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Love Under Fire
By Frances Housden
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLife as Jo Jellic knew it had become increasingly filled with little quirks. Okay, so she was being facetious, yet less than an hour and a half ago, she'd anticipated spending the evening in the local pub with her colleagues. After letting out a collective sigh, they'd have let off a little steam, celebrating the successful conclusion of a case which had tied them up 24/7 for four months.
Instead, she was up to her elbows in dirt, listening to an ultimatum - "I'll give you five minutes to back off or I'll shoot the girl" - with the whaump, whaump, whaump of the helicopter they'd arrived in still hanging in the air.
Every breath was filled with dust, its bitter tang coating her tongue, no matter how hard she swallowed.
Her meager cover was a scrubby pittosporum bush and twenty yards away, on the other side, Maggie, the best friend she'd ever had, was being held hostage.
Jo squinted, eyes straining to cut through the darkness. "Where the hell is Max?" She shred the words between teeth clamped as tight as her jaw. No need for anyone but her to know her boss had gone walkabout. Only a minute ago, Detective Sergeant Max Strachan had been positioned not less than five yards away. His disappearance wasn't part of the plan, though understanding his desperation, she couldn'tgive him away. Just this afternoon, Max had asked Maggie to marry him.
This was the man she'd actually imagined herself in love with for years, but naturally it had been one-sided. Max didn't find her all that lovable and who could blame him? She was a product of the job she did, made by the career she loved. A person couldn't work the homicide cases she had and remain the same naive girl she'd been when she joined the force.
It was as if she'd locked all her finer feelings inside and thrown away the key. The truth about love had struck her that afternoon when she'd watched Max and Maggie together. If she ever found a man who could bring out her softer side, she'd know the love was real.
What a time to start bleating, Jellic. She had more immediate problems, like what could she do about Max?
Senior Sergeant Rowan McQuaid on her other side was in no doubt of her feelings for Max. Hell, they'd been making book on it at Auckland Central, betting on the outcome, but their money hadn't been on her. Soon they'd be able to collect. She'd a notion if she started fussing over Max, Rowan would think she'd given in to her own brand of paranoia.
Jo huffed out air to release her tension. It didn't work. Her heartbeat raced on a full head of steam, her grip tightening on the 9mm Glock held against her cheek. Metal that had once been cool to the touch now burned in her hand.
She stared into the growing darkness on her left. This shouldn't be happening now, not in the middle of a hostage drama. Max was in charge. He'd no right to leave. They'd departed Auckland on what seemed a whim, unprepared for an armed siege.
Sure, the Armed Offenders Squad were on their way, but for now, they had to make do with two detectives, including herself, a senior sergeant and the helicopter jockey who had ferried them to the vineyard. Add to that four local cops, country cops, nervous as hell and excited to boot, who'd probably be about as much use as her Glock when it came to hitting a target in the gloomy light.
"Ooh." Darned if there wasn't a bug crawling up her arm on the inside of her sleeve. She shuddered. Man, she hated bugs. She hated dirt, too, yet her fingernails had clawed grooves in the ground. Pushing up on the ball of her palm, she paid for her view with the fetid stench of wormy earth on a defrost cycle.
Give her the city any day. She breathed easier with asphalt underfoot and streetlights overhead. This country stuff was a whole other world.
She pushed up higher. Well, the view was better, but Max wasn't part of it. Drat the man. She hoped he wasn't doing something stupid.
Glancing over her shoulder she watched Rowan. At least he was still in position, though facing toward the youngest of the cops they'd brought in to help. Knowing Rowan, he'd be doing his level best to calm the kid's nerves. Something about his size was reassuring; the sergeant had muscles to die for, and didn't have a nervous bone in his body. Always in control, that was Rowan.
Turning back, she caught a glimpse of movement, a glimpse of black hair slashed with silver darting through the trees. Max.
Anger and fear clutched at her chest, followed by guilt. She might have missed him by letting her attention wander. The urge to haul Max back screamed up her arm. As if he gave a snap of the fingers for her wants. Maggie, the woman Max loved, was inside the house. Nothing, absolutely nothing, she or anyone else said was going stop him acting the fool for love.
"Is Max all right?" Rowan whispered as a movement at the window caught her eye. A glimmer of light slid down the dull-gray barrel of the rifle following Max's trail like a heatseeking missile.
Everything she'd ever been taught about safety sloughed right off. Distract the gunman or Max's as good as dead. "He's gone!" she shouted to warn Rowan as she leaped to her feet. The rifle in the window swung, taking a bead on her position. She couldn't move as fast.
"Damn and blast!" yelled Rowan. A thud of feet and snap of twigs raced time, raced the swing of the barrel. No time to yell, "Stay down!" Although time appeared to stop, she didn't have any. Then his hand gripped her shoulder.
An inane thought that this was the first time he'd ever laid hands on her, struck at the same moment a shot cracked and the air beside them opened in a rush.
Rowan lunged, his legs straddling hers. His large body barreling into hers dragged her down. She tasted dirt. The scent of dead leaves, grave-cold earth and the coppery tang of blood filled every breath.
Blood? Who was bleeding? Though Rowan's weight crushed her, she felt no pain. As the truth hit, she wanted to scream, "Noooooo!" And she did. "No, no, no," she repeated the word, repeated the prayer.
She squeezed out from under his lax body and struggled to her knees as if daring the gunman to try again. Blood and some other stuff she didn't want to put a name to covered her shoes. "God, don't let him be dead." Groaning, she rolled him over.
There was no need to feel for his carotid pulse. Proof of life pulsed in the fountain of blood gushing from a hole the size of a fist in his thigh. "You fool, McQuaid. What you want to go and do that for?" She dragged the sleeves of her jacket down her arms and flung it aside.
"I don't want you to die for me." There were no other sounds in the world except her beating heart and Velcro ripping as she pulled at the straps of her Kevlar vest. Peeling the vest off, she started in on her shirt buttons. "I don't need a stand-in. I'm quite capable of dying by myself."
"Is Sergeant McQuaid all right?" She'd forgotten that anyone but Rowan and her existed. Her shirt was off, and the kid Rowan had helped was staring at her underwear. "No, he's not all right. We need an ambulance."
"I already called the paramedics." He hunkered down at Rowan's head and continued to stare. She knew he was waiting for orders, but her mind raced faster than her lips could frame the words. And no wonder. She was kneeling in the dirt, her hands fighting to staunch the flow of blood with her second-best shirt, while all she wanted to do was howl, to let her feminine side have its way and cry her damn eyes out. But there was no time. She didn't know where Max had gone but Rowan was down and that made her in charge.
"Press down on this, kid. Let's hope the ambulance doesn't take too long," she told him and shrugged back into her vest, then jacket while he complied. She nudged his hand aside, replacing it with hers. "Now give me your shirt and your belt," she ordered, digging her other fist into Rowan's groin in search of the pressure point.
Too busy now for tears, she'd save them for another day, praying that it wouldn't be at his funeral.
Excerpted from Love Under Fireby Frances Housden Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.