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Seven Days To Forever

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Seven Days To Forever Ingrid Weaver HarperCollins EUR Dark. Predatory. Gorgeous. Those thoughts and more went through Abbie Locke's mind the first time she laid eyes on Delta Force Sergeant Flynn O'Toole. She'd mistakenly picked up a ransom, and now it was up to the courageous Eagle Squadron soldier to protect Abbie from terrorists.Though passion coursed through his veins, the commitment-phobic commando shielded his heart. But when Abbie fell into enemy hands Flynn suddenly saw his future without herbleak, empty, devoid of her beautiful smile. Now that she was in the line of fire, he would do anything to save her lifeincluding risking his own! Until this mission is over, consider me your shadow. Do you have a problem with that? asked Flynn. Abbie decided to clear this up right awaybefore it could go any further. Not as long as you understand that our relationship isnt personal. I dont want to repeat what happened at my apartment the other night. Check. No kissing or fooling around in bed. Got it. His blunt comment startled her into meeting his gaze. Flynn watched her intently, his eyes gleaming. Did I misunderstand what you were referring to? No, you understood perfectly. Too bad, Abbie. I enjoyed kissing you and being in your bed. I think you enjoyed it, too. Dear Reader, This month we have something really special in store for you. We open with Letters to Kelly by award-winning author Suzanne Brockmann. In it, a couple of young lovers, separated for years, are suddenly reunited. But she has no idea that hes spent many of their years apart in a Central American prison. And now that hes home again, hes determined to win back the girl whose memory kept him going all this time. What a wonderful treat from this bestselling author! And the excitement doesnt stop there. In The Impossible Alliance by Candace Irvin, the last of our three FAMILY SECRETS prequels, the search for missing agent Dr. Alex Morrow is finally over. And coming next month in the FAMILY SECRETS series: Broken Silence, our anthology, which will lead directly to a 12-book stand-alone FAMILY SECRETS continuity, beginning in June. In Virginia Kantras All a Man Can Be, TROUBLE IN EDEN continues as a rough-around-the-edges ex-military man inherits a surprise sonand seeks help in the daddy department from his beautiful boss. Ingrid Weaver continues her military miniseries, EAGLE SQUADRON, in Seven Days to Forever, in which an innocent schoolteacher seeks protectionfor startersfrom a handsome soldier when she mistakenly picks up a ransom on a school trip. In Clints Wild Ride by Linda Winstead Jones, a female FBI agent going undercover in the rodeo relies on a sinfully sexy cowboy as her teacher. And in The Quiet Storm by RaeAnne Thayne, a beautiful speech-disabled heiress has to force herself to speak up to seek help from a devastatingly attractive detective in order to solve a murder. So enjoy, and of course we hope to see you next month, when Silhouette Intimate Moments once again brings you six of the best and most exciting romance novels around. Leslie J. Wainger Executive Senior Editor Seven Days to Forever Ingrid Weaver www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) INGRID WEAVER admits to being a sucker for old movies and books that can make her cry. A Romance Writers of America RITA Award winner for Romantic Suspense, and a national bestselling author, she enjoys creating stories that reflect the adventure of falling in love. When she and her husband arent dealing with the debatable joys of living in an old farmhouse, youll probably find Ingrid going on a knitting binge, rattling the windows with heavy metal or rambling through the woods in the back forty with her cats. To Mark. The adventure continues. Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 1 Out of the hundreds of tourists who had passed by his post in the past hour, why should Flynn notice this one? Even if he wasnt on duty, he shouldnt have noticed her. Sure, she was attractive enough, in a compact, earth-mother type of way. Soft-brown hair, eyes the color of caramel, a hint of freckles on the tip of her small nose and a quick, coiled-spring energy to her movements. But she was the kind of woman who would want to meet a mans parents. She had probably picked out a china pattern and two names for her firstborn. She was the kind of woman who usually made Sergeant First Class Flynn OToole of Eagle Squadron, Delta Force, break out in hives. A spot just under his left shoulder blade developed a sudden itch. Flynn rubbed his back against the wooden bench. I dont think shes our target. He barely moved his lips as he spoke. His words wouldnt have been audible to a person sitting beside him, but the microphone under his collar had no problem picking up everything he said. She would be a good decoy. The voice of Captain Sarah Fox, Eagle Squadrons intelligence specialist, came through the pea-size receiver in his ear. I wouldnt underestimate her. Sarah had a point, Flynn thought. The brunette with the freckles would make an excellent decoy, since no one would suspect someone who looked that wholesome and innocent to be involved with a group of terrorists who were dedicated to the overthrow of the Ladavian government. Then again, no one would expect a group like the Ladavian Liberation Army to be using the National Air and Space Museum for a ransom drop in the first place. The woman hurried past the bench without giving Flynn a second glance. She headed straight for a pair of boys who were paused under the biplane that hung from the ceiling. For a moment all three of them craned their necks, gazing at the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer with expressions of delighted awe. Then the woman herded the boys toward a group of more than a dozen chattering, fidgeting children. Evidently, the woman hadnt come to the museum alone, she had brought a classroom worth of kids with her. Unless the LLA had dropped their height requirements and were recruiting fresh-scrubbed seven-year-olds now, it was unlikely that the woman was involved. She was probably exactly what she seemed, a teacher on a field trip. Heads up. Vilyas just passed the front entrance. The warning came from Flynns friend, Master Sergeant Rafe Marek. He was positioned outside where he could observe the approach to the building without attracting undue attentionRafes scars tended to spook people who didnt know him. Although his posture didnt change, Flynns senses went on high alert. Ambassador Vilyas was carrying the ransom himself, as the terrorists had demanded. The man was adamant. He would do anything for the safe return of his son. If it had been any other case, the FBI would have handled itDelta Force normally didnt operate on American soil, and when they did, it was in the role of advisors to other law enforcement agenciesbut this was no run-of-the-mill snatch. Absolute secrecy was vital. Not only was Vilyas the Ladavian ambassador, he was married to the niece of the Ladavian king. If a child with royal blood was killed here, the delicate negotiations that were already underway to bring democracy to the strategic, oil-rich Balkan nation would be derailed. And if the media caught wind of what was happening, they might as well put on their silver suits because the political powder keg of Eastern Europe would blow. So Ambassador Vilyas had demanded the best. He had insisted on nothing less than the legendary hostage-rescue expertise of Delta Force and the president had agreed. Which was why Flynn and the team of highly trained commandos from Eagle Squadron were spending the day scattered around one of the most visited museums in Washington, D.C., dressed in civvies to blend in with the tourists. The mission was straightforward: recover the Vilyas boy unharmed, hand the terrorists over to the Ladavians and keep the entire operation completely secret despite the few hundred bystanders with cameras who were wandering through the target zone. Oh, hey, piece of cake, right? A small, balding man Flynn recognized as Anton Vilyas walked past his bench. His features were sharper than they had appeared in the briefing photo. Exhaustion did that to peoplethe man reportedly hadnt slept since his kid had been taken three days ago. Poor bastard looked to be near collapse. The top of his head gleamed damply and his fingers were white where they curled around the strap of the green canvas backpack he carried. How heavy was twenty million dollars? Flynn wondered. Even in the large denominations the kidnappers had demanded, the weight would be substantial. Hed heard the entire amount of cash had been provided by the U.S. government, an indication of how vital they considered Ladavian goodwilland the mission of Flynns team. Vilyas reached the designated spot and stopped. It was hard to tell whether he intentionally dropped the pack or whether it simply slipped through his sweaty fingers. It hit the floor with a quiet thud, wobbled briefly, then slumped against the base of a trash can. The green backpack stuffed with twenty million dollars lay discarded like someones forgotten lunch. The ambassador walked away without a backward glance, just as hed been instructed. All right, people. Stay alert. Flynn heard Major Redingers voice and grunted an acknowledgment. Mitchell Redinger, the teams commanding officer, was stationed at the temporary base they had established in a vacant warehouse. He was monitoring the feeds from the surveillance equipment that was positioned around the target zone, watching everybodys backs. When this went down, it would go down fast. And thats just the way Flynn liked it. He felt his pulse pick up. It didnt race. He was too disciplined for that. No, it was a steady, solid rush of blood to well-conditioned muscles that hummed in readiness. He didnt know what the target would look like, or how many there would be. He didnt know what direction they would come from or how long he would need to wait. The odds of following the kidnappers without their knowledge, of assessing the best way to free the hostage, of bringing the whole incident to a quiet, successful conclusion werent good. As a matter of fact, they were abysmal. But Flynns team had pulled off missions that had been far worse. When they did, there was never any recognition. No medals or official commendations, because the government wouldnt even admit that Delta Force existed. The hours sucked, the stress was incredible. He had to be prepared to go anywhere in the world on a moments notice. His home was whatever base he was stationed at, his family was the soldiers of Eagle Squadron. He was expected to accomplish the impossible, continually challenging his brain and straining his body to the limit. Flynn pressed his lips together and exhaled slowly through his nose. Damn, he loved this job. Everything sure is old here, Miss Locke. Abbie smiled at the boy on her left. Yes, Bradley. Thats because this