CIA agent Shaun Carter is on the trail of an international crime ring, and the sudden appearance of a woman from his past could jeopardize his mission. Missing persons investigator Lexie Reilly's search for a missing teen has put her in the criminals' crosshairs. Joining forces to take down this ring is their only chance of survival. Shaun vows to keep the beautiful investigator out of harm's way and help her find the lost girl. But when their ferry becomes icebound, they are trapped at sea with killers who will stop at nothing to keep them from discovering their secrets.
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Lexie Reilly gave her car a final once-over, satisfied that she hadn't forgotten anything for the sixteen-hour overnight ferry crossing to Newfoundland. She slung her travel bag and purse over her shoulder and pressed the car remote's lock button twice. The click-beep of the lock and alarm mechanism echoed back at her, and she noted with surprise that she stood alone on the car deck. Everyone else had already cleared out, leaving her amidst a sea of parked vehicles. The radio program she'd been listening to must have been more engaging than she'd realized.
Lexie frowned, feeling slightly uneasy. Aside from the rumble of the ship, it felt too quiet. No, too still. Trust your instincts, she thought. Where were the deck attendees? If she was being honest with herself, her instincts were telling her to get up to the passenger decks, find a cup of hot tea and get back to examining her file on Maria, the missing young woman she'd been searching for these past few months. She had clues to piece together before they docked in Argentia, Newfoundland's historic port town and former United States military base.
Despite the ferry's protection against the early March air, Lexie shivered, looking forward to the warm lounge above. Her footsteps clanged as she walked alongside the cars, weaving through them to get to the stairs. As she crossed between a tall blue van and an oversize SUV, arms circled around her neck and waist, pinning her from behind.
"You shouldn't have come here," a scratchy, masculine voice growled.
Lexie tried to scream, but the pressure on her neck made it hard to breathe. She gasped for air and lifted her boot to stamp on his foot. He squeezed tighter, and tears streamed down Lexie's face as sparks flew in her vision. Every movement she made only increased the pressure on her throat. In moments, she would pass out, or worse. As Lexie's vision turned blurry, she thought she heard somethinglike shouting, from far away. Pounding footsteps came toward her and, as quickly as she'd been grabbed, her attacker released his grip, shoving her forward.
Lexie tumbled to the floor, gasping for air.
Pain shot through her limbs with each breath, and she could still feel where the man's arm had pressed against her windpipe.
The footsteps stopped as they came close, and she sensed a presence beside her. A gentle touch on her shoulder sent waves of relief flooding through the pain. "Steady," said a calm male voice. "Are you all right? Do you need medical attention?"
Did she? Lexie squinted through the haze in her vision. She'd feel a whole lot better if someone had taken off after the attacker. He might still be caught, but this man in front of her would have to get moving.
"Go," she tried to croak, but it sounded more like a raspy gasp than an intelligible word.
"Let's get you to the upper deck," he said. An arm snaked around her back to rest under her shoulders. She tried to push his arm away and gesture in the general direction of her attacker's escape, but either her signaling skills needed some serious work, or this man was less motivated than he should have been to catch a criminal.
Lexie leaned against the nearest tire and squeezed her eyes shut. Her head and heart pounded. Had the attacker truly known who she was, and why she'd boarded the ferry? The warning had been unspecific, and he could have mistaken her for someone elsethe lighting in the car deck made the whole area appear gray and muddled.
If anything, the attacker's threat only made her more determined to get to Newfoundland. Until now, she'd had no possible evidence that Maria's disappearance was anything more than another case of "runaway teenager." Maria's parents were convinced their daughter had skipped town out of anger after they'd forbidden her to spend time with a boy she'd been sweet onbut unlike most of Lexie's clients, Lexie had actually met Maria in person before. Lexie occasionally volunteered to drive the local youth group to their community events, and Maria had always come across as one of the most level-headed young adults among the group. On the other hand, she'd spent the drive to the ferry dock questioning how well she'd known the girl after all. Lexie hadn't even realized Maria was seeing anyone. Not that they'd had any deep conversations about life, but the whole situation hit far too close to home. For Maria's family's sake, Lexie would figure this out, no matter how long it took.
