault. Then there was another sound, something scrap- ing across the floor. Something heavy. What was that? Bryson pressed a quick, hard kiss against her lips. “You can do this,” he whispered next to her ear. “Don’t let me down.” Her pulse was rushing in her ears so loudly that she almost couldn’t hear him. She grasped the windowsill. It was awkward with the ridiculous towels wrapped around her arms. But she managed. Grabbing the sheet off the bed, he shook it out, quickly rolling and twisting it, holding it in both hands like a length of rope. It shook her to her core when she realized what he was doing: planning to use the sheet to defend himself against the knives. Her heart slammed in her chest so hard she marveled that it didn’t crack one of her ribs. She hated this, hated the thought of abandoning him. And yet, if she stayed, she’d be a distraction that could Lena Diaz 233 get him killed. All she could do now was follow his in- structions and pray he was able to defeat Lowe. With a concussion. A bum hip. Stitches both inside him and outside. Bruises all over. With nothing but a sheet to defend himself against a madman with butcher knives and a pistol likely in his pocket. This was insane. A thump sounded against the door. Get ready, he mouthed. She clutched the stupid can of deodorant and prayed that a better plan would come to her than leaving him here to his likely death. But what could she do? How could she help? Something heavy crashed against the door. The already cracked frame exploded in a hail of wooden shards as a side table from the family room flew through the ruined opening. Bryson ducked, then lunged for- ward, arms outstretched with the sheet between them as he grappled with Lowe. Both men moved backward into the family room, a flurry of flashing knives and billow- ing cloth as Bryson ducked and weaved and wielded his sheet in an effort to avoid being diced into pieces. “Now, Teagan,” he yelled, furiously fighting Lowe’s flailing arms. “Go!” She let out a sob and jumped. With teagan safely away, Bryson focused his undi- vided attention on the psychopath trying to hack him to death with a knife in each hand. Bryson wrenched 234 Agent Under Siege his left arm up, using the sheet to deflect yet another blow. This time he twisted the sheet, then wrenched it back. The butcher knife in Lowe’s right hand flew across the family room, skittering onto the floor with a metallic twang. Lowe dropped to the floor. Without his weight as a counterbalance, Bryson’s hip gave out. He crashed down on top of Lowe. A sickening scrape sounded and white-hot pain lanced through his side. Lowe’s mouth curved in a delighted smile as he grabbed the knife now embedded beneath Bryson’s ribs and yanked it out. Bryson gasped, fighting for air now as he twisted and rolled with Lowe, desperately trying to gain con- trol of the knife. He grabbed Lowe’s wrist, muscles burning and shaking as he slowly won the tug of war, turning the man’s hand. Bryson swiped the blade across the man’s neck. A thin red line immediately formed. But it was only superficial. Lowe didn’t even blink. He kept straining against Bryson, trying to turn the knife the other way. Muscles bunched and cramped as Bryson fought back. The floor turned slippery with sweat and blood. They rolled like two alligators in a death roll, each struggling to get the upper hand. Lowe was strong, and big, but he still wouldn’t have been that difficult for a man Bryson’s size to defeat. Except that Bryson had begun this match in a much-weakened state. And Lowe’s knife had done considerable damage. His life- blood was seeping from his side. A cold numbness spread across his middle, making him shiver. If he didn’t end this, soon, it would be lights out. For him. Lena Diaz 235 He threw everything he had left into fighting back. But his muscles ached. Weakness crept relentlessly through his body. It was a struggle just to hold up his arms. Lowe gave one of his guttural yells, this one of sat- isfaction and triumph. He was winning. It was almost over. And he knew it. Taking advantage of Lowe’s distraction, Bryson managed to twist and jerk the man’s knife hand again. This time he sliced deep into Lowe’s biceps on his right arm. But before Bryson could follow up with a killing blow, Lowe twisted and rolled on top of him. Bryson couldn’t get traction on the slippery floor. Blood sat- urated the knife handle. Bryson lost his grip. Lowe plunged the knife deep into Bryson’s side again, and twisted. Bryson arched off the floor, an inferno of lava-like pain scorching him from the inside out. He dropped back down, gasping, struggling to catch his breath. The rest of his strength seemed to drain away, leaving him limp, muscles twitching in agony as he squinted and blinked, trying to focus. Lowe was a dark blur, climbing to his feet, stag- gering and clutching himself as he lumbered out of Bryson’s sight-line. He rolled his head to the side, try- ing to follow the other man’s progress. Cold. He was so cold. His teeth chattered as he frantically pushed against the floor, like a fiddler crab, trying to slide away. But all he could manage was a few inches. His nemesis stopped by one of the couches and leaned down. When he turned around, Bryson blinked, 236 Agent Under Siege trying to see what was in the man’s hand. A gun. Prob- ably Bryson’s own pistol. He held it up, no doubt gloating with triumph. Bryson could no longer see well enough to make out the man’s expression. Maybe that was a blessing. “Chris