is a museum. The child on her right side leaned over to roll his eyes. Boy, Bradley, are you ever dumb. Youre dumb, Jeremy. Yeah, right. Uh-huh. As if. The children were getting tired, Abbie thought. The squabbling was a sure sign. But as museums go, the exhibits here arent all that old, she said. How can anyone think of space flight as old? Not that long ago it was science fiction. Look over here. Whats that? Its the space capsule that John Glenn used when he orbited the earth. She paused. The first time, anyway. He went to space twice? Yes, but the second time he was much, um, older. It looks burned. Yes, it heated up when it went through the atmosphere. That was before NASA developed the space shuttle. Astronauts were shot into space inside a little capsule like this that was fitted on the tip of a rocket. Wow, the boys said, tipping their heads one way and then the other to study the capsule. That was more than forty years ago. Wow! Thats older than my mom! Its older than my mom. Is not. Is, too. Abbie put her hands on their shoulders and gently guided them along with the rest of the class. Its older than me, too, Jeremy. The boys looked up at her, their mouths rounded. Hey. Really? Abbie suppressed a grimace at their expressions of disbelief. She wasnt old, she reminded herself. Turning thirty didnt mean that she was over the hill. She was just coming into her physical and sexual prime. A womans vitality peaked in her thirties, isnt that what people said? She had plenty of good years to look forward to. But if she had intended to keep a positive attitude about her youth, visiting a museum on her birthday wasnt that great an idea. Miss Locke? She smiled at a plump redheaded girl. Yes, Beverly? I have to go to the bathroom. Me, too, another child said. Abbie turned to the parent volunteers who had accompanied the class and efficiently divided everyone into rest room squads. It was time to call it a day, anyway. They had been on the go since the morning, and the bus was due to pick them up in half an hour. Well-accustomed to the vagaries of seven-year-olds, she knew enough to allow plenty of extra time to organize their departure. The unfortunate reminders of her advancing age aside, it had still been a good day. She was lucky to have a job she enjoyed as much as this one. She loved children and longed for the chance to have one or two of her own someday. Yes, her ambition was embarrassingly old-fashioned: a home in the suburbs filled with the warmth of a loving familyand of course, a nice, stable husband to share it all with. Was that really too much to ask? Perhaps it was, since shed always assumed she would have been married by the time she was thirty. Thats probably what was causing her to be so conscious of this milestone of a birthday. But chances were that she wasnt going to find Mr. Right by the end of todayunless he jumped out of the cake at her surprise party. For a moment Abbie imagined the scene in her parents house. Her family always threw her a birthday party. She always pretended to be surprised. There was something wonderfully comforting about the whole thing, a sweet ritual that arose from her familys love. Her mother would fix her favorite potato salad, plates of fried chicken and egg sandwiches with no crusts. Her father would make the same joke he always did about how Abbie couldnt possibly be more than two because her mother hadnt aged a year since her birth. They would hug and laugh and make toasts to the future while she opened her gifts. She would bet a hundred, no, a million bucks that the gifts wouldnt include a cake with a man inside. Abbie chuckled at the whimsical thought and scooped up a pair of discarded jackets from the rest room counter, then guided the children to the lobby where they waited for the stragglers. Of course, more jackets came off and backpacks hit the floor as they waited. Miss Locke, I lost my hat. What did it look like, Ricky? It was blue. Well, that narrowed it down. Abbie spotted a ball cap on the floor and pointed. Is that it? Yeah! Thanks, Miss Locke. She held out the jackets. Whose are these? Two children raced up to take them, then dropped more of their belongings as they contorted themselves to put the jackets on. Once the whole group was assembled, Abbie did a head count. As soon as she was assured that everyone was present and accounted for, she hurried them toward the door before anyone could wander off or decide they needed another rest room trip. Rickys hat fell off as soon as he started moving. Abbie picked it up as she passed by, along with three stray backpacks, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw the yellow school bus already waiting outside. What the hell just happened? the major demanded. His voice was low, his words clipped, always a bad sign. OToole, report. Flynn stared at the empty spot on the floor, then looked at the departing group of children. She took the backpack. Who? That teacher. I told you not to underestimate her, Sarah said. Flynn folded his museum guide, stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans and followed the woman to the door. He deliberately kept his strides slow and easy, in case anyone was watching for a tail. I cant believe this, he said. She would have been my last choice. It was neatly done, Sarah said. The children swarmed the target zone while she lifted the ransom. We never saw it coming. Flynn emerged into the crisp sunshine of the autumn afternoon. The woman was making no effort to disappear. In fact, she couldnt have chosen a more obvious mode of transportation. You cant miss seeing her come now, he said. Bright-yellow mini school bus with a whole bunch of screaming kids. Thats going to stand out in traffic. I need a visual confirmation that she has the money, Major Redinger said. The bus is blocking my view, Rafe said. Flynn, can you see the bag? Flynn ambled toward the sidewalk. The woman formed the kids into a line, then stood by the open door of the bus and counted heads as they climbed inside. She handed what appeared to be a hat to one boy as he passed her and held out a sweater to another kid, all the while balancing three backpacks against her chest with one arm. Affirmative, Flynn said. The green backpack shes holding appears to be the one Vilyas dropped. Arent the electronics we installed in the pack working, Major? The mikes muffled. Shes holding the pack to her chest, Flynn said. Clever woman, Sarah said. Anything on the homing signal, major? Thats coming through no problem. As the last child climbed on the bus, the womans shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. She started after them, pausing on the first step to glance over her shoulder at the museum. And despite the noise from the squirming kids that Flynn could hear all the way over here, she was smiling. Flynn took an involuntary step backward. If he had seen her smile before, he wouldnt have needed to wonder why she had drawn his attention. Despite the freckles, despite the wholesome demeanor, there was somethingalluring about her smile. It was a private little tilt of the corners of her lips, not meant for display. It was the smile of a woman who knew what she wanted, and for a crazy moment it made him wish he could give it to her. What the hell was he thinking? She had just walked off with twenty million dollars in cash. What more could she possibly want? She turned away. The doors of the bus closed. Flynn snapped his attention back to the conversation that was coming through his earpiece. the mikes working now. All I can hear are childrens voices. chase vehicles in position. Flynn pivoted and headed for his motorcycle. Hed chosen to use it because of the advantage it would give him in the Washington traffic, but considering the nature of the getaway carno, busthere was little chance of losing track of the ransom. This doesnt add up, he said, unlocking his helmet from the back of the seat. She cant be with the LLA. They wouldnt use a bus full of kids to transport the ransom. Its too obvious and its not maneuverable enough. But it would provide excellent cover, Sarah said. They know we wouldnt dare make a strike with all those children in the way. Come on, people. Cant you see it was an accident? Flynn persisted. She picked up that pack because she thought it belonged to one of the kids. Thats a possibility, but Shes not one of the LLA, he said. Thats immaterial. At Major Redingers voice, the radio chatter stopped. Until we know for sure whether this was a legitimate ransom pickup or just bad luck, our only option is to split up. Team A follows the ransom, Team B remains in position to continue monitoring the museum. Flynn kicked his bike to life, slid down his visor and slipped into the line of traffic that inched along behind the school bus. He noticed Sarahs van waiting at the next cross street and heard the distant chug of a helicopter overhead. Much farther overhead, a satellite was beaming down second-by-second updates from the Global Positioning System that had been stitched into the pack. Redinger was right. They had to cover all the possibilities. Considering what was at stake, they couldnt afford to make any assumptions. Why was Flynn so sure that the woman was innocent? Simply because she didnt look like a terrorist meant nothing. Trouble came in all shapes and sizes. Hed seen old women in patched coats and kerchiefs lob hand grenades. Hed seen children act as spotters for assassins with high-powered rifles. He knew better than to trust anyone except the members of his team. Besides, even if he was right and the pickup had been accidental, it was too late to put the ransom back in place. Boarding the bus now and retrieving the money would attract too much negative attention, to say the least. And the LLA had ordered Ambassador Vilyas not to alert the authorities about the kidnapping. No one, especially not Delta Force, was supposed to have been at the ransom drop, so how would they have known of the bungled pickup? The LLA could be following the ransom as easily as Flynn was, and they would be sure to spot any attempt at interference. Oh, hell. For the sake of the mission, he should hope he was wrong about the woman. It would be far easier if she really was a clever terrorist in disguise who had just pulled off a brilliant plan. Then again, since when had Flynn liked things easy? Flynn dropped back, allowing more traffic between his bike and the bus as he followed it. Terse, one-line reports came over the radio link as Sarah Fox and her friends in Intelligence scrambled to keep up with the situation. Information began to build. The licence plates of the school bus were registered to a local bus company. According to their log, this bus was booked by Cherry Hill School for a field trip. Contact name at the school was a Miss Abigail Locke. Abigail? It was an old-fashioned name, perfectly suitable for a wholesome-looking schoolteacher. He wondered if her friends called her Abbie. As if following the script that Intelligence had written, the bus pulled into the parking lot of Cherry Hill School. Flynn coasted past, did a U-turn and let the bike idle in the shade of the trees at the corner of the schoolyard. The teacherAbigailgot off the bus first but she was unable to stem the flow as the kids burst out after her. She did manage to hand out a few jackets and two of the backpacks before the children met up with their waiting parents, but the kids were eager to be gone. