Copyright ©2017 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Duff spit the blood from his mouth where the bruiser with the shaved head had punched him in the jaw, scraping the inside of his cheek across his teeth. He eyed the older man who’d invited him here for this so-called interview standing up on the porch watching the scuffle in the grass with a look of indifference. “Forget it. I don’t need a job that badly.”
He wanted to get hired on at the Fiske Family Farm. If this undercover op was going to be a success, he needed to get hired here. But he couldn’t seem too eager, too willing to kowtow to the owner’s authority or to the bruiser with the iron fist’s intimidation tactics. Otherwise, nobody here in the crowd of farmhands, shopkeepers and tourists—along with a man in a khaki uniform shirt sipping coffee and noshing on a Danish—would buy his big-badass-mercenary-for-hire persona. He’d spent the past few weeks cultivating his world-weary Duff Maynard identity in the nearby town of Falls City. Portraying a messed-up former soldier looking for a job off the grid, he’d even slept several nights in his truck, solidifying his lone-drifter status so that he could infiltrate the suspected illegal arms business being run behind the bucolic tranquility of this tree-lined farming and tourist commune. Playing his part convincingly was vital to any undercover op.
So he scooped up the army-issue duffel bag that had been taken from him and strode over to the porch, where Baldy had retreated to stand in front of his boss, Henry Fiske. Duff nodded toward the keys, wallet, gun and sheathed hunting knife lying on the gray planks, where the man with the shaved head sat in front of the railing, panting through his smug grin. Removing the weapons from his bag and identification from his pockets when the big man had patted him down and gone through his things had given Duff reason to start the fight in the first place, solidifying his tough-guy character in front of a lot of witnesses. “I’ll be taking those.”
Baldy rose to his feet, looking ready, willing and eager to go another round with him. “I don’t think so, Sergeant Loser,” he taunted.
He heard a few worried whispers moving through the onlookers as he and Baldy faced off. But the man on the porch, Henry Fiske, raised his hand and quieted them. “Not to worry, folks. We’re just gettin’ acquainted. Had a bit of a misunderstanding that we’ll work out.” He gestured to the uniformed man standing near the end of the porch. “Besides, we’ve got Sheriff Cobb here. So nothing bad’s gonna happen. Go back to your cars or get to shoppin’.” He tipped his nose and sniffed the air. “I smell fresh baked goods y’all aren’t going to want to miss.”
With murmurs of approval and relief, most of the touristy types separated from the crowd and headed toward the shops on the property. But others—the men and women who lived and worked on the vast complex, perhaps—merely tightened their circle around Duff and the front of the house. Why weren’t they dispersing as ordered? What did they know that Duff didn’t?
“You’ve got everything under control, Henry?” the sheriff asked.
“Then I’ll be headin’ back into town.” He gently elbowed the sturdy, fiftysomething blonde woman beside him. “I just drove out to get some of Phyllis’s tasty cooking. My wife doesn’t fix anything like this for dessert.”
The woman waved off the compliment and turned to follow the tourists. “Come on, Sterling. I’ll pack a box of goodies to take with you.”
That’s why the Hanover County sheriff hadn’t been included in the task force working this case. Either Sterling Cobb was being paid to overlook any transgressions here, or the portly man who’d refused to step in and break up a fight was afraid, incompetent or both.
“Ain’t nobody here to back you up, Sergeant Loser,” Baldy taunted as soon as the sheriff was out of earshot. “You still want to give me trouble?”
In real life, Duff had been an officer, not a noncom, and he bristled at the dig. But he was playing a part here on behalf of KCPD and the joint task force he was working for. His fake dossier said he’d enlisted out of high school and had seen heavy action in the Middle East, which had left him disillusioned, antisocial and a perfect fit for the homegrown mafia allegedly running arms into Kansas City.
Like the guns that had been used to shoot up his sister’s wedding and put his grandfather in the hospital.
Duff had to play this just right. Because he was not leaving until he had not only the job, but the trust—or at least the respect—of the people here so that he could work his way into Fiske’s inner circle. He’d need that freedom of movement around the place to gather the intel that could put Fiske and the operation he was running out of business.
Although his mission briefing for this joint task force undercover op between KCPD, the Missouri Bureau of Investigation and the ATF hadn’t mentioned any welcome-to-the-family beat down, Duff had worked undercover enough that he knew how to think on his feet. He’d originally thought this assignment had more to do with his familiarity with the terrain of the Ozark Mountains, where he’d spent several summers camping, hunting and fishing. But he also knew how to handle himself in a fight. And if that’s what the job called for, he’d milk his tough-guy act for all it was worth.
He stepped into Baldy’s personal space and picked up the Glock 9mm in its shoulder holster, stuffing both it and the knife inside his duffel bag. He kept his gaze focused on Baldy’s dark eyes as he retrieved the ring of keys and wallet with his false IDs and meager cash. Interesting. Baldy’s jaw twitched as though he wanted to resume the fight, but the man standing above them on the porch seemed to have his enforcer on a short leash.