said you’d put up a good fight and you did.” He spoke for the first time since their fight had begun, his words choppy as he too struggled to catch his breath. “I was his one call from jail. Imagine that. He called me instead of a lawyer.” He shook his head. “What a gift. And I’m here paying him back. This is for what you did to Chris.” He held his gun arm out toward Bryson. “After you’re dead, I’ll enjoy that girl- friend of yours. I’ll gut her like a fish.” Bryson swore and tried to push himself up. But it was as if his body was glued to the floor. The sound of a roaring engine had both of them jerking their heads toward the front windows. Bryson’s pickup crashed through the house, tossing one of the couches across the room like kindling, and slamming into Lowe so hard he flew across the room. Someone hopped out, but all he saw was a blur. “Bryson! Bryson, I’m coming. Hold on.” Teagan. She crawled over the destruction she’d wrought on his house. He wanted to yell at her for risking her life yet again for him. But he was so glad to see her, alive, and safe, because she’d killed Lowe. He didn’t yell. He was too proud of his little warrior to risk hurting the tender feelings that she tried to hide with her sassy Lena Diaz 237 quips. He despised himself that it took dying for him to realize just what she meant to him. And that he loved her. Her shoes squeaked and slid across the wet floor as she scrambled toward him. He tried to tell her that he loved her, that he was proud of her. But he wasn’t sure if the words came out or not. He was so tired. And cold. At least the awful pain had faded. He barely felt any- thing anymore. He closed his eyes, at peace, knowing that she was safe. That she would be okay. teagan graBBed the discarded gun she’d spotted on the floor next to a smashed piece of electronics that she could only guess was whatever Lowe had used to jam the cell signals. But Lowe was no longer a threat. He was lying in a lifeless heap about ten feet away. After a treacherous slippery slide across the blood- streaked floor, she dropped to her knees beside Bryson, gun still clutched in her left hand as she knelt over him. “Can you hear me? Speak to me,” she ordered through a cascade of tears. He blinked, then slowly opened his eyes. “Teagan?” Her name was slurred. He seemed confused as he strug- gled to focus on her face. “I’m here, baby. I’m here.” She set the pistol down and leaned over him, pressing her hands against the floor on each side of him to keep her balance. Some- thing bumped against her arm. She pulled back in hor- ror to see the handle of a knife sticking out from his left side, embedded all the way to the hilt. Blood pooled 238 Agent Under Siege beneath him, forming macabre rivulets across the for- merly polished white floor. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.” “You…okay?” he whispered, his lips an odd, bluish tinge. “Where’s… Lowe? The…gun?” She motioned toward the body on the other side of the room as she tore at the duct tape holding the towels around her left arm. “I hit the piece of scum with your truck. I drove it right up the front steps. Your gun’s right here.” She patted the floor beside him. “Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you again.” He blinked. “Truck?” He rolled his head to the side, obviously trying to make sense of what she was saying. She finally freed the towel and leaned across him, pressing it around the wound while trying to not move the knife and make it worse. “Down!” he rasped. She automatically ducked as the sound of a gut- tural yell sounded off to the side. Bryson swept the pistol up and fired over and over and over. Then his hand dropped to his side and the pistol skittered across the floor. It was as if he’d gathered all the strength he had left to protect her, once again, and was completely spent. She looked over her shoulder. Lowe was impossi- bly close to them, just a few feet away. She’d thought she’d killed him. She must have only knocked him out. Or he’d pretended to be unconscious. Neither of which mattered now. Bryson’s aim had been true. He’d shot him in the head. A sob escaped her. “I can’t believe it. After seeing him through the window, holding that pistol, I drove Lena Diaz 239 through a wall to save you. But once again, you saved me.” She turned back toward him, smiling through her tears. His eyes were closed. His jaw was slack. “Bryson?” She frantically bent over him. “Open your eyes. Bryson?” “Move. Get out of the way.” She whirled around, shocked to see Gage Bishop kneeling beside her. Behind him, Brielle, Dalton and Han had just stepped in through the ruined wall and were sweeping their pistols back and forth, looking for threats. “Move.” Bishop none too gently shoved her out of the way. He pressed his fingers against the side of Bryson’s neck. “Come on.” Brielle was beside her now. “Let’s give him room. The police and an ambulance are on their way. Mason told us he’d tried to call Bryson back and couldn’t get through. He called us, then 911.” Teagan pressed her fist to her mouth to keep from screaming. Bishop was performing CPR. Chapter Twenty-Six Three months later Long before the shadow fell across the end of the dock and hovered over Bryson Anton’s wheelchair, he knew someone was there. Motion sensors and security cam- eras had made Bryson’s new watch buzz against his wrist when they parked their car in the driveway. More messages warned when they crossed the back patio. And again, when they’d descended