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes. A strange womans voice came over the radio. It was soft and tinged with humor, and somehow Flynn knew it had to be hers. good thing their heads are permanently attached. Ive patched in the feed from the mike in the backpack, the major said, confirming Flynns suspicions about who was speaking. The womans been trying to give the ransom away for the past ten minutes. Could she know the mike is there? Sarah asked. Possible, but unlikely. Whats going on at the museum? Flynn asked. Rafes voice replied. Nothing. If the LLA is here, theyre not making any moves yet. Flynn leaned forward and crossed his arms on the bikes handlebars, straining to see across the schoolyard. Miss Abigail Locke waved at a few of her departing students, then turned away. Geez. She gave a breathy grunt as she hitched one strap of the green backpack over her shoulder. How many Pokmon cards can they cram into these things? Abigail Locke has brown hair, brown eyes, is five feet four inches, 103 pounds Sarahs voice droned in the background, describing the details of the woman who was walking across the parking lot toward a beige subcompact. Shes the registered owner of a beige Pontiac Firefly, license number Flynns lips quirked. Well, either this particular terrorist had established an exceptionally solid cover and was so clever that she was deliberately acting innocent for the microphone she knew was in the backpack Or she was exactly what Flynn hoped she was. Wait a minute. Hed been through this already. He had no business being pleased. Her innocence was going to increase the difficulty of this mission by a factor of ten. They had to get the money back before Abigail discovered italong with the surveillance devices in the specially designed packand decided to be a law-abiding citizen and turn everything over to the police. Once that happened, it would be next to impossible to contain the damage. The secrecy of the mission would be compromised. Rumors would get started, questions would be asked and the LLA would cry double cross and kill the Vilyas kid. Shes twenty feet from her car, Flynn said. With this bike, I can reach her and take the backpack before she gets her keys out. Few if any witnesses. Shell think it was a random mugging. Negative, the major said. We cant make a move on her in public. If the LLA did tail her and are watching, theyll know Vilyas talked. And cry double cross and kill the kid, Flynn repeated to himself. Tell me where she lives, he said, easing his bike into gear. I think its time we meet. Chapter 2 Abbie flicked another glance at her watch as she dug her keys out of her purse. The traffic had been worse than usual. Every direct route to her apartment building had been blocked by stalled cars or minivans. Why couldnt everyone simply follow their vehicle manufacturers recommended maintenance schedule? She always did, and she hadnt had any problems with her car yet. Still, it was odd that the car trouble seemed limited to her neighborhood. It was almost as if there were some grand conspiracy out there to delay her from reaching home. She shook her head at the ridiculous thought. Washington was undoubtedly full of enough conspiracies, but they wouldnt be targeting her. No, she was about as ordinary and law-abiding as a person could get. She understood the value of structure. Maintenance schedules, school timetables, to-do lists, these gave a lovely framework on which to build a life. Of course, sometimes timetables did require adjustment. Shed have to pencil in thirty-five as her next target date for the husband, family and home in the suburbs. Oh, for heavens sake, she muttered, fitting the key into the lock. Get over it. Thirty is only a number. The phone was ringing when she opened the door. She bolted the door behind her and flicked on a light just as the answering machine picked up. Hi, dear. It was her mothers voice. I hope everythings all right. I thought youd be home by now. Abbie hurried through the short entrance hall to her living room, dodged around the avocado plant and reached past the fig tree to grab the telephone. Hi, Mom. Oh, youre there. How was your day, Abigail? Great. The kids loved the museum. She started to shrug off her jacket, belatedly realizing she was still holding on to the stray backpack shed picked up. Shed meant to leave it in the car so she could take it in to school tomorrow, but in her rush to get home she must have brought it upstairs to her apartment without thinking. She was getting as absentminded as her students. On the other hand, wasnt forgetfulness a sign of advancing age? She grimaced, dropped the pack and her purse beside the fig tree and sank into a chair. How are you, Mom? Just fine. There was a spurt of conversation in the background that was quickly muffled. Are you still going to come over tonight? You havent forgotten, have you? No, of course I didnt forget. I was late getting in because the traffic was horrible. If I hadnt used all my shortcuts, Id still be sitting in it. Well, I hope it clears up before you set out for our place. The sound of a doorbell came over the line. Ill be over as soon as I can. Is someone at your door, Mom? Oh, thats nothing. Just your dad fidgeting with the bell again. Mmm. She was sure she heard more muffled conversation in the background. It sounded like her older sisters voice. Are you sure you arent expecting any visitors? Now, why would we be expecting anyone but you, dear? I dont know. Are you making fried chicken? Yes, as a matter of fact. How did you guess? Fried chicken, potato salad, egg sandwiches without crusts, just like every year. The surprise party was on. I could smell it from here, Mom. Oh, you. She laughed. Well see you in a little while, then. Drive safely, dear. Abbie put the phone down and leaned her head against the back of the chair. She had to try to think positively about this birthday, she thought as she studied the ceiling. Apart from a different digit at the start of her age, it was the same as all the others. She looked at her watch and did a quick calculation of how much time she would need to drive to her parents house if the traffic didnt improve, then pushed to her feet and hurried toward the shower. Shed better get moving or she was going to be late for her own party. She just hoped she would be able to act surprised. It was going to be tough. She had never liked surprises. Twenty-nine years old, Sarah said. No, make that thirty. Birthday today. Single. Has worked at Cherry Hill School for the past seven years. Four hundred and sixty-one dollars in her savings account, seven thousand dollars in government bonds. Want her credit card balances? Flynn buckled on the electricians tool belt as he swung around another turn in the stairwell. Sarah was on the radio, feeding him information about Abigail Locke as it came in. He was thinking on his feet now, making up the action plan as he went along; so, any fact, even a date of birth might prove to be useful. Does she have a debt problem? No, she has a good credit rating. No debts apart from a car loan. Shes a nonsmoker, according to her insurance records, Sarah continued. No outstanding traffic fines. Three library books on loan. History texts, judging by the titles. Flynn wasnt surprised at the depth of detail Sarah could obtain on such short noticeall it took was a little know-how, and nothing that had ever been entered into a computer was secret. If the public became aware of how easily the privacy of a private citizen could be breached, the conspiracy theorists would have a field day. One detail that hadnt shown up on the records, though, was the fact that Abigail could drive like a New York City cabbie. If Flynn hadnt seen it for himself, he never would have believed what she could make that little beige Firefly do. Shed gotten past every one of the obstacles theyd set up. It was a good thing hed been on his bike, or she would have lost him back at Sarahs stalled van. He clipped a fake power-company ID card to his shirt pocket. What about boyfriends? No data about that so far. I could get into her prescription records and find out if shes gone to a doctor for birth control. No, Flynn said immediately. He didnt know why, but he didnt like the idea of Intelligence digging quite that deeply into Abigails life. I only wanted to know whether she might have company with her at her apartment. Sorry, prescription records wouldnt help you there. She has her mother, Clara Locke, listed as her next of kin. Parents live in Maryland. One older sister named Martha, a younger one named Eleanor, both married with kids. Sarah paused. Abigail and her sisters are named after first ladies. Seems like shes not the only history buff in the family. Flynn reached the next landing just as the lights went out. The power failure didnt startle himevidently Specialist Gonzalez had located the main breakers in the basement and had done his job right on schedule. This was the reason Flynn was using the stairs to get to the seventeenth floor instead of the elevator. He waited where he was until the emergency light clicked on, then continued climbing. Vilyas has just received word from the LLA. Redingers voice replaced Sarahs. His words were even lower and more clipped than earlierdefinitely a very bad sign. They claim they were double-crossed, that he never left the ransom as he had agreed. What did he tell them? Flynn asked. Vilyas said he left the money but it was picked up by a schoolteacher. Flynn increased his pace, taking the stairs three at a time. Great. If the terrorists hadnt followed Abigail from the museum, theyd be able to find her for sure, anyway, now that Vilyas had told them the ransom was picked up by a schoolteacher. They wouldnt need the resources of Delta Force to be able to trace which schools had field trips at the museum today, all theyd need would be a telephone. It was only a matter of time before they narrowed it down and decided to come after Abigail and the money themselves. Wasnt anyone with him when he took the call? Flynn muttered. Couldnt they have stopped him from talking? He was advised not to say anything, but the LLA put his son on the line and then struck the child. When Vilyas heard his son scream, he disregarded our instructions. Flynn felt a surge of adrenaline. The LLA had abused a helpless child. They would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. They wouldnt care how many innocent people were hurt or how much collateral damage they did in the process. Miss Abigail Locke, who turned thirty today, with her three library books and her little beige car was a