Someone is trying to kill bodyguard Parker Payne. But what's more shocking is the woman who shows up claiming he's the father of her child. The baby boy is Parker's spitting image, but how could he have forgotten a passionate encounter with this woman with caramel eyes?
Sharon Wells has raised Parker's son since his birth. Now with a homicidal maniac coming after her and her son, it's Parker's unexpected proposal that may be the real danger. Sharon knows Parker just wants to protect them. But with passion flaring and a murderer intent on completing his personal mission, any distraction could mean the difference between life and death.
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Someone put out a hit on Parker Payne.
The statement echoed inside Parker's head, but it wasn't the only echo. His ears rang yet from the blast of the explosion that had sent him to the hospital and two Payne Protection Agency employees to the morgue.
Guilt and pain clutched his heart. He was supposed to have been inside that SUV, not Douglas and Terry. But, totally unaware of the bomb that had been wired to the ignition, they had jumped inside his vehicle for a lunch run. He'd been rushing out to catch them to change an order, but he had been too late. Doug turned the key, and the SUV exploded into bits of glass and scraps of metal. Two good men died, leaving behind wives and children.
It should have been Parker. Not only did he have no wife or child to leave behind, but he was actually the one whom somebody wanted dead.
He fought against the pain and confusion of the concussion that had his head pounding and his vision blurred. So he closed his eyes and tried to focus on the conversation swirling around his hospital bed.
His mother fussed. "We should take this conversation into the hall so that Parker can get some rest." Her fingers skimmed across his forehead, like they had when he'd been a little boy with a fever or a scraped knee or when his father died. She had always been there for her kids even though she hadn't had anyone to be there for her.
He caught her hand and gently squeezed her fingers in reassurance. She had to be scared at how close she had come to losing a child. In the past two weeks, there had been several attempts on his brother Cooper's life and on his twin Logan's life. But most of those attempts had really been meant to end his life.
Logan bossed. "We need to find out who the hell put out the hit." Then his tone turned suspicious, so he must have been addressing one of his new in-laws, when he added, "Unless you already know. Your contacts must have told you who when they told you about the hit."
The guy cursed Logan, so he must have been the hotheaded Garek instead of the milder-mannered Milek Kozminski. "If I knew who the hell it is, I would have told youthe monster put my sister in danger."
Parker forced open his eyes, but he had to squint against the glare of the overhead lights and the sunlight streaming through the blinds. His head pounded harder, but it was more with guilt than pain. Stacy Kozminski-Payne had been through a lot recently, most of it because of him. He focused on his new sister-in-law. The tawny-haired woman stood between her husband and her brother, as if ready to stop a brawl. It was probably a position in which she would find herself for most of her marriage.
But then his twin did something Logan rarely did; he apologized. "Sorry, man. I know you would do anything to protect your sister."
Garek nodded in acceptance of the apology and continued, "The only thing I know for certain is that it's somebody who has a lot of money and influence."
"You and Milek need to reach out to all your contacts and see what you can find out." Logan resumed his bossing. As CEO of Payne Protection Agency and the oldest Payne sibling by ten minutes, he'd gotten good at giving out orders.
But the Kozminskis weren't known for taking orders well, so Parker waited for them to bristle. Instead Milek asked, "Are you really hiring us?"
Payne Protection Agency was a security firm that Logan had founded when he'd left the police department a few years ago. He'd coerced Parker into leaving the force, too, and joining him. Logan had always been very selective about who he hiredthat was why Terry and Douglas had been such good men and their deaths such a tragic loss.
Through narrowed blue eyes, Logan studied his new brothers-in-law. Very new since he and Stacy had married only hours ago in Parker's hospital room so that he could be Logan's best man. "I need your help," he said. And Parker knew his twin so well that he knew that wasn't an easy admission for him to make.
Stacy knew her husband well, too, because she hugged him in appreciation and sympathy. And love. It was obvious how much she loved him. And Logan loved her just as much.
