Read an Excerpt
Catherine Ann Blackburn heard the grandfather clock on the landing chime twice and knew she’d delayed the moment long enough. She had a special visit to pay this afternoon. She’d better get moving. She saved her work, blew out the cinnamon-scented candle burning on her desk, and rose to leave her home office. The phone rang, but she allowed the answering machine to pick up. She crossed the hall to her bedroom, where she stripped out of her jeans and George Washington University hoodie. Inside her walk-in closet, she stared at the racks of clothing and debated which of her cemetery dresses to wear. She had four from which to choose. Cat spent way too much time in cemeteries.
A year and a half ago she’d joined Arlington Ladies, an organization of volunteers who attended military services at Arlington National Cemetery in order to make sure that no soldier was buried alone. When she paid her respects to the fallen, Cat represented the thanks of a nation for the soldier’s service and sacrifice, and she was proud to do so. No one should be laid to rest without someone there to note the passing of a life. Not a soldier, not an old man or woman.
Not a baby.
Grief washed over Cat and she shut her eyes, accepting it. Today was a day for remembering, the one day of the year when she allowed herself to wallow in her heartache. Today she wasn’t going to Arlington, but to Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.
She scanned her closet’s contents again, but nothing felt right until she spied the red cashmere sweater. Forget the black dresses. Today, she’d wear red—the color of love.
She donned the sweater and a pair of gray wool slacks. She had just slipped into her shoes when she heard her doorbell ring. Immediately she tensed. Surely this wasn’t her dad, not after the lecture she’d given him last year. You’d think that after five years, George Blackburn would get the fact that she needed to do this by herself.
Her bedroom window overlooked the front yard, so she glanced outside. The only car in her driveway was her white Mercedes convertible, a recent gift to herself for having won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for her series on fraudulent charities. Nor did she see her father’s eight-year-old Volvo station wagon at the curb. When the doorbell rang again, followed by three raps against the wood, a pause, then two additional raps, she relaxed. That was her next-door neighbor’s usual knock.
Marsha Wells, the bubbly stay-at-home mother of a second-grader and a toddler, stood on the stoop. She began speaking the moment Cat answered the door. “You won’t believe this. It’s the most horrible thing.”
Concerned, Cat waved her inside. “What happened? Are your kids okay?”
“They’re fine. This isn’t about us. I spoke to Janie from Paw Pals a few minutes ago. Boy, was she furious.”
Janie Pemberton was the director of Paw Pals, the canine rescue organization that was another of Cat’s volunteer causes. “Something to do with Paw Pals?”
“Indirectly. She says she’s stumbled upon a dogfighting ring operating here in town. Some prominent people might be involved.”
“With dogfighting?” Cat shook her head. Prominent people in this part of the world meant politicians. Politicians and prostitution she’d believe. Drugs wouldn’t surprise her. But dogfighting? Other than child porn or murder, she couldn’t think of anything that would derail a politician’s career faster than being involved in dogfighting. “I don’t believe it.”
“She’s convinced. And Janie is no fool. You know that.”
Cat nodded. Janie was a dynamo of energy with a quick, intelligent mind.
Marsha continued. “I think you should call and talk to her about it, Cat. This could be right up your alley.”
The old, familiar buzz that she experienced whenever a new story came her way shot through Cat, but she immediately dismissed it. Such things could wait. This was not the time. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll call her this evening.”
“Excellent.” Her eyes gleaming with satisfaction, Marsha shifted the topic of conversation by giving Cat’s outfit a once-over. “You’re all dressed up. Looking gorgeous as always, I might add. How is it that you can wear red so well when you’re a redhead? If I didn’t like you so much I’d hate you.”
“Thank you. I think.”
“I thought you had an Arlington Ladies commitment today.”
Cat frowned. She wouldn’t have booked anything for today. “Why did you think that?”
“When I handed you my grocery shopping list last night, I’d have sworn I saw ‘cemetery flowers’ written on yours.”
Oh. Cat didn’t know how to respond to that. She didn’t like to lie, but Marsha didn’t know anything about her past. Hardly anyone did. Luckily, she didn’t need to respond because Marsha continued to talk.
“Thanks again for coming to my rescue. We were down to our last diaper, and I would never have heard the end of it if Aiden didn’t have a banana for his breakfast this morning, but the thought of loading him into the car seat one more time . . .” Marsha shuddered dramatically.
“I was glad to help.” And she was thrilled to avoid talk about cemetery flowers. “Speaking of rescue, how are things going at your house with your new foster? Is he settling in okay?”