sitting duck. He had to get the money away from heror get her away from the ransomas soon as possible. Is the kid okay? Flynn asked. We have no way of knowing, Redinger replied. All we know is that he was alive and conscious ten minutes ago. How long do you estimate I have before the LLA gets here? Were keeping our units in place to gridlock the traffic in the immediate area, so best-case scenario, youll have thirty minutes. He didnt need to ask what the worst-case scenario was, Flynn thought, hearing footsteps in the stairwell below him. He waited until he could be sure the footsteps were retreatingprobably one of the buildings tenants, nervous about the power failure. He placed his hand on the door to the seventeenth floor. Whats the latest from the electronics in the pack? The pack is stationary, somewhere in her apartment. Has she opened it? Unlikely. The mike didnt pick up any sound to indicate the buckle was being unfastened. Did it pick up anything? Only a phone call from her mother. Theyre expecting her for dinner. Maybe I should wait until she goes out. The LLA wont wait if they find her first. Right. Whats she doing now? Nothing on the mike except some shuffling sounds. Probably trying to find her way around in the dark. Okay. Keep me posted. Im going in. Abbie balanced on one foot to put on her shoe as she peered through the peephole in the door. She tried to make out the features of the man who stood there, but the beam from the emergency light at the end of the corridor didnt reach this far. All she could see was a tall, broad-shouldered figure with some kind of tool belt strapped around his hips. Who is it? she called through the door. Im with the power company, maam. She buttoned her blouse and tucked it into her skirt, thankful that shed finished her shower before the lights had gone out. The bathroom had no window, so it had been pitch-black, but at least there had been enough light from the dusk filtering through the other windows for her to find some clothes. That was fast, she said. Theres a problem with the wiring in the building. Weve traced it to a circuit in your apartment. I need to check it out. Water dripped from the ends of her hair onto her shoulders. What? Do you mind letting me in? She opened the door to the limit of the security bar. Do you have any identification? There was a rustle of fabric as he reached for something on his chest. Heres my I.D. card. She squinted at the card, but all she could make out was a pale rectangular blur. Sorry, I cant Hang on. He took a flashlight from his belt, clicked it on and directed it toward the card. This should help. The suddenly bright beam made her blink. She looked at the printing on the card. Flynn OToole. Sure enough, he was an employee of the power company. She glanced at the small color photo in the corner. Her grip on the door tightened. Who had ID photos that turned out like that? Even the stark head-on flash couldnt hurt that square jaw and those high cheekbones. A picture like that should be gracing an ad for designer cologne, not an identification card for the electric company. She raised her gaze to his face. The photo wasnt that good after all. He looked far better in the flesh. Good Lord, but he was gorgeous. Not in a pretty, cover-boy way, but like a man. All man. Those deep-set, thick-lashed blue eyes gleamed with quiet male confidence. His nose was bold and straight, his lips framed by twin lines that etched their way down from the hollows of his cheeks. His hair was black, curling over the tips of his ears and the back of his collar in a way that invited a tousling. In his plaid flannel shirt and his snug-fitting jeans, he looked rugged but approachable, a natural-born heartbreaker. Abbie wanted to slam the door in his face. Maam? Would you like to call my supervisor? Hell verify my ID for you. No, I She cleared her throat, thankful for the lack of lighting so he might not notice how she was staring. On the other hand, a man who looked like that would be accustomed to attracting plenty of female attention. Yes, he probably reveled in it, drawing women like mindless, doomed moths to a flame. It was a good thing she was immune to men like that. That was the advantage of being infected beforeit served as a vaccination against future bouts of the same affliction. Are you sure the problem is in my apartment? I havent had any trouble with the electricity until now. He took a slim, rectangular device from the pocket of his jeans and held it toward her. The readings Im getting on this gauge pinpoint your place. She made a show of studying the numbers that were flickering across the screen of the instrument, but it could have been a pocket calculator for all she knew. I see. He hesitated for a moment, then lowered his voice and bent his head toward her. Please, maam. Id like to get this job finished and get home. You see, its my birthday. The door wobbled as she jerked. More water dripped from her hair to her shoulders and trickled down her blouse. Your birthday? Uh-huh. Youre not serious. Fraid so. I hit the big three-oh today. Thatsodd. Sure is, according to my folks. They claimed Id never make it this far. Thats not what I meant. Theyre expecting me for dinner tonight, but I have to finish this job before I can leave, so if you dont mind She gritted her teeth and forced herself to return her gaze to his face. He was smiling. A hopeful tilt at the corners of his lips. She could almost hear moth wings sizzling. I meant I cant believe its your birthday today. Its mine, too. His eyebrows rose. Really? Yes. Now thats a coincidence. The lines beside his mouth curved as two dimples appeared in his cheeks. What are the odds? Yes, indeed. What were the odds? Having a man who looked like Flynn OToole show up on her doorstep was unlikely enough, but sharing something as personal as a birthday with him was beyond strange. It bordered on bizarre. Was this some kind of cosmic joke? she wondered. Was this fates way of pointing out the road shed almost taken, the very thing she used her schedules and her timetables to guard against? Just as she was about to adjust the best-before dates on the plans for her life, instead of Mr. Right, Mr. Flynn OToole shows up at her door with his blue eyes and his dimples like some karmic birthday present. Oh, for heavens sake, she thought sternly. He was only here to do his job. He couldnt help how he looked. Abbie tucked her hair behind her ears, then wiped her wet fingers on her skirt. Did you say your parents were expecting you for dinner? His budding smile disappeared. Hey, just because Im thirty and spending my birthday with my parents is no big deal. Her conscience twinged. He couldnt help how he looked, she repeated to herself. She had learned the hard way not to trust handsome menor to put it more accurately, not to trust her reaction to handsome menbut she really shouldnt be letting her personal prejudices color her judgment. Who knew? If he actually did plan to visit his parents, maybe there were a few ounces of human decency behind that pretty face, after all. Not that she would be willing to bet money on it. Not that his character had any bearing whatsoever on the current situation, she reminded herself firmly. Excuse me, I didnt mean to imply there was anything wrong with that. I was getting ready to go over to my parents place for dinner myself when the power went off. He was silent for a moment, then shook his head and chuckled. Go figure. Guess youre in as much a hurry as I am, then. Yes, I believe I am. He clipped his ID back on his shirt pocket and gestured toward the door. Well, the sooner I get started, the sooner both of us can leave. She hesitated. The logical side of her brain waged a brief battle with the dark little corner where she kept her instincts. As usual, though, logic won. She had to get organized and get out of here within the next thirty minutes or she was going to disappoint her family. She eased the door shut to unlatch the security bar, then stepped aside to let him come in. It would be all right. She was just letting him into her apartment, not her life. Flynn kept his light aimed at the floor as he walked into Abigails apartment. She pressed herself against the wall, giving him as much room as possible, then closed the door behind him. Miss Abigail Locke was a cautious lady, he thought. It was a good thing hed hit on the idea of making up that story about today being his birthday. That seemed to have smoothed his way inside. Flynn was good at saying what people wanted to hear. It was a useful talent to have in his businesstalking his way out of a situation was often preferable to using force. In spots like this, people called it quick thinking. When he was off duty, people called it charm. The technical word for it was lying. But it wouldnt have accomplished his objective if hed told Abigail that hed celebrated his thirtieth birthday more than two years ago. And it sure as hell hadnt been with his parents. Hed been six years old the last time hed seen his mother, and as far as he knew, his father was somewhere in Brazil with wife number four. What exactly are you looking for? Abigail asked. He glanced over his shoulder. Rather than staying by the door, she had followed him into the living room. There was more light here than in the hall, but still, the place was too dim to see more than dark shapes and outlines. Her outline was worth seeing. Compact, feminine and rounded in all the right places. She must have been fresh from the shower when shed answered the door. Hed caught a whiff of fruit-scented soapapple or cranberry, hed guess. Her hair was wet, plastered flat to her head until just below her ears, where it coiled into heavy curls. She probably hadnt realized that the drips from her wet hair had been turning her white blouse transparent. Flynn kept his flashlight aimed at the floor. Like I said, I traced the short to your apartment, but thats about as specific as the gauge gets. I need to test each one of your electrical outlets until I find the source of the problem. But wouldnt each apartment be on a separate circuit? I still dont understand how a problem here could black out the entire building. Seems the wiring in this building wasnt done to the standards specified in the electrical code, he improvised. He had to distract her before she realized how flimsy his story was. Wow, I still cant believe we share a birthday. Me, neither. And that well both be spending it with our parents. Mmm. Yes. Are you close to your folks, then? Yes, you could say that. He heard the caution in her voice go down another notch. He decided to play up on the family angle. So am I. A lot of people would call it old-fashioned, but theres nothing like family. Especially on birthdays. You got that right. He paused, trying to think of the most likely spot for her to have dropped that backpack. Kids make it the most fun, though. Ive got two nephews who cant wait to blow out my candles. Do you like children? Love them, he said, figuring that would be what a schoolteacher