CONTESTS & FUN
USA TODAY Bestselling Author
Entry Deadline March 24th
Congratulations to Linda Roberts of Alabama! She won the
bundle of books in my February Book GiveAway Contest. Like
many of you, she knew that Gabriel Knight, the hero of
KANSAS CITY COVER-UP, was a reporter.
This month I’m offering a treat for my digital readers. I’ll
give away a copy of any title from my backlist that’s
available in digital format to one lucky reader. And those
digital titles include this month’s multi-author Boxed Set,
DANGEROUS PASSIONS, and my newest Intrigue, KANSAS CITY
COVER-UP. So whether you read on your Kindle, NOOK, smart
phone or computer, this is the giveaway for you!
read the excerpt from my
March 17 release, KANSAS CITY COVER-UP, the first book in my
Precinct: cold Case miniseries. Answer the easy question at
the end. Then email me your answer, along with your U.S.
mailing address. My dog, Maggie, will put her nose to work
and select a winner from amongst all the correct entries.
Deadline to enter is February 24th.
Rules for Julie's Contests
- One entry per person.
- By entering, entrants grant
permission for their name to be posted on the Julie Miller web site at
in Julie's newsletter.
- Winners will be chosen by random
drawing from among all entries.
- The odds of winning depend upon the
number of participants.
Void where prohibited.
May 12 - 17
Convention, Dallas, TX
July 21 - 25
|Romance Writers of
America Annual National Conference, New York City
Julie in San Antonia, TX at the 2014 RWA National
50 Book pin
presentation is Craig Swinwood-CEO Harlequin
Enterprises, Dianne Moggy-Editorial Director, HQ
Ent, Moi, Leslie Kelly-fellow 50-book award
recipient, Lorianna Sacilotto-VP, HQ Ent
Sitting beside me
at the Harlequin party is Linda O. Johnston
Delores Fossen and me
Julie in Atlanta, GA at the 2013 RWA National
Julie with good buddy B.J. Daniels
Delores Fossen, Julie Miller, B.J. Daniels
Julie's local writing group, the Prairieland
Romance Writers, celebrates 20 years of
excellence in romance fiction at an
anniversary Open House in Grand Island,
||Prairieland Romance Writers celebrates 20
years of excellence in romance fiction!
Kearney, NE Booksigning, The Sequel Bookshop
Julie Miller, and Scott & Julie Miller
L-R Saranna DeWylde, Julie Miller, Janette Kenney,
Sherri Shackelford, Cheryl St. John
New York City at the 2011 RWA National Conference
View of Times Square from
Julie's hotel room
Julie at the Transformers movie
premiere (Hi, Bumblebee!)
Times Square and Broadway
My roomie, Elle James, Brenda
Jackson, and my agent Pattie Steele-Perkins at the RWA booksigning
The massive Literacy
Autographing at RWA
Los Angeles, CA, at the 2011 RT BOOKreviews Convention
""The Do's & Dont's of
Series Romance " workshop with Judy Duarte, Candace Havens, Julie Miller
and B.J. Daniels.
Party! the Series Romance Way" Reader Event
Back row: Kira Sinclair, HelenKay Dimon, B.J. Daniels, Lynn Raye Harris
Middle row: Judy Duarte, Crystal Green, Rebecca York, Candace Havens,
Janette Kenney, Jan Hambright, Delores Fossen, Brenda Jackson
Front row: Kathleen O'Reilly, Kimberly Lang, Jade Lee/Kathy Lyons, Carol
Erickson, Julie Miller
At the Booksigning
View from my hotel The Westin Bonaventure
in downtown L.A.
Went to hear Dean Koontz speak.
Delightfully witty and educational! (and one of my fave authors!)
Barn View from my hotel, the
Hollywood sign in the distance up in the Hollywood Hills.
A bright ball of flame bloomed at the base of the old timber beam
beside the front door as though a giant match stick had just been
struck. The fire ebbed in its initial intensity, but the shower of
sparks drifting through the smoke found purchase on the rotted
wood. Each glowing ember ignited a tiny new fire of its own. In a
matter of seconds, the flames branched out along the crosspieces
above the door frame and climbed any available path toward the
“We need to go,” Gabe
Olivia wrapped up the
scarf and its contents and zipped it inside her jacket. The more
the fire consumed, the brighter it burned and the faster it seemed
to spread. But she wasn’t going anywhere without that gun, if that
was, indeed, what she suspected it was hidden inside. She flipped
the top box off the pallet and reached for the next one. “I need to
retrieve everything in here.”
Gabe’s hand clamped
over her arm, pulling her away. He thrust his arm inside the
collapsing stack and pulled out the small caliber weapon along with
a snowy cascade of dust and grit. “Ah, hell. Do you think
He didn’t need to
finish that choked-off question. Yes. Chances were that was the
gun that had killed his fiancée.
Olivia plucked the
small semiautomatic from his hand and stuffed it into the back of
her belt. With flames shooting up to the second story now, there
wasn’t time to worry about trading compassion or compromising
potential evidence. “We need to go now.”
With a curt nod, Gabe
fell into stride beside her and they ran to the iron doors. By the
time they reached it, she’d dialed 9-1-1.
“This is Detective
Olivia Watson. I’m reporting a structure fire at the old Morton &
Sons Tile Works on--”
“Wait!” Gabe shot his
arm out in front of her and stopped her from touching the iron
door. He held his hand out about five inches from their only
unlocked, unbarricaded exit before quickly snatching it back. The
he leaned forward and spit on the door. Even through the mask of
smoke, she could hear the moisture sizzling on the hot iron surface
and they both retreated. “It’s too hot. We need to find another
“We must have created a
spark when the door slammed shut.”
“I don’t think so.” He
nudged the 1 x 1 on the floor with his shoe. It had a swirl of char
marks at one end while the rest of the wood glowed like an ember and
was turning to ash. “That’s a pour pattern from an accelerant. I
saw that at a trio of arson fires I covered a few years back.”
“This was deliberate?
Why? A stupid prank? Do you think they knew we were in here?”
Olivia blinked at the gritty air irritating her eyes sinuses, and
followed the swing of Gabe’s flashlight as he searched for another
exit. She finished her call to Dispatch, warning them of the two
people inside and possible arson before giving up on escaping
through the fire and smoke and scalding temperature at the front
“We answer questions later, Liv. Come on.” Gabe slapped his hand
into hers and pulled her into a run beside him. The flames seemed
to chase them across the ceiling joists overhead. When they reached
the back iron doors that opened onto the loading dock and river
below, he released her hand, tossed her the flashlight, and pulled
the pry bar from the rear pocket of his jeans. He wedged the tip
between the double iron doors.
But even with Olivia
pushing her shoulder to the door and Gabe putting his full weight on
the pry bar, they couldn’t open more than a crack between them.
Matching guttural roars marked the physical exertion and frustration
that could quickly give way to fear. A glimpse of shiny silver
through the centimeter wide opening gave them the bad news. “It’s
padlocked from the outside.”
Gabe didn’t waste time
maneuvering to find an impossible angle to pop the hasp the way he
had the front door. Instead, he hurried to the window at the right
side of the door. With more shared muscle they pushed it open and
attacked the boards nailed to the outside. But the splashes below
warned them that this avenue of escape wasn’t much more promising.
The exposed timbers
behind them popped and crackled, cheering at the new source of
oxygen they’d let in. Gabe started out the window, but dropped back
to his feet. His mouth hung open as he fought to breathe in a gasp
of fresh air. But his eyes were hard. “Can you swim?”
Brushing away the tears
of irritation that dribbled over her cheeks, Olivia stuck her head
out the window and looked straight down two stories to the river.
The dock had been built up for boats to unload their goods, but the
only thing below their position was a few feet of rocky bank and the
muddy green of the Missouri. Full with spring rains falling
upriver, the water eddied and swelled and blustered on past the dock
“Not that well. But I
can try.” She just prayed they missed the rocks, hit deep enough
water and didn’t get caught in any currents that would drown them
before they ever made it to shore.
Olivia inhaled one
breath, two, psyching herself up for the long, dangerous plunge. On
the third breath, the toxic air scraped her throat and she coughed.
“We have to...” She braced her hands on her knees as the coughing
fit worsened. “We have to go,” she wheezed.
“Easy.” Gabe splayed a
warm, soothing hand against her back. “We can do this.”
“Of course, I can do
“I didn’t say I.
I said we. We’re a team now, remember?”
The massage and the
urge to argue stopped at the yawing sound of metal heating and
stretching. The noise skittered up her spine like the scurrying
steps of unseen vermin scattered through the walls. Instinctively,
Olivia moved closer to Gabe, curling her fingers into the lapel of
his jacket as they both lifted their gaze. The cross beams linking
the outer walls were bowing. Flames crawled above their heads
toward the heavy winch and hook anchored above them. That
contraption could crush them or bring down the entire roof if it
Gabe swore against her
ear. “I know why they condemned this place.”
But looking up had
given Olivia an idea.
She pushed away,
grabbing Gabe’s hand and pulling her with him as she pointed the
flashlight into the rafters. “Up there!”
