The rebel of the Marcelli family, Joe never joined his sisters Katie, Francesca, and Brenna in running the winery business. Instead, he chose a life of military service. But now that this handsome, headstrong former Navy SEAL has received a new, undercover assignment -- protecting none other than the commander in chief's daughter -- he finds himself stationed back at the California vineyard he defiantly left behind. First-daughter Darcy Jensen has been placed in hiding at the Marcelli Winery after surviving a kidnapping attempt . . . and now it's Joe's job to keep the fearful, fiery beauty out of harm's way. Begrudgingly, Joe heeds his presidential order -- until "babysitting" Darcy proves to be the greatest pleasure he's ever known. How can Joe protect Darcy from danger, when he's falling dangerously in love? And can Darcy trust that Joe's intentions are true -- when no one else's have ever been?
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If Darcy Jensen had known she was going to be kidnapped, she would have worn better shoes. Or at least more sensible shoes. As it was she'd dressed in black strappy sandals that weren't all that comfortable for walking, let alone being dragged across a parking lot and thrown into the back of a van.
She did her best to resist. Screaming was out of the question because they'd already gagged her. And the resisting part went badly, what with her hands tied behind her back, although she did nail one guy with a decent head butt.
Even as she landed hard on the metal floor of the van, she wondered how it all had happened. She'd been in Ann Taylor checking out the new clothes for fall. She'd told Drew she needed to use the restroom.
Traveling with two Secret Service agents meant rarely using a public restroom. Drew had consulted with the manager of the store, who was all too happy to have the president of the United States' daughter peeing in her private bathroom. Darcy had done her business, washed her hands -- not only because she always did, but also because people checked on things like that when one was in the public eye -- and had started back through the stockroom toward the dressing rooms, where she had a pile of clothes waiting for her.
That's when the men attacked. Four guys in Halloween-type demon masks grabbed her. Before she knew what was happening, they'd slapped tape on her mouth. The hand tying came next, then the dragging.
One of them even remembered to pick up her purse, she thought grimly as she stared at her now-scratched Maxx bag bought on QVC lying next to her on the floor of the van.
The rear doors slammed shut, and the vehicle sped out of the parking lot.
Darcy braced herself as best she could on the ribbed floor as the van bounced, swerved, then turned onto what felt like a main road. Two of her abductors had taken the front seats -- she could see them through the small grille -- while the other two must have had their own transportation. She was alone in the back of the van.
Alone with her purse.
There were no windows, no way to get anyone's attention. And no one to watch her retrieve the panic button that would signal the Secret Service and send them rushing to rescue her.
She inched her way toward the purse, only to have the van take another corner, causing the bag to go sliding out of reach. Two more slip-slides across the dirty metal floor and she was within reaching distance of her purse . . . except for the small problem of her hands tied behind her back. Could she open the zipper with her teeth? Probably not with the gag in place.
Darcy had done her best to stay focused in the moment. If she anchored herself in the now, the terror wasn't so bad. She could function. But if she allowed herself to think about what they could do to her, how it was national policy to never negotiate with terrorists, then fear would explode inside of her, making her want to scream and beg, despite the tape across her mouth.
No! She wouldn't go there. She wouldn't give in. She was strong and determined, and by God, she would get her panic button and push it until dozens of armed agents came storming through the walls of the van.
She didn't have much choice. Drew had been assigned to her long enough to know that the "trying on" part of a shopping trip could take at least an hour, which meant he wouldn't notice she was missing until the van had enough time to cross a couple of state lines.
If only it wasn't so hot, she thought as she went to work on the zipper. August in D.C. maintained the average temperature of a blast furnace with plenty of humidity thrown in for good measure. The front of the van might have AC, but here in the prison part of the vehicle, no such luck.
She ignored the heat, the sweat, the scrapes and bruises, and bent over her purse. Several more turns, some speeding and three failed attempts later, Darcy had discovered she could not open the damn zipper with her teeth. Which left her to scoot the purse into a corner, turn her back, and try to open it that way.
Easier said than done, she thought as she discovered she couldn't even hold on to the purse, although she did a lovely job of scraping her arm and banging her head. Why did this stuff always look so easy in the movies?
She tried again, carefully lodging the purse against the wheel well, then rolling onto her back and grabbing for the bag with her fingers. This time she got it and turned it slowly until she felt the zipper.
Don't make a turn, don't make a turn, she chanted silently, knowing if they did, she would slide across the van and have to start all over again.
The vehicle stayed mercifully straight.
