Injured in the line of duty,
His orders are simple:
But when a frightened woman bursts into his life, Hugh and his K9 companion have no choice but to risk everything to keep her safe.
The sole witness to a horrific crime, Kaylee Ramay flees to the Colorado Rockies to start a new life. There she becomes Grace, a dog kennel employee desperately trying to avoid attention—especially from dangerously attractive K9 Officer Hugh Murdoch.
Because Hugh is tall, dark…and nothing but trouble.
Hugh is anxious to get back in the field after an act of heroism left him warming the bench. Until then, he and his K9 partner Lexi spend their hours teasing the town’s mysterious newcomer. But when their simmering attraction is nearly cut short by a sniper’s bullet, Hugh’s mystery woman must come clean about the secrets she keeps…
Or both of them will pay the price.
Jeb’s shout made her jump, the tiny zipper tab slipping from her fingers. Alice glanced at the closed door. “Just a moment!”
“Hurry up.” Jeb sounded tense, making Alice’s fingers tremble in response. “Your brother is waiting.”
Her gaze darted to the clock. It was just past eight, and Aaron had told her to be ready by eight thirty. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t actually late, though. The punishment would be the same. “I’m almost ready.”
Alice fumbled for the zipper, only to have it slip from her fingers again. Gritting her teeth, she sucked a silent breath in through her nose and closed her eyes, willing her body to stop shaking. It would only delay her, and that would make everything worse. Opening her eyes again, she grasped the tab and slid it up until it touched the back of her neck.
Something scratched at her skin, and she frowned as she reached inside the collar. Had she forgotten to remove the dry cleaner’s tag? Her fingers closed around a small piece of paper, and she tugged it free. Taking the two steps toward the small trash can next to her vanity, Alice absently glanced at the now--crumpled scrap. It wasn’t the usual red tag the dry cleaner used, though. Smoothing it out, she saw there was something written in a slashing, aggressive hand.
Be ready to escape. Soon.
Alice froze, staring at the words. What was this? A joke? Why had it been attached to her dress? It couldn’t be meant for her, even though the wording made her desperately hope it was. How wonderful it would be to have a friend, one who would be willing to help her. She didn’t have any allies, though. Not in Aaron’s world.
“Alice, for Christ’s sake.” Jeb swung open the door and stormed into the room. “It’s like you’re trying to piss off your brother.”
It had taken years of practice to keep the guilty anxiety from showing. Closing her fingers around the slip of paper in a way she hoped looked casual, Alice glanced at her bodyguard over her shoulder. “Almost ready.” Her voice sounded calm, not revealing how hard her heart was pounding. “I just need to use the bathroom, and then we can leave.”
“No time.” Jeb grabbed her arm, his fingers pressing into old bruises, making it hard to hold back a wince. “You can go at the restaurant.”
Alice twisted free, despite knowing that he would make her pay for that small act of disobedience. Still, whatever Jeb’s punishment would be, it couldn’t be as bad as what would happen if Aaron found that message. “I can’t wait. I promise to be quick.” Without hesitating, knowing it would be impossible to escape Jeb’s grip if he caught her a second time, she darted for the bathroom.
The lock was something a five--year--old could unlatch with a piece of wire and some luck, but it would give her a few seconds, and that was all Alice needed. She allowed herself one last quick glance at the message, just long enough to convince herself that it was real. The words were still there, exactly the same as before, and her heart sped up again—-this time, with hope.
Jeb’s heavy fist pounded on the door. With sweaty fingers, Alice shredded the note, allowing the bits of paper to fall into the toilet. She flushed and watched the tiny pieces spin in circles until they were sucked down the drain. After a last check to make sure every bit of evidence was gone, she pulled up her sleeves and washed her hands.
As she dried them, the lock popped out, and the door swung open. Alice adjusted her sleeves so they reached her wrists, hiding the faded and fresh oval bruises that dotted her forearms. She turned to Jeb, keeping her expression blank, but inside she braced for his anger.
“Let’s go,” he grunted, and she relaxed slightly. Obviously, Jeb wasn’t willing to delay them any longer, even if he was irritated with her. He rushed her out of the bedroom and down the stairs, staying so close behind her that the thud of his footsteps was almost painfully loud.
“Alice!” The impatience in her brother’s voice made her want to run back up to her room, but that would be futile. Not only would Jeb stop her, but her bedroom wasn’t a sanctuary. There wasn’t a safe place in the entire house—-or in Alice’s entire life.
