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Luke Stone hunched over his shopping cart, black wool hat pulled low over his brow, eyes trained on the woman.
A blast of steam roiled from a vent in the sidewalk, disappearing with a white hiss into the frigid February night, but not for one instant did his focus stray from the woman standing alone outside the phone booth.
She was underdressed for these temperatures, shivering as she rubbed bare hands and checked her watch. He noted the heavy camera bag slung over her shoulder.
It was definitely Jessica Chan, ex-BBC foreign correspondent, Shanghai bureau. Here in Gastown at the appointed booth, at the allotted hour. His principal.
Luke no longer accepted close protection gigs. Not since he'd failed to protect the most important people in his life his wife and unborn child. It was written right into his contract with the Force du Sablé, and he'd refused this job point-blank. But they'd told him he was the only person who could reach Jessica in time. Without Luke's help, she would die.
Luke hoped to be rid of her in a matter of hours. Then he could get back to life the way he liked it. Alone.
The nearby steam clock released a sharp whistle and she jerked round, her straight, waist-length hair shimmering under the neon of the store sign behind her as she spun to face his direction. Her skin was pure porcelain in the eerie light, her exotic eyes glittering. Even from his position he could see they were the color of fine single-malt whiskey. With a small punch to the gut Luke realized the lady was startlingly beautiful. And very, very frightened.
She had reason to be.
Not only were the cops after her, she was being hunted by one of deadliestAsian gangs in existence. Now the CIA wanted her, tooever since she'd placed a call to undercover CIA operative Giles Rehnquist based at the CNN bureau in Shanghai two days ago.
That phone call had cost Rehnquist his life.
And that's why Luke was here now, to bring her in and to hand herand the film in her cameraover to the CIA before she died, too.
She didn't know yet that her "journalist" friend would not be there to take the call she was about to place. To the best of Luke's knowledge, Jessica Chan had no idea Rehnquist was CIA.
It was almost 11:00 p.m. now, the time Rehnquist had told her to phone him from this booth, and a dank fog was crawling up from the docks, fingering through the historic brick alleys that led off in all directions.
Luke tossed a can into his cart as he inched closer. The sound caught her attention and she shot a look directly at him, missing what had just snared his interestan Asian man in a leather jacket lingering just beyond a pool of light that spilled from a restaurant window.
The Asian quietly signaled another man in a dark doorway down the street. Both were watching Jessica, closing in on her from either end of the alley.
Luke pushed his cart faster toward his principal, head bent low as he mumbled to himself.
The Gastown steam clock shot out a powerful blast and began the hourly Windsor chimes. It was eleven o'clock. Jessica Chan stepped into the booth, picked up the receiver and rapidly began to punch in numbers.
A car drove by, tires crackling on slick cobblestones as tiny flakes of snow began to crystallize in the frigid air. By the time the vehicle had passed, Luke had lost visuals on both men.
His pulse quickened and he unholstered his weapon.
Giles was dead?
Jessica clenched the phone, her mouth turning dry as she tried to absorb what the woman at the CNN bureau in Shanghai was telling her. The one man who could help her was gone. Confusion clouded her brain.
She'd spoken to him only two days ago, after Stephanie's murder. She'd told him everything.
Giles had instructed her to lay low in a cheap hotel, use only cash and call him back from this exact same pay phone in forty-eight hours. In the meantime he'd find a way to help her. He had been Jessica's last resort.
Her only hope.
And now he was dead.
Panic strafed her chest as the implications hit her and she slammed down the receiver. But just as she turned to run, a gunshot shattered a pane of glass near her ear.
She screamed and dropped down, covering her head with both hands and scrunching her eyes tight as a hail of bullets blew out another pane and shards rained down over her.
There was a moment of deathly silence before another exchange of gunfire shattered a store window across the street. Jessica heard glass tinkle to the frozen sidewalk. A security alarm began to wail. A woman screamed. More shouts came from the opposite direction as footsteps rang out on the cobblestones and a man yelled for someone to call 911.
She had to leave before the cops arrived.
Clutching her camera bag, Jessica surged to her feet, but as she tried to bolt from the booth, a man grabbed her, yanking her forcibly backward. Jessica screamed, fighting back with every ounce of strength. But she was no match against his iron grip. He whirled her round to face him and her heart clean stopped.
It was the Dumpster diver, morphed from a bent and fragile shape into something huge, ominous and incredibly powerful. He reeked of old booze, yet his pale gray eyes were sharp as flint against his grease-blackened face.
She opened her mouth in terror, but he pressed a gloved palm over it. "Don't make a sound," he whispered against her ear. "I'm here to help you."
He released her mouth slowly, testing her resolve. But Jessica couldn't have uttered a word if she'd tried.
She couldn't even breathe.