Spotting the chipped
red and white exit sign beside an oversize window on the catwalk
level, they moved at a crouching run to the grated metal stairs and
climbed toward the second floor fire escape. Each step took them
into heavier smoke and hotter air, making it more difficult to
breathe and see. Each step made Olivia more and more aware of just
how brittle this aging structure had become. The stairs shifted and
sagged the higher they climbed, unused to any weight, and weakened
by the rising temperature, perhaps.
Olivia’s boot hit the
next step and the whole stairwell lurched, taking a thirty-degree
tilt to the right. Her leg slid from beneath her and she clutched
at the left railing. She lost her grip on the flashlight and it
plunged into the pallets burning below her. With her balance off
center, her palm slipped and she tumbled beneath the right railing
toward the fiery abyss.
But the long, strong
fingers of a sure hand clamped over her wrist, catching her as she
fell over the side. “Olivia!”
Pain snapped through
her shoulder and rib muscles at the abrupt stop to her momentum.
Her jacket slid up her torso as she swung out, and the knotted scarf
dropped from its cache and plummeted into the fire.
“Forget it! It doesn’t
do us any good if we don’t get out of here. Grab on!” Gabe shouted,
his voice hoarse with smoke. “I’ve got you.”
©2015 by Julie Miller
to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Question: What is the heroine’s name?
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THE BRIDESMAID'S BODYGUARD
Copyright ©2014 by
Permission to reproduce
text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Sweat gathered at
Jim Parker’s temples and trickled down the back of his neck. His
boots were heavy with the muck from Falls Creek, his brown uniform
wet up to the thighs. His chest burned with the six mile run
through the rocky hills and woods southeast of Kansas City,
But he didn’t dare
slow down. He heard the bloodhound on his trail baying in the
distance. The creek water might have hampered the men pursuing him,
but the dog hadn’t lost his scent. Jim smelled like blood and pigs
and desperation, giving the dog plenty to track.
The thick plastic
envelope stuffed with photographs and police reports that didn’t
match scratched at the skin inside his shirt where he’d stuffed it.
If he didn’t make it out of this mess with the evidence he’d stolen,
there wasn’t much point in making it out at all. Everything he’d
given up to do this job, every hope he’d sacrificed, every person
he’d lost, would be for nothing.
His vision blurred
as he fought the rough terrain and summer heat and dangerous men who
were after him. The roaring in his ears could be the engines of the
pursuing vehicles closing in on him. It could be his own
oxygen-starved blood pounding through his veins. It could be...
A root reached up
from the ground, catching his right foot and tripping him. He hit
the ground hard, knocking the wind from his chest. The rocks and
roots chewed at his skin, bruised him as he rolled himself to his
hands and knees and pushed himself onto his feet.
The brush thickened
as he neared the waterfall. He stumbled forward, reaching the edge
of the falls that tumbled down into a lake.
As he leaped off
the bank and sailed down toward the water, there were only two
thoughts in his head.
meant certain death.
And no one would
miss him when he was gone.
Six weeks later…
“Those boys still giving you
“I’m fine, Uncle
George.” Natalie Fensom tucked her phone between her shoulder and
ear, draped the bag with her bridesmaid’s gown over one arm,
gathered up the gifts she’d picked up for the candle lighters and
guest book attendants in the other, and nudged the car door shut
with her hip.
It wasn’t every
teacher in Kansas City who got a personal phone call from KCPD’s
Deputy Commissioner to see if two teenage hellions who’d flunked
junior English and blamed her for being sentenced to summer school
had continued to harass her. The rudeness in class she could
manage. She had no problem being tough when necessary. Drawing
foul pictures instead of answers on their tests meant a trip to the
office and a lecture on the legal consequences of sexual
harassment. Egging her car required them staying after school to
wash and buff it clean. But the cruel message on her answering
machine, teasing her about Jim Parker, had crossed a line.
The man she’d
dreamed would be the love of her life had been snatched away the day
after their first date six weeks earlier. Detective James Parker.
Killed in the line of duty. His body so mangled by the deliberate
hit and run that his closed casket hadn’t even given her a chance to
And those two
walking hormones with all the attitude had dared to use that loss to
get under her skin as some form of juvenile payback.
So yeah, she’d
reported the prank call to her uncle. And she’d mentioned those two
times last week when she swore someone had been watching her exit
the school parking lot and follow her practical little sedan through
Kansas City’s rush hour traffic.
“I did exactly what
you said.” She’d agreed to teach during the summer session to keep
her mind off the funeral and losing Jim. As if helping with her
brother’s wedding to a sweet, smart woman who could stand up to him
and make him happy wasn’t already enough to keep her busy. But so
many things seemed to have conspired to keep her and Jim apart until
that one perfect date at the end of the regular school year, that it
felt even more crushing--and seriously unfair--to lose him so
quickly after finally making that connection. However, she hadn’t
counted on the teen tyrants to steal the joy she normally found in
the classroom. “I reported Danny and Tom to the principal, and I
asked the school officer to walk me to my car after classes. They
denied making the call, of course, but at least they’re keeping
their mouths shut in class.”
“Glad to hear it.”
George Madigan wasn’t a man to mince words, or be stingy with his
efforts to keep the people he cared about safe. “I know the family
is focused on Nick and Annie’s wedding this weekend, but I don’t
want you to feel like the issues you’re dealing with aren’t
“I know that.”
Natalie pushed open the door and climbed the steps to her second
floor apartment. “But I’m glad the focus is on my big brother and
not me right now. Everyone else would try to help, and I just need
time to work through a few things on my own.”
She heard an
uncharacteristic hesitation in the deputy commissioner’s voice while
she juggled the items in her arms to unlock the door. “Natalie, I
guess I didn’t realize the depth of your feelings for Jim Parker.
After all those years he and Nick were partners on the force, I
thought it was just a schoolgirl crush on your big brother’s
friend. I... regret reassigning him.”
“You didn’t run him
down. And you can’t fix this for me, either. Between you and Nick,
I understand the risks of getting involved with a cop. It’s my own
fault that I didn’t weigh the practicalities of giving my heart so
quickly.” She laughed wryly and pushed open the door. “The one
time I throw caution to the wind...”
Her apartment was a
shambles. Sofa cushions had been torn open and tossed aside. The
drawers in her desk had been pulled out and dumped. A photograph of
her and Jim had been ripped out of its frame and was missing. And
though her television was intact, her computer had been taken.
“Uncle George?” A
wave of goose bumps dotted her skin beneath the shorts and blouse
she wore. “Send one of your units to my place right now. Someone’s
been in my apartment.”
“I hate secrets,
Natalie. Where’s Jim?”
away from the happy commotion at the front of the church to read the
cruel message on her phone.
As the photographer
near the altar tried to line up her extended family, straighten her
new sister-in-law’s lacy white gown, and keep her brother from
smearing the bride’s makeup with a dozen stolen kisses, Natalie sank
onto the back pew. Her plan to upload some candid photos from Nick
and Annie’s wedding was forgotten beneath the crushing weight of
grief, regret and paranoia that nearly suffocated her.
Oblivious to the
whispering rustle of her dove-gray bridesmaid’s gown, or the dewy
perspiration gathering at the nape of her upswept hair, she touched
her thumb to the picture of the wheat-colored crew cut touching her
own dark ponytail on her social network page. An image from one
perfect day, frozen in time, reflecting laughter and the blossom of
new love--a moment that could never be recaptured, a future briefly
hoped for that would never be.
Parker, her brother’s former partner at KCPD, the man she’d been
seriously crushing on since high
-school, had finally decided that, as a college graduate
with two years of teaching under her belt, she was finally old
enough to ask out. And, after Jim and Nick had been given different
assignments, the awkwardness of dating his friend’s sister was no
longer an impediment.
She’d been primed
for love. Ready to prove she was an adult, eager to turn the
longings of her heart into the reality of a summer romance and so
One day of fun at
the amusement park, one night of trading stories and sharing souls.
One perfect kiss, and it was all gone.
Jim was supposed to
be her date today.
But six weeks ago
she’d laid a rose on his casket, instead, weeping for the life
they’d never have together.
Since the break-in
at her apartment two days ago, she’d been bombarded with similar
messages. All senseless. All mean-spirited. All calculated to
make her afraid.
The private message
sent to her e-mail from the ominously named X at a generic dot-com
was even more unsettling. Don’t think that moving back into your
parents’ house will keep you safe. Hiding in a church won’t save
you, either. If I can’t find him, I’ll find you. You can take his
Natalie looked up
from the message at the beautifully decorated sanctuary. She could
identify everyone in her family, everyone working for the wedding
planner from Fairy Tale Bridal.
But she knew he was
X was watching her.
Looking for a dead
Or stalking her?
“Hey, kiddo.” A
shadow loomed over Natalie, startling her before her uncle’s crisp
tone voiced concern. “How are you holding up today?”
Natalie blanked her
phone screen and scooted over as George Madigan settled onto the pew
beside her. “It was a beautiful wedding, wasn’t it?” She looked
down the aisle at the perfect symmetry of her two younger brothers
and two younger sisters lining up in their gray tuxes and
knee-length dresses with royal blue sashes and red boutonnieres.
