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Russ's connection with the beautiful baby girl in the photo is instant and absolute…and Julia finds herself falling for this man who stepped up when most would have turned and run. As bullets fly and their passion grows, Julia is convinced this devastatingly handsome protector will play an important role in an innocent baby's future. And in hers.
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San Saba, Texas
Russ Gentry cursed under his breath when the brunette stepped through the doors of the Silver Dollar bar.
She'd followed him.
He had spotted her about fifteen minutes earlier on the walk from his hotel to the bar. She had trailed along behind him in her car, inching up the street, as if he were too stupid or blind to notice her or her sleek silver Jaguar. He had decided to ignore her for the time being anyway, because he'd hoped she was lost.
Now, he had two questions—who was she? And was this about to turn even more dangerous than it already was?
He watched her from over the top of the bottle of Lone Star beer that the bartender had just served him. She was tall—five-nine, or better—and she was clutching a key ring that had a small can of pepper spray hooked onto it. There was a thin, gold-colored purse tucked beneath her arm, but it didn't have any telltale bulges of a weapon, and her snug blue dress skimmed over her curvy body, so that carrying concealed would have been next to impossible.
Heck, in that dress concealing a paper-thin nicotine patch would have been a challenge. It was a garment obviously meant to keep her cool on a scalding-hot Texas day.
It did the opposite of making him cool.
Under different circumstances, Russ might have taken the time to savor the view, and he might have even made an attempt to hit on her.
But this wasn't different circumstances.
He'd learned the hard way that even a momentary lapse of concentration could have deadly results. As a reminder of that, he rubbed his fingers over the scar just to the left of his heart. The reminder, however, didn't help when the woman made eye contact.
With Willie Nelson blaring from the jukebox, she wended her way through the customers seated at the mismatched tables scattered around the room. The neon sign on the wall that advertised tequila flashed an assortment of tawdry colors over her.
Without taking her gaze from him, she stopped only a few inches away. Close enough for Russ to catch her scent. She smelled high priced and looked high maintenance.
"We need to talk," she said, and slid onto the bar-stool next to him, her silky dress whispering against the leather seat.
Oh, man. Keeping her here would hardly encourage his informant to make contact. Hell, the only thing her presence would do was create problems for him.
"I'm not interested, darlin'," Russ grumbled, hoping that his surly attitude would cause her to leave.
"Well, I'm interested in you," she said, her voice much louder than Willie's.
In fact, she was loud enough to attract the few customers who hadn't already noticed her when she walked in. Of course, with her sex-against-the-bathroom-wall body, Russ figured she'd likely caught the attention of every one of the male patrons.
He eased his beer down onto the bar and turned slightly, so he could look her in the eyes. "Back off," he warned, under his breath.
Okay. He hadn't expected her to say that or ignore his warning.
Her clothes, the sleek sable-colored hair that tumbled onto her shoulders and even her tone might have screamed that she was confident about what she was doing, or about to do, but just beneath those ice-blue eyes was deeply rooted concern. And fear.
That put Russ on full alert.
"Look," he whispered. "This is no place for you. Leave."
She huffed and took the purse from beneath her arm. When she reached inside, Russ caught onto her hand. And got an uneasy thought.
"You can't be Milo," he mumbled. Because from what he'd been told about the would-be contact, Milo was a forty-something-year-old male. Of course, his source could have been wrong.
She stiffened slightly, looked more than a little confused, but it lasted just seconds, before she pushed off his grip. "I'm Julia Howell."
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't press her for more information. If she was Milo, or Milo's replacement, Russ would find out soon enough. And then he could get this show started. But he didn't like the bad feeling that was settling in his gut.
She placed her purse next to his beer, but held on to the pepper-spray keychain. "You didn't introduce yourself, but I know you're Russell James Gentry."
Russ looked around to make sure no one had heard her use his real name. It was possible. The body-builder bartender seemed to be trying a little too hard not to look their way. Ditto for the middle-aged guy near the door. And the dark haired man in the corner. Unlike the bartender and the one by the door, Russ was positive this dark haired guy had been following him for days, and Russ had let him keep on following him because he had wanted to send Milo a message—that he had nothing to hide.
