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Archer Brant slipped his key in the lock of his front door, still surly over the forced convalescence dictated by the Bureau doc. The three-hour drive from San Francisco had at least leached most of his anger so that he didn't feel the need to punch something any longer. He gritted his teeth against the pulsing ache in his busted-up shoulder and thoughts of a beer with a Vicodin chaser crossed his mind, but the moment he stepped over the threshold of his cabin, the hairs on the back of his neck stiffened with a sense that something wasn't right.
Quietly pocketing his keys, he moved to the scarred oak cabinet where he kept his spare Glock and retrieved it slowly from the drawer. Once the comforting weight of the gun was in his hand, he moved through the bottom floor of his house in a security sweep. Finding nothing, he made his way up the stairs.
His ears pricked at an odd, unfamiliar sound coming from his bedroom.
Creeping along the wall, he pushed open the door to his bedroom and slid inside. Someone was in his bathroom. The air still held the balmy, damp moisture left over from a hot shower. He caught the sound of soft singing, slightly off tune and he wondered what kind of idiot broke into a stranger's house to make use of the soap and shampoo as if it was a friggin Holiday Inn yet bypassed the valuables like the flat-screen plasma television mounted on the wall or the accompanying high-end Bose stereo system. He curled his lip. Whoever was in there was murdering a classic Journey song, and that was near enough to a crime in his book to warrant shooting first and asking questions later. Since he was supposed to be convalescing, he ignored his itchy trigger finger and his protesting ear drums and just prepared to oust his uninvited houseguest with a little force.
He moved into position along the wall, gaining an excellent vantage point, and his disposition brightened at the thought of scaring the life out of the trespasser. But as a figure moved into view of the mirror, Archer blinked and frowned with surprise. He'd been expecting a punk pimply-faced kid or perhaps a homeless man but he was damn sure not expecting to see dark hair cascading down a petite backside that was nearly engulfed in his white terry cloth robe. Strong, slim legs, rounded calves and pretty ankles met his gaze as he assessed his trespasser. A woman. A shapely woman, he noted with faint appreciation for the rounded swell of hips hidden beneath the robe, and even as his hormones pumped a healthy dose of testosterone into his veins, he looked for evidence of a partner. A beautiful woman provided great distraction for the thug that's about to cave in your cranium from the back. That's not how he was going to clock out of this world.
But his quick check revealed nothing, not even a bag of belongings. Then on the bed he saw something that narrowed his stare and made him swear under his breath.
A baby bottle. Leaking something wet and pale onto his five-hundred-dollar duvet. "This just ain't my day," he muttered, tucking his gun into his waistband. Of all the places this wayward chick could've stopped, why'd it have to be his? He wasn't in the mood to play host no matter what her hard luck story was. He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled a short breath before stepping into view, ready to get this over with. "You picked the wrong house to freeload in," he announced, taking grim satisfaction in the woman's startled jump as she spun around to face him.
But holy hell, the air in his lungs evaporated and it felt as though his heart had squeezed to a stuttering stop. He knew this woman. A shaft of white-hot misery speared his insides and his voice cracked with surprise as he managed to murmur her name, though in truth it was a miracle his voice worked at all, his shock was so great. As he stared at the face that haunted his dreams and took center stage in his most private thoughts, he couldn't help but drink in her appearance, even if he'd never admit to anyone—least of all her—that losing her had been as painful as shoving a limb into a garbage grinder. And just as permanent.
"Marissa." He recovered, ashamed at his gut reaction and the sudden leap in his heartbeat, to demand, "What the hell are you doing here?"
Marissa Vasquez's palms found and then clutched the marble countertop she was leaning against. She'd rehearsed a possible explanation while in the shower but now that Archer was standing before her, looking fierce and stony, her well-rehearsed speech fled along with the strength in her knees. Suddenly, she was well aware of her near nakedness, her busted lip and the sheer improbability that Archer would find it in his heart to help her at all.
And who could blame him, she thought bitterly. The last time she saw him she was breaking off their engagement. The shock in his eyes was slowly replaced by something cold and hard and she felt her chances dwindling to next to nothing. But desperation was a powerful motivator and she had nowhere else to turn.
"I can explain," she said nervously as she tried to hold on to a shred of dignity to get her through this.
She ducked down and scooped her niece, Jenna, from the floor where she'd been hidden from view and held her close for strength. The toddler twisted in her arms to stare at Archer, her finger popping in her mouth as she watched him with open curiosity.
"Please do." Archer's gaze skipped for a brief moment to the baby before returning to her, and she realized she wasn't sure where to start. He settled against the wall in a totally casual pose that belied the tense set of his jaw. She faltered and her throat closed against the rush of fear and grief that threatened to reduce her to a puddle of pathetic tears if she didn't just start somewhere.
"Clock's tickin'," he said with a cruelly arched brow that emphasized just how short his patience with her was at the moment.
She adjusted Jenna on her hip while trying to keep the too large robe from gaping open. "Well, I—I needed—no, thought, that, um, well, it's c-compli-cated," she stammered. Tears welled in her eyes but she blinked them back. Archer was not going to help her. She swallowed convulsively when the image of her dead sister flashed in her mind and the phantom smell of her sister's blood filled her nostrils. He was her one and only hope. And judging by the cool assessing stare she was getting, that hope had been grossly misplaced. The urge to collapse in a heap and bawl was too strong for words but she couldn't in front of Archer. Not like this. She lifted her chin and though her mouth trembled, she managed to say, "We'll be out of your hair soon. I just needed a place to get cleaned up."