“Who knew they’d clean up so nicely.”
Her uncle reached
over to squeeze her hand. “You okay?”
She nodded, keeping
the latest threat to herself. “Just a little tired.”
But her mom’s
brother wasn’t buying the reassurance. “You’ve kept your mother
calm and your siblings organized. And who knows how many other
crises you’ve averted behind the scenes. But I’ve noticed. When no
one’s looking, you’re not smiling.”
“It’s not my day,
Uncle George. I’m fine.”
He arched a
skeptical eyebrow. “That’s the story you’re going with?”
“You sure nothing
else is bothering you? I’m used to trading those bemused smiles
with you over whatever the rest of the family’s latest chaos
entails. Did something else happen after the break-in? Is it those
students from your school again?”
“Danny and Tom
still aren’t doing their homework, but I’m managing.” She’d
considered that their tolerable behavior in school could be a front,
and this secretive terror campaign was their way of tormenting her
outside the classroom.
Still, she wasn’t
going to tell anyone about the creepy messages and ruin Nick and
Annie’s wedding day.
His gray eyes
narrowed. “Is it Jim again? Sweetie, I--”
George. Really.” She patted the sleeve of his tuxedo jacket. “I
don’t blame you for what happened to him. He was doing his job.
And he loved being a cop. Just like you do.”
George seemed ready
to argue, but clamped his mouth into a thin line instead. “How
about you go find Grandma Connie. We need her for the family
picture. Take a few minutes to powder your nose or do whatever you
women do. You’re already beautiful.” He leaned over and kissed her
temple. “But I want you smiling in that picture. Otherwise, I
won’t be able to smile, either.”
That earned him
half a grin. “We can’t have that, can we.”
“It’d ruin the whole wedding album.”
Grandma. She said she was going to put on her comfortable shoes for
the reception.” Natalie stood and moved past her uncle, but paused
for a moment before heading out the back of the sanctuary. “Don’t
tell Nick or Annie, or Mom and Dad--or anyone--that I’m being such a
locking his mouth and throwing away the key.
She bent down to
kiss his cheek before walking away. “Love you.”
heels clicked on the marble floor as she headed down the long
hallway into the Sunday School wing to check the room where the
wedding party had changed before the ceremony.
guests had already moved on to the reception, and the wedding
planner and her staff had cleared out everything except for their
personal items. Although she spotted the flat shoes her grandmother
had mentioned, there was no sign of anyone in the room. She stepped
back into the hallway, raising her voice a notch. “Grandma?”
From the corner of
her eye, she glimpsed someone turning the corner at the far end of
the hallway. Natalie clenched her painted toes at the darting shift
of sunlight and shadow. Then she forced herself to ease out a
steadying breath. It was probably just a car driving past one of
the windows outside. Those creepy messages were making her jumpy,
She stared a few
moments longer into the shadows, ensuring she was alone before
stepping across the hall to the restroom. Since the light was on,
she pushed the door open and looked inside. “Grandma, are you in
here? The photographer is ready to take the family picture.”
Bending her knees,
Natalie peeked beneath a closed stall door. Empty. Just in case,
she pushed open all the doors. Maybe her grandmother hadn’t come
back to this end of the church, after all.
“Where does an
eighty year old woman disappear--?”
Strong arms grabbed
her from behind, and a hand clamped over her mouth.
Natalie clawed at
the hand and screamed as the lights went out.
pulled her up against a hard chest and her feet left the floor as
she screamed beneath the muzzle of her attacker’s hand. “Shh, baby,
it’s me. Nat, it’s me.”
Natalie went limp
as the hoarse voice from the grave whispered against her ear. She
dropped her fingers from the sinewed forearms and braced them
against the cold tile wall. Suddenly, the hands that had trapped
her were the only thing keeping her on her feet.
“No more screaming,
okay?” The man’s warm breath caressed her ear and nape, a
remembered touch that pricked the sting of tears in her eyes. “When
I let go, not a peep, promise?”
She turned as the hand slipped away. “Jim?”
She stretched onto
her toes to wrap her arms around his neck and hug him tight. He
hugged her right back for several seconds, reminding Natalie how
perfectly her body fit against Jim Parker’s six-foot frame. Then
his hands were cupping the sides of her face and his lips were on
hers. His hips drove her back against the wall as his tongue
claimed her own. Natalie was breathless and clinging to the soft
cotton of his T-shirt, and the cords of muscle underneath, before he
raised his head and exhaled a noisy sigh of satisfaction. “God,
I’ve wanted to do that again for six weeks.”
lightheaded with shock and shaky with newly awakened desire. She
ran her fingers over the sandpapery angles of his jaw and neck,
flattened her palm over the thudding beat of his heart. Then she
pushed some distance between them and smacked his shoulder, hating
that she felt as much hurt as she did relief at discovering he was
still alive. “How dare you. Who do you think…? How... how are you
here? I don’t understand.”
His warm chuckle
made her wish there was more light so she could see his face. “So
Nick’s sensible little sister does have a temper. Glad I got that
kiss in first.”
“Don’t tease me,
Jim. Five minutes ago you were dead.”
Natalie’s eyes had
adjusted enough to the dim light to see the rueful look on Jim’s
face. The military cut hair she remembered was slightly longer,
pushed back from his face in rumpled waves. And the scratchy
stubble on his cheeks and jaw told her he needed a shave. He still
wore a gun at his waist, but there was no badge hanging around his
neck or clipped to his belt. This Jim was the same man from that
perfect date at the beginning of summer. Only, there was something
different, harsher, maybe even a little more desperate, about the
man rubbing his calloused hands up and down her bare arms. “Do you
have your cell phone on you?”
Not I’ve missed
you or Sorry I hurt you. Certainly not I love you.
Still, she nodded
and pulled the phone from her wristlet to hand it over. The bright
light of the phone screen lit up his face, exposing a catlike gleam
in his green eyes and familiar lines that seemed to be etched a
little more deeply beside his eyes and mouth. She thought he needed
to make a call. Instead, Jim pulled up those last few texts that
had frightened her so, swore beneath his breath, and then tossed the
phone into the nearest toilet. “What are you--?”
“That’s how they’ve
been tracking you.”
“Who? You can’t
just barge into my life and expect me to act as if nothing has
changed. I need answers, Jim. What is going on?”
He grabbed her hand
and pulled her to the door behind him. “I know I have a lot of
explaining to do. But I need to get you to safety first.”
“Me? Safe from
He inched open the
door to check the hallway. “Take off your shoes and carry them.”
Before she could ask another question, he answered. “They’re
noisy. And I don’t want anyone to follow us.”
Once she’d slipped
the high-heels off her feet and anchored the straps around her
fingers, he pulled her out the door into the shadows. The marble
floor was icy beneath her bare feet, but his quick stride and solid
grip forced her to hurry along behind him. “Where are we going?”
She thumbed over her shoulder toward the sanctuary. “I’m part of
Nick and Annie’s wedding party. I can’t leave.”
“And you’re crazy
hot in that sweet little dress, showing off all that skin. But you
against his hand. “Pretending to be dead is a pretty big lie, Jim.
I don’t know if I can trust you now. You have no right to come in
here and haul me off like so much--”
She plowed into his
broad back when he abruptly stopped. Jim turned, catching her by
the shoulders, his fingers pinching as he dipped his face close to
hers. “Have you felt someone’s been following you the past few
weeks? They have. I’ve seen them.” Natalie braced her palms
against his chest, trying to push him away, not liking this cryptic
bully he’d become. “How many of those threats have you gotten
asking about me? Trust me, they’re real.”
struggling, curling her fingertips into cotton and muscle, unable to
hide her wary reaction to his knowledge of the terror campaign being
waged against her. “Do you know who X is?”
He shook his head.
“That’s what I call
him. The man who sends me the messages. His addy is X-something
dot com.” She could tell from the narrowing of his eyes that he
knew who she was talking about. “Who is he?”
Jim swore. “Not
anybody I’d ever want you to meet.”
“Someone broke into
my apartment, too. I’ve been staying at Mom and Dad’s the past
couple of nights.”
He shifted his grip
to her hand again, pulling her into a jog behind him, leading her to
the parking lot door. “I am so sorry, Nat. Once I slipped off
their radar, I was afraid they might target you. It’s that damn
picture on your social network page that connected you to me.”
“Who are you
“The men who want
Jim turned onto the
highway and put his burner phone on speaker mode on the seat beside
him to listen to the last of Deputy Commissioner Madigan’s explicit
instructions regarding his niece. “I’ll hide her someplace safe
until Paine and Butler can be rounded up.”