the gently slopinglawn that ended at the creek. But he didn’t turn around. Not yet. “It’s been nearly three months since you sent me away yet again, Bryson. One minute I’m at the hos- pital, thanking God that Bishop was able to keep you alive long enough to even get you there. Then I’m on my knees thanking God that you survived yet another arduous surgery. Only to visit you in recovery to dis- cover you’re acting like a grizzly bear, just like last time, proving you’re the worst patient ever in the his- tory of the universe. And then, when you’re finally in your hospital room and we’re alone, I’m ready to pour Lena Diaz 241 my heart out to you, and what do you do? You tell me to get out! You order me back to Jacksonville to work on my master’s degree. What the heck, Bryson?” “The summer semester was about to start. I didn’t want you to have to wait until fall to start back again.” She said several unsavory things. “No phone calls from you. When I tried calling, you didn’t answer. I don’t even count the pathetic, generic texts you occa- sionally sent me. Then I find out that you’ve been talk- ing to my dad every few days, asking how I was doing. If you were worried, all you had to do was talk to me, Bryson. Not my family.” “I was busy.” “Really? What’s her name?” He turned the wheelchair around to face her. She was wearing hunter-green shorts and a lime-green tank top in deference to the warm weather. As always, her rich brown skin was flawless, her full high breasts a reminder of the incredible body beneath those clothes. But his favorite part of her was that gorgeous bright mind of hers. And her beautiful, sassy mouth. He never knew what outrageous thing she was going to say next. “Helga,” he said. She frowned. “Excuse me?” “You asked me her name. Her name is Helga. Or, well, I actually don’t even know her real name. But that’s what you called her when she was here that first day you showed up on my doorstep.” She put her hands on her hips. “Does this mean that you’ve been doing the rehab the doctor ordered?” “It does. I have.” 242 Agent Under Siege She crossed her arms, looking only slightly less ag- gravated than before. “Well, that’s good. But I still don’t see why you couldn’t text me a real hello, with feeling, every once in a while. Or actually speak to me on the phone. What makes you think you could just text me last night to come back and everything would be fine?” He smiled. “You’re here aren’t you?” She narrowed her eyes, then whirled around. He caught her arm just before she could get out of reach and yanked her backward. She let out a little squeak and landed right where he wanted her. In his lap. “Let me go, Bryson. I’m not kidding.” He gently turned her face so she’d meet his gaze. “Is that really want you want, Teag? You want me to let you go?” The flash of unshed tears in her eyes sur- prised him. “Sweetheart?” “You already have. You wouldn’t let me stay to help with your recovery. You sent me back home like some child—” “While I could never mistake you for a child, not even close—” he gently stroked her arm, unable to re- sist touching her “—there’s definitely an age differ- ence between us. Something to think about. You’re young, still working on officially starting your career, although I heard the FBI is interested in grooming you as a future candidate.” She smiled. Not full wattage, but enough for him to know that he was right, that the FBI opportunity was important to her. “There might be a nibble there,” she admitted. “They Lena Diaz 243 were impressed with the detailed investigation I con- ducted, and that I was right about Avarice Lowe being a serial killer. Apparently my notes on him have helped them narrow down facts that blow apart his alibis for some of the killings. He may not be around for a trial. But at least some of his victims’ families will have true closure now.” He pressed a kiss against her cheek and settled her more comfortably against him. The fact that she didn’t resist being snuggled close was encouraging. “You have the most beautiful mind I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. It’s about time the rest of the world figured that out.” She gave him the side-eye before looking away. “I’d say thank you, but it sounds like you’re building an- other excuse to justify why you wanted me to leave you.” “Not leave me. Go back to school. Huge difference.” She shrugged. “Teag, you’re young, energetic, just starting out in life. I’m more toward the middle of mine.” She snorted. “Okay, maybe not quite the middle just yet. Hope- fully.” “Is this going somewhere?” He motioned toward the wheelchair. “I wouldn’t want you to ever regret spending time with a cripple when you could be out with guys your own age doing whatever you want.” She rolled her eyes with a dramatic toss of her head. “I think you’re confusing me with the self-centered 244 Agent Under Siege stuck-up jerk who used to be your girlfriend. I’m a lit- tle more creative than her. I can figure out lots of fun things to do with you even if you can’t twirl me around a dance floor.” “Does that mean you could be happy if I never walked again?” Her mouth fell open and she cupped his face in her hands, all signs of teasing and anger gone as she stared into his eyes. “Oh, Bry. Is that what the doctor said? Are you…are you paralyzed?” He gently pulled her hands down and kissed them before letting go. “No. I’m not paralyzed. I’ve been very lucky, actually, after being shot twice in my life. Then stabbed. Twice. I just wanted