The Keeper (Harlequin Blaze Series #664)

The Keeper (Harlequin Blaze Series #664)

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by Rhonda Nelson

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Ranger Security Case File #1877
Name: Jackson Oak Martin, a man as strong and steady as his name implies.
Case: Tracking down a Butter Bandit
Agent note: This case is gonna sizzle…

On the surface, it seems like an almost ridiculous assignment. A thief has been breaking into…  See more details below



Ranger Security Case File #1877
Name: Jackson Oak Martin, a man as strong and steady as his name implies.
Case: Tracking down a Butter Bandit
Agent note: This case is gonna sizzle…

On the surface, it seems like an almost ridiculous assignment. A thief has been breaking into pastry chef Mariette Levine's shop. And the only thing taken? Organic butter. But one night, Mariette herself is attacked, and Ranger Security assigns agent Jackson Martin to guard their favorite chef—closely!

Unfortunately, the ultra-dishy Jackson also makes Mariette's reserve melt faster than…er, butter. Which is bad. In a very, very good way.

Has Mariette discovered the recipe for delectable disaster, or is this tasty bodyguard someone she'll need to keep on her menu for good?

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Men Out of Uniform Series
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Perhaps because he was now partially deaf in his right ear, former-Ranger Jack Martin was certain he had to have heard his new employers incorrectly. He chuckled uneasily. "The Butter Bandit?"

Brian Payne—one of the three founding members of the infamous Ranger Security Company—nodded and shot a look at fellow partner Guy McCann. "That's what Guy has dubbed him and, I'm sad to say, it's stuck."

Jamie Flanagan, who rounded out the triumvirate, flashed a what-the-hell sort of grin. "You've got to admit that it has a certain ring to it." He pulled a face. "Besides, other than a few eclairs, cookies and bear claws, butter is the only thing this thief is stealing."

How…bizarre, Jack thought. He was most definitely a fan of butter—who didn't like it melting on a pile of pancakes or slathering it over a hot roll? He had fond memories of making it himself with nothing more than a little heavy whipping cream in an old mason jar and shaking it up until his arms were tired, the unmistakable "plop" against the side of the jar, signaling it was done. He'd learned the trick from his grandmother, who'd been more butter obsessed than Paula Deen.

But he couldn't imagine even her stealing the stuff. It boggled the mind.

"Have there been any other butter thefts in the area?" Jack asked, trying to get his mind around the idea. Not a question he would have ever anticipated coming out of his mouth, but then again nothing about his recent life was anything he'd anticipated.

Leaving the military before retirement had never been in any plans he'd made—unless it had been in a pine box, which he'd been fully prepared to do—much less moving to anywhere other than Pennyroyal, North Carolina, upon retirement. He'd actually purchased property next to his parents there in his little hometown and had been toying with various house plans for years. Just something else he'd need to rethink at a later date.

At present he was just glad to have a job, to have had an alternative to sitting behind a desk for the rest of his career. The mere idea made him feel claustrophobic, hemmed in. While Jack knew there were many powerful men who did their best work from an office, he was not one of those men. He liked to move, needed some sort of physical action to coincide with his strategy.

Of course, sitting still had never been easy for him. Even in kindergarten his poor teacher had had to mark a square—with duct tape, the wonder material—on the floor around his desk to keep him there. If he came out of the "box" without permission, then he lost time on the playground.

While other people might think she was being cruel or unreasonable, Jack knew she'd had good reason. He'd given the poor woman sheer hell, had been virtually incapable of sitting still for any length of time. He could hear her, understand and learn without looking at her—while looking at something else or doing something else, like playing with a toy truck, for instance, he thought with a mental smile—but he hadn't realized until much later that other people didn't learn that way. With maturity had come discipline, but the underlying need to move was always itching just beneath the surface.

Even now.

That's what had made the military so perfect for him. Action, reaction, strategy, purpose. It had been the ideal fit. And while Ranger Security wasn't the military, it was run by former Rangers—men like himself—and, though he fully anticipated an adjustment, he knew he was up to the task. He almost smiled.

Even catching a butter thief, of all things, which was evidently going to be his first assignment for the company.

"No," Guy replied to his question. "No other butter thefts in the area. Mariette's store is the only one that's been targeted. We've canvassed the area just to be sure."

"Under normal circumstances we wouldn't be taking this on at all, but after last night we just can't sit back and do nothing," Payne said, his tone grim. "Mariette's more than a local business owner—she's a good friend, as well." He gestured to the other two men. "She's provided many a cup of coffee, breakfasts and snacks for us over the past three years. She's hosted our kids' birthday parties—"

"For which we are eternally thankful," Jamie added with a significant grimace.

"—and her shop is right here on our block."

