Nicholas McFadden scaled the six-foot privacy fence with ease. Glock in hand, he surveyed his surroundings and hit the ground running. Stone pavers wrapped around a covered pool in the center of the yard, and benches with built-in flower boxes curved around a fire pit to his left. A pergola arched above the outdoor kitchen. He jumped the two steps of the deck. The only blind spot was to his right.
Backing against the house, he cautiously moved along the wall before stepping out, gun ready to fire. All clear. Returning his weapon to the holster, he felt beneath the planter for the key. Nothing. Had his boss been wrong about the hidden key? Or did Capri get here first?
Nick pulled out his tools to pick the lock. His hands shook. His heart pounded. He tried to insert the metal in the lock and missed. He leaned his head against the glass pane of the French door. Focus, man, focus. It’s only another day on the job.
Taking a deep breath, he calmed the adrenaline rushing through his body. Glancing over his shoulder, he laughed at himself. The short dash across the yard hadn’t caused this. It was the anticipation of seeing her again. From the moment he had heard her name—Brittany Fitzpatrick—his heart had been racing.
Get a grip, McFadden, she’s just a woman. No! Not just any woman. She was his angel. The only one to make him believe in love. Love! Where had that come from? He mentally smacked himself on the back of the head. Love was a word for fools. More like lust at first sight. He smiled. Lust, no doubt about it.
Get your head in the game, McFadden. You won’t be any good to her if you’re dead. Nick glanced around the yard. Nothing like standing here and making himself an easy target for Capri’s goons.
He forced all thoughts of the past out of his mind. In less than a minute, he jimmied the lock and slipped in. Brittany, Brittany, Brittany, why don’t you have an alarm system? You would think the granddaughter of a judge would have more sense.
He pocketed his sunglasses, locked the door, and looked around. Open floorplans made his job so much easier. Other than the closed doors, the kitchen island created the only blind spot between the back and front entrances. Gun drawn, he looked over the countertop. No mystery guest.
He ran his hand down the quartz countertop. Had she made breakfast here? Nick took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the same air she’d inhaled. There was a hint of vanilla and something soft and feminine. Not the same scent he remembered. He rolled his eyes. Had he really thought her house would smell like cocoa butter?
To his right was a small alcove. A cushioned bench curved its way beneath the bay window. A half-empty cup of coffee and a newspaper sat on the table. His eyes lingered on an open Bible. Strange.
Cautiously, he opened each door: pantry, bathroom, and garage. He barely glanced at the baby blue sectional sofa on his way to the front of the house. To the left of the front door was a closet, her study was to the right, and at the back of the room, a single French door led to her art studio. Down the hall was a bathroom between two bedrooms, each with French doors leading to the deck. He paused, hand on the doorknob of what was surely her room. His heart skipped a beat when he entered the master bedroom. One glance at the bed and visions of what almost happened between them flooded his memory. He backed out. Nick leaned against the wall, taking a deep breath, before speaking into the microphone hidden in his watch, “All clear,” he whispered, and hurried to the safety of her study.
“Wish I could say the same,” his partner Miles responded. “A few minutes after she left the Maryland Institute of Art, she picked up a tail.”
“Man, why can’t this ever be easy?”
“We’re about ten minutes away from you.”
“Okay, I’m ready for her.”
“After the rough time you had in Mexico, I’m surprised you took this job.”
“You know me…”
“Right. Always first in line if there’s a pretty woman involved.”
Nick harrumphed. If you only knew.
The sheer curtains in the study gave him a clear view of the street. Nick cursed under his breath.
“Capri has his boys sitting a few houses down.”
“Of course, I’m sure. I’d know Tommy’s old Camaro anywhere, and I bet George is with him. Who does Capri have trailing Brittany?”
“Anthony and Dino.” Miles said a few choice words before continuing, “Guess your pal Vincent figured this would be a quick grab and go. If he’d known you were on the job, he would have sent his A-team, not his goof squad.” Miles chuckled. “Can you imagine what Capri is going to do when he finds out you’ve taken her right out from under his nose?”
“I plan to be long gone before then. Tell me again why I’m here. Wouldn’t it have been easier to pick her up from work?”
“Too many people at MICA. You know full well the Capris have no problem killing innocent bystanders. Plus, Carl and her grandfather think you’ll have more than enough time to allow her to pack a bag…”
“What! Are they crazy?”
“Her normal routine is to go for a run about a half hour after getting home. That’s your window to get her out of there. Any longer and they’ll get tired of waiting and come in after her.”
“Half an hour is more than enough time. She knows I’m here, doesn’t she?”
