"Striking a Secret Service agent will land you in prison."
But the petite redhead with the cowboy hat and tire iron seemed unfazed by Nick Sheffield's words. The Secret Service agent had come to the tiny Texas town to unmask a potential threat to his employera U.S. senator. Could his quarry be this captivating single mother who aroused in him a passion that was anything but innocent?
How dare this stranger show up and turn her life upside down! The last thing Georgeann Grady Colton needed was someone like Nickhandsome, suspicious, irresistible. As danger and desire collided, Georgie knew she was traveling a treacherous road: falling for a man who was taking them both to the point of no return.
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His neck was really beginning to ache.
It amazed him how these last ten years, after steadily climbing up the ladder, from cop to detective to Secret Service agent, Nick Sheffield found himself right back where he started: doing grunt work. There was no other accurate way to describe it: remaining stationary, hour after hour, waiting for a perpetrator to finally show up provided he did show up, which was never a sure thing.
But, at least for now, Nick had no other recourse, no other trail to pursue. This lonely ranch was where the evidence had led him.
He'd always hated surveillance work. Ever since he'd been a young kid, patience had never been in his nature. He was much happier being active. Doing something instead of just standing as still as a statue, feeling his five o'clock shadow grow.
However, in this particular instance, it was unavoidably necessary. He had no other way to capture his quarry.
Nick supposed he should consider this a triumph. After all, less than twenty-four hours ago, he still hadn't a clue where all those threatening letters and e-mails aimed at the man whose life he was to safeguard, Senator Joe Colton, came from. These days, it seemed like every crazy malcontent and his dog had access to a computer and the Internet, which made tracking down the right crazy malcontent one hell of a challenge. One that fortunately, he was more than up towith a healthy dose of help from the reformed computer hacker, Steve Hennessey, who now worked for his security staff.
Technically, it was the Senator's staff, but he ran it. Handpicked the people and ran the staff like a well-oiled, efficient machine ever since he'd been assigned to the Senator. He liked to think that he was doing his bit to help the Senator get elected to the highest post of the land.
There was no doubt in his mind that unless something unforeseen or drastic happened, the Senator would go on to become the next President of the United States. In his opinion, and he'd been around more than a little in his thirty years on earth, there was no other man even half as qualified to assume the position of President as Senator Joe Colton.
He didn't just work for the Senator, he admired the man, admired what he stood for and what he hoped to accomplish once elected. In the last few months, he'd seen Senator Colton up close and under less-than-favorable conditions. In his opinion, they just did not come any more genuineor charismaticthan the Senator.
Nick doubted very much if he would have spent the last eight hours standing behind a slightly open barn door, watching the front of an unoccupied, ramshackle ranch house for anyone else.
Damn it, where the hell was this creep? Was he going to show at all?
He didn't want to have to do this for another hour, much less entertain the prospect of doing it for another day.
Nick's temper was getting frayed. It was late and humid, and the mosquitoes kept trying to make a meal out of him. He waved another one away from his neck even as he felt sweat sliding down his spine, making the shirt beneath his black jacket stick to his skin. Talk about discomfort.
Nick blew out a frustrated breath.
Why couldn't this crazy be located in one of the major cities, living in a high-rise apartment? Why did it have to be someone who lived the life of a hermit? The IP address that Steve had miraculously tracked down had brought him to a town that barely made the map. A blip of a town named Esperanza, Texas.
Esperanza. Now there was a misnomer. His Spanish wasn't all that good, but he knew that esperanza was the Spanish word for "hope" and in this particular case, Nick had no doubt that the hope associated with the town was reserved for those who managed to escape from it. If it wasn't for the fact that Esperanza was a sub-suburb of San Antonio, Nick doubted that he and his GPS system would have been able to even locate it.
And this person he was after didn't even reside within the so-called city limits. He lived in an old, all-but-falling-down ranch house that stood five miles from the nearest neighbor, and was even farther away than five miles from the town.
