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By JAMI ALDEN BRAVA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Jami Alden
All right reserved.
Chapter One PAIN. IT SCORCHED through his arm and across his chest. He was afraid to look down, afraid to see the extent of the damage. He could barely see. He lifted his hand to wipe the blood out of his eyes and bit back a scream. His shoulder felt like it had been torn out of its socket, and he was pretty sure his elbow was shattered. Definitely some broken ribs.
The twisted wreckage of their plane lay in a heap several yards away. The last thing Ethan remembered was smacking his head into the steering column as he'd piled into the smoothest stretch of land he could find between two knife-edged mountain peaks. He didn't know how long he'd been lying here, shivering in the frigid mountain air. Could have been minutes, could have been hours.
He pushed himself up on his still functional right arm and looked around for his copilot, Huck Finnegan, swallowing back his gorge when he saw the tall, lanky form crumpled next to the wreckage. Like Ethan, Huck had somehow managed to unclip himself from his harness and extricate himself from the wreck, but he hadn't made it very far. Even in the dim light Ethan could see the dark stain spreading under his friend's prone form.
He called out for his friend, Huck's name dissolving into a groan of agony when that simple movement sent a spear of pain driving between his ribs. His friend didn't so much as twitch. Ethan squinted up at themountains, taking stock of their situation, dread deepening as he realized how vulnerable they were. Him wounded, Huck possibly dead, sitting ducks in this one flat spot for several square miles with enemy forces running around the area like a bunch of fucking mountain goats.
The emergency beacon would have been set off by the wreck, but there was no guarantee the cavalry would arrive in time to save their asses. Though his legs seemed fine, he didn't dare get up and walk. Nothing said "come and shoot me" like a six-foot-plus white guy in the middle of Al Quaeda country. Ethan rolled onto his belly and cursed silently as he executed a slow, excruciating belly crawl over to his copilot. Thick, dark blood oozed from a wound in Huck's abdomen, and from the amount already seeping into the parched ground, it was likely his friend was already dead.
Ethan reached out his hand, closing his eyes in relief when he felt a pulse at his throat, thready but there. But not for long if he didn't get help soon. Ethan unzipped his flight suit and stripped off his T-shirt, nearly passing out as he dragged it off his fucked-up left arm. He balled up the cotton and pressed it firmly against the wound.
Huck let out a harsh groan. Ethan took it as a good sign that he still had it in him to respond to pain. "Take it easy, buddy. We're gonna get out of this."
Huck coughed, staining his lips and chin with dark blood. "I'm pretty fucked up, man."
"It's not that bad." Ethan pressed harder against the wound. He wasn't about to let his friend bleed out on this cold, barren mountain.
Off in the distance, he heard a noise-faint, pulsing, growing closer. Helicopter blades. It might as well have been angels singing.
"Cavalry's here. We're going to be fine." He prayed it was true, but Huck's color, which hadn't been good to begin with, had bleached out until he was as gray as the granite peaks surrounding them.
A sharp crack, and the dirt next to him exploded.
Ethan wrapped his good arm around Huck and launched himself for the meager cover of the plane in an adrenaline-fueled rush. The chopper peppered the area with gunfire, covering him as they came in for a landing about fifteen yards away.
It felt like fifteen miles as Ethan got his legs up under him, slung Huck over his shoulder in a fireman's hold, and ran for it. He heard a meaty thunk and felt the deep burn as his leg took a hit, the bullet ripping a hole through his left quad. He staggered, hearing his friend groan, felt the sticky warmth of Huck's blood seeping through his own clothing. He refused to go down, willing his leg not to buckle as he gunned it for the chopper. The metallic stench of blood coated his nose, and dust flew into his face, the thunder of the blades and pepper of gunshots deafening as he staggered those last desperate steps ...
Ethan jerked awake, clawing away the sweat-soaked sheets as his breath came in heavy pants. He struggled toward wakefulness, swallowing back the rising panic as he registered a dark room and unfamiliar surroundings. As he shook off the last dregs of sleep, his eyes slowly made out the dim shapes of furniture and his body registered that he was lying on a comfortable king-size bed and not the hard floor of a Blackhawk helicopter. And the low thrum he heard wasn't the sound of helicopter blades slicing through the frigid air of the mountains south of Kabul.
It was coming from the bathroom. It took him a moment, but Ethan finally recognized the steady hum as the jets on the Jacuzzi tub. Which meant someone was taking a bath.
At least, he was pretty sure that was her name. A sexy blonde in a tastefully slinky red dress, a dress that was now flung across the back of a chair on the other side of the sizable master suite. She'd been a guest at the political fundraiser he'd attended last night. But while she had paid five thousand dollars for her plate of rubbery chicken, Ethan had been on the job, running security for the event.
