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Colin Fairfax took another shot of brandy from the flask he'd begun keeping in his pocket and resumed pacing the threadbare carpet in the rundown New York flat.
Bugger. It was freezing in here. No wonder the place was all but deserted. What kind of human could live for long in conditions like this? He'd agreed to wait for twenty-four hours, but now he was wondering if that had been the most intelligent thing to do.
He'd been through much worse, of course. Fighting alongside his men in freezing blizzards in the mountain passes in Afghanistan, he had known hell. Yet, even that extreme cold hadn't chilled his bones the same way the icy drafts singing down the tenement walls were battering both his body and his psyche.
He fingered the weapon at his waistband. Colin was pleased he'd thought of obtaining the automatic from his embassy before embarking on this personal mission. The secretive man he was supposed to meet claimed to have information that would be the most vital clue in Colin's search to date. According to other local contacts, this man was covertly employed by the Americans. His job was to keep tabs on just the sort of thing Colin wanted to find. Allowances had to be made for that kind of knowledge.
Covert was one thing, though. Being stupid was quite another.
Impatiently awaiting the creak of floorboards on the stairs outside his door, Colin wasn't sure how much longer he could bide his time in this godforsaken hovel. Once again he wondered why the man had been so insistent that they meet in this place and on this date.
But obtaining information about his brother, John, from the mystery man who called himself "El Cuervo" was important enough to keep Colin right here, freezing his bum for the duration.
A sudden soft knock from the other side of the door took Colin by surprise. At last. An end to this ridiculous waiting.
Blowing out a pent-up breath and deciding that his best defense was the element of surprise, he ripped open the flimsy wooden door, only to find a curly headed leprechaun standing in the shadows of the threshold.
"What?" he asked irritably and half turned away. This person resembled one of his annoying mother's fairie creatures. It couldn't be the man he'd been expecting.
That word caught his attention, and he swung back. A low and sexy female voice had come from the short, lumpy bodyand that voice had spoken his name.
Colin did what his gut told him to do. He grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her off her feet as he popped her into the room. Using his foot, he slammed the door behind them. Then, reaching out with a steadying hand, he turned her around so that he could better study the small, odd female in the combined glow from an overhead bulb and the dusty lamp on his makeshift desk. Was she carrying a weapon?
"Hey!" she complained as she batted at his hands. "Cut out the manhandling." She sounded as surprised to be here as he'd been when she appeared at his door.
No gun. And at an inch or two over five feet tall, she posed no immediate danger.
"Who are you and what do you want?" he demanded.
She took off the mannish, gray fedora and a tumble of auburn curls spilled out over her shoulders and halfway down her back. Colin revised his original opinion. Not a leprechaun at all. No. Even in the shadowed glow of lamplight, the sight of this woman's wide and frightened eyes sent a sucker punch of heat straight to his gut. She was actually quite beautiful underneath the ugly green covering. But that doe-eyed look made her appear vulnerableand too much like the very thing he'd long ago vowed to steer clear of. A lovely woman in distress. Trouble.
He needed to get his head in the game. She knew his name. Perhaps she had been sent with information. She seemed benign, if disconcerting, but she could turn out to be as potentially deadly as one of those beautiful, deserted passes belonging to mujahadin fighters in Afghanistan.
With his senses strung tight, Colin tried to ignore his primal response to her. He was certainly experienced enough to maintain appearances.
Except for her hair. Colin lost focus again, as he stared at that glorious hair. Even in the dim light he could see a hundred different colors shining throughout her mass of curls. Reds and chestnut and ebony. Even a few sprinkles of burnished gold. His hands ached to glide their way through that silken, shiny mane.
She stared at him, and the bare overhead bulb shot a single glimmer of light into her eyes. They were forest-green. The color was blinding.
Whoever the woman was, her body came in a riot of colors under the drab garments. Perhaps she truly was a leprechaun in disguise, sent to guard the pot of gold.
