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Caroline Walters had no premonition her world was about to implode that balmy February afternoon.
She stood in the lobby of a new, upscale resort in Tossa de Mar, a seaside vacation spot on Spain's Costa Brava, just an hour north of Barcelona. While Caro breathed in the fragrance of the bloodred gladiolas on the table beside her, she waited for the silver BMW gliding along the palm-lined drive to pull up at the resort's entrance.
The big moment was finally here. Her first meeting with the client who'd had her and her two partners jumping through hoops for the past month!
She used the final few seconds before he arrived to check the mirror framing the gladiolas. Her honey-brown hair was smooth, with not a single tendril escaping from the heavy twist. Her green eyes gazed back at her with just the right degree of confidence. Her slim, black wool crepe skirt and matching jacket didn't show a single wrinkle.
Satisfied she looked the part of a coolly competent travel consultant and event coordinator, she flipped through the embossed leather folder she'd prepared for Rory Burke, founder and chief executive of the LA-based firm Global Security, Inc. She wanted to make sure she'd included everything Burke had requested.
Final conference agenda, check.
Resort layout, check.
Diagrams showing room setup for general sessions, check.
Additional diagrams for breakout rooms, check.
Arrival times and room numbers of all attendees, check.
Burke's hotel preregistration and room key, check.
Reassured everything was in place, Caroline closed the folder. She was primed and ready.
She should be! She and her partners had worked their buns off since this short-notice job dropped intheir laps a few days before Christmas. They'd had just a little over a month to scout locations and pull together a conference plan for the hundred-plus security agents flying in from all parts of the world.
January had passed in a blur of frantic prep work. The flurry of e-mails and phone calls with Burke's people had multiplied exponentially the first week in February. Two days ago Caro had flown to Spain to nail down the final details. In several marathon sessions with the resort's conference coordinator, she'd reconfirmed menus, special dietary considerations, room setups and audiovisual aids.
She'd also tackled the rather daunting challenge of arranging a demo facility for an assortment of lethal weapons. In a last-minute change to the conference agenda, Global Security's head honcho had added a hands-on session to test new offensive and defensive weaponry for the protection of their clients.
As its name implied, GSI specialized in providing threat analysis and personal protection for clients ranging from kings and rock stars to newspaper editors who landed on religious fanatics' hate lists. The company profile indicated its agents were drawn from the ranks of military and law enforcement in twelve different countries.
The company's CEO was equally fascinating. His bio read like a James Bond novel. U.S. Army Ranger. Special Ops duty in war-torn Bosnia. A short stint with an unspecified government agency. Advisor to the Columbian Presidential Protection Unit. Founder and chief operating officer of GSI. Now fielding highly specialized agents in Iraq, Darfur, Indonesia, Latin Americajust about every hot spot on the globe.
Somewhere along the way he'd also managed to complete a bachelor's degree in law enforcement and a master's degree in international affairs. Curiously, neither his bio nor his company Web site had included a photo of Burke or any of his operatives. Caro suspected that might have something to do with GSI's pledge to provide "complete, confidential and anonymous protection."
As a former librarian, Caroline had read more than her share of action/adventure novels. She could admire real-life James Bond types like Rory Burke. Unfortunately, her one brief walk on the wild side had produced such disastrous consequences that she had zero desire to emulate their exploits.
So she couldn't help feeling both curious about and just a touch wary of her new client. She didn't allow either emotion to show, however, as the rental car she'd reserved for him at the Barcelona Airport pulled under the resort's vine-covered portico. A polite smile firmly in place, she waited while he exited the BMW and strode through the double glass doors.
Her first thought was that Burke certainly fit the mental image she'd constructed in her head. Despite the pinstripes and Italian silk tie, he wasn't someone she wanted to encounter in a dark alley.
The hand-tailored suit only emphasized his lean, rangy build. He wore his tawny hair cut ruthlessly short. His nose was flattened at the bridge, as if it had taken a direct hit from a club or a gun butt. And when he peeled off his mirrored sunglasses, his amber eyes lasered into Caro.
A series of small shocks rippled down her spine. Those eyes. That deep golden tint. The russet outer ring around the iris. Wolf's eyes, the former librarian in her cataloged automatically, due to the high incidence of that color in wolves.
Like the eyes that had haunted her dreams for years. Mocking her. Taunting her to shed her prissy inhibitions. Tempting her to sin.
Her heart stuttered. Her breath sliced like a razor blade inside her throat.
It couldn't be him! This high-powered executive couldn't be the young tough whose motorcycle she'd climbed aboard one steamy summer night. The hot stud she gave her virginity to. The bastard who'd roared out of her life the next morning, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.
She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't think as he approached. Those wolf's eyes never left her face.
"Hello, Caroline. It's been a long time."
Oh God! Oh God, oh God, oh God!
Her mind reeled with disbelief. Everything in her shouted a denial. She gouged her nails deep into her palms and felt her body go ice-cold then blaze white-hot when Burke shot out a hand to grip her upper arm.
"But don't keel over on me."
The gruff command triggered the survival instincts Caro had been forced to develop in the aftermath of that long-ago night. She couldn't quite stop the trembling, but she clamped down on the waves of dizziness and dragged in a breath that cut like jagged glass.
"How ? When ?"
"When did I find out I got you pregnant?" he finished for her. "Three months ago."
His gaze swept the lobby, came back to her.
"This isn't the place to discuss the result of our one-night stand. Let's take it somewhere private. Am I preregistered?"
"I Uh " She swiped her tongue over dry lips. "Yes."