He took her jaw in powerful fingers, twisting her face quickly toward the light. "Looks okay," he said, wiping blood from her cheek with a callused thumb. "Just a shallow cut." His voice was rough gravel, his accent Australian.
Out of the corner of her eye Jessica could see a man's body splayed inhumanly across the sidewalk, a gun at his side. Another body sprawled to the right of him. Both were Asian. People were gathering around them.
Her eyes shot back to the man holding her. He was holstering a pistol. He'd shot those men. He'd just saved her from the triad. She struggled to absorb the contradicting images he telegraphed. His tattered gloves had no fingertips, his hat was old black wool, his jacket threadbare tweed. He stunk of booze, yet there was no alcohol on his breath. She couldn't make any sense of him.
The yelling and footsteps grew louder, and police sirens began to wail.
Jessica shot a last desperate look down the road, toward the sound of approaching sirens. Right now she didn't know which was the worse evilthe police who'd betrayed her, or him. "You don't want the cops, Jessica," he warned, his fingers encircling her arm.
He knew her name! Her eyes whipped back to him.
He drew her body firmly up against his. "Listen to me, Jessica," he said quietly. "I can tell you what happened to Giles Rehnquist, but right now your life depends on following my orders. Now run."
He hunkered low, pulling her by the hand at a clip over irregular paving as the sirens grew louder. They ducked into Blood Alley, and he forced her hard up against a rough brick wall as Vancouver Police Department cruisers converged on the scene of the shooting, car doors swinging open, officers barking commands. Cops quickly began to fan out, heading their way with flashlights beaming through the fog.
"This way," he whispered, pulling her after him. They ran for the alley exit, but a squad car slowed in front of it, barring their escape. He turned and shoved her down between two overflowing Dumpsters that flanked the service entrance of an Irish pub, pinning her down firmly against bags of garbage with his weight. "Don't move," he murmured against her hair. The smothering stench of stale sweat and booze permeating the tattered tweed of his jacket made her gag, but the soft sweater against his hard body smelled soapy clean. Masculine.
Jessica closed her eyes, trying to calm herself. She could feel the strong, steady beat of his heart against her chest. It was a strangely comforting sensation. In a foreign city where she'd been cut off from everything including her clothes, apartment, cell phone and colleaguesa city where she was beginning to wonder if she could even trust her own mindthis man felt solid. He felt real. Capable. And he hadn't betrayed her.
The sounds in the distance grew less frenetic, but still her rescuer didn't move and her legs were going numb. She tried to wiggle feeling back into her toes.
"Keep still," he hissed. "Someone's coming."
Then she heard it: the steady clop, clop, clop, of hooves on cobblestones. She peered out from under his jacket as the silhouettes of two police officers on horses darkened the entrance to Blood Alley, fog swirling behind them.
The mounted police entered the alley slowly, hooves echoing as they panned darkened crevices with flashlights.
Jessica's throat tightened, but the steady beat of her defender's heart never faltered. Not even when the hooves drew so near they almost touched his feet. One of the horses snorted, hot breath steaming into the air. She could smell them.
"Hey, you," one of the cops said, directing his flashlight into their corner. "Can you get to your feet, please? I need to see ID."
The man lying on top of Jessica groaned, made as if he was trying to sit up, then he flopped back as if too drunk.
The officer dismounted. "Can you stand, buddy?" the cop said, reaching down to pull him up. Her mysterious savior waited until the cop's center of balance was precisely at the most disadvantageous, then he grabbed the policeman's arm, yanked him down, cracked his head against his own, and rolled out from under him as the unconscious cop slumped heavily onto Jessica. She stifled a yelp of shock.
The officer on his horse immediately drew his weapon, yelling at him to freeze, but her protector surged forward with such swift and fluid motion it caught the officer by surprise. He fired, his bullet going wild and pinging into the Dumpster over Jessica's head as her defender grabbed the cop with bare hands and dragged him from his horse.
The horse reared, hooves clawing at air before taking off with a clatter over stone. Jessica stared in awe as her guardian rendered the policeman unconscious with quick, firm pressure of his hand to the man's neck.
She'd seen people trained in martial arts do that. She'd seen them move like him, toofast and powerful, balletic. This man was skilled in hand-to-hand combat. He was a walking, talking lethal weapon.
Fear squeezed at her heart.
He dragged the unconscious V.P.D. officer off her and checked his pulse, before rolling the man gently onto the garbage bags and positioning his head so he could breathe easily.
He held his hand out to Jessica. "Come."
"What what about the policemen?"
"They'll wake in a few minutes. We've got to move. Fast." She stared up at him, the beam from the fallen flashlight catching the icy glint in his eerily pale eyes. He wasn't even breathing hard. Jessica shrank back into the garbage, suddenly terrified, the aftereffects of adrenaline combined with the cold, making her shake violently.
"You want to live, don't you?" he said.
She nodded. He reached down, grabbed her wrist and jerked her firmly to her feet. "Come, then."
