Secret Agent Heiress

By day these agents are cowboys; by night they are specialized government operatives. Men bound by love, loyalty and the law–they've vowed to keep their missions and identities confidential….THE MISSION: BABY-SIT AN HEIRESSRescue a spoiled heiress who'd gotten herself kidnapped? Agent Vincent Romeo did it single-handed. But instead of the society cream puff Vincent expected, this female seemed to think she was the agent in charge! Whitney MacNair was pure trouble on a shapely set of legs–with a charm as lethal as a loaded gun aimed straight at Vincent's jaded heart.Whitney had felt alone for so long–now a protector as fierce as the Montana mountains refused to leave her side. Falling for the quiet agent was more dangerous than going after the men stalking her, but heartache meant nothing when each kiss might be their last….
Содержание:

Secret Agent Heiress

   

When had Whitney MacNair ever done what he’d expected of her?

   A smile blossomed on Whitney’s lips. “I’ll help you.”

   “No.”

   “Yes.”

   “No!” Vincent’s breath seeped out on a weary sigh. She looked so vulnerable and beautiful. So young and full of hope. He didn’t want that look changed by the world he lived in.

   Completely ignoring his decision, Whitney turned to retrace their steps back up the mountain. “We lost them back there. That’s where we should start.”

   “MacNair, get your rear back down here.” That cute, curvy little rear.

   She continued to climb. “You need my help.”

   Vincent clenched his jaw. Whitney was a danger to herself, completely oblivious to just how dangerous and desperate a terrorist on the run could be. It was up to Vincent to save her from herself.

   But who would save him from her?

Secret Agent Heiress Julie Miller


   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

   Julie Miller attributes her passion for writing romance to all those fairy tales she read growing up, and to shyness. Encouragement from her family to write down all those feelings she couldn’t express became a love for the written word. She gets continued support from her fellow members of the Prairieland Romance Writers, where she serves as the resident “grammar goddess.” This award-winning author and teacher has published several paranormal romances. Inspired by the likes of Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown, Ms. Miller believes the only thing better than a good mystery is a good romance.

   Born and raised in Missouri, she now lives in Nebraska with her husband, son and smiling guard dog, Maxie. Write to Julie at P.O. Box 5162, Grand Island, NE 68802-5162.


CAST OF CHARACTERS

   Whitney MacNair—Touched by scandal, shunned by her powerful political family. Does this garrulous golden girl have what it takes to help Montana Confidential through its darkest hour?

   Vincent Romeo—NSA agent with one mission—keep Whitney safe. Does this dark, brooding man of secrets hold the answer to her salvation?

   Dimitri Chilton—The leader of the Black Order is alone and on the run.

   Senator Ross Weston—He’s facing the biggest contest of his political career.

   Margery Weston—How far will she go to support her husband?

   Warren Burke—Weston’s campaign manager. How many dirty little secrets can one man hide?

   Alysia Two Crows—More than just a maid?

   Brian MacNair—Whitney’s big brother has always taken care of her.

   Daniel Austin—Will he have to choose between his family and Montana Confidential?

   Gerald MacNair Sr.—He has the power to make or break a campaign for the presidency. But would he help his only daughter…?

   I would like to thank my critique partner, Sherry A. Siwinski, for sharing her expertise on horses and ranch life with me.

   



   This book is for her horse, Silver, a cantankerous old character who lives with pain every day. And it is for all the brave and loyal animals who touch our lives. May they all live with peace and kindness.

Contents

   Prologue

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

Prologue

   “Jewel?” Whitney MacNair’s bay Appaloosa danced beneath her on the rocky path. A sure sign of trouble. “Your grandpa did say the rattlesnakes would be in hibernation now, didn’t he?”

   She glanced up the steep rock wall to the autumn golds and greens of aspen and lodgepole pine trees growing on the plateau above her. Sometimes a coyote would come out of the woods and follow along, just to check the new scents of horses and riders in his domain. The deceptive mix of light and shadow in the trees played tricks on her vision. Maybe something moved up there. And maybe she’d better keep her focus on the narrowing path.

   The twelve-year-old girl on the sorrel gelding ahead of her turned in her saddle and shoved her hat back on her honey-blond hair. “It’s too cold in October, Whit. Gramps said that if there are any snakes left, they won’t come out to heat themselves on the rocks until this afternoon.”

   Whitney tugged at the neckline of her frost-blue cashmere sweater. It was warm enough by her standards. She’d already shed the matching wool jacket and tied it to the back of her bulky western saddle. She’d endured three months in this godforsaken wilderness, and she still couldn’t get used to the rapid fluctuations in temperature.

   She didn’t really mind it so much today, though, she thought, letting a satisfied smile curve her lips. Sure, the nearest thing that passed for a town was a good fifty miles away in Livingston. And it was another hundred more beyond that to reach anything she’d classify as civilization. But her boss, Daniel Austin, had given her the sweetest compliment earlier today.

   Nice job, Whit, he’d said.

   It wasn’t so much the words, but the fact that he’d recognized her contribution—however small—to the smooth running of Montana Confidential, a covert branch of the federal Department of Public Safety. Under Daniel’s direction, they’d set up a command center, beneath the guise of a working ranch, to handle the threat of terrorists sneaking into the United States across the unpopulated Montana–Canadian border.

   The Black Order, as the terrorists called themselves, had attempted to destroy a research facility, sabotage a public water system, even kill the governor of Montana, trying to get a foothold of control in the U.S. But Montana Confidential and its diverse team of agents had turned them back each time.

   Whitney was no agent. She had the thoroughly unglamorous title of executive assistant. Glorified secretary was more like it. Cum laude graduate from the best schools in the East, sentenced to a job well beneath her talents and experience.

   But today, after nearly three months in the boondocks of Montana, far away from her family—states away from a proper department store—the isolation hadn’t mattered quite so much.

   Nice job.

   Her smile broadened. She’d been working day and night fielding calls from law enforcement agencies all over the state, reports of sightings of Dimitri Chilton, the leader of the Black Order terrorist group, who was still at large.

   It wasn’t the kind of work she’d trained for at Smith College. But Daniel had needed her to fill that role, and she hadn’t let him down. She’d been more than window dressing. More than a kid sister anyone needed to baby-sit. She’d rolled up her sleeves, sat her butt in the chair and kept the top-secret war room running while the field agents completed an undercover sting designed to expose and capture the Black Order.

   Though some of the operatives had nearly lost their lives, they’d saved the Montana governor, and rounded up or eliminated every terrorist except one.

   Dimitri Chilton had escaped.

   Whitney shivered, feeling a sudden chill despite the trickle of sweat that gathered at the small of her back.

   “What are we supposed to do if we meet this bear of yours?” she asked, diverting her thoughts back to her friend. She wondered if Jewel really had spotted a black bear this late in the year, or if this trail ride was just an excuse to discuss the pitfalls of puppy love with Charlie Korbett.

   “I want to take a picture of it to show at school.” The girl’s small shoulders rose and fell in an adult-size sigh. “Besides, I had to get away from the ranch. C.J. wanted to take me shopping in Livingston. If she invites me to go on one more dorky outing with her…”

   Ah. Cecilia Jane trouble. Jewel had a serious crush on C.J.’s new husband, Frank Connolly. Almost three months had passed since their August wedding in Las Vegas, but Jewel just couldn’t forgive C.J. for “stealing” the man of her dreams, despite several efforts from Frank and C.J. to reach some sort of truce with her.

   “She’s just trying to be friendly, you know,” Whitney commented.

   “Well, she should stop trying. I’m not interested. I’d rather hang out with you any day. You are way cooler—”

   The snap of a twig from above cut short the teen-angst tirade. Jewel glanced up as her horse danced beneath her. “Did you hear that?”

   Whitney’s heartbeat quickened. “Yeah.” She racked her brain for the proper way to defend herself against a bear attack. Trouble was, they didn’t get many bears back in Martha’s Vineyard or Washington, D.C. But avoiding narrow alleys was a good technique to escape muggers. She applied the big-city logic and nudged the heels of her leather boots into the Appaloosa’s sides. “Let’s pick up the pace and get to the top of the plateau. There’s not much space to turn the horses around here.”

   Jewel urged her mount into a trot and Whitney followed close behind. Something was out there. Snake or bear, perhaps. Something big enough and bad enough to spook the horses.

   The Appaloosa’s ears flattened against its skull. She leaned forward and stroked its neck, trying to ease the wary tension radiating from the horse into her legs and straight up to the warning bell dinging inside her head. “Easy, boy.”

   She scanned down the tree-studded slope to where Crooked Creek wound through the bottom of the valley. This steady climb into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains at the eastern edge of the Lonesome Pony Ranch suddenly seemed hundreds of miles away from the house and outbuildings where she and the Confidential team lived and worked.

   “Whitney!”

   A black, stocky figure leaped from the rocks above, caught Jewel by the shoulder and knocked her from her horse.

   Bears didn’t leap.

   They didn’t wear leather gloves and black baseball caps, either.

   “Jewel!”

   Whitney dug in her heels and charged the Appaloosa straight at the girl’s attacker. The man bounced to his feet with Jewel clutched in his arms. But every ounce of tomboy and spitfire kicked and punched. He dropped Jewel on her rump in the dust. Whitney pulled her right foot from the stirrup, held tight to the saddle horn and kicked out just as he turned.

   She caught him square in the jaw and sent him flying backward. Tugging hard on the reins, she jerked the Appaloosa to a halt.

   Whitney spun around in the saddle to see Jewel going after her hat in the tall grass. “Jewel, get on your horse!”

   The added height and a thousand-plus pounds of frightened animal would give her an advantage over the man. Jewel abandoned the hat and ran for her panicked sorrel.

   The man in the short black coat scrambled to his feet. He paused long enough to flash Whitney a taunting smile. With the back of his gloved hand, he wiped the fresh blood from the corner of his mouth. He pulled the bill of his hat low over his forehead, masking his eyes.