“Her grandfather is taking care of telling her.”
“Good. I hate surprises.” Nick glanced around the study. Bookshelves lined the wall behind her desk and her artwork hung on the opposite side of the room. A painting of a woman kneeling in prayer with Jesus standing in front of her, His hand on her head, caught Nick’s attention. Had she gotten religious? Two framed photographs sat on her desk. He picked up the family photograph and traced the outline of her face, whispering, “Brittany Fitzpatrick.” It’s time to finish what we started.
“Ever since Carl mentioned her in the briefing, I’ve had the feeling I’ve heard her name before. Do you remember her?”
Ignoring Miles’ question, Nick said, “We’ll be going out the back door. Make sure it’s clear.” Nick muted the microphone. No need to have Miles hear their reunion. He studied the photo. Age had not erased the sweet innocent look that haunted his dream. It had been years since their brief interlude. Ten years and plenty of unfinished business between them.
Beside Brittany stood her cousin, Carissa Hathaway. The two of them made a striking contrast—Carissa the green-eyed blonde, and Brittany the blue-eyed brunette—though their looks weren’t what set them apart. Even in the picture, you could see the difference. The scheming Carissa, and the sweet…
No! He wouldn’t let those innocent blues deceive him again. Brittany had the look of an angel, but he knew firsthand she could be every bit as cunning and conniving as Carissa. He put the photograph down. “This time, sweetheart,” he said, watching her red Mustang pull into the driveway, “I’m prepared for you.”
Was he? Then why was his heart pounding? He turned from the window, no time to wonder; in a few minutes, he would be face to face with his angel. Or his demon.
Stepping from her Mustang, Brittany glanced around. Ever since she’d left school, she had an eerie sensation of being watched. Although she hadn’t seen anyone following her, she couldn’t shake the feeling. She palmed the small canister of mace attached to her key ring. Roland Park was a safe neighborhood, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
Brittany grabbed her briefcase, purse, and the stack of art folders then hurried up the walk. A gust of cold air blew her long hair into her face and threatened to rip the folders from her hands. Her tights felt frozen to her legs. She should have pulled into the garage. At least it would have protected her from the wind and prying eyes. She scrutinized the few cars parked down the street. Stop being a paranoid baby.
She fumbled with the front door key and heard the inside phone ring. Entering the house, she slammed the door shut with her butt, and quickly locked it. Dropping her briefcase by the door and the folders on the hall table with her keys, she rushed to the telephone.
“Hello,” she said breathlessly. “Hello?” The only answer was a dial tone. She checked caller ID—her grandfather. She would call him back in a few minutes, after her nerves calmed.
What’s wrong with you? She double-checked the lock before hanging her coat in the closet. Peeking out the glass panel beside the door, she glanced up and down the street. Nothing. As she turned from the door, the nape of her neck tingled. Maybe instead of a run, she ought to start grading these art projects. It would be much safer.
Eyeing the mace, she said a silent prayer. Dear Heavenly Father. You’ve taught me to trust my instincts… so if you’re trying to tell me something… now would be a good time!
Picking the mace up along with everything but her purse, she took a deep breath. At the study, she pushed the door open with her foot. A few steps into the room, she heard a movement behind her. Panic spun her around; dropping everything but the mace, she sprayed wildly and lunged for the door which clicked shut behind her.
A man’s arm came down around her, pinning her against him. His other hand grabbed hers as he fought for control of the canister. The spray hit her face. Brittany screamed. Her lungs were on fire. The canister dropped to the floor.
She gasped for breath, tears streaming down her face. She couldn’t open her eyes. Her attacker held both her hands firmly in one of his. There was no escape. Suddenly she was lifted from the floor. Her legs kicked, but it was as if it didn’t even faze him. She barely registered the opening of the study door, and then they were running. Fear like nothing she had ever felt gripped her. Where was he taking her? Please God, not the bedroom!
A quiet voice in her spirit whispered, Be still.
A calm settled over Brittany. God was with her. The attacker released his hold on her hands. As he put her down, she lunged away, hitting something hard, she reached out, feeling for a way out. She was in the bathroom; the door was to her right. Could she escape? His arm came back down around her, pinning her between him and the sink. She heard the faucet, and then felt his hands splashing water into her face. “Keep this up until the burn stops.”
Confusion swirled through her. Why was her abductor being nice?
The man pulled her hair away from her face. “I’m sorry, angel.”
Brittany’s heart constricted, whether from fear or excitement, she couldn’t tell. She recognized that voice. She forced her eyes open. Glancing into the mirror, she couldn’t trust her vision. “Nick?”