would want to hear. A sigh whispered through the darkness. So do I. He used the flashlight to scratch his elbow as he moved toward the outline of the living room window. Oh, watch out for the Something stiff and dry hit his face. He automatically brought his forearm up to block the next blow and jumped backward. avocado plant, she finished. Flynn directed his flashlight upward. A branch thick with long, wavy leaves hung at head level. He traced the branch to an enormous plant that grew from a pot beside one wall. What the Its an avocado plant, she repeated. I started it from a pit. I know its in the way but it does best in that spot. Are you all right? Sure. I managed to fight it off. Dont worry, its not carnivorous. Flynn heard a smile in her voice. It reminded him of the private smile that had so intrigued him before. He swept his flashlight around the room, this time aiming the beam higher. A pair of monster plants hulked under the window. No, it was a glass door, not a window. Probably led to a balcony, but he hadnt been able to see it before because of the plants. More pots of foliage clustered on the top of a low bookshelf. I see youre good at growing things. Its my hobby. Im a civil war buff myself, he said, remembering what Sarah had said about Abigails library books. Maybe he was piling it on a bit too thick, but hed do whatever it took to keep her off guard. I enjoy studying history, too, she said. I believe there are worthwhile lessons to be learned from the past. As long as a person is smart enough to remember them, she added under her breath. Not a good topic, he decided, hearing the note of thoughtfulness in her voice. He didnt want her thoughtful. He wanted her off balance. He chuckled. Lets not mention history on our birthday, okay? After the day Ive had, I feel ancient enough already. I know what you mean. She sighed and moved toward him. Youll never find what youre looking for in this jungle. Better let me help you. The flashlight was still aimed high, so when Abigail walked into the beam, it shone directly on her wet blouse. Flynn tried not to look, but it was impossible not to notice how the patches of wetness from her dripping hair had spread. The fabric wasnt white as hed first thought, it was the color of ripe melons. Or maybe the fabrics color was due more to the lush curves it was plastered to, particularly since it turned dark where it clung to her nipples. And Flynn suddenly realized that the innocent, house-plant-loving, visit-her-folks-on-her-birthday Abigail Locke wasnt wearing a bra. He turned the light aside and scowled. She hadnt provided the peep show deliberatelyshe must have been in a hurry to get dressed when the lights had gone out. But he was supposed to be the one distracting her, not the other way around. Find what youre looking for, shed said. Well, he sure wasnt here to look for a pair of breasts, however lush and temptingly displayed they might be. He had to find that backpack, he reminded himself. A green backpack. In a jungle of green houseplants. She touched his arm. You might as well start in the kitchen. The outlets are easiest to get to there. Her touch was soft, hesitant. It was meant impersonally, a practical way of getting his attention in the dark. He felt her warmth through his sleeve, through his skin, right to his bones. He couldnt afford to feel anything. He had a job to do. A kids life and the political stability of an entire region was resting on the success of this mission. He had to stay focused. The outlets, shed said. Right. He took a screwdriver from his tool belt, turned around and followed her to the kitchen. The receiver in his ear crackled. OToole. Flynn was careful to betray no reaction to Redingers voice. The radio had been silent since hed made face-to-face contact with Abigail. The major had been monitoring everything, of course, but for him to risk direct contact, it had to be important. A car passed one of the roadblocks one minute ago, Redinger said. They flagged it as suspicious so we ran the plates. It was reported stolen this morning. Okay. Redinger had to let him know about anything suspicious. This could be coincidence, nothing to do with them. Three male occupants. Three. The LLA operated in cells of three. Sarah turned the parabolic mike on the car. It picked up a snatch of foreign language conversation. She identified it as Ladavian. That clinched it. They were about to have company. The stairwell is getting busy with tenants making their way downstairs, the major said. Well run interference there when our visitors arrive, but we still cant risk a confrontation. I estimate youve got five minutes tops. So much for the half hour hed hoped for. Better wrap things up, Flynn. Sure, find the ransom, get it and Abigail out of this apartment before the terrorists dropped in without compromising the mission by blowing his cover. Why had he thought he didnt like things easy? Chapter 3 Abbie pointed out the electric sockets over her postage-stamp-size counter and in the corner above the baseboard, then stepped to the side as Flynn squeezed past her. His sleeve brushed her arm, and she inhaled a scent that reminded her of an April sunrise. Sharp and earthy, restless, filled with the promise of warmth. The fine hairs on her arm tingled. She pressed her hands to her stomach, trying to calm the butterflies that were dancing around there. No, they were probably moths. With crusty brown singe marks on the edges of their wings. She wished she could blame the tickle of excitement on hungershe was growing later by the minute for dinner and her surprise partybut if it was hunger, it was a kind that couldnt be satisfied with food. This was a superficial physical attraction, thats all, a natural reaction to a physically appealing man. After all, she was a woman in her sexual prime, right? But shed taken a detour down that road and knew better than to trust it. She didnt want to acknowledge the bump of her pulse each time she looked at him. She should be ignoring his appearance and regarding him with the same polite, professional distance with which she treated the building superintendent or the cable guy or the men who had delivered her new sofa. Then why couldnt she? Was it the sense of intimacy from the semidarkness? Or was it the way Flynn moved? It wasnt only his appearance that drew her. For a large man, he was light on his feet. He had the total body control of a dancer, making each movement a smoothly coordinated sequence of toned muscles working in harmony. She could easily imagine the way he would be flexing and bulging under that soft flannel shirt and those snug jeans. But she shouldnt. No, she wasnt going to picture his muscles or anything else. She wasnt going to watch as he hitched up his tool belt and leaned over to look in the corner under the tableeven if he did have the firmest, most perfectly formed set of buns Abbie had ever seen. No luck in here, maam, he said, straightening up. Wheres your bedroom? The kitchen seemed to shrink as he moved past her. Considering his height and the breadth of his shoulders, she should have felt uncomfortable to be alone in the dark with him, regardless of her personal prejudice against handsome men. Why wasnt she? It must have been the way he had mentioned his nephews. Any man who willingly claimed he liked children couldnt be all bad. He was a history buff, too, which meant they had something else in common. He took his job seriously, so he was a hard worker and would be a good provider. He was hurrying because he didnt want to disappoint his parents. Everything hed said would lead an unbiased, unprejudiced observer to assume he was a nice, stable, family-oriented guy. Exactly the kind of man shed hoped to marry someday. Abbie grimaced, chagrined by the direction of her thoughts. Marriage was on her brain because of todays date, but she wasnt pathetic enough to think he really could be a karmic birthday gift, was she? He spent even less time checking the outlets in her bedroom than he had in the kitchen. It couldnt have been two minutes before he moved on to her bathroom. He had to duck his head to get past the spider plant that shed hung from the ceiling. Nothing here, either, he said. Must be in the living room after all. His pace was increasingit seemed that he had barely touched those plugs in the bathroom. He must be anxious to finish up here so he could go home, as hed said. He muttered something under his breath as he ran into the avocado plant again. Ill have to move the fig tree if you want to check the outlet beside the balcony door, she said. The pot would be in the way. No, I can get it. Better let me. Its a bit finicky. Its been dropping leaves lately, so I have to be careful how I handle it. She went to his side and leaned down to grab the edge of the pot. It had just started to slide across the carpet when she heard him make a sudden exclamation. Got it. She turned her head. He was crouched beside her, his face level with hers, so she had a close-up view of the smile that flickered over his face. It wasnt charming or friendly like the other ones shed seen. It washard. He caught her gaze, and his smile instantly eased. It had been a trick of the lighting, she decided. Anyones face could look hard when it was lit by a flashlight from below, as all kids who had ever told a ghost story around a campfire knew. Okay, Im almost done. He pushed aside her purse and the stray backpack that shed dropped beside the plant, then slid his screwdriver back into a slot in his tool belt. Ill need to open up the electric box here, so for your own safety, Im going to have to ask you to leave the apartment now. She sat back on her heels. A fig leaf wafted downward and settled on her lap. What do you mean? Its routine, in case something goes wrong. The power company would be held liable if you got accidentally injured while I was doing repairs. I cant see why I need to leave. That seems excessive. Ill just stand out of the way and Im sorry, maam, but youre going to have to leave. If its that dangerous, shouldnt you be wearing protective clothing or something? Dont worry about me, Im a trained professional. He placed his hand under her elbow and gently but firmly helped her stand up. She looked at the place where he held her armalthough, she didnt really need to look because she felt what he was doing with every other one of her senses. It will only take a few minutes, he said. I know youre in as much of a hurry as I am, so Id appreciate your cooperation. Before she could form a reply, there was a sudden commotion from the corridor outside her apartment. Mens voices raised in anger. Hey, take it easy, someone shouted. Watch where youre going. Get out of my way, idiot, a heavily accented voice said. You could have broken my nose, slamming through the doorway like that. There was a spurt of muttered words that Abbie couldnt make out. They sounded foreign. Flynn tightened his grip on her elbow and pulled her toward the door. Please, maam. Youre going to have to get out, he said. Right