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Cursing under his breath, Mitch Bradford yanked his collar up against the bitter Colorado wind. Where was Emily Went-worth going? He stalked across Colfax, on a stretch of the street known as a candy store for illicit drugs and prostitution. He could've been home alone in front of the fireplace, his bum leg propped up, nursing a stiff drink and a double dose of ibuprofen. The irony didn't amuse him. He'd been tapped for the Wentworth case because of his injury. One more reason to kill the guy who'd shot up his leg during his last SWAT operation.
Mitch ducked his head and plunged forward into the night, ignoring the exchange of money on the corner. He would've busted the dealer any other time, but he refused to let his suspect out of sight. When she approached a group of gang-bangers, he tensed and reached for his weapon.
They circled her.
Two murders last night in the neighborhood. No time to be subtle.
He broke into a run, disregarding the twinge in his leg. He'd pay for it later, but they could shoot or stab her in seconds. Before he reached her, she tilted her head at the assailants like she was flirting and skirted through the wall of thugs. They let her go.
Mitch pulled back. Crazy woman. He tucked his Glock into the shoulder holster. He'd had enough of these cat-and-mouse games. He sped up and followed her across an alley. The scent of vomit and urine, and God knew what else, soured the night.
She stopped in front of a darkened building. After a furtive glance right, then left, she knocked. The door cracked open, then squeaked wider. Before he reached the entrance, she vanished behind the worn oak.
"Figures." Why would anything about this case be easy? Cold seeped through his jeans as he searched the front of the building for a sign. Nothing. No indication of what took place inside. That didn't bode well. His guess: drugs, sex, who knew what else.
A movement in the alley caught his attention. Carefully, he rounded the corner. A blond-haired kid tried to streak past. Mitch nabbed the boy's hoodie and lifted him off his feet. A familiar face glared at him. "Ricky?" Mitch released the young teen.
His on-again, off-again running back dusted his pants and groaned. "Coach. Man, why'd it have to be you? Gran'll have a fit if she has to come get me at juvie for breaking curfew."
"Then you better start talking. Is this why you haven't shown up for football practice the past two weeks? You hanging around the streets now?"
Ricky widened his stance and stared at Mitch, defiant. "I'm looking for Kayla."
"In an abandoned building?"
"Nah. Sister Kate runs a shelter out of here." Ricky bowed his head. "Kayla got herself pregnant by a real loser. But she was turning it around," he said in that earnest way that was half kid, half teenager. "At least that's what she told Gran last week. Kayla was gonna live with us again, but she didn't come back."
"You're hoping she landed here?"
Ricky nodded, and Mitch studied the street-smart kid. "You know how I can get in unnoticed?"
The boy's eyes grew large. "Something going down in there?" His gaze flickered to the front door. "Kayla might be in there."
Mitch rested his hand on Ricky's shoulder. "I don't"
A loud, high-pitched scream pierced the night from inside. "Leave me alone. I won't go."
Ricky leaped toward the door, but Mitch held him back. He tossed the kid his cell phone. "A beat cop named Vance just rounded that corner not five minutes ago. Call 911, then get him."
"I'll find your sister. Now go!"
Ricky took off down the street. Mitch pulled his Glock, braced, then barreled through the locked door, the rotted frame giving way much too easily. "Police," he shouted. "Nobody move."
A burly man spun around. "Do-gooders. You set me up. Well, I ain't letting 'em take me." He grabbed a pregnant girl, her face battered with yellow and green bruises, and held a knife against her throat.
"Please, Ghost. Don't do this." Emily Wentworth's husky voice shook as she stepped forward, her face pale. She clutched a bat in her hand.
She was a brave little thing, determined and fierce.
"I'm warning you," Ghost threatened.
With careful movements, she set the weapon aside. Her hand went to her throat. "Let Heather go. We'll work it out. I promise." She stepped closer.
"I said, don't move," Mitch snapped and glared at Emily. "That means everybody."
She met his gaze, the flash of fury in her eyes unmistakable, but with a curt nod backed away. Mitch took a quick survey of the room. Not a good setup. He could make the kill shot from where he stood, but he'd risk hitting the group of girls in various stages of pregnancy huddled around a nun. If Ghost had an automatic weapon under his coat, the situation could turn into a bloodbath.
Ghost pressed the knife closer, drawing blood at the girl's neck. "Back off. I'm leaving. With the girl. And you ain't stopping me."
After years on SWAT, Mitch recognized the wildness in the man's dilated eyes. "Come on, buddy. Put the knife down." Mitch lowered his weapon a bit. He could only hope the guy was high enough or stupid enough to relax his guard.
"She's coming with me. They won't pay me if I don't bring one of 'em back."
Mitch eased to his left for a better angle and met the frightened gaze of the girl. "You can't just duck out of here
Ghost." Mitch hunched his shoulders a bit and sagged, praying the terrified victim would understand his silent instruction.
"I don't want to go," Heather said, nodding. "I told him. Mrs. Wentworth said she'd help me." The girl went limp in the perp's arms.
Mitch spun on his good leg. One quick jab against Ghost's vulnerable back and the scumbag released his hold on the girl. Mitch shoved her toward Emily Wentworth and shifted his weight, but his injured leg spasmed and nearly buckled underneath him. He bit his cheek to block the pain as he covered the suspect with his Glock. No sirens and no telling if Ricky had found help. Mitch needed backup before anyone realized his leg had locked up.
"On the ground. Face down. Arms spread. And you," he snapped at Emily, "call 911."
Emily tapped the phone to end the call. A cop. She should've known when the jerk burst through the door like some misguided superhero. He'd ruined everything. She and Sister Kate had almost guilted Ghost into talking. Now he was facedown on the floor, zip ties around his wrists, with no interest in spilling his guts to anyone. Great, just great. A month's worth of work down the drain.
