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As the first blow crashed into his right shoulder, FBI special agent Jake Pierson wasn't thinking about self-defense. He'd been deep in his head, preparing and memorizing backstory for his latest undercover assignment.
Standing alone in the delivery zone behind a hotel bar after sundown without backup wasn't the smartest move for a special agent, even one undercover. But Jake was waiting for the contact to let him know when his target had entered the bar.
He'd done his pre-mission checking and considered the medium-size western city of Bozeman, Montana, a safe place after dark. Apparently, he was wrong.
But it didn't take him ten seconds to get back in the game. Jake's body curved backward as the assailant pressed a thumb to his windpipe. If it hadn't been such a surprise, Jake might've laughed at the amateurish attempt at overpowering someone like him, well-trained in martial arts. But the sudden knee to his kidney switched the mood from light to serious in a flash.
Planting his feet, Jake bent at the knees and burst upright with a roar. Power-lifting had been one of his specialties during training at Quantico, and he hadn't tried a move like this in the many years since.
The assailant clung to his neck. Jake easily rolled him over his shoulder and slammed him to the ground.
In seconds the attacker jumped back to his feet. Jake had to hand it to him, the guy was resilient.
Suddenly a knife appeared, and the man was waving it in Jake's face. In the low light it was hard to tell, but Jake figured this was a kid. At least ten to fifteen years younger than his own ancient age of thirty-five.
What was this? A robbery attempt? Or something more?
Jake would have to ask the asshole. As soon as he disarmed him.
The kid's knife hand swung wildly, and when Jake sidestepped, the assailant threw himself off balance. Jake used the opportunity to grab him by the elbow and twist the attacker's whole arm up and behind his back.
"Ow!" The kid screamed like a child on a Ferris wheel and dropped his knife.
Jake whirled him around and slammed the heel of his hand square in the assailant's nose. The blow reverberated back up Jake's arm, but the sickening sound of breaking cartilage told him his attacker would be hurting a lot worse than he was.
"My nose. You broke my frigging nose!" The kid started throwing punches without looking.
Jake sighed, wishing the kid would simply go down easy. He hated having to inflict more damage in order to subdue an obvious nonprofessional.
"Hey, what's going on out here?"
A sudden bright light from the bar's open back door, along with the sound of someone shouting, took Jake's attention away from his assailant. For only an instant. But it was enough time for the kid to get in one last smash at Jake's side and then break away. Jake stumbled to the left while the kid made a mad dash down the side of the building and out of sight.
It took everything Jake had in him not to chase after his attacker. The mission always comes first.
The bartender stepped beside Jake. "Are you okay? You want me to call the cops?"
Jake straightened up as he shot the wrinkles out of his lightweight leather jacket. "No need to call anyone. It was a simple misunderstanding."
The last thing he needed was for the Bozeman cops to question him. If this attack had come twenty miles south in the little town of Honey Creek where Jake's main assignment would be taking place, talking to the sheriff wouldn't be a problem. The sheriff there knew the FBI would be in his town conducting an undercover operation. But here? Not worth all the effort.
"Well, if you're sure." The bartender shrugged. "Oh, yeah. The reason I stepped out here is that woman you were asking about is in the bar. She came in with several friends, but they're gone now. She's sitting at a small table all alone. Is that what you wanted?"
"Good work." Jake shoved a few bills into the bartender's hand. "Remember not to tell anyone I was asking. Right?"
"Yes, sir." The bartender grinned and put his fingertip to his lips.
Annoyed that he hadn't been able to question his attacker, Jake tried to tell himself that it must have been a simple robbery attempt. But his gut told him that wasn't true. It would've been a huge coincidence, and Jake had never believed in coincidences.
Foul-ups on this job had started from the get-go. The man he was supposed to meet in Honey Creek had turned up dead a few days ago—before he could tell Jake anything. That put a giant kink in the FBI's information stream.
Jake had frantically put together a fall-back plan with the help of Jim Willis, his partner back in Seattle. He'd spent most of the past twenty-four hours memorizing facts and backgrounds that Jim had supplied.