"Get to the explaining part, Marissa," he growled, his expression unreadable. When her tongue seemed paralyzed, he said mockingly, "What happened to the biotech scientist who'd had her heart set on a tidy little condo in Los Gatos and didn't want or need complications in her life?" She recovered sufficiently to return an angry stare for throwing her last words to him in her face when she was clearly at a disadvantage. But before she could rebound with a cutting comment of her own, he pushed off the wall and walked toward her, sending her pulse into an epileptic fit so that she had to breathe a little deeper to keep from visibly trembling. "Not interested in sharing details? How about this? Skip to the good parts. Just tell me how it is that you're in my bathroom with a busted-up face and a baby. I'm a pretty sharp guy but I'm going to need you to connect the dots on this one."
Her lip throbbed. She touched the swollen flesh with the tip of her tongue and winced with the sharp pain. It was hard to forget that she looked like hell but now was not the time for vanity. Besides, even if she had showed up looking like a supermodel, it was unlikely Archer would've been swayed. She waved him away, defeat and fear making her reckless.
"Forget it. I thought…Never mind. It doesn't matter. We'll be out of here in a few minutes."
Something flicked across his expression—grudging concern?—and it was that flash that made her pause when he said her name again.
"What's going on?" he asked. "And who's the kid? Yours?"
She thought of lying. But she couldn't, not with Archer staring at her like he was. "I'm in trouble," she said in a small voice.
"That's apparent," he retorted then gestured at Jenna. "And the kid?"
"Mercedes," he acknowledged softly, his sharp gaze narrowing in thought. "So where is that wild sister of yours, then?"
"Dead." Her voice choked on the word. "She's dead."
He swore and looked away. A long time ago when Marissa had thought she was going to marry Archer, she'd filled him in on her family life that started with a single mom and an unruly sister who was more trouble than a pack of brothers, growing up on the bad side of Oakland. He must've remembered what she'd told him about Mercedes. He didn't seem surprised. "Who's the father?" he asked finally.
Marissa hesitated, unsure. Should she tell Archer the whole truth of what was going on? As she hedged, she realized her mistake. Archer, even after all this time, could still read her as easily as the Sunday paper and as he waited she knew it was pointless to lie. "His name is Ruben Ortiz. He runs the Oaktown Boyz gang on the East Side. Mercedes met him while she was cocktailing at a new club called Porters."
"Let me guess, this Ruben character owns the club," Archer surmised.
She nodded. "And when he saw Mercedes…he had to have her. I told her he was bad news but she didn't listen. All she saw was the fancy cars, the jewelry and the parties," she said bitterly, looking away before the shine in her eyes betrayed her grief. Somehow her life had been turned into an episode from a crime drama and she had no control over how it ended. Her biggest fear was that her end would be similar to her sister's and the thought chilled her blood. "And she changed. Though, at the end, it seemed, maybe, she'd gone back to the way she was before. But it was too late."
Archer took everything in and seemed to digest the information, yet didn't seem overly interested in too many details. Not that she blamed him particularly. If she weren't knee-deep in the mess herself, she'd have steered clear, as well.
"Get dressed and come downstairs. Something tells me I'm going to need a beer to hear the rest of this story."
A pang of sadness, different from the grief she lived with now, pierced her chest and she had to wonder if coming to Archer had been the wisest decision. It was apparent water was not under the bridge. Archer still harbored some bitter feelings over their breakup even though it'd been nearly three years since that sunny day on the park bench outside her lab. She made quick work of dragging on her dirty clothes, grimacing at the stale feeling and the lingering smell of cigar smoke that clung to the fabric. She looked longingly at Archer's closet and wished she could grab a T-shirt to slip on instead but she'd lost the right to rummage through his things with such familiarity, and so after putting a clean diaper on the baby and grabbing her bottle, she and Jenna went downstairs to face a man who was their only hope for survival.
Archer's thoughts were in a twisted mess. Thank God for training to fall back on when faced with a crisis. He could thank the Corps for the foundation and the Bureau for the fine-tuning. Marissa was in his house. With a baby, no less.
At first, his gut plummeted when he thought the kid might be hers. There was no sense in lying, he'd been relieved when she admitted the baby was her older sister's. But the relief that followed filled him with misgivings.
He shouldn't care who or what Marissa had been up to since the day she cracked his heart in two and handed it to him impaled on a steak knife. As far as he was concerned she could get run down by a runaway taxicab and he wouldn't shed a tear.
So if that was the case, why did seeing her so visibly scared and physically roughed up fill him with such rage that he wanted to shoot something? Because it wouldn't be right to walk away when she was clearly desperate. So they've got history. So what? That part of him was dead and long past capable of resurrection.
She came down the stairs and, even though he tried hard not to notice, he couldn't help but remember each gentle curve of her body and the lush breasts that seemed to fill his palm as perfectly as if they were made just for him. He deliberately cut away his stare, affecting a casual pose as he cracked open his beer and took a deep slug of the microbrew.
She took a seat on the sofa, hugging the baby to her chest. The child yawned loudly and settled against Marissa. He wondered what kind of life the kid had been living with Mercedes for a mother. From what he remembered, Mercedes Vasquez had been the exotic type, with tastes that ran to the extreme, which explained the hookup with a known gangster.
But that didn't explain why Marissa was the one sitting in front of him looking as though she'd taken a nasty crack across the face, holding a baby that didn't belong to her.