to make sure that if something like that did happen, maybe down the road—considering how dangerous my career can be— that you’d still be okay sticking around.” Her brows arched in confusion. “Love isn’t based on how mobile you are or what you can do for some- one else. Love is when your happiness revolves around the other person’s happiness. Once again, I think you’re confusing me with the ex who shall not be named.” He grinned. She frowned. “Did you just say that you loved me, Teagan? In that unique sassy way of yours?” She crossed her arms. “That depends.” “On?” “On why you’re asking me these stupid questions and why you texted me last night that you had first Lena Diaz 245 class tickets waiting for me so I could fly up here today. Thanks for the first class, by the way. That was cool.” “You’re welcome. Thanks for coming.” She twisted her mouth as if trying to figure some- thing out. “You’re acting awfully strange. And my infi- nite patience is wearing thin. Out with it. What exactly do you want? Are you asking me to be your girlfriend and you’re worried I’ll dump you because of the chair?” “Will you?” “Be your girlfriend? Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” “No.” “We’re done here. Have a nice life, Bryson.” She hopped off his lap and started up the dock. “I’m not asking you to be my girlfriend,” he called after her. She raised her hand in the air and made a rude ges- ture without looking back. He grinned. “I’m asking you to be my fiancée. For real this time.” She stopped so fast that she wobbled and almost fell into the water. Once she regained her balance, she slowly turned around. “What…what did you just say?” He leaned down and flipped the top back on the cooler beside his chair. Then he pulled out a red vel- vet box and held it up in front of him. “I love you Tea- gan Eleanor Ray.” She gasped in outrage. “Did my mother tell you my middle name? I hate it. It makes me sound like an eighty-year-old.” 246 Agent Under Siege “Well, maybe that will help with the age gap be- tween us.” He winked. She marched back to him and stopped a few feet from his chair, eyeing the velvet box in his hands. “Be honest, Bryson. Exactly how much older than me are you?” “Old enough to teach you a few things that I know you’ll really, really enjoy. And young enough to dem- onstrate them with an expertise that will make your toes curl.” Her gaze flew to his. She swallowed, then cleared her throat. “Toes curl?” He nodded. “All of them?” she squeaked. “Oh yeah.” She fanned herself, then wiped her hands on her shorts. “Um. Wasn’t there a question you asked me, a moment ago, when my back was turned?” He nodded again. She put her hands on her hips. “Don’t you think you should ask again? Face-to-face?” “No.” Her eyes widened. She started to turn away. He stood. She froze and stared in wonder as he dropped down on one knee on the dock. “I think I should ask it down here, do this the right way, on bended knee.” He opened the box and tilted it so the ring would catch the light. She pressed a hand to her throat. “You stood on Lena Diaz 247 your own. No cane. And you’re on one knee. I don’t understand.” “By the grace of God, when Lowe stabbed me, it knocked the bullet loose instead of into my spine. The doctors were able to extract it. And I’ve been doing everything the therapists ordered me to do. I’m not pain-free yet. But there’s a good chance I will be. Even- tually.” Her expression turned sad. “Are you in pain right now, Bryson?” He shook his head. “No. And it’s not because of te- quila.” “Scotch?” “Pain pills. Like I said, I’m following doctor’s orders this time. No self-medicating with alcohol. No more skipping rehab appointments. And even though I hate how the pills make me feel, I wanted to be able to do this without grimacing. So I’m all doped up and feel- ing good. Now, about that question I asked—” “The ring is beautiful,” she breathed, stepping closer and eyeing the box again. “But not half as beautiful as you, you frustrating, stubborn man.” He smiled as he pulled the ring out of its bed of vel- vet. “I wanted something special, something as unique as you.” She moved even closer, then pressed her hand against her chest. “Opals. And diamonds. And rubies. I love opals and rubies. How did you know?” “All those calls to your mom and dad weren’t for nothing.” “Sneaky.” 248 Agent Under Siege “Necessary. I wanted to surprise you. You just con- firmed that you love opals and rubies. Diamonds too I hope?” She rolled her eyes. “Everyone loves diamonds. Or they should. I couldn’t ask for anything more beauti- ful. Thank you.” She held out her left hand. He poised the ring in front of her finger. But be- fore sliding it on, he looked up, meeting her gaze. “It’s selfish of me to even ask you to marry me, because I think you could do a lot better. But I can’t imagine my life without you in it. I love you, Teagan Ray. I think I loved you the moment you knocked on my door and the only word you could get out was hi.” He grinned. “Will you do me the honor of being my wife? Will you marry me?” “Are you kidding? Put the ring on already.” He laughed and slid the ring onto her finger. Then he stood. Tears glittered in her eyes as she put her hands on his shoulders. “I can’t believe you’re standing here like this. I’m so happy for you.” “No happier than me, that you said yes. