Undercover agent Zach Winter vows to expose the truth behind his best friend's death and protect the pregnant widow left behind. But his de facto partner, Maddy Tierney, isn't the average federal-agent-turned-bodyguardshe's too beautiful, too capable and too damn tempting. It isn't until he rescues her from a kidnapping attempt that their relationship goes from uneasy to explosive. With the criminals closing in and time running out, Zach knows he'd put his own life on the line in order to protect a vulnerable widow. And to ensure the safety of the woman he can't imagine saying goodbye to.
About the Author
She has published 26 books for Harlequin Intrigue. She lives in Tennessee with her Renaissance husband and two very smart cats.
Read an Excerpt
The rain had finally stopped. Zachary Winter turned off the windshield wipers of his rental car as he passed the city limits sign for Bonne Chance, Louisiana. Now that the sun had come out, steam rose like tendrils of smoke from the blacktop road and clung to the windshield like shower spray on a mirror. He put the wipers on Intermittent. Rain in south Louisiana was seldom a relief, no matter what the season. Even in April, when most of the country was experiencing spring weather, an afternoon thunderstorm might cool the heat-soaked roads enough for steam to rise, but the tepid, humid air never seemed to change.
The last time he'd been here, in his hometown of Bonne Chance, was more than a decade ago. The name Bonne Chance was French for Good Luck. His mouth twisted with irony. Had his sad little hometown ever been good luck for anybody? He'd certainly never intended to come back. And the reason he was here now was not his choice.
He drove past two national chain grocery stores and a Walmart. "Well, Bonne Chance," he muttered, "I guess you've arrived if Walmart thinks you're worthy of notice."
As he turned onto Parish Road 1991, better known as Cemetery Road, a pang hit his chest, part anxiety, part grief and part dread. He'd intended to get into town in time for Tristan DuChaud's funeral. Tristan had been his best friend since before first grade.
As he rounded a curve, he spotted the dark green canopy that contrasted with the dull granite of the above-ground tombs peculiar to south Louisiana. From this distance, he couldn't read the white letters on the canopy, but he knew what they said: CARVER FUNERAL HOME, Serving Bonne Chance for Over Forty Years.
He parked on the shoulder of the road, glanced at his watch, then lowered the driver's-side window. The air that immediately swirled around his head and filled the car was suffocatingly familiar, superheated and supersaturated from the rain.
One hundred percent humidity. Now, there was a hard concept to explain to someone who'd never been to the Deep South. How the air could be completely saturated with water and yet no rain would fall. He usually described it as similar to breathing in a sauna. But that wasn't even close. The air down here felt heavy and thick. Within seconds, a combination of sweat and a strange, invisible mist made everything you wore and everything you touched damp. And with the sun out and drawing steam from people as well as roads and metal surfaces, it could be disturbingly hard to breathe.
Getting out of the car, Zach shrugged his shoulders, trying to peel the damp material of his white cotton shirt away from his skin, but he knew that within seconds it would be stuck again. Then he took off his sunglasses. They had fogged up immediately when the damp heat hit them. Without their protection, however, the sun's glare made it almost impossible to see. He shaded his eyes and squinted at the small group of people who were gathered around the funeral home's canopy. Most of them were dressed in black. The men had removed their jackets and hung them over the backs of the metal folding chairs set up under the canopy.
He wished he could leave his jacket in the car but that was out of the question. He'd always found it more efficient to travel armed, in his official capacity as a National Security Agency investigative agent. Today, though, a storm had hit New Orleans about a half hour before the plane's arrival time and not even his high-security clearance could clear the runway in time for him to rent a car and make it to Bonne Chance for Tristan's funeral service. It looked as though he'd barely made it to the graveside in time.
He grabbed the jacket and put it on, then blew on the sunglasses to dry the condensation. He held them up to the light for inspection and put them back on.
As he walked toward the stately aboveground tomb that held at least three generations of the DuChaud family, he tried to sort out the people gathered there. Townspeople, family, friends like himself. But his sunglasses were fogging up again.
He approached slowly, breathing in the smell of freshly turned earth that mixed with the fishy, slightly moldy smell of the bayou, an unforgettable odor he'd grown up with and hadn't missed for one second in the thirteen years since he'd been gone.
