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Lynette Herrington's eyes flew open, and she jack-knifed to a sitting position in her bed. Something had caused her to wake up. But what?
With her breath gusting, her heart racing, Lynette glanced round her bedroom and then at the clock on the nightstand. Just past four in the morning.
Outside, a bad storm was playing havoc with the massive oaks on the side of her country house. The wind slapped at the branches, fanning them over the security lights mounted on the eaves. Rain slithered down the windows and made snaky shadows in the room.
"It's just the storm," she mumbled. That's what had pulled her from a deep sleep.
But something about that explanation didn't feel right.
She reached for the lamp switch, but the sound stopped her cold. It was hardly a sound at all, and the storm practically drowned it out, but Lynette was positive she heard something she didn't want to hear.
A single footstep.
"Don't scream," someone warned her. It was a man. And he was right next to her bed concealed in all those rainy shadows. "I won't hurt you."
Lynette's heart jumped to her throat, and she did exactly what he'd warned her not to do. She screamed. Or rather that's what she tried to do, but he muffled it by clamping his hand over her mouth.
"I said I won't hurt you," he repeated.
Lynette didn't believe him. She clawed at his hand and reached for the drawer of her nightstand where she kept a loaded .38. And by God, she knew how to use it. She wouldn't just let this man attack her or do heaven knows what else without her fighting back.
But the man fought back, too. He didn't let go of her, and whichever way Lynette turned and twisted to break free of him, he seemed to anticipate her every move. She couldn't reach the gun, and he was a lot stronger than she was.
Was this how her life would end? With an intruder killing her in her own bed?
The fear of that caused her to freeze. But only for a moment. That's because she remembered she had a very big reason why she had to keep fighting. And why she had to win. She drew back her fist so she could punch him in the face.
"Gage sent me," the man growled.
It took her a moment to hear what he'd just told her. It was another moment before those words sank in. That was the only thing on earth he could have said to make her stop. Lynette quit struggling, and her gaze rifled to the man.
Just the sound of his name put Lynette's heart in her throat again. It warmed her. And cut her to shreds all at the same time.
"Gage is dead," she whispered when he eased back his hand. "How could he have sent you?" Unless
Oh, mercy. She wanted to believe Gage was aliveespecially since she'd never seen his dead body. Was that what this man was here to tell her? That Gage wasn't dead after all?
She was too afraid to hope, but she did anyway.
"No," he mumbled as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, and he stepped several inches away from her. "Before Gage died, he asked me to keep an eye on you. He made me promise."
His voice was like gravel, husky and raw, and Lynette studied what she could see of him. Tall. Lanky. He wore dark jeans, a black shirt and a black leather jacket.
There was a cowboy hat, also black, slung low on his forehead so that it was hard to see his face. He'd probably done that on purpose, since he was obviously trying to prevent her from getting a good look at him.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
He stepped deeper into the shadows. "It's best if you don't know my name."
"I disagree with that," Lynette snapped. "You're in my bedroom at four in the morning. How did you get in? All the doors and windows were locked, and I have a security system."
"I disarmed the system," he readily admitted. "And I'm pretty good at dealing with locks. Especially your locks. They're really kind of wussy, and you should look into upgrading."
He sounded cocky about that, and it made her trust him even less than she already did. Lynette wanted to scream again. Or at least get her gun so she could try to defend herself from this name-dropping intruder. Heck, he might not even know Gage. Maybe he'd just learned enough about her to realize that he could use Gage's name to get her to listen.
She didn't intend to listen for long.
"Go ahead," the man offered. He tipped his head to the drawer. "If holding a weapon on me will make you feel better, then do it."
Well, he was chockfull of surprises, but if this was some kind of reverse psychology, she wasn't biting. Lynette jerked open the drawer and grabbed the .38 as fast as she could. She didn't aim it at him, exactly, but she pointed it in his general direction. And she would take aim if he didn't give her some answers and give them fast.
"Start talking," she demanded.
He lifted his shoulder. "Gage said you'd probably want proof that he sent me," he casually tossed out there.
"I do." And then she would also want to know who this man was and why he was here.
The timing was certainly suspicious.
"Gage told me a lot about you." That's all he drawled for several moments, and it was a drawl. Easy and cocky like the rest of him. "He said you owned the town newspaper, that you bought it a couple of years ago."
"So?" She tried to sound cocky, too, but failed. Her voice was shaking almost as much as her hand. Clearly, she wasn't as accustomed to break-ins as this guy was. "That's public record. Tell me something that isn't."
Another shoulder lift. "When Gage was twenty-one, he got Hodgkin's. Something very few people know."
True. At Gage's insistence that information had been limited to his family and the doctors in San Antonio who'd treated him. Still, that info alone wouldn't convince her to trust this man.
"Gage and you eloped when he was twenty-two and you were nineteen," he continued nearly right away. "But you had the marriage annulled a few weeks later because your father disapproved of the relationship."
Lynette's eyes narrowed. "You could have learned that from just about anyone who lives in Silver Creek. People here still gossip about it."
"Your father is Ford Herrington, a businessman and now a state senator, and he hated Gage," the man stated as if he hadn't heard her. "Your father thought you could do a lot better than a Ryland cowboy cop, and you caved in under the pressure and did as he wanted."
Now, she aimed the gun at him because these weren't very reassuring answers to prove that Gage had indeed sent him. "Again, not convincing. Any town gossip could have told you that."
But this intruder had managed to hit a nerve that was still raw after all these years. Because what he said was true.
Lynette had caved in.
