Christmas Confidential: Holiday Protector\A Chance Reunion (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1731)by Marilyn Pappano, Linda Conrad
Two stories of private investigators hot on the trails of the women they love just in time for Christmas!
Holiday Protector by Marilyn Pappano
The last person Miri Duncan wants to see on her first day out of jail is P.I. Dean Montgomerythe man who put her there. But when their cross-country drive turns dangerous, she can't/b>/i>/i>
Two stories of private investigators hot on the trails of the women they love just in time for Christmas!
Holiday Protector by Marilyn Pappano
The last person Miri Duncan wants to see on her first day out of jail is P.I. Dean Montgomerythe man who put her there. But when their cross-country drive turns dangerous, she can't deny that Dean's protection is good for her. But is it good for her heart?
A Chance Reunion by Linda Conrad
Who is the mysterious woman who looks so much like his dead wife? Gage Chance doesn't know, but he has to find out. And when bullets begin to fly, he'll risk his life to save hers and get to the bottom of things. Will the truth be more than he can handle?
Read an Excerpt
Walking out of the prison doors for the first time was much easier than walking in.
Miri Duncan stood in the bright afternoon sun, just soaking it all in: the grass beneath her feet, the crisp December air, the gates and tall fences of the armed fortress behind her. After 432 days, she could do what she wantedwalk down the highway in either direction, sit down right where she was, do anything or nothing. She was free.
Free. Such a heady thought.. and a scary one. She had to make decisions for herself now. Luckily, she'd been planning this day since the day she'd arrived at the women's correctional center. She had places to go and people to seethree, to be exact. Her sister, Sophy, in Copper Lake, Georgia, their brother, Oliver, in Asheville, North Carolina, and baby sister, Chloe, in Dothan, Alabama.
The nearest town was about a mile south along the highway, one of the guards had told her, so she turned in that direction. There she could catch a bus to Dallas, where a storage locker held some of her belongings. Then she would head to Copper Lake with a gift like Sophy had never seen.
The sound of an approaching vehicle made her step a few feet farther from the white line marking the southbound lane. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a silver pickup, a red-and-green wreath secured to its grille and large brown antlers affixed to the roof. The reminder that Christmas was only four days away surprised her. Once upon a time it had been the most exciting time of the year for her and her siblings, with a tree, decorations, parties and more gifts than they'd ever needed or even wanted. Mama had loved Christmas and celebrated it with a vengeance.
Until everything went wrong and neither Mama nor Miri had ever again acknowledged the day as anything but one more to get through.
Stiffening her shoulders, Miri shoved the memories back into their dark corner and focused on the days ahead. She'd had Sophy's gift ready for delivery last Christmas, before she'd found out she would be a guest of the state of Texas for the holiday. Sophy was only four years younger than Miri, so in their last months together, they'd shared the burden of caring for their family. They'd soothed the younger kids and Mama, then cried on each other's shoulders when the others slept. She was the one Miri wanted to see first. The one Miri missed most.
The sounds of another vehicle approaching caught her attention. This time she didn't bother to look but walked on, one foot scuffing the edge of the shoulder. The whine of the tires on pavement decreased, and a moment later, the hum of a powerful engine came alongside her. She didn't shift her gaze, as if ignoring the car would make its driver ignore her.
It seemed to work for a moment. The car drove past, then steered onto the shoulder, blocking her way ahead.
She stopped suddenly, hands clenching in her pockets. She knew that car. Worse, she knew its driver.
The driver's door opened slowly, and she wondered if she could run back to the prison before the man could catch her. But she would be damned if she would let him make her run. The past was done. Her debt was paid.
Lengthening her stride, she passed the car on the passenger side. Her peripheral vision caught a glimpse of black hair, a jacket that she knew smelled of old leather and felt as soft as butter. She willed him not to speak, willed herself not to hear, but that worked about as well as ignoring him.
She'd switched to her middle name twelve years ago, shortening it to Miri, thinking to make a new start as a new person. He was the only person in all that time who'd called her Miriam. She did not like it, the way it came out meer-e-yumm, any more than she liked him.
"I would have been here sooner but I got held up on the way."
She kept walking.
The car door closed, then he jogged to catch up and circle around in front of her. "Aw, come on, Miriam. No grudges, right?"
She kept walking, forcing him to move backward to stay ahead.
"Hey, give me a break, huh? I was just doing my job. At least let me make it up to you now with a ride into Dallas."
She kept walking, shoving past him when he stopped, tensing at the contact, half expecting him to grab her arm or her hand. Not disappointed when he didn't.
"I'm just trying to be a nice guy, Miriam," he called after her.
