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Safe In His Arms by Renee Rose – Sample

Safe In His Arms by Renee Rose (Post 200x300)

Prologue

“Squid or jarhead?” Becca asked, flirting with her new friend at the hotel pool bar. She could tell by the way he carried his chest and shoulders he was military, but with three branches in San Diego, it was hard to tell which. They’d been making small talk for the past half hour while she’d been busy putting back too many margaritas.

He grinned. “Jarhead.”

A marine. “And you’re here for the wedding?” They were on Catalina Island, the location for her sister’s wedding, and the entire hotel was overrun with guests for the event.

“Yep, groom’s side,” he said.

“Bride’s,” she said. “I’m the bride’s sister, actually.”

“Ah,” he said, moving his bar stool closer to her. “Shouldn’t you be off at the rehearsal dinner or something?”

“It’s already over. And I can’t stand anymore of the incessant wedding planning talk. I’ve been hearing about this event nonstop for the past 18 months.” She grinned at him, licking the salt off the rim of her fourth margarita. She’d ordered the third to alleviate her nerves at talking to her new good-looking friend, who seemed rather into her. Now she was on the fourth because the bartender had made up an extra by mistake and gave it to her for free.

“I don’t care about being ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride,’” she confided, taking an ice cube into her mouth and rolling it around on her tongue. “I’m only 25; I couldn’t care less about finding a husband.” She was only slurring slightly.

He grinned at her, the blond brows and ice blue of his eyes popping under sun-soaked skin. “I don’t care about finding a husband, either.”

She giggled, leaning toward him with tequila-fueled courage to say in a low, conspiratorial tone, “All I really want is a guy who will bend me over and spank me!”

He reached over and cupped the dewy rocks glass, sliding the margarita out of her grasp. “I’m down,” he said with a flick of his eyebrows.

Chapter One

Seven years later

Becca zipped into a parking space outside the pickup gate at her son’s school. Quarter after five. Shit. She was fifteen minutes late to get him from the after-school program and Parker was the only kid left waiting. She jumped out of the RAV4 and gave a cheery wave. He lifted his little hand and trudged toward her.

“Thank you!” she called out to the after-school director, giving another exaggerated wave. Damn. She hated being late. The stress of it made her asthma kick in, forcing her to pause by the fence to take a measured inhale. She’d been sitting in a two-hour staff meeting at the private high school where she taught English, and then she’d hit a snarl of five o’clock traffic on the way.

Parker trotted over to her and she led him to the car, opening the back door and helping him take his backpack off.

“How was school, buddy?”

“Fine.”

“What did you learn today?”

Parker didn’t answer; he stared out the window, digesting whatever six-year-old thoughts were running through his head.

“What do you think Christine will be making for dinner tonight?” Christine was their new live-in nanny—an older college student who was part nanny, part housekeeper in exchange for room and board.

“I dunno.”

“Do you like Christine?” she prompted.

“Not really.”

She glanced in the rearview mirror, surprised. “You don’t?”

“Huh uh. I don’t think she’s real.”

“What do you mean, you don’t think she’s real?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s not a real nanny.”

Becca bit her lip. It was hard to sift through Parker’s often bizarre statements. This was the kid, after all, who’d invented an entire identity for his dead father.

“My dad is a spy guy,” he’d been known to tell his friends, zooming around the house throwing karate kicks and pulling pretend guns. Or, “My dad owns this entire apartment building, but we never see him because he’s a ghost” or “My dad bought this car for us, but my mom thinks she won it in a drawing.”

That one had hurt the most, for some reason. She’d wanted Parker to appreciate their good fortune at winning the raffle that awarded them a brand new Toyota RAV4, but instead he attributed it to some fantasy he’d created about his father.

The truth was, she knew next to nothing about his father. Parker was the product of a steamy weekend fling with a marine about to be deployed. They’d spent 48 hours together at her sister’s wedding, and she hadn’t seen him since.