The promise scrawled on that note flickered in her mind, but she quickly banished it. It could be a joke or a trick or meant for someone else or…who knew. She couldn’t get her hopes up. If she did, and whoever it was didn’t come through, the disappointment would crush her.
As she reached the bottom of the steps, Aaron was already charging down the hall toward her. “Alice! Where is that—-oh, there you are.” He stopped abruptly, frowning as he took in her appearance. Even though she knew he could find no fault—-that he himself had chosen the blue dress for its nun--approved neckline and concealing sleeves—-her stomach still soured with nerves. “What took you so long?”
It was futile to protest, to tell him that she wasn’t late, that she was, in fact, fifteen minutes early…so she just stayed quiet.
Besides, he wasn’t really interested in what she had to say.
“Come on, then.” He turned to the front entrance. “The car’s waiting.”
With Aaron in front of her and Jeb behind, Alice made her way out of the house. The driver holding open the car door was Chester, and he gave her a subtle wink as she slid into the back seat of the SUV. She raised her hand in a tiny return wave, hoping he saw it but not daring to do more. When she was younger, she’d spent as much time as she could with Chester and his wife, Gloria. He’d taught her how to drive and take care of the horses, and Gloria had taught her how to cook and take care of herself. Both of them had showed her how to be a decent human being. After her father died, Aaron took over as head of the family and assigned Alice full--time bodyguards. It became impossible to sneak away to the kitchen or the barn. Surreptitious waves were the closest she’d gotten to talking to Chester or Gloria in years.
Jeb circled the car to climb into the front passenger seat as Aaron sat next to her. Chester closed Aaron’s door, and Alice had the almost irresistible urge to scramble out of the car and run. Only the knowledge that she’d barely get ten feet before Jeb tackled her stopped her from trying. They said to be ready, she reminded herself, fingers clutching the leather upholstery on the side away from Aaron, where her brother couldn’t see her bone--white, desperate grip. What if there really is a plan? I just need to wait a little longer.
Aaron glanced at her sharply. For one terrified second, Alice thought she’d actually said the words out loud. Then reason returned, and she was able to smooth her expression into its usual placid lines.
“Best behavior, Alice,” he warned, settling back in his seat. “This is an important meeting. First impressions matter. Make a good one, or there will be consequences.”
Fire flared in her belly, working its way up to her cheeks. With a huge effort, she kept her rage locked inside and gave Aaron a small nod, hoping that he’d mistake her red face for embarrassment. Turning her head, she stared blindly out the window, not seeing the irrigated lawns or brassy, overdone homes they passed. Just a little longer, she repeated, turning it into a chant in her head. Just a little longer. If the note is real, if it’s meant for me, if there’s an escape plan…so many ifs. Wait and see and be prepared, just in case it’s real. It won’t kill me to wait a little longer.
Why did it feel like she wouldn’t survive another second?
When Chester pulled the SUV up to the entrance of Mod fifteen silent minutes later, Alice swallowed a groan. Of all the Dallas restaurants, they had to go to the most pretentious one? She shook off her annoyance. Of course they did. Aaron had chosen the place after all, and he was easily swayed by flash over substance.
“Miss?” Jeb held her door open. With a deep, soundless breath, she climbed out of the SUV.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, waiting for Aaron to circle the vehicle and step to her side. Instead of offering an arm to her, he strode ahead. Alice hesitated, the temptation to turn and run so strong that it almost overwhelmed her. A nudge from Jeb brought her back to reality.
“Miss,” he said again, gesturing for her to follow Aaron. Straightening her shoulders, Alice walked into the restaurant after her brother.
As she approached the hostess stand, she heard the tail end of his question. “…the Jovanovic party arrived yet?”
Her heart skipped at the name, and she sucked in a quiet, shocked breath. As shady and unethical as her father had been—-and now Aaron was—-the Blanchetts were angels compared to the Jovanovics. The Jovanovics, according to everything Alice had heard, were the worst of the worst.
Alice had always been quiet, even as a small child, and people tended to forget she was in the room. She’d heard dozens of horror stories about the Jovanovic family, and she wondered which of the demons they’d be meeting tonight. From what people said, Noah Jovanovic was the true head of the family now, although his uncle Martin was the false face of their empire.