So much that Parker felt a pang of envy. God, he must have hit his head harder than he'd realized.
His arms winding around his wife, Logan continued, "We need to keep Stacy and Parker safe."
And finally Parker managed to fight back the pain and gather his strength. He struggled to swing his legs over the bed and sit up. "This isn't your fight, Logan," he said. "It's mine. So you're not giving out the orders this time."
He had never minded before that Logan was his boss as well as his brother, but he minded nowbecause he didn't want his boss or his brother getting killed. "I'm not hiring Payne Protection. I can take care of this myself." Now that he knew he was the intended target
Logan turned to him as if surprised to find him still in the room. "Parker"
"This is all about me," he said. "And you need to be all about your new bride. You and Stacy need to leave for your honeymoon."
Logan's arms tightened protectively around his bride, but he shook his head. "I'm not leaving while you're in danger."
"That's exactly why you have to leave," Parker pointed out. "Because when I'm in danger, so are you." With the same black hair and blue eyes and chiseled features, they were so identical that most people couldn't tell them apart unless they knew them. Logan was always serious, and Parker was usually a smart aleck.
Logan shook his head. "That's exactly why we need to all work together to find out who put out the hit on you."
"Probably a jealous husband," a male voice remarked as another man stepped into the hospital room.
"Cooper!" their mother exclaimed over her youngest son.
Even though he was two years younger than Parker and Logan, he could have been their triplet. He looked that much like them. "Damn it," Parker grumbled. "You should still be on your honeymoon."
And that was when it struck him that both his brothers were husbands now. Only he and his baby sister were single yet. And his mom. But she was widowed, so that was different.
He didn't want his new sisters-in-law to become widows, too. "You need to take Tanya and get on a plane and get the hell out of here. And take Logan and Stacy with you."
"Logan and Stacy?" Cooper stared at the woman wrapped up in his oldest brother's arms, and his dark brows arched in shock. Logan and Stacy had spent the past several years hating each other before finally but quickly realizing that they actually loved each other. And they hadn't come to that realization until Cooper and Tanya had left for their honeymoon.
"Parker is getting upset," his mother said. "And he needs his rest. Maybe having Logan and Stacy's wedding in his room was too much for him"
"Wedding!" Cooper interjected.
Their mother shushed him. "You all need to take the explanations and orders into the hall." Her tone had grown sharper and her usually warm brown eyes were dark with concern and determination.
Her children and even the Kozminskis hurried to obey her, nearly bumping into each other in their haste to step out into the hall. She gently pushed Parker back against the pillows. "The doctor is keeping you overnight for observation," she reminded him, which was probably good since the concussion had affected his short-term memory. "So you really need to rest."
"You'll need all of your strength to fight with your brothers," she said, dredging up the argument she had used when he'd been a kid reluctant to go to bed. She kissed his forehead before joining the rest of their dysfunctional family in the hall.
Finally Parker was alone. He was also exhausted. But when he closed his eyes, the explosion played out behind his lids. He saw the men through the windshieldjust brieflybefore the glass shattered and the metal shredded and their bodies
With a groan of horror and pain, he jerked awake and discovered that he was no longer alone. A woman stood over his bed. She wasn't a nurseat least not one employed at the hospitalbecause she didn't wear the green scrubs. She wore a suit with tan pants and a high-necked blouse beneath a loose tan jacket. So he might have thought she worked in hospital administration if not for the baby she balanced on one lean hip.
"You're Parker Payne," she said.
He tensed with suspicion. Why did she want to know? Then he pushed aside the suspicions. It wasn't as if she was trying to collect on that hitunless hired assassins brought their babies along with them, too.
And if they did, he would rather she try to hit him than Logan or Cooper. "Yes, I'm Parker Payne."
She released a shuddery breath of relief. "You're not dead."
"Not yet." But it wasn't for want of people trying.
She shuddered. "I saw on the news what happened to youor nearly happened to you. It was your vehicle."