now. But I cant just Something heavy slammed into her apartment door. Oh, my God, she said. Theyre fighting out there. The blackout must be making them panic. Flynn switched direction, pulling her back toward the balcony door. Theyre coming in. Were going to have to use the balcony. What? She tried to tug her arm free, but his fingers couldnt be budged. Whos coming in? What do you mean we have to use Something hit her door again. There was a sharp, splintering sound. Flynn shoved the fig tree to one side with his foot and lunged for the balcony door. It slid open only a few inches before it was stopped dead by the broom handle Abbie kept for security in the sliding doors track. What are you doing? she shrieked. The apartment door burst inward and slammed against the wall. Three men rushed in. Before Abbie could draw breath to scream, Flynn spun her behind him. Get down, he ordered. She hadnt meant to obey himshe hadnt even registered what he had saidbut she stumbled over the fig tree pot and lost her footing, going down to her knees, anyway. More leaves rained down around her. The intruders were silhouetted against the emergency lighting from the corridor. There were two short men and one tall, and the tall one appeared to be holding a Oh, my God, hes got a gun, Abbie said. The words had barely left her mouth when Flynn made a sudden movement. The flashlight hed been holding hurtled across the room and struck the armed man in the wrist. His gun fell into the avocado plant. They must be looters, Abbie thought, groping on the floor for her purse. Shed heard of looting in prolonged power failures, but shed never dreamed it could happen so fast, and in her building. The two short men babbled something incomprehensible and took out more guns. Abbie saw the metal gleam in the light from the hall and screamed a warning to Flynn. Instead of retreating, Flynn advanced on the intruders. He unbuckled his tool belt, hung on to one end and whirled it through the air. The heavy, tool-laden, hard leather pouch was suddenly a weapon. It made a clinking thud as it connected with the closest mans head. The man crumpled and fell to the floor. Flynn swung the tool belt again, dispatching a second man with the same brutal speed. Abbie clutched her purse to her chest and scooted backward, her shoes sliding through the leaves that now littered the carpet. What had happened to the nice, stable guy who liked children and had dinner with his parents? He was fighting off three armed looters all by himself, as if he did that kind of thing every day. The tall man, the one Flynn had hit with the flashlight, was clawing at the avocado plant, likely looking for the gun hed dropped. In a move that Abbie had only seen in movies, Flynn spun around on one foot, swinging his other foot in an arc that connected with the tall mans jaw. The looter flew sideways into the bookshelf. A geranium that had been on the top shelf wobbled and crashed on his head. He didnt move again. Oh, my God. Abbie struggled to draw a breath. Her pulse was pounding so hard, her lungs didnt work. Oh, my God. Theyre down, Flynn said. He stated that as if he were making a report, she thought. She ran a hand over her face, her fingers shaking. Oh, my God! she repeated. Whatwho? Throw the switch. Were getting out now. Flynn rebuckled his tool belt over his hips and strode over to where she was crouching. Switch? What switch? But She shook her head, still trying to absorb what had happened. Police. We have to call the police. Later. He leaned down and reached past her to pick something up from the floor. It was the backpack shed brought home from the class trip, she realized. What are you doing? she asked. He slung the strap of the pack over one shoulder and reached down to grasp her arm. Damage control, he said. What? I dont understand. Why Later, he interrupted. He pulled her to her feet with a strength that would have surprised her two minutes ago, before she had seen him in action. Right now weve got to get you out before more of them show up. More? Do you mean more looters? But thats why we have to call the police. He shifted his grip from her arm to her wrist and started for the door. Well call them from somewhere safe. Abbie stumbled after him, stepping over the unconscious men who lay sprawled on her floor. Pot shards crunched under her feet. All right, maybe we should call the police from somewhere else, but Her words cut off as the lights came on. She squinted at the sudden brilliance, then gasped at the scene the light revealed. Her neat, orderly apartment was in shambles. Leaves, potting soil and bright-red geranium petals were scattered everywhere. The men she had stepped over werent merely unconscious, they were bleeding. She felt her stomach roll as she saw the damage the tool belt and Flynns foot had done to their battered faces. Yes, Flynn had done that, she thought, her gaze snapping to the broad back that moved in front of her. Hed done it to defend her, but still, what kind of man was capable of fighting that viciously? He was an electrician, for Gods sake. And why had the power come back on when he hadnt done any repairs? And why on earth did he want that green backpack? The caution she should have felt ten minutes ago when hed first talked his way into her apartment finally asserted itself. She braced her feet and hung on to the broken door frame with her free hand before he could drag her through. Let go of my wrist, she said. He turned toward her. This was the first time she had seen his face clearly. She saw details now that she hadnt seen before: laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, the hint of a cleft in the center of his chin, the shadow of a dark beard along the sharp edge of his jaw. He was as startlingly handsome as before, but something was different. There was no flashlight beam to light his features from below, so there was no way to mistake what she saw. There was more going on behind those sparkling blue eyes than shed assumed. His expression was more than hard. It was predatory. Abigail, please. He released her wrist and placed his hands on her shoulders. Weve got to get away from this apartment. No, you go ahead. Ill I cant risk your safety by leaving you here. He looked toward the stairwell. There could be more men on their way. How do you know that? She inhaled sharply, realizing what hed just said. And how do you know my name? Flynn met her gaze squarely. His eyes probed hers for a few tense seconds. All right. Ive got no choice. Keep running the security check, and well sort it out later. He was still looking directly at her, but she had the feeling he was talking to someone else. Are you going to come with me, Miss Locke? he asked. Her mind was reeling. There was simply too much to take in, to figure out, to try to make sense of. She shook her head. I should have known you wouldnt do this the easy way, he muttered. In a move too swift to follow, he leaned forward, wrapped one arm around the back of her knees and straightened up, flinging her over his shoulder. She tried to scream, but the force of his shoulder hitting her stomach had knocked her breathless. Her head bounced against his back as he jogged to the elevator. She hit him with the purse she was somehow still clutching, but the blows had no effectbeneath his loose shirt, he was built like a brick wall. She clawed at the backpack he carried over his other shoulder in an attempt to lift herself up. Put me down! She gasped. What do you think Ill explain everything later, Abigail, Flynn said, carrying her into the elevator. Were using the central car, Gonzales. Ill need a control override so it wont stop on the way down. What? Whos Gonzales? The doors slid shut, and the car started downward. It plummeted past the other floors without showing any signs of slowing. Just as Flynn had said, it didnt stop. Abbie wriggled, trying to kick free from his grasp. Flynn tightened his grip on her legs. Please, dont do that, Abigail. Youre only making this more difficult. I promise Im not going to hurt you. Her fingers latched on to the backpacks buckle. She braced her arm against its side and lifted her head just as the buckle snapped. The pack had been crammed so full the top flap sprang open the moment the pressure from the buckle was released. Abbie went still. Shed wondered briefly about what was in this pack, but she hadnt bothered to look. Shed known children liked to carry an incredible amount of paraphernalia with them, so she hadnt found the weight that unusual. Nor had she been surprised that the owner hadnt claimed ither classroom was full of items that had been left behind. But judging by what she could see poking out of the top of the green canvas, she was certain this pack didnt belong to one of her students. Money. The pack wasnt full of Pokmon cards, it was stuffed with money. Thick, bundled wads of it. So much that she could actually smell it. It couldnt be real. No, this must be some kind of joke, and the wad of bills next to her nose had to be from a board game with very, very realistic props. Game? Joke? Those looters who had broken into her apartment had been dead serious. As was the blood on their faces and the vicious way Flynn had fought them. The looters? Had they been after this money? How had they known she had it, when she hadnt known she had it? And why had Flynn grabbed this packunless he, too, had known what it contained? Something clicked in her brain. This is what hed been after all along. He was no electrician. Hed lied. Hed used that story to get into her apartment. And shed believed every word. Shed looked at that charming smile and those oh-so-sweet dimples and shed been so sure shed had his number, but she hadnt, had she? Shed thought shed learned her lesson about believing handsome men, but shed been played for a fool. Again. Dammit, she should have followed her instincts and slammed that door while shed had the chance. What was she mixed up in? The elevator bypassed the ground floor. It didnt stop until it reached the first level of the basement parking garage. Where was Flynn taking her? And why in Gods name was she letting him? He shifted his grip, sliding her down the front of his body until she was standing on her feet. The instant the doors opened, he fastened one arm around her waist, drew her against his side and started forward. Abbie didnt wait for answers to any of her questions. She didnt pause for regrets or self-recriminations. She reached for the screwdriver on Flynns tool belt, yanked it out of its slot and drove it as hard as she could into Flynns arm. He muttered a sharp oath and loosened his grip for a vital second. Abbie dropped the screwdriver, twisted out of his grasp and ran. Miss Locke, stop! At the shout from behind her, Abbie moved faster. She darted toward the nearest row of cars, the sound of her footsteps echoing through the cavernous garage. Her parking spot was on the next level down. Should she try to make it to her car, or head for the exit ramp? She glanced over her shoulder. Flynn was