Task Force Bride (Harlequin Intrigue Series #1444)

Task Force Bride (Harlequin Intrigue Series #1444)

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by Julie Miller

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Something about Hope Lockhart fascinated Officer Pike Taylor. The cop and his canine companion had been patrolling the neighborhood around Hope's bridal shop for months, trying toSee more details below



Something about Hope Lockhart fascinated Officer Pike Taylor. The cop and his canine companion had been patrolling the neighborhood around Hope's bridal shop for months, trying to capture the criminal who targeted her. Was it the way she hid her voluptuous beauty beneath a plain Jane exterior?

Hope bore the scars of a troubling past. And despite a profession steeped in romance, she'd never known the love of a man. But when Pike is assigned to protect her by posing as her live-in fiancé, his tenderness may give Hope the courage to open her heart for the very first time.

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Precinct: Task Force Series
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"Really?" Hope squinted and averted her eyes from the bright headlights that filled up her rearview mirror. "You're following a little close, buddy."

She gripped the steering wheel more tightly and pressed on the gas to put some distance between them. She wasn't a nervous driver at all. But normally she wasn't out this late, and she didn't take the shortcut off the interstate through the heart of the city. But cleanup after the Barrister-Stelling wedding had run long past the end of the dinner and dancing. And though she wasn't the one actually bussing the tables, there were family pictures and table decorations she'd promised to hold on to until after the honeymoon. Then the gifts had to be delivered to their parents' hotel rooms. Other than the hotel staff, she'd been the last person to leave the reception.

So what if her panty hose had long since cut off the circulation to her toes? Or if she'd have to unload every last box in the trunk and backseat of her car herself because she'd sent her assistant home. Hope had earned a tidy fortune with this event. Earned every last penny playing fashion consultant, wedding planner and family counselor. The sooner she got home, the sooner she could celebrate with a glass of wine and a long, hot bubble bath. Or maybe she'd skip them both and just fall straight into bed and sleep until Monday. "What the heck?"

The same lights rushed up behind her a second time, nearly blinding her. "Jackass."

Hope blamed the unlady-like condemnation on the length of the day and the unwanted calls piling up on her cell phone that bothered her more than she cared to admit. She must have a stamp on her forehead that said "Pick on me" today. Just because she tended to be shy and soft-spoken didn't mean she lacked backbone or a brain or a temper. When the driver flashed his lights through her rear window, she muttered another word in the Ozark accent that crept into her voice whenever she got a little too angry or afraid. She double-checked her speed. She wasn't poking along, by any means. Still, if the guy was in that much of a hurry…

Pulling closer to the parking lane so he could pass, Hope adjusted her charcoal-framed glasses to try to catch a look at the driver and license plate on the beat-up white van. But it veered so close as it sped past that it nearly clipped the side mirror on her car. "Hey!"

The van shot back into the lane in front of her, forcing Hope to stomp on the brake and skid to a stop. Glass rattled and boxes shifted behind her as several brief images printed like snapshots in her brain. A shadowy figure dressed in dark clothes sat behind the steering wheel. He wore a black knit cap pulled low over his forehead and a white scarf across his nose and mouth, hiding all but his eyes. In those brief milliseconds when he'd looked down into her car, she was certain their gazes had met, although he flew on by before the details completely registered. A shiny silver bumper that seemed at odds with the rusting wheel wells and dinged-up back doors was the last image she saw before it disappeared into the night.

"Where's a cop when you need one?" She sighed, fighting a niggling sense of unease that her sleep-deprived brain was keeping her from recognizing something important.

"Need some help, sugar?" A trio of young men, dressed in hoods and jeans and more jewelry than she owned, knocked on her passenger-side window.

Startled by their approach and frightened by their leering smiles, Hope stepped on the accelerator and did a little speeding herself—leaving a trail of rubber, laughter and catcalls in her wake.

She drove three more blocks before she eased up on the gas. Hope inhaled a deep breath and ordered herself to get a grip. It was probably just the neighborhood she was driving through that had made her suspicious of the van and driver. Besides the three young men, she'd passed a homeless man pushing his cart along the sidewalk, and at least one scantily clad woman who'd been leaning into a parked car—either picking up a client, making a drug buy or both.

If Hope wasn't so darned nearsighted, maybe she could have read the van's license plate, even on the dimly lit street. If she wasn't so distracted by those unwanted phone calls, she could have gotten a useful description of the driver. If she wasn't so worn-out, maybe she would have taken the long way home and bypassed this run-down neighborhood where she had no business driving alone, anyway.

