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Goose bumps of dread rising on her arms, Josie Jessup slipped into a pew in the back of church. She hated funerals, hated saying goodbye to anyone but most especially to someone who had died too soon. And so senselessly and violentlyshot down just as his adult life was beginning.
The small church, with its brilliantly colored stained-glass windows, was filled with her former student's family and friends. Some of them nodded in polite acknowledgment; others glared at her. They probably blamed her for the career he had pursued, the career that had cost him his life. At the local community college where she taught journalism courses, she had recognized the kid's talent. She had even recommended he cover the story that had killed him, because it had been killing her that she couldn't cover it herself.
But she couldn't risk anyone recognizing her. Even though her appearance had changed, her writing style hadn't. If she had written the story, certain people would have recognized it as hers no matter whom the byline claimed had authored it. And Josie couldn't risk anyone realizing that she wasn't really dead.
That was her other reason for hating funeralsbecause it reminded her of her own, of having to say goodbye to everyone she loved. She actually hadn't attended her funeral; her ashes hadn't been in the urn as everyone else had believed. But still she'd had to say goodbye to the only life she'd known in order to begin a new life under a new identity.
But apparently she wasn't making any better choices in this life than she had in her last, since innocent people were still getting hurt. She hadn't pulled the trigger and ended this young man's promising life. But she blamed herself nearly as much as some of these people blamed her. If only she hadn't mentioned her suspicions regarding the private psychiatric hospital and the things that were rumored to take place there
The gnawing pangs of guilt were all too familiar to her. The first story she'd covered, back in college, had also cost a young man his life. But then she'd had someone to assure her that it wasn't her fault. Now she had no one to offer her assurances or comfort.
Chatter from the people in front of her drifted back. "Since Michael was hoping to sell the Serenity House story to one of Jessup Media's news outlets, I heard Stanley Jessup might attend the funeral."
Josie's breath caught with hope and panic. She wanted to see him. But she couldn't risk his seeing her. For his own protection, her father had to go on believing that his only child was dead.
"Not anymore," the other person responded. "He's in the hospital. They don't even know if he'll make it."
Josie leaned forward, ready to demand to know what had happened to her father. But before she could, the other person had already asked.
"He was attacked," the gossiper replied. "Someone tried to kill him."
Had all the sacrifices she'd made been for naught? Had her father been attacked because of her? And if so, then she'd done nothing to protect him except deprive him of what mattered most to him. She had already been guilt-ridden. Now that guilt intensified, overwhelming her.
If her father didn't make it, he would die never knowing the truth. She couldn't let that happen.
"Jessup. . .hospitalized in critical condition "
The breaking news announcement drew Brendan O'Hannigan's attention to the television mounted over the polished oak-and-brass bar of O'Hannigan's Tavern. At 9:00 a.m. it was too early for the establishment to be open to the public, but it was already doing business. Another kind of business than serving drinks or sandwiches. A dangerous kind of business that required his entire focus and control.
But Brendan ignored the men with whom he was meeting to listen to the rest of the report: "Nearly four years ago, media mogul Stanley Jessup's daughter died in a house explosion that authorities ruled arson. Despite her father's substantial resources, Josie Jessup's murder has never been solved."
"Josie Jessup?" one of the men repeated her name and then tapped the table in front of Brendan. "Weren't you dating her at one time?"
Another of the men snorted. "A reporter? Brendan would never date a reporter."
He cleared his throat, fighting back all the emotions just the sound of her name evoked. And it had been more than three years..
Wasn't it supposed to get easier? Weren't his memories of her supposed to fade? He shouldn't be able to see her as clearly as if she stood before him now, her pale green eyes sparkling and her long red hair flowing around her shoulders. Brendan could even hear her laughter tinkling in his ear.
"At the time I didn't know she was a reporter," he answered honestly, even though these were men he shouldn't trust with the truth. Hell, he shouldn't trust these men with anything.
He leaned back against the booth, and its stiff vinyl pushed the barrel of his gun into the small of his back. The bite of metal reassured him. It was just one of the many weapons he carried. That reassured him more.
The first man who'd spoken nodded and confirmed, "It wasn't common knowledge that the girl wanted to work for her father. All her life she had seemed more intent on spending his money, living the life of an American princess."