He grinned. “Wasn’t sure you would remember me. It’s been a long time.”
“Has it?” She tried to calm her pounding heart.
“Ten years, four months and…”
“You know how long it’s been?” she sputtered in surprise.
Nick winked. “I never forget unfinished business.”
The last time they were together, they had almost… Brittany watched color flush across her cheeks. His body pressed up behind her. She shut her eyes. His closeness made it impossible to think. She tried to move away, but his arms were around her, his hands holding hers.
Nick stepped back. He reached for the soap. “Wash the mace off your hands and face.” He went to the second sink and did the same. “Do you always carry mace inside your house?”
“Why are you in my house?”
“I’m rescuing you.”
Brittany cringed at the sight of her red face and swollen eyes then glanced at Nick’s reflection in the mirror. “Looks like the only person I need rescuing from is you!”
“I’m sorry.” Nick’s hand brushed hers and a spark sped straight to her heart. He jerked his hand away, but his gaze held. Gingerly, he placed his hand on her elbow, guiding her out of the bathroom and back to the study. A few steps from the window, he stopped and pointed. “See that car a few houses down? Inside it are Tommy and George, Vincent Capri’s men.”
Brittany involuntarily touched her shoulder. The bullet Vincent had meant for Nick had hit her instead. She thought after saving Nick, he would have forgiven her, but he hadn’t. “What makes you think I need rescuing from someone sitting in a car?”
“They’re waiting for you to go for your afternoon run. Once you do, they’ll start to follow you, and when you turn the corner there are two others waiting to grab you.” He glanced at his watch. “We only have about twenty minutes before they get restless and come looking for you.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I know how they think.” He guided her back toward the door, “We have to go, before they get tired of waiting.”
Brittany jerked her arm away. “What do they want with me?”
“Haven’t you been listening to the news?”
She shook her head.
“The Capris were released from prison this morning.”
“Well they’re out and the first thing on their agenda is revenge.” Nick looked at Brittany. “They vowed to make your grandfather pay for their heavy sentencing.”
“An idle threat.”
Nick picked up the photograph of her parents from her desk. “Your parents were killed by a family member of someone your father sent to jail, and you talk about idle threats.” Putting the picture back, he continued, “Capri’s men are sitting right outside your door, and unless you want to hang around to see how idle that threat is, I’d advise we get out of here. We’ve wasted too much time already.”
Backing away from him, she said, “How do I know you aren’t with them? You break into my house and attack me.”
“Whoa, you attacked me. I just defended myself.”
“You were hiding behind the door. What did you expect me to do? Turn around and say, ‘Hi Nick, nice to see you’?”
He laughed. “I wasn’t hiding. You opened the door, as I was about to—” He touched her arm, “We need to get out of here.”
She took a step back, hitting the wall. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“The last time I saw you, you were making a drug deal with Vincent Capri and now I’m supposed to believe you just happened into my house to save me from him?”
He pointed to the bulletproof vest with PSA written across the front. “If this isn’t proof enough that I’m with the good guys, then you probably won’t believe this either.” Reaching inside his bomber jacket, he pulled out a leather case. With one easy motion, he flipped it open, and handed her his Private Security Agency’s badge. Brittany studied it front and back. She knew how easy it was to get a fake ID. But a vest?
“Happy?” Nick placed his hands on the wall beside her shoulders. Although he wasn’t touching her, he had her pinned. She could barely breathe. The rich warmth of his expression was straight from her dream. He gently ran a finger down her cheek to her lips. She closed her eyes. This wasn’t the Nick she had fallen in love with.
She smacked his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”
His arm came down on her shoulder. “Time’s a wasting, and we need to go.” He guided her down the hall. “I have orders to let you pack something. I recommend doing it quickly.” Pausing at the door to her bedroom, he added, “I believe this is your room.” His eyes ran the length of her, taking in her sweater dress, tights, and ankle boots. “That dress is very becoming, though you could do without the tights.” A soft smile crossed his lips. “It’s a shame to cover up…” He laughed. “Never mind. Unless you want to climb the fence in your dress, I would advise you change.”
“Why would I be climbing the fence?”
“It’s not like we can walk out the front door now, can we?”
“I’m not undressing with you in the room!”
“That’s not what you said ten years ago.”
“A lot has changed in ten years.” She glared at him. “I’m not the same foolish child.” Someone needed to tell her heart that. It felt like the same foolish heart.
Nick laughed. Sitting on her bed, he nodded toward the bathroom. “Change quickly. We have to go.”