If only he’d been
able to find more evidence on the crooked sheriff who ran Falls City
like a mob boss before Jim’s cover as the town’s new deputy had been
blown. But with citizens too scared of the consequences to stand up
and tell the truth about their small town southeast of Kansas City,
Jim’s only option had been to disappear into K.C., waiting until
Sheriff Paine and the rest of his thugs had been arrested and he
could testify against them. He’d been more than eager to accept the
assignment with the state bureau of investigation’s task force, and
earn some points toward his next promotion with the commissioner’s
But now he
regretted that his career goals had put Natalie in harm’s way. With
no parents or siblings to worry about, he’d figured he was a good
candidate for undercover work. He hadn’t counted on that one
incredible date he’d had with Nick’s younger sister putting her on
Arnold Paine’s radar. “You’ll explain Natalie’s disappearance to
heaved an onerous sigh over the phone. “I’ll come up with something
that won’t frighten them too much. But I want her home in one
piece. Understand, Parker?”
“Listen to him,
Natalie. He’s a good cop.” Jim glanced across the truck. But she
was staring straight ahead through the windshield, refusing to
answer. “I love you.”
She waited until
the call disconnected before speaking. “Uncle George knew you were
turned at the quaver he heard in Natalie’s quiet voice. He spared a
glance away from the rush hour traffic that was backing up the
Interstate. Her eyes were as blue as that ribbon tied around the
fancy lace dress she wore. But they were shadowed with sadness and
grief and a whole lot of mistrust.
A fitting mental
slap in the face, he supposed, for a man who’d left her without a
word of explanation or even a proper goodbye. He couldn’t even use
the excuse that they’d only had one date--that they weren’t in a
committed relationship and he didn’t owe her anything. Because they
both knew that those twenty-four hours they’d spent together had
changed them somehow. He’d found a soul mate, discovered the sexy
woman beneath the practical exterior, learned that he could care
about something more important than his job.
The loyalty he’d
sworn to KCPD and this undercover op gone south felt wrong somehow.
He’d owed a loyalty to Natalie that he’d betrayed. Any kind of
explanation or apology in the face of those sad eyes seemed pretty
lame right now.
commissioner is in charge of personnel assignments. Since the men
we were investigating were already suspicious of the state Bureau
and had killed one of their agents, they asked KCPD for a
volunteer. George signed off on the transfer. Only he and my
handler with the MBI knew I was going undercover.” He gripped the
steering wheel of his truck, eyeing the four lanes of traffic
heading south at a snail’s pace. “The perps we’re after have inside
intel to law enforcement. We faked my death so they couldn’t track
me back to the department.”
“Jim, I’ve been
heartsick and feeling sorry for myself for weeks now. I...”
Anything she had to
say, any name she wanted to call him, he was going to listen. “You
Natalie twisted her
fingers together in her lap and went silent on him again for a
minute. The silence was harder to bear than the angry words and
punch on the arm had been. “Talk to me, Nat.”
“I went to your
funeral. I cried. For days.”
“I’m sorry, hon.”
Jim reached across the seat.
But she yanked her
hand away. “No. You don’t get to call me that. Or baby or
anything. What was I? Part of some cover story to make everyone
believe you were dead?”
convinced the people I was investigating that Jim Parker, the KCPD
detective, no longer existed. But Bobby Jensen, a good ol’ boy
looking for a job with the Falls City sheriff’s department did. And
yes, you played an unwitting part in that. You know I’ve got no
family. A bunch of uniformed cops attending a memorial service
could be faked. But a beautiful woman crying over the poor schlep
who died?” Ah, hell. There were tears in her eyes now when she
whipped an accusatory glare at him. “That convinced the people
after me that I really was gone, without having to see the body.”
“Glad I could
help.” She smeared her mascara with the back of her hand as she
angrily wiped away the tear that spilled onto her pale cheek. “I
thought that day was special. I thought I meant something to you.”
“It was. You do.”
I think I fell
in love that day, he wanted to add. And I’ve never said that
to any woman before.
But Natalie was in
no mood to hear a stupid confession like that.
After the way he’d
been forced to lie to her, she wouldn’t believe him, anyway.
A quick shift
across highway lanes five cars back distracted his attention in the
rearview mirror, making confessions of any kind right now a moot
point. “If I didn’t have feelings for you, Nat, you wouldn’t be in
Natalie gripped the
door handle and held on as the truck picked up speed and lurched
over the seams in the pavement.
The flash of red
and blue lights in the side view mirror alerted her to the big sedan
that had pulled onto the shoulder behind them. “Jim, that police
car is coming after us. Pull over.”
“That’s the last
thing I want to do.”
The grim line of
his jaw told her that whoever he’d seen pursuing them meant real
trouble. “Is the officer helping us escape?”
“Hardly. He’s the
one following us.” He nodded toward the phone that had slid across
the seat and wedged beneath her thigh. “Call your uncle. Put him
on speaker phone. Now, Natalie,” he ordered when she hesitated as
if he’d spoken gibberish.
Fighting the bounce
and sway of the truck as they skidded over loose gravel and cut
across a grassy ditch to speed up an embankment, she punched in
George’s number, hit the speaker button and held the phone up for
Jim to hear it ring. “Why wouldn’t another cop help you?”
“He’s not KCPD.
That’s the sheriff’s department from Hanover County.” Natalie
recognized the name of a county about a half hour past the city’s
southeast limits. “And believe me, if they’re wearing a Hanover
County badge, they’re the last guys we want to trust.”
against the door as Jim hit the brake and spun the truck into a
U-turn. She dropped the phone on the second ring, but quickly
scooped it up again. “That’s who you’ve been investigating? The
Hanover County sheriff’s department?”
He nodded, sparing
her a glance before racing onto a side road. Their path would take
them right past the tan and white sheriff’s vehicle slowed by
traffic on the Interstate. “I went in as a new deputy after reports
of corruption were filed with the Missouri Bureau of Investigation.
One of their agents went to Falls City to investigate and ended up
MIA. My job was to find him.”
He ground his jaw
into a hard line before answering. “Yeah.” He glanced across the
seat, his eyes looking just as grim. “What was left of him,
“What do you mean,
what was left of him?”
Jim never took his
eyes off the road. “The MBI agent had been shot and buried in a
shallow grave on a pig farm outside Falls City. Do you know what
pigs do to the things they dig up?”
constricted in her chest at the horror he must have witnessed, and
she nearly reached for him. But she wasn’t sure she could offer
anything more than polite sympathy yet. “I’m so sorry.”
“I found out
members of the sheriff’s department weren’t just covering up crimes,
but that they were committing a few themselves.”
“Besides murder? Like what?”
“The sheriff and
one of the other deputies raped a woman they’d pulled over for
speeding through town. Said they’d call it even payment for the
fine she would have gotten.”
“Oh, my God.” She
felt sick to her stomach. And it wasn’t from the wild, bumpy ride.
“Did she report them?”
“To who?” Jim’s
gravelly voice sharpened with contempt. “The authorities in that
town are part of a violence and extortion racket. There’s another
deputy who wanted no part of it, but he’s too cowed by Sheriff Paine
and afraid of losing his job to do anything about it. Most of the
victims are too scared to say anything, and anyone who does stand up
against them gets a visit from your mysterious Mr. X and either
changes his story or isn’t seen again.”
“You think this
Sheriff Paine is the man who was looking for me?” Finally, the last
few days began to make sense. But understanding didn’t ease the
chill shivering along her spine.
“Either that or his
enforcer, Deputy Butler.” Jim darted around a slower car, then
pressed on the accelerator as they approached the flashing lights on
the highway below them. “They’re hunting me because I know enough
to take them down, and I’m not afraid to testify. He’s looking for
“He thought you and
I were a couple. He thought I knew you were alive and that I would
know how to find you.”
“Butler would get
the information out of you one way or another--or he’d turn you over
to Sheriff Paine and use you as bait to get me to come out of
hiding. I interviewed that woman in the hospital. I saw what they
did to her.” A tight knot of emotion pulsed along his jaw. “And
that’s not gonna happen to you.”
For a few moments,
Natalie forgot to breathe. The phone kept ringing. “You did
come out of hiding to find me. You wanted to get to me before they
“Told you I cared.”
“Don’t be flippant,
“Honey, I’m not...
I mean, Natalie, I wouldn’t--”
The phone picked
The mirror outside
her window shattered and Natalie screamed.
She turned in her
seat to see a gun sticking out the passenger window of the Hanover
County car. “They’re shooting at us.”
“Get down!” Jim
warned, snatching Natalie’s arm and pulling her onto the seat beside
him as the back window splintered with the impact of a bullet.
“What the hell is
going on?” George shouted over the phone.
Jim drove as fast
as he dared with one hand, heading up a hill toward the next
interchange. “Commissioner, I need a couple of black and whites on
435 South to intercept a Hanover County cruiser that’s in pursuit.”
from her position beside him. “They fired two shots at us. But I
think--” He pushed her back down to his lap when she started to
rise to look out the window. “I think we’re losing them. I don’t
hear any more gunfire.”
Jim checked the
surviving mirrors and saw the sheriff’s car kick up clouds of dirt
as its brake lights came on and it skidded off the road. The exit
lane of traffic had come to a complete stop, and one of the
semi-trucks had jackknifed across the exit ramp Jim had skipped over
He eased up on the
gas while she held the phone up for them both to report to her
uncle. “Confirm that, sir. The pursuit is over. You’ll want to
send a helicopter and traffic patrol, instead. Looks like we may
have caused a bit of a pile-up near the Swope Park exit.”
didn’t see anything beyond the truck and a couple of cars off on the
shoulder. “Nothing major from what I can see. Looks like the
cruiser is heading south back to Falls City. I’ll bet they’ve
already overheard Dispatch calls regarding the pile-up, and know
legitimate officers are on their way.”
