Jennifer Brooks knew it the moment she stepped into the reception area outside the school office and saw the two men. For five years, she’d lived in relative obscurity, alone and away from the harsh focus of her former life. She’d changed her last name and found a sort of peace teaching in a private girls’ boarding school on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Now that was over.
Both men wore dark suits and stark white shirts, with telltale bulges beneath their jackets. She’d spent too much of her life surrounded by similar men not to recognize them. They had their own unique way of occupying a room: apart, alert, and ready. She also realized they merely provided the muscle. Whoever had sent for her, taking her out of her classroom in the middle of a school day, waited inside.
Bracing herself, Jennifer nodded to the men and walked into the office. The headmistress, Margaret Abrahm, rose as she entered.
Jennifer hardly noticed.
Instead, she saw only the man, silhouetted by the bright sunlight streaming through the windows, his back to the door. She didn’t need to see his face to recognize him, nor question how he’d found her. She wasn’t officially in the Witness Protection Program, so she was in none of their databases. He was the only person who knew her location, and she should have realized he’d be the one to come for her. And maybe some part of her had.
“Thank you for coming, Jennifer,” Margaret said. “This gentleman is from the U.S. Marshals Service. He needs to speak with you.”
Jennifer nodded to the other woman without glancing at her. There were a limited number of reasons why he’d show up here, and the two deputies in the outer office ruled out the only good possibility.
“Deputy Marshal Kyle Munroe, I believe.” Somehow, she managed to keep her voice cool and unconcerned.
He turned, as if on cue, and Jennifer’s control slipped.
It was one thing to recognize him from across a room while he kept his back to her, and quite another to face him. Lord knew she’d imagined it, dreamt of it, often enough. She should have been prepared.
Seeing him like this, after all these years, was harder than she’d ever expected, and it nearly took her breath away.
“Hello, Jenny.” His voice wrapped around her, as warm and seductive as a moonlight kiss. And just as familiar. “How have you been?”
Five years. It should have been enough time to have gotten past her automatic reaction to him, to the longing created by just the sound of his voice. It wasn’t. But she’d be damned before she’d let him see it. “What are you doing here, Kyle?”
A flicker of response sparked in his eyes—those devastating blue-green eyes that had once stolen her heart. Then the spark vanished, and he said to Margaret, “Could I have a few minutes alone with Miss Brooks?”
She hesitated and glanced at Jennifer, who nodded. “It’s okay, Margaret. Deputy Munroe and I are old . . . acquaintances.”
A moment later, they were alone.
Neither of them spoke, but the memories drifted between them like misty phantoms. So much had changed since they’d last spoken, since they’d last touched. Jennifer was no longer the innocent, idealistic young woman he’d once known. He and her father had made sure of that. But Kyle . . . well, the differences in him were more visible.
The years had aged him, broadening him across the chest and shoulders and painting a hard edge to his features. He’d once been boy-next-door handsome, with dark hair, eyes the color of a summer sea, and a smile that never failed to turn heads. Jennifer doubted whether women so openly watched him now. Not that he wasn’t still handsome, or that they wouldn’t be drawn to him. It was just that no one would mistake this dark, dangerous stranger for an easy man.
Jennifer broke the silence. “Why are you here?” she repeated.
“Your father sent me.”
She let out a short, humorless laugh and crossed her arms. “You’d think he would have found someone else.” She and Kyle hadn’t parted on the best of terms. Letting the sarcasm drip from her voice, she added, “Oh, I forgot, he had to send you. You’re the only one who knew where to find me.”
“Your father trusts me.” Kyle kept his voice cool and his gaze level, as if unaffected by her sarcasm.
It spurred her on. “Actually, I’m surprised you forced yourself to leave his side.”
“Neither of us had a choice. There was nothing more I could do for him.”
She dug her nails into the palms of her hands, resisting the sudden fear lashing at her insides. “Is he . . .”
A flicker of compassion crossed Kyle’s features, the first real emotion he’d displayed, and, for a moment he seemed more like the man she’d once loved. “Your father’s safe.”
Jennifer closed her eyes briefly and let the relief wash through her. It had been the same five years since she’d seen her father, and for a moment she’d thought . . .
She opened her eyes and met his gaze head-on. “I’m not going back.”
“That’s not why I’m here.” He paused, and then said, “But there is a problem.”
