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Deputy Reese Kirkpatrick stiffened when he felt something hard jam into his lower back. He started to turn when a voice whispered in his ear, "Get on the floor or the baby's mama gets a bullet."
Stiffening, his adrenaline in sudden overdrive, Reese looked around and saw a young woman with a baby in a carrier standing in front of the teller's window. As his adrenaline spiked, details came into focus. The teller's nameplate said Lori Anglero. The woman with the baby had soft blond hair that fell to her shoulders in pretty waves. The man behind him had bad breath and needed a shower.
Reese's time as a cop on the streets of Washington, D.C., now served him well. He didn't even blink. "You think this is going to work for you?"
"Yep. You're the only man in here. I don't need you having a hero complex because I'm trying to do this without killing anyone. But I will if I have to. On the floor. Now."
The door chimed one more time, and Reese caught sight of two more masked men entering the First National Bank of Rose Mountain.
"Everybody down! Now!" The man behind Reese gave him a hard shove.
Reese dropped, grateful he wasn't wearing his uniform and that the gun hidden under his coat in the small of his back had gone undiscovered.
Screams echoed and Reese saw the woman in front of Lori's window drop down to become a human shield for the baby.
"Down! Down!" The man who'd taken Reese by surprise aimed his gun and pulled the trigger.
The bullet slammed into the wall above Maggie Bennett's head. With a scream, she tightened her protective stance over her eight-month-old daughter's carrier.
Terror spiraling through her, Maggie whipped her head to the left to see three gunmen in black masks. One stood by the door, his broad shoulders and tight grip on the pistol in his left hand saying he'd be a force to reckon with. Another, tall and lanky, hovered in a threatening stance over the man on the floor. The third held his weapon in a way that said he knew how to use itand would. The tall, skinny one with his weapon trained on the man on the floor grunted, "Charlie, get the cash."
Charlie leaped over the counter. As he did, his foot caught the nearest silver pole holding the red velvet ropes used to separate customers into lines. The pole crashed to the tile floor with a loud clang, and Maggie cringed. Charlie cursed, regained his footing and pointed the gun in bank teller's terrified face. "You deaf? I said get down!"
The teller dropped.
So did Ashley O'Neal, the other teller who'd been so friendly to Maggie last Sunday at church.
At three o'clock on a Monday afternoon, Maggie and the man now on the floor were the only customers in the bank. She watched his hand angling under his heavy suede jacket.
What was he doing?
Her eyes darted from robber to robber, to the door then back to the man on the floor.
There was no security guard and no help in sight.
The broad-shouldered one who stood by the door appeared to be in charge. He jutted his chin toward the man on the floor. "Cover him, Slim. He looks like he might be thinking he wants to put up a fight."
Still hunched over Belle's carrier, Maggie felt strangled by her fear and she wasn't sure what to do. She was frozen in place, watching the incidents playing out before her as though they were on a big screen and she was in the audience.
But she wasn't. This was real. And it was happening to her.
Her first reaction was to look for a way to protect Isabella. Her second to silently screech out a desperate prayer as she slumped to the floor next to the fallen pole, keeping herself between the men and her baby. Her foot became entangled in the rope now snaking the floor, but she ignored it. Her only thought was to keep her cool and survive. Old instincts surfaced, and a chill that matched the November air outside the bank swept through her.
As her eyes jumped from one robber to the next, she let her gaze land on the other bank customer. He lay still, left hand away from his side, right still hidden by his jacket. His sharp green eyes took in the unfolding scene. Maggie could see the tension in his shoulders and face and prayed he didn't do something stupid, like try to be a hero.
He'd get them all killed.
"You!" Charlie yelled at the teller who'd been helping Maggie. "Stand up!"
The woman obeyed, tears tracking her cheeks, hands raised as she backed up away from her station. "D-don't shoot me. Take what you want."
Slim continued to hold his gun on the man on the floor while Charlie threw a large bag at Maggie's teller. "Load it up. Now."
The woman caught it, fumbled it, shot a terrified glance at the man, then went to work. Even from her spot at the last teller station next to the wall, Maggie could see the woman's hands shaking.