   Whitney knew a dare when she saw one.

   He turned away. His brisk, long stride carried him quickly, methodically closer to Jewel.

   The girl caught one rein on the sorrel’s bridle. The horse’s eyes rolled, and he reared up, pulling her off her feet. Jewel held on, but the man closed in on her.

   “No!” Whitney screamed the warning. The man never broke his stride. Jewel tried to calm her horse, but her own desperation was too easy to read. Whitney tugged on the Appaloosa’s reins. But she’d boxed herself in at the narrowest point of the ascent, leaving her no room to maneuver the skittish horse without tumbling down the side of the mountain.

   Pulling her feet free of the stirrups, she swung her right leg over the horse’s neck and jumped to the ground. The impact of the hard, dry earth jolted her legs. But she absorbed the shock through her shins and knees and took off running.

   Jewel had gotten close enough to wrap her fingers in the sorrel’s mane. The man in black snatched the back of her denim jacket in his fist. Jewel pulled, he tugged, and Whitney charged.

   Boot first, she kicked him in the side, aiming for a kidney. He lost his grip, flew three feet and dropped to his knees.

   Whitney grabbed Jewel’s left leg and lifted. “Get up.”

   Jewel swung her leg over and snatched at the reins. “Whit, look out!”

   A thick black-clad arm closed around her neck from behind, choking her. The man lifted her away from Jewel. But boredom alone wasn’t the only reason she’d signed up for those kickboxing classes in Livingston.

   As soon as her feet touched ground, she shifted her balance and brought her elbow back into his gut. Once. She fisted her hand, squeezed her muscles into steel and struck a second time. The elbow jab loosened his grip and she twisted around. She rammed the butt of her hand up under his nose, and his head jerked back.

   Whitney planted her left foot, and with every inch of her long legs stretched up to kick the heel of her boot in the very same place.

   A slew of foreign obscenities bespoke his pain as he sank to the ground. She didn’t wait to translate. She spun around and ran for her horse, shouting commands to Jewel behind her. “Get out of here! Get back to the ranch. Get help. Go!”

   “Whitney!”

   Glancing back at the frantic warning was her mistake. The man was on his feet in hot pursuit. She braced for his attack.

   She shifted her weight to her left and kicked with her right. But he was ready for her this time. He caught her ankle and twisted her knee, pulling her off balance.

   Pain shot up past her thigh and she hit the ground hard, flat on her back, knocking the wind from her chest. The clear blue sky swam above her. She squeezed her eyes shut against the dizzy sensation and tried to suck in precious oxygen, but the effort seared her throbbing lungs.

   A heavy weight fell on top of her, crushing her back into the uneven jabs of small rocks beneath her. Her eyes shot open in a breathless cry of pain and she saw the man in black above her. His forearm pressed down on the base of her throat. She was vaguely aware of lifting her hands and trying to push him off her.

   Her mouth opened and closed, struggling to bring air into her deprived lungs. The sky above her swirled into a blur. She blinked her eyes clear and tried to move her legs, but the weight of his body trapped her. Her fingers turned to mush and lost their grip on his coat. A hammering sound pounded in her ears. Jewel’s horse? Or the erratic pulse beat of a body fighting for air to breathe?

   A drop of blood from her assailant’s battered face hit her cheek and singed her skin. But she couldn’t turn away from the grim touch with his arm anchored at her throat. He was choking her, she realized amid the gray haze that drifted into her mind and robbed her of rational thought.

   She was going to die on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, far away from family and friends and any chance of rescue.

   With one final surge of energy she punched her hand up and knocked the cap off his head, exposing the shaggy length of his black hair. But it was the even blacker void of his familiar, spiritless eyes that snatched the last lingering breath of air from her throat.

   She’d seen that face a hundred times, plastered on the walls and transmitted over the data screens in the Confidential war room.

   Dimitri Chilton.

   With nothing left inside her, no fight, no breath—no hope—Whitney surrendered to the blackness that consumed her.

Chapter One

   “We’re here, Romeo.”

   Agent Vincent Romeo opened his bleary eyes and studied his surroundings before ever lifting his chin from the pillow of his chest.

   The Lonesome Pony Ranch looked pretty much the way his pilot escort had described it. Low, sprawling hills nestled between two mountain ranges. Horses grazing in snow-spotted pastures. A log house perched on top of a hill, surrounded by ranch buildings and guest cabins. Clear blue sky.

   And not a skyscraper in sight.

   Vincent unfolded his long legs from the tight confines of the chopper and stepped onto the concrete helipad. He rolled his cramped shoulders and tested the air by inhaling deeply. Nice. No trace of smog. His city-trained lungs would probably rebel.

   He swiped his hand down his face and jaw, trying to shake the lingering fatigue. He could use a shave and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

   But when the President of the United States summoned you at one in the morning for a special assignment, you didn’t say no. Even if twenty-four hours earlier you were finishing up a weeklong stakeout that ended in a messy gun battle, leaving one agent wounded and a hit man dead.

   That could have been you, Vinnie. He could hear Melissa’s tearful voice in his head, even five years after she’d dumped him at the altar with that grand speech. Yeah, his job was dangerous. He put his life on the line every time he strapped on his badge and gun. But somebody had to walk the line between the good guys and the bad guys. Somebody had to make the world a safer place.

   His father had walked that line. He’d known the risks long before that bullet had claimed his life.

   Vincent knew the risks, too.

   He strapped on his badge and gun, anyway.

   “You coming, Romeo?” The dark-haired pilot who had picked him up at the airport, Frank Connolly, was already striding down the hill to a battered tan pickup truck.

   Obviously fit and strong, Connolly’s uneven gait piqued Vincent’s curiosity. Like his father, had Connolly, too, been struck down in the line of duty?

   Vincent didn’t ask. He wasn’t here to indulge his curiosity or to make friends.

   He was here to do a job.

   Tucking memories and philosophizing neatly away where they couldn’t distract him, Vincent reached behind his seat to retrieve his gear. He traveled light. He already carried the important stuff, either on his person or inside his head. But it paid to be prepared for any contingency. He slung the black nylon duffel bag over his shoulder, and joined Connolly in the truck.

   As they pulled up in front of the ranch house, a blond-haired man opened the screen door and stepped onto the porch. The weight of authority he carried on his shoulders easily identified him as the boss of this operation. He crossed to the top of the steps and waited for Vincent to approach.

   By the time Vincent had set his bag on the wooden bench beside the front door, the boss had been joined by Connolly and two other men, who introduced themselves as Court Brody and Patrick McMurty.

   The boss introduced himself last. “Daniel Austin.”

   Vincent unzipped his black leather jacket and reached inside. He pulled out the wallet that carried his badge and ID and flipped it open. “Vincent Romeo. National Security Agency.”

   Daniel glanced at the identification and returned it. His firm handshake welcomed him and urged him to get down to business all at the same time. “The war room is downstairs, but I think we can do this right here.”

   Vincent handed him an envelope sealed with a stamp marked POTUS. “President of the United States, huh?” Daniel recognized the eagle logo, then slipped his thumb beneath the flap. “He wants to oversee this mission personally, is that it?”

   “The hostage is of personal importance to the president.”

   Daniel paused. His clear brown eyes sent an unmistakable message. “She’s important to us. And we call her Whitney around here.”

   Vincent acknowledged the warning with a silent nod. He folded his arms across his chest, distancing himself from the palpable urgency of this unusual business meeting. He made no apology for studying the group of men as closely as they scrutinized him. Each man seemed at ease with his surroundings, at ease with the type of job they’d been asked to do for their country. Daniel, Frank, Court—even Grandpa McMurty.

   Patrick McMurty was some kind of retired sheriff or military officer. The upright carriage and balanced stance of an alert man ready for trouble were recognizable to Vincent’s trained eye. According to the briefing he’d received on the plane, McMurty had been recruited to run the ranch and provide the cover necessary for the operatives to blend in with this part of the country.

   Montana Confidential had put together a pretty fair team of counterterrorist agents. Having outside help to retrieve one of their own probably wasn’t sitting well with any of them.

   Vincent shrugged off the observation, only momentarily concerned about treading on another man’s turf. His job was to rescue Whitney MacNair, not win any popularity contest. He focused his attention back on Daniel, who had finished reading the official letter. “Everything clear?”

   “We’re to provide you with whatever backup you need. But you’re point man on this mission.” Daniel stuffed the papers back into the envelope. “Name it and you’ve got it.”

   Vincent knew his list already. “I need a map of the terrain and I need to talk to the girl. I have everything else I need.”

   Frank Connolly shook his head and stepped forward. “You mean we have no part in this? Kyle Foster’s cutting short his honeymoon to help get Whitney back. He and Laura will be here by this afternoon.”

   Vincent recognized the name of another agent and his new wife, who’d been recruited to help expose collusion between the Black Order and an American contact who worked at her father’s research facility.

   The Black Order was no ordinary adversary. Like any terrorist group, they despised the United States and its global domination. But their insidious attempts to influence and undermine the American government, as well as corrupt and frighten its citizens, weren’t his concern at the moment.

   He had to bring home a kidnapped society girl. Let Montana Confidential handle the terrorists.

   Daniel Austin understood that. He laid a placating hand on Frank’s shoulder. “President’s orders. The Confidential group is to play a support role only. Gerald MacNair, Sr., Whitney’s father, seems to be an old family friend. This is being handled out of Washington.”

   Court Brody swore, clearly as frustrated by the red tape as Frank. “This is our territory. We know it better than any hotshot from the East Coast.”

   “Chicago,” Daniel corrected him. Court, a former FBI man who probably understood the politics of Washington better than anyone there, seemed unimpressed. “And you do know this land better than any of us.” The command was clear.

   Vincent absorbed the brunt of Court’s steely-eyed glare before he excused himself to do Daniel’s bidding. “I’ll draw up a map.”

   Frank, seemingly a respected voice of reason among the men, turned his argument to Daniel. “You’re letting him go in solo? Chilton’s a desperate man. No telling what he’s willing to do.”