Inch by inch she pulled the zipper down. Sweat poured down her back and made her fingers damp. Her bare legs stuck to the floor of the van and to whatever crumbs and icky things were scattered there. At last the purse was open. She plunged both hands inside and felt around for the familiar plastic case. Lipstick, wallet, cell phone, pen --
Cell phone? Nearly as good as the panic button. She would have to dial, of course, but she could call the operator and asked to be put through to her father. She could --
Darcy swore. Right. The tape across her mouth would make it difficult to hold a conversation. Back to digging for the panic button.
At that exact moment, the van suddenly came to a stop. Both she and her purse went sliding, although not at the same rate of speed. She had no way to get back to it before the bad guys opened the rear door to find her sprawled in a corner, her skirt up to her waist and the contents of her purse spread all over the floor of the van.
"You didn't take her handbag?" one of the guys asked the other. "Goddamn it, Bill, I thought you were smarter than that."
The recipient of the scolding, a smallish man in a vampire mask, stiffened. "You used my name. Now she knows my name."
The other one, demon-guy, snorted. "Yeah, because there's only one guy named Bill in the whole country. Come on, Einstein, let's get her inside."
Darcy tried to scramble away from her kidnappers, but as she was already in a back corner of the van, there was nowhere else to go. They half carried, half dragged her into what looked like a large warehouse.
She did her best to fight, lashing out at them with her feet. The action caused them to hold on tighter to her upper arms and made her break a heel on her new sandals.
Now she was mad, she thought as they put her into a straight-back chair and began tying her down. They'd screwed with her day, bruised her, thrown her around the inside of a disgusting van, scratched her new leather bag, and ruined the black sandals she'd just bought after waiting four weeks for them to go on sale. There was going to be hell to pay.
She told them so, although the tape on her mouth interfered with the intensity of her message.
"I don't think she likes us," Bill said, stepping back as she tried to kick his shin.
"Gee, I wonder why. Most people love a good kidnapping."
With that, the two men walked off. Darcy tried to hold on to her anger by reminding herself how much the sandals had cost, even on clearance, and how little money she had coming in these days. It worked for nearly a minute, then the fear set in. What were they going to do to her?
She told herself that torture was unlikely. Either they wanted money or something they thought they could only get from the president of the United States. Unfortunately that was a big pool of possibilities, everything from sovereignty to nuclear weapons.
Then there was the matter of the no-negotiation policy. The one that told her she could be stuck here for a very long time, and then she could be killed.
Darcy might not love everything about her life at this moment in time, but she wasn't ready for it to be over. Terror tightened her throat and made it impossible to breathe. She had the sudden thought that she was going to throw up.
Stay calm, she told herself. If she vomited, she could drown in a really gross way. She had to find her Zen center. Not that she'd ever studied Zen, but she could imagine what it was like. A tranquil place. A place where reality was an illusion and all that mattered was the slow, steady beating of her heart.
Deep breaths, she told herself. In and out. No hurry in the air department. Just nice slow --
"Did you hurt her?"
The question came from somewhere behind her as she heard several people approaching. Panic joined fear as she tried to figure out if, in this man's opinion, hurting her would be a plus or not.
"She got banged up in the back of the van," Bill said. "But that's all."
She looked around for some kind of escape. But the huge, empty warehouse didn't offer any places to hide, and being tied to a large, heavy chair limited her options. She tried to scoot and only succeeded in wrenching her back.
"Good. We don't want any unnecessary bloodshed."
Darcy exhaled in relief. Speaking as the kidnappee, she was delighted to know that bloodshed was to be avoided until necessary. Not that she wanted to know what would be considered necessary.
Their footsteps got closer, then three men were standing in front of her. She recognized her two kidnappers, who stood with a new guy, also in a demon mask. He was taller than the other two, and stronger. Something he proved when he turned on the non-Bill one and grabbed him by the throat.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he demanded, shaking the smaller man like a dog shakes something tasty just before he kills it.
Bill danced from foot to foot, although he didn't rush in to help his friend. "We got her, boss. Just like you said. The president's daughter. This is her."
The leader released non-Bill and curled his hands into fists. He stared at Darcy through the slits of the mask and growled.
"Not this one, you idiot. The other one. Lauren. No one cares about this one."
Less than thirty minutes later the van came to a stop. Darcy was still too stunned to react, even as the rear doors opened and the two men reached in to pull her out. One of them cut the bindings on her wrists while the other collected her purse and tossed it on the ground next to her. The broken sandal followed. Then they ran back to the front of the van, jumped inside, and sped away.
