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Jocelyn Raine walked under the wrought-iron archway and followed the path to her garden apartment. It was just after nine and the sun had disappeared behind the Annapolis, Maryland, horizon about a half hour ago. Lights inset in the pavers crisscrossed, highlighting the way as she turned right and jogged up the three steps to her front door.
Her cell buzzed at the same time she reached for her keys. While juggling her small purse, she almost dropped the phone. It slipped out of one hand but she caught it in the other before it hit the hard concrete of the small porch.
She swiped her finger over the screen. The promised check-in text from Ben Tanner greeted her. The guy had light brown hair in a short, almost military cut and the most compelling olive-green eyes she'd ever seen.
She could describe the color exactly because she'd stared into them all night across the dinner table on their first date. Add in the linebacker shoulders and that scruffy thing happening around his chin, and no sane woman could brush him off without a second look.
It all worked except for the part where he carried a gun. She hated guns. She wasn't a fan of violence and despised being scared. She hadn't seen a horror movie since she was a teen. All of which explained why the guy had to ask six times before she finally agreed to go out with him tonight.
Didn't help that within the first two days of knowing Ben, she'd watched him run, shoot, dive, guard and wrestle a scary dude to the ground. All in the critical-care unit of the hospital where she worked, and all while sporting an injury. He'd been shot in the upper arm but that hadn't stopped him from setting up next to a guy in a coma, insisting the unconscious man needed a guard.
And that was why she had finally said yes to him. Something about the former NCIS special agent broke through her defenses. Just a few minutes ago he had insisted, in that respectful voice, that he walk her to the door. She had said no to avoid the awkward "to kiss or not to kiss" confusion, though he was a temptation.
She texted back that all was well and slipped her keys into the locks, first the dead bolt and then the standard one. A woman couldn't be too careful. She'd learned that the hard way.
Once inside, the three-inch pumps came off first. She sighed in relief when her feet hit the thick area rug. That would teach her to wear sexy shoes. Ben only saw them for a second anyway before she tucked them under the table, so she didn't get the point.
The light next to the couch bathed the open area in a soft glow. After resetting the lock and dumping everything but the cell on the table just inside the door, she headed for the family-room area to her right. Ben could text again, so why not be ready?
She looked around for the remote. The television provided background noise, but she had to turn it on first. Ducking, she checked the floor, then the couch cushions.
Spinning in a circle, she scanned the room. She always kept it in the basket on the center of her square coffee table. Her gaze went back to that spot, but it still wasn't there.
An odd chill moved across the back of her neck. She blamed the air conditioner she'd set lower than normal to battle the unusual June heat. But then her gaze came to rest on the magazines spread over the coffee table. She stacked them in a pile. Every day and always.
Some people called her obsessive-compulsive, or OCD. She preferred the term overly neat. Either way, she put stuff in its place, and things were not the way she had left them two hours ago.
All thoughts of her sexy date fled.
The chill morphed into a warning itch. She'd been in this situation before and this time she didn't ignore the alarm bells. With a quick look at her phone, she clicked on Ben's name and waited for it to ring on his end. The reaction might be overblown but-
She sensed movement. A change in the air in the room. Little things, almost imperceptible things. A heat-a presence-right behind her.
She spun around as her hand dropped and something brushed against her cheek. A sweet smell hit her dead-on and she shook her head to evade the pungent scent.
A scream died in her throat when a knife waved in front of her. She looked from the muscled arm to the face hardened by lines around the eyes and mouth. A man, tall, bald and dressed completely in black.
Light bounced off the blade. Her breath hitched in her chest as fear hammered through her, threatening to knock her down.
She glanced at the white cloth in his fist. The lingering smell triggered a memory. Nursing school chloroform. They no longer used it as an anesthesia in hospitals, but she had read about it in medical-history class and had a lab tech describe it in depth during a tour.
She knew through every quaking cell in her body what this man intended to use it for. She vowed right there not to leave this apartment with him, and that meant staying conscious.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Don't make this difficult," he said in a harsh whisper. Every muscle in her body tensed. Her palm ached. She forgot about the phone until she looked down and saw her death grip on it.
