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Logan Carmichael catapulted into the fiery barn, sparks and large embers singeing his leather bomber jacket and burning through his jeans. He could barely see through the black smoke billowing from his right, but its heat scorched his lungs. Desperation clawed his insides as he raced toward the woman who had broken his heart three years ago. Now that he'd finally found her, he wouldn't lose her again. Not this way.
"Kat!" He grabbed her bare arm. "What are you doing? The barn won't last much longer."
She spun around, her eyes frantic at first, then widening in shocked recognition. "We've got to save the horses," she yelled over the roar of the fire and the shrill sounds of the frantic animals.
"I'm getting you out of here."
"We can still rescue them." She tugged against his hold. "Take your shirt off and cover their eyes. If they can't see the fire, you can lead them out safely. Please, Logan."
The inferno exploded through the roof on the far side. More sparks rained down. It wouldn't take long to engulf the entire building.
Barely visible through the thickening haze, two horses whinnied in fear. Logan cursed. They were running out of time. "I'll do whatever you say if it gets you out of here."
Kat twisted away and dove into the first stall. She stripped down to her tank top, then tied her plaid flannel shirt around the filly's head. Offering words of encouragement between hacking coughs, Kat backed out of the stall, hauling the terrified mare with her.
Logan took the reins and shoved Kat toward the barn door. Heat seared his hands and face the closer he got to the fire. He fought with the huge animal every step. "Call for help. I'll get them both out."
For the first time since he'd met Kat three years ago, she didn't argue. He stripped off his jacket and shirt, then went back for the second horse, while she ran to the open door. When he glanced up, he could barely make out the blue winter skies through the smoke-filled opening. The fire was moving fast.
Just before she reached the barn door, it slammed shut.
She skidded to a halt, then tugged at the door. It didn't budge. "It's locked!" Kat shouted over the roar of flames.
She pounded on the wood, screaming for help, then dissolved into fits of coughing as the toxic smoke swirled thicker.
Logan knew no one would come. This fire was no accident. That was clear the moment the door closed. Someone wanted them to burn.
"Cover your mouth with your bandana and come with me," he shouted across the large room. He used his black T-shirt to filter the sooty air and squinted through the roiling flames that licked the back and side of the wooden structure. They couldn't risk going out the front now, anyway. No telling who waited.
Logan cursed King Leopold as he threw his jacket on and pulled the two horses to the intact side of the barn. He tied them off. The conniving ruler had obviously kept more than a few secrets from Logan when he hired him to find Kat for the second time. This one might cost them their lives.
The blindfolded horses reared, then stomped down, panic-stricken, but Logan couldn't calm the animals now. Kat would have to take care of them. Fortunately, she had a mesmerizing effect on animals, because the two were crazed right now. The fire had engulfed the front of the barn in the past few minutes. He didn't have long to break through the side of the structure and get Kat and the horses out before the place collapsed or became one giant inferno.
He grabbed a sledgehammer from a stack of tools in the corner and swung the heavy mallet against the siding. Wooden boards shattered and a small hole yielded daylight. Fresh air streamed into the foggy barn. Again and again, he cracked the old beams, then kicked them free until the resulting gap was big enough for Kat and the horses to pass through. The large cool rush of air fed the fire. Flames licked closer and hotter. The horses screamed in fear as burning rafters and boards toppled and crashed closer and closer.
"Kat, the barn is going! We have to leave now!"
Coughing violently, Kat grabbed the two horses and dragged them toward the opening. At the last minute, she yanked off their blindfolds and the animals bolted through the ragged gap to freedom.
Logan had just reached for her when, with an ominous creaking sound, the metal roof directly above Kat's head gave way and a heavy sheet fell.
"Watch out!" Logan dropped the sledgehammer and leaped at her.
Kat ducked, but the metal slammed her head and knocked her to the ground. Logan lifted the hot corrugated sheet and shoved it aside.
She lay still. Far too still.
Logan scooped her into his arms and held her close against his chest as he carried her to the opening that he could barely see through his blurred vision. He tried to convince himself that his eyes only watered from the heat and smoke, and not from the sheer terror he felt at the limp form of the woman cradled in his arms.