In other words, their turf, their friend.

Jack had actually noticed the little bakery when he first arrived here in Atlanta a week ago. It was a pretty redbrick with whimsical window boxes stuffed with yellow and lavender mums. "Raw Sugar" was written in fancy script from a sign shaped like a three-tiered cake. There'd been a teenage girl with Down syndrome sweeping the walk out in front and she'd looked so happy it had brought a smile to his lips.

"What happened last night?" Jack asked, a bad feeling settling in his gut.

The three men shared a dark look. "Mariette heard a noise and went downstairs to investigate—"

"She lives above the shop," Jamie interjected, pausing to take a pull from his drink.

"—and interrupted the guy. Instead of running like a normal criminal who'd been caught, he picked up a dough roller and hurled it at her." Payne's voice lowered ominously. "It caught her behind the ear and knocked her out cold."

Damn, Jack thought, anger immediately bolting through him. He'd like to take a dough roller to the jackass for throwing it at a woman. No wonder they'd decided to intervene. Even though she'd been assaulted this still wasn't a case that was going to get high priority to an overworked local P.D. His grandfather, father and sister had all worn the uniform, so he should know. He'd thwarted tradition when he'd traded the badge for a pair of dog tags, a fact his father never failed to remind him of when he went home. Good-naturedly, of course, but Jack knew his decision to not follow in the "family business" had stuck in his father's craw.

"Do you have any idea what he's looking for?" Jack asked. "Aside from butter, that is?" There was no way in hell this was just about butter. If that were the case, their thief would be hitting multiple businesses, not just Raw Sugar.

Jamie shook his head and released a mighty sigh. "Not a damned clue."

"That's where you're going to come in," Payne told him. "She needs protection, obviously, but more than that we need to know what this guy's after. You find the motive and you'll resolve the threat."

He certainly couldn't fault that logic. He had no idea where in the hell he was going to start looking for motive—with Mariette, he supposed—but otherwise this didn't seem as though it was going to be too involved and shouldn't interfere with his other…project.

"Because the thief hasn't struck during the day while the shop is open, we're assuming that she's in less danger at that point. We're putting Charlie in under the guise of 'helping out' until Mariette closes, which will free you up to investigate during those hours and then cover protection at night, when he's most likely to strike again."

The mention of his sister, Charlie—who was the first female nonmilitary, non-Ranger employee hired on by the company—brought a smile to his lips. He and his sister had always been tight and, if there were a silver lining at all to his impromptu career change, it was that he'd get to see her on a regular basis. He'd actually moved into his new brother-in-law's former apartment here in the building.

When the idea of coming on board with Ranger Security after the accident had first been mentioned, it was ultimately Jay who had convinced him that it would be the right move. The first look at the "boardroom" with its highend electronics and toys, pool table and kitchenette—complete with its own candy counter—had been proof enough before anything else had been discussed. Between the unbelievable benefits package—the salary, the hardware, the furnished apartment—and the familiar camaraderie of former battle-worn soldiers, he knew that he'd been lucky to find a place where he felt sure he would eventually feel at home. He grimaced.

At the moment, even home didn't feel like home.

But how could it, really? After what had happened in Baghdad? An image of Johnson's frantic, desperate face loomed large in his mind's eye—the dirt and the blood—and with effort, he forced the vision to recede.

For the moment, anyway. Until he could properly analyze it again. Sheer torture, but it had to be done. He would keep analyzing it for the rest of his life if he had to. He owed the kid no less.

Typically when Jack returned stateside it was to a big party and lots of fanfare. He was the only son and frankly, as the former all-star quarterback for the high-school football team, Pennyroyal's golden boy. He was generally met with a cry of delight, a hearty slap on the back, a little nudge-nudge wink-wink and a free drink.

The tone had been decidedly different this time.

The smiles had been pitying and bittersweet, the slaps on the back held a tinge of regret and finality and, because he'd been wounded, there hadn't been a party.

It was just as well. He hadn't felt like celebrating.

Payne handed him a thin file. He'd already given him a laptop, a Glock, the permit to carry concealed and the keys to his furnished and fully stocked apartment. Brian Payne had thought of everything, but then, that's what one expected out of a man dubbed "the Specialist" by his comrades, Jack thought, surveying the seemingly unflappable former Ranger. His gaze briefly shifted to the other two men.

With a purported genius-level IQ and an equal amount of brawn, Jamie Flanagan had been the ultimate player until he met and married Colonel Carl Garrett's granddaughter, and Guy McCann's ability to skate the fine edge of recklessness and never tip over into stupidity was still locker room lore.

He couldn't be working with finer men. Or woman, he belatedly added, knowing his sister wouldn't appreciate the unintended slight.

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