Now on the receiving end of a dirty double cross, Paul and Renee were running for their lives. As they joined forces to elude his brother's hitmen, their attraction grew deeper. But would it withstand Paul discovering the truth about who Renee really was? Who was being held hostage herewhen both their hearts were put directly in harm's way?
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"Stop the car!"
Renee Vaughn shoved a fistful of cash at the taxi driver and scrambled out of the car. She sucked in deep, ragged gulps of air still unable to get enough that had chilled her to the bone.
It's not right.
The judicial system had failed.
She had failed.
The execution would not be stayed.
At midnight, an innocent man would die, and there was nothing she could do to help him.
Nausea roiled in her stomach. She took the few steps across the sidewalk to brace herself against the nearest building. She closed her eyes and tried to block the painful memories churning in her head.
She was a murderer.
The sounds of evening's rush-hour traffic filtered through the haze of emotions, ushering back time and place. Renee forced her eyes open and blinked to focus.
She'd been down this road already. This wasn't her problem any more. She should go home, put it out of her mind. She'd been taken off the case two years ago. Her former client's new attorney had taken out a restraining order to ensure she kept her distance.
There was every reason for her to forget to put the whole damned mess behind her.
But she couldn't. The man sitting on death row awaiting execution was her brother. She knew the truth, or at least part of it, and he would not allow her to stop this. No one would listen to her.
The wind whipped around her, urging her to move to pull herself together. She glanced around to get her bearings. Madison Street. She could walk home from here. Her place wasn't more than ten blocks away. Her legs still felt a little unsteady, but she'd be okay just as soon as the initial shock wore off.
Her gaze landed on St. Peter's. Of all places for her to decide she needed out of the confines of the taxi. Before the thought could completely evolve in her brain, she was walking through the door. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been in church. Or the last time she'd prayed, for that matter.
Her mind in a chaotic battle of emotion against reason, she moved up the aisle between the rows of pews, her movements on autopilot. She approached the chapel at the back of the church and knelt in front of the icon. She lit a single candle, offered a silent prayer for the innocent man who would die a few hours from now. It would take a miracle to save her brother now and, as an attorney and former prosecutor, she knew better than to believe in miracles. Her chest constricted and a flood of tears pressed against the backs of her eyes.
Her mistake. No matter what anyone said, she knew where the fault lay.
She didn't have to be present in Huntsville, Texas, to imagine the scene. A crowd would be gathered already. Newspaper and television journalists from across the state. Protesters, those for and against the death penalty, with their signs and chants. The family members of victims, anticipating the moment when a convicted killer would finally pay the price for his crimes.
Renee rose from the kneeler and slumped onto the front pew and sat there for a while, thankful for the anonymity and silence in the empty church. She should go home. In another hour, the church would be filled with parishioners attending Mass. But somehow she couldn't find the strength to haul herself up and walk out the door. Instead, she sat there and stared at the flame. Reaching up with a shaky hand, she ruthlessly brushed back the lone tear that managed to escape her stronghold. "Damn it," she muttered, then immediately railed at herself for the slip.
Why should she punish herself for the actions of others? Her brother had caused this. She had tried to stop it once she knew the truth, but he had not allowed her to do the right thing. That was masochistic. She had promised herself that with this new move, she would not permit the past to take over her life again. If only someone would tell that to her foolish emotions.
A hand settled on her shoulder. Startled, she glanced up to find Jim Colby standing in the aisle. "You trying to beat the rush?" he asked.
She straightened, cleared her throat. Having him appear here was about as unexpected as finding herself at this church. He moved around her and lowered himself onto the pew scarcely an arm's length away. How could he sneak up on her so effortlessly? When had she so completely lost her edge? She blinked back the new burning tears. She would not let him see this kind of fragility. This display of weakness was not who she was. She had to get back on track.
"Ensures the best seat in the house," she said, playing along and forcing a tight smile. Don't think about it anymore. There is nothing you can do. Focus on now. What was Jim doing here? She wouldn't have taken him for a guy who bothered with Mass. Even so, that wouldn't be his reason for showing up like this. Her new boss was not a happenstance kind of guy. He was focused, intense, deliberate.
Jim smiled that slow, half tilt that she'd come to associate with him. She got the distinct impression that smiling was not typical of him, though he seemed to like to do it more and more as time went by. She'd been working for Jim Colby for a couple of months now. He was differentedgy, almost dangerous. Case in point: those penetrating blue eyes. Eyes that kept folks on their toes in his presence. Not that she was intimidated by her boss, but on some instinctive level she understood that he was not a man to be taken lightly.