Hope breathed a sigh of relief as she finally left the less savory section of the city behind her and drove past the familiar landmarks of renovated art deco buildings, solid midcentury brownstones and converted warehouses that now housed trendy new businesses and condo apartments like her own. Her company improved, too. Instead of the prostitute and gangbangers, and rude drivers crowding her on the street, she drove past a busy bar with a neon green shamrock sign and a group of friends standing outside the front door, sharing a laugh and a smoke.

She stopped at the next light and waited for a young twentysomething couple to cross in front of her. They were holding hands, out on a Saturday night date to a restaurant or coffeehouse in the next block. Or perhaps they were meeting a group of friends to go dancing at one of the newly opened clubs in the trendy Kansas City neighborhood where Hope lived over her own shop.

A little pang of longing squeezed at Hope's restless heart. Even if she had a date, or a whirlwind social life that included dancing and barhopping, she was too tired to do more than drive herself home tonight. She couldn't wait to kick off her heels, slide into that bath and curl up with a good book.

Still, it would be nice ifjust once she had something more to look forward to than a hard day of work and a quiet night at home. She wanted something more—something a little more exciting, something a little less lonely.

Almost as soon as she thought the wish, she regretted it.

She knew she was lucky to have built a successful business. Lucky to have a solid roof over her head and plenty to eat every day. She was lucky to have a few friends and a younger brother she was so proud of serving in the Marines. Hope's gaze dropped to her right hand where it rested on the steering wheel. A familiar web of pale scar tissue peeked above the cuff of her tan trench coat. She touched her fingers to the collar of her silk blouse, knowing there was more scarring underneath. All along her arm, her foot, her thigh—there were scars there, too.

She was lucky to be alive.

Hope was grateful to be where she was now, considering where she'd started. She was pushing her luck to dream of something more—like holding hands or being the recipient of a look like the one Jeff Stelling had given his bride, Deanna, today.

"Damn lucky," she whispered out loud as the light changed. And she meant it. As long as other people kept falling in love, she'd have a job—and the security she'd been denied growing up. What would she do with a man, anyway? Embarrass herself? Shy, plump and partially disfigured—what man wouldn't want to get all over that?

With a healthy dose of mental sarcasm to sharpen her dreamy focus, Hope turned onto her street. The familiar brick facade and storefront windows she'd decorated herself welcomed her as she slowed to pull into the parking lot beside Fairy Tale Bridal.

Hope parked her car in the reserved space next to the side entrance and climbed out, keys and pepper spray in hand. As stylish and reborn as this neighborhood might be, it, unfortunately, had become the hunting ground of a serial rapist that the press had dubbed the Rose Red Rapist. She had the unwanted distinction of being responsible for the horrid nickname because one of his first victims had been abducted right outside her shop. So much for fairy tales. Several more women, including a friend who'd worked just across the street at the Robin's Nest Floral shop, had been blitz attacked, driven to another location, sexually assaulted and then dumped back here on this very block as if they were so much trash.

A client of hers, Bailey Austin, had been that first victim. Hope still felt guilty about the night more than a year ago when Bailey—then an engaged woman having a tiff with her fiance at the shop—had stormed out of Fairy Tale Bridal and been assaulted. Although the younger woman had assured Hope that she in no way held her responsible for the attack, Hope was still looking for a way to make restitution.

Hope unlocked the vestibule and picked up the mail off the floor that had come through the slot. Then she unlocked the inner door to her shop and set the bills and letters along with her purse inside before returning to her car to unload the boxes from the wedding reception. She tilted her gaze to make sure the security lights and camera monitoring the entrance were working before opening her trunk and grabbing the first box of family mementos from her car.

With each trip to and from the shop, she made a point of scanning her surroundings and locking her car. KCPD had formed a task force to track down and arrest the elusive rapist, and they had stepped up patrols in this particular neighborhood. The Rose Red Rapist had received plenty of press on television and in the local papers, although facts about the attacks often got less coverage than the reporters' negative opinions on the police department's handling of the case. But every woman in town knew the dangers lurking in the darkness. Every woman who lived here knew the details of the crimes—what to look for and what to avoid.

She was one woman, alone in the city. And even though she was no slim, head-turning beauty, she wasn't so naive to think she couldn't become a victim, too. She fit the profile of the professional women the rapist targeted. She was successful and confident—when it came to her business, at any rate. Hope was smart enough to be on guard, especially at this time of night. But she couldn't very well surrender to the terror she faced as a single woman in this neighborhood. Her entire life's savings was tied up in this shop. Anything she could call her own was in that apartment upstairs.

