Framed for embezzling, investigator Kira Kincaid will go to any lengths to clear her name—even team up with Dalton Matthews, her estranged…now deceased…husband’s brother. But the reclusive mogul isn’t what she expected—he’s the quintessential alpha male who evokes an unwelcome yearning. And now, thanks to his involvement with Kira, a target to those trying to kill her.
Dalton is determined to protect the headstrong widow, even as he plans to walk away once she’s safe. If only her green-eyed gaze didn’t melt all of his emotional defenses. But when their mission exposes an earth-shattering family secret from both their pasts, Dalton must choose between his brother’s betrayal and the one woman he should deny.
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About the Author
Most days you’ll find her listening to love stories and helping couples choose the perfect engagement ring. Most late nights she’s in her office, getting new words on the page. Mr. Wonderful approves!
Read an Excerpt
Dalton Matthews slapped the sawdust from his well-worn jeans and scowled at the gray Ranger pickup parked a half mile or so down the gravel lane to his house. It was a little late for the welcome wagon to come knocking, since he'd no longer be considered a newcomer. If his streak of bad luck continued, another snooty reporter from News Channel 9 was probably close enough for him to strangle.
He scanned the area and then jogged down the road to check for the intruder. Anger swelled and added to his frustration when he found the truck unoccupied. He stared inside the unlocked cab. The keys hung from the ignition and a black leather purse was sideways on the seat amid some fast-food wrappers and a few empty water bottles. But the most interesting item of all was a digital camera partially hidden under a road atlas.
Damn the paparazzi for their neverending attempts to breach his privacy and twist the knife deeper in his gut. He should have known they wouldn't allow him a moment's peace. Not with Gossip Girl magazine offering three hundred grand for any picture of him in exile.
He swiped the keys from the ignition and pocketed them. Let the owner hike to the main road and hitch a ride. Or maybe he'd call the sheriff and have them arrested for trespassing. As an afterthought, he removed the memory card from the camera and pocketed it, as well.
As he retraced his steps to the house, he noticed the door to the storage shed swaying in the breeze. He was certain he'd closed it earlier after placing extra lumber inside. He scanned the yard once more before checking his pockets for his phone. Maybe he ought to call the sheriff first and delay a confrontation.
Instead, he rushed to the building's entrance and shouldered his way inside. His annoyance ratcheted up another notch when, even in the dimly lit space, he spotted the trespasser picking her way through various pieces of scrap wood littering the floor.
A woman with blond hair falling below her shoulders and a shapely rear end clad in faded blue jeans.
"What are you doing out here?"
The startled woman pivoted and stumbled, tripping on the uneven surface and pitching sideways. He instinctively extended his arms, but he wasn't nearly close enough to break her fall. She whacked her head on one of the wide wooden support beams and crumpled to the floor.
He was paralyzed by memories of another time and another woman. His attempts at revival had been futile back then. The sickness of that moment clogged his throat, as it had so frequently in the early days. He'd clutched a lifeless form in his arms while he'd bargained with God for another chance.
Hurrying forward now, he knelt beside the stranger and moved a length of hair from her brow while avoiding the cut over her right eye. Blood flowed down her temple, forming a small puddle near her ear. He lifted her in his arms and strode outside, hoping the late-afternoon sun would provide a better view of her injury.
She was softer than he remembered a woman being, probably because his memories of the opposite sex were in the distant past. A pink lacy bra was visible beneath her green short-sleeved shirt. Only a pervert would recognize a front-hook bra on an unconscious woman. One more reason for annoyance to fuel his actions.
He shifted her in his arms and forced his eyes away from her undergarments as he crossed the last thirty feet to the house. Spying another large scrape on her forearm brought him to a halt. What if she needed an ambulance?
He didn't relish the thought of alerting anyone to his location or having her arrested so she could blab to the highest bidder. Right now he needed to make sure she was all right and stem off any possible lawsuit she might have in mind. People got a bit crazy when they had their sights set on some easy money, a lesson he wished he'd never learned.
After taking the front porch steps two at a time, he caught the bottom corner of the screen door with his booted foot and kicked it open. His living room rivaled an obstacle course. All the kitchen appliances and furniture had been relocated to the small room because the new granite countertops hadn't arrived yet. The path to the stairwell was tight, forcing him to turn sideways and adjust his hold on the woman when her feet caught on his oversize recliner.
