The beautiful blonde armed with a Beretta is someone FBI agent Austin Duran knows only too well. Rosalie McKinnon was engaged to his best friend, who died on a mission gone south. But the desperate mother isn't there for revenge she's looking for her abducted infant daughter. And she just blew his cover.
Rosalie's future is again in the hands of the rogue Texan lawman who's on an unofficial mission to find his own kidnapped nephew. With a relentless adversary in hot pursuitand unwelcome desire ignitingRosalie has to trust Austin. Her baby's life depends on it
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Rosalie McKinnon tightened her grip on the Beretta that she'd stolen and stepped out of the house and onto the narrow back porch. She stayed in the shadows, away from the milky kitchen light that was stabbing through the darkness.
There was only a thin lip of an overhang on the roof, so after just a few steps, the December rain spat at her. Not sleet exactly, but close enough. Rosalie didn't know if she was shivering from the fear or the cold. It didn't matter. Shivering wasn't going to stop her.
Tonight, she would get answers. Even if she had to shoot him.
She made it down the slick, uneven limestone steps and into the sprawling backyard. She paused just a couple of seconds to make sure no one in the house had noticed that she'd left. With all the decongestants and antihistamines she had managed to slip into the guard's coffee, maybe he'd be out long enough so he wouldn't realize that she was missing.
Well, best not to go there.
Even though she had stolen the guard's gun after he'd passed out, there were other armed guards on the grounds. If they discovered her, she'd be dead within seconds. Especially if they figured out what she was doing. They were no doubt capable of killing.
That also applied to the man she had to see.
Maybe, just maybe, he'd be sleeping, too, so she could get the jump on him. It was the only chance she had of making this plan work.
Hurrying now, Rosalie crossed the bare winter grass to a much smaller house at the back of the barn. Once, it'd probably been a guest cottage when the ranch was a real working operation. Now there was no livestock around, no hint of the life that'd once gone on here other than a tractor and hay baler that had been left to rust away. These days, the place was a glorified prison for the babies being processed for black market adoptions.
Since it made her sick to her stomach to think of that, Rosalie pushed the thought aside and tested the doorknob on the cottage.
A big mistake on his part.
Rosalie opened the door and stepped inside. All dark and toasty warm. It smelled of too-strong coffee and the fast-food burgers that'd been brought in for their dinner.
The only light in the room of the cottage came from the kitchen in the main house, where she'd just been. It cut like slivers down the tiny front windows that were streaked with rain.
It took a couple of moments for Rosalie's eyes to adjust, and in the shadowy silhouettes, she saw a desk, a sofa and the small bed against the wall. There were two interior doors, both closed, and from what she'd learned from the guard's idle chatter, one was a bathroom. The other, a bedroom that was being used as a storage closet.
But it was the man on the bed who grabbed her full attention.
He was on his side, facing away from her. No cover on him, and he appeared to be wearing the same jeans and shirt he'd had on when she had spotted him earlier in the yard.
The guard had called him boss.
She'd yet to see him up close, but Rosalie had gotten another glimpse of him from the upstairs window of the main house. His dark brown Stetson had covered most of his face, but she'd watched to see where he would go. And he hadn't gone farjust to the cottage. All in all, it wasn't the worst place to confront a monster because he was alone here, away from the guards who would protect him.
Keeping the Beretta by her side, she walked closer, her heart thudding with each soft step. She had to remind herself to breathe. And to keep a clear head. Her instincts were to shoot, or run, but neither of those things would get her what she needed.
Too bad she wasn't a cop like her siblings. They would have no doubt handled this much better.
But then they would have never gotten into this place.
Not with their cops' eyes and attitudes. Plus, they'd all been tied up with other leads and other investigations. Important ones. Her mother was about to stand trial for first-degree murder, and while finding the baby was critical, so was the trial since her mother was facing the death penalty.
That's why she'd come up with her own plan several months ago while she was staying at her family's ranch.
A plan that'd started with finding any info to get her inside this place or any other place that would possibly lead her to her daughter.
Rosalie leaned over and jammed the gun to the back of the man's head. "I want answers," she managed to say even though her throat clamped shut. Her voice had hardly any sound.
He moved, just a fraction. "Darlin'," he drawled.
Her shoulders snapped back, and it was that split second of shock that caused her breath and body to freeze.