She fought the flush of regret at his answer. After all, she’d known better than to think Kyle had come for her.
“What do you know about Philip Casale?” he asked, shattering any lingering question about whether he’d come in a professional capacity.
“You mean, Vittorio Casale’s son?”
“I don’t know much.” She tried to remember what she’d heard. Vittorio Casale was possibly the most notorious and untouchable crime lord of the decade. Anyone who paid attention to world events knew the authorities had been after him for years. But there hadn’t been much about his son, Philip; not until recently anyway. “All I know about Philip,” she said, “is that he was convicted of counterfeiting a few months ago.”
Kyle slipped his hands into his pockets, and for a moment didn’t say anything, as if uncertain where to start. “Philip’s a whiz kid,” he said, finally. “A genius, by all accounts. He used high-end computer graphics and printers to produce the currency. Then he sold it to foreign governments.
“But that’s only the beginning of what he’s been doing for his father. Though, so far, no one has been able to prove anything beyond the counterfeiting.” Kyle paused again, and then added, “Vittorio has plans for his son, and for using his genius to move the family business into the twenty-first century. And those plans don’t include a jail sentence.”
“Okay . . .” Jennifer prodded.
“Philip’s case is up for appeal.”
Jennifer caught her breath. “And Father . . .”
“. . . is trying the case.”
“I see.” Jennifer released her breath and walked over to the leather couch and sat down. She didn’t think she could take much more of this conversation standing up.
Three key witnesses and one juror had died mysteriously during the course of the original Casale trial. Despite that, they’d convicted him. Now her father, Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Crawford Brooks, known as the “Crusader,” would hear Philip’s appeal.
“Why haven’t I heard anything about this?” she asked.
“The appeal was made public yesterday, but we managed to keep your father’s name out of it. We thought we could keep it quiet for a few days at least. Unfortunately, Vittorio has his own sources.”
Jennifer hadn’t heard the news yesterday; she’d gotten home late from an outing with a group of students. But she knew that as soon as the appeal had been announced, Vittorio Casale would have wanted to know who would try his son. And men like Casale usually got what they wanted.
“Vittorio wants his son acquitted,” Kyle said. “He wants it very much.” Jennifer met Kyle’s gaze, praying she was wrong about what he was about to say. She wasn’t. “Vittorio has made that clear to your father.”
Jennifer steeled herself and resisted the urge to wrap her arms around her middle. “Father has received threats before.”
“It’s serious this time,” he said.
She smiled wryly, wondering if Kyle realized how foolish his words sounded. As if all those other times, other threats, had meant nothing.
“Casale is ruthless,” Kyle said. “And he has the power to carry out his threats.”
“Will Father back down?”
“You know better.”
Yes, she knew better. Her father never backed down.
He had his causes, his campaigns to single-handedly rid the country of crime. In the circles where he moved, many—especially Kyle—considered him a hero. But what good was a dead hero? Jennifer had wanted a father, and when she met Kyle, a husband. A normal life. However, neither of the men she loved had been willing to give her what she wanted, while she . . . she hadn’t been willing to live from day to day not knowing which one might be their last.
But that was ancient history.
“Okay, so why are you here?” she asked once again.
“Your father has been taken into protective custody,” he said. “And he sent me to you.”
“He thinks Casale will try to use you as leverage.”
“But no one knows where I am, and no one here knows who I am.” She threw a glance at the closed door. “At least they didn’t, until you showed up here today.”
“Casale’s men are good,” he said uneasily. “Too good.”
A sliver of fear slipped down her spine. She ignored it. “So, what are you saying? You’re here to act as my bodyguard?” She pushed off the couch and stood. “No thank you, I’ve been down that road before.”
“It’s worse than that,” he said. “I’m here to take you into custody as well.”
“No.” She’d responded automatically, yet she knew the minute the word escaped that it meant nothing. If Kyle Munroe and her father wanted her in protective custody, she’d have no choice.
“Staying here will endanger everyone around you,” he said. “Staff, faculty, even the students.”
Jennifer met and held his gaze. He wasn’t fighting fair, and they both knew it. He could force this on her, but he wanted her agreement. Her cooperation. And he knew she wouldn’t take a chance on endangering anyone else. Especially the students.
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped, then instantly regretted the outburst. He’d always generated emotions in her that no one else could touch. She didn’t want anyone to ever have that kind of power over her again. Especially Kyle. “It’s Jennifer.”