Following the bartender inside, Jake rubbed at the knuckles on his right hand, absently opening and closing the fingers. He stopped to stand in the shadows behind the bar, taking time to study his new target and running over what he knew of her in his head.
Late twenties with shoulder-length bright red hair, she was one of his original informant's two daughters. The other daughter reportedly kept nearly constant company with a new boyfriend, whereas this one, a single, quiet librarian, seemed like a much easier mark. In addition, the other daughter also had more involvement in the secondary aspects of this case. For one thing, she'd had at least one good reason to want to see her father dead.
When Jake finally spotted his target in a far corner, the sudden kick of attention from his libido surprised the hell out of him. Where had that come from? He hadn't taken much interest in the opposite sex beyond a few brief liaisons in the past ten years. And it would not have been his choice to start noticing again in the middle of an undercover mission. The timing was inopportune at the very least.
Then again… He reconsidered the idea as he continued studying the woman who was sipping wine and flirting casually with the bartender. Maybe his own…uh…interest would add a layer of reality to the mission. He and his partner Jim had devised a plan calling for Jake to pretend a romantic relationship with this target. The idea was to insinuate himself with her first. Then she would introduce him to the rest of her family and the others in Honey Creek while he took his time gathering information.
Jake suddenly thought pretending a romantic relationship might not be such a hardship. The mission always comes first.
Mary Walsh fidgeted in her seat and sneaked a glance around the bar. Maybe she was being foolish. Coming to a librarians' conference and expecting to find a wonderful stranger who would introduce her to the joys of womanhood seemed a bit incongruent. Probably there wouldn't be one real man in this whole hotel.
But Mary was determined to find out in the little time she had left at the conference. Her life was already changing, enough, in fact, that she could scarcely keep up. For one thing, her father, the one who had supposedly died fifteen years ago, had suddenly turned up dead—again! She had barely managed to put all her baggage behind her and now she was facing memories of her childhood one more time. Damn him anyway.
Mary took a sip of her wine and tried to calm down. Then, staring absently at the remaining rose-colored liquid, she winced. Her therapist would have his own breakdown if he knew she was using alcohol as a substitute for food. He expected her to go for a nice long run instead.
But, well, screw him. He wasn't the one who'd had to fight hard to change his whole life. And after coming this close to her ultimate goal, she was the one who'd been smacked in the face with the same old problems she'd thought were far behind her, not her therapist.
After all, who else in the entire world but the Walsh family would have a father who'd died not once but twice, for pity's sake?
She raised her hand and signaled to the bartender for another wine. A new start. That was what she needed. She was all done preparing for life. This latest mess her father had brought down upon the family had clinched it for her.
Mary was ready to start living.
"Hey. This seat taken?" The deep male voice brought her head up and she stared into the most wonderful pair of ice-blue eyes.
Wasn't that what Nora Roberts, her favorite romance author, once wrote about heroes who had stark blue-colored eyes like this? As much as Mary had memorized nearly every word in her favorite novels, right this moment she could barely remember her own name for sure, let alone any particular quotations.
"Um. Is that a pick-up line?" Now why was that the first thing out of her mouth? She would scare him away.
"Maybe. But can I sit anyway?"
Oh. This guy was cool. "Sure. I might not mind being picked up tonight."
He raised his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth curved in the most interesting version of a smile that Mary had ever seen. She noticed his rugged chin then, and the even craggier jawline. His eyes were cold, deep pools. Deep and full of secrets. Icy was certainly the right word for them.
His black jeans and black leather jacket added to the picture of a hard man. And wasn't that a scar running from his eye to his temple?
She realized she might've been wrong. Nothing about him seemed heroic. Fascinating and handsome, maybe. But he was not a romance hero.
He reminded her of the newest actor to play James Bond. Yes, definitely. This guy looked like a secret agent.
"The name's Jake," he said as he turned to signal the waitress. "Jake Pierson."