Like it or not, he was the pretty boy of Gemini Security and Investigations, the firm he ran with his brothers, Derek and Danny. That meant that any time a client wanted low-profile security-someone who could blend with the crowd and make conversation with the guests while ensuring the safety of all involved-youngest brother Ethan was the one they trotted out.
So he'd dragged out his tux and dusted off his social graces. At the end of the night, sexy, sophisticated Gillian had taken him home like a party favor.
He shook off the dust of his nightmare until all that was left was the buzz of adrenaline pumping through his veins. He was keyed up, strung out, and he knew the perfect way to work off the tension the dream had elicited. When he got like this, the only way to get him down was either a long run or a lusty fuck, and he sure as hell wasn't going to go home and lace up his running shoes when there was an attractive and ever-so-willing woman just a few yards away.
He slid from the bed and padded naked across the room, the humming of the jets growing louder as he got closer to the bathroom. Gillian reclined in the tub, her eyes opened into lusty slits. She'd lit about five hundred candles, and their warm light and thick scent permeated the steamy air. After their earlier energetic screw, she apparently wanted to go all romantic for round two. Whatever. He'd go along with whatever mood she chose to create. When it came to the women he slept with, he was nothing if not accommodating.
At least he would be until she started talking about relationships or commitment of any kind. Ethan Taggart didn't do relationships, or, God forbid, the self-destructive emotion otherwise known as love.
"Hey there, lover," Gillian said, stretching luxuriously, arching her back so her full, unnaturally perky breasts broke the surface of the water.
He felt his cock stir in interest as she lazily circled her water-slicked breast with her fingers. And she noticed, biting her lip in anticipation as her gaze drifted down his naked body, coming to rest on his thickening erection. She was exactly his type. A sunny blonde who kept her body well maintained and her mind unconcerned with anything too serious. The type of woman who wanted little more out of life than a good time and knew he was a man to give it to her.
He smiled, knelt down next to the tub, and picked up the sponge that rested on the edge. He dipped it under the surface and ran the sponge up the smooth skin of her thigh. Her knees parted, inviting him to drop the sponge and continue the path with his bare hand. He closed his eyes, savoring the slick smooth skin under his fingers.
This was what he needed. Not commitment, not obligation-maybe, if he was honest, not even sex. It was the touch, the feel of a woman's skin under his hand, a moment of warmth that wouldn't last past his next orgasm. Then the cold would slowly take over until, after a few days, a few weeks at most, he would find another woman, another body to share her heat, if only for a night.
He slid his hand up to Gillian's hot core, dipped his head to kiss her warm lips. She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever been with, or the most interesting but, for tonight at least, she was perfect.
Surveillance work sucked. In the course of her relatively new career as a private investigator, Toni Crawford tried to avoid it at all costs. Especially when it pertained to a cheating spouse.
Yet here she was at three o'clock on a Saturday morning, her nearly six-foot-tall frame folded up in the the driver's seat of her Honda, which felt less roomy as the hours passed while she waited for Phil Barrett to emerge from the Sheraton Palo Alto with his girlfriend on his arm. She'd already given his wife, Christine, all the proof she needed, gathered the way Toni preferred-electronically. It had been child's play to hack into Phil's e-mail account and find incriminating messages that included such pertinent information as names and dates of rendezvous as well as references to specific acts performed on said dates.
Swallowing back her distaste, Toni had printed out the messages and bound them neatly in a folder to deliver to his wife, Toni's client. That was the part Toni hated the most. Watching her client's face crumple when she found out that her suspicions were indeed true. That the man she'd promised her life to had chosen to find his entertainment elsewhere. No matter what was going on in a marriage, no matter how far apart a couple grew, Toni knew firsthand how devastating the proof of a loved one's infidelity could be.
Just once, Toni wanted to be able to go to a client and tell her that she was wrong. That she'd misread the signs, that all Toni had been able to dig up was work-related e-mails and legitimate business dinners.
It never worked out that way. The women were always right.
And so had been the case with Christine. But knowing how it was going to end up didn't make Toni's job any easier. When Christine's face blanched and her throat convulsed, Toni had resisted the urge to wrap her arm around the woman's shoulders. She didn't offer comforting words or tell the woman she knew exactly what she was going through. This was work, after all, and the woman was her client, nothing more, nothing less. The only reason she was in this business was to get paid, not to make friends.
Which was the only reason she was out in the thick dark of this balmy July night, because Christine Barrett was paying her. Even after all the proof Toni had unearthed in the bowels of Phil's computer, his wife still clung to the thread of hope that it was all a big misunderstanding. Really, it could have all been mere talk, a not-so-innocent flirtation between coworkers. There was still no proof that they'd actually done anything.
Toni sighed, took off her glasses, rubbed her gritty eyes, and marveled at womankind's particular talent for self-delusion.