When she’d discovered she was pregnant, she had emailed the address he’d given her, though he’d warned her he wouldn’t have much access to it. She never heard back until six months later, when a uniformed officer showed up at her door to inform her Lieutenant Zac Casper had been killed in combat, but if a blood test proved paternity, she qualified for his pension.

* * *

“Have you done this before?” she asked, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice. The adrenalin of anticipation had taken some of her buzz away.

“No, but I think I have the basic premise. Your ass. My hand. Isn’t that about it? Unless you want me to use something other than my hand?” He waggled his eyebrows, fingertips caressing his belt buckle.

Her insides lurched as if she were a tube of toothpaste that had just been squeezed. Fear buzzed just beneath desire. She’d invited a perfect stranger to her hotel room. Just because he knew her future brother-in-law didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. And what if she changed her mind and wanted to stop? Would he?

“Ah, I think your hand would be fine for starters. So…ah, how do we—?”

He stopped her with a finger to her lips. “Are you supposed to be in charge here? Or is it me?”

She exhaled, smiling against the pressure of his fingertip. He removed the finger from her lips and stroked it up her throat to the base of her chin.

“Turn around.”

She turned away, relieved to hide her face.

He slid the spaghetti strap of her blouse off one shoulder and ran his finger from her collarbone to the tip of her shoulder. His lips met her neck at the same moment his hand assaulted her breast, reaching under her arm to pinch her nipple hard enough to make her squirm. Her panties, already damp with anticipation, grew wet enough to bunch between her thighs.

* * *

Becca parked in the garage beneath their apartment building and followed Parker, who’d taken off running to hit the elevator button. He held the door for her with his foot and then hit the 11th floor button repeatedly until the door closed. She bent and kissed the top of his head, brushing his hair out of his eyes to see his face. “I’m sorry I was late to pick you up.”

He shrugged but didn’t answer, which meant it had mattered to him. Damn.

When the elevator door opened, the smell of garlic and ginger wafted from their apartment. Opening the front door, they found Christine standing over the stove, mixing some kind of Asian stir-fry.

“Hi, Becca, hi, Parker!” she sang out over her shoulder, flashing a white-toothed smile. She was an “alternative student,” who had moved to San Diego to get her masters in physiology at UCSD. Becca considered herself very lucky to have found the help in exchange for the extra room in their apartment, which had been another stroke of luck. They’d somehow managed to get a three-bedroom corner apartment for the price of a one-bedroom, simply because the building manager liked her or took pity on her as a single mom.

“Whoa—is that where we put shoes?” Becca called after Parker, who had already kicked off his Darth Vader sneakers and headed down the hallway to his room.

He raced back, picked up the shoes, and tossed them in the shoe rack she kept by the door, then ran back toward his room. She followed him down the hall to her own room, stripping out of the button-down blouse and skirt and putting on a fitted t-shirt and a breezy miniskirt.

A loud clatter, like the sound of a pan dropping in the kitchen, made her call out, “Everything okay out there, Christine?”

When she didn’t answer, Becca opened her bedroom door and headed down the hallway, a few steps behind Parker. They both froze when they reached the living area—a man dressed all in black was in the kitchen, his forearm crushing Christine’s neck in a chokehold. Becca clutched Parker behind her and drew in a breath to scream, but her lungs closed, and all she uttered was a whimper.

To her shock, Christine was fighting back with what could only be considered expert and deadly technique. An elbow to the man’s ribs, a foot wrapped behind his, and she’d dislodged his balance enough to squirm out of his hold. She reached under the kitchen island and withdrew a pistol.

Becca’s mind reeled as she assimilated the fact that her nanny was not a real nanny and she’d kept a gun in Becca’s kitchen, where her son might have found it and killed himself. Not that they might not both be killed any moment, anyway.

Christine fired straight at the man’s chest, but she must have missed because he lunged at her, catching her wrist and smashing it on the granite countertop. The dislodged weapon skittered across the floor and went under the oven. Undaunted, Christine picked up a butcher knife and slashed it at him. He did not take a weapon, though the butcher block of knives was in his reach, and he barely avoided a slash to his kidney before he smacked the back of her neck with a karate chop. She fell to her knees, but was up again in a flash.

