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As a former navy SEAL, Marcus Abbot relied on his instincts. And the moment he saw the shadows haunting Dani Baxter's big brown eyes, the private investigator knew she was in trouble…and so was he. Even though she came to him with a crazy story about a murder she'd seen in a vision, he couldn't stop the instantaneous attraction that sparked between them.
Never one to ignore a woman in need, he accepted her case. But as they traveled down a sensual path of danger and desire, Marcus discovered Dani's dreams may have been a bit too real. And the closer he got to the truth, the nearer she came to living her nightmare….
About the Author
Joanna began her professional writing career in 1994. Now, Almost sixty published books later, Joanna has gained a wroldwide following with her cutting-edge romantic suspense and Texas family series such as Sons of Troy Ledger and the Big D Dads series. Connect with her at www.joannawayne.com or write her at PO Box 852, Montgomery, TX 77356.
Read an Excerpt
"Mom, may I invite Katie for a sleepover tomorrow night?"
"Katie came for a sleepover last Saturday night."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Nothing, I suppose. I just thought you and I might go out to dinner tomorrow evening and catch a movie."
"Katie could go with us. There's a cool new comedy that we're dying to see."
Dani truly hated comedies unless they were liberally sprinkled with romance. "Go ahead and invite her. We'll go to dinner, and then I'll drop you two off at the cinema."
"Thanks, Mom." Celeste rewarded Dani's acquiescence with a quick hug. "You're the greatest."
But not so great that her preteen daughter wanted to spend time with her. Dani went back to cleaning off her desk. She kept on top of everything at work, but she tended to let the nonurgent home office duties slide until they threatened to overflow their boundaries.
She slit open the next envelopean application for a credit card that claimed to do everything except pay itself. She fed it into the shredder and picked up a postcard inviting her to an open house for a new day spa. She scanned it and dropped it into file thirteen. She did the same with a donation request from a charity she'd never heard of.
Which left a gold-bordered envelope staring her in the face. Cripes! The wedding invitation. She'd meant to send her regrets to Bethany Sue weeks ago.
Oh, well, the bride-to-be had probably figured out by now she wasn't coming. Bethany might already be married and heading for divorce court if this union followed the way of her first two marriages.
She pulled the invitation from the envelope. There were two silhouettes in the muted background. A woman in a flowing Elizabethan gown. A knight in full armor.
Dani's heart slammed against the walls of her chest as the images from her murderous dream came back to haunt her in vivid details. The rich green of the fabric. The crimson pool of blood.
Get a hold of yourself, Dani Baxter. It was only a stupid nightmare.
She swallowed hard and read the invitation. The nuptials joining Bethany Sue Graves and Arnold Pickering would be celebrated at the Texas Renaissance Festival in Plantersville, Texas.
Dani checked the date. This Sunday. Two days away. The ceremony was at ten in the morning, but there was to be a prewedding dinner celebration on the festival grounds tomorrow night. The reply card said regrets only.
Regrets only? No one did that, especially when there was a dinner involved. Well, no one except Bethany Sue. She'd always followed a different drummer. Actually, she usually followed the sax player.
Dani and Bethany had been friends from seventh grade through high school. Bethany had been one of the few girls at their junior high who didn't make Dani feel like a freak because her grandmother was a known psychic. At one time they'd been as close as Celeste and her friend Katie were now. They'd shared too many secrets and important moments to count.
They seldom communicated now except for an occasional e-mail or quick phone call. Their lives had gone in vastly different directions. Still, it would be great to see her againjust not this weekend. There was nothing to do but try to reach her by phone and apologize for forgetting to send her regrets in a timely manner.
Dropping the invitation back to the pile, Dani pulled out her cell phone, found Bethany's number and pushed the call button. Bethany answered on the third ring, the excitement spilling into her hello.
"Is that wedding jitters I hear?"
"Dani, where are you? Arnie and I were just talking about you. He can't wait to meet you. And, no, there's not a jitter in my body."
Which just went to show how naive Bethany still was after two failed marriages. "Great. I couldn't be happier for you. Does Arnie know how lucky he is?"
"He must. I tell him all the time. So where are you?"
"In Austin. I'm afraid I've committed a terrible social faux pas. I should have called as soon as I got the invitation, and, unfortunately, I just realized the reply specified regrets only."
"And in your case regrets are not acceptable. I can't get married without you here."
"I'd love to be there, but I can't possibly make it this weekend. Celeste has plans and "
"Celeste will willingly cancel her plans. Did you not even read the note I stuck in the envelope with your invitation?"
