Private detective Jaxon Ryker swore to himself he would keep his hands off Mindy Stewart. No matter how much Jax might secretly wish otherwise, his colleague at The Max is strictly off-limits. But when Mindy is the victim of an attempted kidnapping, everything changes. With both of them thrust into danger, Jax swears to protect her. As they work together in search of answers, it becomes clear Mindy’s life is on the line, so a trap is set—with Mindy as bait. Jax and Mindy have to put aside their overwhelming attraction, but if they live through this, all bets are off…
“Martin keeps the twists and turns coming in the sensuous and spirited Maximum Security romantic thrillers.” —Publishers Weekly
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Last week it was murder. This week it's stolen diamonds. Mindy Stewart loved working at The Max. Her job was never dull.
Seated behind her desk in the reception area, Mindy reached over to answer the phone, then directed the call to Jonah Wolfe, one of the agency's detectives.
Mindy had only been working at Maximum Security a couple of months. Originally hired as a temp to fill in for the receptionist who had retired, and do some bookkeeping. She managed to impress Chase Garrett, the owner, who had offered her a full-time job.
In the weeks since then, the private investigators, bodyguards, and bounty hunters who worked out of the office had accepted her as a member of the team. It felt really good to be part of such an interesting crew.
She checked the time on her computer. It was well past five o'clock, but everyone worked their own schedules, so people were in and out at all hours of the day and night. Mindy got overtime pay, and she didn't mind working late. Part of her job was reorganizing office ledgers and updating Chase's QuickBooks, so there was plenty for her to do.
She glanced across the office at the men still working. The open area was decorated in a Western motif, a tufted dark red leather sofa and chairs up front in the reception area, with antique farming tools on the walls.
Jonah Wolfe was a former police detective, incredibly handsome with his too-long black hair and dark eyes. He was involved in a serious relationship, but even if he weren't, the man was too intense and brooding to appeal to her.
Jason "Hawk" Maddox was a big, good-looking man, but he was somehow overwhelming to her. Like Wolfe and Chase and the other guys in the office, Maddox was protective of the women who worked there, even the female detectives. He waved at Mindy as he and Wolfe headed out the door, and she waved back.
Along with a female PI, there were a number of single men in the office, guys who worked part-time. It seemed like all of them were attractive, but it was Jaxon Ryker who made her adrenaline spike and her pulse speed up whenever he glanced in her direction.
Which, fortunately, wasn't that often. Jax probably went for tall, svelte blondes, not petite, curvy brunettes. Even if he were interested in her — which clearly he wasn't — a disastrous affair with the former Navy SEAL-turned-PI would ruin everything.
Mindy loved her job. She wanted to keep it.
Still, she couldn't deny the man pushed her buttons. Six feet of wide- shouldered, solid male muscle, military short dark hair and deep brown eyes, Ryker was handsome as sin yet seemingly unaware of his masculine charms.
And he was nice. Always polite, always considerate. He never flirted, never teased, and constantly kept a respectful distance.
Sometimes it drove her crazy.
Finally satisfied with her progress for the day, Mindy shoved her round tortoiseshell glasses up on her nose, slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder, and headed for the door to the parking lot behind the office. She managed not to glance at Jax as she left, but it wasn't easy.
The early April weather was humid, warm but not hot, the last of a pink-gold sky fading to darkness. She spotted her little red Volkswagen Beetle, one of the few vehicles left in the lot, and started in that direction.
If she hadn't been working for a security firm, listening to crime stories on a daily basis, she might not have noticed the white Chevy van whose motor sparked to life and began idling in the shadows not far from her car.
When her steps unconsciously slowed, she told herself she was being ridiculous, a paranoid response to the guys' sometimes gruesome, often frightening tales.
Pausing to dig her car keys out of her purse, she took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart. When the effort failed, she forced her feet to move, closing the distance between her and her vehicle. She had almost reached her destination when the van doors slid open. Three men dressed head-to-foot in black, wearing black ski masks, jumped out and started running toward her.
Terror struck. Mindy let out a terrified, high-pitched scream, dropped her purse, whirled and started running.
* * *
Jax's long day wasn't over yet. Before he picked up a pizza and headed home for a couple of beers, he had a meeting with a client on the other side of Dallas, a cold case he had been working where the mother of a murder victim had discovered new evidence she believed would help find her daughter's killer. The police weren't convinced, but Mrs. Donahue had hired Jax to prove it. Or at least find out the truth.
He checked his heavy black wristwatch. If he wanted to make his appointment on time, he needed to get on the road. Grabbing his laptop off the desk, he headed for his dark blue Dodge Ram pickup, parked in the lot behind the office, his mind on the case he figured would earn him a nice fat fee — and maybe help bring a killer to justice.
He had just stepped out the back door when a blood-curdling scream cut through the sticky evening air. A petite young woman with long dark hair and glasses struggled with three masked men.
Adrenaline shot into his blood. Mindy! Even as he bolted into a run, Jax registered the men's appearances: one tall and lean, one average height and weight, one big and beefy, thick-shouldered and muscular. He was flat-out running by the time Mindy spotted him and started screaming his name.