“Mom!” Parker said excitedly. “That’s my dad!”

Oh, God, please. Not this. Not now. His overactive imagination was proving dangerous. But the stranger looked up, hearing Parker’s words, and her heart stopped in her chest. She knew those blue eyes.

There, in her kitchen, the man fighting her new nanny in all-out mortal combat, was Zac, her weekend fling—obviously not dead.

She pressed herself against the wall for support as her lungs closed. Panic swelled and her gums turned numb, the familiar signs she was going to pass out from her asthma attack.

Christine freed herself from Zac and sprinted for the living room, taking the sofa in one leap and kicking out the screen to the open window. Zac reached her and she sent a high kick to his throat. He caught the foot and twisted it, bringing her weight crashing down to the floor. She scrambled back up, picked up the lamp, and swung it toward his head, smashing it on the coffee table before he tackled her around the waist, both of them plunging out the open window.

* * *

Zac had grabbed the ankle of the fake nanny with one hand, but she was unable to twist to catch her weight with her hands before her head cracked into the brick at a bone-crunching velocity. Damn. He’d been trying to take her alive. He hefted her up and through the window, his eyes sweeping the room for other possible dangers. Becca and Parker were huddled against the wall, looking terror-stricken.

That’s my dad.

Parker had known him, which was impossible, since no photos of him existed outside his sealed employment file. Impossible unless Parker possessed the same sense of intuition he did. He pressed two fingers on the faux nanny’s carotid artery to feel for a pulse, though he could already tell by the bashed skull she was dead.

Standing up, he tossed the body over his shoulder to carry it to the bedroom. Becca gasped for air with little apparent success. She had serious asthma which, combined with the shock, created an oxygen deficiency. He nudged behind her knee to bend it forward at the same time he pushed down on her shoulder, effectively sinking her to a crouch on the floor, her back supported by the wall. Giving the nanny’s body a bump to readjust the weight, he pushed Becca’s head between her knees.

“Parker, find your mom’s inhaler.”

The boy obeyed him, looking frightened yet self-possessed, scampering down the hall. Zac entered the nanny’s room, tossing the body on the bed and wrapping it up with the comforter.

“Got it!” Parker announced, and his little feet raced back down the hall. Zac poked his head out, but Parker had it under control, delivering the medication and staring into his mother’s pale face. “Are you okay, Mom? Mama? Mommy?”

Zac paused until he saw her nod at her son, then he returned to the nanny’s room to search her things. He took the laptop and purse, finding nothing else in her meager belongings. When he returned, Becca was still struggling for breath, looking pale.

He crouched next to her, not wanting to frighten her more by touching her. “Exhale more, as much as you can,” he coaxed, keeping his voice as calm and relaxing as he could.

She glared at him as if the suggestion irritated her.

“Listen, it’s just the shock that kicked off the asthma attack. You can get it under control.” He pointed at her low belly, barely touching it with the tip of his finger. “Expand your breath down to here.”

Her brow furrowed and her breath didn’t slow, but he thought she might be attempting it.

“Expand your belly three dimensionally—front and back and both sides, each time you breathe.”

There was a slight slowing of her breath.

“You have all the breath you need,” he assured her, though it probably wasn’t true. “Your body can manage on what you’re getting in and this asthma attack will pass, just like they all do.”

A significant calming.

“Parker, I need you to put some things in your backpack,” he said to the boy.

“Okay.”

The eagerness to please in his voice made Zac’s heart contract.

“I need you to get your jammies, a change of clothes, your toothbrush, and a stuffed animal.”

“Got it!” Parker cried, running for his room.

“Oh, and maybe a book or toy!” he called after him.

Becca’s lips moved, but shock or lack of breath prevented any words from forming. Still, her color was returning and more air was moving in her chest. “Can you pack a bag?” he asked.