The attacker knocked the cell to the floor and stepped toward her, filling the last bit of safe distance between them. The hand with the cloth went to her throat. His fingers squeezed and her breath was cut off.
She clawed and punched at his hands, walloping him with both fists while she turned her head away from the heady scent assailing her nose and throat. She kicked out but one forceful hit against his shin caused pain to vibrate from her bare foot up her back.
He didn't even flinch.
Just as she lifted her knee to slam into his groin, the knife flashed in front of her eyes again. The flat line of his mouth inched up on one side. The smile was sick, feral, and her stomach churned in terror.
He held the blade close to her eye. "Where is it?"
"No games. I want it now."
She fought through the waves of panic shaking through her and tried to process the question. It didn't make sense. "I don't know-"
With a flick of his wrist, he shook her as if she were a rag doll. "Lying won't save you."
The back of her legs banged against the chair behind her. She rose on tiptoes to keep from losing touch with the ground. He had to be over six feet, and at five-five she didn't have the strength or the height to take him on.
"You have the wrong person." The words scratched against her dry throat and her fingers wrapped around his, trying to ease the punishing hold.
"I guess you want to do this the hard way. We'll see how sorry you are after a few hours of convincing." He threaded the end of the knife through her hair. "I am very good at my work."
His hollow laugh sent tremors running through her. The rush of blood to her head made her dizzy. But she had to stay on her feet. Had to think.
"Tell me what you want."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk." He waved the knife back and forth in front of her nose in time with the annoying noise. "Don't play dumb."
"Please." Begging, running-even with her energy reserves low she would try anything.
"You are done causing problems." He scraped the knife's tip over her skin.
She flinched and felt a prick. If there was pain, it didn't register. Not with the adrenaline coursing inside her.
But he just stood there, staring at her. Her fingers went numb from the desperate clenching around his arm. Her heart thudded hard enough to echo in her brain.
Lying. She went with lying. Her breathy voice barely rose above a choked whisper. "I'll tell you what you want."
"That's a good girl."
She pretended to cough. Let the rasp in her voice back up her lie. "Can't breathe."
As if she weighed nothing, he threw her into the chair. Her back slapped against the cushion and she gripped the armrests to keep from slipping down on the material.
The plan was to spring up and out of the seat again, screaming and flying at him as she attacked. Nails, feet, hands, she'd use them all and bring the lamp with her as a weapon.
As soon as she moved, he clamped a hand over her wrist. Trapped it against the chair and pressed down. Put his weight into it. The intense pressure had her crying out.
The knife flashed again. "Not one sound or I break it."
His head turned toward the door. One minute he was in front of her. The next she was up and he stood behind her with the knife touching her throat. "Sounds like we have company."
Ben smiled when he saw her number light up his phone. Putting the car back in Park, he let the engine idle as he stopped in the middle of her apartment complex's parking lot. "Change your mind about letting me come in?"
Silence greeted him. No, not silence. Shuffling and footsteps. And something that sounded like a muffled shout.
Everything inside him stilled as he strained to hear. All his years of training came roaring back, from the navy to NCIS to his current position with the Corcoran Team. He beat back the urge to race in, gun firing. He needed to know what was happening, if anything even was. And the nerve pulsing by his temple suggested it was.
More moving and a loud crinkling sound as if the phone was breaking in two. After a few seconds her voice boomed through the confusing thuds.
Who are you?
Ben didn't bother to turn off the car. Reaching over the center console, he pressed his index finger in the lock reader, and the compartment next to his radio popped open. With a gun in his hand, he got out.
One in his hand. The other at his ankle. That should do it.
Without looking down, he hit a series of numbers on his cell and lifted it to his ear. After two rings, the line clicked and he started talking. "Apartment six. Now."
Without hanging up, he slipped the cell in the front pocket of his black pants. That would be enough. His teammate Joel Kidd would track the phone, and someone, or a whole group of them, would come blazing in. Until then, it fell to him to assess and rescue.
Crouched and running, he slipped down the pathway that ran through the center, stopping one apartment down. Constantly scanning the area, he looked for trouble. Except for the muffled voices from a television and the wail of a child a few doors up, everything stayed quiet in the comfortable suburban area.
