As a man of action, he'd never break protocol. But he'd never been so tempted
Although he was trying to crack a global conspiracy, former soldier Jesse Cooper had an even more important mission: keep new hire and girl-next-door Evie Marsh safe. Shocked to learn Evie could be the key to bringing down this secret plot, the head of Cooper Security had to stifle his attraction to her. After all, the case was on the line—and so were their lives....
As a man of action, he'd never break protocol. But he'd never been so tempted
Although he was trying to crack a global conspiracy, former soldier Jesse Cooper had an even more important mission: keep new hire and girl-next-door Evie Marsh safe. Shocked to learn Evie could be the key to bringing down this secret plot, the head of Cooper Security had to stifle his attraction to her. After all, the case was on the line—and so were their lives. But between dodging bullets and staying one step ahead of the enemy, temptation became impossible to resist. As a man made for danger, Jesse thought sweet Evie had no place in his world. Then, in the heat of the moment, she proved she'd always have his back—or die trying.
As a child, Paula Graves's favorite books were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and Harlequin Romances. When she realized there were books that featured both romance and mystery, she knew she'd found her calling. Now Paula writes for Harlequin Intrigue, where she gets to play both matchmaker and murderer and has a blast doing it.
Jesse Cooper peered through the binoculars and wondered if he could avoid answering his sister's question. He could pretend he hadn't heard her or fake a reason to get off the phone. But she'd just ask again.
He lowered the binoculars and leaned against the headrest. "Briefly." He'd spotted Rita Marsh and her mother entering Millwood Presbyterian Church a half hour earlier. Her father, General Baxter Marsh, had arrived a few minutes later alone. No idea where Evie was.
"She didn't see you, did she?"
"No." He hadn't been invited to the wedding.
"You sure we should hang back so far?" Isabel's voice held a hint of doubt. She hadn't been the only one of his brothers and sisters to question whether Jesse's "go it alone" decision had been the right one.
Jesse wasn't sure he was right either, but he couldn't pretend he wasn't worried. And because Rita's father had hired his own security for the wedding, Jesse and his Cooper Security agents couldn't exactly form a perimeter around the church without drawing notice.
"We have to play it this way," he said. "I'll call if anything starts to go down." He said goodbye to his sister and lifted the binoculars again, focusing on a compact car swinging into a parking spot near the side of the church.
Ah, there she is.
He adjusted the lenses to watch Evie Marsh stride toward the side door of the church, muscles flexing beneath her slim-fitting jeans. A long black garment bag draped over her shoulder no doubt held her bridesmaid's dress. Jesse idly wondered what she'd look like in that dress.
Maybe he'd catch a glimpse after the wedding, when the bride and groom emerged for the rice throwing. At least he hoped it would be his first chance to see Evie in her dress—it would mean the wedding had proceeded as planned. No matter what his family thought, he'd love to see Rita Marsh married to her nice professor without incident. What he and Rita had shared had been over a long time ago.
His cell phone rang. He smiled at the name on the display. "Hi, Evie."
"Where are you positioned?"
Not much got past Rita's brainy little sister. "In the side lot of the convenience store across the street from the church."
"How many agents with you?"
"Just me. I have others ready to move on my order."
There was a faint rustling sound on the other end of the line. Jesse's mind wandered into dangerous territory, imagining Evie undressing to put on the bridesmaid dress. He dragged his thoughts back under rigid control as she said, "I told you Dad hired a whole security team for the wedding."
"That's why I'm across the street." He checked his watch. Eleven-thirty. The wedding was at two. Attendees would be arriving soon, making it that much harder to keep an eye out for anything strange.
"I should have asked you as my date," Evie muttered.
"I don't think Rita would have appreciated that." Their relationship might be over, but he wasn't exactly one of his ex-fiancée's favorite people. "Or your dad."
"It's just stupid you're sitting over there instead of here where you can see what's going on."
"I'm hoping nothing happens and all this worry was for nothing."
"But you don't really think that's true, do you?" Evie asked. Jesse could tell she wanted to hope for the best, but she had never been a cockeyed optimist. Little Evie Marsh had always been a realist, even as a gangly teenager following Jesse and Rita around during their courtship.
"It's best to prepare for any eventuality," he answered.
He heard Evie's soft sigh over the phone. "I'd better check on Mom and Rita. I don't know who's more high-strung today."
"Is she really happy?" he asked before he could stop himself.
There was a long pause on Evie's end of the line. "Yes, she's really happy. She loves Andrew a lot."
Jesse waited for a familiar twinge of pain, but it never came. "Good," he said, meaning it.