The man reached out, lightning-fast, snagged her by the right hand and stripped her of the Beretta. In the same motion, he pulled her down onto the bed with him and rolled on top of her, pinning her beneath him.
That unfroze her.
Her heart jolted, throbbing in her ears, and Rosalie started to fight back. She couldn't just let this man kill her.
"Play along," he growled, his voice no longer a drawl but rather a whisper. "There's a camera."
She'd already brought up her knee to ram any part of him that she could reach, but she stopped. Stared at him. Well, she stared at what she could see of him, anyway.
"Rosalie," he muttered.
Mercy. How did he know her real name? She was using a fake ID with the name Mary Williams. If he was onto her, why hadn't he already told the guards?
"Who are you?" she tried to ask, but he put his hand over her mouth.
"I figured you'd drop by," he said. No longer a whisper, and the cocky drawl had returned. "I saw you eyeing me earlier from the window."
She had. She'd eyed him and committed everything she could see about him to memory from his sandy-brown hair to lanky build. He normally wore a shoulder holster, and judging from the bulge in the back of his coat, he had another gun tucked in the back waistband of his jeans.
And the keys.
Three of them.
They jangled from a metal ring hooked to his belt loop.
Rosalie believed one was for the truck she'd seen him driving, but one of the others was for the room inside the main house where she'd gotten a glimpse of computers and files. The room was always locked, and there was a camera mounted on the doorjamb, but she needed his keys to get a look at those files.
She glanced around, to try to see if there was indeed a camera here, but the room was too dark.
"Who are you?" she asked, shoving his hand from her mouth.
He pulled back, stared down at her, though she still couldn't clearly see his face. "You don't know?" But he didn't wait for an answer. He mumbled some really bad profanity, and his grip tightened on her wrists. "Why the hell are you here, anyway?"
He didn't shout it, but she had no trouble hearing the anger in his voice. Or maybe not anger, but something.
What was going on? She couldn't see enough of his face to recognize him, and that raspy whispered voice wasn't enough of a clue. He could be friend or foe, but clearly he fell into the latter category since he was the boss here.
So, what was her next move?
She hadn't thought beyond getting answers and then trying to escape, but clearly she hadn't expected this. Whatever this was.
"Did you come here to kill me?" he demanded, still whispering. "If necessary."
Except a dead man couldn't tell her what she needed to know. But she would have pulled the trigger if it'd come down to it. Unfortunately, she no longer had a gun as a bargaining tool. She had only shaky hands. Shaky body, too, and her heart just kept pounding.
The moments crawled by. Him, still staring at her and obviously waiting for an explanation. The only sounds were the rain pinging against the window and their rough breaths.
"Pretend," he finally snapped.
Rosalie didn't get a chance to ask what the heck that meant before his mouth went to her neck. He nuzzled it, as if kissing her, but he was still mumbling profanity, and his jaw muscles were way too tight for this to be a real kissing session.
So, what was this? Some kind of act for the person on the other end of the camera? If so, why was he trying to cover for her?
"I'm not leaving without answers," Rosalie whispered. "And I want these babies safely out of here and back where they belong."
"Pretend we're having sex or you might not be leaving at all. You'll be dead. And so will I."
That was the only warning she got before the pretense went into full swing. He kneed her legs apart, yanking off her green scrub pants. He didn't touch her panties, thank goodness, and he threw the covers over them.
He fumbled between them, pretending to unzip his jeans before the fake thrusting started.
"If necessary?" he said, repeating her response to his question of Did you come here to kill me? "If you're not here for revenge, then why did you come?"
Revenge, yes, she wanted that. And justice. But more than those things, she just wanted answers.
It was impossible to think with everything going on. The sex was fake, but it was still a man's body shoving against her. And then there was the fear. Obviously, this man knew her. Knew she was as phony as the sex they were having. So, why hadn't he shouted out for the guard?
Why hadn't he killed her?
After all, he had her gun and his.
"I'm looking for my baby," she said. Her mouth trembled. And she felt her heart breaking all over again.
He stopped moving, met her gaze. For a few seconds, anyway. Then, he let out a loud groan, the sound of a man who'd just reached a climax, and he collapsed against her.
"You had a child," he said. Not a question exactly but more like something a person would say when trying to piece things together.
She nodded. Bad idea. It caused her mouth to brush against his neck, and because his sex was still aligned with hers, she felt a stirring.
