The note is simple but chilling: “I’m in trouble. Please help me. You’re the only one I trust.” Sensing the desperation in the plea for help, John McShane drops everything to find the person who wrote the note: Cali Ellis, a woman who’s been simmering in his heart for ten years. As a highly trained member of an elite tactical squad, McShane knows instantly that the people tracking Cali are well-connected . . . and cold-blooded. As he sets out to help Cali escape from these criminals, he begins to wonder if he can keep his feelings for her under control, at least long enough to save her.
Ten years ago, Cali Ellis lost too much: both her new husband and her unborn child. Now the suspicious men her late husband worked for have tracked her down, and apparently want her dead. Fearing for her life, Cali flees to the Caribbean island of Martinique and reaches out to the only person she knows will help her: John McShane. Despite all that they’ve been through in the past, Cali just might risk her heart again—if they both manage to stay alive.
Includes a special message from the editor, as well as excerpts from these Loveswept titles: Deep Autumn Heat, Callie’s Cowboy, and About Last Night.
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John McShane walked slowly up the crushed-shell path to the small bungalow. He paused on the front steps. What in the hell was Cali doing in this godforsaken, bug-infested place? The surrounding Caribbean jungle was fighting to reclaim the narrow porch and winning the battle handily. He shoved at a heavy, tangled trail of bougainvillea that cascaded off the porch roof like a lava flow, ducked under the rest, and made his way to the screen door.
Through the saggy mesh he could see well-worn hardwood floors and blank, white walls. There was no furniture in the front room, just a ceiling fan slogging through the humid air. No Cali either.
How long had she been there?
Ten years had evaporated like mist when he’d seen the name at the bottom of the short note he’d received two weeks earlier.
I hate to ask anything more of you. I promised I never would. But it’s important. It’s about Nathan. I’m in trouble. Please help me. You’re the only one I trust.
P.S. I’m sorry.
No return address. The postmark had been too blotted to read. His only clue to her whereabouts was an old honeymoon picture of herself and Nathan that she’d enclosed with the note. It had been taken in front of this bungalow. He’d seen the photo before. In a frame on her nightstand.
Cali and Nathan’s courtship had been brief, but no one who had laid eyes on the young couple ever doubted the intensity and depth of their love.
He fingered the photo in his pocket. He’d made himself stare at it repeatedly. Whether the act was a test of his feelings or penance, he wasn’t sure. Probably both.
The photo was a little more than a decade old. Ten years seemed like a lifetime ago in his mind, but only yesterday in his heart.
So there he was, half a world away, having left his job in the hands of others at a time when they needed him badly. Of course, the team always needed him badly. That was why he’d agreed to join them.
Known as Delgado’s Dirty Dozen, even though there were only four members remaining, the specially trained squad handled various delicate assignments for the United States government that fell outside the boundaries of other intelligence organizations. Usually well outside.
It was the one kind of need he knew he could fulfill. And with his former boss, Seve Delgado, gone and the rest of them facing the difficulty of rebuilding the team, now was the worst time to abandon them. But here he was. Because she trusted him.
Hadn’t she learned anything?
He rapped on the screen door a little harder than necessary. It rattled against the frame.
“I’m around back,” came a yell.
Her voice was strong, no-nonsense, the words more a command than a welcome. John smiled despite himself. She hadn’t changed.
His expression sobered as he ducked off the porch and wove his way through the overgrown path leading around the side of the cottage. For someone who claimed to be in danger, dragging him all over the globe with only a hastily scribbled note, she sure as hell wasn’t being very cautious. That was not the Cali Stanfield Ellis he had known.
He turned the corner and stopped in his tracks. She was in the garden, although the term sounded a bit formal for the flower- and weed-choked hill slanting steeply upward from the back door.
On her knees, bent over a thriving poinsettia bush, she looked … golden. Her platinum hair was still short with loose curls and as unruly as he remembered. Clad in white shorts and a ragged red T-shirt, she looked strong and capable and somehow soft and inviting at the same time. His heart knotted. He cursed silently.
“Almost done, Eudora,” she said without looking up.
“For someone in trouble you sure as hell aren’t hiding out too well.” He hadn’t intended to begin their reunion so bluntly. But then Cali had always had a way of making him do things he hadn’t intended.
She gasped, wobbled, caught herself, then pushed to a stand, raking her hair from her face as she turned to him.
“You came,” she whispered.