“So far so good. He has an appointment at the vet tomorrow for heartworm treatment. How about you? Are you ready for your next baby?”
Inwardly, Cat winced. Today of all days, she didn’t want to think of the dogs she fostered as babies. “Actually, I’m taking a break from fostering for a little while. I told Janie I’d help with the website and shelter visits and even do some sitting when our volunteers need help, but I’m trying to schedule some major remodeling so it’s probably best I don’t have dogs here full time.”
“I know that Janie is thrilled to have you do anything you want to help out,” Marsha said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Cat, but I’m so glad the newspaper laid you off.”
“I’m not complaining. I like the freelance life more than I ever imagined. And the dogs who come to your house are lucky, too.”
“I don’t know about that.” Exasperation wrinkled Marsha’s brow. “Aiden keeps stealing their food. Fosters at your house don’t have to compete for their supper with an eleven-month-old kibble thief.”
Cat worked to keep her smile on her face as she finished up the conversation. Once she’d shut the door safely behind Marsha, her smile faded. Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away. “It’s okay,” she lectured herself aloud. “It’s natural that the mention of Aiden breaks your heart today. Perfectly normal. Don’t sweat it.”
She pulled her coat from the closet, locked the front door, then went to the refrigerator where she removed a bouquet of yellow roses wrapped in green tissue. Five minutes later, she was on her way.
A cold, blustery wind buffeted the car and patches of snow clung to the shady spots beside the road. Cat cranked up the heater in her car. She listened to a classic rock station on the radio during the first half of her trip, but as she drew nearer to her destination, she switched off the noise and allowed silence to settle over her.
Had someone asked Cat what she thought about as she drove, she couldn’t have said. She spent the trip clearing her mind and preparing her heart, and by the time she turned in to the entrance to the cemetery, she was as ready as she ever would be. Though she hadn’t been to Rose Hill since this same day last year, she knew exactly where to go—the Angel Land section. She walked the rows of flat markers, knelt beside the grave she’d come to visit, then opened her mind to dreams she ordinarily kept locked away.
She imagined a toddler with dark curls playing with a fluffy white puppy. She pictured a preschooler with finger paint on her hands standing in front of a child-size easel. Next, it was a second-grader sitting in her lap and learning to read, then a fourth-grader coming up to bat at softball practice.
Today would have been Lauren Ann Davenport’s fifth birthday.
Cat remained beside the grave for almost an hour. She reflected on her memories, said a few prayers, and allowed the tears to fall as she mourned those things that she had cherished and lost. When the moment felt right, she laid the bouquet of yellow roses below the marker, pressed a kiss to her fingertips, then touched the raised letters of the name recorded there. “Happy birthday, baby. I love you.”
Cat Blackburn turned and walked away from the grave of her only child.
She never noticed the figure of the man who stood behind the shelter of a nearby evergreen, silently watching.
Five months later
“She calls that security?” Jack Davenport muttered with disgust, watching as the idiot wearing a shoulder holster flashed Cat Blackburn a smarmy grin.
Moments before, Cat’s little Mercedes sports car had pulled in to the driveway of her home in a quiet suburban neighborhood. From inside her house, Jack noticed that the pretty-boy bodyguard hadn’t paid any attention to the pool service truck parked next door in the Wellses’ driveway. While it was true that the truck sported the same logo as the service used by the vacationing Wells family, any security guard worth his permit would check out the vehicle before allowing his charge to exit her car.
What surprised him was that Cat remained so oblivious. After all, she’s the one whose house had been firebombed earlier this week. She should be more careful! It was almost as if she were daring the culprit to have another go at her.
It made Jack want to wring her neck. Right after he made the bodyguard pay for his inattention.
Jack had followed Cat and her escort from her home, to the dry cleaners, then a pet store, and finally to an animal shelter where she picked up a dog. The security loser never looked at Jack’s ride twice. He was too busy checking out Cat’s chest and ogling her ass.
Jack wanted to shoot him on principle. He’d seriously considered breaking bones—a leg would be good—in order to demonstrate to the incompetent jackass that a career move was in order. Doing so would be a public service. Instead, once the bug he’d planted in her car picked up the order she’d made for takeout at her favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, an indication that she was finally headed home, he’d postponed his contemplated punishment and made his way to her house ahead of her.
