Former operative turned pilot Dylan Branson has one mission: deliver vital codes to Omega Sector before millions of lives are lost. Surprisingly, the codes reside in the photographic memory of Shelby Keelan, a beautiful computer expert who's so far survived two murder attempts. Used to doing things solo, Dylan will get Shelby to Washington, DC, then walk away. So he's stunned to discover she's as much a loner as he isand how much that appeals to him. Now, with both their lives in danger after his plane is sabotaged midair, Dylan no longer thinks of Shelby as just a job. Or that he'll be able to let her go once it's over.
About the Author
Janie lives with her husband and four children in Germany, in support of her husband's U.S. Department of Defense job. Janie enjoys traveling, long-distance running, movies of all kinds, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
For more: www.janiecrouch.com
Read an Excerpt
Sometimes a man just wanted to be left alone.
Dylan Branson didn't think that was too much to ask. He'd served his country for years, both on American soil and off, and had the scarsboth physical and emotionalto show for it. But that was behind him now. Far behind him.
Not that you would know it from the voice talking at Dylan from the phone.
Dylan held the phone out at arm's length, staring at it as if it were a snake about to bite him. He'd rather be handling a snake. Seriously, give him a cottonmouth over what was at the other end of this phone line.
It was Dennis Burgamy, Dylan's boss when he worked at Omega Sector, a covert interagency task force. A crime-fighting, problem-solving, get-stuff-done unit, made up of the most elite agents the country had to offer. And Dylan had been one of the best of the best.
But not anymore.
Despite its arm's-length distance, Dylan could still hear Dennis Burgamy clearly on the other line. Dylan hadn't held the phone against his ear in at least two minutes, but evidently Burgamy hadn't missed Dylan's input into the conversation because the other man hadn't even noticed Dylan wasn't talking.
Which was pretty typical of Dylan's former boss. The difference now was that Dylan didn't have to listen to the other man. Burgamy wasn't his boss anymore.
Finally silence came from the other end of the phone. Dylan cautiously brought it back to his ear.
"Are you there, Branson?"
"Yeah, I'm here." Dylan sat on the porch of the house he'd mostly built himself and looked out over the pinkish light of early evening hitting the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding him on three sides. Those mountains had been the only thing able to bring him a measure of peace over the past few years since his wife's death, and he tried to draw on that peace again now. To no avail. "You do remember that I don't work for you anymore, right, Burgamy?"
Dylan's statement was met with a dramatic sigh. There had never been any lost love between Burgamy and any of the Branson siblings. Dylan's sister and two brothers were all active Omega agents, and all had butted heads with Burgamy at some point.
"You are in the charter airline business now, Dylan," Burgamy reminded him. "I'm not asking you to do anything you wouldn't do for any other paying customer."
It was true. For the past four years Dylan had been flying customers and cargo wherever they needed to go all over the East Coast with his Cessna. But Dylan wasn't so desperate for business that he wanted to be at Burga-my's beck and call.
"I'm all booked. Sorry."
"Look, Dylan " Dylan recognized the change in Burgamy's tone. Evidently Burgamy realized threatening Dylan wouldn't get him what he wanted, so he'd decided to try a different tactic. "How about if you do this for us, then I'll erase all record of Sawyer's little incident last year."
The little incident referred to Dylan's youngest brother, Sawyer, punching Burgamy in the jaw and knocking his boss unconscious during an operation that was going wrong. Sawyer managed to keep his job at Omega, but only barely. And although Sawyer was able to keep his job, the occurrence would still keep his brother from ever being able to move up in official ranks. Of course, until recently, Sawyer had no interest in ever moving higher than the rank of agent. Doing so would mean a desk job, which had frightened him no end. But now that Sawyer was married to sweet little Megan and expecting a baby, a desk job might be more appealing to him.
And damn it, this made saying no to Burgamy much more complicated.
Dylan looked out at the mountains. He didn't want to set foot back inside Omega. He'd done it a couple of times since he'd quit over six years ago, and each time had been fraught with disaster. Dylan still had residual discomfort from the beating he'd taken while trying to help his brother Cameron on an Omega mission a while ago.
In Dylan's experience, every trip to Omega led to some sort of pain. And he wasn't interested in experiencing that again if he had any other option.
"It's important, Branson," Burgamy continued. "We need these codes. And Shelby Keelan, the lady with the codes, is a friend of your sister-in-law. I'm sure Megan will take it as a personal insult if you don't help us with this matter."
Dylan closed his eyes. Burgamy didn't know it, but Dylan was already in. And if Dylan hadn't been, bringing up Megan would've done it. Dylan liked Sawyer's wifethe brilliant computer scientista great deal. She was good for his brother; had somehow managed to tame the playboy of the family without even trying.
And now Sawyer and Megan were having a baby.
Which was totally great for Dylan's parents, who had wanted grandkids for the longest time. They'd finally get their wish.
For just a second, that old ache crept into Dylan's chest. He pushed away the thought of the baby that hadn't made it when his wife had been killed. Nothing could be done about that now.
If Megan wanted him to pick up some codes or whatever from a friend of hers and bring the codes to Omega, Dylan would do it. He loved his brother, loved his sister-in-law and wanted to do anything he could to keep that baby growing happy and healthy inside her.
Of course, he didn't know why Megan's friend couldn't just email the codes. Why Dylan needed to hand deliver them to Washington, DC. Or why this lady couldn't just deliver them herself. But whatever. He knew better than to ask. With Omega, things were never simple.
Effective? Yes. Simple? No.