She couldn't be dead, but she would be if they didn't escape. The fire was nearly on them now. He yanked his Glock free and almost rushed outside, but an odd sound made him hesitate at the last instant. Was that an engine? Was the person who trapped them leaving, thinking they were dead? Or had the killer seen the horses escape and moved closer?
Another rafter fell, just missing Logan and Kat, and setting the area next to them on fire. No choice. They had to leave or die. He hauled Kat over his shoulder, then palmed the gun and edged through the opening.
He didn't see anyone, but every instinct screamed imminent danger. A grove of oak stood a few hundred yards away. They'd provide cover. If he could get her there.
Just as he rushed out of the barn with her in his arms, a bullet thwacked into the wood over his head.
Around the corner of the barn, a man in a black mask took aim from the window of a beat-up red truck. Mud covered the plate.
Logan turned sideways to shield Kat and fired in one fluid motion. The bullet ripped into the man's shoulder.
He swore and his gun dropped to the ground outside the truck.
Logan quickly set Kat down away from the barn and headed for the vehicle, his gun in hand. "Get out of the truck!" Logan yelled over the roar of the blaze behind him. "Face in the dirt. Now!"
The masked man's eyes squinted at the Bowie glinting on the dashboard, then at the gun lying in the dirt. Logan could see the cogs rolling in the shooter's mind, gauging the layout between them. Logan's finger tensed against the trigger, but they both knew it wasn't a clean shot.
With a quick move, the guy dove away from the window, out of Logan's line of sight, and slammed the truck in gear. Within seconds, Texas dust kicked up as the tires spun out.
Logan took a few more shots, but the truck had gone too far for the handgun to be accurate. Heat seared Logan's back. He glanced behind him at the burning barn, redirecting the remaining adrenaline from his anger, and carried Kat to the stand of oak trees.
He sank in the grass and dirt and knelt next to her. Her head lolled to the side. The light hit her face. Her lips were tinged blue. Despite the heat pouring at them from the burning barn, everything inside him froze. "No."
In seconds, he'd slanted her head back and forced breath into her lungs. Once. Twice.
She remained still.
He clasped her face in his hands. "Don't do this, Kat! Stay with me."
The fire and shooter had almost got them. He wouldn't lose her now. He slammed two more breaths into her, willing them to be enough, then clutched her to him, rocking her against his body. "Come on. Breathe, dammit."
Suddenly, she sucked in a deep breath, shuddered and started coughing.
"Kat?" He cupped her cheek, his touch tender, his hand trembling.
Her eyes fluttered. "Look after them," she whispered. "Promise____"
"The horses are out, Kat. You saved them. You're going to be fine."
She opened her lips as if to say more, then groaned and her head fell back.
He sent up a prayer and felt for her pulse. The regular thud restarted his heart.
She was breathing more regularly, but beneath the soot, her face had gone pale as cream. He gently touched the goose egg on her head, and his gut twisted. She could've been killed. How had this happened? Logan looked around the deserted Daughtery ranch where she worked. Why hadn't anyone shown up for a burning barn?
Well, one thing was for sure. He and Kat couldn't stay here in case their attacker had friends to finish what he'd started.
"Kat, honey, wake up."
Logan willed her to regain consciousness. Her chest rose and fell, but those icy baby blues remained closed. She'd been out too long. He needed help.
He sent a code through his unit's pagers to have the doc and a full security team meet him at the rendezvous hotel. He wished he could take her to a hospital, but he couldn't risk the exposure. If she didn't wake up soon, though, he'd have no choice.
Quickly, he swept the car for bombs, grabbed the attacker's gun for evidence, then lifted Kat high in his arms. Her softness settled against him. Memories of holding her assailed his mind. He hugged her close before carefully placing her in the truck.
As he pulled out of the ranch, Logan tugged his cell phone from his pocket and tapped out a number.
"Yes," a harsh growl answered through the earpiece.
"Sergei, get His Majesty on the phone," Logan said, his own voice raspy, but his tone brooking no argument from the flunky on the other end of the call. "Now!"
A few whispers sounded in the background.
"You dare command me, Mr. Carmichael?"