"Jax, help me! Jax!" Kicking and biting, she fought like a wild thing, but she was no match for the men. As they hauled her toward the open van doors, Jax grabbed the taller man and pulled him off her, pounded a fist into his face and slammed another into his stomach, doubling him over. A hard right hook sent the guy careening backward, hitting the ground on his back and sliding across the asphalt.
The second man, Mr. Average, stepped in and swung a punch Jax ducked. He shot out a kick, knocking the assailant into the side of the van, then heard the sound of a switchblade snapping open behind him.
"Jax, watch out!"
As the second guy ran for the van, Jax whirled toward the new threat, dodged the flashing blade of the big beefy man and shoved Mindy toward safety, then went back in for the kill. Rage burned through his usual calm. She worked with him; as far as he was concerned, she was under his protection. More than that, she was kind and sweet, and he cared about her far more than he should. Jax wanted to end the bastards who were trying to hurt her.
"Run!" he shouted. "Go back to the office and lock the door! Call 9-1- 1!" A knife flashed. Jax dodged the sweep of gleaming silver wielded by a big, thick-fingered, extremely capable hand and jumped back, out of the way of another slashing attack as he and the beefy man crouched and circled each other. From the corner of his eye, he saw the tall, thin man back on his feet and rushing toward him.
Jax looked up to see Mindy swinging her purse like a ball and chain, smashing the bag into the side of the tall man's head, sending him staggering, grunting as he landed on his hands and knees.
"Bitch!" the guy screamed, shaking his head to clear it, drawing the big man's attention and providing the distraction Jax needed. He kicked the knife out of the beefy man's hand and threw a punch that sent him reeling. The second man had already climbed into the van and shoved the vehicle into gear.
"Come on!" the guy shouted from where he sat behind the wheel. "Let's go!"
The tall guy got up off his knees and ran to the open van doors, and the beefy, muscular man shot in behind him. Tires burned and smoke rolled up from the wheels as the vehicle screeched away.
Every instinct urged Jax to jump in his pickup and follow, but concern for Mindy won out. Turning, he strode toward her.
"Jax!" Mindy hurled herself into his arms. "Jax ..." she breathed.
Relief had him tightening his hold. "It's all right, honey. It's over." She was shaking so hard her teeth chattered. She clung to him, and he couldn't resist smoothing a hand over her pretty dark hair.
"It's all right," he softly repeated. "You're safe. I'm here. Everything's okay."
Mindy looked up at him. Behind her glasses, her big blue eyes glistened with tears. "You saved me."
His chest clamped down. What if he hadn't walked out of the office when he did? What would have happened to her? Why had she been targeted? Was it a random abduction attempt, or something more?
"Come on. Let's get you back inside. We need to call the police."
She nodded, released her death grip, pulled out of his arms and started walking. When her knees buckled, and she nearly went down, Jax scooped her into his arms.
"Adrenaline rush," he said. "It'll be over in a minute."
She didn't argue, just rested her head on his shoulder and let him carry her into the office. After pausing to lock the back door behind them, he carted her into the break room and set her down on the brown vinyl sofa.
Jax smoothed long dark hair out of her face with his finger. A faint bruise was beginning to form on her cheek, and a fresh rush of anger rolled through him. "You gonna be okay?"
Mindy swallowed and looked up at him. "Those men were ... they were trying to kidnap me. I don't ... don't understand. Why would they be after me? What could they possibly want?"
His jaw hardened. "Don't worry. We'll figure it out."
Pulling out his cell, he hit 9-1-1 and reported the attempted kidnapping to police dispatch. He had tried to get a license number, but conveniently the plate was smeared with mud except for what looked like an H on the letter side and maybe a 3.
Since he had only a partial, and minimal physical descriptions of the assailants, he wasn't sure how much good reporting the incident would do.
He was just glad Mindy was safe.
As they waited for the police to arrive, he walked out of the break room to phone Chase Garrett. His boss wouldn't be happy to learn one of his employees had been attacked in the parking lot. They were all like family to him.
"I'm on my way," Chase said when Jax finished the story.
"No need for that," he said. "I'll take care of Mindy and talk to the police. You don't have to worry. We can talk things out in the morning, work up a plan."
"So you'll stay with her tonight?" Chase pressed, just to be sure she was safe, though he had to know Jax wasn't about to leave her.
"Absolutely. These guys knew what they were doing, Chase. If the attack wasn't just random and Mindy was the target, they'll be back. They won't give up that easy."
"All right, but call me if you have any more trouble. If I don't hear from you, I'll see you in the morning." Chase hung up the phone.
Next Jax called to reschedule his now-overdue meeting with Eleanor Donahue, the mother of the murdered girl. He might have to ask Wolfe to take over. For now, it looked like he had another case that was going to take precedence.
