Career woman Elizabeth Duncan focused her energy on business rather than on pleasure—except for one special night with Special Agent David Logan, who disappeared on a secret assignment after their brief but sweet encounter.
Five years later, while on assignment in Russia, David was shocked when Elizabeth walked back into his life. Nothing had changed between them…except that Elizabeth—and her newly adopted baby, Natasha—were now in danger. David felt he had to protect them. Could he convince Elizabeth that he wanted to watch over her permanently?
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"I need a man with good hands," Liz Duncan murmured to herself as she studied the sketch, then the beautiful blond female model she'd hired for the afternoon.
"Don't we all?" Marguerite said as she adjusted the baby she held, then tossed her long hair back over her shoulder. "That's why they wrote a song about it."
Liz tilted her head. Something about the scene wasn't right. The proportion, she thought. With a man holding the baby, the image would be more powerful and evocative. Marguerite's fingers were too delicate, her palms too narrow.
"A song about what?" Liz asked absently.
"Slow hands, honey. Get with the program. If you're going to get a man, get a good one. Make sure he knows what he's doing."
Liz glanced at the tall, slender nineteen-year-old. "I'm talking about work."
"You never are." Liz flipped through her sketches, then shook her head. "You can put her down. We're done."
"Sure, boss." She carefully placed the sleeping baby back into the bassinet and lightly touched her cheek. "Thanks for the good time, kid." She looked at Liz. "You really done with me?"
"Sure. I'll let the agency know I changed my mind about the assignment, not that you didn't work out."
"I appreciate that."
Marguerite collected her large tote bag and walked out of the room. Liz crossed to the bassinet and stared at the sleeping baby. The infant's tiny features stirred her heart.
"I wouldn't mind taking you home with me, little one," she murmured. "Too bad this is all about work."
After wheeling the baby back to the nursery, Liz wandered the halls of Children's Connection, the nonprofit adoption and fertility center that had hired her to do the artwork for its new brochure. She'd been on manhunts before, but never in connection with her work.
"I should give myself hazard duty pay," she murmured as she rounded a corner and began checking out offices.
She found nine women, three guys over the age of fifty, a hunky guy about thirty, but no strong, masculine types with great hands. Her vision for the brochure was clear—someone holding a baby. At first she'd thought that someone should be a woman, but now she knew better.
She headed toward the exit, thinking the Portland General Hospital next door might be a better source. Maybe she could find an intern or resident to take pity on her. If her luck held, her baby model would continue to nap peacefully. If she could just—
A man reached the front door the same time she did. He pulled the door open and waited politely for her to exit first. Liz stumbled to a stop as she studied his strong fingers and broad palms. His hands looked more than capable—they looked safe. She could see them cradling the baby, offering shelter and security and the perfect resting place for a tired, trusting infant.
"Change your mind?" the man asked.
"Huh?" Liz blinked at him, then realized he was still holding open the door. Was he leaving?
"Wait! You can't go." Without thinking, she grabbed the sleeve of his leather jacket. "Are you leaving? Do you have a few minutes? Okay, maybe an hour, but no longer. The baby is going to wake up after that. But I've got at least an hour, if you do."
As she spoke, she looked from the man's hands to his face. He was young, maybe in his mid-twenties. Handsome. Confident. Intriguing. Brown eyes regarded her quizzically while a firm, sensual mouth curved up slightly at the corners.
"What?" she asked, aware that she might not have made as much sense as she could have.
"I'm debating between deranged and charming," he told her.
She released his jacket. "I suggest charming. It's more flattering and accurate. I'm occasionally temperamental but almost never crazy. You should hear me out."
"Fair enough." He released the door and stepped back.
As he tucked his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, Liz became aware of a subtle tension crackling between them. Not a surprise, she thought ruefully. Dark-haired guys with broad shoulders were totally her type. Combine that with an air of mystery and an easy disposition and she was almost always open to the possibilities.
"Elizabeth Duncan," she said, holding out her hand. "Liz. I'm a commercial illustrator hired by Children's Connection to do some artwork for their new brochure. If they love my design enough, they'll start using it on letterhead and publicity materials."
"David Logan." His hand engulfed hers. "I can draw a stick figure that would make you green with envy."
She chuckled even as she ignored the slightly crooked, very charming tilt to his smile and the way the warmth from his fingers made her want to purr. She was on a schedule, not just because of her deadline but because her other model—the baby—wouldn't sleep forever.
"So here's the thing," she said. "I have approval for my idea, which was a woman holding a sleeping baby. The drawing focuses on the baby, so we only see the woman's forearms and hands. But when I did a preliminary sketch, it looked all wrong." She tried to look as innocent as possible. "I need a man instead." One eyebrow rose. "Of course you do." "I'm serious. You have great hands. The baby is asleep, so all you have to do is hold her. It's maybe an hour out of your life. Just think, if the people in charge love my design, your hands could be famous. That would have to help with women."
He chuckled. "What makes you think I need help?" She had a feeling he didn't at all. "Okay, fine. It will give you an edge."
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and glanced at his watch. "Just an hour?" "I swear. I work fast."
Twenty minutes later David Logan had to concede that Liz was nothing if not determined. She'd collected a sleeping baby from the nursery and brought both of them to a small, empty office with a huge south-facing window. Sunlight poured in—a rare thing for a mid-October day in Portland, Oregon.
"The light's great in here," she said as she slipped off her worn suede jacket. "It's also quiet so we won't be disturbed."
She fussed with the leather executive chair, moving it around until she was happy with the placement. David watched her work, admiring both her ability to focus and the way the light turned her long, wavy auburn hair first gold then red then back to gold.