An American princess. That was exactly what Josie had been. Rich and spoiled, going after what she wanted no matter who might get hurt. She had hurt otherswith the stories Brendan had discovered that she'd written under a pseudonym. Her exposes had started before she'd even graduated with her degree in journalism.
Brendan should have dug deeper until he'd learned the truth about her before getting involved with her. But the woman had pursued him and had been damn hard to resist. At least he had learned the truth about her before she'd managed to learn the truth about him. Somehow she must have discovered enough information to have gotten herself killed, though.
The news report continued: "The death of his daughter nearly destroyed Jessup, but the billionaire used his work to overcome his loss, much as he did when his wife died twenty years ago. The late Mrs. Jessup was European royalty."
"So she was a real princess," Brendan murmured, correcting himself.
"She was also a reporter," the other man said, his focus on Brendan, his dark eyes narrowed with suspicion.
It had taken Brendan four years to gain the small amount of trust and acceptance that he had from these men. He had been a stranger to them when he'd taken over the business he'd inherited from his late father. And these men didn't trust strangers.
Hell, they didn't trust anyone.
The man asked, "When did you learn that?"
Learn that Josie Jessup had betrayed him? That she'd just been using him to get another expose for her father's media outlets?
Anger coursed through him and he clenched his jaw. His eyes must have also telegraphed that rage, for the men across the booth from him leaned back now as if trying to get away. Or to reassure themselves that they were armed, too.
"I found out Josie Jessup was a reporter," Brendan said, "right before she died."
It's too great a risk She hadn't been able to reach her handler, the former U.S. marshal who had faked Josie's death and relocated her. But she didn't need to speak to Charlotte Green to know what she would have told her. It's too great a risk
After nearly being killed for real almost four years ago, Josie knew how much danger she would be in were anyone to discover that she was still alive. She hadn't tried to call Charlotte again. She'd had no intention of listening to her anyway.
Josie stood outside her father's private hospital room, one hand pressed against the door. Coming here was indeed a risk, but the greater risk was that her father would die without her seeing him again.
Without him seeing her again. And.
Her hand that was not pressed against the door held another hand. Pudgy little fingers wriggled in her grasp. "Mommy, what we doin' here?"
Josie didn't have to ask herself that question. She knew that, no matter what the risk, she needed to be here. She needed to introduce her father to his grandson. "We're here to see your grandpa," she said.
"Grampa?" The three-year-old's little brow furrowed in confusion. He had probably heard the word before but never in reference to any relation of his. It had always been only the two of them. "I have a grampa?"
"Yes," Josie said. "But he lives far away so we didn't get to see him before now."
"Far away," he agreed with a nod and a yawn. He had slept through most of the long drive from northwestern Michigan to Chicago; his soft snoring had kept her awake and amused. His bright red curls were matted from his booster seat, and there was a trace of drool that had run from the corner of his mouth across his freckled cheek.
CJ glanced nervously around the wide corridor as if just now realizing where he was. He hadn't awakened until the elevator ride up to her father's floor. Then with protests that he wasn't a baby but a big boy now, he had wriggled out of her arms. "Does Grampa live here?"
"No," she said. "This is a hospital."
The little boy shuddered in revulsion. His low pain threshold for immunizations had given him a deep aversion to all things medical. He lowered his already soft voice to a fearful whisper. "Isis Grampa sick?"
She whispered, too, so that nobody overheard them. A few hospital workers, men dressed in scrubs, lingered outside a room a few doors down from her father's. "He's hurt."
So where were the police or the security guards? Why was no one protecting him?
Because nobody cared about her father the way she did. Because she had been declared dead, he had no other next of kin. And as powerful and intimidating a man as he was, he had no genuine friends, either. His durable power of attorney was probably held by his lawyer. She'd claimed to be from his office when she'd called to find out her father's room number.
"Did he falled off his bike?" CJ asked.
"Something like that." She couldn't tell her son what had really happened, that her father had been assaulted in the parking garage of his condominium complex. Usually the security was very high there. No one got through the gate unless they lived in the building. Not only was it supposed to be safe, but it was his home. Yet someone had attacked him, striking him with somethinga baseball bat or a pipe. His broken arm and bruised shoulder might not hurt him so badly if the assault hadn't also brought on a heart attack.