She’d gotten a glimpse of Martin one day five years ago. Breathless and with bits of hay in her hair, Alice had been hurrying inside from the stables, hoping to clean up before her father caught her. She may as well not have bothered. Not only had he spotted her, but so had his guest. Her father had introduced them, and Martin had shaken her hand for a bit too long as he stared intently at her face. Alice had to fight not to yank her hand back, not to rip her captive fingers from his grip and run to her room. Even now, five years later, those eerily light blue eyes were burned into the memory. His gaze had been cold, as calculating and predatory as a snake’s. Even if she hadn’t heard whispers about Martin Jovanovic and his family, Alice still would’ve recognized evil at a glance.
Now she was going to have to sit and have dinner with them. Alice briefly considered faking sick, but she was too afraid of the consequences. Aaron didn’t like it when things didn’t go as planned. It was either sit with the Jovanovics for a few hours or deal with the fall--out. Her stomach churned until she thought she was going to vomit for real. Whatever she did, Alice knew it was a lose--lose situation. Once again, she was trapped.
The hostess began to lead them into the dining area, making the decision for Alice. She’d endure dinner. At least this way, she knew it had to end. Aaron’s anger never did. Alice flexed her shoulders, trying her best to stand straight and not cower as she followed the hostess into a private room that held a single round table surrounded by four chairs. Four men in dark suits stood around the room, and Alice knew they were most definitely armed to the teeth.
The two men who were seated at the table rose, and Alice’s heart thumped in her throat. The elder of the pair wasn’t Martin, thank God, but rather a slightly older and more faded version. Despite his slightly cruel smile, he didn’t have the same aura of menace. Alice’s muscles relaxed slightly. Dinner might not be quite as torturous as she’d expected.
“Judd,” Aaron greeted the white--haired man, shaking his hand. “Good to see you again.” He moved to greet the younger man, tall and gangly, with a sparse mustache, who looked to be in his late twenties. “Logan. This is my sister, Alice Blanchett.”
The two strangers eyed Alice with a similar expression: smarmy avarice tinted with lust.
“Miss Blanchett,” the older man—-the one Aaron had called Judd—-said, his voice low and smooth and much too slippery. “What a pleasure to meet you.”
“Hello.” Alice managed a slight smile as she shook his hand. “Please call me Alice.”
The courtesy slipped out almost of its own volition. Manners had been drilled into her from the time she could speak, and it was as easy as breathing to go through the motions, even with Jovanovics. Then she turned to Logan, and the gross way he flicked his eyes up and down her body immediately made her stiffen. It wasn’t even the rude, sexual perusal that bothered her. It was the possession in his gaze, as if he’d already paid the asking price and she was being delivered for his pleasure, that truly made her skin crawl
After she shook Logan’s hand and greeted him politely, her smile slipped away. He pulled out her chair, and she sat at the very edge of the seat, hoping to avoid any accidental touches. Logan slid the chair beneath her, brushing his fingers along her arms and shoulders as he straightened. Even through the fabric of her dress, Alice felt the sticky heat of his caress long after he’d moved back and taken his seat again.
“Any news on the case?” Aaron asked as soon as they were seated and a discreet server poured their wine. Alice was careful not to let her interest show. There had been a few whispers about a raid on the Jovanovics’ place—one that had led to several arrests—but this was the first time she would hear any of the details.
Judd made a face. “Nothing good. For the amount we pay the attorneys, you’d think they would’ve made these charges go away by now. Noah and Martin are getting…antsy.”
“I’m sure they are.” Aaron lifted his wineglass. “Here’s to a quick dismissal of all charges, so that things can go back to business as usual.”
The others lifted their glasses in response, and Alice followed suit, pretending to take a sip afterward. She’d always hated wine, but she knew better than to refuse with Aaron watching.
“Business as usual can’t come soon enough,” Judd agreed, sounding completely sincere. “I’m ready to hand the reins back to my nephew and brother.”
Aaron raised his brows slightly, as if the idea of giving up power was inconceivable. “Any luck finding the witness?”
If the dinner continued to be this interesting, it would almost make up for the way Logan was staring at her. His gaze felt as if it left a sticky film on her skin wherever it touched. She felt a rare moment of appreciation for her Aaron--chosen, not--at--all--revealing dress. At least she had that thin layer of protection between Logan’s slimy gaze and a good portion of her body.
Judd cast a quick glance at Alice, and Aaron waved a hand. “Don’t worry about her. She’s family.” He gave Judd a knowing glance that Alice wasn’t sure how to interpret before continuing. “She’s aware of what the consequences would be if she ever even thought about betraying us.”
The threat made Alice shiver, but his words seemed to convince Judd. “We’re working on it. The witness met Noah in Denver, but she could’ve flown in from anywhere. Our guy in WITSEC can’t find any mention of her, which is strange. Since the FBI was involved, we assumed she was in witness protection, but we’re starting to wonder.”
