Private investigator Elisabeth Aday thinks her California women's shelter is a safe havenuntil skip tracer Liam O'Neill shows up. While searching for a missing woman, Liam unwittingly puts Elisabeth in the crosshairs of the deadly drug gang that is trailing his target. To stay alive, they must find the woman before the gang finds them. And when a second rival gang joins the search, the threats multiply. Deep in the lair of notorious drug dealers, Elisabeth can't tell which is more dangerousthe criminals after her or her growing feelings for the man at her side.
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Liam O'Neill frowned as he caught sight of the gray Mercedes sedan in his rearview mirror. Hadn't he seen that car behind him several miles back, when he was driving through downtown Sonoma?
He scrubbed his face with one hand as he guided his beat-up pickup truck down the country road. He was exhaustedthe nightmares had been especially bad last night. His tiredness was probably making him paranoid. As a skip tracer, tracking down people who didn't want to be found or helping people disappear, he had his share of enemies, but he'd been monitoring the cars behind him and hadn't noticed any obvious tail.
Moments later, the Mercedes turned off onto a side road. Clearly he needed more sleep. He was starting to imagine things.
It had been almost eighteen months since a medical discharge had sent him home from Afghanistan. His shoulder now only had crisscrossing pink scars, but the nightmares and occasional hallucinations hadn't faded as quickly.
His cell phone rang, and he hit the button on his Bluetooth headset to answer it. "Liam."
"Hey, how's Dad?" Liam's brother had taken their father to the hospital that morning.
"Tired. He's home now. But the doctor says he's doing fine. Only a couple more chemo treatments to go. He should be feeling well enough for Christmas in a few weeks."
Liam couldn't share Shaun's optimism. Dad's diagnosis of leukemia a few months ago had rocked him as violently as the mine that had injured his shoulder. The worst part was, cancer wasn't an enemy he could shoot at. He couldn't defend his father the way he defended his unit.
So he did the only thing he couldhe tried to burden his family as little as possible while this was going on.
Shaun said, "Monica asked me to call you. Instead of seeing Dad this afternoon, my lovely wife wants to know if you can come tomorrow."
Liam's shoulders tensed. "Is he okay?"
"Yeah. Monica just wants him to nap."
Liam's GPS unit on his dashboard began telling him to turn. "Gotta go," he said to Shaun.
"See you later." His brother hung up just as Liam turned into a long driveway that wound up to a large, rambling farmhouse. The only indications that it was a battered women's shelter were the three security cameras.
He walked up the steps to the front porch and peeked into the window to see what looked like a security room with video monitors, computers and two husky men watching Liam's approach.
There was a security intercom and he pressed the button. "I'm Liam O'Neill, here to see Elisabeth Aday."
"I don't have you on the visitor's list for today, sir," a guard replied.
"I don't have an appointment. I need to ask Ms. Aday a few questions about one of her clients. I don't even need to come inside, if she wants to meet me out here on the porch."
There were heavy footsteps, then the dead bolt drew back and the door opened to reveal a man with a weathered face and jet-black hair. His wary eyes pierced through Liam, but he stepped back to let Liam enter.
He stepped into a short entry hall with a door on either side, one to the security room and another to what looked like a small conference room. The entry hall ended with a stout-looking door, obviously made with reinforced steel. Liam guessed that was the door into the shelter itself.
The security guard said, "I'm afraid I'll have to search you, sir."
Liam submitted readily. He had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but he'd left his gun locked in his truck. When he had given Liam a pat down and a thorough sweep with a metal-detector wand, the security guard gestured to the conference room. "I'll call Ms. Aday to let her know you're here."
Liam scanned the small room, sparsely decorated with only a large table and chairs surrounding it, and a smaller table in the corner with paper cups and napkins. This must be a place where the women in the shelter could meet with outsidersclose to the security guards and separated from the rest of the house.
Within minutes, he heard the heavy reinforced door open and then close before light footsteps approached. Liam had been expecting the young woman who entered, but he hadn't expected the gut-punch reaction to how beautiful she was.
She wasn't model gorgeous, but there was something about the dark hazel eyes that spoke of courage, pain and compassion. Her skin seemed to glow like gold in the morning sunlight, and her dark straight hair, pulled back into a ponytail, glinted with reddish strands. But her mouth was serious, almost frowning as she looked at him. She studied him for a moment before closing the door and turning to face him.