Would her showing up here as if from the dead bring on another one? Maybe that inner voice of hers, which sounded a hell of a lot like Charlotte's even though she hadn't talked to the woman, was right. The risk was too great.
"We shoulda brought him ice cream," CJ said. "Ice cream makes you feel all better."
Every time he had been brave for his shots she had rewarded him with ice cream. Always shy and nervous, CJ had to fight hard to be brave. Had she passed her own fears, of discovery and danger, onto her son?
"Yes, we should have," she agreed, and she pulled her hand away from the door. "We should do that."
"Now?" CJ asked, his dark bluish-green eyes brightening with hope. "We gonna get ice cream now?"
"It's too late for ice cream tonight," she said. "But we can get some tomorrow."
"And bring it back?"
She wasn't sure about that. She would have to pose as the legal secretary again and learn more about her father's condition. Just how fragile was his health?
Josie turned away from the door and from the nearly overwhelming urge to run inside and into her father's armsthe way she always had as a child. She had hurled herself at him, secure that he would catch her.
She'd been so confident that he would always be there for her. She had never considered that he might be the one to leavefor real, for goodthat he might be the one to really die. Given how young she was when her mother died, she should have understood how fragile life was. But her father wasn't fragile. He was strong and powerful. Invincible. Or so she had always believed.
But he wasn't. And she couldn't risk causing him harm only to comfort herself. She stepped away from the door, but her arm jerked as her son kept his feet planted on the floor.
"I wanna see Grampa," he said, his voice still quiet but his tone determined. Afraid to draw attention to himself, her son had never thrown a temper tantrum. He'd never even raised his voice. But he could be very stubborn when he put his mind to something. Kind of like the grandfather he'd suddenly decided he needed to meet.
"It's late," she reminded him. "He'll be sleeping and we shouldn't wake him up."
His little brow still furrowed, he stared up at her a moment as if considering her words. Then he nodded. "Yeah, you get cranky when I wake you up."
A laugh sputtered out of her lips. Anyone would get cranky if woken up at 5:00 a.m. to watch cartoons. "So we better make sure I get some sleep tonight." That meant postponing the drive back and getting a hotel. But she needed to be close to the hospital in case her father took a turn for the worse. In case he needed her.
"And after you wake up we'll come back with ice cream?"
She hesitated before offering him a slight nod. But instead of posing as the lawyer's assistant again, she would talk to Charlotte.
Someone else had answered the woman's phone at the palace on the affluent island country of St. Pierre where Charlotte had gone to work as the princess's bodyguard after leaving the U.S. Marshals. That person had assured Josie that Charlotte would be back soon to return her call. But Josie hadn't left a messageshe couldn't trust anyone but Charlotte with her life. Or her father's. She would talk to Charlotte and see what the former marshal could find out about Josie's father's condition and the attack. Then she would come back to see him.
Her son accepted her slight nod as agreement and finally moved away from the door to his grandfather's room. "Does Grampa like 'nilla ice cream or chocolate or cookie dough or."
The kid was an ice-cream connoisseur, his list of flavors long and impressive. And Josie's stomach nearly growled with either hunger or nerves.
She interrupted him to ask, "Do you want to press the elevator button?"
His brow furrowing in concentration, he rose up on tiptoe and reached for the up arrow.
"No," she said. But it was too late, he'd already pressed it. "We need the down arrow." Before she could touch it, a hand wrapped around her wrist.
Her skin tingled and her pulse leaped in reaction. And she didn't need to lift her head to know who had touched her. Even after more than three years, she recognized his touch. But she lifted her head and gazed up at him, at his thick black hair that was given to curl, at his deep, turquoise-green eyes that could hold such passion. Now they held utter shock and confusion.
This was the man who'd killed her, or who would have killed her had the U.S. marshal and one of her security guards not diffused the bomb that had been set inside the so-called safe house. They had set it off later to stage her death.
Since he had wanted her dead so badly, he was not going to be happy to find her alive and unharmedif he recognized her now. She needed for him not to recognize her, as she wasn't likely to survive his next murder attempt. Not when she was unprotected.
If only she'd listened to that inner voice
The risk had been too great. Not just to her life but to what would become of her son once she was gone.
Would her little boy's father take him or kill him? Either way, the child was as doomed as she was.