At that wayward thought, Colin took a sharp breath. Was John the pot of gold?
"Answer me, woman. What do you know?" Furiously he blinked away the guilt and pain that always came when he thought of John.
She simply stood there, eyes wide. A compulsive urge to lift a hand to her face and brush aside a flyaway strand of hair had Colin balling up his hands and gritting his teeth. He forced himself to step back and think clearly, reminding himself why he was here.
"My name is Maggie Ryan," she finally said with a lilting voice and an odd accent. "I've come a long way to seek you out. You hold the key to a child's future."
As the tall man gaped at her from out of those steely gray-blue eyes, Maggie tried to take in the whole picture with one quick glance, the way she'd trained herself to do. Age about midthirties. Clean-cut, with a strong chin. A touch of gray at his temples, and an expression that seemed both sharp and wary. Her initial impression was of a man both sophisticated and deadly. An odd combination.
But Maggie Ryan wasn't one to turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble. Even as a kid, she'd stood her ground against both her older brothers and against the magic forces in nature that swirled around their Texas family. She felt tough enough to get any job done. Especially one this important.
Absently, she fingered the protection charm that was tied to a leather thong around her neck, reminding herself of the alternate ways to defend herself, in lieu of wielding ordinary weapons. Her thoughts turned to her Mexican grandmother, Abuela Lupe, and all the lessons in witchcraft and magic she'd learned at her knee.
Maggie had also learned a few lessons in self-defense from her Irish-American private-investigator grandfather before he died, and those would serve her well. But right now she thanked goodness for Abuela Lupe. Her Mexican curandera grandmother had located this dangerous-looking man in her crystals and then told Maggie where and when to find him.
All that Maggie knew so far was that his name was Colin and he was the key to solving all of her problems.
He took her by the arm and dragged her closer. "I expect an explanationnow," he demanded in his clipped English accent. "What's all this nonsense?"
His touch sent heat scorching through her body. She couldn't remember a time that she'd had such a spontaneous, emotional response to a man. Well, not since the idiocy of an ill-advised engagement during her college years. If she'd had a mind to start that kind of thing again, this intense man, with his quiet British accent, his tailored slacks and expensive black leather jacket, would not be her choice of fiancé.
"Can we um sit down? To talk." Looking around, she found that the only chair had papers stacked on the seat.
He scooped up the papers and moved them to the bed. "Sit, then." Folding his hands behind his back in military style, Colin began to pace up and down the tiny room.
"What or who could be so important, Maggie Ryan," he said with an arrogant half smile, "that you sought me out through a " He shot his hand in the air as if lost for words. "What? How did you find me? A magic spell?"
He didn't know how close to the truth that was.
Maggie sat on the shaky chair with its one leg shorter than the others and stared up at him. "I've come all the way from south Texas to find answers about a lost child. It's the most important thing in the world. I'm trying to locate relatives for the orphaned baby girl in my custody. It's vital that"
"Why me? Why come looking for me?"
Instead of answering she threw a question back at him. "You don't live in this room, do you? This can't be your home."
It was a good guess, since her grandmother had been so specific about her arriving at this place at just the right time. Besides, this man didn't look as if he belonged in a dump like this one.
She sucked up a breath and took a chance. "Why are you here?"
Colin's whole body seemed to jerk at her question. The smile disappeared and the dangerous man returned. She could see the change in those glacial eyes.
Bloody hell, Colin thought. She knows something and she's just playing games.
He swept closer, loomed over her, grabbed a handful of her hair. With a swift jerk, he tugged her head back, exposing the exquisite, smooth column of her neck.
"You haven't answered my question. Stop playing around. What do you know about my brother? Tell me quick, love, or I'll break that pretty neck of yours."
Maggie blinked. "Let go of my hair." She said it in a steady voice, though he could feel her trembling.
Without warning, a heated tingle traveled from her silky hair into his fingers and right up his arm. He released her involuntarily and rubbed his hands together to quiet the electric jolt he'd experienced.
