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Authors: Marilyn Pappano

Covert Christmas

BOOK: Covert Christmas
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Praise for MARILYN PAPPANO

“Pappano's highly entertaining story has it all…Once you start it, you'll be reading until all is revealed.”

—
RT Book Reviews
on
Criminal Deception
(4.5 stars)

“This engrossing, atmospheric story is loaded with hot, sultry passion and complex characters…”

—
RT Book Reviews
on
Scandal in Copper Lake
(4.5 stars)

Praise for LINDA CONRAD

“Conrad casts her own magical spell with a terrific mix of good versus evil and plenty of passion and sensuality. Readers will be bewitched!”

—
RT Book Reviews
on
In Safe Hands
(4.5 stars, Top Pick)

“Packed with sincere emotions and realistic danger, resulting in an intensely satisfying romance.”

—
Cataromance.com
on
Safe by His Side
(5 stars)

Praise for LORETH ANNE WHITE


The Heart of a Mercenary
is mesmerizing with the never-ending action combined with the heartfelt and unforgettable love story.”

—
Cataromance.com
on
The Heart of a Mercenary

“Action, adventure and a heart-pounding conclusion make this highly romantic story a winner.”

—
RT Book Reviews
on
The Sheik's Command
(4.5 stars)

MARILYN PAPPANO

has been blessed by family—her husband, their son, his lovely wife and a grandson who is almost certainly the most beautiful and talented baby in the world—and friends, along with a writing career that's made her one of the luckiest people around.

LINDA CONRAD

A bestselling author of more than twenty-five books, Linda has received numerous industry awards, among them a National Reader's Choice Award, a Maggie Award, a Write Touch Readers' Award and an
RT Book Reviews
Reviewers' Choice Award. To contact Linda, read more about her books or to sign up for her newsletter and/or contests, go to her Web site at www.LindaConrad.com.

LORETH ANNE WHITE

Born and raised in southern Africa, Loreth now lives in Whistler, a ski resort in the moody British Columbian Coast Mountain range. It's a place of vast wilderness, larger-than-life characters, epic adventure and romance—the perfect place to escape reality. It's no wonder she was inspired to abandon a sixteen-year career as a journalist to escape into a world of romance fiction filled with dangerous men and adventurous women.

For a peek into her world visit her Web site, www.lorethannewhite.com. She'd love to hear from you.

MARILYN PAPPANO,
LINDA CONRAD &
LORETH ANNE WHITE
Covert Christmas

Dear Reader,

Before this holidays get rolling, fortify yourself with October's heart-thumping romances from Silhouette Romantic Suspense.

Three of your favorite authors—Marilyn Pappano, Linda Conrad and Loreth Anne White—contribute fabulous mayhem-filled holiday stories in
Covert Christmas
(#1627). Don't miss the yuletide excitement! Follow THE COLTONS OF MONTANA in the latest romance,
Dr. Colton's High-Stakes Fiancée
(#1628), by Cindy Dees. Two lovers reunite but will a tornado—and a more human threat—get in the way of happiness? Next is Karen Whiddon's
Profile for Seduction
(#1629), which is part of her miniseries THE CORDASIC LEGACY. Here, two agents chase down an escaped serial killer—and try to resist their smoldering passion. In Beth Cornelison's
The Bride's Bodyguard
(#1630), the second book in THE BANCROFT BRIDES, a reluctant bride gets swept off her feet by a hunky military man who's determined to protect her from a virulent evil. You won't be able to put these stories down.

Each month, Silhouette Romantic Suspense will take your breath away! Become a fan of our books on www.Facebook.com and visit us at www.eHarlequin.com. Have a wonderful holiday season and happy reading!

Sincerely,

Patience Smith

Senior Editor

OPEN SEASON

Marilyn Pappano

 

To my grandson, Cameron, who still believes in Santa Claus; my son, Brandon, and his lovely wife, Bobbi; and my husband, Bob. For making Christmas that much more special. I love you guys!