She had enough functioning brain left to look for a license plate -- there wasn't one -- and to note the color and make of the van. Then she sank down on the curb of the deserted loading area at the rear of the mall and rested her filthy arms on her scraped and bloodied knees and her head on her arms.
This hadn't happened, she told herself, even as the truth of it settled around her like a hot, sticky fog. She'd been rejected by kidnappers, which made the event a new high in a lifetime of lows.
Talk about a photo opportunity, she thought grimly. Here she was, battered, bruised, cut up, scraped. Her clothes were dirty and torn, her shoes broken, and she'd just been tossed aside like a used tissue.
Darcy straightened, pulled the tape off her mouth, then gasped as skin tore with the adhesive. That wasn't going to be pretty as it healed. She felt around on the cement until she found her purse and pulled out the panic button. Better late than never, she thought as she pressed down on the bright red button and waited for the cavalry.
Lieutenant Commander Joe Larson had always considered the admiral a reasonable, if distant, commanding officer. All that had changed at 9:18 the previous evening. The admiral wanted someone's head on a stick, and he was gunning for Joe's.
"What kind of half-assed, goddamn asshole . . ."
The tirade continued, but Joe didn't bother listening as his captain got reamed. He could figure out the highlights without hearing them. Besides, the captain would be passing them along personally to Joe soon enough.
Such was the chain of command. The admiral chewed out the captain, the captain chewed out him, and he, well, Joe hadn't decided what he was going to do. Like they said -- shit rolled downhill.
He crossed to the window of the office foyer and stared at the activity below. There was plenty of it at the Naval Amphibious Base. And just beyond the building, the Pacific Ocean sparkled in the bright summer morning. Other careers might offer better pay, but none could beat the location on Coronado Island.
Given the admiral's temper, there was every chance Joe could soon be exploring those other careers. Or stationed on a naval base in Greenland. Screwups came in all shapes and sizes. This one had all the potential firepower of an aircraft carrier. Explaining to the captain that it hadn't been his fault wasn't going to change a damn thing.
Fifteen minutes later, the door to the captain's office opened and the admiral stormed out. Joe stood at attention as the angry man stalked by, then he looked at his commanding officer.
"Come on in, Joe," the other man said in a weary voice.
Joe entered then closed the door behind him. "Sir."
Captain Phillips waved to the empty chair in front of his desk. "You hear all that?"
Phillips, a tall man in his early forties, sighed. "He loved that boat."
Joe didn't respond. The information wasn't news. The admiral had been restoring his nearly eighty-year-old boat for the past five years. The engine was new, and the electronics state-of-the-art, but the rest of it was original, lovingly sanded and varnished by the admiral's own hand.
The man's wife had left him, claiming she refused to come in second to a floating hunk of wood, and his children rarely visited, knowing they would be put to work on the boat. Six months ago the admiral had decided to live aboard.
Then, last night, at 9:18, the admiral's pride and joy had been accidentally blown up by men under Joe's command. They were lucky the admiral hadn't been on board at the time.
"Want to tell me what happened?" the captain asked.
Joe shrugged. "The team was celebrating being back," he said. The Navy SEAL team in question had just returned from six months of hazardous duty out of the country. "They'd all made it out alive. Even Grayson."
"How's he doing?" the captain asked.
"Lieutenant Grayson is still in the hospital, sir. He's recovering from his injuries."
Grayson had been shot on their last op. His men had brought him back and kept him alive until he'd been evacuated to the hospital ship, then brought back home.
Joe remained perfectly still as he continued. "I spoke with the men on the team yesterday afternoon. They'd had six missions back to back, with minimal downtime in between. I suggested they burn off some steam."
Phillips nodded. "They decided on boat races."
"Yes, sir." Made sense. To a SEAL, the water was a second home. "They used small boats and kept within the marina speed limit." Sort of. "Unfortunately their racing course took them over a BUDS training exercise."
The future SEALs had been in their second round of training, learning to dive and work with explosives underwater.
"Last night the explosives were live. Apparently the movement of the boats racing overhead confused a few of the trainees. They're not allowed to surface to get their bearings. Instead of putting their explosives on the target, they placed them on the admiral's boat."
Talk about plain bad luck, Joe thought grimly. "The explosives were small and shouldn't have caused much damage. Unfortunately the admiral had recently refueled his craft. There was a small leak in the engine. When the explosive went off, it triggered a chain reaction that turned the admiral's pride and joy into kindling. At least that's the preliminary report."