Grabbing her clothes, she entered the bathroom and slammed the door.
“Hope you grabbed something comfy. It’s a long drive to your family’s Colorado estate,” he called out, loud enough for her to hear through the door.
Brittany quickly changed into black yoga pants, a long blue sweater, and white t-shirt. Coming from the bathroom, she asked, “There’s no place safe between here and Colorado?”
She tried not to look at Nick lying on her bed. She had dreamed of this day, prayed for this day, but not like this. In her dream, he swept her off her feet, told her he loved her, and they lived happily ever after.
He checked his watch. “Five minutes to get out of here. I’ll help you pack.” He rose from the bed. “What’s this?” he said, picking up a book from her nightstand. Brittany bolted across the room, grabbing for it. Nick laughed and held it over her head. “Hot book, huh? Let’s see.” He opened it at the bookmark and his mouth fell open. He scooped up the photo booth pictures taken the last day they had been together. “You still have these?”
“Obviously.” She tried to grab them.
He held the photos over his head. “Any reason why you use them as your bookmark?”
“No!” How could she tell him in every book she read, her hero had his face? Not that she needed the pictures to remember what he looked like; the vision of him was branded forever into her heart.
“Interesting.” Putting the photo strip into his jacket’s inner pocket, he said, “We’ll finish this later.” Looking at his watch, he added, “Get your overnight bag. Now.” The house phone rang. “Don’t you have a cell phone?”
She started toward the ringing. “Of course I do, but I forgot to turn it back on when I left school. It’s probably my grandfather again.”
“You can call him from the car.” Nick rolled his eyes. “He was just going to tell you about me.” He rushed her out of the room and back into the study. A quick look out the window confirmed Capri’s henchmen were still waiting. “Ironic, isn’t it? Every time we meet, Vincent Capri is involved. Just think if you hadn’t blown my bust…”
“So, you haven’t forgotten?”
“Forgotten! I almost had him red-handed, until you showed up.”
Brittany put her hands on her hips. “How was I to know you weren’t a lifeguard, but a D.E.A. agent?”
“What were you doing there anyway?”
“Instead of condemning me, you should be thankful. If not for me, you’d be dead.” Brittany backed out of the study.
Nick punched the air. “Idiot.”
Nick pointed to his earpiece. Unmuting his microphone, Nick grabbed Brittany by the hand. “Let’s go.”
Brittany reached for her purse just as the front door shattered. Nick spun, pulling her behind him.
Nick fired. The gunman fell backward, blood spattering everywhere.
Brittany threw her hands over her mouth, trying not to scream. Her purse fell to the floor. Nick’s arm wrapped around her waist, half lifting her, and made a dash to the kitchen. “Get behind the island as fast as you can.” They were almost there when the back door flew open. Nick shoved her behind the island and started firing.
Brittany cowered in fear. Please God, help us.
She jumped when Nick touched her arm. “Let’s go, sweetheart.”
“Is it over?”
“No, this is just the beginning.” Nick paused at the back door. “Miles, where are you?”
“Chasing after Anthony. Not sure where Dino is.”
Warily, Nick checked the backyard before taking Brittany by the hand and leading her from the house. Brittany froze as they started down the steps, panic rising at the sight of another dead man. She wanted to scream, but nothing came out.
“Brittany, look at me. Look at me.” He lifted her face. “Don’t look at him.” He wrapped his arm around her, shielding her from the body. Pushing her in front of himself, he said. “Run for the fence.”
She took off, Nick right on her heels. Before he could boost her over the fence, someone yelled, “Look out!”
Nick pushed her to the ground. She watched in horror as the man fired and another man fell through the covered pool. Nick gave the man a quick nod of thanks and she saw him raise three fingers. Were there more?
He helped her up and over the fence. No sooner had he cleared it, than another shot rang out. Nick threw his arm around Brittany, his body sheltering her as they hid behind a woodpile. Crouching in fear, Brittany never stopped praying. Somewhere above the pounding of her heart, she heard the faint sound of a siren. Thank you, God, for sending help.
“Let’s go before Vincent calls in reinforcements.”
Brittany tried to calm the hysteric sobs in her throat. “The police are coming. We’ll be safe now.”
“You’re safer with me.”
“No time to argue.” Nick grabbed her hand and started to run. She stumbled. “Need me to carry you?”
She shook her head. Not missing a stride, he wrapped his arm around her waist. She had no choice but to run with him.
“The car is just beyond this yard.” He gave her a reassuring squeeze. “You’ll be safe then.”
She stared at the gun in his hand. Fear swirled through her. Please God, protect us from all harm.