Yes, this was pretend, but his body was obviously having a hard time remembering that.
"I gave birth to a baby girl nearly a year ago." Eleven months. Six days. Heck, she knew the hours and minutes.
"Nearly a year ago," he repeated. "She was your fiance's baby?"
Again, not a question that she'd expected. Rosalie nodded and tried to tamp down the massive lump in her throat. Her eyes burned with tears that she couldn't cry. Tears wouldn't help her baby now.
"Sadie that's what I named my daughter. She was born eight and a half months after my fiancé was murdered."
The memories of that day came. Of his shooting. That horrible flood of images that just didn't stop. So senseless. Her fiancé, Special Agent Eli Wells, had died because of a botched investigation, and Rosalie had wanted to die right along with him.
And then she'd learned she was pregnant.
The baby had saved her. Because she'd put all her love and emotions into surviving, into the pregnancy, so she could have the child of the man she'd loved.
"Someone stole Sadie from the hospital just a few hours after she was born," Rosalie added, "and I've been looking for her ever since."
His breath was thicker now, practically gusting. "She wouldn't be here. They only bring newborns here, and they've only used this place for a couple of months."
Yes, she knew that from the guard's ramblings before he'd actually dozed off from the meds that she had slipped him. "I thought there would be records on the computer in a locked room of the house."
"There are. But only for the babies being held at this location. You're sure the black market ring took your daughter?"
"No." And it hurt to admit that. She wasn't sure of anything, but she'd exhausted her leads and had gone with this different angle. "A criminal informant said there might be information here."
There was a lot more to it than that, but Rosalie didn't want to rehash everything it'd taken to bring her to this point. All the lies, the payoffs and the bogus identity she'd had to create.
"Why haven't you killed me?" she came out and asked. "And how do you know who I am?"
Again, he took his time, looking down at her as if trying to figure out what was going on. Rosalie was doing the same thing to him.
"What criminal informant did you use?" he asked, obviously dodging the questions.
Of all the things that were up in the air here, that didn't seem very important. "A guy from San Antonio. Lefty Markham."
He groaned, cursed and rolled off her and to his side. But he immediately pulled her against him. Face-to-face. Like a couple having some pillow talk after a round of sex.
"He's your stepbrother's CI," he whispered. "Why the hell didn't you bring Seth in on this?"
Seth Calder, not just her stepbrother but also an FBI agent. So, not only did this man know who she was, but he also knew details about her life that he shouldn't know.
"Because Seth's checking out another lead over in El Paso. The CI said the baby-holding area here at the ranch wouldn't be here much longer."
"It won't be. The plan is to move tomorrow."
Oh, mercy. So soon. "I need to see those records. Please help me. Please."
Yes, she was begging but she would resort to a lot more than that to learn where her baby had been taken.
"I'm Austin Duran," he said.
His voice was so soft, barely audible, but it slammed through her as if he'd yelled it.
"Oh, God," she said a lot louder than a whisper.
"Yeah." He moved away from her so they were no longer touching.
The name was as familiar to her as her own. But not in a good way. It was a name she'd cursed. A bogeyman who'd robbed her of her hopes and dreams. The man who'd killed Eli.
Not in the eyes of the law, though, and it certainly hadn't been labeled murder. But Rosalie knew that Austin Duran was the FBI agent who had botched the investigation that'd led to Eli's murder.
"Yeah," he repeated. There was a lot of emotion hanging on that one word. The pain. The memories.
Everything Rosalie was feeling.
"You thought I'd come here to kill you," she mumbled. "You thought I was avenging Eli's death."
He didn't confirm that. Didn't need to.
"I didn't get a good look at your face." And that's why she hadn't instantly recognized him. Strange that she hadn't sensed that he had been so close, because she'd spent all these months hating him.
And Rosalie would use that hate.
In fact, it could be better than a gun.
"You're here undercover?" she asked.
He nodded. "I'm looking for someone."
She didn't care about that. Didn't care about anything right now but her daughter. That included choking back her hatred for this man and making this work for Sadie and the other babies who were being held inside so they could be sold like cattle.
"You owe me," she insisted. "For Eli's death. And you're going to help me find his missing baby."
Austin didn't jump to do just that. He lay there, silent as death, and Rosalie was about to repeat her demand when she heard the sound.
Something she definitely didn't want to hear.
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