“In town you told me I had a job here at the farm if I wanted it.” He shifted his stance as Baldy spit at that promise and pushed to his feet. There had to be somebody here he could make friends with to get the inside scoop. Clearly, it wasn’t going to be Baldy. “Tell him to back off. You said you needed a man who knew something about security. I didn’t realize you offered blood sport as one of your tourist attractions.”
“I believe you were the one to throw the first punch, Mr. Maynard.” Fiske gestured to the people waiting for the outcome of this confrontation. “We all saw it. Silas was defending himself.”
Henry Fiske might have looked unremarkable in any other setting. He was somewhere in his fifties, with silvering sideburns growing down to his jaw and into his temples. He wore overalls and a wide-brimmed straw hat that marked him as a man who worked the land. The guy even had an indulgent smile for the platinum blonde leaning against the post beside him. The aging rodeo queen would be his wife, Abby. Despite Fiske’s friendly drawl, Duff had seen the cold expectation that his authority would not be challenged in eyes like Fiske’s before.
So, naturally, Duff challenged it. He swung his duffel bag onto his shoulder. “I’m out of here.”
“Don’t let the muck on my boots fool you, Mr. Maynard. I’m a businessman.” Duff kept walking. “A lot of money and traffic pass through here in the summertime, making us a target for thieves and vandals. Hanover is a big county for the sheriff to patrol, and since we’re a remote location, we’re often forced to be self-sufficient. It’s my responsibility to see the property and people here stay safe.” A mother pulled a curious toddler out of the way and the crowd parted to let him pass toward the gravel parking lot in front of the metal buildings where he’d parked his truck. “I needed to see if your skills are as good as you claim. You don’t exactly come with reputable references.”
“The US Army isn’t a good enough reference for you?” Duff halted and turned, reminding Fiske of the forged document that was part of the identification packet the task force had put together for him to establish his undercover identity—Sergeant Thomas “Duff” Maynard. His army service was real, but the medical discharge and resulting mental issues that made him a bad fit for “normal” society had been beefed up as part of his undercover profile.
“I trust what I see with my own eyes. Silas?” Henry Fiske called the big man back into action and gave a sharp nod in a different direction.
The crowd shifted again as a second man approached from the right. This twentysomething guy was as lanky as Silas was overbuilt. But the scar on his sunburned cheek indicated he knew his way around a brawl. So this was what the crowd had been waiting for—a two-on-one grudge match. This wasn’t any different than a gang initiation in the city. If Fiske wanted Duff to prove he had hand-to-hand combat skills, then prove it he would.
Duff pulled the duffel bag from his shoulder and swung it hard as Skinny Guy charged him. The heavy bag caught the younger man square in the gut and doubled him over. He swung again, smashing the kid in the face before dropping the bag and bracing for Baldy’s attack. The big man named Silas grabbed Duff from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. He hoped Baldy had a good grip on him because he used him as a backboard to brace himself and kick out when Skinny Guy rushed him a second time. His boot connected with the other man’s chin and snapped his head back, knocking him on his butt. Utilizing his downward momentum, Duff planted his feet and twisted, throwing Baldy off his back.
But the big guy wasn’t without skills. He hooked his boots around Duff’s legs and rolled, pulling him off balance. The grass softened the jolt to Duff’s body, but the position left him vulnerable to the kick to his flank that knocked him over.
Baldy was on him in a second and they rolled into the wood steps at the base of the porch, striking the same spot on his ribs. Duff grimaced at the pain radiating through his middle, giving his attacker the chance to pop him in the cheek and make his eyes water. Okay. Now he was mad. Time to get real.
He slammed his fist into Baldy’s jaw and reversed their positions. Duff pinned his forearm against the big man’s throat, cutting off his air supply until his struggles eased, and he slapped the bottom step as if the gesture was his version of saying Uncle.
Silas might be done with the fight, but by the time Duff had staggered to his feet, Skinny Guy had, too.
“Stay down!” Duff warned. But when he swung at him, anyway, Duff dropped his shoulder and rammed the other man’s midsection, knocking the younger guy’s breath from his lungs and laying him flat on the ground.
Duff was a little winded himself, and damn, he was going to be sore tomorrow. But as far as he could tell from the cheering hoots from a couple of teenage boys, he’d passed this part of the job interview with flying colors. He was brushing bits of grass and dirt from the thighs of his jeans and checking the dribble of blood at the corner of his mouth when the cheers abruptly stopped.
He heard a grunt of pure, mindless fury behind him and spun around. He saw the glint of silver in Baldy’s hand a split second before a slash of pain burned through the meat of his shoulder. Duff dodged the backswing of the knife, and jumped back another step when the blade was shoved toward his belly.