   Vincent handled his own defense. “There’s one hostage, one kidnapper.” He added the next without false modesty. “I only need me.”

   Daniel pocketed the orders. “What Frank’s trying to say is that Chilton’s unpredictable. He may be on his own right now, but he still has a U.S. contact we haven’t been able to uncover. If he somehow managed to make that connection, he may not be alone. You could be walking into an ambush.”

   Just like Dad. His father had gone into that warehouse to save a little girl’s life. And because of his sacrifice, his partner had been able to bring the girl out alive.

   Without betraying the wandering path of his weary brain, Vincent acknowledged Daniel’s advice. “Thanks for the friendly warning. But I’ve been briefed on Chilton.”

   Daniel swept his gaze across the rugged skyline of snow-tipped mountains to the east. “Court’s right. This is Montana wilderness we’re talking about. You don’t strike me as a country boy.”

   He’d had enough survival training and experience to handle just about any weather and terrain. But he wasn’t interested in sharing his résumé at the moment. Time had been wasted already. He pushed up his sleeve and checked his multitask field watch. “She’s been gone twenty-four hours. I think one night in Chilton’s company is enough for Ms. MacNair.”

   Frank raked his fingers through his hair and turned away, taking the length of the porch in his measured stride. Daniel’s acceptance of the situation was more amiable. “If you need breakfast, Dale’s in the kitchen.” He shifted his glance to Grandpa. “Patrick?”

   Patrick McMurty straightened from the porch rail where he’d taken a seat and adjusted his straw cowboy hat on top of his head. “Jewel’s at the corral. I’ll take you to her.”

   Vincent followed him down the steps. When they rounded the corner, out of sight of the others, the older man wrapped his fingers around Vincent’s forearm and stopped him. “You hurt my granddaughter—you scare her in any way—I’ll turn my wife, Dale, on you with her frying pan.”

   Gray eyes waited with deadly serious intent. Vincent could respect a man who guarded his family so zealously. He had brothers and sisters of his own he’d fought to protect. And nobody, but nobody, could say a thing to hurt his mother and not receive a visit from him.

   “I have to do my job, Mr. McMurty.” Vincent made a rare concession. “But you can stay and give me a high sign if I overstep your boundaries.”

   The older man released him. His sun-weathered face crinkled into a smile and he winked. “You could outrun Dale, anyway. C’mon.”

   Vincent lengthened his stride to catch up with Patrick. He filed away that last remark to be laughed at later.

   

   DANIEL AUSTIN WATCHED Patrick and Vincent Romeo until they disappeared around the side of the house. Romeo acted like a big bad loner and looked as if he should be guarding the door at the local tavern. What he lacked in verbal skills, he made up for in intimidation factor. In jeans and leather, he looked more at home on the back of a motorcycle, roaring down the highway, instead of hiking deep into the mountains.

   But he checked out. He had to be the best, or Washington be damned.

   Whitney might have been an annoying pain in the butt at first, with her self-indulgences and pouty moods. But she’d grown on Daniel like a kid sister these past months. She’d proved that she had some real gumption beneath that superficial veneer. He didn’t know what made her hide behind that bored society girl routine. But something was hurting in that big heart of hers.

   Daniel didn’t like to see anyone in his family—real or adopted—hurt in any way. If he couldn’t fix it himself, then he’d do whatever was necessary to make things right. He’d walked away from his wife and son to keep them safe, to keep them from worrying and wondering if he’d come home in a box after one of his missions.

   And he would step aside and let Vincent Romeo bring Whitney home. Because he was the best man for the job.

   He looked to the far end of the slatted pine porch and saw Frank Connolly standing with both hands braced on the railing. He understood the kind of tension radiating from his shoulders, that inability to let go when you wanted to take action instead. This particular family crisis he could handle with a bit of older-and-wiser advice.

   Daniel knew the sound of his boots revealed his presence, even though Frank continued to stare at some distant point on the horizon. “Don’t stress about this, Frank. We’ll get the job done. We’ll get her back. Why don’t you go home and check on that pretty new wife of yours. Don’t let this job come between you and C.J. the way I let the work consume me when I still had Sheridan.”

   “Had?” Frank straightened and turned, the frown on his face reflecting his concern. “I thought Sherry and your son, Jessie, were coming from Maryland to visit you this weekend.”

   Daniel propped his foot up on a bench and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knee. “I called and canceled this morning. There’s no sense bringing them here and talking second chances when I can’t promise her the time we need to work things out.”

   “You still love her, don’t you.”

   “I’ll always love her. I loved her when I married her, and I loved her when the divorce papers came through.” Just thinking of her long chestnut hair and sweet, trusting smile brought an ache to his chest. Frank had found the real happiness he deserved with C.J. Daniel didn’t want him to lose that. “I screwed things up with Sheridan. Don’t make the same mistakes with C.J. We’ll handle things here. Go home.”

   

   WHEN THEY REACHED the circular corral, Vincent could understand Patrick McMurty’s concern. His granddaughter, Jewel, looked petite enough to blow away in a strong wind. Dressed in denim from head to toe, she stood just inside the fence, brushing the already shiny coat of a gray mottled horse. When she turned to greet her grandfather, he saw the unmistakable signs of red, puffy eyes. The girl had done her fair share of crying already.

   Patrick climbed the fence and took a position on the opposite side of the horse, giving Vincent some space to interview the girl, but staying close enough to keep an eye on things. Vincent stayed outside the corral, suspecting his big size might frighten the girl. After an initial introduction, Jewel turned and kept her gaze glued on the horse, named Silver.

   “Can you describe the man who attacked you?”

   “I already picked him out of a book Daniel showed me.”

   “Could you tell me?” he prompted. Surprisingly enough, the girl answered his question. Like a runner finding her stride, she warmed up to the idea of talking to him, and soon had no trouble carrying on a conversation. Her detailed description of the man and the attack fit the information he’d been faxed on Dimitri Chilton.

   Good. If Chilton matched his profile, then Vincent’s plan was sound. “Why were you and Ms. MacNair up that far in the mountains?”

   Jewel continued to brush the horse. “Whit and I like to ride. She’s good at it, though she says she prefers an English saddle. I saw a bear up there a few days ago. But mostly I wanted to talk.”

   The quick shift from one topic to the next left Vincent with a need to pause to catch up. “What did you want to talk about?”

   She looked up at her grandfather, seeking a reprieve on having to answer that question. Then she turned and climbed to the second rail of the fence, putting herself at eye level with Vincent. “It’s my fault Whitney’s gone. He couldn’t catch me, so he took her, instead.”

   Vincent’s heart went out to the girl. She seemed to be carrying an awful heavy weight on those slim shoulders. He stated the truth, hoping to reassure her. “His intention was probably to kill you, and take Ms. MacNair, anyway. There was nothing you could have done.”

   Patrick McMurty cleared his throat. A high sign. Vincent stepped back and tried to think of a better explanation. But he’d already missed his chance. Jewel’s eyes flooded with new tears. She jumped down from the fence and returned her attention to Silver’s bony hip.

   Vincent took note of the way the horse balanced his weight on three legs, with the left back hoof barely touching the ground. From his inexperienced perspective, it looked as if Silver was standing on tiptoe.

   “What’s wrong with your horse?” he asked.

   “He’s old, almost thirty.” Jewel punctuated her words with a sniffle. “Oh, you mean his leg? He got hit on a farm road a few years ago. He has arthritis real bad. Gramps says I’m going to lose him soon.” Her shoulders lifted with another drawn-out sniffle. And then she buried her face in the horse’s side to hide her tears. “I don’t want to lose Whitney, too.”

   She turned and wiped her tears away with her dusty fingers, leaving an endearing streak across one cheek. “You’ll bring her home, won’t you?”

   Vincent looked over the back of the horse to her grandfather. Patrick’s grim expression challenged Vincent to hurt the girl any further. Vincent reached through the fence and stroked the horse’s nose, in lieu of touching the girl.

   He’d do his job for his country, and for the twenty-six-year-old hostage he’d never even met. But most of all, he’d complete the mission for this tearstained girl who cared so much for her missing friend.

   His promise was simple.

   “I will.”

   

   “I’M NOT DEAD.”

   The observation squeaked through the parched ache in Whitney’s throat as she woke up. She tried to reach up to massage the bruised tissue at her neck, but a rough reminder pinched the skin at her wrist.

   She breathed in stale, undisturbed air and opened her eyes to the dim morning light before remembering the source of the pain. Several layers of wide gray duct tape bound her wrists to the arms of a warped hardwood chair.

   But knowledge didn’t necessarily bring comfort. Like a condemned woman strapped in for a primitive electrocution, her wrists and ankles had been taped to the arms and legs of the chair. She had no fear of being electrocuted, though. The ramshackle, one-room cabin where she’d spent the night hadn’t seen electricity or running water for years—if ever.

   She breathed in deeply and winced at the burning in her chest. Combined with the rapid pounding inside her head, her achy body felt as though she’d been hit by a Mack truck…or thrown from her horse…or…

   “Good morning, Miss MacNair.”

   Whitney’s senses snapped to full alert at the crisply articulated greeting. The man in black.

   Dimitri Chilton.

   He lounged across the room from her in a battered recliner upholstered with ratty, mildewed plaid, with one leg draped carelessly over the arm of the chair. The front of his wool coat gaped open, revealing the steel gray butt of an oversize handgun sticking out of a holster beneath his left arm.

   She’d attacked a man carrying that kind of firepower? Even the Department of Public Safety agents who worked at Montana Confidential didn’t walk around wearing weapons that looked like some sort of handheld mini cannon. The pockets of her jeans held nothing more dangerous than a tube of lip balm and a tissue.

   Her pulse rate kicked up a notch. He could have killed her on the spot with that thing. He could have brought down Jewel McMurty and both horses, too. God, she was an idiot. No wonder her parents and brothers, and the men she worked with, thought she couldn’t look after herself.