Her self-composure and the way she waited for him to speak first was what Liam would have expected of a private investigator of her caliber. He found himself wanting to make her trust him as quickly as possible.
"I'm Liam O'Neill."
She nodded but didn't answer.
"I wanted to ask you a few questions about one of your clients."
"I don't speak to anyone about my clients," she said crisply. Her voice was low, husky.
Liam opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted by a loud knocking at the front door. They both turned toward the noise, but at the rumbling sound of the security guard's voice, speaking to whoever was outside, Elisabeth turned back to Liam.
"I'm a skip tracer," Liam told her. "A woman named Patricia hired me to find her sister, Joslyn, who disappeared a few weeks ago from San Francisco."
Elisabeth hadn't moved a muscle, but Liam could tell that she had tensed and was trying not to show it.
"Patricia said that Joslyn might be escaping her abusive boyfriend and using a different name," Liam continued. "I found out that a woman named Joslyn came here and that you helped her."
"How do you know it's the same Joslyn?"
"I've been tracking a woman who matches Joslyn Bau-tista's description." He held up his phone with a photo that Patricia had given to him. "I just want to find out if she's safe. Her sister is worried."
Elisabeth's mouth tightened. Then she said in a strangled voice, "Joslyn doesn't have a sister."
Liam's breath caught in his throat.
At that moment, they could hear a man's voice speaking loudly through the intercom. "I told you, I'm with Liam O'Neill. I know he's here already." The voice had a faint Filipino accent.
Liam reacted instinctively. He moved toward the conference room door and tried to reach for his concealed gun before remembering he'd left it in the truck. "Get under the table," he ordered Elisabeth before he yanked open the door.
The security guard replied to the man through the intercom, "Sir, Mr. O'Neill is in a conference with Ms. Aday. I'll have to ask him first before I let you inside." The guard turned his head and caught sight of Liam.
"He's not with me," Liam said urgently. "Don't let him"
There was the deafening blast of a shotgun as the wooden front door exploded into splinters. Liam leaped backward and fell against Elisabeth, who had come up behind him.
The man's voice shouted, "You send Joslyn out here now or we'll blow this place apart!"
Elisabeth stumbled backward into the conference room, landing hard against a chair, as Liam backed into her. The sound of the gunshot still rang in her ears.
She shoved away from Liam. "What did you do? Who are you?"
But Liam's entire body had tensed. There was a haunted look in his dark blue eyes, and though he stared at the open doorway, he didn't seem to see it.
She'd seen behavior like this before in ex-military men. One had reacted in exactly this way to loud bang noisesthe tensed muscles, the wide unseeing eyesa waking nightmare brought on by his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Liam carried himself tall and strong, like a soldier, and he wore his hair in a buzz cut that emphasized his sharp cheekbones and wide jaw. Was he ex-military? Was it possible he suffered from PTSD?
He gathered himself together with an effort.
"Liam," she said urgently.
He took a few quick breaths, getting his bearings again, then turned to her. "He's not with me."
"He knew your name."
"He must be working with Patriciaor whatever her name really is." A muscle tightened in his jaw. "You have to believe me."
She had developed a habit of not trusting people readily, but she wanted to believe him. Maybe because his first reaction had been to tell her to get to safety.
Elisabeth moved to the blinds and peeked out. "He's not alone." There was a gray Mercedes parked behind an ancient pickup truck she assumed was Liam'sand three other cars had just pulled up.
The man at the front door looked Filipino, with dusky skin and dark hair, and he waved a shotgun around a bit dramatically. Elisabeth pegged him as a hothead who would shoot first and ask questions later. Behind him, at the base of the porch steps, stood a shorter Filipino man who looked nervous, making Elisabeth wonder if the hothead had been ordered to attack the shelter or if he had done that on his own initiative.
The two security guards had pulled their firearms, but they remained inside the security room. Elisabeth and Liam hovered in the conference room doorway. Her primary weapon was back in the shelter, and she was just about to pull her secondary weapon hidden under her pant leg when the hothead called out, "Where's Joslyn? I want to see her! Or else bring out that Aday woman!"
A shiver spiked through Elisabeth at the mention of her name. Liam shot her a look of concern.
"That's it!" The hothead kicked the door open.
Frank, the security guard closest to the door, jerked back as a piece of wood flew at his face. Bill, the younger guard, recklessly rushed the hothead to try to disarm him.
Liam moved to shield Elisabeth with his body just before the shotgun went off, the sound almost masking Bill's gasp of pain.