“No!” she gasped, glaring at him.

“Okay. Stay here. Breathe into your upper back now—see if you can expand your ribs behind you, against the wall.” He stepped past her, striding down the hallway to enter her bedroom. She stood and followed him, shaking her inhaler and taking another puff.

“There you go,” he said encouragingly. “Suitcase?”

“What…the…hell…is—”

“I’ll explain later; right now we have to get you out of here.”

He grabbed a few pieces of clothing out of her dresser and a toothbrush out of her bathroom. “Let’s go,” he said, taking her elbow.

She shook him off. “No fucking—”

He turned and gave her his full attention. “Becca, you are in danger. I need to get you and Parker out of here right now.”

She tried to pull out of his grasp, but he held her fast, bending his head down to speak in a low voice. “I know this is a shock, but I’m here to help. I’m taking you with me now. If I have to take you by force it will scare the hell out of the kid.”

Her jaw opened with indignation, but she closed it again and swallowed, allowing him to steer her out of the room.

“Let’s go, buddy,” he said to Parker, who was still in his room, stuffing things into his backpack.

Parker raced out of his room, passing them in the hall and wiggling into his Star Wars sneakers.

The smell of smoke drew his attention to the stovetop, which was still on after the nanny-assassin had used the hot frying pan as a weapon. A wooden spoon lay over the burner, smoking. He turned it off and tossed the spoon into the sink. Becca had slipped on sandals and they exited. If he were alone, he’d take the stairs, but he wasn’t sure either Parker or Becca could handle eleven flights, so he hustled them into the open elevator.

Parker hit the button and the door swished closed.

He crouched down. “Parker, do you know who I am?”

The boy nodded soberly. “You’re my dad.”

“That’s right. And I’m proud of the way you handled yourself back there,” he said, holding a fist out. Parker bumped knuckles with him, looking pleased.

“My mom is upset,” he said.

He met Becca’s eye. She still labored to breathe, her brows knit into an angry furrow, her eyes frantic. “I know.”

In the parking garage, he led them to his SUV, popping the locks with the fob. “Parker, climb in back and stay down on the floor,” he ordered. He opened the passenger side door and helped Becca in, pushing her head down to lie on the seat. She fought him, but he held it firm. “Keep your head down.” She glared up at him. “Please.”

The line between her brows deepened, but there was a settling to her position that indicated compliance. He slammed the door and ran around to his side, jumping in, starting the car and backing out in almost one movement. He hit a button on his phone and pressed it to his ear.

“Yes?” came the careful question, revealing nothing to a wayward caller.

“I need cleanup at 1112 Stonebridge Row, Apartment 1104. A professional was detected on premises and eliminated, civilians have been extracted. I will also need the location of a safe house.”

A pause, and the sound of keys on a computer. “2205 North Angel Blvd. Your fob will open the lock.”

“Roger that.” He hit the power button on his phone to turn it off.

Becca reached for her purse. Guessing her intent, he put his hand over it, holding it closed. “No phone calls. It’s not safe.”

* * *

“Why isn’t it safe? What the hell is going on?” Her voice sounded shrill to her ears.

“I’ll explain when we’re in a safe location.”

The possibility her son’s father was a psycho killer or kidnapper or stalker seemed very real. But there was a professionalism to his actions that spoke of more than just military, more like CIA…

My dad is a spy guy.

But could that all be for show? Was he really some nut playing a trick to win her trust?

“What was that song you were singing while you were fighting? About the grapes of wrath?” Parker asked inanely from the back seat.

Becca had heard no singing during the struggle; in fact, it had been eerily silent, but Zac asked, “You heard that?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s called ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ It has a good, steady pace for fighting. Keeps me from getting ahead of myself.”

“So you sing a song?”

“Uh huh.” The car rolled to a stop. “Let’s go,” he said, climbing out and opening the door for Parker. She sat up and reached in her purse, digging for her phone. Who should she call? 911?