Finally she stopped, her entire body stiff. She turned to face him slowly, hands fisted in her pockets. "No one would mistake you for a nice guy, Montgomery."
Foolish enough to think she could be cajoled, he smiled that big-kid smile that got him pretty much anything he wanted from women of all ages, opened his arms in an expansive gesture and laid on the Texas drawl. "Fou used to think I was nice, Miriam. You thought I was real nice. Nice enough to kiss. Nice enough to" His shoulders lifted in a shrug.
The kicker was, he was right. He'd been charming and sexy and funny, and he had a way of looking at a person as if she were the only thing that existed in his universe. She had thought he was nice. She'd thought he might be The One.
Men were put here to break our hearts, baby, her mother used to say in her rare moments of lucidity. Miri had had experience with only twoher father and Dean Montgomeryand they'd both surely done that.
"What do you want?"
His smile disappeared into a tight-lipped grimace, and he shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. Inside the left one, she knew, were his keys. Inside the other, a stash of cellophane-wrapped peppermints. Despite the chill, he was radiating heat. He always did, as if he had too much passion for his body to contain.
"Listen, Miriam, I just want to make up a little for my part in what happened. What's the harm in accepting a ride into the city from me? Hell, I'll take you wherever you want to go. It's my way of saying I'm sorry."
He sounded sincere, but Miri had too much experience with expert liars to trust him. Her father was the best liar in the world. She was a pretty good one, too. She even lied to herself and even, sometimes, believed it.
Still, she wanted to get to Georgia before doubt had a chance to win her over to its side. Doubt said she should put the gift in a box and ship it to Sophy, that Sophy didn't want to see her, probably didn't even remember her. After all, she'd been just six when Social Services had separated them. Eventually Miri had returned home with their mother, but the younger three kids had all been placed in new homes with new families.
It had been twenty years since she'd seen her siblings, twelve years since she'd had any family at all. Just once, just for a day or two, she'd like to be with someone who'd once loved her, who might think of her or even miss her from time to time.
Just once, she didn't want to be alone.
"If you say no, I'll follow you," Dean warned. "I'm stubborn that way."
She knew that for a fact. The first time he'd asked her out, she'd said noand the second and the third. But he'd kept asking, catching her in the office, on the street outside, at the deli where she ate lunch every day, never giving up until she'd given in. Then she'd been flattered. Now she knew the real reason he'd been so persistent.
A ride to Dallas. With her guard up, what could it hurt? It would be faster than a bus, and Dean couldn't be much more annoying than a Greyhound full of strangers, could he?
"All right." She turned and marched back to the forty-some-year-old Charger that was his pride and joy, climbed into the passenger seat and fastened the seat belt, staring straight ahead. She pretended not to recognize the familiar scents of the carage, leather, cologne, Dean. She pretended not to notice when he slid into the driver's seat and turned his all-too-familiar gaze on her. Already she regretted accepting his offer, but she reminded herself again of Sophy, of the gift and all she'd sacrificed for it.
She'd been through hell more than a few times. She could bear it once again if it meant getting to her sister sooner.
Not even 432 days in prison could make Miri any less the prettiest woman Dean had ever known. Slender, graceful, delicate features, pale blond hair, big brown eyes that held a sense of.. sadness, maybe, or vulnerability. He didn't know exactly how to describe it. He just knew it had caught his interest the first time he'd ever seen her.
She didn't look like a woman who'd spent the past fourteen months in jail. She wasn't thinner than usual, paler or tougher. She wasn't any friendlier, or any less so, than he'd expected given the circumstances, but he could handle that. He had 110,000 incentives to take whatever hostility she directed his way.
Shifting into gear, he eased back on to the roadway, then kicked it up to sixty-five. With a sidelong look her way, he said, "Nice that you got out in time for Christmas. You have family expecting you somewhere?"
She gave no sign of hearing him, but he was nothing if not relentless. "I'm on my own this year. Mom and Dad are on a cruise somewhere in the Caribbean right now. Celebrating their forty-fifth anniversary."
"My sisters are all meeting at Adele's house in California, but I'm thinking three sisters, two husbands and nine kids under the age of ten are a little more holiday cheer than I want to take on." And with Miri's release coming right before the big day
Her gaze flickered to the right as they approached a road signfifty-two miles to Dallasthen she went back to staring straight ahead.
It was going to be one hell of a long drive.
He let a few miles pass in silence before trying again. "Are you planning to stay in Dallas?" He didn't know where she'd lived before coming to Texas. Truth was, considering how close they'd gotten and how fast, he didn't really know a lot about her.
He'd had no clue she was the embezzler he'd been searching for.