"How'd you know I was here?" The idea that he would have followed her from the office didn't seem plausible.
"The mechanic dropped off your car."
Her car? She deflated a little more. How could she have forgotten about that? "Oh I" She gave her head a shake. "I was supposed to call to see if it would be ready." The mechanic had picked up her car at the office that morning with a simple instruction: call before leaving for the day to see if it's ready. But then, that had been before she'd got the news that the stay of execution had been denied.
Don't think about it. "Since you hadn't made it home and weren't answering your cell, I called the cab company. Dispatcher said the driver dropped you off here. I thought I'd come give you a ride back to the office to pick up your car."
Her cell it was on Silent. She nodded her understanding, still a little rattled. "I appreciate that." She had a feeling there was more to this than just letting her know her car was ready.
As if she'd voiced the thought aloud, his gaze locked with hers. "We have a new client. The job's going to require a somewhat dicey field assignment. At least a few days on location." He studied her for a moment, then added, "I was thinking you might be right for this one, if you feel you're ready."
Renee sat up straighter. She'd been waiting for this opportunity. She moistened her lips, swallowed at the emotion still hovering in the back of her throat. "I'm ready." No way was she going to let the past mess this up. The call she'd received less than one hour ago echoed unnervingly, but she pushed it away. Her brother's mistakes and decisions weren't her problem anymore hadn't been in two years. She couldn't change what was going to happen no matter how wrong. He had seen to that.
"I know you've been anticipating your first field assignment," Colby said.
Admittedly, running background checks and following up on cheating spouses was not how she'd seen things going at her new job. Still, paying one's dues was not a new concept to her. "I'm confident the past couple of months aren't an accurate measure of what's to come." Despite having changed jobs twice in the past two years, even she had her limits on how low she would take her career expectations.
"This one may be a little tricky."
Their gazes met. Anticipation hummed inside her. "Tricky?" She tried to glean something from his expression, but it was impossible. Jim Colby was far too good at camouflaging whatever was on his mind.
"There could be complicating factors." Complicating factors? She didn't have a problem with complications. In fact, she had more of a problem with a lack of them; it gave her too much free time to allow the past to invade her present. She tamped down the ache that instantly attempted to intrude. If Jim was worried about her ability to defend herself, he shouldn't be. She'd faced physical threat in the past and she'd learned from it. A comprehensive selfdefense class should be mandatory for all attorneys and prosecutors.
"What kind of complicating factors?" she ventured.
"This one means you'd have to take on a whole new identity and deliberately mislead a man in order to lure his only brother into a trap."
Her curiosity spiked, sending a surge of adrenaline roaring through her veins. She'd been looking for just this sort of case. Something out of the ordinary. Something exciting dangerous. The last startled her just a little. Would living on the edge help her put the past more firmly behind her? Make her trust herself again?
Only one way to find out. "When do I start?"
He studied her, his eyes searching hers for some glimpse of uncertainty or maybe hesitation. She allowed none. She knew betrayal and deceit intimately. Using that painfully gained knowledge to get the job done wouldn't be a problem. If someone innocent got hurt who cared, right? As long as the job got done and the case got closed the end justified the means.
"It may be necessary for you to, let's just say, get very close to the target," he countered. "Are you sure you can do that, Vaughn? I'm certain that kind of deception wasn't one of your electives at that fancy law school you attended."
She did the smiling this time. "You're right. It wasn't. I had to learn that part the hard way. Now, when do I start?"
He went on, "You can look over the file tonight and we'll get started on your cover profile first thing in the morning." He pushed to his feet. "That way you can catch an afternoon flight and jump right in."
"Do we have photos? Background histories?" Renee stood, genuflected and fell into step next to him as he moved down the long center aisle.
"Photos, histories. We have it all. Our client came prepared."
"Excellent." That would speed up the process. If he wanted her on a plane in less than twenty-four hours, getting up to speed ASAP would be essential.
As Renee climbed into Jim's car, she checked her cell phone. Two missed calls and one voice mail. One of the calls was from Jim. The second had her heart thumping as she listened to the accompanying voice mail. The first three words of the message had her sagging against the seat with relief in spite of her determination not to care.
The governor called.
The stay of execution had been granted.
Renee stared out at the busy street surrounded by the eclectic architecture that set the city of Chicago apart from any other on the globe.
This was good news.
And just like that, the past nudged its way back into her life, starting the cycle of obsession and denial all over again.
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