But that self-delusion would pay her rent for another month. So Toni had agreed to follow Phil around to see if she could catch hubby in the act and produce photographic proof of his affair. Toni was in for a sizable bonus if she produced such proof.
And if it still felt wrong to take money to find a nail for the coffin of another marriage, Toni was sure she'd get used to it. Eventually.
After more than a week of tailing him straight home every night, tonight Toni finally hit pay dirt. Earlier in the evening, Toni had tailed him from the office to a bar in Palo Alto, where he'd met up with the coworker. After a couple of hours, the couple emerged and walked a few short blocks to the Sheraton, located right off the main downtown business district. Now it was the wee hours of the morning and the couple had yet to emerge.
Toni hefted her digital camera and once again tested the range on her telephoto lens. From her vantage point, with this lens, Toni would be able to capture the stubble on Phil's chin and the whisker burn on his girlfriend's cheek. With the camera cradled in readiness in her lap, she once again settled in to wait.
* * *
Ethan rubbed his eyes and gulped down the last of his fifth cup of coffee as he pulled up to Jerry Kramer's driveway. He'd been about to collapse into bed after his early-morning return from Gillian's house when the call had come in.
Jerry Kramer, Gemini Securities' most recent high-profile client, had called to inform Ethan that his seventeen-year-old daughter, Kara, was missing.
Now, Ethan could think of a lot of things a seventeen-year-old girl could be up to, none of them life threatening. But Kramer was worried. He'd hired Gemini to handle his family's security after his company, GeneCor, had recently come under fire by activist groups for its new product forays into stem cell research. So when Kara wasn't in her bed when the housekeeper had gone to wake her this morning, Kramer had raised the alarm.
And since Kramer was exactly the kind of client Gemini liked-deep pockets and a willingness to spread the word about Gemini among his peers-Ethan had no choice but to respond. So he had jumped into a cold shower and sucked down a vat of coffee in an effort to revive his groggy brain before heading over to Kramer's.
At this hour it took only ten minutes to drive from his place in Palo Alto to Kramer's plush estate. Though the entire neighborhood was decidedly affluent-not even a teardown shack could be found for less than one and a half million-the Kramers' mansion was beyond even the usual extravagance. Sitting well back from the street, it hinted at nothing of its luxury to passersby. A wrought iron fence surrounded the nearly two-acre property, and half a dozen oak trees not only offered shade but almost completely obscured the house from view.
The house itself sat at the end of a long, circular driveway. As he turned into the drive, Ethan frowned to see the massive wrought iron gate standing wide open. His shoulder muscles tensed under his sport coat. He'd just completed a comprehensive security evaluation for the family last week, culminating in the installation of a state-of-the-art security system that included keyless coded entry, motion detectors, and, as an obvious first line of defense, a front gate that unlocked only when the correct combination was entered into the keypad.
But what the hell was the sense of spending tens of thousands of dollars on security work if they were going to leave the fucking front gate wide open?
He bit back his irritation as he drove several hundred yards to the main house.
The acre surrounding the house was meticulously landscaped, the lawn a perfect green carpet that would have done a golf course groundskeeper proud. Brightly flowering bushes were clipped into submission, not a single leaf out of place. Beyond the lawn, the landscape was allowed to stay in its wild state until it blended in with the surrounding woods.
To the right of the house was a four-car garage. The housekeeper's Saturn was parked in front of the leftmost door, and a black-and-white police cruiser emblazoned with the Atherton Police Department shield was parked beside it.
As he approached the mahogany double doors at the house's entrance, he couldn't help but shake his head at such excess. The house was a massive English manor-style home, designed as a monument to the owner's wealth. Over ten thousand square feet for one resident. Well, three if you counted the time Kara and her younger brother spent here.
Not that Ethan had the right to judge. The house he and his brothers had grown up in hadn't been exactly modest. Their father, Joe Taggart, had made his fortune in investment banking in the late eighties, and Ethan had grown up in a world where money was no object.
Only stints in the military had kept him and his brothers from becoming the type of entitled dickheads that this town seemed to breed.
Ethan rang the doorbell and was gratified to hear the beeping of the keypad in the front entryway. At least they were keeping the house alarm on, per his instructions.
The door swung open to reveal Manuela, Kramer's housekeeper. A petite woman in her early forties, Manuela greeted Ethan with a shy smile. "Everyone is in the kitchen," she said and motioned Ethan to follow her.
The hard soles of his shoes echoed on the marble floor of the foyer before it gave way to hardwood in the hallway that led to the kitchen. He could hear a man speaking in a low voice that echoed off the high ceiling, followed by another voice, more strident. "I don't see what the hell that has to do with anything."
Excerpted from CAUGHT by JAMI ALDEN
Copyright © 2008 by Jami Alden. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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