Liz was beautiful in a fiery, explosive kind of way. Petite, yet curvy, she wore her black jeans skintight and her dark green shirt unbuttoned far enough to show the lace of her bra. Silver earrings dangled nearly to her shoulders.
Her body had been built to drive men insane, but she had the face of an angel. Wide-eyed, full-lipped and innocent. It was a combination that would have caused him to look twice in any circumstances.
She settled him in the chair and then positioned the baby in his arms. He liked Liz's light touch and the way she got lost in her work. He liked her close enough to cloud his judgment.
"You're not comfortable," she said as he held the baby stiffly.
"No kidding. I don't want to break her."
"You won't. Think of this as practice for your future family. Plus, she's too young to judge and I won't tell anyone if you mess up."
After she'd fussed a few minutes, rolling up the sleeves of his long-sleeved shirt, then unrolling them, she repositioned him again and reached for her sketch pad.
"Stay as still as you can," she said as she began drawing. "Take deep breaths to relax. Don't think about me drawing, instead think about that little girl in your arms. She's so tiny and you're the only person in the world she can depend upon."
David glanced down at the baby. He'd never much thought about kids one way or the other, and he wasn't comfortable holding this one. The only person she could depend on?
"Kid, you're in trouble," he muttered.
Liz chuckled. "So not true, David. You'll be a great dad. Imagine her grown up a little. Maybe three or four. You come in the door from work and she runs toward you. Her whole face lights up with love and excitement. Her daddy's home."
Her voice and her words created a powerful image in his mind. He could almost see the little girl racing toward him.
"She's seven," Liz continued, her voice low and compelling. "You're teaching her to throw a ball. This is your daughter and there's no way she's going to throw like a girl."
He grinned. "What if I throw like a girl?"
"Oh, sure. That's likely."
He studied the baby he held. Her skin was soft and pale, her mouth a perfect rosebud. Tufts of hair draped across her forehead. He wondered who she was and how she'd come to be at Children's Connection. Was she being adopted? Did she belong to one of the employees?
"She's twelve," Liz said. "Tall and skinny and really awkward. You can see how beautiful she's going to be, but no one else can. The boys are teasing her and she comes home in tears. It's been a while since she's wanted to be daddy's little girl, but she's hurt and she crawls into your lap. When you hug her, she feels so small, as if the harsh words could break her. And you want to do anything you can to protect her."
David felt himself tensing, as if there really was a preteen for him to defend. As if this child was his.
"Why the stories?" he asked.
"All questions will be answered later. Just go with me, okay?"
"Sure. I'm about to find those guys and beat the crap out of them."
"I like that in a father. Now she's sixteen and going to her first school dance. She's as beautiful as you always knew she would be. But she's growing up and slipping away and even though you know in your head she'll always be your daughter, in your heart you feel like everything's different."
Without thinking, David tightened his hold on the baby. She couldn't be grown up yet. Not so fast. Not while—
"Done," Liz said, sounding both triumphant and slightly stunned. "This was fast, even for me. I guess I got caught up in the story, too. You can relax."
For the first time David realized his muscles ached from holding so still. He shifted the baby against his chest and moved his arm under her.
"I'll take her," Liz said as she set the sketch pad down on the table and reached for the baby.
David handed her over, then glanced at the picture.
"That's amazing," he said honestly as he gazed at the sketch.
It was exactly as she'd described—a man's hands holding a baby. Simple, minimalistic, yet evocative. There was power in the drawing. The man's hands—his hands—supported the baby in such a way that he could feel the protectiveness and the love. This was not a father who would let anyone mess with his kid.
"How did you do that?" he asked. Was it the curve of the fingers, the shadows? Thirty minutes ago he'd never held a baby in his life. Based on this drawing, he'd been doing it for years.
"I drew the baby first," Liz said as she settled the little girl into the bassinet on wheels. "While I talked, your hold on her changed. I can't explain it, but you just connected to what I was saying. I waited until you were really into it, then drew like crazy."
She looked up and smiled. "The talking thing is a technique I learned in a class. The instructor said the best way to get a subject to do exactly what you want is to make him feel what you want people to feel when they look at the drawing. Sounds strange, but sometimes it works."
She picked up the sketchbook. "They're going to love this. Which means you're officially my model and I need you to sign a release."
The baby whimpered. Liz shook her head.
"Someone is waking up and I'm guessing neither of us is ready to take responsibility for actually dealing with her. Let me run our star back to the nursery, then I'll get you a release form. Oh, and I have expenses on this job. I can even pay you."
"That is the generally accepted means." Her green eyes widened with amusement and anticipation. "Did you have something else in mind?"
Where she was concerned? Absolutely. "Lunch."
David picked a small bistro down by the river. It was not the kind of place dirt-poor, struggling commercial illustrators frequented so Liz was determined to enjoy every second. The trick was going to be focusing on something other than the man sitting opposite her. It wasn't just that he was handsome and nice and funny, it was the way he looked at her, as if he'd just discovered something amazing about her, and the way he moved his hands when he talked. She had a real thing for his hands.
"Tell me about being a commercial illustrator," he said when they were seated. "Is all your work freelance?"
It was late, nearly one-thirty, and most of the lunch crowd had already come and gone. She and David had the front of the restaurant to themselves.
She brushed her fingers against the thick white tablecloth and stared longingly at the basket of bread. She'd skipped breakfast, more out of financial necessity than a desire to lose weight, and she was starved.
She nodded in response to his question. "No, boss."