With only seconds to spare, Cade Palmer had rescued feisty Bailey Preston from the grenade that demolished her home. The sexy ex-soldier had no doubt the explosion was payback for his own dangerous past in special ops, but before long, Cade realized Bailey was the true targetthanks to her connection to some very powerful, and very deadly, weapons. Now, to protect her from the assassins, Cade was taking Bailey on the run. He knew she hated relying on anyone to keep her safe, but as a trained-to-kill soldier, Cade wasn't about to let the enemies get their hands on her. That was his job .
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He would kill a man before the day was out. And God help himCade Palmer hoped this would be the last time.
He'd done the job before and didn't like the strange heaviness that settled on him. Not guilt or second thoughtshe'd been a soldier too long for that. But still, something grim and somber that made little sense, especially today. He'd been waiting for this moment for months. Today he would put an old nightmare to rest and fulfill a promise.
In an hour, Abhi would hand him information on David Smith's whereabouts, and there was no place on earth he couldn't reach by the end of the day. He'd hire a private jet if he had to. Whatever it took. Before the sun comes up tomorrow, David Smith will be gone.
He headed up the stairs to his cell phone as it rang on his nightstand. Wiping the last of the gun oil on his worn jeans, he crossed into his bedroom. He was about to reach for the phone when he caught sight of the unmarked van parked across the road from his house.
The van hadn't been there thirty minutes ago. Nor had he seen it before. He made it his business to pay attention to things like that. At six in the morning on Saturday, his new suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood was still asleep, the small, uniform yards deserted. Nothing was out of placeexcept the van, which made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
The only handgun he kept inside the housea SIG P228was downstairs on the kitchen table in pieces, half-cleaned. He swore. Trouble had found him once againpar for the course in his line of work. Just because he was willing to let go of his old enemiesexcept David Smithdidn't mean they were willing to let go of him.
"Happy blasted retirement," he said under his breath as he turned to get the rifle he kept in the hallway closet. From the corner of his eye, he caught movement. The rear door of the van inched open, and with a sick sense of dread, he knew what he was going to see a split second before the man in the back was revealed, lifting a grenade launcher to his shoulder.
Instinct and experience. Cade had plenty of both and put them to good use, shoving the still-ringing phone into his back pocket as he lunged for the hallway.
Had he been alone in the house, his plan would have been simple: get out and make those bastards rue the day they were born. But he wasn't alone, which meant he had to alter his battle plan to include grabbing the most obnoxious woman in the universeaka his neighbor, who lived in the other half of his duplex and dragging her from the kill zone.
He darted through his bare guest bedroom and busted open the door that led to the small balcony in the back, crashing out into the muggy August morning. Heat, humidity and birdsong.
At least the birds in the jungle knew when danger was afoot. These twittered on, clueless. Proximity to civilization dulled their instincts. And his. He should have known that trouble was coming before it got here. Should have removed himself to some cabin in the woods, someplace with a warning system set up and an arsenal at his fingertips, a battleground where civilians wouldn't have been endangered. But he was where he was, so he turned his thoughts to escape and evasion as he moved forward.
Bailey Preston's half of the house was the mirror image of his, except that she used the back room for her bedroom. Cade vaulted over her balcony, kicked her new French door open and zeroed in on the tufts of cinnamon hair sticking out from under a pink, flowered sheet on a bed that took up most of her hot-pink bedroom. Beneath the mess of hair, a pair of blue-violet eyes were struggling to come into focus. She blinked at him like a hungover turtle. Her mouth fell open but no sound came out. Definitely a first.
He strode forward without pause.
"What are you doing here? Get away from me!" She'd woken up in that split second it took him to reach her bed and was fairly shrieking. She was good at thatshe'd been a thorn in his side since he'd moved in. She was pulling the sheet to her chin, scampering away from him, flailing in the tangled covers. "Don't you touch me. You, you"
He unwrapped her with one smooth move and picked her up, ignoring the pale-purple silk shorts and tank top. So Miss Clang-and-Bang had a soft side. Who knew?