"Hurry up!" The lookout man next to the door shifted, the chink in his calm demeanor grabbing Maggie's attention. So he wasn't as cool about this as he'd first appeared.
Charlie shot him an aggravated look, his eyes piercing and hard behind his mask. "Just watch the street."
Then he turned back to jab the teller with his weapon. "Move! Move! This ain't a tea party!"
Lori's hands shook so hard Maggie was afraid she'd drop the cash and the man would shoot her. She almost offered to help but bit her tongue. As long as Lori was getting the money in the bag, Maggie would stay quiet and keep her body covering Belle's. She darted a glance in the direction of the offices. One door was closed. The bank manager in hiding?
She prayed that no one else would walk in and this would all be over in a few seconds. Dark spots danced before her eyes, and she realized that she was holding her breath. She gasped in air. The dancing spots disappeared, but Belle started to cry. Maggie froze.
The lookout lifted his gun and pointed it at her. "Shut the kid up."
Immediately, Maggie knelt and unbuckled Belle from her car seat. Picking her up, she settled the baby against her and turned her back to everything going on. Belle sniffed and lay her head on Maggie's shoulder, thankfully content to be out of the carrier and to suck on the pacifier Maggie shoved in her mouth.
Maggie glanced over her shoulder as Charlie hauled himself back on the other side of the counter and held up the bag. "Got it!" His gaze landed on Maggie and she stilled, not liking the look in his eyes.
Slim spoke. "Get the other drawer."
"We don't have time for that, Slim," the lookout protested. So maybe Slim was the one in charge?
Charlie ignored his partner and slung the bag back at the teller who moved to the next drawer.
Sirens sounded and the three masked men exchanged a glance. Slim growled, "Who tripped the alarm? Who?"
The robber nearest the door immediately turned and disappeared through it.
Maggie saw the well-built customer on the floor clench his jaw even as he slowly moved his hand back under his jacket.
The door burst back open. "The cops are almost here! I got the car! Let's get this done!"
Slim looked up and his gaze slammed into Maggie's. "Get over here."
She froze once again, arms gripping Isabella too tight. The baby hollered her displeasure, and Maggie shushed her even as her eyes met the narrowed brown ones of the man who'd ordered her to move.
"My name's Reese Kirkpatrick. I'm a cop. You've got what you want, you'd better leave while you can."
Maggie jerked her gaze to the man on the floor. He'd been silent throughout the whole ordeal. Silent and watchful. Slim raised his gun and brought it crashing down toward Reese's head. Reese rolled. Slim missed and stumbled, his finger jerking the trigger. The weapon bucked in his hand, the bullet shattered the tile floor beside Reese's left leg.
Reese now had a weapon pulled and aimed at Slim. Without a word, he pulled the trigger.
Slim screamed and jerked as his gun tumbled to the floor.
Charlie whirled and dropped the bag of money as he moved toward his wounded partner. He lifted his weapon, aiming toward Reese who was now moving across the floor toward Slim. Charlie's left leg stepped in the midst of the red velvet ropes.
Without thinking of the possible consequences, Maggie jerked on the rope.
Charlie went down hard, the back of his head cracking against the floor. Reese lunged for Slim and snagged the mask. It came off and Slim howled his outrage even as he landed a lucky blow with his good hand to Reese's solar plexis.
Reese grunted and stumbled back, gagging. Slim looked like he might go after Reese again, but the screaming sirens outside seemed to change his mind and with a final glance at the unconscious Charlie, and a hard glare at Reese, he backed toward the door, hand held tight against the wound in his shoulder. "I'll kill you for this!" His gaze landed on Maggie and she flinched when he said, "Her and the kid, too!"
Reese finally got his feet under him, snatched the weapon from the unconscious man on the floor, then stumbled after the wounded robber. But by the time he hit the door, the man was in the car. The door slammed shut halfway down the block.
Reese whirled back into the bank and checked to make sure Charlie was still out cold.
