Read an Excerpt
Julianne Grace bristled, pausing mid-step as she journeyed down the lonely road. She froze as her eyes scanned the area in front of her. Woods and swampland surrounded her, but nothing else.
There was the sound again. A stick cracking. Her pulse pounded in her ears as she turned her head. Fear pricked her skin. What had caused the noise?
All she saw was a desolate stretch of highway and looming oak trees enveloped by dark, murky water.
She ran a shaky hand through her mane of hair. She'd heard something. She knew she had. Was someone watching her from the woods?
Could it be Darrell Lewis?
The thought made her blood go coldcold enough to rival the frigid wind that swept across the deceitfully sunny landscape. She should have worn a coat, but she'd left her apartment too quickly. She hadn't had time to thinkjust to drive. Now the scar across her collarbone pulled tight in the twenty-degree briskness.
The injury was a daily reminder of how ugly love could turn. A daily reminder of how relationships weren't worth it. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
She took a few more tentative steps. The feeling of unseen eyes caused her pace to quicken until she burst into a jog and then an all-out run. Though she saw nothing and no one, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being chased.
Finally, a gate appeared in the distance. Could it be the entrance to Iron, Incorporated? Was help in sight?
She could make it that far. She'd ask to see Bradley Stone and then tell him the truth about why she'd come. She'd ask the burning questions that consumed her and hopefully get some answers.
She had to get what she'd come for. She had no other options, not if she wanted to live to see tomorrow.
Her legs felt like jelly when she reached the guardhouse. Her quick breaths came out in icy clouds, and she shivered again. What a mess. Everything was a mess.
A fresh-faced man in uniform stared at her. She could tell by the way his eyes wavered from side to side for just a split second that her presence baffled him. Certainly people didn't tread up to the gate every day, not when you considered there were miles of empty road before reaching the compound.
"Can I help you?" The guard was short, blond and had a gun at his waist. His gaze roamed behind her, as if her appearance were some kind of guerrilla-war tactic.
"I need to see Bradley Stone." The words were labored, partially from her jog and partially from fear. "It's important. Very important."
The man blinked, and his face remained devoid of expression. "Bradley Stone? Your name?"
"Julianne Grace." Her breathing still hadn't normalized. Her shivers reached her vocal cords, causing her voice to crack.
"Do you have an appointment?"
She shook her head, the reality that she may not be able to see him sinking in. But she couldn't retreat now. "No, I don't. But I need to talk to him. Please. I've come four hours to get here, all the way from D.C."
His lips pulled into a tight line. "One moment."
He stepped into the small brick booth and picked up a phone. Julianne rubbed her palms on her jeans. Despite the chill, she'd still managed to break a sweat.
She turned, glanced behind her. Nothing. What did she think she would see? Darrell hiding behind a tree? The thought was ridiculous.
But she'd heard a branch break. Had an animal made the sound? Or was it the man bent on tormenting her?
She rubbed her clammy hands against her jeans. She couldn't dislodge the thoughts from her mind. Thoughts of pain and death at the hands of a man who liked to see others suffer. Was there any other reason Darrell had thrown acid on her, hoping to hit her face and disfigure her so that no other man would want her?
The guard approached her, that inscrutable expression still across his face. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Stone can't speak with you now. He told me to give you the number of his secretary so that you could schedule an appointment."
Tears sprung to her eyes. She tried to hold them off, but it did no good. Her gaze met the guard's. The last thing she wanted was to manipulate the situation, but she had to make her desperation clear. "My life depends on it."
"I'm sorry, ma'am." The man handed her a card. A moment of sympathy glimmered in his eyes. "Here's the number for his secretary."
She took the paper from him and crumbled it. She used her sleeve to wipe away her tears as she turned on her heel. What would she do now? Hike back to a gasless car located miles from nothing?
She had to see Bradley Stone. But how?
What were her options? She could scale the fence surrounding the headquarters and make a run for it. Then she remembered the barbed wire atop the iron prongs. Probably not the best idea .
Could she somehow make it past the guard? If she could slip by him and make it to the building in the background maybe Bradley would have no choice but to speak with her.