Logan could imagine the tic near King Leopold's eye. The man's obvious tell showed his anger, but he had nothing on Logan's current fury. He should've known the ruler of Bellevaux was up to something when King Leopold ordered Katherine Nelson brought to him. The assignment didn't make any more sense now than when he'd instructed Logan to find her three years ago, then the king had abruptly ordered Logan to drop the investigation after he'd sent in the preliminary report.
"You better start talking, Your Majesty. You lied to me. There's nothing simple about this job, and Katherine Nelson isn't coming near you without an explanation."
"Your contract is with me. I sign your paycheck. Therefore, your loyalty is mine."
"You're not getting this. An innocent woman was nearly burned alive this morning and then shot at. You held out on me."
"Someone tried to kill her?" The king gasped. "Nothing can happen to her, Carmichael. If she dies, all is lost."
"She's not going to die," Logan snapped. "But if I'm to protect her, you have to let me in on your big secret.
What's your interest in her? Why does someone want her dead?"
The king let out a frustrated sigh. "What I'm about to tell you goes no further than us. No one in your company or your government must learn of this. Do I have your guarantee?"
Logan tamped down his urge to reach through the phone and choke Leopold. Logan's international security firm had handled dozens of highly sensitive issues for the family in the five years since he'd left the CIA. "You've never doubted my word before."
"You promised to protect my dead son," the king said flatly. "His assassination is on your head."
Logan stilled at the truth.
Prince Stefan had died in the throne room bombing. The M.O. had matched Logan's top operative and good friend, Daniel Adams. Rumors of terrorists' payoffs and betrayal still raced through the intelligence community.
For Logan, it was personal. Prince Stefan had been more than an assignment. He'd been Logan's friend, too. He didn't know what to believe. Logan found Daniel's complicity impossible to grasp, but the mounting evidence had been hard to ignore.
If the accusations were true, Logan was ultimately responsible. He'd personally sent Daniel to Bellevaux, undercover, to infiltrate the king's ranks and find the ruler's enemies.
"You have my word I'll keep Kat safe," Logan said, softly. "Your trust in me is not misplaced."
"Very well." The king took a deep breath. "With Stefan dead, I need to designate an heir by Christmas. If I do not choose someone with a royal bloodline, my country loses its sovereignty and will be divided between Germany and France."
Awareness of what the king was about to say hit Logan like a fist to the gut. His dream of a second chance with Kat destroyed before he acknowledged wanting it. "You don't mean that Kat is"
"Katherine Nelson is my daughter," the ruler of Bellevaux said. "She is the sole surviving heir to the throne."
Logan's hand reached over and caressed Kat's smooth cheek. She was still beautiful, but now out of reach. He had only one job. Protect her. With two attempts on her life in the last half hour, Kat might be the sole heir, but someone didn't intend for her to survive for long.
The pillows were soft, the blanket plush and thicknothing like the cheap, scratchy wool throw on her bed at home. Kat ran her fingers over the mink-soft cover. She didn't want to open her eyes. She'd been having the weirdest dream. She had to wake up, though. Something was wrong. She just couldn't remember what. She groaned, hating the headache that made her dread opening her eyes. Everything within her rejected the idea of letting in the light.
Her head throbbed, and her throat was raw. She raised her hand to her forehead, then slid her fingers over and pressed them against the bandage covering her left temple. She winced as she probed the injury. She tried to move her other hand, but something weighed it down.
Kat forced her eyes open, blinking painfully as light speared into her skull. A quick glance revealed an IV pole hanging beside her, hooked to her arm. Panic hit. Was she in a hospital? She couldn't afford one. How long had she been out? Where were her children?
She struggled to a seated position and tried to make sense of the room spinning around her. This looked more like a hotel than a hospital.
What was going on?
She couldn't think clearly. Something important. She had to remember. Her thoughts scattered. She felt drugged. Whatever medication was in that IV had to go. She pulled at the bandages until she freed herself from the tube and the needle.
A voice filtered in from the next room.
"Rafe, I want you and Hunter on this one. I need people who know the players and the stakes."
It couldn't be. The voice from three years ago. A voice that made her shiver with longingand hurt. She'd thought never again to see the man who'd nearly stolen her heart. Logan Carmichael.