He sure as hell hadn't known he would be instrumental in sending her to prison.
But he wouldn't change anything he'd done. She had stolen more than a million dollars from his client's insurance brokerage. She'd chosen to commit the crime and, therefore, to accept the potential punishment. If he hadn't traced the theft back to her, someone else would have.
Though maybe, if he'd known everything, he wouldn't have gone out with her.
Nah, he probably would have. He'd never been able to resist a challenge, and she'd been a major one from the start.
Getting her to say something was a new, smaller challenge. "You can try to ignore me, Miriam, but we've got about fifty miles left, and I'm not so easy to tune out."
Finally she turned her head to level a cool, unemotional gaze on him. "I spent 431 nights in a cell block with 120 other women who talked, snored or cried all night. You underestimate my ability to tune out annoying noise."
That twinge in his gut must be hunger, because he did not feel guilty for even one of those nights. His fingers tightening on the steering wheel, he casually said, "I never underestimated anything about you, Miriam. Except your tendency toward criminal behavior. But, hey, it paid off for you, didn't it? A million bucks isn't a bad trade for fourteen months of your time."
Her gaze sharpened, her mouth pinched, then she turned away again, this time staring out the side window.
One thing he'd never known: why she'd taken the money. She hadn't used any of it to pay for an attorney, instead pleading guilty to the charge against her. Before getting caught, she'd driven an eight-year-old Toyota and lived in a cramped apartment in a neighborhood he hadn't been comfortable in without his gun. She hadn't worn designer clothes, taken any vacations since she'd started working for the company or owned any electronics besides an off-brand TV. Her only jewelry had been a cheap watch, a chain with a silver heart and a plain gold wedding band.
He didn't know if it had been hers, if she'd been married or, hell, if she'd stolen it, too.
And he didn't care. All he was interested in was the ten percent finder's fee John W. Smith had offered, both to Dean and to Bud Garvin, one of Dean's competitors in the P.I. business, for the return of his money.
Dean intended to claim it.
"Remember Trish Lewis? Sat in the cubicle across from you? She got married six months ago and delivered twins two months later. Boys."
He might as well be talking to himself for all the reaction she showed. He'd expected something. Trish had been the closest to a friend Miri had had at the company. She had also, for a while, been a suspect. He might look like all charm and no substance, but he had a few skills, including the ones needed to trace all the unauthorized financial transfers back to Miri.
A short distance ahead was the entrance to the interstate, along with a half dozen fast food joints. Remembering her fondness for small, very basic burgers, he slowed and pulled into the drive-through for the golden arches. "Want something?" Other than to be away from me?
He thought she was going to continue the silent treatment, but as he stopped in front of the order box, she relented. "A burger."
"With cheese, right?" Though he'd never known many of the details of her life, he remembered she liked burgers with cheese, coffee with cream, onion rings instead of fries, loved hot cocoa and had a wicked sweet tooth that she indulged every evening and compensated for by skipping breakfast the next morning.
And he remembered that her kisses tasted of chocolate and rich dark roast coffee, that she smelled like jasmine and felt like the finest-woven silk.
He definitely remembered his regret that she'd been arrested before he'd been able to get far enough past her defenses to have sex. He was pretty sure it would have been the best he'd had in a long time.
Scowling, he ordered four cheeseburgers, figuring if she didn't want a second one, he could polish it off. He added pop, diet for her and high-sugar, high-caffeine for himself, then tossed in an order of fries. He could always run an extra few miles.
"What's the food like in prison? I hear both good and bad about it."
He let his gaze slide over her, from the top of her natural blond roots all the way down to her well-worn tennis shoes. "It doesn't seem to have hurt you."
Ah, the muscles in her jaw twitched. It wasn't much, but it was a response. She didn't have to be friendly. She just had to lead him to the cash.
Meet the Author
Author of 80+ books, Marilyn Pappano has been married for thirty+ years to the best husband a writer could have. She's written more than 80 books and has won the RITA and many other awards. She blogs at www.the-twisted-sisters.com and can be found at www.marilyn-pappano.com. She and her husband live in Oklahoma with five rough-and-tumble dogs.
Bestseller Linda Conrad first published in 2002. Her more than thirty novels have been translated into over sixteen languages and sold in twenty countries! Winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice and National Readers' Choice, Linda has numerous other awards. Linda has written for Silhouette Desire, Silhouette Intimate Moments, and Silhouette Romantic Suspense Visit: http://www.LindaConrad.com for more info.
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I always find Marilyn Pappano a very good writer. I have enjoyed all of her book so far. Linda Conrad is a new writer to me, and I sure enjoyed this book. Will have to find more of her books.