Her door opened and Zac snatched the phone from her hand. He slid the back cover off, removed the battery and sim card and tossed it back to her, pocketing the crucial parts. “I said no calls,” he bit out, taking her arm and hauling her out of the car. “If I’m going to protect you, I need you to follow orders.”

She stopped, wrenching her arm free. She had the impression it was only because he allowed it. “What if I don’t want your protection?”

“Not negotiable.”

“So I’m really your prisoner?”

He shrugged, “If you like.”

“And if I don’t?” she demanded.

He lifted his shoulders again, then looked over at Parker, who had stooped to pick at some grass, knowing with his childlike intuition they needed privacy. “Look,” he said in a low voice. “I know that’s my kid. And I can’t—” He stopped and blinked. “I won’t let anything bad happen to either one of you. Can you believe that?”

He seemed so different now from the man she’d met seven years before—his face was still young, but the pale blue eyes were ancient. Looking into them, she saw a hardness and behind them, a haunted pain.

Against all reason, she did believe him. She gave a single nod.

“Then I need you to follow orders when I give them.”

She frowned. “And if I don’t?”

He leaned forward and looked her directly in the eye, speaking in a voice too quiet for Parker to hear. “Then I’ll spank you till you can’t sit down.”

The instantaneous flip the word “spank” produced in her belly was followed closely by shame, then hot indignation. She gave his chest a hard shove. “How dare you?”

He smirked, but held his hands up in surrender, “I’m sorry. That was the wrong thing to say. Look,” he sighed. “I was just trying to point out you trusted me once, remember? I didn’t hurt you then,” he paused and added with an ironic tone, “—at least not more than you wanted me to—and I’m not going to hurt you now.”

His mention of their “once” opened a fissure in her chest, releasing a flood of confused emotions that literally rocked her on her heels. Her nose burned with the threat of tears. She stared at his chest, the muscles standing out under his t-shirt. She remembered the way he’d looked without a shirt—the lean definition of his pecs covered by a smattering of golden fuzz, the washboard lines of his abs. He’d been like an Adonis. The first lines of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis popped into her mind:

EVEN as the sun with purple-colour’d face

Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheek’d Adonis tried him to the chase;

Hunting he lov’d, but love he laugh’d to scorn;

And clearly he had scorned love, because here he was, alive and well while she’d spent the last six years single parenting, believing him dead.

She lifted her eyes to his face, a jolt of electricity hitting her when their eyes met. Despite her best efforts, he had a powerful effect on her. His eyes held compassion for her, as if he knew all the thoughts she hadn’t even begun to sort through.

“I just don’t understand what’s going on here,” she croaked.

“I know.” His voice was warm, enveloping her in its embrace.

She drew in a breath.

“The less you know, the safer you are, though. I’ll tell what I can when we’re inside—come on.” He placed his hand on her upper back and the contact made her shiver. This time, she let him lead her into the house where he swept through the place, drawing curtains.

“Stay away from the windows,” he warned sharply when she wandered near one. The reminder of his threat outside made her butt flinch and her face burn. She didn’t think he’d meant it, but it was hard to be sure.

“I’m hungry,” Parker whined and she realized, with a pang, he hadn’t eaten dinner.

Zac stopped his security check as well, as if he, too, had forgotten about feeding Parker. “Okay, I’ll get some food brought in.”

“Can we have ice cream?” Parker asked hopefully.

A smile twitched at the corners of Zac’s mouth. “Sure, bud. What kind do you like?”

“Cookies and cream.”

“You got it.” Zac pulled out his phone and placed a call, walking into the master bedroom to call in private.

Becca searched through the cupboards in the kitchen, finding no fresh food, but plenty of dry and canned goods. She opened a box of cheese crackers and put them in a small bowl for Parker. “Here you go, kiddo.” Picking up the remote control for the television, she turned it on and searched for a kids’ channel. She didn’t allow Parker to watch much TV, but if ever there was a time to bend the rules, this was it. Finding Nickelodeon, she handed him the remote and followed Zac into the bedroom.