Sister Kate knelt beside the man they'd hoped would be their informant. "You can tell us. It's the right thing to do."
Ghost glared at the nun. "Leave me alone."
"Sister," the cop said. "Step away from him. He's in custody."
An angry fire lit Sister Kate's eyes, one Emily had seen toast bigger brutes than this interfering officer. She waited for the blowtorch of words to fry him. In truth, she looked forward to it.
Sister Kate gave the cop a thorough once-over, then nodded her head before standing and walking away from Ghost. "You're one of the Bradford boys. Handsome as sin, the lot of you. The middle one, I'd wager. You've got the look of your daddy. I'll give you a pass. For now."
Emily almost smiled at the man's slack-jawed expression.
"You know my father?"
"Oh, my, yes. Sergeant Bradford visited my halfway house to recruit for his football team. I hear you're following in his footsteps, Mitch." At his slight nod, she patted his arm. "I was sorry about what happened to him."
The man's jaw tightened, but Emily didn't miss the flash of pain across his face. She recognized the emotion all too well, but she couldn't let herself sympathize with him, even if Sister Kate was right, and his rugged good looks would make angels weep.
Emily had only one mission. Finding her son. And this copMitch Bradfordhad ruined her most promising lead. With nothing to lose, she bolted to Ghost and grabbed his collar. "Tell me the name," she said, her permanently husky voice still foreign to her ears, but an all-too-physical reminder of her entire purpose in life. "It's the only way you might talk your way out of this."
"Go to hell. You and your nun." Ghost flipped on his back and kicked out. A chair near his feet flew across the room. He lunged at Emily.
"Get away from him." Mitch grasped Emily's arm and yanked her to safety before subduing Ghost and pinning him with a knee to his back.
The brute on the floor grunted. "You should've stayed out of it."
"Shut up," Mitch said. He double-checked the zip-tie cuffs just as a cruiser pulled up, sirens blaring. A uniform raced inside.
"Get this guy out of here," Mitch said. "I'll file my report once I get back."
The cop nodded and escorted Ghost from the building. Officer Bradford walked toward the girls huddled in the corner, his gait slightly off when he put weight on his right leg. As he approached, they shrank away. Emily didn't blame them. It had taken her months to get past the fragmented flashes of memory when any man in a dark coat had come near her. For these teensone girl's eye was swollen shut; another's face was mottled yellow and green from old bruisesall they'd see would be a tall, muscular brute who had shown he could incapacitate anyone who crossed him.
Then his expression softened. "You did great, Heather," he said softly. "Is everyone else okay? Anybody need a doctor?" The girls shook their heads.
"Sister Kate takes care of us," one said, crossing her arms in defiance. "She's a nurse."
He nodded, not pushing just accepting. Emily couldn't get over the change in his demeanor. He'd transformed in seconds from a warriorsomeone she was convinced could've killed Ghost if he'd wantedto a man with a gentle gaze. Still, none of the girls would look him in the eye. His focus lowered to the discolored cheeks of one of the teens. His lips grew tight. Good. If nothing else, the evidence of abuse made him angry.
"Will you tell me about Ghost?" he said, still keeping his voice calm and low.
Amid the blare of more sirens, the girls looked as if they'd rather die than say anything.
"I got proof they're hooked up with drug dealers." Ghost's shouts rammed through the open doorway. "I can give you names, dates, places. I know their johns. I can help you put 'em away. Give their babies to people who deserve 'em."
Heather shivered and caressed her burgeoning belly. Her gaze rose to Mitch's. "He trolls for girls who get knocked up. Tries to sweet-talk the ones who haven't been around too long. He sells himself as someone who can help. We know better. They're buying a one-way ticket when they go with Ghost."
"You never see any of them again," Mitch said, the statement stark and certain, the ending unspoken.
A commotion sounded from the kicked-in doorway.
"I got something for Coach.Officer Bradford," a young kid shouted.
The cop stood and walked over to the boy, who handed over a cell phone. "I couldn't find Vance, Coach."
"That's okay, Ricky."
The boy received an affectionate ruffle to his hair, and Mitch guided the kid over to them. "Sister Kate, Mrs. Wentworth, this is Ricky Foster. He's looking for his sister, Kayla."
Over the next hour, Mitch questioned the girls and Ricky. Pregnant girls vanishing. Their babies gone. Not one of them reported missing. Until Kayla Foster.
"You'll find her?" Ricky asked, his voice laced with hope as Mitch led him to the back exit, past the front door he and Ricky had worked side-by-side to barricade to the back exit.
"Get me the picture, and I'll put the word out. We'll discover what happened."
Ricky walked out of the shelter with an expression that could only be described as cautiously optimistic.
"I wish we'd seen her." She spoke to the nun standing at her side.
"I have a feeling with Officer Bradford on the case, Ricky will be reunited with Kayla."
"It doesn't always end the way we'd want, Sister," Mitch said from behind them.
Emily hadn't realized he'd approached. She stiffened as his huge presence overwhelmed her, making her heart race. Not with fear, though. With something elseunfamiliar and enticing at the same time.
"Oh, I'm well aware of that, boy-o," Sister Kate said. "But we can't give up, can we? One soul at a time." The nun glanced at her watch. "Now, it's getting late. We're safe, and I need to do a bed check on my chickadees. Perhaps you'll walk Emily to her car? It's dark, and a pretty girl like her would do well to have a strong protector at this time of night."
The cop turned to Emily, his chocolate eyes studying her with an intensity that made her shiver. Heat rose into Emily's face, and she knew her cheeks must be crimson. When had Sister Kate turned into a matchmaker?