For example, things could've been much simpler if Megan or Sawyer had just called Dylan themselves and asked him to fly in the codes. He'd already be gassing up his Cessna right now. But Burgamy couldn't resist an opportunity to lord power over any member of the Branson family. It bugged Dylan to submit to Burgamy, but he might as well get it over with.
"Fine, Burgamy, I'll do it."
"Good. Because Shelby Keelan is on her way to you right now. She should be arriving in Falls Run in about thirty minutes. Meeting you at the only restaurant your blip on the map seems to have."
Dylan hung up the phone without saying anything else. Burgamy had obviously told the woman to come out here even before asking Dylan, sure he would get Dylan's cooperation. Dylan hated being a foregone conclusion.
He watched the pinkening sky for a few more moments, allowing the phone to fall next to him in the swing on his porch rather than crush it against the wall the way he wanted to.
There were things Dylan regretted about his deliberate walk away from Omega six years ago. But having to listen to Dennis Burgamy wasn't one of them.
Dylan would get the codes from Megan's friend, fly them to Omega, say a quick hello to his siblings and get the hell out. There would be no traversing up the sides of yachts, emergency takeoffs with people shooting at him or being beaten to within an inch of his life.
Like his last visits.
Dylan grabbed his phone and stood up. He'd have to get going if he was going to make it into town by the time Shelby Keelan arrived. His phone buzzed again in his hand. Dylan grimaced, hoping it wasn't Burgamy.
"You are not my current favorite sibling, Sawyer." Dylan's words were tough, but his greeting held no malice.
"Ha. Well, I'm still Mom's favorite, so that's all that matters," Sawyer responded. "I guess I'm too late to catch you before Burgamy does."
"Just got off the phone with him."
"Damn it. I'm sorry, Dylan. I told Burgamy I would handle it, but you know him."
Dylan rolled his eyes. Yes, he was quite familiar with Burgamy's tactics. "Looks like I'll be delivering some codes to you tonight." Dylan looked out the window; menacing clouds were rolling in behind the setting sun. "Actually, it might be much later tonight. It looks like a storm is rolling in."
"Thanks for doing this, man. The codes are" Sawyer broke off midsentence and Dylan could hear his muffled words to someone else before they stopped entirely.
"Dylan?" A much softer female voice came on the line.
"Hey, Megan. How are you feeling?"
"Fine now that I'm not hurling my guts out multiple times a day." Dylan could hear the smile in his petite sister-in-law's voice. "I'm sorry about Burgamy, Dylan. Sawyer wanted us to leave him out of it totally, but I wouldn't let him."
"It's no problem, hon. I can handle Burgamy."
"Thanks for meeting Shelby. She and I knew each other in college. She's special."
Dylan didn't know what to make of special. That could mean a lot of things. "Well, I hope you don't mean special as in special needs like your husband."
Megan laughed. "No, Shelby is definitely not special needs. The opposite, in fact. A brilliant computer-game programmer."
"Well, either way it's no problem. I'll see you guys soon. I've got to get going if I'm going to meet Shelby on time. Burgamy didn't leave much wiggle room."
"Thanks again, Dylan."
"Anything for you, sweetheart. You just keep my little niece or nephew safe, okay? Bye."
Dylan disconnected and went inside his house of the past four years. He had never brought a woman here; he'd preferred encounters to happen at their place instead. It made leaving much easier and awkward talks about why he couldn't stay much less necessary.
Dylan preferred his solitude and planned to keep it that way. He'd tried dating, but many women thought being a widower meant he needed to be smothered with attention. With love. They wanted to wrap their arms around him and help chase his demons away. Dylan knew they meant well, but he couldn't tolerate that kind of unrelenting attention.
Dylan would face his own demons. Always had.
So he kept things casual with women, and kept them out of his personal space. Sometimes, much more rarely now, he got physically involved, but he was sure to let a woman know up front that his heart was off the table. A future with Dylan was not an option.
Dylan walked into his bedroom and changed out of the dirty work clothes he'd had on for normal plane maintenance. He decided to take a quick shower, cursing Burgamy again when he couldn't linger under the hot water to help loosen some of the residual soreness from old wounds. Thirty minutes wasn't a long time to get to Falls Run from his house.
And yes, Sally's was the only sit-down restaurant in the small town, more of a diner than anything else. There were also a couple of fast-food places, a gas station, a bar, hardware store and bank. Falls Run wasn't that small. And it was perfect for Dylan's purposes in a town: small enough that he didn't have to worry about too many strangers wandering around, and large enough that he was able to get what he needed regularly enough for both his business and personal needs.
He'd chosen Falls Run on purpose. At the borders of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, it allowed him access, via his Cessna, to almost anywhere on the East and Gulf coasts. Plus, the town was surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Dylan's opinion, you couldn't ask for better real estate than that.
And it was far enough from Washington, DC, and Omega for him to stay away from his past there.
Dylan rolled his eyes. At least he thought Falls Run was far enough away. Evidently not, given the past few years. Dylan got dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, grabbed his keys and wallet from the dresser and headed out the door to his pickup truck.
What the hell. He'd enjoy a nice meal at Sally'she was tired of his own cooking anywayand meet Megan's friend. Dylan pretty much kept to himself, but he knew how to be polite and charming when he wanted to be. His mother had instilled that much in the Branson siblings when they were growing up. Shelby Keelan wasn't at fault for Burgamy's high-handed tactics; no need to blame her. He'd meet her and move on.
Get the codes. Deliver the codes. Get out.