He'd rescued a beautiful hostage, now he needed to keep her alive
Former Special Forces soldier Marco Cruz has no time for messy emotions. But the beautiful TV reporter he saved from a hostage ordeal now faces graver danger. Someone wants Lauren Starling deadand the sinfully handsome Ranger wants to be the one to protect her.
Teaming up to find a killer and bring Lauren's kidnapper to justice, Marco and Lauren go on the runoutside the lawin a harrowing race for their lives. Before long, Marco begins to have unfamiliar feelings for Laurenadmiration, sympathy and a powerful lust. He knows what's going on between them is unprofessional. But also undeniable.
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The sound of the explosion reverberated through the underground tunnels. Lauren tried to run, terrified the rocks would collapse around her, but her legs felt as if they were mired in sand. She fought to see in the murky darkness, choking on rising dust, her ears ringing from the aftershock. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound emerged.
A strong hand grabbed hers, pulling her toward the light. Gunshots sounded behind them, even as rock chips flew from the wall beside her head, the fragments stinging her skin. The man with her pulled her in front of him, shielding her with his body. "Go!" he commanded, and shoved her harder. "Run!"
She ran, dodging piles of rubble and fresh cascades of rock. The dim light ahead began to grow brighter. Footsteps pounded behind her and she started to scream again, but it was only the man, his embrace warm and reassuring. "It's going to be all right," he said. "You're strong. You can make it."
He sounded so certain that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, she believed him.
Another tremor shook the cavern, and larger boulders crashed around them. One struck her shoulder, knocking her to her knees. The man pulled her up, into his arms, and kept running, dodging the falling rock, taking the blows and moving on, always forward, toward freedom.
The cool night air washing over her brought tears to her eyes. She stared at the blurred stars overhead and choked back a sob. The first stars she'd seen in weeks. A taste of freedom she'd feared she might never know again.
"Can you walk?" the man asked, setting her on her feet, but keeping his arm firmly around her, supporting her.
She nodded. "I can."
"Then, we've got to go. We've got to stop him."
Hand in hand, they raced toward the castle situated improbably in the middle of the Colorado desert. She seemed to fly over the ground, her feet not touching it, only the firm grip of the man's hand in hers anchoring her to the earth.
She heard the helicopter before she saw it, the steady whump! whump! of the rotors beating the air. Then they ascended a small hill and stared at the chopper lifting off, soaring into the pink clouds of dawn. No! she silently screamed.
Loud, out-of-tune chimes from the doorbell pulled Lauren from the dreamone she'd had too often in the weeks since her escape from the abandoned mine that had been her prison for almost a month. The details sometimes changed, but the results were the same as realityher captor, Richard Prentice, escaping into the night as she watched, powerless.
"I don't think she's awake yet," she heard her sister, Sophie, tell whoever was at the door.
Lauren struggled into a sitting position and checked the clock. Almost eleven. How had she slept so late? "I'm awake," she called. "Give me a minute to get dressed."
She threw back the covers and sat up. She was safe in the apartment she shared with her sister in Montrose, Colorado. The words of her rescuer still echoed from the dream. You're strong. You can make it.
In the living room, she found Sophie with two other women. Emma Wade, a tall redhead who dressed to show off her curves in flowing skirts and high heels, stood beside Abby Stewart, a sweet grad student whose shoulder-length brown hair was cut to hide most of the scar on one cheek, the result of a wound she'd received while in the army in Afghanistan. The two women had befriended first Sophie, then Lauren, after the sisters' arrival in Montrose.
"Sorry to disturb you, but we've got something here you need to see." Emma handed Lauren a newspaper. "Maybe you'd better sit down before you read it."
"What is it?" Sophie asked, and followed Lauren to the couch, where Lauren sat and focused on the newspaper, nausea quickly rising in her throat as she read the headline.
Former Top News Anchor Released read the headline on the small article in the Denver Post's entertainment section.
Lauren Starling, twice voted most popular news anchor in the Post's annual "best of selections, has been released from her contract with station KQUE, effective immediately. Station president Ross Carmichael asked for the public's support and understanding for Ms. Starling "at this difficult time. Lauren's illness is affecting her ability to perform her job, so we thought it was in her best interest to release her from her obligations, to allow her time to seek treatment and recover," he said.