Aaron made a small, skeptical sound. “Isn’t she just some nobody that Noah hooked up with a few times? How hard could it be to find one woman?”
“Harder than you might think.” Although Judd’s voice was still mild, he’d stiffened at the implied criticism.
“I’m sure it is,” Aaron agreed quickly. “It’s just surprising that a person without any connections can disappear so completely.”
Although his frown remained, Judd settled back in his chair, partially soothed. “Even Logan hasn’t heard anything.”
Alice shot Logan a curious look.
“I’m a police officer in LA,” Logan said, catching her glance. He brushed at the front of his jacket. The motion reminded Alice of a puffed--up rooster. “The information I collect is invaluable for the family.”
With a small bob of her head, Alice searched for some way to respond. “I’m sure it is.”
Leaving him to his preening, Alice turned her attention back to Judd. “We’re watching a friend of hers,” he was saying. “With Noah and Martin in jail, we’re hoping she will relax and possibly contact her friend.”
Noah and Martin Jovanovic are in jail? Alice felt her eyes widen. As hard as she tried to keep her face blank, this news was just too amazing. She sent a mental message of thanks and good luck to the missing witness who’d apparently had a hand in getting those monsters locked away.
“Alice.” Hard fingers grabbed her chin, jerking her head around until she was looking at Logan’s annoyed face. “Quit ignoring me.”
His touch was so sudden, so rough, that she tried to pull away before she caught herself. “I wasn’t ignoring you.” Her voice sounded strained, and she tried to soften it. “I’m just…shy.”
Still gripping her face, Logan studied her for a long moment. Alice stared back, clinging to her most earnest expression, not daring to let her fear show. Finally, he released her and sat back in his chair. “No need to be shy with me.”
As he looked away, reaching for the bread basket, Alice risked darting a glance at the other two men. They were both watching, but their silence told her that there would be no help from Aaron or Judd.
“Bread?” Logan asked, low and intimate. He leaned toward her, bread basket in hand.
“No, thank you.” Despite her best efforts, her polite smile was stiff around the edges. All she wanted to do was listen to Judd and Aaron’s fascinating conversation, but now she was afraid to take her eyes off of Logan.
“No?” He placed the basket back on the table. “That’s probably for the best, anyway. As small as you are, you probably can’t eat too much without tubbing out.”
“Tubbing…out?” she repeated, blinking at him.
“You know.” Logan blew out his cheeks. “Getting fat.”
“I knew what you meant. I just couldn’t believe you said it.”
“Alice,” Aaron snapped, making her jump and turn toward him. “Don’t be rude.”
A rush of righteous indignation crashed through her, nearly burying her fear. She opened her mouth to protest, but the warning narrowing of Aaron’s eyes made her close her mouth before she said anything at all.
“Apologize to Logan,” Aaron ordered, as if she were a five--year--old who’d just kicked a fellow kindergartner in the shin.
She turned a blank face toward the man sitting next to her. “I apologize if I seemed rude.”
“Alice…” Aaron said, low but sharp, and she had to hide a wince.
“I don’t think you were rude,” Logan said. “You just didn’t understand what I said.”
Forcing a smile, Alice said, “Thank you, Logan.”
With a pleased grin, he reached over and patted her back. As he withdrew his hand, his fingers lingered, stroking down her arm. Clenching her teeth, Alice took back everything she’d thought about the dinner not being so bad. It was going to be horrid.
“That was disappointing,” Aaron said after a chilly two minutes of silence.
“What was?” A cramping stomach told Alice that she knew perfectly well what was disappointing Aaron—-she was. After he’d rebuked her, the conversation had taken a more general—-and less interesting—-turn. Alice had endured three hours of pretending to drink wine and eat overpriced, badly cooked food while attempting to evade Logan’s groping hands. It had been hard to put him off when every movement had been monitored by Aaron. After Judd and Logan had left the table, Aaron hadn’t said a word or even looked at her until they were in the SUV, heading toward home.
Aaron reached out, as quick as a striking snake, and backhanded her across the face. Her head jerked to the side, and she heard the slap of skin against skin before the pain registered, sharp and horribly familiar. “Don’t play stupid. You know how to behave. You just chose not to.”