"Don't get your hopes up. I'm just getting you out."
She weighed next to nothing but still managed to be an armful. Smelled like sleep and sawdust, with a faint hint of varnish thrown in. Her odd scent appealed to him more than any coy, flowery perfume could have. Not that he was in any position to enjoy it. He tried in vain to duck the small fists pounding his shoulders and head, and gave thanks to God that her nephew, who'd been vacationing with her for the first part of summer, had gone back to wherever he'd come from. Dealing with her was all he could handle.
"Are you completely crazy?" She was actually trying to poke his eyes out. "I'm calling the police. I'm calling the police right now!"
She was possibly more than he could handle, although that macho sense of vanity that lived deep down in every man made it hard for him to admit that, even as her fingers jabbed dangerously close to his irises in some freakish self-defense move she must have seen on TV.
"You might want to hang on." He was already out of the room. Less than ten seconds had passed since he'd seen the guy in the van. "And try to be quiet." He stepped up to the creaking balcony railing and jumped before it could give way under their combined weight.
She screamed all the way down and then some, giving no consideration to his eardrums whatsoever. Once upon a time, he'd worked with explosives on a regular basis. He knew loud. She was it.
He swore at the pain that shot up his legs as they crashed to the ground, but he was already pushing away with her over his shoulder and running for cover in the maze of Willow Glen duplexes in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Unarmed. In the middle of freaking combat.
He didn't feel fearjust unease. He was better than this. He'd always had a sixth sense that let him know when his enemies were closing in. It wasn't like him to get lulled into complacency.
"Are you trying to kill us? Are you on drugs? Listen. To. Me. Try to focus." She grabbed his chin and turned his face to hers. "I am your neighbor."
He kept the house between him and the tangos in the van, checking for any indication of danger waiting for them ahead. No movement on the rooftops. If there was a sniper, he was lying low. Cade scanned the grass for wire trips first, then for anything he could use as a makeshift weapon. He came up with nada.
"Put me down!" She fought him as best she could, a hundred and twenty pounds of wriggling fury. "Don't do this! Whatever you think you are doing, I know you are going to regret it."
He did already.
"Are you crazy?"
He could get there in a hurry. He put his free hand on her shapely behind to hold her in place. Smooth skin, lean limbs, dangerous curves. He tried not to grope more than was absolutely necessary. Yeah, she could probably make him do a couple of crazy things without half trying. But they had to get out of the kill zone first.
"Let me go! Listen, let me"
They were only a dozen or so feet from the nearest duplex when his homeand hersfinally blew.
That shut her up.
He dove forward, into the cover of the neighbor's garden shed. They went down hard, and he rolled on top of her, protecting her from the blast, careful to keep most of his weight off. The second explosion came right on the heels of the first. It shook the whole neighborhood.
That would be the C4 he kept in the safe in his garage.
"Whatwasthat?" Her blue-violet eyes stared up at him, her voice trembling, her face the color of lemon sherbet.
There were days when she looked like a garden fairy in her flyaway, flower-patterned clothes with a mess of cinnamon hair, petite but well-rounded body, big violet eyes and the cutest pixie nose he'd ever seen on a woman. She had no business being wrapped in silk in his arms, looking like a frightened sex kitten as he lay on top of her.
Her fear quickly turned to rage, unfortunately.
"What did you do?" Her tone was a good reminder that even when she did look like a fairy, she wasn't the "flit from flower to flower" kind found in children's books. She was more like the angry fairies in Irish folktales, the kind that throw thunderbolts from their eyes and put wicked curses on men.
Just like her to blame him for the slightest thing that went wrong around the house. She had blamed him for the molehills the week before. Supposedly, he'd used the kind of lawn fertilizer that attracted the little bastards.
"You blew up the house?" Her full mouth really did lose all attractiveness when it went tight with anger. A shame.