   With very little effort, she’d made a mess of things again.

   A flash of white teeth in the shadows, and the bemused laugh that accompanied the smile, brought her back to the present. Whitney forced herself to breathe calmly, in and out through her nose.

   Second-guessing herself now wouldn’t help. She had to keep a clear head. She dredged up the stiff-lipped pride that had seen her through tough times before. She refused to bend her spirit to her captor, even though he clearly had the upper hand.

   “Where are we? What time is it?” She squinted through the shadows, trying to bring his face into focus. “Have you called my father yet? I know who you are.”

   “I know you as well.” His crisp Mediterranean accent bespoke a man of education and culture. But the bruises on her body gave testament to his penchant for violence. “Your father will be contacted when the time is right. He paid good money to silence your embarrassing little scandal, no? You were whisked away from an important job in Washington to become a ranch hand in Montana. And you had such a promising career ahead of you.”

   Whitney withered at the false sympathy lacing his voice. So much for pride. Even a terrorist from the other side of the world had heard of the pampered rich girl’s shame. “So you read the newspapers, too.”

   “I wouldn’t be doing my job very well if I wasn’t informed, now, would I. I must make sure your father wants you back before I ask for ransom money.”

   Chilton had hit her at her most vulnerable spot. For the moment, she conceded victory to him.

   “Then what do you want with me?”

   He slowly unhooked his leg from the chair and leaned forward into the dusty shaft of sunlight streaming in through a lone, cracked windowpane. Dark, intelligent eyes studied her with superior indifference. She relished a brief satisfaction at seeing the dark purple blotches beneath both those eyes. She’d broken the bastard’s nose with one of those kicks yesterday.

   But satisfaction was brief. Something about his unblinking stare made her suddenly conscious of how vulnerable she was.

   “You are my ticket to freedom and…revenge.”

   “What?” For a few breathless seconds, she pitied whoever had been foolish enough to cross him. He spoke so matter-of-factly, as if he had already planned his enemy’s death a thousand times, in a thousand different ways.

   And then she began to wonder just who his target for revenge might be. Montana Confidential? Her family?

   Whitney sank back into the chair, unable to ward off the chill that assailed her. Every bruise and scrape on her back and arms cried out, each wound a tiny little voice reminding her of who she was and what she was supposed to be. Gerald MacNair’s little girl. She was simply a pawn in this madman’s game. Not Whitney. Not a woman. Not even a human being.

   A pawn.

   The first sting of tears pooled in her eyes. She turned her chin into her shoulder, not wanting to give Chilton the satisfaction of seeing her succumb to his taunts.

   But he held all the cards. She could hide nothing from him. When she heard his footsteps on the dry, warped floor, she quickly blinked and tried to erase any signs of crying.

   With the tip of his finger he touched the point of her chin and traced a line around the curve of her jaw. She cringed at the provocative touch. Violence encased in butter-soft leather was still violence. Her chest rose and fell in quick, panicked breaths. She felt the skin at the top of her breasts burn beneath his knowing gaze. “Is something not to your liking?” he asked.

   Standing this close, she could smell the smoke and pine on him. She even detected a hint of musk and sweat. He’d been living outdoors for a few days, away from anything resembling soap and a shower. She gritted her teeth against the smell, and tried not to squirm beneath his scrutiny.

   Whitney searched for an appropriate comeback, one that would make him remove his hand and gaze and smell without triggering his anger. Since she couldn’t very well ask for her freedom, why not try the next best thing? Escape. But she had no chance unless she could get herself free from this chair. The full discomfort in her bladder suddenly felt like a blessing.

   Her heart still pounded, but now a surge of hope instead of fear spurred it on. “I need to go to the bathroom.”

   He took his hand from her face and gestured around the cabin. “Do you see any facilities here?”

   “I’m not too proud. I can go behind a bush outside.”

   “Not too proud?” He laughed, a mocking, derisive sound completely at her expense. “I never thought I would hear that from an American. Very well. I will take you.”

   He pulled a long, slender knife from inside his boot and slipped it between the bottom of her right wrist and the chair. With just the slightest shift in position, he could slit her veins wide open. Whitney sobered a moment. She wasn’t free yet.

   But in a swoosh of gentlemanly style, he flicked the blade neatly through the tape, releasing her arm. As she flexed her fingers to bring circulation back into her hand, he snatched the loose end of tape stuck to the top of her arm and ripped it off, taking hair and skin with it.

   “Ow!” she screamed, instinctively dragging her arm into her chest to protect herself from further pain. Purplish red welts immediately popped up on the top of her wrist.

   “I’m sorry,” he mocked. “Did I hurt you?”

   “You bastard,” she seethed.

   But his dark eyes danced in gleeful retribution above the marks of pain she had inflicted on him. “I have been called worse. You may call me worse before our time together is done.”

   With that ominous promise to dull her temper, he repeated the sadistic release on her other arm. Her leather boots protected her ankles from a similar fate, so she was able to stand without much difficulty. Walking out the door ahead of him proved a greater challenge. With the knife slipped neatly into his boot, he pulled the gun from beneath his coat. Square-angled and lethal-looking, it fit the length of his forearm and tucked into his armpit. With its snub-nosed tip jabbing Whitney between the shoulder blades, she lurched to the door and stumbled down onto the gravel that passed for a front porch outside.

   Regaining her balance, she followed the point of his gun to a nearby bush. Once outside, she could see that the dilapidated cabin had once been a pioneer’s homestead or a miner’s shack. An area around the house had been cleared of the towering lodgepole pines that surrounded them. Over the years, brush and smaller trees had grown into a wild garden of sorts, covering any path or road that might indicate the way off this small rise.

   Whitney rubbed her hands up and down her arms, adjusting to the damp morning chill, and made an easy decision. Anyplace was better than here. When she got the chance, she would simply take off. It couldn’t be more than twenty yards to the woods. She could easily lose Chilton in there. Then, once she was beyond the range of his knife or fist or gun, she would worry about finding her way back to the Lonesome Pony Ranch.

   “Do you mind?” she asked, turning her back to him and unhooking her belt. He had stopped her at a shoulder-high stand of scrub pine.

   “Yes. I know what you’re thinking. I will not take my eyes from you.”

   The blood rushed from her head down to her feet. Whitney wondered if her shock at the accuracy of his guess reflected on her face. So much for escape. Holding on to what little dignity he’d left her, she dropped her jeans and took care of business, feeling the blush of embarrassment flood heat into her cheeks.

   But while she zipped her jeans and tucked in the hem of her jewel-necked sweater, a new opportunity presented itself. The pocket of his coat chirped with a telltale ring. A cell phone! And if it was ringing they weren’t as close to the middle of nowhere as she originally thought. They had to be near a cell tower for Chilton to be receiving a call. Whitney slowed her movements and took great care to snap her jeans and fasten her belt.

   “Yes?” The other party seemed to be equally brief and to the point. “I have her.”

   Whitney snuck a peek over her shoulder, as if seeing him on the phone would help her understand his conversation.

   “You’ll make the arrangements, then?” What arrangements? she wondered. She watched his nostrils flare with an impatient breath. Sensing his growing distraction, Whitney quickly finished dressing. “Fine. No. I’ll call you.” With the next pause, she sized up the shortest route into the trees. “We have an agreement, you and I.” Chilton’s voice rose with tightly controlled anger. “Don’t cross me in this.”

   The instant he turned his face into the phone to make his point, Whitney took off running. She dashed through the bushes and clambered up and over a pile of rock before she heard the rapid fire of bullets behind her. She dropped to her haunches and scooted off the other side. Either he was a lousy shot, or he hadn’t been aiming directly at her. She doubted the first was true.

   “Stop her!”

   Chilton’s command made no sense. But she’d hit the low brush now. She hurdled a shrub and lengthened her stride, closing in on the treeline. More shots jarred her eardrums. The bullets slapped the earth beside her feet. Whitney stumbled, touched her fingers to the dirt and righted herself.

   She pulled up short as another man, taller and thinner than Chilton, emerged from the woods, holding the same type of boxy gun, pointed directly at her.

   Whitney heard her own startled breath rasp in her lungs. She shifted direction, splitting the distance between the two men, and ran the way she had in high-school track. She pulled away from her pursuers, hearing the static of bullets, coming close but never hitting her, like shouts from the crowd, urging her on.

   She could see the big trees now, rushing closer. She put her hands up in front of her face and shoved her way through a stand of baby pines.

   And smacked into the unyielding chest of a third man. Short and stocky. Dressed in black and armed like the others.

   Feeling the burn of muscle in her thighs now, she backed up into the pine branches, spun, and returned the way she’d come. Five strides. Ten.

   Another man in black rounded a granite boulder and blocked her path.

   Four men!

   Her abductor was not alone in his abandoned hideout.

   Tears of shock and unwilling surrender mixed with her panting gasps, making deep breathing impossible. She turned. The stocky man walked through the pines. She jerked another ninety degrees. The tall man. One more turn and she faced Dimitri Chilton.

   The circle closed in on her. Whitney’s gaze darted from one man to the next. Helpless as a rabbit trapped in a snare, she could only wait for her inevitable demise.

   With a wall of men surrounding her, Chilton snatched her under the jaw, lifting her up onto her toes. His hard fingers dug into her cheekbone on one side, while his thumb left its bruising imprint in the other side.

   “I grow tired of your defiance.” The refined breeding she’d noticed in his voice earlier was eclipsed by the thick accent of his native tongue. “I am not always a patient man.”

   He threw her to the ground. The wrench on her jaw and the impact of dry, hard dirt left her ears ringing.

   “Tape her and gag her.”

   Whitney gathered her senses long enough to realize what was happening to her. She was aware of every hard touch and unkind word. One man bound her wrists, another taped her at the ankles. The third shoved a handkerchief into her mouth, thrusting her tongue back and pinching her lips against her teeth. He rolled her face into the dirt and tied the handkerchief behind her head, catching a few strands of hair in the knot and plucking them from her scalp.