"I'll check in again before the ceremony," she said and hung up.
Jesse closed his phone and picked up his binoculars, scanning the area for trouble and praying he'd find none.
Evie laid her phone on the dressing table and eyed the closed door of the bride's room's inner dressing room. Rita was in there, talking with their mother as they finished the last touches on her hair and makeup. Evie wondered if her mother was asking the same question of Rita that Jesse had just asked of her.
Was she really happy?
There'd been a time Rita would have answered no. She'd spent a lot of time mourning her breakup with Jesse Cooper, although she'd been the one to end things when Jesse wouldn't give up his Marine Corps career for her.
Rita shouldn't have tried to force Jesse to be something he wasn't. He was a leatherneck through and through, even now, years after leaving the Marine Corps. It was written all over him, from his masculine bearing to his hard-toned body and high-and-tight haircut. It had never made sense to Evie that the same qualities Rita had found so irresistible were the very qualities she'd wanted him to change to be her husband.
She supposed everything worked for the best. Rita had found a man who adored her and treated her like a queen. A woman could do a lot worse than Andrew Kingsley.
Evie eyed her bridesmaid dress. She didn't relish the idea of squeezing herself into the tight bodice until absolutely necessary, but she didn't want to mess up her hair again by re-dressing in her T-shirt and jeans just to go take a look at the sanctuary. The florist had delivered the flowers earlier that morning, so she hadn't been able to get a look at the final decorations during the rehearsal the night before. She knew from her sister's description that the sanctuary was going to be beautiful. She just wanted to see it for herself.
She compromised by slipping Rita's white silk bathrobe over her slip before she padded barefoot into the corridor.
The sanctuary was at the far end of the hall, accessible by a double door that opened into the auditorium next to the piano by the altar. Evie stuck her head inside and took a quick look around.
Rita had selected an autumn palette for her wedding, her flower arrangements consisting of gold, russet and burntorange roses, lilies and chrysanthemums. The bridesmaid dresses were a rusty red that reminded Evie of dogwood trees in autumn. The pews were adorned with simple copper bows and the unlit unity candles at the front were a soft peach.
"Pretty, isn't it?"
Evie turned to find a man in a black tux watching her from the front pew. On the pew beside him sat a large black trumpet case.
"Beautiful," she agreed.
"I'm a little early. Or the rest of the orchestra is late." He shrugged.
He was nice-looking. Early thirties, pleasant features, trim and masculine. Also friendly and uncomplicated. She'd had about all she could take of complicated, she thought, her mind wandering to the oh-so-complicated man watching for trouble from a convenience-store parking lot.
"You're in the wedding?" the musician asked.
"Sister of the bride." She smiled. "Guess I'd better go get dressed."
She backed out of the sanctuary and started down the hall toward the bride's room. She'd gone about ten feet when she saw a rush of movement through the windows facing the church's side parking lot.
Security guards, she recognized, though the men her father had hired were in plain clothes rather than uniforms. They shared a fierceness of purpose as they streamed toward the door at the end of the corridor.
Panic tightened Evie's gut. Had something happened?
As she started sprinting toward the bride's room, someone grabbed her from behind in a strong, rough grip. She tried to struggle free, but her captor sprayed her in the face with something that stung on contact.
Pepper spray, she realized with shock, gagging as she tried to breathe. Her eyes slammed shut, burning as if on fire, and when she tried to scream, her voice came out in a tortured croak. She tried to remember the evasion methods she'd learned during her Cooper Security orientation training, but the pain in her eyes and her lungs overwhelmed her so that it was all she could do to draw her next breath.
A second captor grabbed her feet and lifted, turning her sideways and sending the world around her spinning off its axis. Blinded, gasping for air and disoriented, she landed on something solid and clawed for a foothold before realizing she was lying on her side rather than standing. She heard a solid thud of something closing, and what little light had been able to seep through her streaming eyes disappeared, plunging her into utter darkness.
The smell of pepper spray remained strong, and the skin around her face burned. She needed water, something to rinse off the residue of the spray remaining on her skin and around her eyes, but when she tried to move, she found herself confined.
She was in some sort of box. Feeling around the tiny confines of her cage, she felt the nubby texture of hard vinyl—like a case, similar to the trumpet case that had sat on the pew next to the musician in the sanctuary. But she was too large to fit into any sort of musical-instrument case. It had to be something else.
A sudden shift of position sent her sliding upside down. She put out her hands to keep her head from hitting the side of the box.
She was being moved.