Now, the sound of Cat’s laughter drifted through the window he’d cracked open, and he set his teeth. She wore a flirty yellow sundress, strappy heeled sandals, and oversized sunglasses. She pulled a designer dog tote filled with a puffball of four-legged fur from the backseat of the Mercedes. Her wavy auburn hair was pulled up in a ponytail, and as she approached the house, she looked more like a coed than a woman in her mid-thirties who paid no more attention to her surroundings than did her sorry excuse for security.
No wonder Melinda had assigned this job to him. Cat Blackburn couldn’t bat her pretty eyes and turn him into a worthless blob of testosterone. No, he was immune to the woman’s admittedly significant appeal. He’d been vaccinated.
Beautiful, stubborn fool, he thought as he watched her pause halfway to the kitchen door, hand the dog to the bodyguard, and dig in her purse for her phone. Blithely, she stood right there out in the open and double-thumbed out a text message. He had thought the woman had more sense than to leave herself exposed that way, but maybe not. After all, she’d managed to stir up a hornet’s nest with her blog exposé about the dogfighters.
The piece had gone live on the Internet three weeks ago. The day before yesterday, someone had firebombed her house. True, it hadn’t been a big explosion, but fire was fire. Fire was serious business, and Jack knew that better than most. Luckily, she’d been sitting on the living room sofa when the Molotov cocktail sailed through the picture window and exploded in her dining room.
Imagining the moment, his stomach took a sick turn.
And what had been Cat’s response? To hire protection who was more bodybuilder than bodyguard. What the hell was she thinking?
As much as he wanted to teach Mr. Ass-gazer a lesson, Jack knew he had to restrain the urge. This operation needed to be slick and quick. Better he stick to his original plan.
Though when the security guy reached up and playfully tugged Cat’s ponytail, Jack reconsidered. Maybe one well-placed kick wouldn’t hurt anything.
She dropped her phone back into her purse and resumed her stroll toward her kitchen door. Silent as a ghost, Jack moved past the brand-new dining room window and into the kitchen, taking up position. Waiting for her to slip her key into the lock, Jack realized with a touch of chagrin that his pulse pounded in a way that it rarely had on missions. Honesty made him admit that he worried more about dealing with Cat than he ever did about dying on the job.
Bodyguard Ken entered the kitchen ahead of her. “Idiot,” Jack muttered as he took the man down and knocked him out with a pair of smooth, practiced, lightning-quick kicks.
He’d be lying if he denied the pleasure it gave him, or the satisfaction he felt when he plunged the hypodermic needle into Cat Blackburn’s shoulder and she collapsed, unconscious, into his arms.
He used duct tape to secure the idiot guard, then lifted Cat over his shoulder and carried her to the garage, where he transferred her into the scroungy old SUV she used for hauling dogs as part of her work for the rescue group. As a precaution, he used the tape to bind her ankles and wrists and muffle her mouth. He’d gone heavy on the drug. The last thing he needed was to have her come to on the highway and cause a wreck.
He climbed into the driver’s seat, then hesitated. What about the dog? He hadn’t planned for that particular complication, but he liked dogs. For all he knew, Bodyguard Bozo would wake up angry and take it out on the purse pet.
He went back and got the dog.
They exited the garage and the neighborhood without incident. Once they’d gained the beltway, he phoned Melinda. She answered on the first ring. “Yes?”
“I have her. We’ll be wheels up within the hour.”
“Excellent. The guard?”
“Is a tool. I put him on the sofa in the den.”
“I’ll take care of him.” After a brief hesitation, she asked, “How is she, Jack?”
“Not a scratch on her. She’ll have a slight headache when she wakes up, but we knew to expect that.”
The relieved sigh was almost inaudible. “Yes. All right, then. Safe travels. You’ll be in touch?”
“Absolutely.” He hung up and made the rest of the trip to the airfield in silence. Though he concentrated on driving, he remained intensely aware of the woman slumped in the seat beside him and stole glances whenever traffic allowed.
She no longer looked like Coed Barbie. This was the soft, slumbering Kitten he’d known and loved once upon a time.
Afternoon sunshine beamed through slatted wood blinds and woke Jack to the sound of the surf, the musty scent of sex, and soft snuffle of the naked woman lying next to him. He filled his lungs with air and a lazy grin stretched across his face. He couldn’t ever recall feeling so . . . pleasured.
Rolling up on his elbow, he watched her sleep. Cat was an apt name for her, he decided. Two hours ago, he’d watched her stride along the beach, sleek and strong, confident and utterly feminine in her next-to-nothing bikini. He’d been in their room on a phone call— an important work call—and he’d completely lost his train of thought. She stopped outside on the room’s lanai and finished off her ice cream cone. She gazed into the room and licked her fingers, slowly, one by one.
