When Fiona Sanders is held at gunpoint at her convenience store job, Houston officer Nate Gallagher doesn't hesitate to act the hero. But within days she's targeted again and Nate knows the crimes aren't random. His only option: keep the vulnerable beauty safe while they search for the culprits.
Having lost her own father in the line of duty, Fiona refuses to fall for a copno matter how much the drop-dead gorgeous, self-appointed bodyguard tugs at her heartstrings. But as the enemy closes in and the truth about the attacks is revealed, Fiona must learn to trust Nate or face history repeating itself.
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Nate Gallagher leaned forward with a sigh, squinting to peer through the foggy glass of the refrigerated case in search of caffeine. It was late, and he still had a few hours to go before he could sleep.
He opened the door, reached in and pulled out a bottle, reading the label with some suspicion. All day energy! it proclaimed, the neon-green letters garishly bright against the black background. Might as well try it, he decided, tucking the bottle under his arm. He didn't think he could gag down any more coffeehe'd drunk so much of the stuff over the past week, he was in real danger of turning into a coffee bean.
He glanced at the register as he made his way over to the hot-food station. Fiona, the night-shift clerk, had given him the usual smile and wave when he'd walked in, but now she had her nose stuck in a textbook. Every time he came in here, it seemed she was always studying.
"Sociology," she'd replied with a smile, after he had asked her about it one night. "I'm in the master's degree program at the University of Houston. I want to go into education after I graduate."
Nate didn't know much about sociology, but she looked like his fantasy version of a professor, with her sleek auburn hair, wide brown eyes and generous mouth. He could picture her in a tight-fitting business suit that hugged her curves, standing in front of a classroom wearing sky-high heels. Even her usual uniform of jeans and a T-shirt made him take notice, and there had been many times he'd wanted to pull her against him, press those amazing curves against his chest and bury his nose in her hair. He wasn't sure what she smelled likehe'd never gotten that closebut he'd passed many pleasant moments daydreaming about it. Warm vanilla. Roses. Clean citrus. He didn't really have a preference, but he hoped to find out, one way or another.
Not for the first time, he wondered about her story. She had to be smart to be in graduate school. But why was she working here? It wasn't the most intellectually demanding job, and it couldn't pay very well. There had to be some other reason why she'd taken the job.
He hoped she was due to graduate soonthe graveyard shift at a convenience store was no place for a woman like her. Although he tried to come by a few times a week, he'd be relieved when she completed her degree and would have to quit. Part of him would miss seeing her, but it would be one less worry on his mind.
He stopped at the display of hot foods, surveying his choices with a growing sense of resignation. Nachos or a hot dog? Neither option was particularly appealing, but he had to eat something. Breakfast had been a long time ago, and his stomach was threatening to quit if he didn't eat soon.
Nate fumbled with the tongs as he attempted to fish a hot dog out of the warmer, trying to pick one that didn't look quite so desiccated. He'd suffer through this junk tonight, but tomorrow he was going to try to start eating better. He experienced a momentary pang of longing for his mother's home cooking, but she was so angry with him for missing Thanksgiving that she was more likely to smack him with a pan than fix him something to eat.
It wasn't that he wanted to be away from his family, but being a detective meant he had to make certain sacrifices, choices that weren't always popular. His dad seemed to understand that, but his mother? She took it as a personal affront every time he missed a family gathering. Because a big city like Houston had its fair share of crime, he wound up missing more family events than he attended.
"Again?" she'd said, when he'd called last week to tell her he couldn't make it for Thanksgiving. "What have we done, that you would choose your work over your family? That's not how I raised you. Never mind. Stay there and work. That's fine."
Nate wasn't stupid. He knew that when she said "fine" in a tone of voice that made it sound like she was talking around a mouthful of soap, things were anything but.
Still, he never argued with her. It wouldn't do any good. She would never understand his job, and, truth be told, he didn't want her to. Bad enough he had to live with the images of the dead, the murder victims who haunted his dreams and drove him to keep working, keep searching, trying to find their killers and bring them to justice. Humans were capable of so many atrocities, and he hoped his family never had to see that ugly side of life.
He squirted ketchup onto the stale, dry bun with a mental sigh, deliberately pushing thoughts of his mother and his job out of his mind. He was already exhausted, and thinking about her lectures did nothing for his mood. Hopefully, she would wait to scold him in private at Christmas, so his sister, Molly, wouldn't have to hear it. She didn't like it when they arguedshe had Down syndrome and was very sensitive about picking up emotions.
The thought of Molly made him smile. Twenty-one yellow roses would arrive at the house tomorrow, part of his birthday gift to her. They were her favorite flower, and he was unabashedly proud of himself for having thought to send them. Normally, he made a quick phone call between bouts of paperwork, but her twenty-first birthday was a milestone, something to celebrate. The special gesture had cost him a pretty penny, but she was worth it. And hopefully the flowers would help ease the sting of his absence at the Thanksgiving table.
He knew she missed him and didn't always understand why he couldn't be there. But, unlike their mother, at least she didn't punish him for it.
Wiping stray ketchup from his fingers, Nate picked up his dinner and drink, then turned to head over to the register. As he rounded the corner, he clipped the edge of the counter, and the bottle, slick with condensation, slid from his fingers. It hit the tile with a dull thud and skittered across the floor, coming to rest under a display of potato chips.
"Damn," he muttered. He debated leaving the bottle where it was and grabbing another, but a quick glance at the front counter changed his mind. If he left it, Fiona would have to pick it up before going home, and he didn't want her to have to crawl around on the dirty floor to fish it out from under the metal rack. He carefully set the hot dog on the food counter, crossing his fingers that it wouldn't tip over off the wrapper. He'd seen some pretty nasty things in his line of work, but he refused to eat food that had come into contact with the convenience store counter.