Pressing her hand against her stinging cheek, Alice said nothing. Any attempt to defend herself would just enrage her brother more. Instead, she watched him warily, fighting the urge to press against the door. There was no way to escape. She was trapped. Her gaze met Chester’s in the rearview mirror. The helpless fury in his eyes made her want to reassure him. It wouldn’t help if the driver tried to defend her. It would just make things so much worse for all of them.
“This is my chance,” Aaron said, jerking her attention back to him. “The Jovanovic family is in chaos right now. Eight people—-eight!—-were arrested, including Noah and Martin, and they’ll be locked away for years. Judd is no leader. That’s obvious. There’s a huge power vacuum, and I’m going to fill it.”
“So fill it!” Alice burst out. Enough was enough. Being stuck in the middle of Blanchett family power games was one thing. She was born into that. There was no way that Alice was going to get involved with the Jovanovics, though. Let Aaron wallow in all the power he could grab, but Alice didn’t want any part of it. All she wanted was the freedom to do normal things—-to choose her clothes and friends and meals and job and…everything. “What does any of this have to do with me?”
He grabbed her, his fingers wrapping around her throat, forcing up her chin so she had to meet his eyes. Alice’s heart thundered in her chest, her breaths coming in short gasps. Although Aaron’s grip wasn’t tight enough to cut off air, the threat was there, that he could close his fingers and end her if he wanted to. His eyes were the exact same dark brown, same round shape as hers, but they were as cold and hard and pitiless as marbles. Alice tried to swallow and choked instead.
“This has everything to do with you,” he said, fingertips digging in just a little more until Alice knew he was leaving small, round bruises. He’d left them before. “You’re my in.”
“Me?” she tried to echo, although no sound emerged. All she could do was mouth the word.
“You.” Aaron tightened his grip just enough that Alice couldn’t breathe. She tried to hold back the panic by pretending she was underwater, that she was perfectly safe, that she could surface for air at any time. Eventually Aaron would let her go. He’d just said that he needed her. If he killed her, he wouldn’t succeed.
Even so, she felt the panic rising as her lungs pinched with the need for air. Her thoughts went fuzzy, fear creeping in until she couldn’t focus on anything else.
She grabbed his wrist with both hands, instinct forcing her to fight. His arm was rock--hard under her grip, solid and unmovable. Despite knowing that it was futile, she yanked and pulled, trying to pry his hand off her throat. Maybe he really will kill me this time.
Just as her vision started to go dark around the edges, Aaron let go of her throat. Bending at the waist as far as her seat belt would allow, Alice sucked in deep breaths that rasped her throat and made her cough.
“What do you mean?” Her voice was hoarse and breathless as she forced herself to straighten, and she wished she were better at faking nonchalance. It felt like weakness to show her brother how much he’d hurt her.
“According to my sources, Logan is gaining something of a bad reputation with the California ladies.” His mouth curled up at the corner—-a mouth that looked just like Alice’s. She hated that they looked so much alike, hated seeing bits of him when she looked in the mirror.
“What kind of bad reputation?” Her hands wanted to rub at her aching throat and rest against her swelling cheek, but she forced them to stay in her lap. This was important. She had to get all the information she could from Aaron. The more she knew, the easier it would be to figure out how to avoid falling in with his plan.
He waved a hand in a dismissive gesture, and Alice flinched before she could catch herself. “That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that his dad—-Judd—-and the rest of the Jovanovics are sick of spending money paying off these women, not to mention the doctors and judges.”
“Paying off doctors and judges?” Her stomach twisted as she tried to process his words. “Why? Did he hurt those women?”
“I said it doesn’t matter.”
Alice dropped her gaze, trying to force her brain past the idea that Logan—-the same creep who’d just sat next to her all through dinner, who had touched her multiple times—-had abused women in some way. That he’d done something awful enough that the Jovanovics had been willing to pay off his victims and bribe the authorities. She swallowed, her sore throat complaining. “What do Logan’s…issues have to do with me?”
“The Jovanovics are hoping he’ll settle down with a nice woman.” He smiled, and it was terrible. “Someone that will keep him home, away from opportunistic whores.”
Her pulse was going wild again. Aaron’s plan was a simple one, but Alice was still having a hard time putting it together in her mind. It was just too horrific. “You…” she finally stammered. “You want me to date Logan?”
“No.” For a second, his answer made her sag with relief, but Aaron wasn’t finished. “You’re going to marry him.”
Like what you're seeing and want to take this further?
AMAZON | B&N | INDIEBOUND | APPLE | BAM | KOBO
AMAZON | B&N | INDIEBOUND | APPLE | BAM | KOBO