Hell, Nick thought impatiently, this character could be cooking up bombs and nobody would ever be the wiseruntil the explosion came.
Nobody but him, Nick thought. But that was his job, tracking down the crazies and keeping them away from the best man he'd met in a long, long time.
"You're sure?" the Senator had asked him when he'd walked into his office with the news yesterday that his hacker had finally managed to isolate where the e-mails originated. He'd quickly given him the exact location.
For the most part, Nick didn't even bother telling the Senator about the nuisance calls, e-mails and letters that had found their way into the campaign headquarters. Anyone in public office, or even the public eye, was a target for someone seeking to vent his or her discontent. It came with the territory.
But this was different. These e-mails and letters smacked of someone dangerous. Someone seeking to "take you out" as one of the last ranting communications had threatened.
Nick had learned a long time ago to take seriously anything that remotely resembled a threat. The risk was too great not to.
He'd just informed the Senator that the sender was someone living in or around Esperanza, Texas, and that he intended to confront the man face-to-face. It was against the law to threaten a presidential candidate.
"That it's coming from there?" Nick asked, then went ahead as if he'd received a positive response. "I wouldn't be coming to you with this if I wasn't sure," he told the Senator simply.
Between them, on the desk, was a thick pile of papers that Nick had emptied out of a manila folder. Letters that had arrived in the last few weeks, all from the same source. All progressively angrier in nature. It couldn't be ignored any longer, even if he were so inclined.
"We've tracked him down," Nick repeated. "And, unless you have something specific that only I can take care of here, I'd like to go down to this little two-bit hick place and make sure that this nut-job doesn't decide to follow through with any of his threats." He had no qualms about leaving the Senator. He was the head of the Secret Service detail, but by no means was he the only one assigned to the popular Senator. Hathaway and Davis were more than up to watching over the man until he got back.
"These are all from him?" Nick nodded in response to the Senator's question. "Sure has spent a lot of time venting," Joe commented. He picked up a sheet of paper only to have Nick stop him before he was able to begin to read it.
"No need to read any of it, Senator." Nick wanted to spare the man the ugliness on some of the pages. "It's pretty awful."
Joe didn't believe in isolating himself, but he saw no reason to immerse himself in distasteful lies and name-calling, either. He let the letter remain in Nick's hand. "Then why did you bring it to me?"
In Nick's opinion, the volume of mail spoke for itself. No sane person invested this much time and effort in sending vicious missives, and the future actions of an insane person couldn't be safely gauged. It would take very little to push a person like this to where he would become dangerous.
"To let you see that the man could be a threat and that I'd like the chance to stop him before he becomes one," Nick stated simply.
In the short time they had been together, Joe had learned to both like and rely on the head of his Secret service detail. Nick Sheffield had impressed him as a hard-working, honorable man whose interest was in getting the job done, not in gathering attention or praise for his actions. He more than trusted the man's instincts.
Joe liked the fact that Nick always looked him in the eye when he spoke. "When would you leave?" he asked.
"Tonight." Nick saw a glint of surprise in the Senator's eyes. "I should be back in a couple of days a week at most," he promised, although he was hoping that it wouldn't take that long. He intended to locate the sender, take him into custody and bring him back. The federal authorities could take it from there.
Joe nodded. There had been mutual respect between the two men almost from the very first day. Their personalities complemented one another. Joe trusted Nick not only with his life, but, more importantly, the lives of his family who meant more to him than anything else in the world, including the bid for the presidency.
"All right," the Senator agreed. "Go if you really think it's necessary."
There was no hesitation on Nick's part. "I do."
"That's good enough for me," the Senator replied. And then he smiled that smile that had a way of cutting across party affiliations and verbose rhetoric, burrowing into the heart of the recipient. "Just get back as soon as you can, Nick. I feel a whole lot better knowing that you're on the job."