Right now, she had nothing to lose. Two people were already dead. She'd be next if she didn't get some answers. Either way she looked at it, her life was on the line.
Julianne swallowed so hard that it hurt. She was a peace-loving woman who hated making scenes or adding drama to life. But desperate times called for desperate measures, as the saying went.
She paused and turned toward the guard. "Excuse me, sir. Do you think I could use your phone? Please? I need to call a tow truck. My car ran out of gas and the nearest gas station has to be miles from here."
The guard shifted, his hesitation evident. Her cell phone was tucked into her back pocket, out of sight. She'd never said she didn't have a phone. Still, guilt pressed in on her.
Finally, the young guard nodded and motioned for her to go into the booth. "Just one call."
She nodded, relief washing through her, but quickly replaced as anxiety crowded it out. Did she really think this would work? Regardless, she had to give it a shot.
Lord, protect me, even if I'm being foolish.
She stepped into the booth and picked up the receiver.
Before the guard realized what was happening, she darted through the opposite door and onto the grounds of the Eyes headquarters.
She ran as if her life depended on it.
Because her life did depend on it.
Bradley Stone hung up the phone and leaned back in his desk chair. Julianne Grace. It had been a long time since he'd heard that name. Honestly, he thought he'd never hear it again. Why should he? His military career had ended, Darrell Lewis had died and his life had begun the proverbial next chapter.
He stood and plucked open two slats from the window blinds. From his office, he could see the front gate.
Why had he sent the woman away? He should feel obligated to speak with her. After all, her fiance had died on his watch. Most people in his position would bend over backward in this situation.
But Darrell Lewis had had an edge to him, and his death still haunted him to this day. Bradley had tried desperately to put that part of his life behind him. Probably because it included mourning the death of his own fiancée who'd been murdered not even a year after Darrell died.
He knew how it felt to lose someone you loved. He knew what it was like for someone to be snatched away from life before their time.
He didn't want to see Julianne and be reminded again.
He narrowed his eyes as she took a step away from the guard station. Where was her car? Had the woman walked here? Why had she wanted to see him of all people?
He watched as she turned and approached the guardhouse again. She talked to the guard a moment and he pointed toward the gate. Then Julianne walked into the station. What was she doing?
The next instant, she darted across the lawn toward the main building. Bradley straightened as he watched her run as if the ground itself was on fire. The woman was going to get herself killed.
He sprinted from his office. After taking the stairs by two, he rounded the corner and opened the door at the front entrance. He stepped outside just in time to see Juli-anne fall to the ground. Had she been shot? Terror raced through him.
Eric, the guard, stood with his gun drawn by the gate. Bradley cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hold your fire!"
Had the woman gone mad? He rushed toward her and knelt on the lawn at her side. She pushed herself up on her elbows, blood trickling from her forehead. She must have hit it on the edge of the pavement.
Her panic-stricken eyes met his. "I need your help."
"You're going to need a lawyer's help also, pulling a stunt like that." He gently gripped her arms as he helped her back to her feet.
"Th-thank you," she stuttered. She brushed a hair behind her ear, as if trying to compose herself. It didn't work. The woman was a wild mess, her limbs like jelly. Her legs gave out, and she started sinking to the ground again when he caught her. Tantalizing eyes met his. "Do you remember me?"
He straightened. "Of course I do. Darrell Lewis's fiancée. What were you thinking charging through the front gate like that?"
Her breath came in deep gasps and her hands trembled. Her long brown hair, streaked with gold, fell into her perfectly proportioned face. But her stunning beauty took a backseat to the fear and desperation that seemed to emanate from her. "Please. I only need a few minutes."
Would she accuse him of her fiance's death? Maybe. Could he deny he was at fault? No. The responsibility fell on his shoulders alone.
Would she make further inquiries about his death? Possibly. She'd never asked many questions in the first place except, "Are you sure he's dead?"
An odd question, really. Most want to know how their loved one died, or if they'd experienced any pain or what their last moments had been like.
But she'd asked, "Are you sure?"
He shook the thoughts from his head and glanced at Julianne again. Something about the woman and her wide, luminous eyes tugged at his heartand he felt himself softening toward her.