In his new case, the victim was still alive. Jax intended to keep her that way.CHAPTER 2
Mindy sipped from the bottle of water Jax had retrieved from the fridge in the break room. She wondered if he had noticed that water was her go- to drink of choice. Surely not. He rarely glanced in her direction.
He was looking at her now, with so much concern in his thick-lashed dark eyes it made her chest feel tight.
She remembered the way he had rushed to help her. "You were amazing," she said.
"Yeah? Well, you were pretty amazing yourself. If you hadn't fought those men the way you did, I wouldn't have had time to get to you. You did great, honey, but next time you're in trouble and I tell you to run, you need to do what I say."
Her eyebrows went up. "Three to one is not exactly fair odds. I couldn't just leave you."
Amusement touched his lips. "Most people would have."
A slow smile broke over his face. "In that case, thanks."
It occurred to her that he was a former navy SEAL. He could probably handle three men as easily as one. It didn't matter. No way was she running away when it was her fault he was in danger.
"Sounds like the cops have arrived," he said at the sound of sirens screeching out in front. "I'll be right back."
The air seemed to deflate as he left the room. She heard the police talking to Jax in the main part of the office. When they came back into the break room, she recognized two of the officers who patrolled the area, the same ones who had shown up the night Chase's wife, Harper, had gotten in trouble. Officer Alvarez was a tall man with thick black hair. The other man, Officer Simmons, was older, heavier, with short hair laced with silver.
"Why don't you start at the beginning," Officer Simmons said, pulling out his notepad and flipping it open.
Since she didn't really know where the problem had actually begun, she just jumped in. "It was getting late. I work after hours quite a bit."
For the next few minutes, she filled the officers in on the kidnapping attempt and Jax's amazing rescue, but she couldn't tell them much about the men who were responsible. Officer Simmons wrote down the basic information, including vehicle and physical descriptions of the attackers, then he and his partner checked out the area outside where the attack had occurred.
As the officers finished and were preparing to leave, Detective Lieutenant Walter Gunderson arrived.
"Ryker," the detective said, clearly acquainted with Jax. With his thinning light brown hair and tired eyes, he looked older than the early forties Mindy guessed him to be.
"Gunderson," Jax said.
"You're the guy who stopped the attack?"
"She's lucky you were here."
Jax made no reply, but the hard set of his jaw said he knew it was true. Mindy certainly agreed.
"I'm afraid I'll need you to start over, Ms. Stewart," Detective Gunderson said as the two police officers left.
Mindy looked at Jax. "This is probably going to take a while, and it's getting really late. Now that Detective Gunderson is here, there's no reason for you to stay. I can drive myself home when we're done."
Jax's powerful shoulders tightened. He shook his head. "Not gonna happen, sweetheart. You just tell the detective what he needs to know."
"But — "
Jax's stony expression said there was no use arguing, and secretly she was glad. Just thinking about what had happened — what could have been so much worse — made her feel light-headed.
As she ran through the details of the kidnap attempt a second time, Jax added the partial plate information, as well as basic descriptions of the three men.
He mentioned little things she hadn't noticed, like a scar on the back of the big man's right hand, which Jax believed was probably made by a knife — the man's weapon of choice. The eye color of the guy Jax called Mr. Average — a pale shade of blue — and the tall man's sneakers, expensive Giuseppe Zanotti high-tops, black with red leather trim.
"He had a rough voice, probably a smoker," Jax added. Mindy shivered at the memory of him calling her a bitch. Then the detective started asking questions that might lead to the reason for the attack.
"So, no boyfriends, current or otherwise, who might be upset with you?" Gunderson asked.
"I haven't been seeing anyone. Not for more than six months." She glanced at Jax, then away. "I've been too busy to date." Not quite true. She just hadn't found anyone interesting. After she'd met Jax, no other man seemed to compare. But she'd die of embarrassment if he found out.
"What about friends or family members?" the detective asked. "Anyone who might be angry with you, someone who might be holding a grudge?"
"I don't have a lot of family. My mom's in a long-term care facility. She was mentally impaired in the same car accident that killed my dad and brother."
Jax's jaw subtly tightened.
Gunderson asked about her finances, loans she might owe that hadn't been repaid, gambling debts, anything and everything that might account for the kidnapping attempt, but nothing seemed to point to an answer.
Finally finished, the detective rose from his chair. "Kidnapping is a serious offense, Ms. Stewart. You need to keep your eyes open. Call us if you think of anything that might help us find the men behind the attack." He turned to Jax. "I take it you're on the case?"
The detective just nodded, clearly seeing something in Jax's expression Mindy didn't. Jax let him out the front door and locked up behind him.
"So you're going to follow me home?" she asked as they headed for the parking lot.
"Oh, I'm not just following you home. If you don't want me sleeping on your sofa tonight, I'll be in my truck out in front."
Her eyes widened. "What?"
"Those men were deadly serious, honey. The way it looks, you weren't a random choice. Which means there's a chance they'll try again. No way am I leaving you alone. Until we know what the hell is going on, you've got round the clock protection."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadows at Dawn"
Copyright © 2019 Kat Martin.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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