He guided her through a twisting network of narrow black alleys that stunk of urine and decay, moving in the direction of the water.
They crossed the railway tracks into a deserted dockyard. The fog was thicker down by the sea, inky water slapping softly against old wood pylons, the scent of brine heavy.
"Quietly," he whispered, taking her hand as they slipped between two massive rows of shipping containers. He held her back against ice-cold steel, waiting until he was certain they hadn't been followed.
Jessica's breathing was ragged, her lungs burning from running in the cold, her pulse pounding wildly. But beside her, his body was as calm and still as a practiced and patient predator. She had no doubt this man could kill with his bare hands and without compunction.
"Who are you?"
He clapped his hand suddenly over her mouth, and pointed. Another cop car cruised quietly across the harbor entrance, flashing lights creating pulsing halos of white, red and blue in the dense fog.
He removed his hand as the cruiser moved on. "Sorry," he whispered. "Come"
But Jessica didn't move. She felt suddenly paralyzed with exhaustion and she couldn't seem to order her thoughts.
He tilted her chin and looked into her eyes. "You okay?"
"Please just tell me who you are," she whispered. "My name's Luke Stone. You ready to run again?" He didn't wait for an answer. He grasped her wrist and dragged her in a crouching sprint across the empty parking lot toward the black water.
They stopped at a dock pylon, Jessica panting hard. Between them and the North Shore lay nothing but the frigid expanse of the Burrard Inlet. Snowflakes began to swirl bigger and softer, disappearing into the black void below her feet.
He edged her toward the dock edge. "You first. Down there."
He swore softly and grabbed her hands, drawing her into a crouch. He placed both her hands on a frozen metal rung. "Hang on to this. Put your leg over the side, feel for the next rung with your foot, climb all the way down to the inflatable. One step at a time."
Panic whipped through her. "I I don't see any inflatable."
"It's down there, in the dark. Trust me."
Her eyes shot to his. She didn't trust anyone. "Jess," his eyes held hers steadily. "They killed your friend because of what you saw in Chinatown. They killed Giles because you told him. Believe me, they will kill you, too. Don't give them that chance, okay?" He touched her cheek gently. "I'm here to help you."
Emotion exploded through her chest and she tightened her grip on the rung.
This man simply accepted what the cops hadn'tthat she really had seen those men, that her life was in danger. He believed her. Surely that placed him somewhere on her side?
"You got the film in that bag?"
She said nothing.
"Give it to me, Jess."
"I I'd rather hold on to it."
He swore again. "Look, we don't have time for this. Give me your bag." He reached to take it.
But she pulled back, overbalancing as she did, her foot shooting out from under her, lurching her down toward the ocean. He grabbed her, halting a certain plunge into the icy water. His fingers dug into her arm as she swayed out over the water. "If want my help, Jessica, you give me that bag and you get down into that boat. Fast. Understand?"
There was something in his voice that warned her not to cross him.
Her throat turned dry and her eyes watered as she let him take the one thing from her that could prove her sanity and buy back her credibilityproof that the man who'd tortured her in China three years ago was real.
"Thank you. Now go."
Heart slamming against her ribs, she swung her leg out, searching for purchase on the old ladder, and she descended blindly into the darkness.
Luke cursed to himself, willing her to speed it up as he scanned the shadowed dockyard, weapon in hand, her camera bag slung across his chest.
This was supposed to have been a simple in-and-out job pick up the principal at the pay phone, take her back to his place, call it in, arrange to ship her out. It sure as hell hadn't panned out that way.
Somehow the Dragon Headsif that's who those two men werehad gotten wind she'd be at that pay phone. And they'd ambushed her.
He'd just killed two of their members. Those guys tended to hold grudges. He'd also assaulted a couple of V.P.D. cops. There was going to be a fair grudge there, too.
Damn it to hell. Jessica Chan had just sucked him right into her shadowy mess, all the way up to the bloody hilt. The triad, the RCMP and the city police were all going to be out for his blood now, too. "Way to go, Stone," he muttered to himself. So much for keeping a low profile. At least you got the girl.
Trouble was, he didn't want the girl.
He didn't want to be responsible for protecting another woman. Ever. If he failed again, it would kill him.
Inky ripples fanned out in the ocean as she stepped into the Zodiac. "I'm in," Jessica whispered from below. And for one insane and fleeting second, Luke almost thought about leaving her. Right there. On her own. In the boat.
Because she scared him.
It wasn't her beauty or the fact she smelled and felt too damn good when pressed against him. She was frightened. Vulnerable. And she needed him.
Luke didn't want to be needed.
He didn't want to care about anyone.
But being close to Jessica Chan had awakened something dangerous inside him. Something better off left dormant, preferably dead.
But the beast inside him had stirred. And Luke Stone knew instinctively that he was in trouble.