Actually she hadn't even seen the note. She turned the envelope upside down, and the note and accompanying map fell out.
"You must bring Celeste. She'll love the festival and the party. There will be mimes and jesters and all sorts of courtly entertainment. And, like I said in the note, bring a date, as well. You can even let Celeste bring a friend. The more the merrier."
"I'm not dating anyone, and I haven't made reservations. I doubt I could even get a room in " She checked the invitation again. "In Plantersville." Wherever that was.
"There aren't any places to stay in Plantersville. It's a tiny, rural town. But they just had a cancellation at the bed-and-breakfast near Magnolia where we're staying. If you call right now, you can get it.
"You will so love the place, Dani. Weather permitting, they serve breakfast on this magnificent veranda. The phone number is on the back of the map I sent you along with that of some motels in The Woodlands."
"I really wish I could be there, but "
"No excuses. You simply have to come. And it's good you're not bringing a date. I have this terrific man I want you to meet."
Dani groaned. "That is not a selling point." Still, a weekend getaway to a Renaissance festival might be fun for her and Celeste. And she did hate to disappoint Bethany Sue.
She did a quick study of the enclosed map. The festival grounds were a few miles off Highway 105, northwest of Houston, probably a good three-hour drive from Austin. "What time is the party tomorrow night?"
"Eight, but come early in the day. You'll want time to enjoy the festival. There's so much to see and do."
"Exactly what does one wear to a Renaissance wedding?"
"Something incredibly sexy and fit for a queen's ball in the Elizabethan period. But don't worry, you can buy or rent outfits at the festival. Men's, women's and children's, so you don't have to pack a thing."
An Elizabethan ball gown. She didn't need this now.
"So can I count on you?" Bethany pleaded.
Dani swallowed hard. Being a covert psychic was bad enough. Letting a nightmare dictate her life was sick. "Okay, we'll be there."
Now who was afraid of a big, bad dream?
Marcus Abbot tugged his weathered work Stetson a bit lower on his forehead. "Care to repeat that, Cutter Martin, 'cause I could have sworn you just said you want me to babysit a couple of spoiled Hollywood brats."
"Just for a day. Lance Harper is in Houston filming a new movie, and he needs a bodyguard for his two daughters while they're attending the Renaissance festival. It's just down the road. You've probably seen the ads for it around town."
"I've seen the propaganda." Marcus leaned against the fence post and stared down the snorting bull on the other side of the barbed wire. "This is not the kind of work I signed on for."
"It's protection," Cutter said. "That's what our name says. Investigation and Protection."
"Nothing in there about babysitting." And nothing like the assignment he and Cutter Martin had just completed. They'd gone into Mexico and located and rescued a teenage girl who'd disappeared while on vacation with her family.
Turned out she'd been kidnapped and was being sold into sexual slavery. Bringing her home safely had rivaled the exhilaration of completing a successful mission as a Navy SEAL. Babysitting Lance Harper's kids while they played in a historic playground wouldn't.
But Marcus wasn't a naval commando anymore. He might as well get used to that. He missed the military life a lot more than he'd expected, but he had a new goal. And if it took babysitting to reach it, so be it. Besides, a man couldn't ask for a better boss than Cutter.
"So when do I acquire the Hollywood horrors?"
"Not until next Saturday, but since the festival is only open on weekends, I figured you'd want to tour the grounds by yourself this weekend to get the lay of the land."
Marcus nodded. That was a definite. He'd never go out on assignment without adequate fact gathering. His mind jumped back to the mission he'd faced just before he'd finished his last tour of duty. Men's sweat and fetid earth had clogged his nostrils. Danger had hung in the heavy air like a blanket of oppressive smoke. He'd always had a sixth sense for danger. That night was no exception.
He shook his mind to clear it before he became lost in the past. "Is that it?"
"Yeah, except that Linney wants to know if you'll join us for dinner tonight."
Cutter laughed. "How'd you guess?"
Easy. It was practically the only thing she could cook. Well, that and canned soup. Not that Cutter cared. The guy was so in love with his new wife that he lit up like a round of firepower when she walked into the room.
Marcus had known that feeling once. It had turned on him and bitten him in the No. Who was he kidding?
He'd never had the kind of relationship Cutter and Linney had. Not much chance he ever would after the way his ex had stomped him into the mud.
