When Delta Force soldier Caleb Judd's brother and sister-in-law are murdered, the killers turn their attention on his orphaned nephew. Caleb's new mission: protect little Tommywho hasn't said a word since witnessing his parents' deathsand figure out who's targeting his family. He needs help, and security expert Shelley Rabb is perfect for the job. But Caleb's used to calling the shots, not taking orders even when they come from a beautiful former Secret Service agent. Shelley knows firsthand what can happen when business becomes personal, so she vows not to get too close to Caleb and his nephew. She will risk her life to make sure they're safe, but will that mean risking her heart, too?
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A muffled footstep awakened Caleb, setting him on high alert. There was no reason anyone should be here. No good reason, that is. Calmly, he slipped from the bed and stepped behind the draperies, just as an intruder entered the bedroom.
Another man might have panicked, but Caleb Judd was not just another man. Instinctively, he clicked into Delta mode, a heightened sense of awareness overtaking him, his vision sharpening, his hearing growing more acute. His breathing remained regular, his pulse steady, courtesy of training from the United States Army.
No one should have gotten in. Alfred Kruise had boasted about the state-of-the-art alarm system when he'd offered Caleb use of the guesthouse, insisting that both he and his nephew, Tommy, were safer here than they would have been anywhere else.
Kruise had been wrong.
The alarm system hadn't gone off. Probably disabled. A pro.
The stranger's movements were nearly silent as he made his way toward the bed, his intentions clear. He wanted Caleb. But why? He had his share of enemies, but they weren't personal. Fighting his country's enemies was what he had been doing when he'd gotten the call about Michael and Grace's murders.
But now here he was in Atlanta, Georgia, eight thousand miles from Afghanistan, facing a gunman who clearly wanted to eliminate him. The only reason Caleb could think of was connected to his brother Michael, but that made no sense.
With his own weapon packed in his duffel bag, he had no chance of going for it. If he were going to take the man down, it would have to be with his hand.
Recognizing the disadvantages of his position, he relied on the faith that had sustained him through countless encounters with the enemy. It had never deserted him, even upon learning of the deaths of his brother and his wife.
Caleb registered the assailant's weapon held in a steady hand. A Walther. A good choice for an assassination. He'd probably appreciate it more if he weren't the intended target. He stepped out from behind the draperies and kicked out, knocking the weapon from the man's hand.
The would-be killer, who had to be several inches taller than Caleb's own six feet and weighed at least two hundred and twenty pounds, recovered quickly and grabbed for the weapon. Caleb spun, delivered a roundhouse to the man's chest, but fatigue and unrelenting grief had taken their toll upon him, making his effort lack its customary power.
The man gave a loud whuff. Caleb rammed a fist into the assailant's jaw. He must have had an iron jaw because he didn't buckle. The intruder pivoted on one foot and slammed the other against Caleb's chest.
Caleb dodged the worst of it but couldn't completely escape the punishing blow. He spun, presenting his profile, a smaller target for the next attack. The assailant had obviously had close-quarters combat training, since he didn't move away from Caleb's fists but, instead, closed in.
Just as the stranger raised his fist, a look of consternation passed over his face. And then Caleb noticed it. The man was wearing earbuds. Someone, a handler probably, must have been issuing orders.
After casting Caleb a look that promised retribution, the man took off. What had his boss said that had caused him to give up so easily? He feared that the man realized he had the wrong target and Tommy was the intended one.
Caleb should have never left his nephew alone in the main house. Alfred and Irene Kruise had insisted it was best for Tommy, yet another instance where they had been wrong.
Whoever had sent a killer after Caleb might have also sent another after Tommy. But why? The boy didn't know anything. Fury built in his chest at the idea of anyone hurting Tommy. Smother the rage, Caleb told himself as he retrieved his weapon. He didn't have the luxury of giving in to it. Not now. Not when Tommy needed him.
Besides, there were bigger things he needed to concentrate on at the moment.
Three nights ago, Michael and Grace Judd had been gunned down in their own home while Tommy had watched. Caleb still shuddered at the thought of what his young nephew had endured. It was no wonder Tommy hadn't said a word since witnessing the shooting of his parents. Some grief was too deep for words.
The next few hours were a blur as Caleb had made arrangements to leave his unit in Afghanistan and fly to Atlanta.