"I'm fine," he said with a twinge of guilt at the unfairness of that. Doug and Terry should be fine, too, but they were gone, leaving family behind just like Parker had been left when his police-officer father died in the line of duty.
At least if someone was actually successful at carrying out the hit, he wouldn't leave a child behind to mourn him like he had mourned. His family and friends thought he stayed single because he couldn't commit, because he was a playboy. But he was practical. Given the dangerous nature of his job, he wasn't a good risk for a husband or father. And he didn't want to put anyone through the pain he, his mother and siblings had suffered.
The woman studied him through narrowed eyes. Even narrowed, her eerie light brown eyes were so huge that they nearly overwhelmed her thin face. If her hair was down, the caramel-colored locks might have softened her face, but it was pulled tautly back and bound in a tight knot on the top of her head. Her voice low and soft, she asked, "Are you sure you're all right?"
He shook off his maudlin thoughts. He wasn't going to leave anyone behind because he wasn't going to dieat least not before he found out who was after him and made that person pay for all the pain he'd caused. Parker had rested long enough, so he swung his legs over the bed again and sat up. His vision blurred for a moment, but he blinked to clear it.
"Should I get someone?" she asked as she backed up toward the door. She jostled the baby on her hip, and the little thing giggled.
Parker focused on the baby. Dressed in tiny overalls and a blue-and-green-striped shirt, he was apparently a boy. With fuzzy black hair and bright blue eyes, he was also damn cute.
"You know who I am," he realized. "But I don't know who you are. Should I?" He usually never forgot a faceat least not a female one. But she wore no makeup and dressed so frumpy that she wasn't exactly the kind of woman he usually noticed unless he was in the mood for the repressed-librarian type. And maybe he was in the mood now because he was tempted to see what she would look like with her hair down.
"My name is Sharon Wells," she told him, her soft voice questioning as if she wondered if he remembered it.
As if he should.
He moved his head to shake it, but even the slight movement sent pain radiating throughout his skull. He groaned.
"I should get someone," she said again with a nervous glance toward the hall. "You need help."
"No." He already had too many people trying to help him, trying to fix a problem he must have somehow created himself. The hit was on himno one else. Who had he pissed off enough to want him dead?
Cooper was wrong about the jealous husband. Parker had never messed around with a married woman and never would; there were lines even he refused to cross.
"I don't need anyone," he said.
Now she glanced down at the baby she bounced gently on her hip. His arms flailed, and his chubby little face flushed with happiness. Even though they looked nothing alike, it was as if the child was a part of her because they were so connected.
"Sharon Wells." He repeated her name but it didn't sound familiar even on his own lips. She wasn't Doug's or Terry's wife; he knew their names, their faces, which he would never be able to look at again without a rush of guilt and shame. If Sharon Wells was a relative of one of them, she must've been a distant one, because he'd met most of their families, too.
He pushed up from the bed and stood on legs that were embarrassingly shaky until he locked his knees.
He wasn't staying overnight in the hospital, not when he had a killer to track down. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know who you are."
She sighed. "I hoped you would, that you might."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because it would've made this easier if you were expecting me," she replied.
Expecting her? He hadn't been expecting anything elsenot the bombs or the shootings to be meant for him. Why would he have expected her?
"Make what easier?" he asked.
Was she a hit woman? A hired assassin?
He glanced around for his holster and weapon, but they, like his clothes, were nowhere in sight. Neither was any of his family.
He'd thought they weren't going to leave him alone
"What I have to tell you," she said. Then she drew in a deep breath, as if to brace herself, and continued, "That this is your son."
He focused on the baby again. The little guy had fuzzy black hair and very bright blue eyes. The kid looked exactly like old baby pictures of him and Logan and Cooper. The baby certainly could have been a Payne. He could have been Parker's.
Maybe he did need longer to recover from the concussion because standing was so much of a strain that his head grew light, and his knees gave out. His already banged-up body struck the floor. Hard. The last thing he heard, before oblivion claimed him, was her scream.