Captain Phillips didn't speak for several seconds. "Aren't you going to tell me that the admiral tied up in a restricted area? That he shouldn't have been there in the first place?"
"No, sir." What was the point? Joe had been in the navy long enough to know excuses only made the situation worse. Besides, who would have told an admiral to move his boat?
"You have a great career," his captain told him. "You've worked hard, moved up the ranks. I was confident you'd make it to admiral yourself, before you retired."
Joe had walked into some of the most dangerous situations in the world and lived to tell the tale, but nothing he'd experienced prepared him for the sense of fury that gripped him as he sat there and heard his career talked about in the past tense. The navy was all he knew, all he'd ever wanted.
He'd told the men to go have fun. It was his responsibility. Technically, he could pass the punishment on down, but next in line was Lieutenant Grayson, currently missing most of his right leg and facing a long road to recovery.
No. This time the chain of command stopped here. With Joe.
Phillips flipped open a file. "You've been with the SEALs nearly ten years, Joe. You're a fine officer and one of the best men I've ever worked with. The admiral wants you punished, and I want to save your career if I can."
"Thank you, sir," Joe said, feeling the first hint of relief.
The captain smiled. "You might want to hold off on your thanks. The best way I know to punish you is to temporarily reassign you to a special project that has nothing to do with the SEALs. The best way I know to save your ass is to get you the hell out of here for a few weeks and let the admiral cool down. As an interesting point of fact, my brother-in-law is fairly high up the chain of command in the Secret Service. I don't think you knew that."
"No, sir," Joe said, not sure what the information had to do with anything.
"You've mentioned you have family here in California," Phillips said. "The Marcellis. They own a winery just north of Santa Barbara?"
"Yes, sir." Joe had no idea what was going on, but he didn't like it. Technically he was related to the Marcelli clan, but they weren't his family.
"What you don't know," the captain said, "is that the president's daughter was kidnapped yesterday."
Joe stiffened as he pictured the attractive, curvy blonde who frequently served as the president's hostess. "Lauren?"
"No. The other one. Darcy. Apparently they grabbed her by mistake -- Lauren was their actual target."
"How could they screw that up?" Joe asked. Darcy was nothing like her sister in looks or temperament.
"No one knows. The point is, both women are being taken out of Washington and sent to different locations. Safe houses, if you will. They'll have their usual Secret Service protection, but until the kidnappers are caught, they need to lay low. This is all confidential, Joe. You aren't to discuss this information with anyone."
"Of course not, sir." Joe had no problem keeping quiet. What he didn't understand was what any of it had to do with him.
Captain Phillips leaned forward. "There is some concern about Darcy. She's not generally cooperative, and frankly no one wants to be locked up in a safe house with her. The thought is if she can be kept safe but still have a semblance of a life, it will be easier for all concerned. Basically a place that is isolated but not solitary. I thought of what you've told me about your family's winery. There's a large house, plenty of room for the team and Darcy. I wasn't sure how I was going to convince you to take this assignment. After last night, I don't have to."
Joe put the rest of the pieces together and didn't like the finished picture. That was to be his punishment. To babysit the president's daughter and spend time with the Marcellis.
"I have a SEAL team heading out in two months," he said. "There's important work to be done."
"Someone else can take care of that, Joe. Right now the president's daughter is your responsibility."
"Sir, sending her to the hacienda is an interesting solution," he said, "but the winery is not easily guarded. There are hundreds of acres, employees, staff. Plus my relatives would have to be cleared for security purposes."
"Already done. You're right about the winery being an open space, but who would think to look for her there? The navy is cooperating with the president at his request," Phillips told him. "Unless you want to call the president and explain why you're unwilling to protect his daughter?"
Joe felt the doors of the prison swing closed. "What is my assignment, sir?"
"Coordinate with the Secret Service. Their job is to protect Darcy, but you are to facilitate what they need. Be another pair of eyes. Use your tactical skills to their advantage. When the kidnappers are caught, you'll return here and we'll see if the admiral has cooled off enough for you to resume your duties. In the meantime, do what you can to keep Darcy Jensen happy."
Joe rose and saluted. "Yes, sir," he said and left.
He was completely and totally screwed, sent away in disgrace, his career in jeopardy. He would be lucky to come back as an ensign.
As for keeping Darcy Jensen happy -- from what he'd heard, that was a task even a SEAL couldn't pull off. Copyright ©2005 by Susan Macias Redmond