Nick knew the man was not just giving voice to empty words, that praise from the Senator was always heartfelt and genuine. While exceedingly charming, with a manner that drew people to him, the Senator was not one to toss around words without thought or feeling behind them, like so many other politicians.
"I'll be back before you know it," Nick had promised, taking his leave. At the time, he sincerely meant what he said.
Georgeann Grady, Georgie to everyone who knew her, struggled mightily to keep her eyes open. For the last twenty minutes, she'd debated pulling over to the side of the road in order to catch a few well-deserved winks before falling asleep at the wheel. But she was only five miles away from home. Five miles away from sleeping in her own bed and after months of being on the road, sleeping in her own bed sounded awfully good to her.
She told herself to keep driving.
Digging her nails into the palms of the hands that were wrapped around the steering wheel of her truck, Georgie tried to shake off the effects of sleepiness by tossing her head. It sent the single thick, red braid back over her shoulder. Squaring them, she glanced into the rear-view mirror to check on her pint-sized passenger.
Big, wide green eyes looked right back at her.
Georgie suppressed a sigh. She might have known that Emmie wasn't asleep, even if her nonstop chatter had finally run its course. Ceasing about ten minutes ago.
"Why aren't you asleep?" she asked her precocious, almost-five-year-old daughter.
"Too excited," Emmie told her solemnly in a voice that could have easily belonged to someone at least twice her age.
Emmie sounded almost happier to be getting back home than she was. Sometimes, Georgie thought, it was almost as if their roles were reversed and Emmie was the mother while she was the daughter. There was little more than eighteen years between them. They could have just as easily been sisters instead of mother and daughter.
And, as far as daughters went, she couldn't have asked for a better one. Raising Emmie had been a dream, despite the unorthodox life they led. A good deal of Emmie's life had been spent on the road, as a rodeo brat. It was out of necessity so that Georgie could earn money by competing in various rodeo eventsjust as her mother and her grandfather had before her.
At all times, her eye was on the prize. The final prize. Not winning some title that would be forgotten by the time the dust settled, but amassing as much money as she could so that she and her daughter could finally settle down and live a normal life.
She owed it to Emmie.
Her mother, Mary Lynn Grady, had quit the life, walking away with nothing more than medals and trophies, as she took up the reins of motherhood. But she intended to be far more prepared than that. It took money to make dreams come true.
Emmie was coming of age. She'd be turning five next week and five meant kindergarten, which in turn meant stability. That translated into living in a home that wasn't on wheels, nestled in a place around people who loved her. That had been the plan for the last four-something years and Georgie was determined to make it a reality.
Every cent that hadn't been used for clothing and feeding them, or for entrance fees, had faithfully been banked back in Esperanza. By her tally, at this point, thanks to her most recent winning streak, the account was exceedingly healthy now. There was finally more than enough for them to settle down and for her to figure out her next move: finding a career that didn't involve performing tricks on a horse that was galloping at break-neck speed.
Any other career would seem tame in comparison, but right now, tame was looking awfully good. The accident that she'd had a few months ago could have been disastrous. It made her very aware that she, like so many other rodeo competitors, was living on borrowed time. She wanted to get out before time ran out on herand now, she could.
Independence had a wonderful feel about it, she thought.
Emmie's unbridled excitement about coming home just underscored her decision. There'd be no pulling over to the side of the road for her. Not when they were almost home.
Leaning forward, Georgie turned up the music. Tobey Keith's newest song filled the inside of the cab. Behind her, in an enthusiastic, clear voice, Emmie began to sing along. With a laugh, Georgie joined in.
In the overall scheme of things, eight hours was nothing, but when those hours peeled away, second by second, moment by moment, it felt as if the time was endless.
He wanted to get back to the action, not feel as if his limbs were slowly slipping into paralysis. But he didn't even dare get back to the car he'd hidden behind the barn. He might miss his quarry coming home. The man had to come home sometime. The e-mails had been coming fairly regularly, one or more almost every day now. Because there hadn't been anything yesterday, the man was overdue.