   “Wait.” Chilton punched in a number on his cell phone and knelt beside her. He ripped the gag from her sore mouth and pressed the phone to her ear. “Say hello to your father.”

   Fearing some kind of trick, but brutally aware of the four guns trained on her, she obeyed his command with a dutiful whisper. “Daddy?”

   “Whitney? Is that you?”

   Hope surged through her at the sound of her father’s voice. “Daddy!”

   But hope was snatched from her as quickly as it was given. Chilton shot to his feet.

   “Mr. MacNair. It’s so nice to finally meet an American powerbroker like yourself. I think I have a deal you will be interested in…”

   With a succinct hand signal, Chilton walked away, carrying all thoughts of rescue with him. Before Whitney could make a plea, the gag was shoved back into her mouth.

   Without the blessing of unconsciousness, she endured the gut-wrenching dizziness of being tossed over the stocky man’s shoulder and carried back to the cabin. Inside, he dropped her with an unceremonious plop onto a dusty mattress in the corner.

   Moments later, Chilton filled the doorway, an ominous shadow blocking out the sunlight. He snapped shut his cell phone and smiled at her in a way that made her skin crawl. “Your father sends his best.”

   Then he looked to his men. “Return to your post.” Chilton gave the word and they disappeared into the vast and varied camouflage of Beartooth Mountain.

   More fearful than ever, too confused to do otherwise, Whitney didn’t move away when Chilton knelt on the floor beside her and spoke. She decided she preferred his anger over this deceitful guise of civility.

   “Now, if you are very good, and do not defy me again, I will give you water at sundown and take you outside to relieve yourself.” She closed her eyes against the hateful caress of that soft glove on her cheek. “But, if you make a noise, if you move without permission…I will kill you.”

   Whitney nodded her understanding. When he slammed the cabin door behind him, she turned onto her side and buried her nose in the moldy ticking. She curled up into a fetal position, and let her own silent tears keep her company.

Chapter Two

   Though she hadn’t expected it, Chilton kept his word. As the sun faded and darkness claimed the cabin, he came to Whitney and helped her sit up. He loosened the gag and let it hang around her shoulders like a necklace. While she worked her jaw to restore feeling to the muscles in her mouth, he opened a canteen.

   He held it up to her lips and let her drink her fill. A slop of excess water dribbled down her chin and pooled on the front of her sweater. But Whitney was too smart to mind. She’d had an entire day to do nothing but think. Chilton had to ransom her sometime. He had to trade her for his freedom or revenge or whatever purpose this kidnapping served. But she intended to keep her strength up. She intended to be ready and able to run again, in case he changed his mind about letting her live.

   “Rashid will take you outside.” The short, stocky man she’d seen before materialized like a shadow in the creeping darkness. Chilton freed her feet, but left her wrists bound together. Before she left, he whispered one last warning. “Do not provoke him.”

   Though she could speak, she chose a submissive nod to answer him. Rashid and his gun escorted her to the far side of a pile of ancient rocks. She made no effort to ask for privacy. She allowed him to undo her belt buckle and zipper, then turned her back to him and dropped her pants.

   She heard a thunk and a shuffle of feet behind her. Either Rashid was impatiently shifting from foot to foot, or he was angling around to get a better look at her derriere. Though she could feel the heat creep into her face, she bit her tongue to stifle the crisp retort she had in mind for his blatant voyeurism.

   Whitney pulled up her panties when she was finished, but with her hands bound, her jeans proved to be more of a challenge. She could pull them up over one hip, but when she’d reach for the other side, the weight of her belt would make them slip. She tried twice, and ended up with the denim pooled around her knees.

   Swallowing what bit of pride she had left, she turned back to Rashid. She blinked twice, and looked again.

   Not Rashid.

   Though this one, too, was dressed in black from head to foot, the man who stood guard over her now held a different gun. Something sleek and compact that fit into his fist. So Chilton had called in another thug. In the dawning light of the moon she could see his black eyes, the shadow of black stubble on his jaw, the short, shiny crop of inky-black hair that molded to his head.

   The thing that frightened her most about this man was his size. He stood bigger and brawnier than any of the others. Well over six feet tall, the breadth of his shoulders strained against the leather jacket he wore. He fit the dimensions of the mountain itself. Even his legs, encased in black denim, looked as solid as the pine trunks that towered around the cabin clearing.

   She definitely didn’t want to cross this one. Whitney raised her hands in surrender. “I’m not trying to escape this time, I promise. I just…” She didn’t want to say the wrong thing. She’d been warned not to speak at all. But necessity dictated taking this risk. “I need some help with my pants.”

   “Ms. MacNair?”

   His deep, raspy voice held no trace of the accent the other men shared. He buried his gun inside his jacket and closed the distance between them. She was too stunned by what she’d just heard to make any protest when he reached down and pulled up her jeans.

   With swift, spare movements, he zipped and snapped, and buckled her belt. With him standing so close, she had nowhere else to look but at the controlled flex and give of his broad chest beneath the jacket and a wool turtleneck. He smelled different than the other men. Clean. Leathery. She tipped her chin and looked him in the eye. “Who are you?”

   From somewhere behind him he pulled out a switchblade knife and punched it open. She recoiled from the razor-sharp point. But he grabbed both her hands within one of his and pulled her to him. He slipped the knife between her wrists and slit the tape. He’d freed her. Whitney’s confusion must have reflected in her face. He closed the knife right before her eyes so she could see he didn’t plan to slit her throat as well.

   “Relax, ma’am. I’m here to rescue you.”

   

   “RIGHT. And I’m the tooth fairy.” Vincent narrowed his gaze and watched the changing emotions play across Whitney MacNair’s upturned face. Her creamy skin reflected the moonlight, revealing fear, distrust, anger. But not once did the classic contours of her oval face soften into anything resembling joy or relief. “I’m tired of playing these games. Just take me back. I won’t run away. I promise.”

   He knew an uncharacteristic moment of indecision when she walked around him and headed for the open ground of the clearing. Few things surprised him, yet her straight-backed refusal to accept his help did.

   But he wasn’t a man to let anything rattle him for long. Before she reached the end of the rocks and the sight line from the cabin, he snatched her by the belt and pulled her up against his chest. He backed them both into the shadows. “Where are you going?”

   “Back to the cabin.” The crown of her hair barely reached his chin, but she squiggled in his grasp as if she had a chance of escape.

   His grip held firm. “You can’t.”

   “I can and I will.” She reached back and swatted at his hand. “I won’t have your boss take away what privileges I have left. Now let me go.”

   Vincent knew of hostages who became attached to their kidnappers, who became loyal to the keepers who terrorized them if they stayed together long enough. But Whitney MacNair had been held for fewer than forty-eight hours.

   Maybe she hadn’t understood him. She might be injured or brainwashed or just too frightened to listen. He spun her around and clasped her by the shoulders. “I’m Agent Vincent Romeo. I’m here to take you home.” He scrunched down to her level and looked her straight in the eye. “Do you understand?”

   In a shadowy trick of the moonlight her eyes appeared colorless. Gray, her file had said. But much paler than he’d imagined, as airy and light as quicksilver.

   The expression in those eyes was unmistakable, though. Simmering anger. Pure rebellion.

   Her wide mouth tilted into a sarcastic line. “Romeo, hmm? Romeo, ‘Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”’

   Shakespeare? Like he’d never heard that joke before. All right. So he’d never heard it while he was in the middle of an incisive, undetected strike into enemy territory to retrieve a spoiled society dame who had fluff for brains.

   “Come with me now, or I will take you by force.”

   Though he never raised his voice above a whisper, he snapped the directions with a clear-cut authority that was rarely challenged.

   “I said I’d go back.” She twisted her slim shoulders within his grasp. “Just don’t touch me anymore.”

   Giving her the benefit of the doubt, he released her. She stumbled back a step in her haste to get away from him. Her heel caught and she staggered backward. Her arms flew out like twin windmills, but her left foot hit on the same impediment and her balance was lost. She landed with a soft thump on her backside.

   On top of the man he’d taken out two minutes ago.

   Dazed by the proof of his mission, she touched her fingers to the dead man’s face. His skin would still be warm, but his lack of a response to the woman sitting on his chest should clue in even her stubborn brain to the truth.

   Vincent checked his watch while she studied the man. He scanned the clearing for signs of the other guards when she looked up at him. He unholstered his gun when she looked back at the corpse and met her questioning gaze when she looked up at him again.

   “Is he…?”

   “Dead.”

   She scrambled to her feet with reflexes rivaling his own. In an instant she was behind him, her fists gripping handfuls of his jacket.

   He had her full attention now.

   She poked her head around his shoulder. “Did you do that?”

   “Yes.”

   “How?”

   “You don’t need to know.”

   He could feel her chest expand and press into his back as she dealt with the shock. The pictures he’d seen of Whitney MacNair had given him the initial impression of a woman of above-average height who needed to put some meat on her bones.

   His introduction to her tonight, though, had provided an unexpected glimpse of a nicely rounded bottom. And the stretch of her body against his back indicated an athleticism to her build that decried her klutzy maneuvers thus far.

   “Let’s go,” he ordered, setting aside his awareness of her physical attributes. When he turned toward the high ground, he expected her to follow.

   But what else had gone as he expected tonight?

   Whitney moved in the opposite direction, back toward the terrorist’s body. “You jerk.” She kicked the body’s crumpled legs. “You hurt me.” She collapsed to her knees, grabbed the front of his jacket and shook him, as though his ears could still hear. She raised her voice to a level that would certainly catch the attention of any living ears. “And don’t think I didn’t see you look…”

   “He’s dead.”

   Vincent wrapped his arm around the waist and lifted her clear off the ground. He clapped his hand over her mouth to stifle her startled yelp and carried her back to the cover of the rocks. She beat at his arm with her fists and writhed within his grasp.

   The gun he still held in his hand made it difficult to keep hold of her. Persistent as a fish on a hook, she nearly slipped free. He twisted around and pushed her back against the boulder, trapping her there with his body, absorbing the force of her blows until her energy was spent.