"Your brother?" she asked, acting as if nothing happened when he released her. "I'm not sure. I mean what's your brother's name?"
Outside the filthy window, winter storm clouds covered the moon. Colin's heart clouded over, too, with a gut instinct about what this eccentric beauty would say. For months now, he'd been feeling that the worst had happened. But he needed to hear the words.
"His name is John Fairfax," Colin managed to say in a strangled voice. "And if you know anything about his whereabouts, you had better speak up."
She looked thoughtful. "That could be it, I guess. The man's name was John. But the last name was Sheridan." She paused. "What's your full name?"
Suddenly furious with her for answering questions with more questions, he growled, "Sir Colin Fairfax, Baron Derwent. Also referred to recently as Major Colin Fairfax of the Third Royal Tank Regiment, Her Majesty's British Army, retired. Look, skip over any other questions that may pop into that lovely head of yours and get to the point. What do you know of John?"
Suddenly weary, Colin turned his back on her and began pacing again. She had used the past tense. He knew what that implied. His younger brother, the one he had lost track of several years ago due to his own misplaced arrogance and indifference, was very likely dead.
Maggie heard the hoarse but heartfelt words and began to experience Colin's growing misery herself, by way of empathic sympathy. "I have to start with the story of the baby."
Looking up into his bleak eyes as he strode by, she wished she wasn't so sure about the facts. "That's how I got involved in the first place. I live near the border, and about six months ago a couple and their two-month-old daughter were involved in a terrible car crash on our side of the river. The couple died on impact, but the baby in the backseat survived."
Sighing, she continued. "The sheriff asked me to take the child into my home, as our isolated county doesn't have any local child welfare services. My neighbor, who runs a day-care center, helps me out when needed." Maggie swallowed hard, wishing she could be wrong but knowing full well she wasn't, and went on. "I'm a trained private investigator, so I've been looking into the deceased's backgrounds ever since I took in the child, trying to trace any relatives of the little girl."
A perplexed expression crossed Colin's face as he quit pacing and slowly shook his head. "I don't understand. Are you saying my brother married? Fathered a child? Impossible. I would've known."
"How long has it been since you've seen him?"
Maggie asked, going on instinct. "Why are you searching for information about your own brother?"
Even in the dim lighting of the sordid room, Maggie could clearly see the pain streak through Colin's eyes. She hurt for him. If it had been one of her brothers
Nevertheless, she was still wary. When Colin accepted the facts, would he be willing to leave Emma in her care? Or would he do the unthinkable and demand she hand over his niece? Maggie's life would stop if that happened. She needed this child. Emma had become her hearther only chance. With cold fear trickling through her at the possibilities, Maggie reminded herself to take things slow and not jump ahead.
"I uh " Colin looked around, staring absently at his surroundings as if he'd only just arrived. "Our family was divided when John and I were children, ages ten and twelve, respectively. As the eldest, I stayed in my father's care, went to his old school and joined his regiment in due course. John went with our mother to her family's ancestral home in Ireland." The words, sounding as if they were spoken by rote, seemed to grow small in Colin's throat. "As long as my father was alive, we continued to receive word of my brother's welfare."
Maggie's icy, worried feelings began to melt, as warm tears welled in her eyes. "Your father died recently?"
"It's been several years since he passed away," Colin answered with a bleak expression. "But I only returned to civilian life four months ago, after a long tour of duty, and then began looking for my brother."
Maggie waited. There was a lot more to tell, she was sure. But she wasn't sure how much of it Colin would be willing to give up to a complete stranger.
Funny, though, sometime in the last few minutes she'd stopped thinking of him as a stranger who could take away her whole world. Something about him called to her. Disturbed her, yes, yet made him appear much more like a friend in stranger's clothing.
Still, she hoped he wouldn't touch her again. The last two times had completely thrown her out of balance with shots of sexual energy the likes of which she hadn't known existed.