He glanced up at her and ended his call. “Hi.”

She leaned against the door frame. “So what’s going on?”

He took a breath and exhaled. “Okay. I work undercover for an organization we call Black Ops, which falls somewhere between the NSA and the CIA. There is a member of your family who used to work for us and has since disappeared.”

“Who?”

He shook his head.

“You won’t tell me?”

“Can’t tell you,” he corrected.

“Is he dead?” She asked, thinking of her father, who had died when she was fifteen.

Zac shook his head. “We don’t think so. Seven years ago, I was sent to your sister’s wedding in case this person turned up. They never did, and I guess you know how I spent my time there.”

She stared at him, trying to digest it all. He had known who she was when he picked her up out of that hotel bar. And she’d thought she’d been the one doing the picking up.

“Afterward, I put you on surveillance.”

“Why?” she demanded, the violation making her chest tighten. She pulled her inhaler out of her pocket and took another puff.

He looked at her for a long moment, giving the impression he was deciding what to tell her.

“It would be a lie to say I thought you knew something. The fact is, I knew you and your family were clean. But I could justify surveillance because of your connection to our target—you know, that they might show up to visit you.”

A cold prickle ran over her skin. “Did they?”

He shook his head.

“Is my sister on surveillance? My mother?”

He looked uncomfortable. “No.”

“So, when you said you could justify surveillance—does that mean…” The sensation of violation swept over her again. “Are you like a fucking peeping Tom?”

He winced and she glimpsed the world-weariness in his eyes again. He shrugged. “I was into you.”

A wave of nausea hit her full force. How she’d fantasized of what it might have been like if Zac hadn’t died—if he’d returned from his deployment and somehow became a part of their lives. But he’d been alive all along. He’d known she’d had his baby and he’d never even tried to make contact. He’d put her on surveillance like a creepy stalker.

She ran for the toilet, her stomach heaving. She stood over it for a moment, but nothing came up. She coughed instead, tears burning her eyes. When she felt a hand on her back, she whirled around and went for him. Attacking with years of pent-up regrets and deferred desires, she slapped at him, punched his face and chest. When she raked her fingernails down his cheek, he caught her wrists and pinned them behind her back in a loose, but inescapable grasp.

He gazed down at her, the light blue of his eyes full of regret, the scratches on his weathered face turning red. “You are the only woman I was sorry to leave,” he said softly. “Hell—you’re the only woman I even stayed long enough to share breakfast with. And you permanently ruined one-night stands for me.”

She blinked back the tears that made her vision swim. Great, so I doubled your usual quotient?” Her bitter words trailed off when he bent his head to kiss her. He moved slowly, as if giving her a chance to refuse his invasion. She stilled, the urge to reject him overruled by a dark flame of desire. His lips slanted over hers in an undemanding kiss, tongue gently probing, lips caressing her mouth. She answered it, wanting to remember the taste of him, to recapture the essence of the mysterious man who had become so enormous in her memory. Releasing her wrists, he drew her closer and she slid her hands up the taut muscles of his arms, gripping them for stability.

He drew away too soon and she wobbled on her feet, panting, staring up in a confused swirl of emotion. “I haven’t forgiven you.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t even know who you are,” she said hoarsely.

“That’s because I don’t exist.”

* * *

Ankles and wrists bound together, lying naked on her side, Rebecca Cavanah was the hottest thing he’d seen in a long time. She was his mark, which meant mixing business with pleasure was a no-brainer. As far as he was concerned, he was going above and beyond the call of duty, watching the leggy bombshell 24/7 for the wedding weekend.

She was perfect—long legs, firm tits, a dimpled smile. She had the girl-next-door sweet beauty, which made her interest in whips and chains all the more intriguing. “I should tell you I have extensive training in torture techniques,” he told her, watching her wriggle. “Oh yeah, aren’t I supposed to give you a safe word or something?”