As for the man crouched in front of her, asking over and over if she needed medical attention she could barely hear her own thoughts over his repeated questioning. When she finally shook her head in response, he took her left hand and turned it over, uncurling her fingers.
"Your palm is bleeding," he said. He traced gentle fingers around the scraped and dirtied base of her palm.
"I'm going to call for medical assistance. The emergency phone is five feet away from us on the wall by the stairs. I'll be able to see you. You're safe."
I know I'm safe, and it's not because of you. "Fine," she rasped. The effort brought on a fit of coughing, which did nothing to ease the throb in her throat. It was ridiculous, sitting here. She had serious work to do, and only sixteen hours to do it in. "But I don't need a doctor. Just need to get to the upper deck."
The man huffed in frustration and stood. Moments later, Lexie heard him phoning for medical assistance. To her surprise, he didn't explain on the phone why she needed help, but told them to bring a first aid kit and a few extra, oddly specific, supplies. She didn't need an ophthalmoscope or penlight or whatevera bit of iodine and a small bandage and she'd be fine.
Lexie braced against the car at her back and pushed upward, placing her hands on the hood for a few moments to catch her balance. Using one hand on the car for support, she reached to pick up her purse and travel bag from where they'd fallen.
"A medical team will be here in a minute," the man said, hanging up the phone and coming toward her. "Sit back down. They'll check to make sure no serious damage was done to your throat, since"
"I'm fine, thank you." Lexie managed to lift her head to make eye contact with the man who'd come to her rescue. Her heart leaped into her throat as every muscle in her shoulders tensed. The man wore a red plaid shirt, a puffy black winter vest, jeans and a red knit toque. He looked like a lumberjackor someone trying really hard to look like a lumberjack. Except that she knew him, or she had, eight years ago, and he definitely hadn't been lumberjack material.
In fact, the man in front of her was her own missing sister's former beau, looking as gorgeous as he did the day he broke Nikki's heart and sent her into a downward spiral a spiral that led to Nikki's kidnapping almost eight years ago, only months after they'd met.
What were the chances she'd end up here and now, being rescued by him?
Shaun Carver blinked in surprise at the piercing hazel eyes that glared at him in fury. Eight years separated the last time they'd met, and she looked good.
Really, really good. She had longer hair than he remembered, and a maturity about her that replaced the teenage awkwardness of all those years ago. "Alexandra?" He extended his hand for a proper greeting, but she shook her head and hoisted her bags farther onto one shoulder. "Is that really you? Nicola's sister, right?"
Instead of acknowledging his question, she mumbled an incoherent phrase under her breath and broke eye contact. "I can take it from here, Carver."
Hearing his real name jolted Shaun out of the moment of incredulity and back to reality. "Just Shaun these days," he said, glad that they were the only people within earshot. He'd boarded the ferry under an alias, and there'd be a heap of trouble if the wrong people overheard and figured out his true purpose aboard the vessel. He doubted the CIA would appreciate him blowing his cover on a three-year, multi-continent human-trafficking operation thanks to an unexpected reunion with the little sister of a girl he'd briefly been friends with years ago.
"Whatever," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "Did you get a good look at his face? I need to report the incident to ship security. It would help to have a description."
Shaun shook his head. "Ski mask, wide shoulders.
That's about it. His head and body were covered in black gear, so there's not much to go on. He had a distinctive gaitjerky but quickso that might help, but I can take care of it. I saw the guy and can describe the incident. No need for you to relive it if you don't have to. Let's have the medical team look you over so you can enjoy the rest of the trip."
"You're joking, right?" Her eyes widened as her strained voice rose in volume. Their eyes met again, and Shaun was struck by the pang of familiarity. What he wouldn't give to have bumped into her at another time and place. On several occasions throughout the years, he'd wondered how Alexandra and Nicola were doing, but had never felt comfortable reaching out. He'd met the Reilly sisters on a youth mission trip to Botswana, and he'd quickly become friends with Nicola, both of them young and self-centered and eager to do anything but the volunteer work they'd come to Africa for. At the time, he'd had no idea that Nicola expected more than friendship from him, and it hadn't ended well once she made her intentions clear.
Alexandra continued to stare at him. "Someone tried to strangle me, and I shouldn't be worried?"