In March of this year, Starling was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, following several incidences of erratic behavior on-air. She made headlines when she disappeared for several weeks in May and June, eventually turning up at a ranch owned by billionaire developer Richard Prentice. Starling has accused Prentice of kidnapping her, a charge he denies. He says he offered his home as a safe place for Starling, a longtime family friend, to heal and recover.
Starling's former husband, actor Phillip Starling, also issued a statement regarding Starling's accusations against Prentice. "Lauren hasn't been herself for the past year," he told this reporter. "Her wild accusations against Richarda man we've both known for yearsprove how unstable she has become. I hope for her sake she will seek treatment and I wish her all the best."
Ms. Starling was unavailable for comment.
Lauren smoothed her hand over the paper, trying to hide the shaking. She could feel the eyes of the others on her. Were they searching for signs that she was finally cracking up? She was used to people looking at her. She'd been a cheerleader and a beauty queen, and had finally landed her dream job of prime-time news anchor at Denver's number two station. She'd spent most of her life seeking and gaining attention.
But that was when the looks from others had been admiring, even envious. Now people regarded her with suspicion. The looks came attached to labels. She was "unstable" or "erratic" or "crazy." She'd admitted she had a problem and gotten help, but instead of sympathy and understanding, she'd only earned suspicion. She didn't know how to handle the stares anymore. "Lauren, are you okay?"
Sophie, her sister, asked the question the rest of them had probably been wondering. Lauren fixed a bright smile on her face and tossed her head back, defiant.
"I'm so sorry," Emma, who worked as a reporter for the Post, said. "I hated to be the bearer of bad news, but I didn't want you hearing about it from someone who wasn't a friend, either."
"I can't believe Phil would say something like that." Sophie rubbed Lauren's shoulder, just as she had when they were girls and Lauren had suffered a nightmare. "I never did like the guy."
Lauren had loved Phil; maybe part of her still did. Handsome and charming, as outgoing as she was and a talented actor, Phil had seemed the perfect match for her. But maybe two big egos in a marriage hadn't been a good idea. Or maybe he'd sensed something was broken in her long before she'd discovered the reason for her erratic mood swings and out-of-control emotions. When he'd finally come clean about cheating on her with a woman he worked with, she'd taken the news badly. Though in the end, that plunge into depression had led to the diagnosis and work to get her life under control.
"Prentice probably paid Phil off." Abby scowled at the paper. "And now he's using his influence to ruin your reputation."
"So far he's doing a pretty good job." She flipped the paper over and started to fold it, but another headline caught her eye. "Oh, no!" she moaned.
"I didn't want you to see that." Emma tried to pull the paper away, but Sophie took it instead.
"'Task Force Status in Jeopardy,'" Sophie read.
"'Senator Peter Mattheson has called for a Senate hearing to consider disbanding the interagency task force responsible for solving crimes on public lands in the region around Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The task force, more commonly known as The Ranger Brigade, has successfully stopped a drug smuggling and human trafficking ring in the area as well as solved other less sensational crimes, but recently made headlines over charges of harassment brought by billionaire developer Richard Prentice. Prentice, not a stranger to controversies involving various government agencies, filed suit earlier this year against the Rangers, demanding seven billion dollars in damages.'"
"Don't read any more," Abby said. "It's all a bunch of lies."
"This is so awful," Lauren said. "There should be something we can do to stop this guy."
"The Rangers are working harder than ever to do just that," Emma said. "I'm worried Graham is going to work himself right into a heart attack." Captain Graham Ellison, FBI agent and Emma's fiancé, headed up The Ranger Brigade. Other members of the task force included Abby's boyfriend, Michael Dance, and Sophie's boyfriend, Rand Knightbridge.
"What will happen if the task force disbands?" Lauren asked.
"It won't," Emma said. "All of Richard Prentice's money isn't going to keep him out of jail forever. The grand jury is supposed to end its proceedings today. Once they hand down an indictment, all his money and influence won't mean anything."
"If they hand down an indictment," Abby said. "Michael is afraid all the expensive experts Prentice has hired will persuade the grand jury that he's as innocent and persecuted as he likes to portray himself in the press."
"They can't ignore all the evidence against him," Lauren said. She had spent two full days last week in the grand jury room, giving every detail of her six weeks as Prentice's captive, as well as information about the investigation she'd conducted into his affairs that had led the billionaire to capture her and hide her away, first upstairs in his mansion, then in an abandoned mine on his property.
