O'Halloran's Lady (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1733)

O'Halloran's Lady (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1733)

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by Fiona Brand

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"It's been nine years. I still want you."World-famous writer Jenna Whitmore has her share of fans. She just never thought one would be out for blood. There's only one man she can trust with her life, VIP security expert Marc O'Halloran. He left her years ago without a word, so how can she ask him for help now? Marc had failed to save his

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"It's been nine years. I still want you."World-famous writer Jenna Whitmore has her share of fans. She just never thought one would be out for blood. There's only one man she can trust with her life, VIP security expert Marc O'Halloran. He left her years ago without a word, so how can she ask him for help now? Marc had failed to save his wife and child once. There's no way he's letting anything happen to Jenna. Whatever their relationship had been, or is destined to become again, he's keeping it all about maintaining Jenna's safety. Marc will protect the woman who's given him something to live—and die—for.

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Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series , #1733
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Meet the Author

Fiona Brand lives in the sunny Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Now that both of her sons are grown, she continues to love writing books and gardening. After a life-changing time in which she met Christ, she has undertaken study for a bachelor of theology and has become a member of The Order of St. Luke, Christ's healing ministry.

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Pleasurable anticipation hummed through Jenna as she slit open a box stamped with the familiar logo of her publisher. Setting the knife she'd used to cut the packaging tape down on her desk, she extracted a glossy, trade-sized paperback: her latest novel. Glancing at the back cover copy, she flipped the book over to check out the cover…and for long seconds her mind went utterly blank.

Swamping shadows flowed over broad, sleek shoulders and a lean, muscled torso. Moonlight glimmered across sculpted cheekbones, a blade-straight nose and a rock-solid jaw. By some trick of the light, for a heart-pounding moment, the dark, molten gaze of the man depicted on the cover, shaded by inky lashes, appeared to stare directly into hers.

Her breath hitched in her throat as her sunny office faded and she was spun back nine years, to the stifling heat of a darkened, moonlight-dappled apartment, Marc O'Halloran and a fatal attraction she thought she had controlled.

Memories flooded back, some bittersweet, others hot and edged and earthy. The clean scent of his skin as he had shrugged out of his shirt, the sensual shock of his kiss. Heart-stopping moments later, the weight of his body pressing down on hers.

Groping blindly for her chair, Jenna sat down. Her heart was hammering and her legs felt as limp as noodles, which was crazy. After nine years, the few weeks during which she had dated O'Halloran—and the one out-of-control night after they had broken up when she had made love with him—shouldn't have still registered. Especially since she had spent more time avoiding him than she had ever spent mooning over him.

More to the point, she had gotten over him. It had taken time, the process had been a lot more difficult than she had expected, but she had moved on with her life.

Taking a steadying breath, she forced herself to dispassionately study the masculine image that decorated the front cover of the novel.

It wasn't O'Halloran. Plain common sense dictated that fact. Like her, O'Halloran lived in Auckland, and the book had been published and printed in New York. The cover model would have been someone picked from an agency list in Manhattan.

By some freak chance, whoever had designed the cover had just somehow managed to choose a model who looked like O'Halloran.

At a second glance, the differences were clear. The model's nose was thinner, longer, and his mouth was fuller. As broodingly handsome as he was, overall he was just a little too perfect. He lacked the masculine toughness to his features that was a defining characteristic of O'Halloran, the remote quality to his gaze that spelled out that O'Halloran was neither gym-pumped nor cosmetically enhanced. He was that breed apart: a cop.

Frowning, she replaced the book back in the open carton, closed the flaps and stowed the box under the desk, out of sight.

Feeling distinctly unsettled, she strolled out to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea, using the calming routine of selecting a fragrant fruit variety and a pretty mug to put herself back into work mode. The distant sound of a siren almost made her spill hot tea over her fingers and shoved another memory back at her.

The last time she had seen O'Halloran had been from a distance, four years ago, when she had narrowly avoided running into him in town. Dressed in a suit and wearing a shoulder holster, he had been on police business. The grim remoteness of his expression and the presence of the weapon had underlined the reason she couldn't afford him in her life. Maybe her reaction had been a little over-the-top, but after losing both her father and her fiance to military front lines, the last thing she had needed was to fall for a police detective. Like soldiers, cops bled. More to the point, in the line of duty, they died.

