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Stranger In My Arms
By Rochelle Alers
BETCopyright © 2007 Rochelle Alers
All right reserved.
Three knocks on the bedroom door in rapid succession stopped Alexandra Cole as she prepared to slip her feet into a pair of three-inch, silk-covered, midnight-blue pumps.
A frown furrowed her forehead as she stood up. This was the second interruption that had thwarted her getting dressed for her cousin's wedding.
The first time it was Ana who, in the full throes of PMS, had experienced a temporary meltdown when she couldn't zip up the dress she'd chosen to wear for the New year's Eve ceremony. She and Ana were the same height, five-three, but Alex outweighed her younger sister by a mere five pounds. The crisis was resolved when she offered Ana one of the two dresses she'd brought with her.
"Who is it?, she called out.
Alex rolled her eyes. Now it was her younger brother. "What's the matter, little brother? Do you need me to tie your tie?"
"Very funny, Alex," he drawled sarcastically from the other side of the door. "I came to tell you that one of your loser ex-boyfriends just showed up uninvited, and Uncle Martin's security people won't let him in. What do you want to do?"
Crossing the carpeted bedroom on bare feet, she opened the door. Jason Cole stood before her in a dark blue suit, white shirt and white silk tie. It wasn't often that she saw him in a suit, but Alex had to admit thather twenty-four-year-old brother cut a very handsome figure in tailored attire.
Jason was the quintessential Cole male: over six feet, olive coloring, black curly hair and a dimpled smile. And in keeping with a family ritual that dated back to the marriage of their grandparents from which the prospective groom was exempt, any male who claimed Cole blood affected light-colored neckwear.
"Who is he?"
Jason lifted sweeping black eyebrows. "The message was, "Tell her Donald is here." "
Her large clear gold-brown eyes narrowed. "Donald," Alex repeated. She knew two Donalds. One who'd been her study partner in undergraduate school and another she'd dated only twice before she handed him his walking papers. "Did he leave his last name?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, Jason shook his head. "He also said, and I quote, "She'll know who I am," end quote."
Realization dawned. He had to be Donald Easton. "That arrogant SOB," she whispered. "Tell them to let him in and have him wait for me by the refreshment tent."
A sardonic smile parted Jason's lips. "If you want, Gabe and I can give him a blanket party."
Her brow furrowed. "What are you talking about?, "We'll throw a blanket over his head, then kick his ass. And I'm willing to bet that if he wasn't getting married in an hour Michael would also want to get his licks in."
Alex stomped a bare foot. "Stop it, Jason! There will be no brawling tonight or any other night. Donald Easton has a problem with the word no. I'll take care of him."
"Are you sure, Alex?"
Forcing a dimpled smile, she patted her brother's arm.
"Yes, I'm sure. Now go so I can finish dressing."
Jason flashed a wolfish grin so reminiscent of their father's. "Okay. By the way, you look great."
Alex closed the door and crossed the expansive bedroom she shared with Ana and two other female cousins whenever they gathered in West Palm Beach.
Slipping her feet into her shoes, she wondered why a man she hadn't seen in nearly a year had come from Virginia to see her. Unfortunately she'd told Donald that she always celebrated Christmas and New year's in Florida with her extended family; it was apparent he wanted to surprise her.
Well, the surprise would be on him because she had no intention of resuming what had been doomed from the start.
A member of Martin Cole's private security detail took a glance at the SUV with West Virginia plates and entered the number into his PDA. Smiling, he nodded at the man behind the wheel.
"We'll park your vehicle for you, Mr. Grayslake." He gestured to a parking attendant before returning his attention to Merrick Grayslake. "Once you walk through the gates and make a right someone will escort you to the Japanese garden."
Merrick nodded. "Thank you."
Reaching for the suit jacket resting on the passenger-side seat, he got out of his vehicle, slipped his arms into the sleeves, then as directed made his way through a set of iron gates that protected the property that made up the Cole family West Palm Beach compound.
He hadn't taken more than half a dozen steps when he spied a small camera attached to the upper branches of a tree. Security personnel and surveillance equipment monitored everyone entering or leaving the property.
he'd left Bolivar, West Virginia, at dawn, stopping twice to refuel and stretch his legs. The drive south had taken longer than expected because of bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic along I-95. It was New year's Eve and motorists were heading either home or to clubs or restaurants where they'd ring in the coming year with their families and/or friends.
At thirty-five, Merrick Grayslake had lost count of the number of countries where he'd welcomed in a new year. Whether in Central or South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or in his last assignment as a CIA covert field operativeAfghanistanfor him it had become just another uneventful holiday.
Now, for the first time in more than two years, he wouldn't be alone or engaged in an undercover mission when the clock struck midnight. It had taken the wedding of Michael Kirkland, a man who'd saved his life, for Merrick to temporarily forsake his reclusive way of life and leave what had become his sanctuary, a modest two-story home near the Allegheny Mountains.
he'd checked into a local hotel and asked the front desk for an eight-thirty wake-up call. His head had barely touched the pillow when the ringing telephone woke him from a deep, dreamless sleep. he'd drunk a pint of water from the wet bar to offset dehydration before he readied himself to attend a New year's Eve wedding.
When U.S. Army captain Michael Kirkland had come to him to solicit his help in protecting his social worker fiancée, Merrick experienced a long-forgotten shiver of excitement that always preceded a new covert mission. But the feeling was short-lived. he'd helped Michael identify Stanley Willoughby, the man behind a conspiracy to kill Jolene Walker; he'd remained in the Washington, D.C., area for several weeks following the arrest and subsequent indictment of the D.C. power broker before returning to his adopted home state.