“Good. I want them
out of my town.” George Madigan’s sigh of relief was audible. And
short-lived. “Is Natalie ok?”
“I’m fine, George.
I’m mad at you and Jim for putting me through six weeks of
mourning. But I’m fine.”
Jim felt the
movement of her cheek against his thigh like a gentle caress when
she spoke. But once they made arrangements to contact the deputy
commissioner later and ended the call, Natalie squeezed his knee,
hitting that ticklish spot that made him jump. She’d discovered
that sensitive spot when they’d ridden the Mamba roller coaster at
Worlds of Fun on their date. Her clutch of fear when they’d made
that first giant drop had made him scream out right along with her.
Was that gesture
now the equivalent of another reprimanding swat? Or an homage to a
shared memory and a sign of possible forgiveness?
Jim was hoping for
the latter as he rubbed his hand along the sleek length of Natalie’s
arm. “Your skin’s like ice. Let me turn down the air.”
“Is it safe for me
to sit up now?”
He didn’t want to
lose the contact with her body, but with the sheriff’s car
disappearing into the distance behind them, he could hardly justify
keeping her so close. “Yeah.”
“I’m not exactly
dressed for this kind of thing.”
After adjusting the
air-conditioning, Jim reached behind the seat to pull out the
wind-breaker he’d stashed there. It was dusty and wrinkled, a sad
contrast to the bridesmaid’s dress she wore, but at least he could
offer her a little more than two strips of lace to cover her
“Here. You look
beautiful today, by the way.” Smeared mascara on her cheek, dark
brown hair falling from those ringlets pinned up at the back of her
head, faded nylon jacket and all. “You’re still the prettiest woman
I’ve ever been on a roller coaster with.”
“You take a lot of
women on roller coasters and car chases, Detective?”
He grinned, hearing
a hint of the banter they’d shared on that best first date six weeks
ago. “Nah. Only the ones who scare me into thinking I don’t want
to be a bachelor all my life.”
And then she got as
serious as she’d been when they’d cuddled close and talked late into
the night after leaving the amusement park that day. “I’m sorry
about that woman who was assaulted in Falls City. I’m sorry about
the agent who was killed. I’m glad you’re putting a stop to those
horrible people’s abuse of power.”
“I will as soon as
I can make an arrest without getting my head shot off first. Then
the townspeople will start talking and we can make arrests that
“I’ll help you in
any way I can, Jim.”
“I’m not looking to
get your head shot off, either.”
He wanted to reach
across the seat and hold her hand, but she had them hidden away
beneath the tight clutch of her arms around her waist, and he had to
respect her wish to keep her distance from him.
“I can’t take you
to your apartment. I saw Carl Butler, the deputy I never want you
to meet, parked outside your building this afternoon.”
“One of the men who
raped that woman?” He watched her shiver and go pale beneath that
glowing palette of special occasion makeup, and reached for her,
anyway. When he tugged on her elbow, she thrust her fingers out the
sleeves of his jacket and latched onto his hand with both of hers.
Despite the jacket
and putting the A/C on low, her skin was still cool to the touch.
He rubbed his thumb across the back of her knuckles, instilling what
warmth and reassurance he could. “Is there someplace else I can
take you to get a change of clothes and some toiletries?” he asked.
“I don’t want to
lead them to Mom and Dad’s house. I don’t want to endanger anyone
else.” Her grip pulsed around his. “But I know a place we can go.”
Natalie stepped out
of the faculty restroom into the hallway of the alternative high
school where she was teaching English classes this summer. She’d
brushed her hair out into a wavy ponytail and dressed in the workout
pants, tank top, zip jacket and running shoes she kept on hand for
when she jogged after morning classes before the summer temperatures
got too hot and baked her fair skin.
The silent tomb of
a building was scary enough at night when there were no other
faculty or students around, and the halls were lit with only the dim
greenish hue of security lights. But the broad-shouldered man with
the golden hair and deep verdant eyes was the thing that made her
heart race when he unfolded himself from the shadows and pushed away
from the cinder block wall across from her.
Jim reached her in
three short strides. “Nope. Still sexy. Don’t know if it’s the
legs or the hair or this.”
He tucked a finger
beneath her chin and tipped her face up as he lowered his head and
kissed her. She felt the firm pressure of his mouth, the cat-tongue
caress of his beard stubble against her skin, the flood of eager
warmth that rushed through her body to where their lips joined. But
his warm, coffee-scented breath had barely mingled with hers before
she pushed him away.
“Too soon, huh?”
Jim stepped back, holding his arms out to either side with a sigh of
resignation. “You think you’ll ever forgive me for the whole not
telling you I’m still alive thing?”
Natalie studied the
hard angles of his face that had aged several years in the few weeks
they’d been apart. She read the depths of need and regret in the
moss-colored gaze that never left hers.
She grabbed a
fistful of his dark T-shirt and pulled him back.
Jim let her take
control of the kiss this time, bracing his hands on either side of
her head against the wall behind her. She wound her fingers around
his neck, sliding them up into the unfamiliar thickness of his
longer hair as she parted her lips, inviting him in to taste and
The kiss was
leisurely, thorough. A mix of getting reacquainted with something
familiar and getting to know something new. It hummed through her
blood, heating her slowly from the inside out. When her tongue
ventured forward, his was there to meet it. When she tilted her
head at a different angle, he countered. When she demanded a firmer
touch, he delivered. The tips of her breasts tingled in
anticipation, and something needy and warm gathered between her
thighs. Jim Parker’s kiss was patient, potent. And far more
dangerous than the kisses she remembered sharing six weeks ago.
But what her body
wanted and what her heart yearned to give were not the same things
that her cautious brain would allow her to do.
With a breathless
sigh of her own, Natalie settled back onto her heels, ending the
embrace without completely breaking contact. She smoothed the
rumpled mess she’d made of his hair, stroked the warm line of his
cheekbone, touched the throbbing pulse beat along his jaw, looked up
into his light-catching eyes and tried to make sense of what she was
feeling. “I thought I knew you after one date. But how could I,
really.” Her hands came to rest against his chest. “I... have
feelings for you, Jim. But I’m not as blindly naive as I used to
be. I know it’s not smart to give my trust so easily again.”
He traced a long
tendril of hair from her forehead back around the shell of her ear.
“Then I’m going to earn it. When this mess with the Falls City
sheriff’s department is over, I’m going to do whatever it takes to
make things right between us.” He pulled away from the wall to
cover her hands with his, trapping her gently against his heat and
strength. “If I can.”
A crash from the
darkness at the end of the hallway shattered the tender moment.
Jim heard the
shattering glass and pulled away. With every nerve on instant
alert, he was even more aware of Natalie’s fresh, citrusy scent and
tender strength--and just how badly he wanted to claim her for his
He was also keenly
aware of just how vulnerable the gentle woman was in the face of
trash like Paine and Butler. He nudged her back into the faculty
lounge and drew his gun. “You go back to that john and lock
yourself inside until I come to get you. I’ll check it out.”
But Natalie’s hand
closed around his arm, holding him back. Her eyes were wide with
concern. “Shouldn’t you call for backup?”
“I am the
backup, babe. I’m the one who’s going to keep us safe. Now, go.”
“You don’t know
your way around this building. I do. And if something happens to
you, who’ll protect me?” She flipped on a mini-flashlight attached
to her key chain. “Besides, I have keys.”
The light was
probably only bright enough to get them spotted by the intruder.
But she had a point about not knowing the lay of the land. And if
it would get her out of there and to his safe house sooner, Jim
wasn’t going to argue. “Stick close to the wall. And stay behind
He had her kill the
flashlight as they got close enough to hear hushed conversation,
heavy footfalls and the screech of furniture legs sliding across the
floor on the other side of the locked door.
“There are two
people in there if I’m counting voices correctly.”
Sheriff Paine and
Natalie curled her
fingers into the back of his belt, tugging him back a fraction of a
They’d found her.
Natalie took the
keys back from Jim after he silently unlocked her classroom door,
and held her breath as he pushed it open and stormed inside.
“KCPD! Put your
hands up where I can see them.”
There was a flurry
of movement when he flipped on the lights--desks turning over, books
tumbling to the floor, two men cursing that their break-in had been
“I want you to lie
face down on the floor,” Jim ordered. “Keep those hands where I can
Concern for Jim’s
safety gave way to fear of a different sort as a moment of clarity
Two teenage boys.
Oh, my God.
She left her hiding place behind the door and hurried into her
topsy-turvy room. “Jim, wait.”
“Damn it, Nat. I
told you to stay put.”
She touched the
closest hand that held the lethal looking gun cradled between them,
aimed directly at the cowering forms of Danny Garcia and Tom Kuszak.