She had seen what being married to a soldier had done to her mother; the separations and the constant fear, the shock when the bad news finally came followed by intense, bone-deep grief.

Less than a year later, her mother had died of cancer. Jenna had read the specialists' reports and listened to the medical experts but that hadn't shifted her inner certainty that what her mother had really died of had been a broken heart.

The final kicker had been when, even knowing the risk, straight out of high school she had gotten engaged to a soldier. Dane had also been her best friend, which was probably why he had slipped beneath her defences. But that hadn't changed the fact that he had died in a hot, sun-blasted foreign country on some covert mission.

A week after it had happened she had finally been informed. In the midst of her grief, somehow the fact that Dane had been lying cold and dead in a hospital morgue for seven days, while she had spent that time shopping and planning for a wedding, had added to her disorientation. She had loved Dane. She should have known something was wrong. Instead, she had been choosing invitations and having fittings for a dress she would never wear. Her own lack of connection to a man she had been prepared to marry had been subtly shocking. It had underlined a distance, a separation, from Dane that she had witnessed in her parents' marriage, and in that moment she had understood something basic about herself. She couldn't live that life.

She needed to be loved. And not only loved, but also to be the cherished focus of the man she chose.

Fingers shaking slightly, a ridiculous overreaction, she placed the mug on a coaster and seated herself in front of her computer.

Maybe her need for a deep, committed love was unrealistic and overly romantic, but she knew her nature.

As much as she had wanted to share her life with Dane, she knew now that it would never have worked. She couldn't compete with the adrenaline and danger of combat and undercover missions.

She couldn't afford to fall for anyone who was going to place themselves on the front lines, either militarily or as a civilian.

She refreshed the screen and found herself staring at a manuscript page from the book she was currently editing. A love scene.

Jamming the lid of the laptop down, she strode out of her office and grabbed a jacket. She needed air, lots of it. Stepping out onto her porch, she closed the front door of her house and locked it behind her.

But slamming the lid on the Pandora's Box of her past was more difficult. As she walked, more memories flickered in a series of freeze frames. The undertow of fascination she had felt the first time she had seen O'Halloran. The bone-melting excitement of their first kiss, as his big hand had curled around her nape and his mouth had settled on hers.

Her stomach clenched. Emotions and sensations she had thought long dead flared to life. She felt like a sleeper waking up, her pulse too fast, her skin ultrasensitive; she could smell more, hear more, feel more. It had been years since she had felt so alive and, with a jolt, she realised that it had been years since she had felt anything much at all.

As a professional writer, her life was necessarily ordered and quiet. She worked long hours to meet her deadlines, and most evenings she went online to chat with fans or reply to emails. A couple of times a year she travelled to conferences and did promotional tours, coinciding with the release of her books. Apart from socialising for business, cloistered was the term that came to mind.

At the age of twenty-nine, thanks to her solitary career, and the pressure of work created by the success of her books, she had a gap the size of a yawning abyss in her social and sexual life.

Thanks to an inconvenient perfectionist streak that had seemed to become more pronounced with every year, she had trouble meeting anyone with whom she could visualise having an intimate, meaningful relationship.

As in sex.

Another hot flashback to the night in O'Halloran's apartment made her stomach clench and her breasts tighten. She definitely wasn't a nun, but for nine years she had lived like one. She hadn't set out to be so isolated and alone—lacking almost any semblance of human warmth in her life, lacking the mate she wanted—it was just the way things had worked out.

Or was it?

The feeling of constriction in her chest increased as she examined the extremity of her reaction to the cover of her new book.

She had gotten over the loss of both of her parents; and she had gotten over Dane. The fact that they had never slept together, because he had surprised her by proposing literally minutes before he had shipped out, had meant they had never had the chance at a full, intimate relationship. As much as she'd loved him, in her mind, he would forever remain a part of her childhood and teen years, not a part of her adult life.

For the past few years, as much as she had wanted to find someone she could fall for, marry and have babies with, she hadn't come even remotely close.