He frowned. “I know you’re angry, Jen . . . Jennifer, but—”
“Yes, I’m angry.” She suddenly realized she’d never stopped being angry. At her father. At Kyle. They’d both chosen their work over her, and that work had once again put them all in danger. “You brought them to me. You told them where they could find me.”
“It was necessary.”
“For your safety.” He moved closer. Too close. It was always a danger with Kyle, letting him get close, listening to his voice, gazing into those eyes of his, eyes that begged for understanding while he once again tore her life apart. “Casale’s men are the best I’ve ever seen.”
“You always told me you were the best. That when you made someone disappear, they stayed that way.”
Again, the barest flicker of emotion lit his eyes, but it vanished almost before she recognized it. “Your father and I decided—”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Anger gave her the strength to put distance between them again.
“It’s always been Father and you deciding what was best for poor little Jenny.” She glared at him from a safe distance. “Well I’ve got news for you, Deputy Munroe. I’m all grown up, and I make my own decisions now. I’ve been making them for five years. I don’t want or need you or my father making them for me.”
Kyle sighed and ran a hand through his hair. She noticed for the first time the weight of years that had settled on his face. He looked tired. “We don’t have much time, Jenny. We need to get you away from the school. Are you going to cooperate?”
“I have no alternative, do I? Now that you’ve come here with your private army, Casale will be able to find me too.” She waited a moment, though again, there was nothing he could say to change things. “I have to come with you or risk not only my own life, but those of the people around me.”
For a moment, he didn’t say anything. She searched his face for some sign of regret, some flicker of guilt for the position he’d put her in. After all, he, of all people, knew how much she hated this, how much she wanted—no, needed—a normal life.
“I won’t apologize, Jenny,” he said, and there was a finality, a flatness to his voice she’d heard before. I believe in what your father is doing, he’d once said to her. And I won’t leave him.
She knew from his tone that she’d lost, as she had five years ago, and the fight drained out of her. Nothing had changed between them.
“Okay,” she said. “I need to get a couple of things from my classroom and stop by my house. If I have to go into exile, I want my own clothes and personal things.”
Kyle’s first impulse was to refuse her. So far, he’d kept his temper in check, but his patience was wearing thin. Jenny had pushed and argued, letting her resentment flare between them, and while he understood her anger, he couldn’t afford the luxury of giving in to his emotions. Stopping at her house wasn’t a good idea, but it probably wouldn’t hurt either.
“Okay,” he said. “But you’ll have to be quick about it.”
“I know the drill.” She turned and headed for the door.
Taking a deep breath, he followed her into the outer office. “DeMitri, Cross,” he said to the men who’d accompanied him from Washington. “Escort Miss Brooks to her classroom to pick up her things. I’ll go over procedure with Mrs. Abrahm and meet you at the main entrance.”
Talking to the headmistress was an excuse. What he really needed was a few minutes alone; time to adjust to seeing Jenny again, time to reconcile himself to the hostility in her eyes.
Five years had changed her, left her even more beautiful than he remembered. And more distant. There had been no welcome in her eyes when she’d seen him, nothing to indicate she might still have feelings for him. There had been only anger at him and fear for her father.
Kyle stopped the thought before he could carry it further.
He refused to be jealous of her feelings for her father, or bothered because she’d found a new life for herself away from both of them. Hell, he’d helped create that life for her.
Now he’d destroyed it.
But he didn’t have time to sort out the past—if it were even possible—or be concerned that he’d turned her life upside down again. His concern and focus needed to remain on the present, on keeping Judge Crawford Brooks’s daughter alive. Something he was going to need all his skill and training to accomplish.
After a few brief instructions and reassurances to the headmistress, he headed for the school’s main entrance. Two other deputies, on loan from the Atlanta office, had been waiting there. They’d provided a safe house north of the city and the extra manpower needed to guard it.
Jenny arrived a few minutes later with DeMitri and Cross in tow. Kyle mentally shook his head at the way she led the two men, rather than the other way around. It hadn’t taken her long to fall back into the role of daughter to one of Washington’s most powerful men. If they weren’t careful, DeMitri and Cross would be stumbling over each other in no time, just to run her errands.
“Are you ready, Ms. Brooks?” he asked, distancing himself from her with a simple address.