Merrick still didn't understand why he'd decided to put down roots in West Virginia, but there was something about the topography that suited his temperament. The panoramic views, the rugged splendor of the mountains, and the small towns that predated the Revolutionary War and still bore the scars of the Civil War had remained virtually untouched, architecturally, since the 1950s.
The slate path widened to a lush, manicured meadow where an enormous gauze-draped white tent protected cloth-covered tables from insects. A smaller tent, less than fifty feet away, doubled as a portable bar. The weather had cooperated: clear skies, full moon and nighttime temperatures in the low sixties. His pace slowed as he joined a small crowd milling around the entrance to a garden.
A young woman sporting a white blouse and black skirt approached him. As she came closer he saw the earpiece in her left ear; he found it ironic that whenever he left Bolivar his surveillance instincts kicked in to high gear. It was as if he went into hunter mode, watching, listening and mentally recording everything around him.
She flashed a professional smile. "Your name, sir?, "Grayslake."
"Please follow me, Mr. Grayslake." She led him into a large tent in the middle of a Japanese-inspired garden; organza-swathed chairs were lined up in precise rows like soldiers at a military parade. She indicated a chair with a Velcro tag bearing his name. "The bar is open for appetizers and liquid refreshment."
Merrick was grateful for the offer. He hadn't eaten anything in eighteen hours. "Thank you." Nodding to the woman, he went back the way he'd come.
The light from the full moon competed with strategically placed floodlights and thousands of tiny bulbs entwined in the branches of trees and lampposts. With the artificial illumination it could've been ten in the morning rather than ten at night.
Merrick had received an engraved invitation that read that Michael Blanchard Kirkland and Jolene Walker were scheduled to exchange vows at eleven, followed by a midnight reception dinner and a New year's Day brunch.
He would remain in West Palm Beach for the wedding and reception. he'd decided to skip the brunch because his plans included spending a few days in Miami before heading down to the Keys. He hadn't told Rachel he was coming, praying she wouldn't seek retribution because he hadn't kept his vow to keep in touch.
A hint of a rare smile played at the corners of Merrick's mouth as he neared the bar. He was never one to make resolutions, but the events of the past three months had forced him to rethink his monastic existence. Since reuniting with Michael Kirkland he'd socialized more than he had in years.
The sound of voices raised in anger caught his attention. As he turned around, his gaze caught and held the petite figure of a woman in a dark-colored dress with a revealing décolletage. Light reflected off the sparkle of diamonds in her ears, several delicate strands gracing her slender neck and in her dark hair. Merrick only saw her profile, but what he saw held him captive. * * *
Alexandra glared at Donald. he'd downed one glass of champagne while holding another flute filled with the bubbly wine. She couldn't believe he'd comeunannouncedto her uncle's house and proceeded to get drunk.
"What are you doing here?, She didn't bother to disguise her annoyance.
Donald tilted the glass to his mouth and swallowed the imported champagne in one gulp. "What does it look like, Miss Alexandra Cole?, He spat out her name. "I came to ring in the New Year with my snobby, bitchy girlfriend."
She wrinkled her delicate nose in revulsion as the odor of something stronger than wine wafted into her nostrils. Donald Easton, the brilliant computer programmer, Donald the arrogant egotist yet always the consummate gentleman, had shown up at her family's estate drunk!
"I am not your girlfriend, Donald," she said, raising her voice above its normal tone. "I never was, never will be. Now I want you to leave."
"What if I don't want to leave?, he shouted. Those close enough to hear his outburst turned and stared at him.
"I think you should do as the lady says," warned a deep male voice filled with a lethal calmness that sent a chill over Alex despite the comfortable nighttime temperature.
She shifted to her right. A slender man with brilliant silver-gray eyes stood less than a foot away from her and Donald. Her gaze caught and held his; she was hard-pressed to pinpoint his age or ethnicity. His close-cropped hair was an odd shade of red-brown that complemented his khaki-brown coloring. His lean face, with smooth skin pulled taut over the elegant ridge of prominent cheekbones and the narrow bridge of his aquiline nose and firm mouth, hinted at a Native American bloodline.
Donald, weaving unsteadily in an attempt to maintain his balance, squinted at Merrick. "And who the hell are you?"
Merrick took a step and forcibly wrested the flutes from Donald. "You don't want to know." He handed the glasses to Alex. "Take care of these while I take care of your boyfriend." His request was a command. His right hand caught Donald's neck, fingers tightening on his carotid artery. "Let's go, buddy, while you're still able to breathe." He loosened his grip when Donald clawed at his hand.
"He's not my boyfriend," Alex said to the stranger's back as he led the interloper away.
Her hands were trembling when she placed the flutes on the bar. One of the bartenders came over to her. "May I get you something to drink, Miss Cole?"
"I'll have sparkling water." She asked for water when she needed something stronger to calm her jangled nerves. When she'd told Jason she would handle Donald she hadn't thought he would be intoxicated. The last thing she wanted was for her brothers to confront him when he was unable to defend himself. It would've been better for Donald if her uncle's security staff escorted him off the property than for her male relatives to get involved. She'd always teased them, saying even though they were trust-fund babies, they were a whit above thug status. They generally did not go looking for a fight, but none were willing to back down from one if a situation presented itself.
Excerpted from Stranger In My Arms by Rochelle Alers Copyright © 2007 by Rochelle Alers. Excerpted by permission.
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