As outwardly attractive as her dates had been, there had always been something wrong. They had been either too short, or too tall, or their personalities just hadn't appealed. She had been picky to the point that most of her friends had long since given up introducing her to eligible bachelors.

Now she had to consider that the reason she had never been able to move on to the healthy, normal relationship she craved was because at some deep, instinctual level, O'Halloran still mattered. That in the weeks they had dated—and maybe because he was the first and only man she had ever made love with—in a primitive, purely masculine way, he had somehow managed to imprint himself on her so deeply that she had never been able to open up to another relationship.

She stopped dead, barely noticing the trees that dappled the sidewalk with chilly shade, or the young mother with a stroller who walked past her. It was even possible that in some sneaky, undermining way, she had fallen for O'Halloran because of his dangerous occupation; that the reason she wasn't attracted to a "normal" nine-to-five guy was because her years on military bases had hardwired her to be attracted to edgy alpha types.

She forced herself back into motion again, automatically turning down the street that led to a small park. The sick feeling in her stomach increased as she strolled, along with the desire to bang her head against the nearest wall she could find in the hope that that salutary action might jolt some sense into her.

She felt like she was staring down a long tunnel inscribed with the words obvious reason for multiple relationship failures.

Now was not a good time to realise that as hard as she'd tried to bury her past and the attraction to O'Halloran, like the heroine in her book, she hadn't succeeded.

And now it had come back to bite her.

Two hours before midnight, and the clock was ticking….

On edge and gripped by a tense air of expectation, haunted by a past that had teeth, Marc O'Halloran, clad in a pair of grey interlock track pants that hung low on his hips, closed the door on his private gym. A towel from the shower he'd just taken slung over one muscled shoulder, he padded through the darkened luxury of his Auckland waterfront apartment, not bothering to turn on lights.

Stepping out on his terrace, he allowed the damp chill to settle around him like a shroud as he stared broodingly out at the spectacular view of the Waitemata Harbour. To one side, the graceful arch of the Harbour Bridge was almost obscured by a wraithlike veil of mist, and the headland that was Devonport, with its naval base and steep streets crammed with houses, glittered quietly.

Below, street-lighting from the busy viaduct glowed through the wrought-iron railing that edged his terrace. The pulse of neon lighting from the busy restaurants and bars flickered garishly in time with the beat of a jazz band, adding a strident, unsettling rhythm to the night.

As Marc stepped back into his lounge, the glass of the bi-fold doors threw his reflection back at him. The scars that marred his right shoulder and his forearms were an unwelcome reminder of the house fire that had taken the lives of his wife and small son six years ago. Luckily, the broken neck, courtesy of the falling beam that had also damaged his shoulder, hadn't required surgery or scars, just months in a neck brace.

Nothing too major, he thought grimly. He had lived.

Walking through to the laundry, he tossed the towel in a basket, grabbed a fresh T-shirt out of the dryer and pulled it on. Minutes later, after collecting a glass of ice water from the kitchen, he entered his study. The view of the port, and the shimmer of city lights, winked out as he switched on a lamp and unlocked his briefcase.

Bypassing the correspondence file from the security business in which he was a partner, he searched out the bookstore bag that contained the novel he had bought during his lunch break.

Hot off the presses, the latest Jenna Whitmore.

With an effort of will, he shook off the miasma of guilt that went with the impending anniversary of his wife's and child's deaths, and the hot burn of frustration that the only crime he had never been able to solve had been the murder of his own family. Dropping the paper bag on the gleaming surface of his desk, he studied the cover with its tense, dark backdrop.

The book was a suspense, but also a romance, not something he normally read, but he had once dated Jenna so, out of curiosity, he had bought her first book.

To his surprise he had been hooked from the first page. Despite her link to his past—one of the links that he had systematically eradicated from his life—Jenna's books had become a guilty pleasure and a deep, dark secret. If the detectives he had used to work with at Auckland Central or his business partner in the security business he now part-owned, Ben McCabe, ever found out that he read romances, he would never live it down.

Automatically, he turned the book over and examined the publicity photo on the back cover. Despite the tension that coursed through him, he found himself gradually relaxing. Jenna, who also happened to be his dead wife's cousin, frequently changed her hair. The constant process of reinvention never failed to fascinate Marc.

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