"Michael says he heard Prentice hired an expert to testify that the picture you gave them of Prentice with Alan Milbanks was so blurry no one could tell who the men in the photo really were," Abby said.
"Alan Milbanks gave me that photograph himself before he died," Lauren said. The drug dealer had been shot to death in the fish store that served as a front for his smuggling operation only a few days before Lauren was rescued. "He told me Richard Prentice was bankrolling his drug business."
Abby shrugged. "I'm just saying that some people are more easily persuaded than others. The jury might believe Prentice."
They might. After all, Lauren had believed his lies, too, at least at first. He'd portrayed himself as a caring, charity-minded businessman who'd been forced, by circumstance, into the role of champion of individual rights. All his problems with the government were simply misunderstandings, or the result of his defense of personal liberty for everyone.
"I heard the grand jury brought in a lot of other experts," Emma said. "Of course, it's all hush-hush. No one is supposed to know who testifies before the grand jury, and there isn't even a judge present, just the prosecutor. But people talk."
"What kind of experts?" Sophie asked.
"Psychiatrists." Emma glanced at Lauren, then quickly averted her gaze.
"I'm betting they weren't talking about Richard's state of mind," Lauren said.
"You don't know that," Sophie said. "Maybe they were explaining what would lead a man with more money than Midas to want to gain even more illegally. Or why a man known for dating models and actresses would decide to hold you hostage until you agreed to marry him."
"The psychiatrists were talking about me," Lauren said. "I saw some of the jurors' faces when I told them Richard wanted to marry me. They thought I made the whole story up." After all, that had been Prentice's defense from the moment she was found: Lauren had come to him for help. She'd always been free to leave his property, but she'd fixated on him and insisted on staying. He'd only been trying to be a good friend; the poor woman was delusional.
"All I know is that the grand jury is supposed to deliver its decision this morning and I have to get to the courthouse." Emma pulled her sunglasses from her purse. "I've already started working on my story for the next issue of the Post. There's no way twenty-three people could hear what happened to you, Lauren, and not indict."
"Call when you know something," Abby said.
"Oh, I will," Emma said. "We might even have to break out a bottle of champagne, once Prentice is safely behind bars."
No one said anything until Emma had left, then Abby turned to Lauren. "Let's forget about Prentice for a little bit," she said. "What are you going to do about your job?"
Her job. For a moment she'd almost forgotten the original reason her friends had shown up this morning. She'd loved the excitement of reporting on breaking news and the feeling that she was involved in important events, a part of the lives of the people who tuned in every day to hear what she had to say. She still couldn't believe she'd lost all of that. "I guess I need a plan, huh?" Though she hadn't the foggiest idea what that plan should be.
"I think you should hire a lawyer," Abby said. "The station can't cut you off with no severance or benefits or anything when they've outright admitted their firing you is related to your medical diagnosis. The Americans with Disabilities Act probably has something to say about that."
"Abby is right," Sophie said. "Threaten to sue them and make them cough up a settlementand continue your medical benefits, at least until you find something better."
Right. She didn't want to lose the benefits that paid for the medication that was keeping her on an even keel. "Good idea," she said. "I have a lawyer friend in Denver. I'll call him today." She grabbed a notebook from the counter that separated the apartment's kitchen from the living area and wrote that down. It felt good to have something constructive to do.
"And I'm not going to stop going after Richard Prentice, either," she said. "Even with the grand jury indictment, the prosecutor will need every bit of evidence he can get to convict. Prentice thinks his money puts him above the law. I'm going to show him he's wrong."
"Emma will help, I'm sure," Sophie said. "If you both use your skills as investigative reporters, you're bound to turn up something."
"We can all help," Abby said. "I only know about botany, but I'm good at following directions, so if you give me a job, I'll do it." A graduate student, Abby had almost completed her work toward a master's degree in environmental science.
"Me, too," Sophie said. A former government administrator in Madison, Wisconsin, Sophie had given up her job to move to Montrose and search for Lauren.
"Thanks, all of you." Lauren hugged them each in turn. For all the terrible things that had happened to her in the past weeks and months, she'd gained these wonderful friends. They had rallied around her since she'd come to Montrose, and treated her like another sister. That was a blessing she was truly grateful for.