   Until he felt the drop of hot moisture hit his hand where it covered her mouth. Oh no, he prayed. She wouldn’t do this now. She couldn’t.

   Great. Maybe the reason MacNair had shuffled his daughter off to Montana was because she was crazy. An absolute dingbat without a single survival instinct in her bones.

   But she had the most unusual eyes. Sad eyes, he thought. Wounded eyes that seemed to catch and reflect even the dimmest light without allowing anyone to see inside. Right now they brimmed with tears that spilled silently down her face. Vincent peered through the shadows and saw the bloodstain on her cheek. Acting on instinct, he shifted his hand to touch his thumb to the injured spot.

   “Are you hurt?”

   She shook her head, stirring her cheekbone beneath his touch. The blood came away on his thumb, revealing unblemished skin. She must have put up one hell of a fight to draw someone else’s blood.

   Somewhere inside, his confusion shifted and was replaced by an old familiar calling. To protect. Crazy lady or not, Whitney had been taken by force, degraded, and possibly even abused. She had a right to cry. A right to pummel the corpse of a man who had terrorized her. She needed a kind of emotional help that wasn’t in his power to give. But he could keep her safe. He could get her home in one piece.

   If she’d let him.

   “If I take my hand away, will you be quiet?”

   She took a deep, steadying breath and nodded. Slowly, watching for any sign of verbal protest, he removed his hand. He stepped back to put some physical distance between them, and thought through the next series of moves he had to make. The light brush of her hand on his chest diverted his attention.

   “I thought…I’m sorry.” Her voice was little more than a husky whisper. “You look just like the others.” She pointed to the dead man. “The black outfit… Do you have some ID?”

   Vincent allowed himself one choice succinct curse.

   He supposed her initial distrust was justified. With his dark coloring he could pass for one of Chilton’s men. But hadn’t he identified himself already? Hadn’t he gotten to her when no one else could? Didn’t she have a lick of common sense?

   He dropped his face down to her level and articulated each word so she would understand. “We are twenty yards from Dimitri Chilton and his hired help, and we have to be at the rendezvous point in less than ten minutes. Do as I say right now, or you won’t get the opportunity to ask another question.”

   She puffed up like some wounded debutante who was about to run off and tell Daddy what the mean old man had dared to say to her. Vincent stared her down. His menacing silence brooked no argument. After a charged moment, her shoulders dropped and her chin fell to a subdued angle.

   Finally, she’d do as he said.

   She followed his lead and crouched behind him when he moved to the edge of the rocks and knelt down to spy through the brush and locate the other two patrol guards he’d spotted earlier.

   But the silence was too precious to last. He felt a tap on his shoulder before her warm breath whispered in his ear. “What about Montana Confidential? Does Daniel Austin know I’m here? And Jewel? Did she get home okay? What about my horse?”

   He looked over his shoulder and stared at her in disbelief.

   “There is a time to run, a time to fight and a time to shut up.”

   Vincent held her gaze until he was sure she understood which time this was.

   Though he was quickly learning not to trust her silence, he couldn’t afford to waste any more time. He had to get them out of there. Now.

   He shifted his weight to the balls of his feet and held the gun with both hands in front of him. He stilled his breathing and concentrated on the sounds of the night around them. The darkness would be their ally. He had to time their dash across the open terrain with the sweeping currents of cloud cover. The moon would be hidden for only a few seconds, but that would be all the time they…

   The snap of a twig jarred him. He pushed Whitney back against the rock, shielding her body with his, automatically covering her mouth with his hand. He held his breath and waited for the guard to pass by.

   The man walked past at a leisurely pace, indicating no alarm about his missing comrade or the length of Whitney’s trip to relieve herself. Vincent considered taking this guard out, too. He could do it in a matter of seconds. He could do it without making a sound.

   But he couldn’t trust Whitney to keep her mouth shut or to follow his orders without an argument.

   When the sound of footsteps faded, Vincent eyed the sky and counted off his own internal clock. The time to move was now, or they’d never reach the old mining road where his Washington contact was due to arrive soon. The driver couldn’t park and wait for fear of detection. And with the short turnaround time necessary for a hostage retrieval, he couldn’t spare the days needed to abandon the truck and let it sit long enough for Chilton’s men to disregard its presence.

   The plan was to reach the rendezvous point and radio his contact to pick them up. If he couldn’t reach the site, he’d call in a bypass so the truck would drive on without alerting the terrorists to the location.

   Whitney’s delays had already endangered the mission. Soon he would be left with plan B. Instead of bringing MacNair’s daughter home, he’d simply keep her alive until a second rendezvous could be scheduled.

   If she didn’t screw that up, too.

   “This is the time to run.” Gambling their lives on her cooperation, he released her and scooted to the farthest end of the rocks. “Stay right behind me.” She was already clinging to the back of his jacket when he turned to give his next command. “Don’t fall down.”

   Ignoring the questioning look on her face, he took her hand and sprang to his feet. Keeping low to the ground, he sprinted for the trees, drawing Whitney along behind him. After only a few steps she extended her legs to match his stride, and Vincent quickly realized he had no need to compensate for her speed. She very nearly outdistanced him.

   They had barely reached the cover of the trees when the alarm sounded.

   “Rashid!”

   Three shots fired, followed by a rapid discussion shouted back and forth in Chilton’s native language.

   Inside the treeline, Vincent shifted directions and headed up the mountain. He felt the jerk of Whitney’s arm at the sudden alteration of course. But within moments she fell in step beside him again. The confusion and shouting from the cabin bought them precious seconds.

   He found the path he’d marked earlier. It led to a boarded-up mine shaft. The slope steepened by several degrees and Vincent leaned forward to take the climb without breaking his pace.

   “Where are we going?” Whitney’s breathy query broke the frantic sound of stamping feet and scrabbling bits of gravel breaking loose to roll down the incline behind them.

   He released her hand to leap across a three-foot-wide crevasse that split the path. He paused and turned, waiting for her to make the same jump. She balked at the other side. Her chest rose and fell, breathing deeply, in time with his own strained breath.

   Vincent swore as she planted her hands at her hips and demanded a response. “I asked where you were taking me.”

   He had no time to explain his plan. He spared her an answer before turning his attention back to the zigzagging climb to the top of this crest. “Away from Chilton.”

   They were at least ten minutes out. He had to cut time somewhere. He hit the trail at a faster pace. He heard her make the leap behind him. Good. She was moving.

   “That’s not much of an answer.”

   “Don’t talk. Save your breath.”

   A heavier tread in the underbrush below them caught their attention. Chilton’s men had found their trail.

   “Is that—”

   “Move it.”

   He went back to grab her hand and pull her along at his speed. They doubled back on a hairpin turn and her slick-soled riding boots slipped on some loose gravel. She went down hard on her knees and left hand. With his help, she quickly regained her footing. A spot of creamy white on her pant leg indicated she had ripped her jeans, and probably cut her knee in the process.

   But with Chilton closing in, they had no time to stop and play doctor. “Hang in there, Ms. MacNair.”

   He wasn’t a big one for encouragement, but he needed her to keep up. The brightness of the moon worked against them in the woods. Its iridescent light created deceptive shadows that assailed them from all directions, playing havoc with Vincent’s own internal compass. But Chilton’s men had no such handicap. The beam of their flashlights bounced through the trees, illuminating leaves and rocks and even their path like all-seeing eyes.

   But the mine shaft should be close now, almost straight above them. Yes.

   Changing his strategy, Vincent spun around and retraced their last few steps. He pulled out night-vision goggles from his jacket pocket and slipped them over the top of his head. He had the original trail memorized, could probably find it with or without a light. But covering new ground required he be able to see.

   He went back to the steep sheer slope that went straight to the top of the plateau. Looking up, he saw that a few small trees managed to cling to the rocks. And traces of abandoned birds’ nests indicated tiny ledges and crannies in the rock itself. About twenty feet to the top. The drop-off below them was another hundred feet or so. But with Chilton’s men closing in, he decided they had little choice.

   Whitney tugged at his jacket and pointed to the swaying lights coming up the path. “Hello, spaceman. Bad guys coming.”

   Vincent wrapped his hands around her slender waist and lifted her off the path.

   “What are you doing?” He set her toes on a four-inch ledge, and she automatically grabbed hold of the tree root in front of her face so she wouldn’t fall. “Romeo?” Her voice held hardly any tone, an indication of her shortness of breath. He’d pushed her hard and she’d hung in there with him.

   He was about to push her harder.

   “Climb.”

   With his greenish night vision through the goggles showing him the way, Vincent guided Whitney’s hands to the sturdiest grips, and slowed his pace to make the climb beside her.

   He changed his grip to her shoulder to keep her from moving when Chilton and his men ran past directly below their feet. Chilton shouted orders in his native tongue and his two men responded with clipped words and phrases. The terrorists continued up the winding path that took them farther away from their position. They’d reach the top about the same time, but Vincent would be closer to the road. That still left him with a slight advantage.

   He urged Whitney to resume the climb. “Do you know what they’re saying?” she asked.

   Damn, but the woman loved to talk.

   “Chilton doesn’t want you dead.”

   “That’s nice.”

   He didn’t want her dead yet. Vincent didn’t share what other promises of violence Chilton had in mind for her in the meantime.

   “He wants me dead, though.”

   “Not so nice, hmm?”

   A third of the way from the top she slipped. The root she clung to began to peel away from its thin layer of dirt. Vincent nabbed her by the wrist to keep her from falling. She cried out in pain, but quickly turned her face into her upraised arm to muffle the sound.

   Vincent bided his time while she hugged the rock, alternately wanting to hurry her along and to ask what he’d done to hurt her.

   “Whit?” Maybe by now she was too weak and too frightened to answer.

   After a moment she wrapped her fingers around a more secure grip and pulled herself up to the next ledge. When they reached the end of the steep shortcut, he hoisted himself up and over to the top of the plateau. He was winded from the exertion, but reached out to pull Whitney up beside him.