He sat down and stuck out his hand. "And you are?"
"Mary Walsh." She took his hand and a shock wave ran up her arm.
Pulling back, she tried to look calm and pleasant instead of making a wisecrack. Wow. They had electricity between them. Just like in one of her novels. This guy was going to be it. For sure. She promised not to mess things up for herself.
The waitress brought Mary's wine and asked Jake for his order.
"Whatever you have on tap will be good." He gestured to Mary's wine. "And put that on my tab."
The waitress nodded and left.
"Did you just buy me a drink?" Mary's nerves were jangling with anticipation.
"That okay with you?"
"Better than okay. Thanks!" The first time a stranger had ever bought her a drink. Things were looking up.
"Tell me about yourself, Mary. What do you do and where are you from?"
"I'm a librarian in Honey Creek—unfortunately."
He chuckled and the sound warmed her down to the pit of her stomach. "Why unfortunately? I think it's great. I recently moved to Honey Creek myself."
"You did?" A man like this in her backwoods small town? Whoo boy. "Why?"
This time when he laughed out loud, the warmth flashed all the way through her body. It heated up parts of her that she'd barely known she had.
"I'm in commercial real estate. There're a couple of new projects near Honey Creek that I want to pursue."
"Really?" The possibilities for a longer-term relationship with this man danced in her mind.
She suddenly remembered that her best friend forever, Susan Kelley, had mentioned meeting a handsome new real estate agent in town. Jake must be that guy. He was sure handsome enough.
Susan had found her own true love over the past few weeks. She even had the ring to prove it. Wouldn't it be something if Mary could find someone, too?
"I don't want to talk about business." He gave her a look that seemed to be full of meaning, but she had no idea what that meaning might be. "You're not married or engaged or anything are you?"
Ohhh. That. "Me?" The giggle erupted before she could order it back. "Not at all."
The waitress arrived with their drink order, giving Mary a chance to think over a response. Here she was, at yet another crossroads in her life. She considered telling a white lie. Or maybe giving him a nice easy line that would avoid her having to answer. But then she remembered her father. The world's biggest liar. And she decided she hated liars and everything that went along with them. No, she had no choice but to tell Jake the truth.
If that meant that he would do a quick disappearing act—so be it.
Jake wasn't sure what he expected her to say in answer to his question. The woman acted much younger than her twenty-nine years. Perhaps she would say something about being more interested in intellectual pursuits. Or something about her current strange family circumstances.
A father who'd turned up newly dead, after having already been declared dead fifteen years ago, would probably wreak serious havoc on anyone's social life.
Whatever she would eventually say, Jake was sure enjoying the play of emotions across Mary's face while he waited. Her gorgeous eyes sidetracked him. That wondrous color hadn't shown up particularly well in the photos his partner had faxed along with her file. What hue were they exactly? What color could she possibly list for them on her driver's license?
Eyes: the color of fine aged whiskey.
Eyes: deepest amber, the color of clover honey.
"For most of my life I've been at least a hundred pounds overweight," Mary finally answered flatly, with no emotion in her voice—despite what he could only describe as fear in her eyes. "I've recently taken off the weight and reached my goal…more or less."
She lowered her chin, and stared into her glass of white zinfandel before continuing, "Being the 'fat one' in every crowd tends to put people off."
"You can't be serious," he cracked, before he thought about what he was saying.
When her head came up too fast, he tried to recover. "People shouldn't judge others by their outward appearance. You're sure beautiful now. I would never have guessed you haven't always looked the same as you do now. How'd you lose the weight?"
"Are you asking if I had weight-loss surgery?" She shook her head but was watching him closely. "Too chicken. I did it the old-fashioned way—by letting a psychologist take my brain out and replace it with one a hundred pounds lighter and supposedly more sane."
A tentative chuckle leaked from her mouth, but Jake was having a hard time joining her in laughing over her little joke.
"That's phenomenal. Your willpower must be amazing." He reached over his untouched beer and took her by the hand, anxious to get even that much closer to her. "I'm impressed."