following her. He was pressing his hand against his forearm, and she could see blood on his fingers. Her stomach churned. How badly had she hurt him? Abigail! She veered to the right, choosing to try to reach the exit instead of her car. The sooner she got outside where she could get help, the better her chances of escaping thisthiswhatever she was mixed up in. Block the exits, he said. Shes heading for the ramp. His voice was low and hard. Who was he talking to? Was he crazy? She looped the strap of her purse around her neck and broke into a sprint, her arms pumping as she gulped in air. Her foot hit a patch of oil as she followed the ramp around a pillar. She slid sideways and crashed into the wall. Abigail, please stop! he called. Were not going to hurt you. We? We? She slapped her hands against the cement wall and pushed off. She didnt see the van that was coming down the ramp until it was directly in front of her. Tires screeched as the vehicle skidded to a halt. A trim blond woman in a yellow cardigan set stared through the windshield at her, then opened the drivers door and hopped out. Are you all right? she asked. I didnt hit you, did I? Abbie heard footsteps pound up the ramp behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that Flynn was steadily closing the distance between them. His jaw was clenched. The sleeve over his forearm glistened dark red. She whipped her gaze back to the woman from the van and made a split-second decision. Please. Youve got to help me, she said, racing around the hood to the passenger door. That mans crazy. I need to get out of here and call the police. The woman didnt hesitate. Abbie had barely pulled the door closed behind her when the woman slid behind the wheel, flipped the power locks on the doors and threw the van into reverse. Abbie braced her hands on the dashboard, trying to catch her breath. She saw that Flynn had stopped running. His lips moved, as if he were talking to himself again. No problem, Sergeant, the woman said. Ill take it from here. Flynn smiled and lifted his bloody hand to his forehead in a crisp salute. Abbie whipped her gaze back to her rescuer. The blond woman palmed the wheel as she changed gears, expertly sending the minivan into a skidding half circle so that it was pointing up the ramp instead of down. She gave Abbie a tight smile. Relax, Miss Locke. If you had the good sense to run away from Flynn OToole, then you wont have any trouble understanding what Im about to tell you. Chapter 4 The warehouse looked as if it had been empty for years. The weeds that poked through the cracks in the asphalt loading area were waist high in places. Rust stained the overhead doors and trailed down the brick wall beside the corroded rain gutters. High in the wall beneath the eaves, the rising moon glinted from a row of windows. The darkness behind the broken panes stood out like missing teeth. Flynn eased back on the throttle and let his bike coast toward the middle door. Its OToole, he said quietly. The door lifted on well-oiled rollers. Staff Sergeant Lang was on guard duty. He averted his rifle and motioned Flynn to drive inside. The bikes headlight revealed several parked vehicles beside a canvas tarp that formed a wall directly in front of him. Flynn took off his helmet and waited until the warehouse door rolled shut, then swung his leg off the bike and headed toward the tarp. In fact, the tarp was one side of a large canvas military tent that the team had erected inside the warehouse as part of their security precautions. The ruse was low-tech, fast to implement and surprisingly effective when it came to ensuring the outside of the building continued to appear dark and deserted. The operational detachments from Delta Force were accustomed to working on their ownafter some spectacular failures decades ago when the force was first formed, they had learned the hard way not to trust outside intelligence. Theyd also learned the more fingers there were in the pie, the more likely that matters would spiral out of their control. The best way to keep a secret was not to tell anyone, so besides the president and the brass at the Pentagon, no one knew that Eagle Squadron was here. Flynn lifted aside a flap, stepped over a bundle of electrical cables that snaked along the cement floor and strode into a blaze of light and activity. The tent was organized into two areas: one for equipment, the other for personnel. To his left he saw two soldiers cleaning their guns while Rafe Marek sorted out the ordnance theyd assembled. On Flynns right, the teams communications center had been set up on a table crammed with radio, telephone and computer equipment. Scale maps of the area and photos of known members of the LLA had been taped to the poles that supported the roof. Some folding chairs, a trestle table, a small refrigerator and a microwave oven marked the mess hall and beyond that were two rows of cots that would serve as their barracks for the duration of the mission. Theyd brought only the bare necessities to Washington when theyd loaded the transport plane at Fort Braggvehicles, equipment and shelter. This self-contained temporary base of operations could be packed up and stacked in the back of a truck as quickly as it had been assembled. The living conditions were cramped and far from comfortable, but the plumbing in the warehouse bathrooms worked, and Gonzales had coaxed hot water out of the showers. Compared to other places where Eagle Squadron had set up shop, this tent was downright luxurious. As far as Flynn knew, the mission was still a go. According to the latest news, the damage done by the mix-up at the ransom drop and the scuffle at Abigails apartment appeared to have been successfully contained. To everyones relief, the team had moved swiftly enough so that no word had leaked to the media or to the local authorities. How much damage had been done to the Ladavians negotiations with the LLA was another matter. Flynn turned right and headed toward the stocky, bald man who was seated in front of the radio. Is there any word from the Ladavian Embassy yet, Chief? Chief Warrant Officer Esposito shook his head as he glanced up at Flynn. His forehead creased like a pit bulls. The LLA hasnt been in contact since they put the boy on the line. Hows Vilyas? Not doing well. He had to be sedated. Thats rough. He didnt look in good shape when I saw him at the ransom drop. Esposito bared his teeth, exposing a flash of gold. I cant blame him. If anyone snatched one of my boys, Id have to be tied down to keep from going after the bastards myself. Do you think the Vilyas kid is still alive? At this point, the odds are in his favor. The ransom money isnt all the LLA are after. They want to terrorize Vilyas and the Ladavian government, and as long as their hostage is alive, they can keep turning the screws. Yeah, its a win-win situation for them. If they get the money, they finance more terrorism. And if they execute their hostage, they demoralize the royal family and gain worldwide publicity. Hanging would be too easy for bastards like that. Esposito gestured toward the pack that Flynn carried on his back. Is that the money? Flynn slipped the straps of the pack off his shoulders and held it out to Esposito. Yeah. Its all there. What do you want me to do with it? The box I used for my equipment is under the table. You could put the money in there to keep it out of the way until were ready for the next round. Flynn peered under the table and spotted a battered steel trunk. He bent down to slide it toward him, stuffed the pack inside and closed the lid. By the time he had straightened up, Esposito had already turned back to the radio as if he were totally disinterested in the twenty million dollars in cash that rested inches away from his feet. Neither man considered the situation to be strange. People in their line of work were motivated by loyalty, honor and dutyif theyd been interested in money, they would have been accountants. Hey, OToole. Let me take a look at that arm. Flynn glanced at the lanky man who was walking toward him. Sergeant Jack Norton had the easy gait and whipcord leanness of a marathon runner. His specialty was field medicine, but no one made the mistake of believing that made him soft. Norton could pop dislocated joints back into place or fish through a guys guts for shrapnel in the morning, then proceed to take advantage of their grogginess to rob them blind at poker in the afternoon. Forget it, Norton, Flynn said, moving toward the mess area. He grabbed a can of soda from one of the cases on the floor, opened the top and took a long swig. Its just a flesh wound. Yeah, Ive heard that before, Jack said as he followed him. His soft Louisiana drawl echoed in his loose-limbed strides. Humor me, anyway. Its the majors orders. Flynn looked around. Where is the major, anyway? Jack tipped his head toward the far corner where some extra canvas tarps had been strung to partition off a small room. Back there, doing his best to keep any more, ah, surprises from hitting the fan. He told me to send you in when Im done. Fine, Flynn muttered. He pulled one of the chairs close to the trestle table, sat down and extended his arm. Knock yourself out. Jack sat across from him and opened up the red tackle box where he kept his medical supplies. He let out a low whistle as he peeled back the blood-encrusted sleeve of Flynns shirt. Flynn gritted his teeth. Not from the painhe was trained to ignore far worse than thisbut from embarrassment. He was a Delta Force commando. He was an expert marksman. He could use his feet and his hands as lethal weapons. Hed disabled three LLA terrorists less than an hour ago without breaking a sweat. But he hadnt been able to stop a five-foot, four-inch schoolteacher from stabbing him with a screwdriver. Why? Sure, the grip hed used to restrain her hadnt been all that solid because he hadnt wanted to give her bruises, but he should have been able to catch her before shed bolted into the parking garage. The truth was, shed distracted him with all that wriggling in the elevator. What normal man wouldnt have been distracted? Flynn asked himself. His hand had been clamped over the backs of her thighs, his face had been level with the curve of her buttocks and her unbound breasts had been jiggling against his shoulder blades. Hed been engulfed by the warm scent of fresh-washed female. Even with the voices of his team giving curt reports through his earpiece, hed been aware of every panting breath shed drawn. Yet the lapse in his concentration could have been more than embarrassing. It could have been dangerous. If Sarah hadnt shown up with her van when she had, the outcome might have been entirely different. The mission could have been compromised because, instead of focusing on his job, Flynn had been thinking about how good Abigail Locke had felt against his body. He scowled. Hell, she wasnt even his type. Hold on there, son. Ill be done in a minute. Flynn returned his attention to Jack. Did Captain Fox get in yet? Uh-huh. She