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The only penis Tanner Crawford was accustomed to protecting was his own.
Tanner felt a disbelieving smile slide over his lips as he stared down at the picture in his hand. He could feel three sets of eyes—those of former Rangers Jamie Flanagan, Brian Payne and Guy McCann—all trained on him expectantly, waiting for his reaction. Both Jamie and Payne were poker-faced, but Guy's mouth was twitching with the effort not to laugh.
Struggling with that impulse himself, Tanner pulled in a deep breath and then looked up at the three gentleman of Ranger Security. Reminding himself that this was a new job—his first as a civilian after more than a decade at Uncle Sam's beck and call—he tried to arrange his face into something that would look professional rather than shocked and mildly revolted.
When Colonel Garrett had assured him of placement with Ranger Security, Tanner had imagined he'd be guarding glamorous socialites and the odd dignitary. Not funny little stone statues with enormous penises.
The mental adjustment took effort and he'd had enough to adjust to of late. Abrupt career change, one he'd never anticipated. Having his head shrunk repeatedly over the incident which had precipitated his quick departure from the military.
And he was still having damned nightmares.
Tanner had always been a roll-with-the-punches kind of guy, had prided himself on his ability to quickly assess and regroup, to do his job with competent enthusiasm and a level of detachment necessary to complete his mission. Dubbed "Renegade" by his fellow soldiers because of his unique ability to get the right outcome through so-called "wrong" procedures, Tanner was never truly concerned with the process so long as the end result was in his favor. War wasn't a game and loss was a natural byproduct of conflict. But no amount of heritage—he'd been a third-generation Ranger—training or detachment had prepared him for what had happened outside Mosul.
Gut-wrenching cries from mothers, wails of terror and despair from children. Broken little bodies…
It was over. Finished. Done.
Much to the displeasure of his father, who in no way supported or understood why he'd had to get out. "Your weakness is disgraceful. Man up, son. That's Crawford blood in your veins." Tanner smothered a bitter snort.
As if he'd ever forget.
"What is this, exactly?" he asked, pleased that his voice sounded level. "And, more importantly, why do I need to protect it?"
Payne was the one to answer. "It's a statue of a South American fertility god. It's been on display at the Smithsonian along with various other objects of the same nature. The entire exhibit will be moving to Dallas. That's where Ranger Security—and you, specifically—come into play. You'll fly into D.C., confer with the exhibit liaison and you, the liaison and Dick here—he nodded at the picture, indicating the statue—will drive back to Dallas. For appearance's sake, a decoy will be moving with the exhibit."
Drive? But wouldn't it be more expedient to fly?
"Under ordinary circumstances, flying would be a better alternative," Payne remarked, as though reading his mind. "But this particular statue has been the target of three burglary attempts alone since it's been in D.C."
Tanner glanced down at the picture once more and gave it a dubious look. Carved out of some porous, graying stone, it was roughly a foot tall. The little man's face was crude and devoid of expression. His hands were wrapped around the root of his enormous penis, which stood away from his body in a proud, anatomically correct position. But that's where the authenticity stopped. The penis itself was taller than the statue's head. In fact, it was more penis than man. Tanner frowned.
Why in the hell would anyone want to steal this thing? Tanner wondered, genuinely puzzled. It was hideous and, for reasons he couldn't readily identify, just looking at it made him strangely uncomfortable. Though he'd always been quite pleased with his own equipment, this little relic could easily give a guy an inferiority complex.
Guy snorted and took a swallow of his energy drink. He aimed the remote control at the large flat-panel television anchored to the wall. "Hard to believe anyone would want it, isn't it?"
"Truthfully, yes." Tanner looked up, certain there had to be more to this story than he was getting. "What's the draw? What's so special about it?"
Guy chuckled and that wicked laugh left Tanner feeling distinctly uneasy. Jamie winced and looked away. Tanner's gaze shifted to Payne, who seemed more likely to supply an answer.
Payne released a small breath and, for the first time, a shadow of a smile hovered around his lips. "The draw is…it seems to work."
Tanner blinked, certain he'd misunderstood. "Come again?"
"More than seventy percent of the women who have worked directly with Dick—and roughly half of those who have merely been in close proximity to him—have become pregnant," Jamie clarified. "Those are pretty damned convincing odds."
"If you believe the hype," Guy said, his lips twisting into a doubtful smile.
Payne handed Tanner another file, this one filled with newspaper clippings and printed articles from the Internet. "The press has had a field day with it. As a result, thousands of hopeful couples have flocked to the display. And there was interest enough beforehand," he added grimly.
Tanner's antennae twitched. "Interest? From whom?"
"Private collectors," Payne said. "One, in particular. Rodrigo Ramirez. According to our research, Ramirez claims that the statue was mistakenly donated to the Smithsonian by his great-grandfather. Ernesto Ramirez was a renowned archeologist. Rodrigo is a glorified treasure hunter, whose fortune is of questionable origin. He's as unscrupulous as they come. And he's dangerous. The people who stand in his way commonly end up sporting a toe tag."
Nothing like a little danger to get the blood flowing, Tanner thought, as he studied a picture of the man in question. Designer suit, Italian shoes, porcelain veneers. The trappings were what one would expect from a wealthy businessman, but there was a cruelness around his eyes that ruined the polished effect. He could see where this man could be dangerous.
"What's kept him out of prison?" Tanner asked.
"Money mostly," Jamie said. "The charges never stick, witnesses go missing. The usual stuff."
Tanner grimaced. "Sounds like a charming guy." He looked up. "So he's the primary reason Ranger Security has been hired?"
"Yes," Payne said. "Typically the museums coordinate their own security, but given the interest and threat level directed at Dick, they decided that outsourcing the security detail on him would be the best bet."