Besides, she was experienced enough in life to know that danger could find a person anywhere—in the heart of the city, or on a dusty back road in the middle of nowhere. This building was her home and her livelihood, and no man—no threat—was going to frighten her into giving up everything she'd worked so hard for. She just had to be aware. She had to pay attention to the alerts and details the police had shared with the public.


Driven to another location…

Hope shifted the box of photos to one arm and closed the trunk as a shiver of awareness raised goose bumps across her skin. That was what she should have remembered about the white van that had cruised past her. She'd read a witness account in the paper with vague details about coming to inside a white van before being dumped in the alley across the street after her assault.

White van? A driver hiding his face on a cool autumn night?

There had to be hundreds of white vans in the city. Just because one had crept up on her bumper…twice…

And the man in black and white behind the wheel? Surely he wasn't… Hope's stomach knotted with fear. Surely she hadn't gotten a glimpse of the Rose Red Rapist himself.

En route to another abduction.

Returning from the scene of an assault.

"No. Surely not." No one had seen the serial rapist. One reason he'd never been arrested was that no victim had been able to identify him—no surviving victim. She hugged the box to her chest and tried to talk herself off the ledge of fearful possibility she was climbing on to. "He was just some jackass who was in a hurry."

A blur of white in Hope's peripheral vision drew her attention out to the street.

A white van moved with the late-night traffic past the entrance to the parking lot. The white van? Was the Rose Red Rapist on the prowl for his next victim?

Hope's breathing locked up the way it had at the church. She was squarely and completely trapped on that ledge. "That can't be him."

Cruising through her neighborhood? Had the driver followed her home? Was he hunting her?

Hope barely managed to save the box and its fragile contents from crashing to the asphalt. "You don't even know if it's him," she warned herself on a whisper. "It's just a white van. It's just some guy in a van. It's probably not even the same one."

Refusing to let her imagination turn her observation into a panic, she carefully set the box down on the trunk and took a couple of steps toward the street. Rusting wheel wells. Shiny silver bumper.

She glanced up into the cab. Dark stocking cap and…not a scarf.

A surgical mask.

Shadowed eyes met hers.

"Oh, my God."

Hope slipped her hand into her coat pocket to pull out her phone as the van suddenly picked up speed and headed toward the next intersection. She hurried out to the sidewalk to see which direction the vehicle would turn and punched in 911. The driver might not be the Rose Red Rapist, but it was definitely the same van that had nearly crowded her off the road tonight.

"Nine-eleven Dispatch," a succinct female voice answered. "What is the nature of your emergency?"

"I don't know if this is exactly an emergency, but I'm not sure who to report this to." Hope turned up the collar of her trench coat and huddled against the suddenly brisk chill in the autumn air. "I just saw a white van that matches the description the police gave in the paper about the vehicle the Rose Red Rapist drives. The man inside had his face covered."

"Are you in danger, ma'am?"

"I…" There were a few people hanging out down at the corner where the van was waiting for the light to change. A group of young women wandered out of the dance club. Was the driver watching them? Choosing one for his next victim? "I'm not. But someone else may be." Hope glanced around at the cars parked on the street, at the closed shops, at the deserted sidewalks here in the middle of the block. She was safe, wasn't she? The van turned right, slowly circling past the group of women waiting at the crosswalk. "I think you should send the police."

"Yes, ma'am. Where are you now?"

Hope relayed her location, refusing to take her eyes off the van until it disappeared from sight. A man wearing a surgical mask wasn't necessarily a threat. Maybe it was part of his work—such as an exterminator, or someone who worked with food might wear. Or maybe he was one of those people who was phobic about catching germs. Still…it just didn't feel right.

"We already have an officer in the area, ma'am," the dispatcher assured her. "I'll send him to your shop right now."

Good idea. Go back inside her shop. Lock the doors. "Thank you."

Hope disconnected the call, waiting a few seconds longer until the young women changed their minds and went back into the club for more dancing. The breeze whipped loose a long tendril of hair that had been pinned up in a French roll all day. The long curl hooked inside the temple of her glasses and caught in her lashes, forcing her to squint until she pulled it free and tucked it back behind her ear. Good. The women were all safely inside. She'd be smart to do the same until the police arrived to take her statement.

"Staring into space like you always did."

Hope jumped inside her pumps and whirled around to see the gray-haired man standing behind her.

"I've been waitin' for you, girl."

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