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.” “That makes two of us. I had no idea why you wanted to see me. I believe you owe me a kiss, future husband.” She lifted her lips toward his and waited for him to bend down. “Hold that thought. I have something else for you.” He turned back to the cooler and reached inside. She groaned. “You’re killing me, Bryson. I don’t want anything else but you.” Lena Diaz 249 “Oh, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure you want this. And I did make a promise after all.” He handed her a pink bag with little pink ribbons tied all over it, and the name of a very exclusive store on the outside of the bag. Her eyes widened. “You didn’t.” “I did.” She opened the bag and peeked inside, then squealed with delight as she shoved her hand in and pulled out an aqua-colored lace bra and panty set. “They’re gorgeous, perfect. And they’re my size. Oh my gosh, please don’t tell me you asked my mother my sizes.” She gasped. “Or my dad!” “Give me more credit than that. I asked your mother for your best friend’s name. Then I asked your best friend.” She laughed with obvious relief and sorted through the contents. “Twelve. You bought me a dozen bras and matching panties. Bryson! This cost a fortune!” “I can afford it. I’d pay ten times that to see your eyes light up and your glowing smile.” The tears that had been threatening spilled over and down her cheeks. “I’m so happy.” “Because we’re going to get married?” She shook her head. “Because you promised that when you replaced my hundred-dollar bra that you’d buy me more, and then you’d take them off me.” He threw his head back and laughed harder than he had in ages. “Hurry, Bryson. I’m not waiting one more minute for you to keep your promise. I’ll strip right here on your back lawn if I have to.” Still laughing, he scooped her up in his arms and 250 Agent Under Siege ran with her to the house. But before going inside, he let her legs slide down him as he’d done so long ago. And this time, he did what he’d wanted to do since the first time he’d seen her. He kissed her. Really kissed her. Kissed her with all his pent-up emotions, love and longing and lust all rolled into one. And when he was done, he pulled back to soak in the haze of passion in her eyes and the love reflected back in them. His hands were shaking as he cupped her face. “I don’t know what I did to make you love me. But I’ll thank God every night for the rest of my life that you showed up on my doorstep. You’re a treasure, Teagan. A gift to my battered soul. I love you so much.” She shifted the bag of lingerie to her left hand and grabbed his right in hers. “I love you too, Bryson Anton. But you have one more promise to keep. You have to make my toes curl.” “Challenge accepted.” He scooped her up in his arms and kissed her again as he strode through the house. Her toes were curling before they even reached the bedroom. **** * Look for more books in award-winning author Lena Diaz’s miniseries, The Justice Seekers, coming soon! And if you missed the previous book in the series, look for Cowboy Under Fire, available now from Harlequin Intrigue!

Inkyard Press YA Blog Tour: One of the Good Ones by Maika and Maritza Moulite

ONE OF THE GOOD ONES By Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite On Sale: January 5, 2021 INKYARD PRESS Teen & Young Adult; Prejudice & Racism; Siblings; Self-esteem & Reliance 978-1335145802; 133514580X $18.99 USD 352 pages About the Book: A shockingly powerful exploration of the lasting impact of prejudice and the indomitable spirit of sisterhood that will have readers questioning what it truly means to be an ally, from sister-writer duo Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite, authors of Dear Haiti, Love Alaine.ISN’T BEING HUMAN ENOUGH? When teen social activist and history buff Kezi Smith is killed under mysterious circumstances after attending a social justice rally, her devastated sister Happi and their family are left reeling in the aftermath. As Kezi becomes another immortalized victim in the fight against police brutality, Happi begins to question the idealized way her sister is remembered. Perfect. Angelic.One of the good ones.Even as the phrase rings wrong in her mind—why are only certain people deemed worthy to be missed?—Happi and her sister Genny embark on a journey to honor Kezi in their own way, using an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book as their guide. But there’s a twist to Kezi’s story that no one could’ve ever expected—one that will change everything all over again. About the Authors: MAIKA MOULITE is a Miami native and the daughter of Haitian immigrants. She earned a bachelor’s in marketing from Florida State University and an MBA from the University of Miami. When she’s not using her digital prowess to help nonprofits and major organizations tell their stories online, she’s sharpening her skills as a PhD student at Howard University’s Communication, Culture and Media Studies program. Her research focuses on representation in media and its impact on marginalized groups. She’s the eldest of four sisters and loves young adult novels, fierce female leads, and laughing. MARITZA MOULITE graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s in women’s studies and the University of Southern California with a master’s in journalism. She’s worked in various capacities for NBC News, CNN, and USA TODAY. Maritza is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania exploring ways to improve literacy in under-resourced communities after being inspired to study education from her time as a literacy tutor and pre-k teacher assistant. Her favorite