Chapter 1

W
ith one last glance over her shoulder, Natalia Parker turned off the sidewalk onto an overgrown path and gave a sigh of relief. She always felt exposed on Augusta's streets, but here, at the ancient house where she rented the upstairs apartment, azaleas grown wild mostly hid her from sight.

A sharp wind cut through the narrow alley formed by house and fence, making her shiver. She'd gotten rid of her heavy clothes when she'd left Chicago, and the unusually frigid temperatures this week made her regret it.

As if she didn't have enough regrets already.

She reached the back of the house, resting one hand on the siding to balance as she stepped across the arching roots of a long-gone live oak. A plaster fairy sat on the rough-sawn stump, looking cold in the thin evening light. Clearing the roots and the corner, Natalia headed for the rickety stairs, her thoughts on warmth, security, hot cocoa and a movie.

Abruptly, awareness prickled down her neck. Danger. Her gaze swept the small yard, from fence to vine-covered fence,
past a pine, an oak and a gum tree, before darting back to the oak.

In the shadows a lean figure stood motionless, his brown leather jacket and trousers practically blending into the bark. His stance was casual: one shoulder against the tree, one knee cocked. A knitted cap covered most of his long blond hair, and a beard stubbled his chin. For three and a half years, she'd seen him in her dreams. In her nightmares. And now here he was, in the flesh.

Josh Saldana.

He pushed away from the tree, taking a few steps into the light cast by the weak lamp outside her door, shoving his hands into his jacket pockets. “Hey, Nat.”

His voice was low, his manner loose, but neither lessened the menace emanating from him. She'd known danger since she was a child. She sensed it, smelled it, tasted it, chilling the very air between them.

Cursing the mall job that forced her to go out with nothing more than a four-inch blade for protection, she gauged the distance to the stairs. She might make it halfway to the top before he caught her—maybe, with luck, all the way. But the door to her apartment would give with one good kick, and the only other exit was a fifteen-foot drop out the bedroom window. Her sole hope of escape was back the way she'd just come, to the street, to the open.

“What's wrong, Nat? Cat got your tongue?”

She locked gazes with him. His eyes were so blue, they defied description. Usually they were full of emotion: warm; heated; laughing; angry; gentle; mocking; deeply, darkly passionate. This evening they were blank.

How had he found her? Why had he bothered? To avenge the wrongs she'd done him? Payback was a bitch, he'd always said.

She'd had enough payback to last a lifetime. She wasn't looking for any more.

Willing herself to give no hint of her intent, she suddenly lunged, spinning around, racing for the corner. She had a few
seconds, max, before he reacted, and he was bigger, faster. Given half a chance, he would be on her before she reached the sidewalk.

Her leap carried her over the bigger tree roots, but she stubbed her toe on a small one, sending her skittering for balance. She'd almost found it when Josh slammed into her from behind. Her landing was hard, sending her glasses flying, rushing her breath out with a grunt, forcing her face to the ground. The rich scents of earth and decaying leaves filled her lungs, threatening to choke her, before the pressure on her back eased.

“Gee, Nat, you make a man think you're not happy to see him,” he drawled in her ear. “And here I've been looking forward to this for so long.”

She'd wondered if she would ever see him again—had let herself, when she was weak, fantasize that he would come looking for her, that he still wanted her, that he might even love her. He'd said the words plenty of times, but saying something didn't make it so.

Just as not saying it didn't make that true, either.

Tentatively, she pushed, but couldn't budge him. He was lean, far thinner than when she'd last seen him, but he was strong. “What do you want?” Her voice sounded rusty. She got through her days at work with little conversation, and there was no one to talk to outside the job. There hadn't been since she'd fled Copper Lake, Georgia, seven months ago.

He moved, rising to his knees, his thighs still pressed tight against hers. “You're kidding, right? What do I
want
? You can ask that?”