A sudden rush of movement across the church parking lot caught Jesse's eye. He focused his binoculars on several men racing toward the side entrance.
He dialed Evie's number. It rang three times before someone answered. "Hello?"
Not Evie, he realized with dismay. "Rita?"
There was a long pause. "Jesse?"
"I was calling Evie."
"She's not in here."
Damn. He needed to know what was going on, but he could hardly ask Rita. She'd know he was there watching the church, which would make him look like a stalker. He compromised. "Is something wrong?"
"I don't know." Rita sounded unexpectedly vulnerable. "I'm in the bloody bride's room at the church, trying to prepare for the most important day of my life, and there's an intruder supposedly prowling around the church. Now the bodyguards Daddy hired to cover the wedding have converged on the room, and I don't even have my hair done yet. The wedding is only two hours away."
Jesse frowned. An intruder?
He picked up his binoculars and scanned the area, looking for the unexpected. A few more people had arrived while he watched, bridesmaids and groomsmen either dressed for the wedding already or carrying their clothes. Parked near the sanctuary was a white panel truck with a black logo that read Audiovisual Assets—someone filming the wedding? Probably.
As he was about to look away from the truck, a couple of men came out of a side entrance carrying a large black, hard case. Frowning, he focused the binoculars on the case, which was large enough to hold a couple of oversize audio speakers. But that made no sense. Why would they be returning the speakers to the truck when the wedding hadn't happened yet?
Increasing the zoom as the men shoved the case into the truck, he spotted a scrap of white silk peeking through the narrow space between the case and its hinged cover. His internal radar pinged loudly.
"Jesse?" Rita's voice buzzed in his ear.
"What was Evie wearing the last time you saw her?" he asked.
"A slip, I think. Her dress is still hanging in here on a hook." Rita paused. "My robe is missing—she may have borrowed it to go take a look at the sanctuary. She said she wanted to take a peek before the ceremony."
That scrap of silk he saw might have been from a robe, Jesse realized, alarms sounding like a Klaxon in his brain. "I've got to go. If you see Evie, have her call me." He hung up the phone and started the car, pulling out of the parking slot and easing to the edge of the road.
The truck was on the move as well, rolling slowly toward the exit drive of the church parking lot. It paused to let passing traffic go by, then pulled onto the road, crossing in front of Jesse.
He looked at the driver. Didn't recognize him, but there was something about the man that rang all of Jesse's warning bells.
He looked like a mercenary, he realized. Military haircut, hardened expression, cold, focused eyes. There was a second man in the passenger seat of the truck cab, although Jesse didn't get a good look at him.
He pulled out his phone and called Isabel. "I'm on the move." He explained his hunch tersely. "Rita said someone tipped off the guards. It could be a decoy."
"And you think someone's kidnapped Evie?"
"I hope to hell not." He wanted to believe that any second now Evie would call him on the phone and make him feel like an idiot. A relieved idiot. But he couldn't risk staying put. "I need you to cover the church until I get back."
"Do you want anyone else to back you up?"
"No time for that. Just cover the church in case I'm wrong."
"On my way," Isabel said.
Jesse pulled onto the road, keeping a careful distance from the truck. If the driver and his comrade were indeed mercenaries, they'd know how to spot a tail. So he had to be better at tailing than they were at spotting.
He glanced at his cell phone, willing it to ring. He'd love nothing more than to be wrong about his hunch. But the phone remained stubbornly silent.
The rush of security toward the bride's room must have been part of a diversion, Evie thought, pushing hard against the confines of her makeshift coffin. Her eyes still burned, and she was breathing with a distinct wheeze, but enough of the pain had subsided for her to shove it aside and concentrate on the bigger problem.
The box was almost as wide as it was long, which made moving around inside easier than it might have been, but it wasn't quite long enough for her to straighten out completely. If she had to stay in this position much longer, her limbs would start to cramp up.
The sensation of movement and the engine noise rumbling in her ears confirmed she was on the move. Probably in the back of a truck. So her kidnappers didn't want her dead.
At least, not yet.
SSU, she thought. Has to be SSU. Since joining Cooper Security a few months earlier, she'd learned a lot about the former Special Services Unit of MacLear Security. For over a year, Jesse and the rest of the Coopers had been involved in several run-ins with the ruthless group of guns for hire who'd survived to reunite after MacLear had collapsed under the weight of scandal. Evie wasn't sure what they called themselves now, but thanks to the Coopers, she did know their activities were funded by a limited-liability company called AfterAssets.
And she knew they were after her father's secrets. They must be planning to use her as leverage against her father.