song is “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Contact Maika and Maritza: Author website Maika’s Twitter Maritza’s Twitter Marika’s Instagram Maritza’s Instagram Facebook Marika’s Goodreads Maritza’s Goodreads Where to Buy: Amazon B& N IndieBound Books-a-Million Apple iBooks Google Play My Review: After having reviewed and loved The Hate you Give by Angie Thomas, I was curious to see this recommended as a book to watch out for if you liked that. I was hooked from the start to the end. I love books about sisters and the fact that two sisters wrote this meant it was going to be powerful for me. WHAT a novel! Three sisters experiences. One (Kezi) is a YouTube influencer. Her death in mysterious circumstances leads her sister Happi and her best friend Genny on a road trip Kezi planned using The Green Book, a motorist’s guide.  One of the Good Ones explores relationships, race love hate and more and is written in a way that sucked me in. I had seen the movie The Green Book during the time I was listening to this and so it was good to have background about the how and why behind this guide. The road trip in that movie was just as interesting to me as the one in One of the Good Ones.  The title begs us to consider who and what is considered good and bad in this world. Experiences and circumstances shape us. I really felt for Happi upon the loss of Kezi and did for Genny too, but with one being a sister and the other a best friend, their life experience with Kezi was different.  I have tried YouTube and have a channel. I’m not sure how much of an “influencer” I am, but I had fun making the videos I have. The book explores what influencers go through via Kezi’s experiences which were interesting to witness.  I definitely wanted to continue the book once I started and felt the warmth of bonds between sisters and Genny as well as fear for Kezi then sorrow for them all. The writing is incredibly strong and well-thought out in a way that provokes emotions from readers. And there’s a twist….. Thanks to Maika and Maritza Moulite as well as Inkyard Press for my ARC in exchange for an honest and voluntary review.  5 stars. chapter two   Kezi Monday, April 16—1 Day Before the Arrest Los Angeles, California I must have died and gone to hell. Right? Because why else would I have heard that outrageous bleat- ing from my alarm at 5:30 (in the morning!) and chosen to wake up? It was mid-April of twelfth grade. I should have been suffering from a severe case of senioritis that could be cured only by sleeping in. But there I was, doing my Mon- day morning countdown to study. “Eight…seven…six…five…four…four…four…three… why, oh, why…two… ONE!” I yanked the covers shielding my head down to my waist and leapt out of bed before the just-right firmness of my mat- 24 MAIKA MOULITE AND MARITZA MOULITE tress and perfectly f luffed pillows could lure me back into their warm nest. Bang bang bang. Couldn’t even blame her. I dragged my feet over to the wall I shared with my baby sister, Happi, and knocked twice. Two syllables. Sor-ry. (For counting so loudly that I woke you up while I was trying to wake myself up.) Silence. I slipped on cozy padded knee socks and plodded to my desk, where my notes were spread neatly across my laptop, right where I’d left them the night before. Mr. Bamhauer, my AP US History teacher and the miserable Miss Trunchbull to my precocious Matilda, was a stickler for the “old way” of doing things and insisted our notes be handwritten on wide- ruled paper so that the letters were big enough for him to see without his glasses while grading. I skimmed over the major moments of the Civil Rights Movement that I knew the Advanced Placement test makers were likely to ask about when I sat for the exam in less than a month: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Emmett Till. The March on Washington. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. Each bullet point was like a twist unscrew- ing the faucet of my brain, f looding my skull with facts. To me, Brown v. Board of Education wasn’t just some case. It was the rebuttal to Plessy v. Ferguson, the racist court decision that dictated the “separate but equal” ideology. It was one of many nails in the giant coffin of Jim Crow laws and had ushered in the legacy of the Little Rock Nine. But before the Nine, we’d had students like Linda Brown, the Topeka One. Mr. Bamhauer lectured about the past, of course…but he made it stale and removed. To him, the people involved in all this ONE OF THE GOOD ONES 25 world-changing were just names and dates in a book. Noth- ing more. They hadn’t had souls. Or dreams. Brown v. Board of Education propelled my thoughts directly to that little girl. I envisioned how Linda Brown must have felt when she’d learned at nine years old that she couldn’t go to the school down the road, the one her white friends in the neighborhood attended, just because of her skin color. I felt her heart hammering when she saw how shaken up her daddy was on the walk home after his talk with the school principal. I imagined the hushed conversations Oliver and Leola Brown had over the kitchen table when they decided to move for- ward with the case, knowing what it would mean. I thought of all the parents hunched over in exasperation, fear, and de- termination, the folks in Delaware, Washington DC, South Carolina, and Virginia, who decided they could no longer accept segregation either. I drank in American history, in all its problematic glory, like