Horses and cattle. Maybe even a good dog. Those were things you could count on. That was one of the real advantages of working for Cutter. When they weren't on duty for the company, they worked on his ranch, the Double M. "If that's it, I'll go back to hauling hay." "That's it." Cutter swatted at a worrisome horsefly. "I'll go with you. Got to work up a pasta appetite by seven."
Odors of funnel cakes, roasting meats and frying fish and chips greeted them the moment they stepped from their car among dozens of other arriving festival patrons. Dani's mouth watered in spite of the pastries and coffee they'd stopped for en route.
Celeste and Katie hurried ahead of her, their tennis shoes kicking up dust along the well-traveled path that maneuvered among row upon row of parked cars and pickup trucks.
The air sparked with chatter, laughter and an electric excitement among the festival goers, many dressed in elaborate costumes.
They were greeted at the gate by a jovial, middle-aged man dressed in a short red and green skirt over tights. From his looks, he might have ushered them into the king's court a century ago. Dani was starting to catch the spirit in spite of her earlier reservations.
Once inside what appeared to be the city walls, activity increased dramatically, and her imagination was spurred by the line of fascinating shops and concessions and the number of people in creative costumes. Old England had never had it so good.
Weirdly, she had a strange tingle of anticipation dancing inside her as if something big was going to happen to her this weekend. Maybe Bethany's friend would turn out to be a winner.
Forget it. There wasn't a man alive who could tolerate a woman psychic for long, and she would not put herself and Celeste through another divorce to prove that point.
She hurried to keep up with the girls, then slowed to gawk at a voluptuous young woman bulging out of an outfit that consisted mostly of chain mail. The woman posed for a whiskered guy in an Astros cap who was all but salivating as he snapped her picture.
Dani turned to catch sight of Katie and Celeste walking toward a nearby dress shop. They sashayed past a hunky cowboy and disappeared inside. The guy looked out of place. Not because of his worn jeans, scuffed boots and black Stetson. After all, this was Texas. But the recalcitrant grimace on his craggy face made it clear he wasn't joining in the revelry that surrounded him.
He looked up and caught her staring at him. An unwelcome burn crept to her cheeks as he tipped his hat and traded the frown for a devastating smile. Oh, well, he was probably used to females admiring his blatant virility.
Head high and looking straight ahead, she strode right past him. She followed the sound of girls' giggling to the back of the shop. Celeste was holding up a low-cut sapphire-blue gown. The padded cups at the top of the lacing could hold a set of double Ds. Celeste had trouble filling out her training bra.
"You're a little too young to go the wench route," Dani said.
"You could wear it, Ms. Baxter," Katie said. "You'd be hot!"
"We're going to a wedding, not a bawdry bash." At least she hoped that was the case; Dani had traded hot for sophisticated several years ago, at the same time she'd swapped her cheating husband for single parenthood and a position with Duran Muton.
"How about these?" Dani said, moving to a rack of pastel-hued, ankle-length dresses with puffy sleeves and high-buttoned necklines.
Celeste scrunched her nose as if she smelled a skunk. "I'd look like a kid."
"You are a kid."
"Ooh, look at this," Katie called, her gaze riveted on a handkerchief-layered skirt of various hues of blue and green, topped with a white peasant blouse. It hung on the highest rack, slightly out of reach.
A youthful clerk dressed in knee-high black boots, tights and a clingy, crimson blouson appeared from between the garment racks. Hooking the hanger, she retrieved the outfit so they could get a better look.
"We're attending a dinner tonight on the grounds and a Renaissance wedding tomorrow morning," Dani explained. "Do you have any suggestions as to what would be considered appropriate attire?"
"Just about anything from the period will go for the dinner. People get very daring and inventive at those affairs. But fairies, definitely fairies for the girls for the wedding. You're both so petite. You'll be adorable nymphs."
"Adorable?" Celeste groaned.
"You just uttered the kiss of death," Dani said.
The clerk took a step backward and gave Dani a studied once-over. "I have just the dress for you for the wedding."
"Nothing too revealing," Dani said as the clerk hurried away.
Celeste and Katie moved to the rack of fairy dresses, airy confections that came with their own silver wings. Dani sneaked a peek at a cherry-red blouson with exquisite embroidered details, topped by a black leather bustier pulled so tight it was almost as if the big-breasted mannequin didn't have a waist.
Incredibly sexy. Probably similar to what the cowboy's girlfriend was trying on while he waited outside. One glimpse of her in that would no doubt wipe the grimace right off his handsome, tanned face.
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