"You have the room key?"
She could only nod this time.
"What's the room number?"
"Five " She forced herself to breathe, to think. "Five oh eight."
He waited to relay the number to the bellman wheeling in his luggage before steering Caro toward the elevators. His hand remained locked around her upper arm. His body crowded hers in the claustrophobic cage.
She didn't say a word on the way up. She was still numb with shock, still fighting desperately to suppress the emotions that bombarded her.
She'd thought she'd put her past behind her. Was so certain she'd wiped out every remnant of her paralyzing fear when she finally realized she was pregnant, her shame at having to drop out of high school, her despair of being bundled off to a haven for pregnant teens.
She'd never gotten over the heartache of delivering a stillborn, seven-month-old baby, however. That stayed with her always. The experience had molded her into the woman she was today. Quiet. Contained. Careful.
And strong, she reminded herself grimly. Strong enough to survive. Strong enough to endure. Certainly strong enough to deal with Rory Burke.
Rory Burke. The name fit the man he'd become, but in no way could she connect it to the cocky, T-shirted eighteen-year-old who'd worked in her uncle's garage for a few weeks that long-ago summer.
"I never knew your real name," she got out through frozen lips as they exited the elevator. "My uncle and cousin always called you Johnny. Or Hoss."
Short for Stud Hoss, her shamefaced cousin had admitted later. By then it was too late.
"JohnJohnnyis my middle name. I stopped using it when I went into the army. The military isn't big on calling recruits by their middle names. Or any name except some that can't be repeated in polite company." He stopped at a set of double doors. "Five oh eight. This is it."
She fumbled in the leather folder for the key card. All her careful workthe agenda, the layout, the support setupswent unnoticed as Burke slipped the card into the lock and stood aside for her to precede him.
She'd checked out the lavish four-room suite just a half hour ago. The welcome basket still sat on the slab of polished granite that served as a coffee table. The handwritten note from the resort manager was still propped beside it. The minibar was stocked with single malt scotch, Burke's reported drink of choice. Yet Caro was too numb to absorb any of the details she'd checked so meticulously.
She dropped the leather folder on the coffee table beside the basket. With her arms wrapped around her waist, she turned to the man she'd never expected to see again.
"You said "
She stopped, cringing at the ragged edge in her voice. She wasn't a frightened seventeen-year-old, dammit! She'd survived the angry recriminations her parents had thrown at her. All those lonely weeks at the home. The wrenching loss of her baby.
In the process, she'd discovered a strength she didn't know she had. That inner core had pushed her to finish high school by correspondence, work her way through college and attend grad school on a full scholarship. During her junior year in college, she met the two women who would become her closest friends and, ultimately, her business partners. She'd built a life for herself. She owed no explanations to anyone, least of all this man.
But he sure as hell owed her one!
"You said you just found out three months ago I got pregnant."
He tossed the key card on the coffee table and yanked at the knot of his tie. "I had dinner with a prospective client. Turns out his wife's from Millburn."
Millburn, Kansas. Population nine thousand or so. The town where Caro had spent the first seventeen years of her life. The town she'd returned to only once in the years since she'd leftfor her father's funeral.
"The wife's name is Evelyn Walker," Burke said as he slid the tie from around his neck with a slither of silk on starched cotton. "Maiden name was Brown. Maybe you remember her?"
"Oh, yes. I remember Evelyn Brown."
They'd never been friends. They'd rarely talked to each other in the halls at school. But Evelyn had led the chorus of smirks and snide comments when word leaked that prim, prissy Caroline Walters had gotten herself knocked up.
"I asked the woman if she knew you."
His eyes held hers. Those compelling, dangerous eyes that had made Caro shiver every time he'd looked her over all those years ago.
"She told me you dropped out of high school at the start of your senior year. She also told me why."
"Schools weren't as tolerant of teenage pregnancies back then as they are today."
She could say it without bitterness. She'd never blamed the guidance counselor who'd called her in and told her she had to leave. Never blamed her parents for shipping her off to live with strangers. She was the one who'd tossed aside every principle, every precaution drummed into her by parents, teachers and church pastors to climb aboard a motorcycle that sweltering summer night.
"When I heard what happened, I "
A brusque knock cut into Burke's terse explanation. With a muttered oath, he went to let in the porter with his luggage.
Caro grabbed at the interruption with relief. She turned to stare through the doors that gave onto a wide balcony. The spectacular views had mesmerized her when she was scouting locations for the GSI conference last month. Now she barely registered the medieval castle brooding high on a rocky promontory at the far end of a perfect, crescent beach.
Tourists strolled the wide seawall circling the beach, admiring the remnants of a walkway first laid by the Romans when Hispania was one of its far-flung provinces. Several fishermen sat beside boats drawn up onto the sandy shore, mending their nets in close proximity to the few hearty sun worshippers stretched out on towels or blankets.
It was a picture-postcard scene, one Caro was in no mood to appreciate. But staring at the endless stretch of sky and sea gave her time to squelch her churning emotions before she faced Burke again.
"So Evelyn told you I was pregnant. Do you want to know what happened to the baby?"
"I know what happened. I ran a check of birth certificates."
Birth and death. One and the same for the stillborn baby she'd buried; only the sympathetic manager of the home was beside her.
She fought to keep the bleak memory at bay, but Burke must have seen it in her eyes. He crossed the room and stretched out a hand.
Caro's tight hold on her emotions left no room for touching. She jerked back, and he dropped his arm.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that all alone," he said quietly. "If I'd known, I would have come back to Millburn."