“As ready as I’m going to be, Deputy.” She met his gaze, her eyes as cool and remote as if they’d never met. And that’s exactly the way he wanted it, he reminded himself.
Indicating the Atlanta deputies, he said, “One of these officers will drive your car. You’ll be riding with DeMitri, Cross, and me.”
“I’m perfectly capable of driving myself,” she said.
“No doubt. But you’ll come with us anyway.” He nodded to the other men; the matter was settled. “One more thing. I need your cell phone.”
He held out his hand. “We can’t take the risk of being tracked.”
“Can’t you just disable it or something?”
“Maybe. But the only way to be certain is to get rid of it.”
Again, that brief hesitation, but then she rummaged in her purse and pulled out an iPhone. “When this is done—”
“The department will spring for a new one.” He took the phone and handed it to one of the Atlanta deputies. “Get rid of this.” Then, taking her elbow, Kyle slipped his other hand inside his jacket. DeMitri and Cross took up positions on either side of them, while the two Atlanta deputies moved in front and behind.
Kyle scanned the area once more, and said, “Let’s go.”
He felt her initial resistance to his hold, but she did as he instructed. Again, she’d succumbed to old habits. It wasn’t the first time Kyle had protected her from her father’s enemies. He only hoped they’d both make it through this one alive.
They drove in caravan formation. The deputy in Jenny’s car led the way, followed by Kyle, DeMitri, and Cross in the car with Jenny, and the second Atlanta deputy bringing up the rear. It wasn’t a long drive, but to Kyle it seemed interminable. He tried to keep his eyes off Jenny, sitting as far from him as possible in the backseat of the government sedan.
He may as well have tried to stop breathing.
Again and again, he found himself staring at her, tracing the fine bones of her face with his eyes, noticing the new, shorter length of her hair and marveling, as he had in the past, that there could be so many different shades of gold. And there were her hands; long-fingered and graceful, clasped in her lap, the only outward sign of the tension running through her. He would have liked to reach over and take them in his, to pull them to his face and feel their softness once more against his skin. And if not that, he wanted to hold them and give her at least that much comfort.
She, on the other hand, seemed immune to him, keeping her face turned toward the window. Except once. She turned suddenly, and the deep brown of her eyes gentled and warmed for the space of a heartbeat. A brown-eyed blonde. He used to tease her that their whiskey color betrayed her true self. Abruptly, her eyes darkened, hardened, chilling him to the core. He knew then he’d been wrong about the color of her eyes. Brown could be every bit as hard and cold as blue.
A few minutes later, they turned into a quiet suburban development. The deputy driving Jenny’s car pulled into the driveway, while Cross and the third driver parked on the street.
Kyle knew this neighborhood and this house. Five years ago when Jenny had wanted out, he’d found it for her. Still, it looked different than he remembered. It stood alone at the end of a cul-de-sac, a two-story brick surrounded by trees and backing up to woods. Large for one woman, the place was small compared to the mansion Jenny had grown up in. When he’d first seen this house, it had been new and empty-looking even from the outside. In five years, she’d changed it, put her stamp on it. Flowers bloomed everywhere: on the porch, in window boxes, lining the driveway.
He remembered she’d always had a green thumb, but somehow he couldn’t picture the elegant Jennifer Brooks down on her knees, digging in the dirt.
“Looks like you’ve found a great gardener,” he said, needing suddenly to touch some piece of her life. A life he couldn’t be a part of.
“I don’t have a gardener,” she said, and reached for the car door.
Grabbing her hand, he stopped her. “Wait.”
He climbed out of the car, followed by DeMitri on the front passenger side. They both made a quick visual survey of the area. Everything seemed quiet. Yet, something didn’t feel right. Kyle glanced at DeMitri, who also seemed uneasy. “What do you think?”
DeMitri shook his head. “It looks okay.” Though he didn’t sound convinced.
Kyle circled cautiously around to Jenny’s door, while checking on the other deputies getting out of their cars. Each one nodded in turn; they were ready for whatever instructions Kyle issued.
With his hand inside his jacket and resting on the butt of his gun, he once again looked at DeMitri.
“Let’s get this over with,” the other man said.
Kyle hesitated a moment longer, shaking off his uneasy feeling. His concern for Jenny was getting in the way of his better judgment. “Okay, let’s go.” Glancing around once more, he opened her door.
Jenny climbed out, and the world exploded around them.