Next he checked on the woman with the baby. She sat on the floor, eyes dry, jiggling her infant in her lap. He noticed the ringless left hand. And wondered why he would notice such a thing at a time like this. "Are you all right?"
She lifted soul-deep dark brown eyes to his and the fear in them felt like a sucker punch to his midsection. Her low "Yes" vibrated through him. Then she drew in a deep breath and a tinge of color returned to her pale cheeks. "Yes, we're all right. Thank you." Then the baby turned her attention to him, spit out the pacifier, stuck a finger in her mouth and grinned around it.
This time it was a blow to his kidneys.
He nodded and turned, hoping his desperate need to get away from them didn't show on his face. He forced his mind to the matter at hand. Thank goodness she'd kept her cool over the last few minutes. If she'd been the hysterical type, they might all be dead. His ringing ears testified to just how close the gun had been to his head when it went off. He just hoped the ringing wasn't permanent.
"Is it over?" One of the bank tellersthe one named Loripeered over the edge of the counter, mascara streaking her cheeks.
Grateful for the interruptionand the fact that he heard her, Reese nodded. "All except for the cleanup."
More tears leaked from her eyes and he saw her lips move in a grateful, whispered prayer.
Rose Mountain Police cruisers pulled in. Eli Brody, sheriff of Rose Mountain, bolted from the first one like he'd been shot from a cannon. The man strode toward him and Reese quickly filled him in. Eli snapped orders into his radio and two cruisers immediately headed out after the escaping getaway car. He then marched toward the other two officers, leaving Reese to question the tellers.
The quiet words captured his attention and he turned to see the woman with the baby gazing up at him. Clearing his throat, Reese said, "You're welcome."
"I'm Maggie Bennett." She shifted and before Reese could gracefully slip away, she blurted out, "Was he serious? Do you think he'll come back and" She bit off the last part of the sentence, but the fear lingered and he knew exactly what she was asking.
Reese shook his head. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. All those guys care about is getting away."
Doubt narrowed her eyes. "But we made him really mad. And you have one of his partners in custody because I interfered. We saw his face. You honestly don't think they'll be a tad upset about that?"
So she had spunk and she wasn't comforted because he told her what she wanted to hear. She wanted the truth, no matter what. He liked that.
He said, "All good points. The fact is, I don't know. We'll take precautions, get his picture from the bank camera and distribute it around the town. But as for whether he would really come back here.. " He shrugged. "I'm sorry, I can't tell you."
"No, you can't." A sigh slipped out and she placed a kiss on the baby's forehead.
A baby girl with big brown eyes like her mama.
A knife through his heart wouldn't be any more painful. He had to get away. He'd come to Rose Mountain to escape memories of a wife and baby who were no more. Grief was sharp. Growing up in foster families, all he'd ever dreamed of was having a family of his own. And he'd had that for a while. Until they'd died.
"What's your baby's name?" He couldn't help asking.
"Isabella. But I call her Belle."
She said the name with such love that his heart spasmed once again. "That's a pretty name."
Her face softened as she looked at the baby in her arms. "Thanks. It was my mother's."
Was. Past tense. Her mother was dead. He recognized the pain in her eyes. The same pain he saw when he thought about his own mother who'd died when he was nine. Clearing his throat, he asked, "Do you need to call someone? A husband or ?"
"No, no one." A different sort of pain flashed in her eyes for a brief moment and Reese wondered what that story was. Then he blinked and told himself it wasn't his business.
A bank robbery was.
She was saying, "You said you were a cop. I don't remember seeing you around here before."
"It's my first week." He shook his head. "I just moved here from Washington, D.C. One of Eli's deputies quit, he needed another one and asked me if I'd take the job." He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. "Eli caught me at the right time. I was ready for a change." Eli said he'd seen something in Reese that had been familiar, something Eli had experienced only a few years before. Burnout.
A weariness of the soul. And grief.
And why was he sharing this with her? There was something about the way she looked at him. As though she really cared about what he had to say.
"Maggie, are you all right?"
Reese snapped his head around, and Maggie's gaze followed his to see Eli bearing down on them. The man's thunderous expression said the bank robbers had escaped.