and your little friend are in with the major. Flynns gaze strayed to the partition that defined the majors office. He should be wondering how the security background check had panned out, or how Abigail was handling the situation. Yet instead he wondered whether her blouse had dried. This looks ugly, Jack added, his voice suspiciously sympathetic as he cleaned the dried blood from the area around the wound. He swabbed on a generous amount of disinfectant. I have to give the schoolteacher credit. She got some good penetration after she pierced your sleeve. It wasnt that deep. The bleeding stopped after a few minutes. I cant tell the caliber or the make of the screwdriver she used. Jack took a pair of tweezers and picked out some shirt fibers that clung to the sides of the hole. Was it a Robertson? It was a Phillips, Flynn said. Ah, yes. Now that you mention it, I can see the four points of the star. He gave the wound a final cleaning, laid a piece of gauze over the top and taped it in place. Next time, make sure your tool belt isnt loaded. Flynn folded the bloodstained sleeve above his elbow and flexed his arm, watching the white bandage ride up on a ridge of muscle. He wasnt going to respond to Jacks ragging. If the men knew how much this bothered him, theyd never let him hear the end of it. Ill ask Rafe to install safeties on all the screwdrivers, okay? Jack packed up his supplies. Good idea. Flynn finished his soda and got to his feet. Thanks for the Band-Aid, Jack. Got any lollipops to go with your usual, sweet bedside manners? Im fresh out of both. He lowered his voice. If youre going to see the major now, you might not want to go in there unarmed. Hes not still pissed about the mix-up at the ransom drop, is he? Not him. Im talking about his guest. He raised an eyebrow. I heard she might be armed with a pencil. Unbelievable. Thats all that came to Abbies mind. The whole situation was simply beyond her comprehension. Things like this didnt happen to people like her. She glanced around the canvas cubicle. It didnt look like a rabbit hole, and her name wasnt Alice, but any minute now she half expected to see a white hare in a waistcoat and top hat The bubble of hysteria that rose in her throat frightened her almost as much as the events of the past hour. Had it only been an hour? She rubbed the empty spot on her wrist where her watch should have been. She felt naked without it, but she hadnt been able to find it when shed been scrambling in the dark for her clothes, and then shed gone to answer the door, and Flynn had talked his way inside, and her life had turned upside down. Oh, God. She had to get a hold of herself. She took a deep breath, and her head reeled at the strong aromas of canvas and dusty cement. This cubicle was the only private area of the hidden tent Sarah had brought her to. It was tiny, with barely enough space for a small table and a handful of folding metal chairs. A bare lightbulb hung on a cord from one of the poles that propped up the roof, adding a stark glare to the already-grim surroundings. These are standard government nondisclosure forms, Miss Locke. Youre welcome to read them over before you sign. Abbie jerked as a sheaf of papers was pushed across the table in front of her. She looked at the man who sat on the other side. Major Mitchell Redinger wasnt wearing a uniformin his knit golf shirt and pleated khakis he should have looked more like a lawyer on his day off than an army officeryet he radiated an air of authority. Maybe it was from the distinguished-looking silver that threaded the dark hair at his temples or the ramrod stiffness of his posture. Or maybe it was the unwavering gray steel in his gaze. Whatever the cause, the overall effect made her grateful she was facing him across a table and not a battlefield. She took the papers from his hand, but when she tried to focus on the words, her shaking fingers made the print blur. Were sorry for the inconvenience, the major continued. Well take you home as soon as its safe to do so. Inconvenience? she thought wildly. Was that how they described having her door broken down by three armed men and being kidnapped by a bunch of soldiers? Abbie moved her gaze to the third person in the room. Sarah Fox stood by the canvas flap that formed the door, her arms folded over her chest. Like the major, she didnt need a uniform to assume an air of command. Even in her lemon-yellow sleeveless sweater and her short skirt, there was something intimidating about her. She was only a few inches taller than Abbie, but she was one of those people who had the kind of presence that made her appear larger than she actually was. She had seemed so nice at first, Abbie thought. Before theyd left the garage, Sarah had identified herself as a member of the United States Army and had done her best to stem Abbies budding panic. Shed explained that Abbie had accidentally put herself in the middle of a ransom exchange, then shed calmly taken off the cardigan that matched her yellow sweater and loaned it to Abbie to cover up her wet blouse. It had been a kind gestureAbbie hadnt realized how indecent she had looked with that soaked cotton plastered to her breasts. Had Flynn noticed? What a stupid thing to worry about. How could she be concerned about herself at all? She wasnt the only one who had been kidnapped. A childs life was at stake here, and she had unwittingly made things worse. The papers crumpled in her grasp. Whats going to happen now? she asked. As Major Redinger said, youll be taken home as soon as possible, Sarah replied. No, I meant to the child? Is he going to be all right? Were working on it. Who is he? Im sorry, Miss Locke, but in the interests of national security, we cant give you any more details, Sarah said. I hadnt meant to interfere. I hadnt realized what was in that pack. I had thought that one of my students had left it. Yes, we realize that. What happened to those men who broke into my apartment? Were they arrested? No, we couldnt do that at this stage, the major said. Once they regained consciousness and saw that the ransom was not in your apartment, they left. Theyre under surveillance, so they wont pose any further danger to you. But what about the child they kidnapped? If they didnt get the ransom Dont be concerned. Theyll negotiate again. But I still dont understand why the army is involved. Isnt the FBI supposed to deal with kidnappings? Normally, yes, but these are special circumstances. When it comes to hostage rescue, our expertise surpasses that of the FBI. Something stirred in Abbies memory. A movie shed seen, or some news report about a clandestine mission. The army had commandos who were trained in hostage rescue. Their skill and dedication were legendary, but they were so secret, their existence wasnt officially acknowledged. These people werent ordinary soldiers, they were Oh, my God, she said. Are you from Delta Force? Sarah and the major exchanged a look. That has to be why this is all so secret, Abbie persisted. Youre from Delta Force, right? Like those movies? Were a far cry from the Hollywood version, Miss Locke. Were Special Forces soldiers, not Ninjas. The major held up his palm. Please, dont press us for more information. We want to keep your involvement to a minimum so that you can return home. You do want to help us, dont you? Of course I want to help. Then all you need to do is sign those forms in triplicate and give us your oath that you wont divulge anything that has happened. She had to suppress another bubble of hysteria. How could she divulge what had happened? Even if she wanted to, who would believe her? She placed the forms on her lap, smoothed them out and bent over to read them. She had only managed to finish the first paragraph when footsteps sounded outside the cubicle. There was a sudden draft of cool air as the door flap was pushed aside. You wanted to see me, Major? At the deep voice, Abbies head snapped up. It was Flynn. Or to be more accurate, it was Sergeant First Class Flynn OToole. He was a soldier, just like everyone else here. No, he was more than simply a soldier. He was a Delta Force commando, one of the most elite fighting men in the armed forces. She could see it in the proud tilt of his head, the square set of his shoulders and the rigid straightness of his spine. The rumpled plaid flannel shirt and those worn jeans didnt detract from his air of confidence. Neither did the dark stain that covered his sleeve where hed rolled it above his elbow or the small white bandage that was taped to his forearm. Abbie felt sick as she saw the evidence of her attack on him. So far no one here had appeared to blame her. Sarah had seemed to find the incident amusing and had even joked about the way Abbie had been running away from Flynn. But it hadnt been funny. Abbie had been terrified and had believed shed been acting in self-defense. She cleared her throat. Mr. OTooleuh, Sergeant? Flynn turned his head to look at her. He wasnt smiling. No, Sergeant OTooles gorgeous dimples werent anywhere to be seen. He looked hard, as predatory as the last time shed seen him. Yet he was still handsome enough to send her stomach into that doomed little dance. She had to fight the urge to make another run for it. Im sorry about stabbing you. No problem, maam, he said stiffly. It was a minor injury. Still, I want to apologize. You did what you had to do. You cant be faulted for that. Are the repairs at Miss Lockes apartment completed, Sergeant OToole? the major asked. Yes, sir. What repairs? Abbie asked. We fixed your door frame and cleaned the blood out of your carpet, Flynn replied. Im sorry about those red flowers. They couldnt be saved. It took her a moment to realize he was talking about the geraniums that had been on the bookshelf. The pot had fallen on the tall mans head. The petals had mingled with the blood. Blood on her carpet. Guns in her apartment. Soldiers and secret tents and national security. Her life was spinning out of control. Oh, God! The sooner this ended, the better. The sound of crumpling paper made her glance down. She smoothed out the nondisclosure forms once more. She scanned them as fast as she could, then reached for the pen the major had placed on the table. Without any more delay, she scrawled her signature in triplicate. Rumor had it that Redinger didnt have a sense of humor, but Flynn wasnt so sure. Why else had the major assigned Flynn to take Abbie home? Sarah had already established a rapport with her, so she would have been a better choice. Was this the majors subtle way of reminding Flynn of his failure to keep the woman contained in the first place? The major was a fair man. He never chewed anyone out when they made a mistake. Instead, he found a way to work with them to ensure the mistake wouldnt be repeated. But had it really been necessary to use this particular mode of transportation? . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39923098&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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