Okay, so he did have a small collection of explosives left over from previous missions. Not that he was going to mention the C4 to her just now. Or ever. She was about the least understanding person he knew, with a tendency to harp on people's mistakes. His, anyway.
And he hadn't made any mistakes here, dammit. The C4 had been secured. He was retired at a secret locationor so he thought. The last thing he'd expected was a grenade blasting through his house.
"I didn't blow up anything. We need to get out of here." Before everyone in the whole development rushed outside, and the cops arrived.
"I have to ask the neighbors to call the police." She was scampering away in a tempting display of bare limbs.
Her skin was smooth and soft but barely tanned, even at the end of summer. When she wasn't at work at the garden center, she was hammering around in her garage. Not the type to lie out on her balcony in a skimpy bikini like their neighbor across the street, and Cade gave thanks for that. There was only so much temptation a man could take.
"I'm sure that's taken care of already." He grabbed her slim arm, registering the velvet feel of her skin as he pulled her up. A wave of smoke and dust reached them. "Keep your mouth and your nose covered."
The top of her head came only to his chin. Not that anyone would think of her as a fragile little thing. Her feistiness had always lent her stature. But that feist-iness was nowhere to be seen now as she stared, coughing, toward what had been her home. Wood beams leaned on each other like some macabre game of pick-up sticks, furniture strewn and burning all over the lawn. She looked lost, blinking more rapidly with each passing second.
Bailey Preston lost. That'd be the day. The smoke and dust must be distorting his vision.
"Keep low. Keep in cover." He moved out, pulling her behind him, covering ground at a good clip. He needed to get her as far away as possible before the shock wore off and she started fighting him tooth and nail again.
He headed straight for the grove of trees that separated their development from the next, taking advantage of the burning house that captured the full attention of the people who were coming outside in robes and pajamas, looking stunned. Bailey blended right in with her silk pajamas. Which didn't mean she wasn't attention worthy. He was still trying hard not to look.
"We have to go back." She did her best to stop him.
He kept going, pulling her completely into the trees. In thirty seconds, they were in a more upscale neighborhood, with mansions on a full acre each, lush green lawns and professionally done flower beds, a few of which showed off Bailey's handmade garden-art pieces. He went around an oversize pool and up a few steps to a driveway, heading for the nearest cara Cadillac Escalade.
Nobody stirred in the house. The power couple was probably golfing at the crack of dawn in their vintage Corvette that he had admired from afar. He had thoroughly checked out his new neighborhood and its surroundings before he had moved in, planning escape routes. Except he hadn't planned on taking someone with him when and if he had to run. That changed things a little. Instead of going for his secret stash of weapons and circling back to see who had found him, he decided to keep Bailey Preston safe and book the hell out of here before anyone came after them.
The Escalade was unlocked. After two months of living out here, he still couldn't believe people did that.
"What are you doing?" She was beginning to fight in earnest again, but he easily kept his hold on her slim wrist. "The police will want to talk to us."
Just the thing they needed to avoid. "Get in." He pushed her into the car and slid across the hood, bursting inside and catching her, pulling her back just as she was about to light out. He clicked on the childproof locks. "Hang on for a second."
No keys above the visor. Even trusting suburbanites had their limits. A damn shame. Not that hotwiring the thing took all that long. They were pulling out of the driveway in less than a minute.
"Where are we going?" Her voice still held tinges of shock and confusion, but her blue-violet eyes cleared as her gaze pinned him. "Why are you stealing a car?"
He kind of liked her dazed and confuseddefinitely easier to handle. Not that easy played a big part in his life. "Look, we need to go someplace safe."
" I need to get back to my house." Her voice now rang with resolution as she reached for the door again, grunting in frustration when it wouldn't open. "What are you doing? You have to let me go."
Clearly, she didn't have a very good grasp on the situation. "The people who blew up the house are still out there." He spelled it out for her. To be fair, this was likely the first time she had been shot at with a grenade launcher. He should cut her some slack.
"Gas explosion," she said, with full conviction.