“They’re teenage boys, Jim. Not Sheriff Paine. They’re students of
“Apparently not the
top of the class.” His shoulders rose and fell in deep, steadying
breaths as the adrenaline in his system ran its course and he
lowered his weapon. “You two, don’t move,” he ordered, before
directing her attention to the white board at the front of her
room. She turned her gaze past the broken glass of the shattered
window, and the student desks that had all been turned upside down
to the incomplete message spray-painted on the board.
Natalie was steamed that they’d trashed her classroom--and committed
the type of crime that had probably gotten them kicked out of a
regular school in the first place. But she was angrier at herself
for feeling that gut-kick of emotion when Jim had charged in to face
the enemy and she feared that she might lose him all over again. No
sense of self-preservation in that, was there? “Could you have at
least spelled it right?”
Jim was even less amused. “I’m
calling your uncle to get a squad car down here. They can handle
this. I want to get you out of here before too many other people
show up.” He circled the room, checking the closet and window locks
to ensure they were all secure. “It’s harder to protect you in a
crowd. If Paine or one of his men gets a hold of you...”
“You’re Miss F’s
boyfriend?” Danny looked up in disbelief, his gaze following Jim
around the room.
Tommy echoed the same surprise. “Dude, I thought she was some sad
old lady like my mom, making up stories about her dead boyfriend.”
“Shut up, Tommy.”
Jim paused near her
desk. “You talked about me? You said I’m your boyfriend?”
“Shut up.” Natalie
and Jim silenced the frightened vandals in unison.
“We were reading
Romeo and Juliet,” she explained, trying to diminish the
importance of the boys’ nervous rambling that had revealed far more
than she cared to. “Talking about love and tragedy.”
“They were like,
from rival gangs,” Tom informed Jim unnecessarily.
The seventeen year-old chose now to remember something she’d taught
“These are the two
boneheads who’ve been giving you grief?”
Natalie nodded. “I
thought I’d handled it.”
Jim holstered his
gun and pulled out his phone. “I don’t know if I’m flattered to
learn that you claimed to love me, or pissed off to hear that you
think of us as a tragedy.”
“I wanted to let
you know that I’m changing the safe word with this shift change.
When Dickson and Henley go on duty, the new word is hawthorne.
If they come to the door or call with any directives that counteract
mine, they’ll need to use that word.” Missouri Bureau of
Investigation Agent Dave Medlund didn’t have much going on in the
personality department, but Jim appreciated that he’d been thorough
in all his preparations for both the undercover op in Falls City and
in securing the safe house here in K.C. Regular phone calls like
this one on the house’s secure land line assured Jim that the man
was being proactive about tightening security now that the Hanover
Sheriff’s department had declared Jim their #1 fugitive. “If they
use the previous safe word, or none at all, disregard whatever they
say and assume there’s a threat.”
Medlund. Hawthorne or I’m pulling my weapon and getting
Natalie out of here.” Jim paced the kitchen in the tiny cottage the
MBI had set up for his use as a safe house.
Medlund made some
sort of grunting noise. “I know Ms. Fensom is important to you,
Parker. But understand that you are my priority. I can’t have you
out gallivanting around the city after her and still protect you. I
don’t wish her any ill, but your testimony is what’s going to put
Sheriff Paine and Deputy Butler away. If I lose you, I lose my
“She can testify
that Paine and/or Butler were shooting at us this morning. We can
probably dig up evidence to prove they’ve been stalking her, too, to
smoke me out.” Jim tossed the case file he’d been reading on the
table and poured himself a cup of coffee.
attorneys can argue that you were driving recklessly and evading
arrest.” He imagined Agent Medlund shaking his head. “Your friend
at KCPD, the deputy commissioner, has had a team at Ms. Fensom’s
apartment, looking for any trace to show who broke in, but I’m not
holding my breath. Those harassing calls she received all came from
an untraceable burner phone, and a public computer was used to post
that threat on her social network page. These guys are good.”
Jim didn’t need
circumstantial evidence to prove Paine and Butler were behind the
terror campaign on Natalie. “I’ve heard it before. They have
access to all the same law enforcement resources we do.”
“And they know all
our tricks,” Medlund added. “Just remember. If anything happens,
my men’s priority is to save you.”
And his priority
was to save Natalie. “Understood. Parker out.”
After ending the
call, Jim pulled a chair out from the table and opened the file to
review his notes again. But his thoughts weren’t really on the
loved him. She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to.
“So you and me are
a Shakespearean tragedy, hmm?” Star-crossed lovers, doomed by
outside forces to be denied a happily-ever-after.
He toasted the
sound of Natalie showering in the next room before turning his
attention back to the file. A night without sleep, a shave and a
shower of his own had done little to improve his mood. And though
MBI agents were en route to beef up security, Jim refused to be
derelict at his post. Paine and Butler were in the city looking for
him, he had no doubt.
Let them come.
As long as Natalie
was safe, it didn’t matter what happened to him. He loved her. And
he knew down in his bones that she was exactly what he wanted.
Now if he could
only stay alive long enough to convince her to forgive him.
Jim was cold.
Like the blast of the air conditioner in his truck on a humid
afternoon. Like the alabaster pallor of Natalie’s skin when she was
Like a freezing
He opened his
eyes and looked around at the sterile environment of the Hanover
County hospital. The woman in the hospital bed was still,
sleeping—unconscious, perhaps—as he walked toward her across the
He moaned in his
He didn’t want
to see this again.
He didn’t need
But his feet
were suddenly locked to the floor, and the only place to look was
down. He didn’t need to see Penny Earhart’s chart to know she’d
been beaten and raped. That she’d barely survived the multiple
assaults. He knew it by the bruises and cuts, the swollen lip, the
marks on her throat--the blank look in her eyes that told him
checking out had been the only way to endure the brutal ordeal.
Jim reached for
her hand. He wanted to reassure her that he’d get the men
responsible for this. He promised that there would finally be real
justice in Hanover County.
But when he bent
down to speak, she had no face. A stark, white pillow covered her
And then he
heard laughter from the corners of the room. “Got ya, college
boy.” Sheriff Paine materialized on the opposite side of the bed.
He plucked the pillow from the woman’s face. “Look. Nobody messes
with us, college boy. We’ve got your woman. You watch while she
Jim looked down
at the woman and recoiled as if he’d been jolted by a cattle prod.
Not Penny Earhart. Not the woman he’d interviewed in the hospital,
the woman who either in a delusion or through coercion had revealed
his true identity to Arnold Paine. Not the woman who’d been
smothered to death once she’d served their purpose.
It was Natalie.
Lying so still.
Looking so cold.
And then bruises
began to appear. Cuts, abrasions, the same injuries he’d seen on
Penny Earhart spreading across her fair skin like a rising tide of
pain and death.
He tried to pick
her up. He tried to stop the creeping death. “Natalie, no. Baby,
Paine mocked, as Carl Butler reached for her.
The entire kitchen
was dark. Papers were strewn about the table and crushed beneath
his feet. The nightmare of Penny Earhart’s rape and murder had
become his own nightmare.
staggered to the sink to splash cold water on his face. How long
had he been asleep? How long had he left Natalie alone and
unguarded? He pushed the light button on his watch. Hell. It was
after midnight. “Nat?”
He touched the gun
anchored at his side and moved through the house that was far too
quiet, turning on lights as he went. Back door secure. Living
room, empty. Bathroom, clear. Front door locked. He peeked
through the front curtains to verify that an MBI agent was sitting
in a car beneath the street lamp out front to provide protection.
There should be another agent walking the perimeter.
But what if Paine
and Butler had already gotten past them?
Why didn’t she
He pushed open the
bedroom door and saw her still form lying on the bed.
His blood ran cold
as the disturbing images from his nightmare blended with reality.
Jim rushed to the
bed and reached for her hand. It was warm, not cold. He sank onto
the edge of the mattress beside her and pushed a long tendril of
hair off her cheek. But her skin was clean. Not bruised. She was
asleep. Not dying.
“Nat?” He turned
on the lamp beside the bed and her eyes fluttered open.
She pushed back the
cover and sat up beside him. “What is it? Did something happen?
Why are all the lights on?”
He touched his
fingers to her lips, tangled them in her hair and tucked it behind
her ear. But his fingers were shaking. “Honey, you have to answer
me when I call you. I thought…”
“Jim, what is it?”
She curled her fingers into the front of his shirt. “You’re scaring
He gathered her
into his arms and dragged her onto his lap, burying his nose in the
citrusy fragrance of her hair. “I’m sorry, baby, I just need to
Jim fell back
across the bed, his strong arms pulling her on top of him. One hand
palmed the back of her head while he pressed his cheek against hers,
holding her close and rocking back and forth.
Natalie clung to
his shoulders and rode the ragged rise and fall of his chest as he
worked past whatever devil had possessed him. “Talk to me. Tell me
They’re not here? You’re not hurt?”
She went stiff in
his arms and pushed against him. “Who? Sheriff Paine and his
“I dozed off in the
kitchen—I should have been watching. I never meant for you—“
“Look at me, Jim.”
