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I've never used a service like Webmatch.com before, so I apologize in advance if I mess up. I saw your picture and read your profile, and I think we have some things in common. My name is Ty, I'm thirty-five, divorced and relatively free of baggage. Like you, I guard because I also like traveling and staying on the move. It's not as exciting as it might sound, though. I work for a corporate type, so it's mostly standing outside boring meetings. Which, I suppose, is better than actually attending the meetings. Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting to know you better. I've posted my picture and profile (click here). If you're interested, shoot me a note and we can chat. [Sent by TyJ; March 17, 1:03:13 a.m.] 9:58 p.m., August 2 7 Hours and 40 Minutes to Dawn
Ty Jones paused in the shadows beyond a small, cobbled courtyard in Boston's North End, breathing past the tension of battle readiness.
The light from a kerosene lantern broke the absolute darkness, casting warm shadows on the woman who waited for him in the hot, humid summer night. The lamplight should have been almost painfully romantic.
Instead, it was a necessity.
Boston had been in the grips of a widespread blackout for twenty-five hours now. Most of the city's inhabitants thought there had been a massive failure at Boston Power & Light, but Ty and his teammates knew the blackout had been no accident. It had been a cover. Under the cloak of darkness, a man they'd once trusted had kidnapped Grant Davis, Vice President of the United States.
Now, twenty-five hours later, with Davis's life hanging in the balance and his captor hinting that a bomb had been planted somewhere in the city, Ty and the others were out of time and options.
Which had brought him here, to a clandestine rendezvous with Internet bombshell Gabriella Solaro.
Ty's watch chimed softly. It was ten o'clock. Time to meet the one connection he had left, the one woman who could possibly lead them to Liam Shea, the man behind the blackout.
Taking a deep breath, Ty stepped out of concealment and swung open the ornate wrought iron gate that separated the North End courtyard from the narrow street. Pitching his voice low, he called, "Gabriella?"
The woman was facing away from him.At the sound of her name, she turned and lifted the lantern. "Ty?"
Her voice was soft and feminine, just as he'd imagined it during their online conversations, first in a chat room at Webmatch.com, then one-on-one via e-mail and instant messenger. But oddly, she looked nothing like he'd expected.
Her dark eyes complemented full, red-painted lips, and her features were sharp and exotic, but in the lantern light, her hair seemed darker than the fiery chestnut she'd mentioned, and her simple sundress made her figure seem more angular than her self-described curvy-bordering-on-plump.
She was lovely, but she wasn't anything like the picture in her profile. Then again, why should that surprise him? It was all too easy to bend the truth and become someone else on the Internet.
He should know.
Stepping forward into the circle of lantern light, Ty hesitated, wondering what she'd expect. Should he hug her? Kiss her? They'd met through an online dating service, which carried a certain expectation, and they'd e-chatted long into many nights, forming the illusion of intimacy. But none of it had been real, had it?
More important, their last few exchanges had been increasingly tense, as he'd pressed for a meeting and she'd resisted, which had solidified his suspicions even before Liam had made his move.
Now, though, Ty had a part to play. He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. "It's nice to finally meet you in person."
If he hadn't been watching her face as he eased back, he would've missed the moment her eyes slid beyond him to a deeply shadowed corner where two brick-walled houses converged.
Instinct tightened the back of Ty's neck. Someone was watching.
He forced himself not to react, instead smiling easily. "I'm surprised you agreed to meet me in the middle of this godawful blackout, especially with the curfew and all. Heck, I wasn't even sure my e-mail would get through, or that you'd have enough juice to read it."
With Liam's three accomplices, his sons Finn, Aidan and Colin, all out of actionone dead, one comatose, one not talkingTy had known Gabby was perhaps their last hope for finding the mastermind. He'd broken into a stranger's car, plugged his handheld into the cigarette lighter and stolen enough charge to send the message. Then he'd waited in the darkness, listening to the sounds of growing violence nearby as the looting continued and the National Guard moved in to enforce the mayor's new curfew. The mob had almost reached him by the time she'd e-mailed back, arranging the meet.
As Ty had locked the car and slipped away for a quick radio convo with his boss, part of him had hoped she'd agreed to meet him out of curiosity, that the woman he'd gotten to know online was the real deal.
Now, as she glanced into the shadows a second time, conflicting emotions stirred within himvicious satisfaction that he'd come to the right place and disappointment that she hadn't been the real deal, after all.