He was beyond exhausted, at a time when he couldn't afford to make a mistake through a snap decision. One of the great ironies of life, though, was that in moments like these, snap decisions were all he had time for.
A different kind of fear settled in his heart. What was he to do with a seven-year-old boy? With no other family outside of a cousin, Michael and Grace had named Caleb Tommy's guardian in the event of the unthinkable. And now the unthinkable had happened.
Ideally, a child needed two parents, a mother and a father. Where was Caleb supposed to come up with a mother? With one bad experience under his belt, he had no desire to get on the romance merry-go-round again.
Impatiently, he shoved those worries aside. Right now he had enough on his plate, including staying alive and protecting Tommy.
With the weapon he had retrieved from his duffel held close to his chest, Caleb sprinted to the main house to check on the boy. The humidity of the Georgia night pressed against him, stealing the breath from his lungs, but he scarcely noticed. Nothing mattered other than keeping his nephew safe.
Silently, he admitted what he'd refused to acknowledge since he'd learned of the murder of his brother and sister-in-law: he needed backup.
Shelley Rabb lifted the heavy brass knocker and rapped it against the door to the guesthouse of the Kruise estate. Set in an exclusive neighborhood that shouted old money, the estate was a showplace, filled with dark, waxy magnolias, stone fountains and an air of gentility that had her wondering if she should genuflect before presenting herself.
Everyone in Atlanta knew of Alfred and Irene Kruise, who were featured on the society page of the paper at least once a week and were considered Atlanta royalty. Kruise was a federal prosecutor, and his wife sat on the committees of a half dozen or so charities. An invitation to the estate was a coveted ticket, although this wasn't exactly a social call. She was here as a favor to her brother, Jake.
"A buddy from DeltaCaleb Juddcalled. He needs help," her brother had said in a phone call early that morning. "I wouldn't ask if it weren't important."
She knew that. Just as she also knew that she couldn't refuse. Jake was on his honeymoon with his bride, Dani. No way would she drag him from that, not after what he and Dani had gone through.
"I owe him, sis," Jake had said. For Shelley, that said it all.
If not for that, she wouldn't have taken the case. She had enough on her plate as it was, including handling the protection for a state senator who had received threatening emails from someone opposed to his stand on envi-ronmentalism.
But Jake had played the brother card, and the truth was, she'd do just about anything for him. She'd felt protective of Jake ever since he'd returned home from the Middle East, broken in body and in spirit. Love had made all the difference, and it had been Dani who had made him take those first steps toward trust and love. For that, Shelley would always be grateful to her new sister-in-law.
She straightened her blazer so that it hung smoothly over the SIG-Sauer 9mm she carried in a custom-fit shoulder holster, and prepared to lift the knocker again when the door was yanked open by a man who looked ready to do murder.
He matched the description her brother, Jake, had given her of Judd. "You're early."
"Is that a problem?"
"Yeah, it is," came the blunt answer. Annoyance had drawn lines in his forehead, but she sensed she wasn't the real target of his anger. "Come in." He pointed to a small room off the main hallway. "In there. I'll be with you in a minute."
Shelley narrowed her eyes. She didn't take orders. From anyone.
Setting aside her irritation, she opened a set of French doors leading to a small office and took a seat on a navy leather sofa.
The sound of raised voices caught her attention. Unashamedly, she listened. If there was one thing she'd learned in the security/protection business, it was that there were many ways to glean important facts, and eavesdropping was one of the best.
"You're making a mistake, taking Tommy away from here. This is the only place he's been safe since it happened." Frustration and worry sharpened a man's cultured voice. Alfred Kruise, she guessed.
"Last night proved that it's not safe." The words, though quietly spoken, held the unmistakable ring of authority, and she recognized the voice of the man who had answered the door.
"We'll tighten up security." The first voice grew more strident with each word.
"It's already settled. Tommy comes with me."
"You don't know what you're doing. Tommy is Irene's and my godson. We would do anything to protect him. Anything!" A pause, followed by a tremulous sigh. "Michael and Grace were family."
"Maybe so, but I'm his guardian and I'm not leaving him here. I've already lost my brother and his wife. I'm not about to lose Tommy, too."