“French fry!” she blurted, as if she’d been waiting for him to ask.

He hid a smile. “French fry it is,” he said, picking up her flip-flop and smacking it against his palm as she squirmed in anticipation.

Two hours later, her bottom was a deep purplish red and he’d brought her to orgasm four times. She lay limp, her eyes closed, making a soft humming sound in her throat. He untied the rope around her wrists and kissed the red marks it had left. “So, what’s your fantasy—master and slave? Sir and slut?”

She rolled on her back, her breasts spilling apart. “Not exactly.”

He straddled her and took her nipple between his thumb and forefinger and pinched, causing the relaxed tissue to instantly harden again. She rolled her head back and forth. “No more…I can’t come again, Zac.”

He pinched harder. “I decide whether you can come or not.”

“Yes, sir,” she whispered.

“Ah, so it’s a ‘sir’ you want?”

She bit her lip and blushed. “Actually, I’m more into bad girl spanked by big daddy or naughty young wife taken over her husband’s knee.”

It was only his months of government training to extinguish all physiological signs of reaction that kept him from gaping at that news. “So you do, actually, want a husband?” he teased.

She giggled. “Only if he spanks.”

He slid off her and nestled down next to her, pulling her into the curve of his shoulder.

“—for real. I would want a husband who spanks for real. Like if I was bitchy or didn’t clean the bathroom. Or to end a stupid argument.”

This time he chuckled.

She slapped his arm. “Don’t laugh at me!”

“I’m sorry. It’s just…that’s adorable! What man wouldn’t want a wife he could spank to end an argument?”

She made a raspberry sound with her lips. “Twenty-five years and you’re the first one to ever lay a hand on my ass.”

He grinned at her. “Well, we’ll have to make up for lost time, then won’t we?”

 

* * *

Zac’s phone buzzed, an unfortunate interruption. “That’s our food,” he said, reluctantly releasing Becca from his embrace to answer the call.

“Yeah,” he spoke into the mouthpiece.

“I’m outside.”

He took the fake nanny’s laptop and cell phone and stepped outside, shutting the door behind him. He didn’t want Becca and Parker to see Marcus, the San Diego desk agent who had shown up with a pizza and groceries and stayed for a brief exchange of intel.

“Here’s your laptop, and your travel bag.”

“Thanks. What do you know?”

He shook his head. “Probably the same thing you do—she was the professional known as Angel. No info on who might have hired her or why. If the target was El Demo, it seems strange she’d be watching his daughter—you’ve been watching her for seven years without a lead.”

“Let me know what you get from the laptop or phone.”

“I will. Beatty wants you to report. He’s sending over some agents to watch the civilians.”

“Negative. I’m not leaving them until I know who ordered the hit and why.”

Marcus shrugged. “How are you going to explain that to Beatty? If he finds out you’ve got something personal here, you’ll be out of the country on the next plane.”

He stared over Marcus’s shoulder at the trees, silhouetted in the darkening sky. He had earned his reputation as “the ghost” by being fluid—following his gut, moving with the current to avoid capture, survive torture, or disappear like the wind. But where Becca and Parker were concerned, a mulish resistance clouded his judgment. He’d rushed in too quickly that evening, killing the one person with the answers. Now he was going to sabotage himself again by showing his hand to Beatty. But he just couldn’t trust them with anyone else. And now that he’d made contact with them, now that they knew he existed…walking away from them was going to kill him.

He refocused on Marcus, who knew his secret because he’d pulled the favor from him of faking his death and setting them up on a pension. Marcus had access to most government databases, and could create identities for people or make them disappear at the drop of a hat.

“I don’t know,” he said, exhaling. “Let me know as soon as you have anything.”

Inside, Becca had turned skittish again. “So you still haven’t told me what’s going on,” she said as he unpacked the food.

He glanced pointedly at Parker and quirked an eyebrow. Parker caught the look. “She wasn’t really a nanny, was she?” he asked.