Her door and the drapes to her front window were closed. He could see the light on inside. Everything seemed normal. He knew that wasn't true. And if he'd misread the scene, he'd apologize after. No way was he asking for permission or explanations first.
With a long exhale, he controlled his breathing, forced concern for Jocelyn out of his mind and put on the back burner the memory of how skittish she was to even go on a date. She would be okay. He would make sure of that.
Keeping his steps as silent as possible, he bounded up the stairs. He picked up the low murmur of a male voice. With a light touch, he checked the knob. He had the element of surprise on his side and tried to plan the best way to use it.
Then he heard her scream, and all common sense vanished.
Raising a leg, he nailed his heel into the door right by the knob. The wood split and the lock broke. There was a huge crack as the door slammed open and a hinge snapped.
Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked but Ben ignored it. All of his focus centered on Jocelyn and the man pulling her out of the chair and wrapping an arm around her neck while he hid behind her like a trapped rat.
Ben took in the knife and did a quick glance around the room for a potential partner to this guy. Then he stared at her. The attacker had her long auburn hair pinned under his arm. His hold hiked up her skirt high on her thighs. Nothing torn or ripped. The disheveled state suggested she was thrown around but that the attack hadn't gotten as far as this guy planned.
Those huge blue eyes pleaded with Ben and her hands shook where she grabbed on to her attacker's arm. She wasn't crying or screaming. She stayed stiff and maintained eye contact.
Gun up, Ben moved into the room and kicked the pieces of what remained of the door shut behind him. Having an innocent neighbor wander by would only cause more trouble. Kids and families lived in this part of town. Someone might interfere. That meant the death toll could rise in a second.
Ben ran a quick mental inventory. The other man's face didn't look familiar. He held a knife, not a gun, though he could have more weapons handy. Clear eyes and dark clothes perfect for a silent attack.
Yeah, this wasn't a junkie looking to steal jewelry. Possibly a professional, though that didn't make sense. Jocelyn was a nurse, not a field agent.
Something else was going on here. Ben would figure out the "what" later. Once the man no longer touched her.
"Step away from her," Ben said with his voice as steady as the hand holding the weapon.
The man's eyes narrowed but his arm tightened against her throat. "Who are you?"
Confusion and maybe a touch of worry. Ben knew he could use those to his advantage. "Put the knife down."
"You don't seem to understand who's in charge."
"I am." But Ben needed that blade away from her skin. She already had a nick where a small trickle of blood welled.
"You shoot me, you shoot her."
The man underestimated his opponent. Also a good sign in Ben's view. Bravado had taken down more than one otherwise strong man. "Actually, no."
The attacker ran his nose over her hair and the side of her face. The inhale was deep and exaggerated. "She is lovely."
Ben didn't say a word. Didn't so much as twitch. One sign of weakness and Jocelyn could get stabbed or worse.
The man pointed the end of the knife at Ben. "Is she yours?"
There wasn't a good answer, not one that would help her, so Ben continued to stay quiet.
"Ben." Her soft voice carried a wobble.
The attacker smiled in a way that promised pain. "Sounds as if the pretty lady knows you."
When Ben didn't respond, the man's mouth flattened and twisted into a look of pure hate. "Gun on the floor now or I will carve her into tiny pieces."
Her chest heaved and a strangled sound escaped her throat.
Ben watched the light fade from her eyes and knew it was time to act. "Okay, enough."
His gaze locked on hers. With a subtle bounce, he glanced down at her arm. Then he did it again. The heavy breathing forcing her chest up and down in rapid movements slowed and she frowned. He hoped she got the hint.
"Do it now." The attacker barked out the order.
Putting his hands in the air, Ben held up his gun. "Let's stay calm."
The attacker waved the knife around, getting far too close to her face. "Stop stalling."
"My arms are going down." Ben hoped that last attempt delivered the message to Jocelyn.
He had only seconds and a minimal window for error. With his knees bent, he lowered his body and hands toward the floor. The attacker scowled but his focus centered on Ben, right where Ben wanted it.
He set the weapon on the carpet and watched the other man shift his weight. Right when the tension eased, Ben put his palm near his foot, pretending to push up again.
"Now!" he shouted.