She propped herself up on her elbows beside him and looked down at
the torment shadowing his eyes. She brushed a wave of hair off his
forehead and cupped his cheek. “I’m okay. It was a bad dream.”
He pressed a kiss
into her palm and then dragged her back to cover him like a
blanket. “Do you forgive me, babe? I never wanted to leave you.
I’m sorry I made you cry. I’m so sorry I put you in danger like
I love you.
Natalie spoke the
words in her heart, but wondered if a sleep-deprived man with a
guilty conscience and a single-minded mission to save his corner of
the world could ever really hear them. Or feel them in his own
But maybe she could
“I need to know
you’re safe,” he whispered, rolling her onto the covers beneath him
and sliding his hips over hers. “If Paine or Butler ever put their
hands on you--”
“I’m okay, Jim,”
she repeated, over and over, stroking his brow, his cheek, his neck,
wanting to ease the fearful desperation in his husky voice. “I’m
He pressed kisses
to her cheeks, to her chin, to her temple, to her mouth. Dozens of
kisses. Tender. Clinging. Gentle. Praising.
her fingers into his hair, meeting him kiss for kiss. This was a
Jim Parker she hadn’t known six weeks ago. This was a man who’d
seen too much, who’d risked his life to save another woman, to save
an entire town. He was a man burdened by guilt and responsibility.
He needed her to be
He needed her to
give him respite from his nightmares.
He needed her.
The weight of Jim’s
body pressed Natalie into the mattress, imprinting every sculpted
inch of his male form on the feminine curves of her body. His hand
slipped beneath her tank top to palm the nip of her waist. His
strong thigh slipped between hers, rubbing denim at that most
vulnerable juncture of her body, the pressure sparking an ember of
need deep inside her. When she started at the hard poke of his gun
against her hip, he removed the weapon and set it on the table
beside the bed.
But she wasn’t out
of his arms for long.
beautiful, Nat.” He nipped at the soft swell of her bottom lip,
then soothed the sensitized nerve bundle there with his tongue. “So
sweet. I hate that we didn’t have more time together.” His hand
slid up beneath her tank, his callused fingertips tickling and
warming her skin. “Yet I feel like I’ve known you forever. Like
you and I were meant to be.”
With his mouth
claiming hers in a deep, open kiss, Natalie tugged at the hem of his
T-shirt, freeing it from his jeans. His muscles quivered in a needy
response as she slid her palms across the fiery skin of his sides
and back. “Jim. Honey. There’s one thing we didn’t do that
night. One thing that would make you and me truly perfect.”
He nodded, palming
her breast beneath her shirt, catching the pebbled tip between his
thumb and finger, teasing it until she buried her face against his
neck and whimpered at the icy shards of sensation that shot from the
sensitive nub down to her womb where they melted and gathered and
blossomed into feverish desire. “I know, baby. I want that, too.
I’ve missed you. Will you let me?“
assuring him with every touch, every kiss, every needy gasp that she
needed this closeness, this reassurance of life and love and
belonging just as much as he did.
There were more
soothing words, more greedy touches, more perfect kisses as they
stripped away their clothes and bared their hearts and joined their
Jim drifted off to
sleep afterward, still holding Natalie tightly in his arms. She
dipped her lips to the furrow of worry that lingered beside his
mouth and whispered, “I love you, James Parker. And... I forgive
Jim awoke from the
most peaceful sleep he’d had in six weeks to find the covers tucked
neatly across his naked body and his arms empty.
The pleasure of the
past few hours disappeared completely as soon as he realized Natalie
had left him. He sat bolt upright in bed, letting the covers pool
at his waist. He reached for his jeans and shorts, and picked up
his gun as he swung his legs off the bed. “Nat?”
The shower wasn’t
running. The bathroom stood open and empty.
“Baby, I know I’m
not dreaming, but I still get that funny little feeling in my gut
when you don’t answer me.”
“In here,” she
He finally smiled
when his nose picked up the scent of bacon and followed her voice to
the kitchen. He found her wearing that figure-hugging running suit
and lifting crispy little strips of pork out of the cast iron
skillet where she was frying them. “Sorry I didn’t answer. It’s a
Sunday morning tradition at my house to have a big breakfast. And
since you needed your sleep, I decided to cook.”
Jim tucked his gun
into the back of his jeans and reached around her to pinch off a
bite from the stack of pancakes on the counter and pop it into his
mouth. “Mmm. That’s good. I guess I don’t have any family
traditions since it’s just me. But I could get used to this one.”
He reached for
another buttery bite, but she swatted his hand away. “Wait until
it’s on the table. I still have to cook the eggs. Is fried okay?”
Jim bent down to
nibble on the juncture of her neck and shoulder instead. “Honey,
whatever you’re offering, I’m saying yes to. I’m a hungry man. You
stirred up quite an appetite in me last night. About wore me out.”
“Is that why you
slept so late?” she teased, cracking an egg into a small bowl before
dropping it into the sizzling pan.
“Maybe.” He stole
a piece of bacon while she was occupied. But he wasn’t quite ready
to play the domestic bliss game and forget the fact they were in a
safe house, and that two very dangerous men wanted them dead.
“Still, when I call for you, you need to answer. I need to know
you’re all right.”
“I’m serious, Nat.”
“I know.” She
wiped her hands on a dish towel, then turned to splay her fingers
over the left side of his chest. Although he was certain the
gesture was meant to soothe his concern, his heart-rate kicked up a
notch at the feel of her gentle hand against his skin.
He covered her hand
with his and dipped his head, leaning in for a kiss. But the
telephone on the wall beside the refrigerator rang, interrupting the
moment of reconciliation.
“Expecting a call?”
Jim glanced at the
clock on the stove. Medlund called in every twelve hours. This
call was early. That couldn’t be good. He reached for the phone.
recognize the voice. “Yes?”
“This is Agent
Dickson. I’ve got a guy out here who says he’s volunteering to join
the watch. His badge says he’s KCPD. He identifies himself as a
friend of yours, Nick Fensom?” The wary hackles at the back of
Jim’s neck relaxed at the mention of his old friend. “Should I send
him on his way or let him sit in his car and sweat like the rest of
“Nick’s one of the
good guys. I’d appreciate it if he’d stay.”
Once Agent Dickson
had verified the safe word, and he’d exchanged a few words with
Nick, Jim ended the call. Natalie was waiting anxiously at his
side. “What is it?”
surprise. Big brother has come to join the watch.”
She frowned. “What
about his honeymoon?”
postponed until he knows his sister is okay. He says your Uncle
George has recruited a few more volunteers to reinforce what the MBI
has set up. So we’ll be seeing more men around the place.”
Instead of looking
reassured, her frown deepened. “Sheriff Paine is that dangerous a
following his own set of rules in Hanover County for the past twelve
years, and anyone who dares to stand up to him winds up dead.”
When she hugged her arms around her waist, Jim draped an arm around
her shoulder and hugged her to his side. “Now come on. Let’s get
back to that discussion about breakfast. So cooking is only one of
your many talents. Is there anything you can’t do, woman?”
She smiled at the
compliment, then snuggled up to kiss the corner of his mouth. “I
really am quite the catch, Detective Parker. Maybe you shouldn’t be
so quick to leave next time.”
He palmed her butt
and lifted her onto her toes to deepen the kiss. “Don’t I know it.”
“Why don’t you pour
us a cup of coffee while I plate things up.” She popped a bite of
bacon into his mouth, forcing him to chew while she turned away to
crack another egg.
The doorbell rang
and anymore conversation was put on hold while Natalie strolled to
“Yes?” she asked,
pausing with her hand on the knob and peeking through the peep hole.
“Um, yes, ma’am,” a
deep voice answered. “I’m Agent Henley. Agent Dickson said I could
step inside for a minute to use the facilities?”
“Could I see your
badge, please? Okay.” After a momentary pause, she stepped
And then it hit
him. “Natalie, wait. Did he give you the safe word--?”
But she had already
unbolted the door.
Jim drew his
weapon. But it was too late to stop the nightmare from happening.
grabbed Natalie by the arm and twisted it behind her, forcing her
into the room with the barrel of his service pistol. “Good morning,
Deputy Jensen. Or should I say, Detective Parker?” The bastard
shrugged as if anything he said could be amusing. “Seems none of us
are who we say we are this morning.”
Jim braced his legs
apart, ready for whatever the rat threw at him if it meant getting
Natalie out of here alive. “I never pictured you as a suit and tie
kind of guy, Sheriff.”
Paine shrugged his
fat shoulders. “Our Hanover uniforms were too recognizable here in
K.C. I think I look a lot like that MBI hotshot I killed and buried
out on Old Man Haight’s farm. Don’t you?” He tapped his gun
against Natalie’s neck and she flinched. Easy, baby. “Now
be a good boy and put your weapon on the ground.”
“Let her go.” Jim
offered a trade. “I’m the one you want.”
“How about you do
what I tell ya or I’ll put a bullet in her head.”
With his hands
outstretched to show his compliance, Jim pulled his Glock from his
jeans and set it on the floor beside the table. “Where’s your
Parker. The coast is clear, boss.” Carl Butler turned sideways and
came through the door, closing it behind him and turning the dead
bolt. “I took care of the two outside.”