She was thirty feet away and yet those clear green eyes of hers cut straight through him. Straight through ten years of living through each today and ignoring all the yesterdays. Straight through to the soul he’d been pretending he didn’t have.
“You asked me to,” he said simply. He stepped toward her. “Did you think I’d ignore your message?”
She wiped her hands on her shorts, heedless of the soil and grime now marking the white cotton. “I wasn’t even sure you’d get it. It’s been so long. I didn’t know if—I wasn’t sure—” She cut off her uncustomary stammering, and just stared at him.
He let her, not too proud to take a few muchneeded seconds to regain his composure. However, it gave him way too much leeway to return the favor, to let himself be reminded of things he’d thought long forgotten. Fool.
He’d spent the long, globe-hopping hours to Martinique telling himself he was just helping an old friend—the wife of an old friend and former partner to be exact—that the emotions she had roiled in him a decade before had been long since buried and put to rest.
“You look good, John.” She stepped closer, running her sharp-eyed gaze over him. “Playing supersecret spy always did agree with you, though.” She took another step.
Don’t touch me. The tinge of desperation in the thought darkened his mood. Cali was a hands-on kind of person. It was what had dragged him under the last time. He braced himself.
She stopped right in front of him. He swallowed his sigh of relief when she put her hands on her hips. Pathetic, McShane. That’s what you are.
“Leaner, but rangy,” she said. She looked up into his face, the half-foot difference in their heights further underscored by the hiking boots he wore and her bare feet.
Her toenails were painted red like the flowers she’d been tending … or taming. He had no idea when he’d noticed that. He couldn’t look away from her face. She had freckles on her nose. Her cheeks were pink from the sun. Her hair was plastered to her forehead and neck. Her mouth was puffy and soft from the heat.
He looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
He jerked his gaze back to her. “What for?”
“Dragging you halfway around the world. Playing on your feelings about Nathan to get you to help me. You’re obviously angry at me, and I don’t blame you one bit.”
Angry? That emotion was solely self-directed. “I’m not here for Nathan.”
That seemed to surprise her. She blinked once, then backed away when he continued to stare silently at her. Finally she turned and walked back to the path she’d been clearing when he’d found her.
Yes, he thought. Turn away from it, Cali. It’s what I’ve been doing for ten years. Don’t look too closely. There’s no tragedy to provide a convenient shield for me this time.
Lord, if she ever knew …
Had she ever known? No. That question had been asked and answered just as instantly and assuredly ten years earlier. He was a trained professional in masking his emotions, even new, raw, painful ones. One of his teammates, T. J. Delahaye, called the Dirty Dozen silent warriors. But even he was only human. So why in the hell was he there tempting fate—and himself—again?
“Whatever your reasons, I’m glad you did. Thank you.” She scooped up the poinsettias she’d cut.
He had to turn away. She looked too good, standing there in the shimmering heat, arms loaded with decadent red-leaved plants that were supposed to remind him of cold winter holidays but looked impossibly tropical and seductive now.
“Why don’t we go inside and sit down.” He began to make his way back down the path. “You can fill me in on the situation.”
He felt her hesitation. “Yes, I guess we should.”
He took another step but stilled when she caught up to him and put her hand on his arm. He didn’t move away.
She immediately let go. “I just wanted to say you could come in the back way.”
It was a hell of a time to discover he was a coward. In almost fifteen years of intelligence work he’d faced down cold-blooded killers, had ended the careers and occasionally the lives of a number of them, had more than once put his body in the path of a bullet to prevent its hitting its target—said target usually human and under his temporary protection. That was his job. He’d done it all without an instant’s hesitation. That instant was often the only margin between life and death. His.
Right at that moment he’d have rather stepped in front of an entire round of bullets than turn around and look into Cali’s eyes again.
Mere seconds had elapsed when he turned, but he wondered what his hesitation would cost him. One look at her and he knew his safety margin this time was nonexistent.
“If it helps, this isn’t easy for me either,” she said.
He almost smiled at the defiant undertone lacing her quiet words. That was Cali. Even in the most tense and horrific circumstances she managed to retain her sense of self. He knew, he’d been there to witness it firsthand. He shoved those memories aside.
“Then I suggest we stop wasting time.” He worked to remove the hard edge from his tone. “From the brevity of your note I gather you don’t have much of it.”
They pushed through the back screen door. There was a small warped wooden table surrounded by four mismatched chairs.
She waved a hand. “Not exactly paradise as I remembered it.” Her dry humor didn’t ease the tension.