Elisabeth peeked out the doorway to see Bill fall to the floor clutching his shoulder, blood seeping between his fingers.
Liam was up from the ground in a flash. Elisabeth followed suit, grabbing her gun from her ankle holster.
Liam elbowed the attacker in the face, making his grip on the shotgun loosen, and then knocked the weapon away. The man threw a punch, but Liam blocked it and grabbed the man in a wrestling move. The two of them spun and staggered in the small entry hallway, thudding against the walls.
The nervous man hesitated at the bottom of the porch stairs. Elisabeth opened the conference room window and fired her pistol into the air. The nervous man ducked and scurried to the open door of the gray Mercedes. "Stay right there," she called out.
Men had emerged from the other three cars, but at her shot, they backed behind their open doors. She wished there was a way for her to help Liam, but the armed men in front had her full attention.
One Filipino man, dressed in an expensive gray suit, purple silk shirt and purple tie, stood up so that he was only partially covered by the door of the car he'd been driving. "We only want Joslyn."
"She's not here. Get in your cars and drive away. No one has to get hurt."
The man's handsome, arrogant face creased in a vicious smile. He obviously wanted to hurt someoneprobably Joslyn. Elisabeth hadn't spent much time with the young woman, but she'd been frightened, penniless and alone with the distinctive mark of a man's fingers around her wrist and a strange-looking cut above her eye that Elisabeth guessed was from a ring.
Elisabeth should know. She herself had a strange-shaped scar above her left cheek.
Had that mark on Joslyn's face been caused by the flashy gold ring glinting on this man's finger?
"I've already called the police," yelled Frank's voice from the other window. He must be like her, crouched at the corner of the open window. Most of the time, Frank and Bill were needed for enraged ex-boyfriends or husbands who came to demand their women backnot standoffs with whole groups of Filipino men in expensive cars and silk shirts. Elisabeth realized that each of them wore something purple and gray.
It would take at least fifteen minutes for a policeman to arrive. Elisabeth hoped they could hold them off for that longwithout anyone getting shot. Liam still struggled with the other man.
Suddenly, a body flew down the front porch and landed on the ground. Elisabeth caught a glimpse of dark hair and a purple sock as a pants leg rode up. It was the hothead.
Immediately, Liam was beside her on the other side of the window, holding a firearmprobably Bill's. His dark blue eyes scanned the scene in front, his mouth tight. "How long before the police can arrive?" he whispered.
"At least fifteen minutes."
"They won't stay put forever."
"We only want Joslyn," the man with the ring repeated loudly.
"O'Neill was talking to her." It was the nervous man, still huddled behind the Mercedes, speaking to his boss.
Elisabeth tried not to flinch. She had been half hoping the chaos would make the men forget about what Frank had told them. They obviously knew all about Liam being hired to find Joslyn.
And now they knew Elisabeth's name. She was on the shelter's website on the volunteer pageher picture, her full name, her website link, for anyone wanting to hire a private investigator who volunteered her services for a battered women's shelter.
Then suddenly Elisabeth heard a faint wailing. A police car, ten minutes sooner than expected. The officer must have already been in the area.
The Filipino men heard it, too. Their leader called, "Let's go," to them in Tagalog, and they got back in their cars. Their driving was impeccably organizedwithin one minute they were heading down the driveway and turning away from the shelter just as a police car shot into view. It pursued them, red lights flashing.
Elisabeth reholstered her firearm, sagging against the wall next to the window. This was something she didn't do every dayhave a standoff with eight armed men.
Liam also relaxed, breathing heavily, and lowered his weapon. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Elisabeth studied his tall, muscular frame. He looked like he'd be carrying a few bruises, but thankfully there were no signs of blood.
He turned the full force of those dark blue eyes on her, and she found it hard to breathe. She hadn't been attracted to any man in so long ever since Cruise. The name of her ex-boyfriend was like a bucket of cold water, and Liam turned back into just a mana handsome one, but not one to be trusted.
"I'm sorry." Liam's voice was hoarse.
"For almost getting me shot or for ruining my morning?" she quipped. She needed to get some distance from what had just happened. And from the emotional intensity in Liam's eyes.
"Those men must have followed me. While I was driving, I thought I might have been tailed, but I wasn't sure."
"They had four cars here. They might have used a four-car team to tail you, which would have been harder to notice."
Unease crept into his eyes. "But what's worse is that they followed me straight to you."