"I got your message on my Blackberry," she answered. "I was surprised you wanted to meet faceto-face, especially after that last e-mail I sent you, but I was curious, I guess." She glanced at him, eyes dark and a little cool with an emotion that was either nerves or calculation. "You didn't have any problems
"I made it okay." His credentials had gotten him through the first two roadblocks, but he'd ended up ditching his car near the waterfront, where the Guard's bulldozers and tow trucks hadn't yet cleared the roadways. Numerous cars had wrecked right after the blackout, when the traffic lights went down, and even more vehicles had been abandoned later, when rumors of a terrorist attack had sent the city's residents fleeing in panic, only to have them wind up trapped in gridlock, frying in the hot summer sun.
Dull anger kindled in his gut at the thought of so much chaos created by a single ex-con and his sons, but he kept his voice light and friendly when he said, "How about you? No problems so far with the lights off?"
She shifted from one foot to the other, seeming uncomfortableor was that just part of the act? After a hesitation so brief he wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't been looking, she tipped her head, fluttered her eyelashes and said, "Would you like to sit down and talk for a little bit? There's a fountain and some benches in the next courtyard over. The neighbors won't mind."
She pointed to a secluded spot where the cobblestone path narrowed between two planted areas, no doubt near where her associate waited.
Keeping his weight evenly balanced on the balls of his feet, ready for a fight, Ty nodded. "The courtyard sounds perfect."
She set the lantern on the edge of a nearby stone planter before starting down the short path. Was it a signal? Ty didn't know, but he was tense with battle readiness as he followed in her wake.
They'd taken just three steps into the shadows when he heard a rustle and the faint indrawn breath that presaged attack.
"Freeze!" Ty palmed the revolver he wore at his hip and grabbed Gabriella in a single move, spinning her throat.
She screamed and struggled to escape, her elbows digging into his ribs, her heels drumming against his shins. He could feel her heartbeat jackhammering beneath his forearm, mute evidence that she might be a liar, but she wasn't a trained operative.
"Be still." He cocked the revolver, and the click resonated on the humid air, freezing her in place.
He carried a semiautomatic with fifteen in the clip as his primary weapon, tucked into an underarm holster, but he'd long ago found that the six-shooter had the edge when it came to intimidation.
The click said he meant business. Right now his business was finding Grant Davis and locating the bomb that'd been planted somewhere in the city, and to do that, he had to get his hands on Liam Shea.
Adrenaline pounded through Ty's veins as he leaned close and spoke into his captive's delicate ear. "Tell him to toss his weapons and come out with his hands up."
If he was damn lucky, it would be Shea himself. If not, he hoped it was an underling he could lean on for the bastard's location.
Gabby whimpered in the back of her throat and jerked her head in some semblance of a nod. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she was shaking all over, almost enough to convince him she was for real.
A sliver of compassion twisted through Ty, along with snippets from the hundreds of notes they'd exchanged over the past five-plus months. She'd written about honesty, and about problems with her family, and, damn it, she'd seemed real enough that he'd responded in kind.
Maybe she really hadn't known what she was getting into, he rationalized. Maybe it had seemed like a game to her, or perhaps she was one of those bleeding hearts who believed in rehabilitation of hardened criminals.
If so, he could've told her not to bother. Liam had been a traitor eleven years earlier, and he was a traitor now.
One who damn well belonged back in jail. When there was no motion from the bushes, Ty raised his voice. "Come out here. Now!"A breath of wind disturbed the hot, humid air, unfurling a nearby flag and making it snap. "You've got until three. One two "
The bushes moved and a figure stepped out onto the path, nearly lost in the darkness.
"Back up into the courtyard," he ordered, his pulse accelerating as he tried to assess the risks and control the scene.
"Go on. Easy now." He marched Gabby along the path in front of him, using her as a shield as the shadowy figure complied, backing into the courtyard with a hitching motion, as though feeling the way. Moments later, the figure stepped into the circle of lantern light, and the illumination chased away the anonymous shadows.
It wasn't Liam Shea. It was a woman, and she sure as hell didn't look like anyone's hired gun.
She wore cutoff shorts over curvy legs, with a pink button-down shirt knotted beneath generous breasts. Glossy hair spilled over her shoulders, gleaming with rich chestnut highlights in the yellow lantern light. Her eyes were strangely luminous, as though backlit, bleaching from brown at the center to pale at the edges, and her full, moist lips came straight from his fantasies.
Surprise flared through him, laced with something hotter and even more unexpected. Suddenly desire existed alongside anger, all of it complicated with the pounding need to shelter the innocent and rescue the man he was sworn to protect with his life.
He tried for a dry tone, but the words came out harsh when he said, "Hello, Gabby."
Then he noticed the red-tipped cane in her hand, and saw that she wasn't looking directly at him with those pale, pretty eyes.
A second major shock hammered through him. Gabriella Solaro was blind.