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"I'm here to see Ethan Moore at Prescott Personal Securities." Nicole Benedict resisted the urge to wipe her damp palms on her jeans. The lobby of the posh Denver office building was cooler than the summer day outside, but the air-conditioning did little to quell her nervous jitters.
The uniformed guard tapped the touch pad on his computer screen, selecting the roster for PPS. "And you are?"
"Nicole Benedict. I don't have an appointment." And it was a good bet Ethan wouldn't recognize her name.
Heck, she'd be surprised if he recognized her face. It had only been a couple of months since they'd met at Hitchin' My Getalong, a hokey themed bar in the heart of the city, but the handsome, brooding stranger hadn't been real sober when she'd hitched her getalong up onto the bar stool beside him.
Okay, neither of them had been real sober that night. "Sign in here." The guard handed over a digital pad that reminded Nicole of the ones the courier guy used when he delivered her research supplies.
The thought brought a wince. Unless she found a new sponsor for her biofuel project at Donner High School, the research would be doomed before the school year started. Then again, ten weeks ago, the conjunction of the defunct sponsorship, her thirtyfourth birthday and the one-year anniversary of her ex-engagement to Jonah I-prefer-blondes Douglas had been the most important things in her universe.
How quickly things change, she thought as she used the plastic wand to scrawl her name, destination and the time she'd entered the building onto the pressure pad. She glanced at the blank "time out" box and tried not to wonder how long her meeting would take. What Ethan would say.
Swallowing hard, she accepted a visitor's badge from the guard and headed for the elevator. The deep blue carpet was springy underfoot. The elevator doors were made of copper-colored metal, and etched with repeating symbols that reminded her of the Navajo blanket on her bed. A classy plaque beside the call buttons bore the names of the megadollar companies that leased space in the downtown skyscraper. Prescott Personal Securities was listed at the very bottom, indicating that it was located on the top floor. Prime real estate.
Way out of your league, Nicky girl. You're suburbs. This is city. The thought came in Jonah's voice, complete with her ex-fiancé's trademark smirk, which she'd found charming for entirely too long.
"Oh, shut up," she said, and stabbed the elevator call button.
Moments later, the etched copper doors parted to reveal an aquarium. Okay, so technically it was a glass-enclosed elevator car, but Nic felt distinctly guppyish as she stepped inside and several streetlevel passersby glanced in her direction.
"Keep it moving, nothing to see here," she muttered as she hit the button for the top floor. "Just a pregnant woman in a see-through box."
She wasn't showing at ten weeks, of course, but ever since the doctor had confirmed what four athome tests had already told her, she'd felt as though she had the words unmarried and knocked-up by a one-night stand tattooed across her forehead.
The elevator doors hissed shut and the car ascended with expensive smoothness. The glass floor pressed against the soles of her sneakers, seeming hard and impersonal after the give of the lobby carpet. Unease flickered when she realized there were no supporting metal braces beneath her feet. Just more glass.
"It's perfectly safe," she told herself, scrubbing her damp palms against her jeans and tugging at her pale yellow sweater set. "Don't be a wuss."
Besides, she was pretty sure the nerves had nothing to do with the elevator and everything to do with her errand. What would she say when she saw Ethan again? More importantly, what would he say?
Nic swallowed hard and forced herself to focus on the view.
The Denver streets stretched out below, gleaming in the noonday sun. Buildings rose on either side of her, then fell away as the elevator carried her above the neighboring structures. The blue sky stretched to the edge of the city bowl miles away, where the Rocky Mountains spread across the horizon. A few clouds scudded high above, and the translucent glass paneling of the elevator made it seem as though she could stretch out and touch the fluffy white vapor.
When movement flickered in her peripheral vision, she turned, expecting a bird. Instead, she saw a snub-nosed helicopter.
Her first thought was that it had to be a traffic 'copter, but the shiny black machine didn't bear the call letters of any local station. In fact, the chopper was completely unmarked, with dull black patches where its FAA identification should have been.
Nic's heart picked up when the chopper drew nearer and the thump of rotors vibrated through the glass. She craned her neck to see if a second helicopter was filming whatever was going on. A reality show, maybe, or an action movie.
There was no sign of a camera crew as the unmarked helicopter swung around to face her, broadside.
Nic saw a pilot and two passengers, their features blurred by motion and distance. As she watched, a door rolled open and a large, muscular figure climbed out to perch on one skid. He hefted something onto his shoulder. It looked a whole lot like a rocket launcher.
Still no sign of a film crew.
Panic spurted and a scream built in Nic's throat. Disbelieving, she stumbled to the back of the elevator; her spine slammed into the control panel, and the car jolted to a shuddering halt. An alarm bell shrilled, the sound muted by her scream as the man aimed the launcher directly at her.
A disembodied voice spoke from an intercom panel above her head. "This is building security. Is everything okay in there?"