   She rolled over the top edge and curled into a ball, her energy totally spent. Her breathing came in shallow gasps that echoed in the night air. He needed to quiet her down. Chilton’s men would be close now. But when he knelt behind her and touched her shoulder, she winced. She pulled her hands into her waist and curled up even tighter, making it impossible for him to assess her condition.

   “You are injured.” She clearly needed time to rest if she was to go any farther. He listened for the sound of Chilton’s men in the distance. He could give her a minute. “Stay here.”

   A nearby break in the trees hid the entrance to the boarded-up mine shaft. Vincent pried off a board at the bottom and tossed it aside. He reached in and pulled out the black nylon duffel bag he’d hidden there. He dropped his goggles inside and set it at his feet. Then he took out his knife to loosen the nails of the next board. He was pulling loose the third board when he heard a soft voice at his shoulder.

   “Are we going in there?”

   Vincent rose to his feet and turned. Whitney had come up behind him undetected. Not an easy feat for a grown man trained in covert experience. The irony of this talkative amateur pulling it off wasn’t lost on him.

   She huddled inside her thin blue sweater with sleeves that barely came past her elbow. She looked cold and exhausted and not much older than that Jewel girl back at the ranch. That distracting urge to protect trickled into his thoughts again.

   He’d planned to go back for her. But Whitney had found her way here.

   Vincent pushed aside the impulse to swallow her up in his arms and warm her with his own body heat. He didn’t have time to deal with the hostage’s needs right now. He had to get her to freedom. That meant making the rendezvous that was fast approaching.

   Besides, Whitney had more resiliency than he’d expected for a pampered society girl from a privileged family back East. He had to give her credit. She might lack common sense, but she had stamina and determination to spare.

   “No.” He reached out and took her by the elbow, more gently this time, and led her up the rise to the top of the shaft. “Decoy.”

   “So Chilton will think we’ve gone in there?” She crouched behind the rocks where he pointed.

   “I hope. Stay here.”

   He slid back down the slope to grab his bag and cover their path. When he returned, he held out his hand to help her to her feet. She studied his hand with the same trepidation she might use if he’d stuck a gun in her face.

   “It’s not much farther.” Distancewise, he spoke the truth. But he couldn’t promise that Chilton and his men would make this an easy trip.

   Her shoulders lifted with a determined sigh and she reached up to fold her hand into his. The ground was flatter up here. Still rocky and dotted with trees, it provided less cover, but they could move more quickly. Vincent broke into a loping run, and Whitney kept pace behind him.

   When they reached the road, they ducked behind a pile of decaying tree trunks that had burned and fallen to the ground after a recent forest fire. Whitney leaned back against the wood and seemed to concentrate on her breathing. Vincent pulled the two-way radio from his pack and called in.

   “The hawk has his prey. Repeat. The hawk has his prey. Over.”

   A blip of static answered, then cleared. “Understood. Hawk’s nest on the move. Out.”

   “I don’t think I like being referred to as prey.” She breathed in quick, shallow breaths, but her voice sounded stronger. “Chilton’s a smart man, you know. That’s not much of a code for him to break.”

   “He’ll have us in his line of sight any minute. He doesn’t have to eavesdrop.”

   Preparing for that certainty, Vincent pulled out his gun, checked the clip and reloaded. In the light from the moon, he saw those quicksilver eyes of hers pool up like saucers.

   But was it the gun, or Chilton’s imminent arrival that frightened her?

   “Is there something I should do?” she whispered.

   “Shh.”

   “Of course. Always with the shush thing.”

   Thankfully, she settled in beside him to do her brooding in silence and no doubt think of the next line of questions she wanted to ask. Vincent squeezed his eyes shut. Fatigue was starting to tell in the protest of his muscles as he knelt behind the cover of the trees. But his senses were working just fine. He fine-tuned his ears and listened for the crunch of footsteps in the underbrush.

   He heard the order to spread out and widen the search first. Chilton hadn’t taken long to discover his ruse, and was closing in. Vincent opened his eyes to check his watch. Their ten-minute flight had taken twelve. “Where are you?” He breathed the urgent wish between clenched teeth.

   Right on cue, the roar of a four-wheel-drive engine echoed through the rocks of the plateau. But Chilton heard it, too.

   A black pickup topped the crest and bounced down the mining road toward their position.

   “There he is.” Whitney popped up and pointed at the truck.

   “Get down, dammit!” He palmed the top of her head and pushed her down to the ground just as the first bullets hit.

   The rapid fire of semiautomatic weapons flashed like fireworks in the darkness. Vincent braced his elbow on the top rotting trunk, took aim and fired at each burst of light.

   A spatter of bullets hit his position, splintering the wood and sending chunks of bark flying. Vincent ducked to the ground, pinning Whitney beneath. With his hand on her head, keeping her flat in the dirt, he rose again, pointed his gun and fired.

   He hit his mark. The flash fire of one weapon sank to the ground and went out. But the bullets kept flying.

   The truck engine gunned and picked up speed.

   Two of the terrorists were close enough to make out their shapes as they dodged from cover to cover, spraying bullets in their direction.

   The squeal of brakes behind him gave a small measure of reassurance. “Romeo! Get in!”

   Vincent grabbed his bag, pulled Whitney up by the arm and pushed her toward the open door of the waiting truck.

   “Go! Go! Go!” he ordered.

   The driver stomped on the accelerator. Whitney had climbed in, headfirst. Vincent flattened his hand on her butt, pushed her across the seat and tossed his bag into the bed of the truck. The wheels spun on the gravel and dirt, giving him time to get his feet on the running board before the truck sped away. Clinging to the open door with his left hand, Vincent turned back and fired at their pursuers.

   A spray of gunfire hit the truck. Bing. Bang. Thunk.

   The truck lurched and Vincent fell inside. They’d hit the back window and shattered it. “Gun it, Carl!”

   Whitney sat in the middle of the bench seat, brushing the broken glass from her shoulders.

   “You hit?” he asked, keeping his eye on the side-view mirror, mentally calculating the distance before they’d be out of range of Chilton’s weapons.

   “No.”

   The truck continued to pick up speed.

   “Romeo?”

   Whitney’s fingers dug into his thigh.

   “Romeo!”

   “What?”

   He pried her grip from his leg, then looked up to see why she’d cried his name.

   Carl was slumped forward. A tiny hole leaked bright red blood from the back of his head.

   He was dead.

Chapter Three

   “What is it with you and dead bodies, anyway?” Whitney didn’t know which way to move. She was crunched in the cab of a truck between a killer and a corpse.

   And the dead man was driving.

   Vincent leaned across her and grabbed Carl by the shoulder. When he pulled him back, the body’s limp fingers released the steering wheel.

   “His foot’s still on the accelerator. Grab the wheel.”

   Grab the wheel?

   She understood what he wanted her to do. She just wasn’t sure she had the desire to do it.

   “Whitney.”

   Fine. Nothing like an order in that crisp, low-pitched voice to make her kick it into gear. Her father had that same kind of voice. He never asked, either. He just expected her to do whatever he commanded.

   She wedged her shoulder between Carl and the steering wheel and took hold. Vincent threw his considerable weight across her lap and reached beneath the dashboard. The engine whirred in protest and the truck immediately dropped speed.

   “What are you doing?”

   He grabbed her left ankle and placed it on the accelerator. “Drive.”

   For a few awkward moments, she simply acted on instinct. She pressed down on the accelerator and tried to gauge the upcoming curve in the road from her vantage point. With Vincent pinning her legs, she couldn’t sit up any higher. And with Carl’s weight on her shoulder, she stooped beside the wheel, looking between the wheel and the top of the dash to guide them along the dark road.

   When she entered the curve, the headlights picked up a stand of boulders that had claimed that particular spot for untold millennia. Whitney moved her foot to hit the brake and slow them down, but Vincent moved it back to the accelerator.

   “Don’t stop.”

   “But—”

   “Drive.”

   And then she realized what he was doing. He reached across her and opened the driver’s-side door. The ground rushed past at an alarming speed. “Oh my God. You can’t do that.”

   But he already had. He pulled Carl’s legs from the floor of the truck and shoved them out the door. Then Vincent sat up, latched onto her arm to hold her in place and pushed Carl out from behind her.

   The body hit the ground with a horrible thud. She couldn’t help but look in the rearview mirror to see his limp body roll to the side of the road. “I can’t believe you did that.”

   “Whitney!”

   All at once his hands were on the wheel with hers. He cranked it a quarter turn to the left, jerking it from her grasp.

   The rocks she’d seen from a distance rushed up in front of them with frightening speed. She stomped on the brake. Vincent turned the wheel.

   But with gravel and speed they had few options.

   Vincent wrapped his arms around her, turning so his body shielded hers from the impact. The truck spun out and slid madly through clumps of rocks and brush until it slammed with a deafening crunch into the rocks.

   Vincent’s body lurched forward, then crushed her against the seat.

   And then it was still.

   Whitney slumped within the cocoon of Vincent’s body until she could hear something besides the pounding of her heart in her ears.

   His weight on her chest didn’t stir. “Romeo?”

   She flattened her palms at the front of his chest to push some space between them. She felt the reassuring tattoo of his heartbeat beneath her hand. But she needed to see his face. Find out if he was conscious or injured.

   He was a bigger man than she realized. Solid muscle filled out his large frame. She took a deep breath, put her shoulders into it and managed to push him over into the seat next to her.

   His eyes were closed.

   An instant panic quickened her pulse again. “Romeo?” She touched her fingers to his parted lips. His regular breathing warmed her fingertips, but did little to reassure her. “Romeo?”

   She climbed up on her knees in the seat to bring her up to eye level with him. She cupped his face between her hands and shook him gently. “Romeo? C’mon. Wake up.”

   The rasp of his beard growth tickled her palms, sending inappropriate shivers of awareness straight up her arms. She might be reacting to his rough brand of charm, but she seemed to be having no effect on him.