water. It was mine after all. My dad’s grandmother Eve- lyn had embarked on the Great Migration to California after her husband was killed overseas in World War II. He died for a country that didn’t think he deserved to call it home. My mom’s grandfather Joseph had been killed right here in America’s Jim Crow South. And their tales were just the fam- ily history that had been passed down. I wasn’t much of a morning person, but once I rubbed the crust out of my eyes, I couldn’t close them again. Not with all these stories of individuals insisting they be remembered calling out to me at once. I had to listen to them. After almost an hour of studying, my alarm rang again to drag me out of my bubble. I walked back over to my and Happi’s shared wall and knocked out another syllabic mes- sage: Hap-pi! Wake! Up! Her groan was loud and miserable. I 26 MAIKA MOULITE AND MARITZA MOULITE chuckled. The only human being on earth less of a morning person than me? Her. As I waited to shower, I checked the email account I used for my YouTube page, marking off the usual spam, replying to short messages, and noting the invitations and requests I had to think on more and get back to. But then. I paused. Oh Kezi. I was reading this ridiculous article about parasocial relationships. It was describing those pathetic people who feel like they know media personalities but don’t. You know, those freaks who get excited when they catch a glimpse of a celeb- rity’s baby or read every interview to see what brand of sham- poo they use. Like that would make them closer. I thought it was fine. But I stayed up all night. All night. All night wondering if you would see me that way too. Like some random weirdo on the internet. But I told myself over and over, she’s much too good, way too smart, to not realize that some of her subscribers are more special than others. And I’m more than a subscriber. I’m a sup- porter. A lifeline. We get each other. No one understands the struggle and what you’re fighting for like I do. But all night I thought of this. Going insane. Running in circles in my mind until I tripped on something that made me stop. It was some- thing you said, actually. I tried to swallow but couldn’t get past the sand in my throat. Nausea washed over me in waves, and I clutched my stomach to steady myself. You said: We’re in this together. You remember that don’t you? It was that youth panel you spoke on two weeks ago at ONE OF THE GOOD ONES 27 city hall and you made this beautiful, beautiful comment on how to have hope in the face of hopelessness. You promised that “even in the darkest moments, when you feel completely alone, like you’re the only one who cares, just remember that I care. Our community cares. And the people who came be- fore us and behind us and the ones who come up beside us care too. So long as we keep caring and trying, there is hope.” I cried when your words came to me. And I’m going to sleep well tonight knowing that I’m not alone. I’m not hopeless. I have you. There was a video attached to the email, sent from an ad- dress named mr.no.struggle.no.progress. My eyes widened and my pulse pounded against my ears when I registered whose face was in the thumbnail. Mine. I clicked on the preview button with a shaky hand and watched myself at the event the email sender mentioned. There I was, speaking animatedly and pro- nouncing the very words this stranger had taken the time to transcribe. The camera panned slowly across the room as my voice continued in the background. I remembered that day. I almost hadn’t made it in time, be- cause Happi’s audition for our school’s Shakespeare play had gone longer than planned. Instead of taking my sister home after her tryout, I had dragged her with me straight to the panel. There she was in the video, seated between Derek and Ximena, who’d also come to show their support. The cus- tomary sounds of an audience wove in and out of the audio, a fussy baby babbling merrily, a chorus of a dozen sheets of paper rustling, a sniff ly man’s sneezes punctuating every few sentences. The camera continued its survey of the room, and I noticed a group of people standing along the back wall. The space had 28 MAIKA MOULITE AND MARITZA MOULITE been remarkably packed for a city hall meeting, and I recalled that quite a few members of the audience had come because they were subscribers to my YouTube channel, generationkeZi. When the meeting was adjourned, more than half in atten- dance had made a beeline to where I was seated, to chat. I’d greeted a lot of people, but others had stood on the sidelines and watched from afar, never approaching. Who was the person who had sent this message? A fan I hadn’t gotten to speak with? The cameraperson? A local citi- zen who was feeling particularly inspired? The slow creak of the bedroom door opening diverted my attention. I spun in my chair, not even sure when I’d grabbed the silver plaque I’d received from YouTube for reaching one hundred thousand subscribers, noting the instinct I had to hold it in the air menacingly. “Bathroom’s all yours,” Happi said, pausing midyawn to look at me strangely. “Thanks, I’ll be right in,” I replied to the back of her head as she stumbled to her room. Instead, I gripped the plaque in my lap and sat there, frozen. Him again. Excerpted from One of the Good Ones Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite © 2021 by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite, used with permission by Inkyard Press/HarperCollins. 