He maneuvered the narrow stairway to the second floor, slipped into the first doorway and laid her on the unmade bed. She looked so out of place, and so pale, with the dark circles rimming her eyes matching the shade of gray from the sheets covering the mattress. He caught himself reaching for her wrist and counting the beats before he comprehended he'd been holding his breath. This woman had a pulse, unlike Lauren.
He dropped her hand and stepped away from the bed, working to calm his racing heart. He never relived the day he'd found Lauren without the benefit of a strong drink. But all the same, the image was there, sinking into the gap in his brain he hadn't managed to fill despite the physical labor blending the days together.
The woman moaned, one ashen forearm covering her eyes as she rolled closer to the side of the bed. He jerked forward, catching her shoulders before she could topple to the floor. She shuddered in his grasp as he settled her against the pillow and pressed a handful of tissues against her injury.
Her eyes opened a fraction of an inch and long lashes fluttered against the brow already shadowed with purple, predicting an impending bruise. Lifting her hand to her forehead, she winced, before glaring at him with utter contempt. "You hit me?"
"Of course not." Perhaps she'd used this ploy before.
"You must have," she said, as her gaze bounced around the sparsely furnished room. "Where am I?"
"You're lost," he offered, seriously tipping the scales in the generosity department. This little fiasco had scam written all over it, and he was through playing the game.
Removing his cell phone from his pocket, he scrolled to find the number of the local police department. Pausing before hitting the send button, he shifted his gaze to the trespasser, resigned to giving up his anonymity in order to get her out of his hair. "Maybe the sheriff can help you find your way."
A thunderous boom rocked the house, shattering the bedroom window and sending shards of glass and chunks of metal hurling through the air.
Dalton lurched forward, eliciting an ungrateful cry from the woman. She bucked like a bull out of the chute, rolling them both to the floor. He used his elbows to keep from crushing her with his full weight.
Evidently gratitude wasn't in her vocabulary, because Ms. Con-Artist-Extraordinaire kicked his shin and tried twisting out of his hold. He allowed his full weight to drop on top of her, pinning her to the floor. But if he thought the explosion in front of the house was his utmost worry, he'd been mistaken. The angry glint in her bright green eyes warned him the game wasn't over. She kicked once more, drawing his attention to a lump pressing against his kneecap.
"Get off me." Her painted fingernails were little spikes through his shirt as she shoved at his chest.
"Lie still." He held her in place as she squirmed beneath him. She was a lot stronger than he'd expected. Her labored breathing warmed his chin and her continued movements succeeded in firing more than his temper. Those sizzling emerald eyes promised retribution for her confinement. He reached between them, shoving the denim up her leg, revealing a leather ankle holster.
Bad enough the scam artist had accused him of assaulting her and then managed to blow up a good portion of his house; she also had a concealed weapon.
"It's not what you think." She bucked her hips beneath his in a feeble attempt to break free.
"Don't even start." He double-checked the safety before releasing her and hauling himself to his feet. Inspecting the magazine, he half hoped it would be empty. No such luck. One bullet was chambered and another eight remained in the clip.
After shoving the clip into place, he kept the weapon aimed at her while sliding closer to the window. The woman's truck was fully engulfed in bright orange flames.
"Your truck exploded."
"What?" She sat up, appearing genuinely shocked by the news.
"Not part of your plan?"
"No. Why would I blow up a rental?" Inhaling a shaky breath, she swiped at pieces of glass stuck to her palms.
"Maybe you should have put more thought into your plan, whatever that may be." Sparks ignited the dry grass around the truck. His anger with the woman slid to a non-priority. Alerting the fire department was his first.
Dalton crossed the room, collected the remainder of his cell and disgustedly tossed it aside. "Where's your phone?"
"I don't have one." She remained seated on the floor.
"Empty your pockets." He didn't believe a word she spoke.
After wiping a spattering of blood on her jeans, she shifted to her knees and dug her hand into her pockets. A handful of change clattered to the floor along with a lip balm, a few dollars and a piece of gum.
"I told you the truth."
"I doubt it." Now what was he supposed to do with her? From the corner of his eye he noticed movement beyond the tree line. Another armed trespasser?
"Who else is out there?" He held the gun on the woman and watched her accomplice making his way to the back of the barn.
"How would I know?" Her eyes darted to the doorway and then returned to the weapon in his hand. "I want my gun."