"If this is all the proof you have, you can get out because this conversation is over," she informed him.
"It's not all I have."
He let that hang in the air for a few seconds before he stepped from the shadows, and she saw his face when he angled his head. He wasn't as young as she'd originally thought. There were some wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead, and his neatly trimmed beard was flecked with gray.
"I need to get something from my pocket," he said, "and I'd rather you not shoot when I do that, okay?"
He waited until Lynette gave a crisp nod before he reached inside his leather jacket and took out the something. Whatever it was, it was small, but it made a plinking sound when he dropped it on the nightstand. Even though the room itself was dark, the outside security lights flickered off the white-gold circle.
It was Gage's wedding band.
Or one exactly like it.
Lynette picked it up with her left hand, keeping her gun in place in her right, and she reached out again to turn on the lamp.
"No." The man snagged her wrist. "Not a good idea."
That sent a chill through her, and she was about to ask why, but he released the grip he had on her, took a pen-light from his pocket and handed it to her. It was small, as well, but it did the job. Lynette could see the etched swirls on the outside of the wedding band and the inscription inside: Gage's and her initials. And there was something else.
"'True love forever,'" the man provided. He made a show of clearing his throat. "Cute. But not very accurate, huh? Two weeks isn't anywhere close to forever.'''
Lynette shot him a glare. Then, she swallowed hard. This man could have found the ring wherever Gage had last left it, looked into her past and then guessed what the initials meant. He could have done that for a variety of reasonsespecially money. Maybe he thought he could get her to cough up cash for this part of her past.
But whatever was going on here, the ring itself was real. That was the ring she'd bought for Gage the day they got married.
"How did you get this?" she asked.
The man shrugged again. "Gage gave it to me. In case you needed to be convinced about him asking me to keep an eye on you."
"I still need convincing," Lynette assured him. "You knew Gage well?" He nodded.
Lynette waited, then huffed. "I'd like a few details so I can tell if you're lying. How did you know him?" She had to take a breath to finish. "How did Gage die?"
"I worked with him in the CIA." He paused as if weighing each word carefully. "And you know how he died. The agency told you."
"No. The agency told his family. His five brothers. I got a phone call two days after the fact from his brother Grayson, who's the sheriff. All he said was that Gage had been killed while on a classified assignment at an undisclosed location. He didn't know anything else. Or maybe he just hadn't wanted to share it with me."
Even now, eleven months later, that was another slice to her heart. Of course, Lynette couldn't blame Grayson, since she hadn't exactly stayed on a friendly basis with the Rylands, and she couldn't very well tell them that the estrangement was for their own benefit.
And for their safety.
That would have only created questions that she couldn't answer. Still couldn't.
"Gage's last assignment was in South America," the man went on. "Things didn't go as planned, and we were ambushed. He was shot, and right before he died he gave me that ring and made me swear to keep an eye on you."
Now, those were the details that felt real. And convincing. Painful, too. It felt as if someone had clamped a fist around her heart and was squeezing the life out of her. She couldn't breathe. And everything inside her started to spin.
"Gage is really dead?" All she could manage was a broken whisper to ask that question.
The man made a sound, something akin to a duh. "You knew that."
"Yes." But until this moment, Lynette had hoped and prayed that it wasn't true. She blinked back tears. "I know it now."
She fought the pain and the panic rising inside her. Later, she would grieve and try to come to terms with losing him. Really losing him. But first, she had to deal with her intruder. Despite the horrible news that he'd just delivered, she doubted he'd come here in person to confirm Gage's death. He could have done that with a phone call.
"Why would Gage ask you to keep an eye on me?" Lynette asked.
"Who knows? He was dying, and men don't always use their last breath to make a wise request."
She didn't miss the venom in his voice. Probably because he believed she'd done Gage wrong. And she had. But Lynette had had her reasons way back then, and she didn't intend to explain them to this man. Or anyone else.
Some secrets were best left secret.
"I did as Gage asked," the man continued as his glare drilled into her. "I kept an eye on you. I ran some cyber-searches. I even followed you a few times."
A chill rifled through her. Mercy. She hadn't noticed anyone following her in the eleven months since Gage's death. That shook her to the core. Because if this man could do that without her knowing, then others could have done it, as well.
"How much do you know?" she risked asking.
He stepped closer. "Enough to realize you're in way over your head." He paused. "Your father's a dangerous man, and he has dangerous allies. You've been digging into their files and business records, and I can promise you, that's not a good idea."
Lynette forced herself to remain calm. Well, on the outside anyway. Inside, there was a firestorm. There weren't many people who would have labeled her father as dangerous.
But Lynette and apparently this intruder were part of the small handful of people who suspected that her father was much, much more than the political facade that he'd created.
"I did look into his business dealings," she admitted.
"But I stopped."
He stared at her, studying her. "Why?" His roughly barked question hung in the air.
"I decided other things were more important," she settled for saying.
"What things?" he snapped.
Confused at his intense emotion over what was a personal matter to her, Lynette shook her head. She had no intentions of telling him. "Things that have nothing to do with my father or with you."
"Tell me why you stopped." He paused between each word and spoke with clenched teeth.
Okay. That helped cut through the fear and the pain. A year ago she probably would have nicely tried to talk her way out of this, but there was a proverbial line drawn in the sand, and this cowboy had just crossed it.
Lynette got to her feet. "Enough is enough. So what if Gage asked you to keep an eye on me? Well, I don't want your eye or anything else on me. Get out now!"
She pointed the gun right at his chest.