Zach had pushed the speed limit as much as he could, considering what he knew about speed traps in south Louisiana, and still he'd not only missed Tristan's funeral, he'd almost missed the graveside service. It was just as well, he supposed. He'd dreaded seeing his classmates, most of whom had settled down in Bonne Chance like Tristan, and spent their lives working on oil rigs or fishing. He hadn't looked forward to answering their half-deriding questions about life in the big city.
Tristan DuChaud. His best friend, for as long as he could remember, was one of the finest people Zach had ever known. Maybe the finest. His gaze went to the carved stone of the tomb, its thick walls and ornate steeple soaking up all the warmth and sunlight and leaving Tristan's final resting place cold and dank.
It was strange and sad to be here, knowing his friend was gone. Especially since their last conversation had been a fight, about Sandy, of course. It had occurred two days before Zach, his older sister, Zoe, and their mom moved from Bonne Chance to Houston three days before Zach's fifteenth birthday. Sandy was mad at Tristan for some reason and she'd come to Zach's house to talk, just as she'd always done.
Tristan and Sandy had liked each other ever since third grade and everybody knew they'd get married one day. They were that couple, the one that would be together forever. But Tristan had always had a jealous streak, and that irritated Sandy to no end. Sometimes she'd egg him on by flirting with Zach, which infuriated Tristan, even though, or maybe because, he and Zach were best friends.
As Zach got closer to the grave site, the formless figures shimmering in the heat began to coalesce into recognizable people. The stocky man holding the Bible was, of course, Michael Duffy. His thick shock of light brown hair looked a little out of place above the black suit and white priest's collar he wore. Zach had heard from his mother that Duff had become a priest after the awful accident the night of Zoe's graduation, but he'd found it hard to believe that the fun-loving, hard-partying Duff was now a priest.
Duff raised his hand and the small group of people moved to sit in the folding chairs. Zach finally spotted Sandy, Tristan's wifeor widow. She looked as though she was doing okay, but for some reason, she was being led to the first chair by a woman he didn't recognize.
He studied the woman. She was about the same size as Sandymaybe more slender. He couldn't place her. Was she a relative of Sandy's? Of Tristan's? He didn't remember ever seeing her before, and he would have remembered her. She had an intensity that he wasn't sure he'd ever noticed in a woman before.
The woman got Sandy settled then straightened and glanced around. She didn't seem to be looking for anyone in particular, but the tension that wafted from her like heat still reached out to him. He watched her, his interest piqued, not so much by her appearance, although she was attractive. He was interested in what she was doing.
Surveillance. The word popped out of his subconscious. He rolled it on his tongue. Surveillance. The woman was doing surveillance of the area.
As the woman checked the perimeter of the grave site, Zach noticed a subtle shift in her demeanor. She hadn't moved, but something about her had changed. When he'd first noticed her, she'd been alert, but she'd reminded him a bit of a mother hen, scurrying to keep up with Sandy, her chick. That impression had faded when she'd begun surveying the area.
Now there was nothing left of the mother hen. The woman was poised and taut in a way she hadn't been before. As he watched, she straightened, her entire focus as sharp and unwavering as an eagle that has spotted its prey.
As Zach watched her transform from protector to predator, an electric hum vibrated along his nerve endings. He felt attuned to her, as though he knew what she was thinking, what she was planning. She stepped closer to Sandy, her weight evenly balanced between her feet, her focus unwavering.
He followed her line of vision and saw two men. Like many of the others, they were dressed in slacks and a shirt with no tie, as if they'd taken off their jackets because of the heat. But these two stood at the edge of the canopy with their hands in their pockets rather than sitting and they seemed to avoid looking at anyone directly.
Zach thought there was a family resemblance between the two, although the younger one looked as though he might still be in high school. So they were probably father and son.
He glanced back at the woman. He couldn't tell if she knew them, but he could tell that she was expecting trouble.
Her intensity fed his. His scalp began to burn. His senses focused to a razor-honed sharpness as time seemed to slow down. His entire body tightened and he instinctively shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet. An almost imperceptible vibration hummed through his muscles and tendons.
At that instant, as if his energy had reached her, the woman looked directly at him. A knife edge of caution sliced into his chest. He'd never seen her before, but in that instant when her gaze met his through the shimmering heat, he had a sinking feeling that before this day was over, he was going to wish he hadn't seen her now.