"Have it your way. I only pray you don't live to regret it." The slam of a door emphasized the other man's displeasure.
The man returned to Shelley. "I'm Caleb Judd." He gestured to the slightly built boy with dark hair and eyes at his side. "My nephew, Tommy." At Judd's nod, Tommy settled in a corner and pulled a couple of miniature cars from his pocket. "Shelley Rabb."
Accustomed to sizing people up, Shelley studied S&J Security Protection's newest client. In a black T-shirt, dark jeans and Frye combat boots, he looked dangerous and deadly. In her job, she'd come across plenty of influential men, men who wielded the kind of power that came with money and connections and political clout. Caleb Judd carried a different kind of power, the kind that came from within. There was an underlying current of energy to him, and though banked now, that raw force was evident in how he moved and the clipped cadence of his speech.
His posture shouted his military background, as did his closely cropped hair. The tanned, weathered face had the hard lines of a man who did not spend his days in the office or the gym. And his battle-ready stance and sharp gaze were so like her brother, Jake's, that she almost did a double take.
Judd looked as out of place as she felt in the sumptuous surroundings. Score one for him.
"Thanks for coming." His words sounded as though he'd just gargled with cut glass, and Shelley winced at the pain underscoring them.
"Thank me when I've done something."
Shelley chose her clients carefully. S&Jher and Jake's initialswas her company. The clients didn't have to be wealthy, but they did have to be honest. At least with her. A recent client had been megarich, but he hadn't been trustworthy. She'd returned his retainer and suggested he find someone whose ethics were as challenged as his own.
The tightening of Judd's jaw and the impatient tapping of boots on the hardwood floor reminded her that he was Delta, a man who understood action. Still, she had a duty to him, as a client, and to herself, to make certain she could handle the job.
On a silent sigh, she acknowledged she was only postponing the inevitable. Of course she'd take the job. She didn't have a choice.
She looked into his blue eyes and resisted the urge to flinch when she saw nothing but ragged grief staring back at her. She supposed he might be considered attractive if his mouth were smiling. As it was, it was a hard line that compressed his lips together.
It looked as though he was holding himself together just as tightly. Tension radiated from him in palpable waves. From the harsh cast of his face and sleep-deprived features, he'd obviously gone through unspeakable pain since learning of the murders. But pain was not the only thing she read in his gaze. There was guilt, as well. She ought to know. She saw it every time she stared at herself in the mirror.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I can only imagine what you're feeling."
"Can you?" Judd retorted. "Do you know what it is to lose a brother?"
"I came close with Jake," she said, unoffended. "There were times when I didn't know if he would make it back."
Judd scrubbed a hand over his face, the rasping sound drawing her attention to the whiskers that darkened his jaw. She watched as he struggled to temper his voice. "Sorry. That was uncalled for."
"Don't apologize. We've got more important things to discuss."
"Like how I should have been there for him." Selfloathing coated his voice. "I told Michael he was in over his head. If he'd listened if I had been there "
She nodded to herself, confirming her earlier supposition that he was suffering from a crippling case of guilt. She didn't try to talk him out of it. Guilt exacted its own price in its own time.
Movements she suspected were normally smooth and economical were jerky, awkward, as though he didn't know what to do with the adrenaline instigated by fear and worry. "Jake told you why I need help?"
After making sure that the little boy wasn't within earshot, she turned back to Judd and answered in a low voice, "He said your brother and his wife had been killed and that you were attacked last night."
Other than the tightening of his mouth, Judd failed to react to the bald recitation of facts. He was probably in shock. The man had lost his brother and sister-in-law, had taken on the care of his nephew and had faced down a probable assassin, all within the space of a few days.
"You probably have the same questions I do," she said. "Was someone trying to kill you? Or just scare you off? What makes you a target?"
Judd didn't immediately answer. His gaze strayed to Tommy, who was still crouched on the floor, playing with his miniature cars. Of course his first concern was his nephew.
"I wish I knew."
Shelley paused. What was she doing, taking on a case that involved a child, a traumatized one at that? Every instinct in her told her that it was a mistake, but Caleb Judd had saved Jake's life. S&J owed him. She owed him.
And she always paid her debts.
Honor, plus an unwavering faith, was the cornerstone of how she conducted her life and ran her business.