Natalie’s gaze flew
to Jim. “Nick…”
“I didn’t stop to
ask their names, sweet pea.” He rolled a toothpick to one side of
his mouth and leered. “You never told me she was so pretty,
At the stroke of
his bear paw across her cheek, Natalie jerked away. “If you hurt my
“She’s a feisty one, boss. I think we ought to do her first and
make loverboy watch. That’ll teach him a lesson about what we do to
folks who betray us. Then we kill him.”
Jim knew he should
have been evaluating escape options. He should have reassured
Natalie that there was a good chance Nick was alive and unharmed.
Butler only mentioned taking out two men outside. But two MBI
agents plus Nick made three. There was still help out there these
two thugs didn’t know about. If Jim could get a message to that
man, if that guard noticed the other two men were down, they had a
chance of getting out of this alive.
But all he could
see was the beefy deputy’s leering grin.
“Let me make this
clear, Butler. You lay a hand on her again and I will kill you.”
Sheriff Paine was
laughing as he pushed Natalie farther into the room. “Down, boy.
You ain’t got no place left to hide from me. I thought you were one
of us, but then that wing nut of a woman in the hospital said you
were a Kansas City cop. She seemed to think you were gonna save her
“You killed her,
didn’t you,” Jim accused.
Paine didn’t deny
it. “She was of no further use to me.” He trailed his gun along
Natalie’s neck. “Come to think of it, I’ve got no use for this one
Jim’s toes gripped
the floor to keep him from leaping over the table. “So let her go.
Let her walk out that door.”
“I don’t think so.
This is too much fun to watch you squirm.”
Butler strolled casually around the kitchen, sampling bites of food
along the way.
“Would you like me
to fix you a fresh stack of pancakes?” Natalie offered.
Her sweet blue eyes
locked on his across the room. Smart girl had a plan. Paine must
be twisting her arm right out of its socket, but she wasn’t
complaining. She was thinking.
He was the
they were in this together. “I love you, Natalie.”
“I love you.”
“Now that’s just so damn sweet.” He shoved Natalie hard enough that
she stumbled into the counter. It took every bit of Jim’s
considerable will to lock his feet to the floor and not go to her.
I got your back, baby.
“I’m okay, Jim,”
she assured him. “I’m okay.”
Paine laughed while
Nat rubbed her sore arm and flexed her shoulder. “Fix us some food,
sugar. Maybe we’ll eat while your boyfriend’s bleeding out on the
Carl joined in the
laughter. “Like this?”
He swung around,
driving his meaty fist into Jim’s cheek and knocking him to his
hands and knees.
gasped. She darted behind Butler. “You creep!”
Blood oozed from
the split in Jim’s cheek and his skull rang with the force of the
blow he’d been too late to anticipate.
Nah, he’d dropped
to the floor just in time. Just in time to see Natalie pick up a
towel to wrap around the handle of the cast iron skillet. Just in
time to flip that hot bacon grease into Butler’s face. While he
screamed in pain and staggered forward to grab her, she swung the
heavy pan again, catching the big man on the chin and knocking him
back into the counter.
In the split-second
it took for Paine to swing around and fire his gun, Jim dove for his
own weapon. He’d landed in just the right place to fire straight
beneath the table to hit Paine’s leg and topple him to the floor.
Another whack of
the skillet and Butler was on the ground. Keeping his Glock trained
on the sheriff, Jim retrieved Butler’s weapon and kicked Paine’s gun
beyond his reach.
“I got this, Nat.”
He eased the skillet from Natalie’s frantic grasp and set it on the
back of the stove. “Get on the phone and call 9-1-1. Call Nick.
Call your uncle. Call everybody. We’ve got these bastards.” While
she dialed her brother, he read the men their rights. He took the
handcuffs off their own belts and put them on, securing the
prisoners until help arrived. “Arnold Paine and Carl Butler, you’re
under arrest for kidnapping, rape, murder and witness intimidation.”
“It’s Nick. He’s
okay. He’s on his way. He just found Agent Dickson in his car. He
said he found the other agent first, on the grounds. Looked like
they’d both been tasered. Attacked from behind. But they’ll be
okay. ” Natalie was still on the phone when she moved to Jim’s side
and leveled a charge of her own. “You cowards. Arrest them for
impersonating real police officers. You’re the real deal, Jim.
They’re just... bullies with a badge.”
A week later,
Natalie was explaining the building blocks for creating different
verb tenses when Jim Parker walked into her classroom.
He pointed straight
at Danny and Tom. “You boys aren’t giving Ms. Fensom any trouble,
surprised to see them both sit up in their desks. “No, sir.”
fluttered with anticipation and those little ripples of awareness
flooded shamelessly through her blood at the button-down shirt that
hugged his broad shoulders. Snug jeans, a belt, gun... and a badge
hanging from a chain around his neck completed the look.
The crew cut was
back, adding striking emphasis to the angular planes of his
clean-shaven face and the greenish purple bruise under his left
eye. The injury was the last remnant of the shadowy threat and
painful disruption Arnold Paine had brought to their lives.
she greeted him, gripping the back of her chair. “Did you finish
your deposition with the MBI?”
“Yes, ma’am. The
Hanover County sheriff’s department is being dismantled as we
speak. The ones who committed the actual crimes and the ones who
looked the other way are all being dealt with. The state patrol
will watch over Falls City until a new law enforcement team can be
screened and hired. Arnold Paine and Carl Butler are awaiting
trial. Word is, there are several witnesses willing to testify
against them, including one lady who’s stuck teaching summer
“Are you thinking
of applying for one of the jobs in Falls City?”
He shook his head.
“I’ve got ties here in Kansas City. I applied for a transfer to
KCPD’s Cold Case squad. I’m friends with the deputy commissioner,
so I think I might get the job. I’m looking forward to avoiding
undercover work and sticking close to home.”
“No, I don’t think
you do.” Jim grinned and got down on one knee beside her desk.
“One date with you isn’t enough.”
Garcia stood beside his desk to get a better look. Like Natalie,
Tom Kuszak was actually tearing up.
But she only had
eyes for the man kneeling in front of her.
“I know you like
things to be predictable and reliable. I can’t promise you the
first, but I can guarantee the latter. And, just so you understand
exactly what I’m saying--I love you, Natalie Fensom. Will you marry
Natalie held on to
the chair, afraid to move in case her knees failed her. She looked
down into Jim’s moss green eyes, silently weeping with joy.
“You’re making me look bad in front of our audience here. You got
an answer for me, babe?”
If her knees
buckled, it didn’t matter. Jim Parker alive and loving her was
Natalie’s dream come true. She threw her arms around his neck.
“Yes. I love you. I want to marry you.”
He stood with her
in his arms, and they kissed. He set her on her feet so he could
place the diamond solitaire on her finger, and then they kissed to
an outbreak of applause from her classroom.
“I’m gonna use some
of those moves,” Tom declared.
“What, with a girl? You ain’t got no game.”
“Haven’t got any
game,” Tom corrected. “Haven’t you been paying any attention to Ms.
Fensom? Girls like smart guys. I think I’m gonna be smart now.”
Jim agreed, looking
down into Natalie’s eyes. “Me, too. I’m smart enough to never let
you go again.”
George shooed all the family up to the stairs in front of the
altar. “These monkey suits are only rented for the day, and the
photographer’s only here for a few minutes. And I want everyone in
“My hair doesn’t
look as good as it did last time.”
“I can’t get this
“Do I still have
“A woman doesn’t
usually get to wear her wedding dress twice.” Natalie’s mom seemed
to be shedding just as many tears today as she had two weeks ago at
Nick and Annie’s wedding. “I’m so glad we could get everyone
Nick leaned in to
kiss his bride. “You and I are going on our honeymoon right after
this, slugger. No more delays.” He turned to include everyone in
his next admonition. “So nobody wander off for any reason until
this photograph is taken.”
Natalie strolled up
to the front of the church in her dove-gray bridesmaid’s gown,
donning it one more time so they could take the family portrait
she’d missed that day Jim had kidnapped her from the church to save
her from Arnold Paine and Carl Butler.
She handed her
mother a tissue, fixed her brother Noah’s tie, offered Nadine her
lipstick tube and reassured her youngest sister, Nell. “You look
It took several
minutes for the photographer to arrange all of them for the picture.
While the rest of
the family settled into their places, Natalie glanced up at her
Uncle George. He was smiling, glad to have the family all together
again. Glad they were all safe. Glad that all was right in the
She looked out to
the first pew where Jim sat, and touched her thumb to the engagement
ring on her left hand.
She was smiling,
From deep in her
heart to the dimple on her cheek, she was smiling, too.
Read about Jim Parker’s
new partner on KCPD’s Cold Case Squad, Detective Olivia Watson, as she
forms an unlikely alliance with the department’s harshest critic,
reporter Gabriel Knight, to solve a six year-old murder.
Falling in love with
the enemy has never been so dangerous.
CITY COVER-UP by
Available March 17 in
Available April 1 in
Only from Harlequin
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