She crossed the distance between them, her steps sure and confident. He bristled at the intrusion into his personal space, but their difference in height made it seem as though he was being stalked by a kitten. She poked a finger toward his chest but stopped short of making contact. Shaun bit down on the inside of his cheek to stop himself from grinning. The kitten had claws. He'd never seen this side of the younger Reilly sister before.
"I don't know who you think you are, but you're mistaken if you assume I'm going to let this go. I have very important work to do, and while I appreciate your assistance, I can take it from here."
Important work? Now they were getting somewhere. "What kind of work, exactly? What have you been up to, Alexandra?"
Before she had a chance to respond, two medical staff in navy blue uniforms emerged from the stairwell, medical bags in their hands. Alexandra followed his gaze and actually growled before sighing in resignation. It was adorable, a fact that Shaun wisely kept to himself.
To his relief, she consented to being checked over, though she glared at him the entire time. He had arrested criminals who were less antagonistic toward him than she. Her attitude was baffling. He recalled Alexandra giving him the cold shoulder after he'd rebuffed Nicola's advances near the end of the mission trip, but that was eight years ago.
He remembered that trip as though it had been yesterday. As they'd spent time helping build a school and dig wells for impoverished families, Shaun had experienced a profound change in how he saw the world, discovering that he wanted to spend his life serving and protecting those in need. Attention-seeking party girl Nicola was a fun friend, sure, but he'd quickly realized he had no interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with her. Nicola had been angry when he'd told her he wasn't interested in dating, and she'd shocked him by demanding he never speak to her or her family again. He'd respected her wishes, and applied to the CIA's training program the following year. But now Alexandra stood in front of him, needing help. How could he say no?
When the medical team finished checking her over, and before she could request to talk with security, he strode forward. "I'll take her upstairs," he said, speaking over her protests. "Maybe it'll give us a chance to catch up."
He noted her crossed arms and downturned lips with interest. She'd grown into her beauty, with strong features that somehow remained delicately femininea stark contrast from her wispy, blonde sister. Or at least what he remembered of her sister. He hadn't seen either of them for nearly a decade.
"How've you been, Alexandra? Your sister's not here with you, is she?"
"It's Lexie," she said, gathering up her bags. "And no, of course she's not."
Had the Reilly girls had a falling out? "That's too bad. I'd have liked to have said hello." He couldn't quite read the look on Alexandra'sno, Lexie'sface. Confusion? Anger? "That's no reason we can't catch up, right?"
He shouldn't, though. He had an assignment to focus on, and yet the attack, combined with her comment about important work, intrigued him. Gathering information was part of a CIA agent's job description, after all.
"You've got a lot of nerve, Carver," she said, turning back to the medical staff, who were repacking their equipment. He winced, hearing her say his last name. How had she remembered it all this time? He needed to correct her privately, or else things could get more complicated than they already were. "I'd like to speak with security, please. They'll want to know about the incident here, for the safety of the passengers. I'll be upstairs in the lounge. I'll try to sit near these stairs so that I'm easy to find."
The staff assured her they'd bring someone over and offered to escort her up to the lounge on the way. Without another word, Lexie followed them up several flights of stairs before being directed to turn left toward the lounge area at the front of the ship. Shaun followed behind, despite Lexie's obviously deliberate effort not to acknowledge his presence.
They emerged into a wide, open room, with enormous plate-glass windows that curved around the front of the ship. He would have to take advantage of the view at some point, but from where he stood at the entrance to the room, the only thing visible outside was a gray, fully clouded sky. What Shaun wouldn't give for a day or two of sunshine, like they'd had earlier in the week. This winter had been far too cold, the temperatures dipping and rising without warning, freezing melted snow into thick, slick ice that coated everything. He had been surprised to learn that the ferry would be making the three hundred and forty mile ocean journey today, considering the plunge into deep freeze last night.
Lexie sank into an empty seat a few feet from the door. Shaun followed and sat next to her as she placed her bags on the floor. She opened her travel bag and pulled out a red manila folder, tensing at his nearness as she placed it on her lap. Lexie stared straight ahead at the small coffee table by their feet.
"I'll talk to security for you," he said, despite her refusal to acknowledge him. "Trust me on this one. Let it go."