Resigned to his fate, he dropped to his knees and bent over, peering under the display in search of the wayward bottle.
Fiona heard the telltale thud of a plastic bottle hitting the floor and looked up with a wince. From the sound of things, Hot Guy was going to need a new drink, if he didn't want to wind up wearing his soda. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, though, she thought. I could help him clean up. She indulged in a brief fantasy of wiping the sticky liquid off his stubbled cheeks, those impossibly broad shoulders and his flat stomach. Touching the customers wasn't exactly in her job description but, for him, she'd make an exception.
He'd been coming in a few times a week for the past several months. Never at the same time of night, but regularly enough that she'd begun to expect him and even look forward to his visits. She had no idea what he did for a living, but he always looked tired, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. But despite the dark circles under his eyes and what seemed to be a permanent five-o'clock shadow, he was a handsome man. His deep green eyes seemed to take in everything at once, and even though he rarely met her gaze directly, she had the feeling he always knew where she was and what she was doing.
Being around him made her nervous. Not in a weird or uncomfortable wayit's just that he was almost too handsome to be real. She couldn't help staring when he was in the store, watching the way he moved with a subconscious grace up and down the aisles. She'd perfected the art of spying on him while appearing to study her textbook. He'd asked her about it once, the deep rumble of his voice vibrating through her and making her toes curl. She'd stammered out a reply. He'd given her a smile and a nod, and he hadn't spoken to her since.
Maybe I can get him to talk again tonight. She stuck a stray bit of paper in the book to hold her place, then hopped off the stool. As the only employee on duty, she should offer to help him retrieve his bottle. Although she mopped the floor every night, it was still wrong to make a customer crawl around on it.
She rounded the corner and froze, sucking in a breath at the sight that greeted her. Hot Guy was on all fours, his perfect butt in the air while he dug underneath the chip display. She felt her cheeks heat and knew she should look away, but she couldn't stop staring. Are those custom-made jeans? They had to be, the way they molded to him and fit like a second skin. His shirt rode up on his back, revealing a thin stripe of golden skin and a hint of fabric. Boxers or briefs? she mused.
She cocked her head to the side, enjoying the view with a silent sigh of appreciation. She really should help him, but seeing as he was already on the ground, there was no sense in both of them getting dirty. Better for her to stand here and supervise. Yeah, that's what she was doing. She wasn't gawking like a sex-starved woman. She was supervising.
The door chimed, announcing the arrival of another customer, and she reluctantly turned away to head back to the register. At least she'd have the memory of this moment to keep her warm at night.
She rounded the corner, stopping short as a young man came barreling down the center aisle. He was tall and lean, his hands stuck deep into the front pockets of the jacket he wore with the hood pulled up. She frowned slightly, the hair on the back of her neck prickling. It was chilly in Houston, but this man looked wrong somehow, as if he wore the jacket to conceal himself rather than to stay warm.
Before she could make sense of his odd dress, he caught sight of her standing there. In one fluid motion, he drew his hand from his pocket, pulling out a gun and pointing it at her chest. "Money. Now."
Fiona stared at the gun, unable to take her eyes from the black, snub-nosed piece. It's so small, she thought stupidly. How can something so small be so dangerous?
"You deaf?" he asked, grabbing her arm and jerking her forward. "I said I want money." He shoved her toward the register, and she hit the counter hard enough to make her wince, the pain from the blow piercing through the fog of shock. "Give it to me."
Back when she had started this job, Ben, the owner, had given her some training on what to do if the store was ever held up. She was supposed to cooperate, offer no resistance, and do everything she could to get the robber out of the store without hurting anyone. If possible, she was to hit the silentalarm button, which would alert the police that a robbery was in progress. Fiona had listened dutifully, filled with naive confidence that such a thing would never happen to her. But now that she was faced with the reality, her hands shook so badly she could barely open the register, much less find and press the alarm button.
"Faster," he said, leaning over the counter to monitor her progress as she emptied out the register with numb fingers. He swayed back and forth on his feet, his bloodshot eyes frequently cutting over to the door.
Fiona didn't know whether to hope for an interruption, or pray no one else came in and spooked him enough to shoot her.
His breath wafted over her, the stench of stale beer so strong she almost gagged. She stuffed the rest of the bills into a plastic bag and thrust it across the counter, trying hard not to look at his face. If he thought she couldn't identify him, maybe he wouldn't hurt her
When he didn't take the bag right away, she glanced up to find him looking at the door again. Was there someone outside? She couldn't see the sidewalk from this angle, but he was staring so fixedly that something must have caught his attention.
She kept her eyes on him, trying to control her breathing as she fumbled with one hand under the counter. Where was that damn button? Her fingers skimmed across the flat surface, searching vainly for the alarm. When she finally found it, she bit her lip to keep from crying out in relief. She pressed it with a quick stab of her finger, then brought her hand back up so he wouldn't see what she'd done.
The man swiveled his head back around and eyed the bag greedily. His fingertips brushed across her skin as he grabbed it, making her shudder. She wiped her hand on her shirt to erase his touch as he placed the bag on the counter and opened it, keeping the gun trained on her while he checked the contents. After a few seconds, he raised angry eyes to her face, thrusting the gun forward with a jerk of his arm. "Where's the rest?"
She shook her head. "There is no more," she stammered, taking a step back when he leaned over the counter, peering into the empty register. A movement behind him caught her eye, and when she looked up her heart skipped a beat.
Hot Guy was slowly creeping toward the counter, a gun in his hand and his finger on his lips.