Running Away with the Bride by Sophia Singh Sasson

About the Book:  Stop the wedding! Steal the bride! And fall for a perfect stranger? Billionaire Ethan Connors vows to stop his ex’s wedding so they can be together. But crashing the wrong nuptials and spiriting away the wrong wife-to-be is more than he bargained for! Divya Singh is beautiful, talented, passionate…and from a traditional Indian family who won’t accept him as a match for their daughter. Can Divya and Ethan’s unexpected relationship stay the course or will one of them run again? Price: $5.25 ON-sale date: 01/01/2021 ISBN: 9781335232670 Where to Buy: Harlequin  B&N  Books-a-Million  Amazon  IndieBound About the Author: Sophia puts her childhood habit of daydreaming to good use by writing stories that will give you hope, make you laugh, cry and possibly snort tea from your nose. She was born in Mumbai, India, and has lived in the Canary Islands, Spain and Toronto, Canada. Currently she calls the madness of Washington, DC, home. She loves to read, travel to exotic locations, bake, scuba dive and watch Bollywood movies. Contact her through http://SophiaSasson.com. Author Links: Author Website  Instagram Facebook   Twitter Goodreads  Extract: “Stop this wedding!” Ethan Connors searched the stage on the back lawn of the Mahal Hotel where a mandap had been set up. The couple was seated on floor-level settees under a pergola-like structure in front of a small fire. A priest dressed in loose orange clothing chanted and threw things into the fire, making it crackle and smoke. Ethan wished he’d paid more attention to the wedding sequence the one time he’d been to an Indian wedding with Pooja. He had no idea if he’d made it in time to stop hers. At his outcry, the bride, groom and the dozen or so people surrounding them looked at him with surprise. The priest froze and the chatter of the crowd behind Ethan died. He could feel the stares of hundreds of guests on him. He tried to catch Pooja’s eyes but the heavy bridal veil covered her head and fell halfway across her face. The smoke from the fire swirled around her. He looked at the older Indian couple seated next to her. Were they Pooja’s parents? If the glare they were shooting him was any indication, they were. A knot twisted in his stomach. After six months of dating, including three months of living together, she’d never introduced him to her parents, and he couldn’t pick them out based on the pictures he’d seen on her bookshelf. A younger man seated next to the bride stood and made his way to Ethan. “I don’t know who you are but you’re interrupting my sister’s wedding. You best leave quietly before I call security.” The man’s voice was low and icy. But Ethan was determined he wasn’t going to lose her again. He may have come to his senses in the eleventh hour, but he was going to save himself, and Pooja. She’d known the guy sitting next to her for three months. How could she marry him? I want to know my husband and be sure that we’re compatible, she’d said to Ethan. He and Pooja were compatible. Why hadn’t he seen that sooner? When she’d first brought up marriage—and how her family wouldn’t approve of her relationship with a white Midwesterner unless he put a ring on her finger—he’d thought he needed more time to figure things out. But what was left to think about? He was pushing forty. His brother was ten years younger and had been married for nine years and had two kids. Pooja was the only woman who had deemed him worthy enough to even discuss marriage. He wasn’t going to let her get away a second time. Pooja was now standing, but Ethan still couldn’t get a clear line of sight through the crowd that was gathering around him. He hadn’t spoken to her since she walked out three months ago, but she’d sent him an email telling him she was getting married today. Why would she do that if she didn’t want him to make a grand gesture? It would’ve been helpful if she’d sent him some details other than that her groom was planning “a grand baarat down the Vegas strip.” He’d spent the entire morning driving up and down the strip, looking for a groom on a horse surrounded by a bunch of people dancing. The traditional Indian baarat, the arrival of the groom’s party, would be hard to miss, or so he thought. He’d been on the other side of the strip when he’d heard on the radio that traffic was snarled because of an Indian wedding, and he’d driven like a madman to get there. He had charged in ready to take on the world, or at least a bunch of angry relatives, but now doubt snaked its way through him. Did Pooja really want him to rescue her? And how the hell was he going to get out of the hotel without hundreds of guests and hotel security guards stopping him? Take off your veil and look at me, Pooja. He wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to succumb to her parents’ pressure and marry whichever Tom, Dick or Hari they had found for her. He was ready to step up and make a commitment.  Another man who bore a family resemblance to the one who’d identified himself as Pooja’s brother broke through the crowd and strode toward him. Who knew how many family members there were, and Ethan had zero backup. When will you stop being so impulsive? His mother’s familiar recrimination blared in his head. He focused on Pooja, who was clearly looking in his direction, despite the veil on her face. “I’m sorry I was such an ass and didn’t realize how much you meant to me. I want to marry you. Run away with me.” Brother One whispered something into a phone, no doubt calling security. “We must go now!” “Yo dude, this isn’t some Hollywood film. What do you think you’re doing?” Brother Number Two was now within punching distance and didn’t seem quite as reserved as Brother One. “My sister doesn’t know who you are. Get out before I…” He pulled his arm back, clearly preparing to punch Ethan in the face. “Wait!” Pooja’s voice sounded strange.