Which was a lie, of course.
Russ had plenty to hide.
"You're mistaken," Russ insisted. "I'm Jimmy Marquez."
"I'm not mistaken." She obviously wasn't picking up on any of his nonverbal cues to stay quiet. "I have proof you're Russell James Gentry," she said, and reached for her purse again.
He didn't have any idea what she had in that gold bag to prove his identity, and he didn't really care. He had to do something to get her to turn tail and run.
Russ swiveled his bar stool toward her, and in the same motion he slapped his left palm on her thigh. This would get her out of there in record time. He snared her gaze and tried to give her one hell of a nonverbal warning before he ran his hand straight up to her silk panties.
No, make that lace.
But she still didn't run. She gasped, her eyes narrowed and she drew back her perfectly manicured hand, no doubt ready to slap him into the middle of next week. And she would have, too, if Russ hadn't snagged her wrist.
When she tried to use her other hand to slug him, he had to give up the panty ploy so he could restrain her.
Russ put his mouth right against her ear. "We're leaving now. Get up."
Because her mouth was on his cheek, he felt the word "no" start to form on her peach-tinged lips. Judging from the way the muscles tightened in her arms and legs, she was gearing up for an all-out fight with him.
He was a good six inches taller than she was, and he had her by at least seventy pounds. Still, he preferred not to have to wrestle her out of there, but he would if it meant saving her lace-pantied butt.
"If you know what's good for you," Russ whispered to her, "you'll do as I say. Or else you can die right here. Your choice, lady."
But he didn't give her a choice. He couldn't. Russ shoved the purse back under her arm, grabbed the pepper-spray keychain and used brute force to wrench her off the barstool. He started in the direction of the door.
Their sudden exit drew some attention, especially from the bartender and the bald guy, but no one made a move to interfere. Thankfully, the bar wasn't the kind of place where people thought about doing their civic duty and assisting a possible damsel in distress.
Julia Howell squirmed and struggled all the way to the door. "I won't let you hurt me," she spat out. "I won't ever let anyone hurt me again."
That sounded like the voice of old baggage, but Russ wasn't interested.
He got her outside, finally. It was dusk, still way too hot for early September, and the sidewalks weren't exactly empty. No cops, but there were two "working girls" making their way past the bar. They stopped and stared, but Russ shot them a back-off glare. He was good at glares, too, and he wasn't surprised when the women scurried away, their stilettos tapping against the concrete.
"How did you know my name?" Russ asked. "What so-called proof do you have?"
He didn't look directly at Julia Howell. Too risky. He kept watch all around them. And he shoved her into the narrow, dark alley that separated the bar from a transmission repair shop that had already closed for the day. He moved away from the sidewalk, about twenty feet, until he was in the dark of the alley.
"I won't let you hurt me," she repeated, and tried to knee him in the groin. She missed. Her rock-hard kneecap slammed into his thigh instead, and had him seeing stars and cursing a blue streak.
Tired of the fight and the lack of answers to his simple questions, Russ put her against the brick wall. He wasn't gentle, either, and he used his body to hold her in place. "Tell me how you know my name."
Julia didn't stop struggling, and she continued to ram herself into him. It only took her a few moments to realize that that wasn't a good idea—her breasts thrusting against his chest. Her sex pounding in the general vicinity of his.
She groaned in frustration and dropped the back of her head against the wall. Her breathing also revved up. And now that the fight had apparently gone out of her, the panic was starting to set in. Her chest began to pump as if starved for air, and he could see the pulse hammer in her throat. Sweat popped out above her upper lip.
"Calm down," he warned. "You can't answer my questions if you're hyperventilating."
That earned him a glare, and like him, she was good at them, too. It took her a moment to get her breathing under control so she could speak. "I used facial-recognition software to learn who you are."
"I found you through facial-recognition software," she repeated, through gusts of breath. "I know you're Russell James Gentry."