The disdain in his voice sent a shiver through her unmatched by the frigid air. He'd never spoken to her like that, not once since the hot Chicago day they'd met. He'd thought it luck that they'd both gone to pick up their cars at the garage at the same time. Obviously he now knew there'd been nothing lucky about their meeting. She'd gone there on orders from her boss, had waited three hours for the man whose face she'd memorized from the photos Patrick Mulroney had
shown her. She'd gone with an agenda, and it had led to an attempt—two—on Josh's life.

She deserved his disdain. What she'd done had been unforgivable.

Apparently tiring of waiting for her answer, he stood up, grabbed hold of her arm and hauled her to her feet. His grip never lessened, not as he bent to retrieve her glasses, not as he turned her toward the back of the house again and pushed her along ahead of him. “I've waited a long time for this conversation. I'd rather have it inside, where I'm not freezing my ass off.”

“We've got nothing to talk about.” Her denial sounded weak, even to her, and the only response it brought from him was a snort.

Given no choice, she climbed the stairs, seventeen of them, to the three-by-four-foot stoop. The screen door creaked when she opened it, and the key jingled when she took it from her pocket. Mrs. Johnstone, almost as creaky and faded as her house, had given Natalia the key ring, painted gaudy gold and dangling red and green jingle bells.
It'll get you in the holiday spirit
, she'd said sourly.

The door swung open into quiet darkness. The apartment was as grim as the rest of Natalia's life: a tiny living room, a tinier kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. The floors were wood, their finish worn off in the past hundred years, and the furniture was cast-off: love seat, glider, coffee table, chrome-and-vinyl dinette with two chairs, double bed with a mattress like lumpy straw. Her only possessions, a flat-screen television and endless cartons of DVDs, stood out from the rest, modernity amidst antiquity.

Josh stepped inside, closed and locked the door, then released her arm. He looked around the apartment, his mouth settling into a thin line, then fixed his gaze on her. Was it the rooms she called home he found lacking, or her? “Nice place,” he remarked flatly.

With a whoosh, she let out her breath, then pulled off her gloves, tossing them on the love seat. Her jacket and scarf
followed. “I like it,” she replied, her voice as airy as if she were simply making polite conversation. “All the comforts of home, close to work—”

“Cheap.”

Deep inside she flinched, then silently chastised herself. Josh's approval didn't matter to her anymore. She'd lived in nicer places, sure, but there'd been plenty that were much worse. Surroundings didn't matter. The expensive condo the Mulroneys had provided her with in Chicago may have been more comfortable, but it hadn't made what she was doing any less despicable. This apartment might be shabby, but she was paying for it herself, with money earned honestly.

And God knew Josh wasn't one to criticize living dishonestly.

“Can I have my glasses?”

He glanced at the metal frames a moment before placing them in her palm. They were cold against her skin, but she swore for an instant heat radiated from them before he drew back.

She slid the glasses on, bringing the room into sharp focus, then asked the question burning in the back of her mind. “How did you find me?”
And why?
Because he needed answers? Because he wanted to punish her?

Maybe, just maybe, because he still—just a little bit—cared about her?

Then he brought his gaze back to hers, and scorn washed over her. “It was surprisingly easy. All I had to do was listen when you talked.”

The answer puzzled her. She'd been hiding from someone or other since she was a kid. She didn't make unconscious slips; she never told anyone more than they needed to know. Could she have told him something important, something true, without remembering it?

Memories of sex, hot, steamy, wicked, warmed her from the inside out. She'd been lucky to remember her name by the time he'd finished touching her, kissing her, making her feel. Yeah, she could have told him something.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, he strolled around the perimeter of the two rooms, pausing to glance out the kitchen window, barely a foot square, situated above the equally small sink, then doing the same at the living room window, also small. Just checking out the view? Or had the last three years taught him the value of remaining constantly on alert?

Though people could surprise you even when you were alert. She practically slept with her eyes open, and yet Josh had managed to get within twenty feet of her before she knew it.

Satisfied with what he'd seen—or hadn't seen—outside, he returned to stand halfway between her and the door. He was loose-limbed, deceptively at ease as he stared at her. She held herself motionless. She wouldn't let him know that the fine hairs on her neck were prickling, that electricity danced along her nerves and anxiety threatened to explode in her belly if she didn't move.