Nic shrieked, "There's a helicopter outside, and a man and he's going to"
ONE MINUTE Ethan Moore was in his little-used cube at Prescott Personal Securities, cursing his computer. The next moment, noise blasted around him like a thousand Humvees converging on a single spot, and he was sent flying through the air.
Shouting in surprise, Ethan rolled when he hit, trying to get away from pelting debris, but it was everywhere. Old training and newer instincts kicked in, laced with adrenaline as the floor shuddered beneath him and metal groaned.
A bomb, he thought, though experience told him that wasn't quite right.
He scrambled to his hands and knees, head ringing. The too-hot fabric of his cargo pants and buttondown shirt scorched against his skin. Acrid smoke stung his nose, eyes and throat, and he felt himself coughing but couldn't hear the noise over the ringing in his ears.
A second explosion ripped through the office. He ducked and shouted with rage. Disbelief. How had the bomber gotten through their security? How had
Never mind, he told himself. Logic, not emotion. Evacuate first, then figure out who's behind the attack. Though there was no doubt in his mind Tri Corp. Media was behind the attack. Over the past five months, PPS had been struggling to uncover who was behind a vicious string of murderous attacks on their protectees. Now that they were hot on the trail of several higher-ups at the huge media conglomerate, the faceless mastermind had only sped things up.
Gasping smoke-laced oxygen, Ethan dragged himself to his feet as the noise of the explosion subsided. The smoke and fire alarms cut in, shrilling over the screams and curses that rose up from the other cubes. "Everyone stay calm!" Ethan shouted in a voice he barely recognized as his own. He looked quickly around the high-tech office space, counting heads. Twelve men and women, all support staff. Most of the other PPS field agents were out chasing leads. Meanwhile, TCM had brought the fight home.
"You!" Ethan pointed to the closest sturdy-looking guy, a computer tech with a nasty gash below one eye.
"Check all the cubes. If the wounded are ambulatory, get them out. If not, come find me. And for God's sake, don't move anyone who's down and injured."
Next, Ethan located their receptionist, Angel, a twenty-something woman wearing black clothes, black lipstick and a diamond stud in her nose. Knowing her penchant for fouling up even the simplest tasks, he kept it simple. "Pop the security doors so everyone can get out. Use the stairs, not the elevators. Got it?"
The terrified-looking receptionist swallowed hard. "Where are you going?"
"To find the boss," Ethan said, and headed farther into the office suite without looking back.
He wasn't leaving without Evangeline Prescott. A few weeks earlier, her name had turned up on a list that included the half-dozen men who'd been murdered over the past few months as part of a deadly billion-dollar oil rights conspiracy. Evangeline was no investor, but the list suggested she was a target.
And the blast had come from the direction of her corner office.
Cursing, Ethan skirted the cube farm, dodging the debris and fluttering papers that swirled on the wind whipping through broken windows. The temperature rose as he headed toward the corner suite, heat crackling on his skin.
"Evangeline, are you in there?" he shouted. "Robert? You okay?"
Ethan called Evangeline's husband's name as an afterthought. He didn't know PPS's original founder well, and what he knew didn't impress him much. Robert Prescott had reappeared the previous month after having spent the past two years underground, trying to figure out who'd set him up to die in a rigged plane crash that now appeared to have been one of the earliest moves in the TCM conspiracy, orchestrated by Robert's former mentor in the world of international espionage. The way Ethan saw it, whether he was a real-life James Bond or not, a man shouldn't ever let anything except actual death separate him from the woman he'd loved.
Life-and-death danger had a way of leveling differences though, so when Ethan stuck his head through the doorway leading to Robert's office and called the man's name, he felt a sharp twist of relief when he got an answer.
"Over here," Robert said, voice cracking. The room was in shambles, with the desk overturned and wedged against one wall. The founder of PPS was trapped beneath the desk with only his salt-and-pepper hair and one blood-smeared hand visible. The hand waved and Robert's voice carried the hint of a British accent and the authority of his MI6 background when he ordered, "Get this bloody thing off me."
Emotion wanted to send Ethan bolting across the room to help his fallen comrade. Logic had him pausing to test the floor, which was tipped at an angle beneath his feet. When it seemed sturdy enough, he crossed the room, looked at how Robert was pinned, and levered a corner of the desk up and away.
After a quick field check for major injuries, Ethan hauled Robert to his feet. "Angel's got the blast doors open. Take the stairs."
Robert swiped a hand across a bloody gash on his cheek. "Bugger that. Where's my wife?"
Though Robert and Evangeline's relationship had been bumpy since he'd returned from the dead, Ethan heard the raw grief in the other man's voice. Trying not to resent Robert's right to that grief, Ethan turned away. "Let's go find her."
The men ducked out of Robert's office, crossed the short distance to Evangeline's door and stopped dead.
A low groan rattled in Robert's chest.