Russ stared at her, trying to make sense of this, but her explanation wasn't helping much. He shifted her keys in his hand so he could grab her purse. There wasn't much room in the bag, and it was crammed with photos and a cell phone, but he quickly spotted what he was looking for.
Her driver's license.
It was there tucked behind a clear sleeve attached to the inside of the bag. The name and photo matched what she'd told him, but Russ wasn't about to take any chances.
While keeping her restrained, he shoved her purse back under her arm and took out his cell from his front jeans pocket. He pressed the first name in his list of contacts, and as expected, Silas Duran answered on the first ring.
Russ didn't say the man's name aloud, nor his own, and he didn't even offer a greeting. He wanted this done quickly and hoped it would be. Silas was a new partner. A replacement. And Russ wasn't sure how good Silas would be when thrown a monkey wrench.
"Julia Elise Howell," Russ stated. "Run a quick check on her."
He immediately heard Silas making clicks on a keyboard. He waited, with Julia staring holes in him and with her breath gusting. He wouldn't be able to contain her for long. Well, he could physically, but that wouldn't be a smart thing to do in public. Someone might eventually call the cops.
"She's a San Antonio heiress who manages a charity foundation," Silas said. "Her father was a well-known real-estate developer. Both parents are dead. She's single. Twenty-nine. Says here she's considered a recluse, and that makes sense, because the only pictures that popped up were ones from over a decade ago. She's worth about fifty million. Why?"
None of that info explained why she had walked into the bar and plopped down next to him. "She's here. In San Saba. About an inch away from my face."
"Why?" Silas repeated. "Is she connected to the meeting with Milo?"
"I'm about to ask the same thing. She has a cell phone in her purse, probably in her own name. Check and make sure this really is Julia Howell in front of me."
A minute or so passed before Silas said, "She's there. Well, her phone is anyway. Should I send someone to take care of her?"
"Not yet." Russ slapped his cell shut and crammed it back into his pocket.
Well, at least Julia was who she said she was. That was something at least.
Russ stared at her. "Why and how exactly did you find me?" he asked. "Not the facial-recognition software. I got that part. I want to know how you made the match and why."
She tipped her head to her left breast, and it took him a moment to realize she was motioning toward her purse and not the body contact between them. "Your picture is in there. A friend owns a security company, and he fed your photo through the software and came up with a match."
"Impossible." His records were buried under layers and layers of false information. Of course, his face wasn't buried. But any info about him was.
"Not impossible. My friend is very good at what he does, and he had access to security cameras all over the state. He ran the facial-recognition software twenty-four/seven, until he finally spotted you at a bank in San Antonio. Then he asked around, offered money." She hesitantly added, "And one of the bank employees gave us your name."
Russ wanted to punch the brick wall. He'd covered all bases, or so he thought. Yes, he had gone to the San Antonio bank to take care of some family business, but he hadn't counted on a chatty employee ratting him out. Nor had he counted on anyone digging this deep to find him.
"Even after we had your name, we couldn't find out anything about you," she continued. "Finally, one of the P.I.s who works for my friend spotted your face on a traffic-camera feed and was able to do the match. That's how I knew you were in San Saba. The P.I. came down here, followed you for several days and found out where you were staying."
That was a P.I.? Russ had thought it was one of Milo's men following him and checking him out. That's why he hadn't done anything about the tail. Mercy. And now that mistake had come back to bite him in the butt.
"The P.I. wanted to approach you, but I thought it best if I did it myself," she added. "Because it is such a personal matter."
Her explanation prompted more profanity and a dozen more questions, but Russ started with a simple one. "Why go through the trouble to look for me?"
"Because of Lissa," she said, as if the answer were obvious. "Lissa gave me your photograph."
Russ was sure he looked as pole-axed as he felt. "Who the hell is Lissa?"
For the first time since they'd started this little wrestling match and confusing conversation, Julia relaxed. At least, she went limp, as if she'd huffed all the breath right out of her. "My first cousin, Lissa McIntyre." Then her eyes narrowed. "Are you saying you don't remember her?"
"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying," Russ answered, honestly.