The heat rumbled on, loud, sending puffs of warm air into the room, making her realize how cold she was. She wanted to grab her jacket and bundle up again, but she couldn't force herself into action.

Finally he opened his mouth, to ask questions she couldn't answer, to make accusations she couldn't deny, but the words that vibrated in the air didn't come from him.

“Natalia Parker! Josh Saldana! We've got you surrounded! Come out with your hands up!”

 

The bellow came from the porch and was followed by a braying laugh. Josh might not have recognized the voice right away, but he knew the laugh. He'd heard it too many times when he'd worked for the Mulroney brothers, two of Chicago's more successful mobsters. Mickey Davison was six feet two, two hundred and twenty pounds of pure muscle, dumber than dirt and loyal to the death to his bosses. Loyal, at least, to other people's deaths, or so it was rumored.

And where Davison went, so did Clive Leeves. Davison was the brawn; Leeves was both brain and brawn.

The banging threatened to splinter the flimsy door on its hinges. “We know you're in there. Open the door or I'll huff and puff and blow the house in.” Another donkey laugh underscored the threat.

Josh grabbed Natalia's hand and headed for the bedroom, slowing only enough to let her snatch up her coat and gloves from the sofa. He'd checked the exterior of the apartment while he'd waited for her to come home and had seen the only way out besides the front door. It was a long drop to cold, hard ground—no bushes, thank God—but maybe they could make it without breaking a bone or two.

The odds that they could come out of a face-to-face with Davison and Leeves with so little damage were squarely between nil and none.

In the bedroom he let go of Natalia, pushed aside the curtain and shoved the window up, then turned to find her on her knees, rummaging under the bed. “What are you doing?” he demanded as the banging at the door deepened in tone. Davison was no longer using his fist but his foot. If the door didn't give with the next kick, the jamb would. Either way, they were screwed if they didn't get out now.

“I need this.” She hauled a black duffel from under the bed, then shoved something into her jacket pocket as she stood.

A pistol. Josh had known for seven months that she was a liar, a traitor, a spy. He knew she'd been involved in the hits on him, when Joe had twice almost died in Josh's place. He knew she was one of the bad guys. But it shook him to see her with a gun. Who the hell—what the hell—was she, and how had he fallen in love with her without even knowing her?

From the next room came the sound of splintering wood and shrieking nails forced from their hold. Josh stepped aside as Natalia tossed the bag out the window, then climbed onto the sill. “I'll give you a hand.”

She didn't argue but slipped backward out the window, her legs dangling in the air. She wrapped her fingers tightly around his, and he leaned out as far as he could, feet wide apart to brace himself. When he'd stretched to the limit, he let go.
She hit the ground with a grunt, snatched up the duffel and scrambled out of his way.

His landing was harder, jarring his bones all the way up to the top of his skull. For a moment he lay dazed, teeth rattling, ears ringing. Then she was pulling at him—
Get up, get up!
—and Davison was leaning out the window above, weapon in hand.

“Hey, Saldana.” Davison's voice was nasally for so big a guy. “Long time, no see.”

Natalia heaved, and Josh willed every ache in his body to move with her, rolling to the side an instant before the bullet bit into the ground where he'd been. He got to his feet, staggered a few yards until he shook off the impact, then grabbed her hand and ran.

The yard on this side of the house was even more overgrown than the other. Crape myrtles tangled together, big ones sending out runners to form little ones, and weeds covered the ground. Natalia led the way, ducking branches, weaving around saplings, pausing when they reached the sidewalk.

“Do you have a car?”

He shook his head. He hadn't held a steady job since he'd gone on the run with the Feds three years ago. Since parting company with them last spring, he'd worked odd jobs, gambled and stolen to make his way. He couldn't afford a car, couldn't register a tag in his name or buy insurance.

A ruckus came from the back of the house: feet pounding down the stairs, angry voices, creative cursing.

BOOK: Covert Christmas
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