Damned if he remembered hanging up the phone.
She was a tigress in bed—bold and adventurous and enthusiastic. When they mated, when he made her purr, she made him feel like the king of the jungle.
Now, though, relaxed and sated and drowsing, Cat was a soft, cuddly kitten.
Her eyes opened. Gorgeous soft green pools that he could drown in. She blinked once, twice, and when her gaze shifted and met his, she smiled. His heart swelled. My Kitten. My Cat.
Driving the SUV, Jack took a corner a bit too sharply and her weight shifted. Her shoulder fell against him and he felt the heat of her like a brand. The truck cab was too small, his memories too big. He pushed her back where she belonged—far away from him—and returned his focus to the road.
Ten minutes later, she came to.
She tried to hide it, but he was too experienced to miss the subtle signs of awakening. He wished he’d given her a stronger dose of the drug and kept her out until they’d left the city. Stupid of him to let his own dislike of the aftereffects of the drug guide him in this case. Even bound and gagged, she could cause him trouble. Hell, she’d caused him trouble when they occupied opposite hemispheres of the globe. Soothingly, he said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m doing this to help you.”
At the sound of his voice, her eyes flew open wide. Shock filled those familiar green eyes and color drained from her face.
Guilt slithered through him and sparked his temper. What, she’d rather be abducted by a stranger?
Knowing Cat, yeah, probably.
He gunned the engine and zipped around a slower-moving car. “Believe it or not, I’m still one of the good guys, Catherine.”
This time, anyway.
In reaction, she shut her eyes and slumped back into her seat.
She didn’t move or speak, and he said nothing more until he’d pulled the truck up next to the hangar and switched off the engine. “I’ll be back in a moment. Behave.”
He took the dog with him as he entered the hangar’s side door. His longtime pilot saw him and turned away from the Citation jet, clipboard in hand. “Everything’s ready on this end, Jack.”
“Good.” Jack handed over the dog and gave the man some last-minute instructions before returning to the truck and a fuming Catherine Ann Blackburn.
Had this been a real abduction he’d have carried her to the plane, but now that the time had come to hold her close, he found he didn’t want to do it. The drug had worn off, and he wasn’t ready for the intimacy. Disgusted with himself, he yanked out his pocketknife and slashed the duct tape binding her ankles.
He took hold of her upper arm and when she went stiff, tugged her from the truck. The moment her feet hit the ground, the woman twisted in his grip, as slippery as an eel. Her eyes flashed. She made a growling noise in her throat.
Then she kneed him in the junk. Hard.
Pain radiated through him and only the force of will kept him from dropping to his knees. As his grip on her arm loosened, she yanked herself free of him. But instead of fleeing, she stepped calmly toward the Citation, her three-inch heels clicking confidently against the concrete floor. Once he could breathe again, Jack cursed. Once he could move again, he hobbled off after her.
Jack eyed her long, lovely legs and scowled. The shoes had worked against her, and she obviously knew it. Had she not been wearing those ridiculous shoes, she could have dashed toward the more public buildings at this private airport and perhaps found help before he pulled himself up off the ground. Those shoes were something else Security Guard Ken should have cautioned her against.
With that, his temper reached the boiling point. He was as filled with fury as he’d been since . . . well . . . since Melinda told him someone had firebombed Cat’s house. Gritting his teeth, he caught up with her. He scooped her up, threw her over his shoulder, and hauled her up the jet’s staircase in a fireman’s carry. Inside the fuselage, he tossed her into a seat with a curt “Stay!”
Her mouth said not a word, but the furious glare in her eyes spoke loud and clear.
Again, he drew his knife and sliced the tape that bound her hands. She could remove the tape from her mouth herself. “I sit up front during takeoff. After that, we’ll talk. There’s water there”—he pointed toward a cabinet—“and the head is in back if you’d like to use it before takeoff. Be in your seat, buckled in, in five.”
He was halfway to the cockpit door when her voice stopped him cold. “Why am I not surprised to discover that you are still Melinda’s lapdog?”
Jack’s spine snapped straight and he stiffened. Melinda’s lapdog?
The barb struck that place deep within Jack’s heart where the doubts had always dwelt. Is that what she had thought of him, even when she professed to love him? Her mother’s lapdog?
Coldly furious, he glanced back over his shoulder and forced a smile. “You know, Cat, I don’t recall you being such a bitch when we were married.”
He slammed the cockpit door behind him with a bang.