The hairs on Zac’s arms stood up. “No, buddy, she wasn’t.”

The boy gazed up at him with his mother’s eyes—round and green, with a smattering of freckles across his nose. The rest of his face looked like his own—the same the bone structure and shape of the mouth. His heart tightened. There was an undeniable biological response to looking at the face of your own child. The urge to protect him was equal or even stronger than the need he had to keep Becca safe. It was that urge that had sent him flying into their apartment the moment he’d reviewed the security videos and identified the nanny as a hit woman.

“Who was she?”

“Bad guy.”

Parker nodded wisely, stuffing pizza in his mouth. “Thought so,” he said.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Becca said automatically. She turned a narrowed eye on him. “But why would I have a bad guy for a nanny?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out.”

Becca sank into a chair, looking like she wanted to puke. She rested her head in her hands. After a long silence, she lifted her head and asked, “When can we go back to our apartment?”

“Not for a few days, and only if we know it’s safe.”

“May I go to work?”

“No.”

Becca’s face flushed and she stood up. “Look, do you have some kind of credentials I could see?”

He considered her. He had a whole stack of ID tags with credentials—FBI, CIA, local police badges, Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard IDs. He had an ID for any situation in which he might find himself. He didn’t want to show her a lie, though. She and Parker were the only people in his life who were real. And he wasn’t in their lives—he couldn’t be in their lives, but for this tiny sliver of time he was with them, he wanted to be real. He shook his head. “No, because I don’t exist.”

“Right, and the organization you’re with probably doesn’t exist either?”

He grinned. “You catch on fast.”

She blew her breath out with exasperation, sending the wispy hairs around her face flying. “We’re not staying,” she said.

Oddly, he was turned on by her defiance, the plucky lift of her chin, a slight pouting of the already full lips. Was it because he imagined disciplining her for it? The memory of their play as dominant and submissive rose afresh. He chose to ignore her defiance, though, rather than trigger the “we’re prisoners” discussion again. Redirecting the conversation, he asked, “Do you have any homework, Parker?”

“Nope.”

“Do you think she was there because of this family member I have?” Becca asked, reverting to their previous discussion.

He frowned and nodded. “Yeah, but I don’t know how yet. That’s what I have to find out.”

Parker finished wolfing down his food and now sat looking sleepy. “May I please be excused from the table?”

“Eat two more carrots,” Becca said, shoving the bag of baby carrots at him.

“What time is your bedtime?”

“Eight o’clock.”

Zac made a show of looking at his watch. “It’s just about bedtime—did you bring a book to read?”

“Yep. I brought Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot.”

“Ooh, that sounds good. Do you read that or does your mom read it to you?”

He shrugged. “I can read it, but she reads faster.”

“May I read it to you tonight?”

“Sure,” he said, sliding off his chair and trotting to his backpack. “Which room is mine?”

Zac’s eyes slid to Becca. He knew which bed he’d like her in, but that was probably not going to happen. “Let your mom decide.”

There were two bedrooms—a master bedroom with a king bed and a master bath, and a second bedroom with two beds.

“We’re sleeping in there,” Becca said immediately, pointing to the second bedroom.

* * *

“How was that?”

She made a soft humming noise.

“You could have taken more, couldn’t you?”

She lay on her belly, her ass throbbing from the spanking he’d just administered, her pussy throbbing from the pounding it had taken afterward, her limbs limp with satiated passion. She blushed and nodded. “Do you think…maybe you could use your belt next time?”

His eyebrows shot up, grin widening. “Now?”

She ducked her head, hiding her face in the bedspread and chickening out. “No, I mean, maybe later.”

He stood up, fully comfortable in his nudity, his chest and arms bronzed a golden tan from the sun. He was all lean muscle and moved with the agility of an athlete. He pulled his belt out of the loops of his discarded pants and wound the buckle end around his fist. A thrill of cold fear shot through her, but she remained as she lay, her bottom exposed to him. This is was their last night together—when else would she have the chance to play with a willing participant?

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