He was poised to grab Baldy’s wrist on the next jab when a blur of warm auburn hair and faded blue jeans darted into the space between them. “Stop! Silas, stop!”
Instinctively, Duff snaked his uninjured arm around the woman’s waist and pulled her away from the thrusting knife. “Are you crazy?”
Baldy, too, seemed shocked by the interloper. He grabbed the redhead by the wrist and jerked her from Duff’s one-armed grasp before pushing her to the side. “Damn it, girl. You get out of my way.”
She stumbled a few feet. But as soon as she found her footing, the redhead jumped right back into the fray. She shoved at Silas’s chest and wedged herself between the two men. “I said to stop!”
Duff’s arm went around her again, snugging her round bottom against his hip as he spun her away from the danger and pulled her to a safer distance. “Listen, sweetheart, I appreciate the effort, but you’re going to get yourself killed. And I can’t have that on my con—”
“Melanie!” Henry Fiske shouted from the porch, warning the woman to stand down instead of telling Baldy to lower the knife that was now pointed at both of them. “You forget yourself, girl. You get out of there now. This doesn’t concern you.”
Silas’s dark gaze bored into hers and Duff retreated another step, dragging his foolhardy savior farther from that blood-tipped blade. Silas snapped his gaze up to Duff’s, over the top of her head, before he flicked the knife down into the ground and walked over to the edge of the porch. Cursing Duff and the woman under his breath, Baldy dipped his hands into a bucket of water and splashed it over the top of his dirty, sweaty head.
A damp wisp of wavy auburn hair lifted in the hot summer breeze and stuck to the sweat on Duff’s neck as his chest heaved against the exertion of the fight. The woman’s breath was coming hard, too, but she kept her eyes fixed on Silas, making sure he wasn’t going to try another sneak attack. She sagged against his chest, and Duff realized the front of his khaki T-shirt was soaking up moisture from the long cords of hair caught between them. As quickly as he sensed the woman’s relief, he realized he was still holding on to her with a death grip. He released her and she turned to inspect the torn, bloodied cotton of his sleeve. Well, hell. She might be a lot of tough talk, but she was gutting her way through this brave little rebellion against his violent welcome.
“I’m forgetting nothing, Uncle Henry. The new guy put Silas down fair and square. He proved what you wanted him to.” Despite her succinct words, there was a soft drawl to her ng’s and vowel sounds, indicating her Ozark upbringing. “You put me in charge of the infirmary and I’m doing my job. I know you sent Daryl on a supply run, but until we restock, I don’t have the supplies to treat more injuries like this.”
She reminded him of a long-haired Irish setter after a bath, with the dripping ends of her long hair making dark spots on the front of her gray T-shirt. She was of average height and definitely on the full-figured side of things. Her face was nothing remarkable to look at. Ordinary brown eyes. Simple nose and apple-shaped cheeks dusted with freckles. Pale pink lips.
But her fingers worked with beautiful precision. She ripped the sleeve away and pulled the material down off the end of his arm before wadding it up and pressing it against the slice across the outside of his shoulder. She didn’t even hesitate at his grunt of pain. The woman certainly knew how to make a field dressing. “As it is, I may not have enough sutures to seal this cut. And I’m completely out of antibiotics. We should take him to the hospital in Falls City.”
“Is he dying?” Fiske asked.
The redhead’s mouth squeezed into a frown. “No.”
“Then you’re not going anywhere. You’re a resourceful girl. Figure it out.” Fiske’s tone made that sound more like an annoyance than the compliment it should have been. And there was nothing girlish about the curves straining the damp T-shirt she wore. “Have you been in the lake again, Mel?”
“I took a dip to cool off.” That explained the wet hair.
“Melanie?” Fiske chided, apparently requiring a different sort of answer.
She dropped one hand from the makeshift dressing over Duff’s shoulder and lowered her head to a more deferential posture. “I’ll find a way to take care of him without going to town.”
Without the pressure of her grip, the cut throbbed and blood trickled down his arm again. Thinking she’d given up on defying her uncle to help him, Duff snagged the wadded cotton from her grip and reached over to cover the wound with his own hand. But she surprised him by stretching around him and palming his backside. Her heavy breasts squished against his chest as she patted one cheek and then the other. The grope was unexpected but far more pleasurable than Silas’s fist had been. Duff turned to keep her eyes in sight, gauging her intent. “Not that I don’t appreciate a good butt-grab, sweetheart, but I don’t even know your last name.”
“It’s Fiske…oh.” Rosy dots appeared beneath her freckles as her gaze darted up to his. Her fingers stroked him as she curled them into her palm, and his buttock muscle clenched at the unintended tickle. She pulled back, dangling the blue bandanna she’d stolen from his pocket. “Um…”
“You stopped that girl’s mouth from runnin’, Mr. Maynard.” Fiske chuckled from the porch. “You’re hired.”