Tanner silently agreed.
"Ramirez and the contingent of reporters following along with the so called 'fertility phenomena' won't be expecting a change in protocol, which will give you an advantage," Jamie added.
Fertility phenomena, Tanner thought. He smothered a snort. Did these people genuinely believe that this little statue—nothing more than rock—had the power to make them conceive? Were they that desperate? Evidently so, he thought, baffled.
Having had a sister who struggled with fertility issues, Tanner had an on-the-fringes look at how devastating the inability to conceive a child could be. His sister and her husband had struggled through two years of marital, financial and emotional strain before she'd finally gotten pregnant with Eli, his eighteen-month-old nephew. Would Roxanne have believed this? Tanner wondered. Would she have made the pilgrimage to see Dick if there was even a remote possibility that it might work? He sighed, knowing the answer.
Without a doubt, yes.
"Once the statue is safely in Dallas, your job is complete," Payne told him. "We don't care what route you take or how you get there, so long as the artifact and the liaison arrive safely."
Tanner nodded, knowing his dismissal was imminent. He'd been briefed on his salary—he was still reeling from the income and benefits package, though his friend Will, also of Ranger Security, had warned him, of course—and had been given the keys to his new apartment, which was right here in the building. The convenience would be a plus.
The sleek Atlanta high-rise was in a prime location in the downtown area, and had been furnished with every possible amenity. Considering Tanner had been moving from place to place for the past decade and had been in college before that, he had little in the material possessions department. Aside from his Alabama football memorabilia, of course.
Like the office and lounge—the very room he found himself in at present—the space had been decorated with an eye for electronics and comfort. Heavy leather furniture, a sleek flat-panel television and a single spectacular remote control that ran it all, including the gas-log fireplace. The kitchen had been stocked right down to the refrigerator, which included a six pack of his favorite beer and a bottle of Jameson scotch—a welcome-aboard gift from Jamie—had been on the counter. His own belongings had been shipped ahead and placed in his spare bedroom. Tanner figured he'd have time to sort through those once this initial mission was over.
Despite the fact that his new home was outfitted with every possible perk, there was something quite sterile about it. No personal photographs, no books or knick-knacks, no clutter. He'd been picking up pieces—a rug here, a painting there, a carved wooden bowl from a street vendor—for the place where he eventually settled down, but he'd never truly looked forward to putting them in place. He did now, and the realization had been a welcome surprise, a sign that he could move forward after…
Tanner shook off the thought.
In addition to the apartment, he'd been given a laptop with the interfacing technology to tap into their sophisticated system, a cell phone and a handgun along with the permit to carry concealed.
Everything had been handled flawlessly, with an eye for detail and a thoroughness that he would have expected from the legendary former Rangers.
Known as the Specialist, Brian Payne was coolly efficient and had strategy down to an art form. There was no such thing as half-assed in his world.
Jamie Flanagan purportedly sported a genius-level IQ and had been the original player until he met and married Colonel Garrett's granddaughter. With a lucky streak that bordered on the divine, Guy McCann's ability to skate the thin line between recklessness and perfection was still locker-room lore.
Tanner counted himself damned fortunate to be work ing with them and would have to think of some way to properly thank Colonel Garrett when time permitted. When he'd finally realized that he couldn't continue in his job—that he no longer had the stomach for war—he hadn't had any idea what he was going to do and hadn't thought far enough ahead to even consider it.
Getting out had been his only objective.
Now Phase Two of Get Your Head Together could commence, starting with the new job. He sincerely hoped the nightmares would end as quickly as his former career had. Even as a child, Tanner had never had nightmares. He'd never been spooked by anything that went bump in the night, could watch horror movies without batting a lash and could honestly say he'd never been truly afraid of anything.
That absence of fear had made him one helluva soldier.
But these horrific dreams absolutely terrified him.
It was the death, the helplessness, the inevitability.
The weight of knowing that he couldn't do anything at all to prevent what was happening pinned him into place, his leaden legs refused to move, to do anything that could change the dreadful outcome. And that final moment, the one that always made him sit bolt upright screaming, when the blast rocketed through the little school, tearing it and everything inside into bits and pieces, always brought him to his knees.
Tanner closed his eyes, fighting back the vision and swallowed the revulsion that automatically clawed up his throat. He fisted his hands to keep them from shaking.
"Do you have any questions?" Payne asked, his shrewd gaze missing nothing.
"The liaison," he said, determined not to screw this up. He couldn't afford to make a mistake—this was his only backup plan. There was nowhere else for him to go. Home was out of the question, of course. He'd disgraced his family. His grandfather would welcome him, but Tanner couldn't face him right now, either. "When do I meet him?"
"You meet her at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning," Payne said. "You'll pick up a rental car at the airport, of course. Once the liaison and the statue are in your possession, you would be wise not to let either of them out of your sight."
So he wasn't just protecting the statue, he was there to protect the woman, as well. He mentally dubbed a short, plump, graying academic type in neutral colors and sensible heels into the slot of the liaison and hoped like hell she didn't have any annoying habits he'd have to deal with on the road trip. Hours upon hours trapped in the car with a denture clicker was not his idea of fun.
But this wasn't supposed to be fun, Tanner reminded himself. It was work. And he was damned lucky to have it.
"Her name?" he asked, consulting a file. A nanosecond later, Tanner's gaze landed on a hauntingly familiar face and shock detonated through him.
"Mia Hawthorne," Payne said, needlessly confirming what Tanner now knew. God, how long had it been? Ten years? Twelve? And yet in the space of a heartbeat and one glance at her picture, everything that had been old was new again.
Looking into those warm brown eyes, he experienced the same uncontrollable rush of desire he always had when he looked at her.