Her gaze slid away from him and back to the man and boy. Again, Zach looked, too. The boy was whispering to his father. He nodded in the direction of the woman and Sandy, and the older man shook his head no. He urged the son closer to the lined-up chairs as Duff called for everyone to bow their heads for prayer.
Duff began his supplication to the Lord without bowing his own head. As he spoke, he looked Zach up and down, nodded in recognition and tilted his head disapprovingly all at the same time. Zach stood still, clasped his hands behind his back and bowed his head. But he couldn't close his eyes. He kept the two men in his peripheral vision. If they moved suddenly, he wanted to know.
Once Duff said amen and raised his head, he held out a hand to Sandy to approach the dully gleaming casket, which was sitting on a wheeled cart, waiting to be placed into the DuChaud vault. Sandy stood, and her companion started to stand beside her, but Sandy stopped her with a small gesture. Alone, she approached the casket and laid a white rose on top, bowed her head for a brief moment, then turned and started back toward her chair. Then she saw him.
Her face, which had been set determinedly, dissolved into anguish at the sight of him, and tears filled and overflowed her eyes. "Zach," she whispered. "Oh, Zach, he's gone. Our Tristan is gone."
Zach took two long strides and gathered her gently into his arms. He closed his eyes and hugged her to him as if she were his long-lost sister. She clung to him the same way, and her slender shoulders shook as she cried silently. Zach held her while Duff gestured to Tristan's mother to come forward and lay a white rose next to Sandy's. After Mrs. DuChaud sat, the priest led the pallbearers past the casket to lay red roses on top, one by one, and back to their seats.
Then the priest laid his left hand on Sandy's shoulder and held out his right toward Zach. "Zachary Winter," he said. "I thought you swore you'd never come back here."
"There's only one reason I would, Duff. I mean, Father " Zach had no idea what to call him.
Duff smiled and said, "It's Father Michael, but Duff is fine. Nobody around here dares to call me that."
Zach nodded uncomfortably, then leaned in closer to the other man as a couple came up to offer Sandy their condolences.
"What happened?" he asked in a low tone. "How did Tristan die?"
"From what I understand, he was walking along the catwalk on the bottom level of the oil platform with one of the Vietnamese roughnecks and he fell into the water near the drill mechanism."
"Oil platform?" Zach said in surprise as a knot formed in his stomach. "He was on an oil rig? What was he doing there?"
Duff's gray brows rose. "You don't know? Have you not talked to Tristan in all these years?"
Zach shrugged, embarrassed. "Not really. We didn't talk to anybody after we moved. You know, with Zoe being involved in the accident."
Duff grimaced briefly as he nodded.
"Nothing more than an email at Christmas. A comment on Facebook. You know."
"His dad was killed on a rig about two months before Tristan's high school graduation, so he dropped out and went to work on the oil rig to help his mother."
"But he was going to LSU. He was going to be a veterinarian. How could two months have made a difference?"
Duff nodded grimly. "I talked to him, but he was determined. He saw it as a choice. Taking care of his familyhe and Sandy were planning to get married right after graduationor taking care of himself. He chose his family."
"Right." Zach's throat closed up. He felt sad and angry. Tristan had given up his education and the opportunity for a great career so he could go to work right away. The thought made Zach feel sick as he thought of all Tristan had given up. And for what? To end up dead at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico?
"Wait a minute, Duff. Tristan had lived on boats and docks and floating logs on the Mississippi River and on the Gulf his whole life. He was the strongest swimmer I've ever seen. He couldn't have fallen overboard and drowned if he tried. What happened out there?"
"I wish I could tell you more but I can't," Duff said. "He went over with another guy, a roughneck. Maybe they were arguing or even fighting. Maybe they ran into each other in the dark."
"You know as well as I do it's never dark on an oil rig. What'd the autopsy say?"
Duff looked surprised. "The autopsy?"
Zach thought he'd hesitated for an instant. "The autopsy. Who did it?"
"I guess that would have been the ME, John Bookman. He's the medical examiner for the parish and chief of emergency medicine at the Terrebonne Parish Hospital in Houma."
"Okay. Houma is about twenty-five miles north of here, right?" Zach asked.
The priest nodded, then gestured with his head. "See Angel?"