   For an instant she wondered if Dimitri Chilton had heard the crash. How far behind was he? Did he still pursue them? Her pulse quickened with renewed urgency.

   Vincent Romeo was her only ticket off this mountain. The big brute had to be okay.

   “Romeo.” She called his name right in his ear and gave him a light smack on the cheek. Nothing. She tapped him again. “Dammit, will you—”

   Faster than the panic rising within her, his eyes popped open. He snatched her by the wrists and twisted her flat on her back in the seat with his larger body trapping her there.

   Whitney’s breath whooshed out in a startled gasp. She stared helplessly up into eyes that were black. Black as coal and filled with deadly intent.

   “Romeo?”

   His eyes narrowed between sooty lashes. His gaze traced the shape of her face, lingered on her neck, then seemed to fix on the small jut of her breasts. To her horror, she felt the tips tighten into pebbled beads beneath the intensity of that look. Pinned beneath his crushing weight, she felt more exposed than she had been behind that rock with Rashid.

   “Um—” She licked her parched lips. “Are you okay?”

   His gaze darted back to her mouth, drawn to the movement there.

   And then he blinked.

   He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. The raspy groan in his throat told her the movement hurt. He released one of her wrists and touched the back of his skull. The succinct curse he chose revealed just how much it hurt.

   “I took a blow to the head. Things were fuzzy for a minute there, but I’ll be all right.”

   “Good. Because you’re hurting me.”

   As quickly as he had pinned her to the seat, he released her and scooted to the far end of the truck’s cab. It was almost embarrassing to see how quickly he could move away from her. Whitney sat up much more slowly, nursing her wounded pride and massaging her sore wrists.

   “Is that where I caught you?”

   The ugly purple welts that encircled her wrists were visible, even in the moonlight. Vincent thought he’d done that to her? She found the energy to summon a rusty smile. “No.” He’d probably saved her life.

   Her smile was eclipsed by the memory of Dimitri Chilton’s eyes, laughing at her expense. “It’s from the tape they used to tie me up. Chilton thought inflicting a little pain would keep me in line.”

   Vincent said nothing, but she could feel the atmosphere in the truck change. He was past recovering from his knock on the head. Agent Romeo had returned. And the man who had made her body tingle with awareness, even in the face of danger, disappeared.

   “Let’s get you home.” He tried to get out, but the truck frame had bent and the door was jammed.

   Whitney obeyed his silent command and climbed out the open door on her side ahead of him. She couldn’t help peering up the road behind them, wondering if she could see Carl’s body. One man’s life sacrificed for her own.

   The shock of the discovery hit her and robbed her of breath. The Black Order wasn’t just out to hurt her or her family. True terrorists, with a cause she couldn’t begin to understand, they possessed a ruthless determination to get what they wanted.

   Heaven help anyone who stood in their way.

   A feeling of absolute shame retched in her stomach, turning it sour.

   She’d felt shame before.

   The shame of accusations she couldn’t defend herself against.

   The shame of public scrutiny damning her reputation.

   The shame of hearing her parents’ teary voices filled with disappointment as they boarded her on a plane for Montana.

   But none of that could match the knowledge of one man trading his life for hers.

   “Did Carl have any family?” she asked.

   Vincent had crawled beneath the truck to inspect the damage. When he came out, he stood and dusted his hands off on his jeans. He was giving her that crazy look again, the look that said he wondered if she had any sense. “I didn’t know him,” he answered. “He was just a voice on the radio. A contact.”

   “Don’t you care that he’s dead?”

   He climbed into the bed of the damaged truck and picked up his duffel bag. He tossed it over the side and climbed back down. “He was doing his job. Like I’m doing mine.”

   He opened the bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper and a heavy-duty flashlight. When he knelt down and unfolded it, she could see it was a computer-generated map.

   She hugged her arms around herself, feeling a chill from within far colder than the crisp mountain air. “That’s a callous attitude.”

   He absorbed her accusation with no reaction other than to stand. “Dimitri Chilton has a pretty callous attitude toward life and death. He had to have heard the crash. If he has reinforcements to call, he’s doing it right now. If not, I expect him to show up here any minute.”

   Whitney shivered. “If you’re trying to scare me, the job’s already been taken.” Forget trying to wheedle an emotion out of Vincent Romeo. The man had ice in his veins. The sooner she cooperated, the sooner she could get back to Jewel and Daniel and people who might actually care. “Let’s just get in the truck and drive out of here.”

   “Can’t. The axle’s shot.” He folded up the map and stuffed it back in the bag.

   “Great.”

   “Let’s go.” He slung the bag over his shoulder and shined the light up into the woods to the east.

   “What’s your plan now?”

   “Call in. You’re safe for now. We’ll set up a second rendezvous for tomorrow.”

   She spread her arms wide and asked him to look at the trees and rocks and nothingness surrounding them. “Where are we going to spend the night?”

   “If your friend Court Brody knows this mountain the way I hope he does, there should be an old prospector’s cabin about two miles away on the other side of that ridge. You up for the hike?”

   “Do I have any choice?”

   He was already walking. “No.”

   “You like those one-word sentences, don’t you?”

   “Yes.”

   “Yes?” she repeated under her breath. Was that a joke? Or merely proof of a stated fact?

   Whitney shook her head and pushed her weary body into step behind him. She still had another two miles to try to figure out Vincent Romeo.

   

   VINCENT ENTERED the cabin first and scanned for signs of unwanted tenants and wildlife. The temperature was dropping rapidly outside as night deepened into midnight. The damn-fool woman traipsing along behind him didn’t have a coat. She wasn’t even wearing a heavy sweater. What kind of simpleton went horseback riding in the mountains without wearing more rugged clothes?

   Probably back in Martha’s Vineyard, she had a servant to run along behind with a jacket or shawl when things got cold.

   Vincent immediately regretted the unkind thought. She hadn’t asked to be kidnapped. And Dimitri Chilton didn’t care whether she suffered or not. From Whitney’s brief explanation in the truck, the bastard probably got a kick out of seeing her suffer.

   She hadn’t complained about the grueling hike, the perilous rock climb, the flying bullets, the wrecked truck. Not once.

   The only thing she’d criticized was his own behavior. Yeah. He hated to see a fellow agent go down. He hated the call he had to make to report his death. He hated the thought that anyone had to die. But those were the risks. Job one was keeping Whitney MacNair safe. Carl Howard would have understood.

   Why couldn’t she?

   When he heard her boots on the boards that passed for a front porch, he turned around. “It looks sound enough. None of the windows are broken. There’s no furniture, but we can make do on the floor.”

   She pushed her way past him and inspected the ten-by-twelve-foot hideaway for herself. “As long as the roof doesn’t leak and I can warm myself up, I’ll be happy.”

   Vincent closed the door behind him and dropped his bag to the floor. She had already crossed to the cobwebby stone fireplace and dropped to her knees to brush out the crumbling remains of broken plaster and charred wood.

   “We can’t build a fire.”

   The shock on her face when she looked up at him reminded him of the Christmas Eve when he snuck downstairs and discovered his father was filling in for Santa Claus. “No fire?”

   “Chilton could spot the smoke.”

   He pulled a black T-shirt and a spare set of jeans out of his bag. “We can black out the windows, though, and leave a lantern going through the night.”

   She had no response to that. She stayed where she was, looking small and defenseless.

   Vincent made no false promises, so he had nothing to say to cheer her up. He busied himself hanging his clothes over the windows, setting up the lantern, and pulling two granola bars and a water bottle out of his bag.

   “Here. Before you fall asleep.” She hadn’t moved from in front of the empty fireplace. But when she took the offering of food and drink, she uncurled her legs and rose to her feet.

   “Thanks.”

   When she turned his way toward the light, he swore. Five dark bruises, fitting the span of a man’s rough hand, dotted her cheekbones. Against her pale, peaches-and-cream skin, the marks stood out like a crude attempt at finger painting.

   She cowered back a step, startled by his curse. “What’s wrong?”

   He remembered her wrists. She’d mentioned pain there twice before. He reached for her fingers, water bottle and all, and pulled her wrist up into the light. The duct tape had left angry welts the size of thick yarn, curling like bracelets around her bruised wrist. “Son of a bitch.”

   “So you said.” She pulled her hand away, as if embarrassed by the marks.

   “Get something in your stomach,” he ordered. “I’m giving you some aspirin and we’ll doctor those up.”

   Her immediate protests fell on deaf ears. He spread a tarp on the floor and set out aspirin, alcohol swabs and antibiotic ointment. He could sense her fatigue because the arguments didn’t last for long. When he told her to have a seat, she crossed her legs like a ballerina and folded herself, pretzel-style, to sit on the tarp.

   Vincent brought the lantern close to illuminate his work. He bathed her face with water and dabbed the bruises with alcohol. She had such fine pale skin. Clear and smooth, like cream to the eye. And down the bridge of her nose, spilling onto her cheeks, a sprinkling of dusty freckles reflected the reddish highlights in her hair.

   He pushed aside the red-gold locks that fell in waves past the top of her shoulders and tended the thick bruise across her neck. He recognized that kind of marking. She’d been choked to unconsciousness. Applying that kind of pressure a few inches higher or lower would have fractured her larynx or crushed her sternum. Either wound, left unattended, could have killed her.

   Damn Chilton. Vincent didn’t know Whitney beyond the dossier her father had sent. But Jewel McMurty thought the world of this woman. Daniel Austin and his men were chomping at the bit to get her back. And though she’d already complicated the hell out of his well-laid plans, she’d proved herself to be more than a pretty face or a rich bank account. She didn’t deserve this kind of abuse.

   No one did.

   It was Vincent’s job to stop the bastards who preyed on innocent victims. Melissa Stamos, his high-school sweetheart, couldn’t see that calling. She’d bashed his heart and his pride on the altar of Saint Stephen’s Church in front of family and friends, condemning him for putting his life on the line for people he didn’t know.

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