He flat out laughed at the request. Smoke from the explosion reached his nostrils, reminding him of the urgent need to control the fire.
"Get up," he ordered, wordlessly promising to drag her off the floor if she didn't comply. He reached for the simple wooden chair that had survived more than a century of abuse at the hands of his family.
"You can't keep me here. What if the fire spreads?" Was that genuine fear or insolence lacing every word?
"Wanna bet?" He dropped the chair at her feet and shoved the weapon into the back of his jeans. He pulled out his pocketknife and cut through a section of sheet, quickly ripping it in half. A second later her shoe sailed through the air and bounced off his cheek, before she bolted for the door. He chased her into the hallway, catching her around the waist and pulling her back into his bedroom.
"Let me go," she hollered. Her elbows and feet connected with various parts of his body as she tried ineffectually to get free. "Ouch, you're hurting me."
"And you're really pissing me off, cupcake." He dropped her onto the chair. Pulling her arms together in back, he slipped a wide section of sheet around her wrists and tied a double knot. Then he moved in front of her to secure her legs to the chair.
"You're going to be sorry you messed with me," she threatened, already trying to work her way free.
"What's your friend's name?" Dalton demanded. Her immediate silence surprised him. He should've been grateful for the reprieve.
He glanced out the window once more. The blonde bomber's cohort was skirting the shed with a gun clutched in his hand. Armed paparazzi or kidnappers hoping to extract a big ransom? It didn't make sense for them to blow up their own getaway vehicle.
Dalton may have briefly forgotten the Coast Guard's motto, Semper Paratus, Latin for Always Ready, but having a gun in his hand again brought his training to the forefront. His muscles twitched in anticipation, not unlike the first time he'd boarded a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico and helped his team seize a shipment of cocaine bound for the United States.
He slipped off the safety and approached the open doorway. Glancing once more at the troublesome woman, he stifled a brief flicker of guilt over leaving her without a way to protect herself. But she'd already burned through his goodwill. Judging her an enemy instead of an ally was self-preservation in its simplest form. As jaded as it sounded, it was easy to slip back into the role that had shaped his early life.
Chair legs scraped across the floor, but he didn't have any more time to waste on her. He needed the landline downstairs and it would take a minute to push his way to it. Phone, firemen and, unfortunately, another round with the police. Maybe it was time to hire some private security and stop depleting the sheriff department's resources. Then again, his donations had already funded two new patrol vehicles and trained a K-9 dog. What next?
Smoke billowed in an upward spiral close to the house, tainting the breeze, which had earlier carried the scent of autumn. Kira's head pounded an irregular rhythm, and she squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to overcome the nausea bubbling in her stomach. Convincing herself that being sick wasn't an option, she tried piecing together a plan. This was the place, she was almost certain. That shed outside hadn't been here before, but there was something familiar about this room.
Why hadn't she blurted out the question she wanted answered? Do you know Joshua Kincaid? That's what normal people didthey asked questions. She was terrified the man would say no, because she'd run out of options, chances and luck.
Nothing to lose. She wiggled in the chair. The tiny thumb drive wedged in her bra beneath her left breast pinched, confirming it was still in place. Considering her jarring fall to the floor and being manhandled by the impatient ogre in a lumberjack shirt, it was a miracle. Maybe ogre was an exaggeration, but he looked and felt solid enough to play the man in the Brawny commercials.
Most people backed up their computer files. But some people, like Kira, went a little crazy. She had an external hard drive for her home computer and several flash drives she rotated through. The FBI thought they'd confiscated everything, but they didn't know about the online backup site she used. Some secrets would always be safe as long as they didn't fall out of her bra.
Straining her neck to the right, she shifted enough to see past the valance hanging lopsided from one of the two front windows. A six-inch pane of glass remained intact, but the rest was reduced to various sized pellets littering the hardwood floor.
Nearly four years had passed since she and Josh had spent the weekend here and he'd proposed. If Kira thought too much about how she'd arrived back here, she'd never dig herself out of the darkness.
Josh had effectively fallen into a black hole. She had no idea where he'd gone after their separation, and she had to find him. Her desperation had led her to the obituaries, numerous social networking sites and every phone number for every Kincaid in the Midwest. No one knew him or was related to him. Josh couldn't have disappeared without a trace. Okay, she'd found a trace in the form of a joint tax return he'd filed, managing to collect a refund.