He glanced at his watch. His meeting started in five minutes.
He could give the woman that much.
Most likely, he'd regret it if he didn't. His mind would be flooded with questions about why she had come. The easiest solution to that was to simply talk to her, find out what she wanted, and send her on her way.
"Let's get you out of the cold." He led her inside the large, lodgelike building. Flames blazed from the massive fireplace that stretched upward two stories, giving the lobby a warm, cozy feel. His fingers grazed her hands and he felt the frigidness of her skin. She trembled uncontrollably. Where was her coat?
He kept a hand on her elbow until she reached a leather chair situated by the roaring fireplace. "Why don't you have a seat? Can I get you some coffee? Anything?"
She lowered herself into the seat, her hands quivering against her legs. "Yes, please. If you don't mind. II wasn't prepared to be here. This wasn't exactly on my schedule for today."
Just what had brought her here, then? What had caused her to risk her life to speak with him? "Sit tight. Warm up. I'll be right back with that coffee and some first aid for that cut."
He took a step away when Julianne's soft voice cut through the air.
"Actually, I just need to ask you one question. It can't wait."
Bradley pivoted and saw her sitting on the edge of her seat, looking as if she might break at any moment. "One question? Okay, shoot."
She swallowed, stark fear straining her features. "Are you sure Darrell Lewis died during that training exercise?"
Julianne watched Bradley's expressionstone cold, as usual. She'd always thought the name was appropriate for someone who kept such a tight reign on his emotions. He was like an exquisitely carved statue from Roman times. All hard lines and stiff features and breathtaking good looks.
No hint of softness to him.
Bradley Stone was the only person she could think of who might have some answers. He was Darrell's former commanding officer and SEAL platoon OICofficer-in-charge. He was the one who'd come to her with the news of Darrell's death.
She remembered when he'd shown up at her doorstep, a sympathetic look in his eyes as he held his hat in hand. On either side of him were a chaplain and the CACOthe Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. As soon as she'd seen Bradley, she'd known what was coming. She'd known also that he didn't have to be there, that he could have easily sent the other two men to notify her of what had happened.
She'd met the man twice before that day. He was the strong, silent type with striking blue eyes that showed a perceptive intelligence. Julianne would bet that he didn't miss much. He had a no-nonsense haircut, a tall, broad build that tapered to narrow hips, and a chiseled, smooth face.
His voice had been kind when he'd told her the news about Darrell. As she'd listened, shock had washed over her, shock followed by relief. Tears had rushed to her eyes, and she'd hoped they'd looked like tears of sorrow. But the moisture along her eyelids was because she realized she didn't have to live in fear anymore.
Yet here she was, two years later, living in absolute fear again.
Snapping back to the present, she tried unsuccessfully to read Bradley's expression. All she could see were his eyes, ever perceptive, soaking her in. Finally, after a moment of contemplation, he stepped forward and lowered himself into the chair across from her, the fireplace softening his features.
"Am I sure that your fiance is dead?" he repeated, his voice even. The man thought she was losing her mind. That was all there was to it. She might think the same thing if she didn't know what she did, if she hadn't seen the things she'd seen.
She nodded, her throat scratchy, and the tremors that had begun in her hands migrating until her entire body shook. "That's right."
He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and sucked in a deep breath. He was trying to be diplomatic, trying to measure his response. All professional, she thought with a silent, bitter laugh. Concealing how he really felt in an effort to placate her.
Another round of tears washed through her eyes. She had to get a grip. She was usually so careful to control her emotions, to not appear weak in front of others. They'd only take advantage of you if you did.
But how could she get a grip right now? She couldn't, not until she had some answers. Ignoring her achy head and growling stomach, she directed a steady gaze toward Bradley to let him know she was serious.
His jaw flexed, and he shifted his weight before answering. "I saw your fiance during explosives training. I saw him go up in flames. I saw his body, half of his bones broken and skin burned to a crisp."
That was the story she'd heard also. But was there room for error there? Was there any possibility of a cover-up? "There was unaccounted-for time. From the moment you realized there was an emergency until the moment you reached him, the bodies could have been switched."