Authors: Susan Mallery
Without meaning to, she touched her left cheek, fingering the scar there. He grabbed her hand and pulled it away.
“The scar doesn't matter,” he said.
In that moment she believed him.
Quiet settled between them. She found herself getting lost in his dark eyes, searching them for emotions and secrets. Tanner cared. It took a while to uncover the feelings, but they were there.
She suddenly realized he still held her hand. Somehow his fingers were tangled in hers and it feltâ¦right.
Why was she attracted to Tanner? Was it the situationâa victim wildly grateful to her rescuer? Was it that everything was so raw between them, so there wasn't time or energy for games? Was it the man himself?
Did it matter?
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is the bestselling and award-winning author of over fifty books for Harlequin and Silhouette Books. She makes her home in the Los Angeles area with her handsome prince of a husband and her two adorable-but-not-bright cats. Feel free to contact her via her Web site at www.susanmallery.com.
iven the choice, Tanner Keane preferred darkness to light, and tonight was no exception. It had taken him forty-eight hours to find the woman and her kidnappers, but he'd waited another thirty-six before going to rescue herâjust so he could learn about their schedule and then go in at night.
He liked the shadows, the silence, the fact that most people were asleep. Even those awake were on the low end of their energy cycleâalthough not his men. He made sure of that.
Tanner checked the time, then glanced back at the two-story house. After nearly two weeks of watching over the woman, the guards had grown sloppy and complacent. They patrolled the estate on a schedule now, instead of at random intervals. After so many days
of quiet, they no longer expected trouble. All the better for him.
He reached for his night-vision binoculars and trained them on the second-story bedroom windows. The third one from the left had open drapes, which allowed him a view of the darkened room. A woman paced thereârestless, worried, scared.
Tall and willowy, she moved with the grace of someone trained in danceâ¦and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Blond, beautiful and worth about five hundred millionâif he counted her daddy's share of the family's net worth.
Oh, yeah, he knew pretty much everything about her and he wasn't impressed. Even now, he didn't shift his binoculars to
. She was the target, but incidental to the moment. What he really needed to know was who else was in the room with her. How many watchers had been left on duty?
There were a total of five assigned to herâusually working in shifts of two. Except at night. From midnight until seven, there was only one woman keeping watch.
He scanned the room and saw the guard sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. From the tilt of her head, he would guess she'd fallen asleep.
Sloppy, he thought. If she worked for him, she would be fired. But she didn't, and her bad habits were his gain.
He turned his attention back to the prisoner. Madison Hilliard crossed to the French doors and opened them. After glancing over her shoulder to make sure her keeper continued to doze, she stepped out into the cool California night and walked to the railing.
Her life had taken a turn for the unpleasant, Tanner thought without sympathy. Two weeks ago she'd been living in her rich-woman world and now she was held captive, threatened and never left alone. That was enough to ruin anyone's day.
“Red Two, go,” a voice murmured into Tanner's earpiece.
Tanner tapped the tiny device by way of a response. He was the operative closest to the mansion. Until it was time, he wouldn't be doing any talking.
Madison lingered by the railing. Tanner tucked his binoculars in his backpack. There was no point in looking at herâhe'd spent the past four days studying everything about her. He knew her age, her marital status, distinguishing marks, where she liked to shop and how very little she did with her day. She might be worth enough to keep a man in style, but she wasn't his type. Not her pedigree, not her life, not her body. Rich women tended to be high maintenance, and Tanner liked his women easyâ¦very easy.
He checked his watch again. Nearly time. He tapped once on his earpiece, then reached for his gun.
The modified pistol in his hand shot strong, incredibly fast sedatives. They incapacitated in less than five seconds. He preferred something a little faster, but this operation required more finesse than usual, and he couldn't risk the potentially fatal reaction to a quicker-acting chemical. The client had insisted on no dead bodies.
Pity, Tanner thought as he began to creep toward the glass doors on the side of the house. He didn't have much sympathy or patience for kidnappers. The outra
geous ransomâtwenty million dollars worth of unmarked bills in multiple foreign denominationsâhad annoyed him. He hated when criminals watched too much TV and took their ideas from bad spy movies. To his mind they should either act like pros or stay out of the game.
He reached the glass doors and waited. In less than three minutes, two things occurred simultaneously. Brody, their alarm maestro, tapped the “all clear” signal on his earpiece. A quick double click told Tanner that the system was down. Brody was good enough to keep the cameras moving back and forth while all the red lights continued blinking just as they should. The only difference was the alarm wouldn't go off.
The second thing that happened was a guard strolled by, right on time.
Dumb-ass, Tanner thought as he spun silently, popped the guy full of sedative and held him immobile for five seconds. He dropped the dead weight not too gently onto the patio and rolled him out of sight next to the planter. There wasn't any sound.
He touched his earpiece twice. Three more individual clicks followed.
“Red Two, go,” a soft voice came again.
Angel, Tanner's best sniper, sat up high in a tree, out of range of the action. He kept an eye on everything happening. Only an idiot walked into hell without an angel watching for trouble.
Tanner moved to the locked glass doors and removed a small container from his utility belt. One minute later, the custom acid mixture turned the locking mechanism
to mush and he was in. He pulled on night-vision goggles, double-clicked his earpiece to tell the team he'd completed the next phase of the operation and headed for the stairs.
At the top of the landing he encountered and immobilized another guard. But he didn't head to the door midway down the hallway. Not until he'd heard three more individual clicks, followed by a soft “Red Two, go.”
Tanner emptied his mind of everything unessential. The floor plan of the suite had been etched into his brain. When last he'd seen Madison, she'd been on the balcony. Given her few freedoms in the past couple of weeks, he doubted she would have moved. Her guard would still be sleeping on the job. One shot would take care of her. With a little luck, she wouldn't know what hit her.
He turned the container he still held and shot the second blast of acid from the back end. A slow count to sixty, then he eased the door open.
“Man on the stairs, Tanner. Watch your back.”
Tanner swore under his breath. There was an extra man on duty tonight. Wasn't that always the way?
He left the door, pivoted and pressed his body into the shadows. Someone walked into view, his gun drawn.
“Natalie, are you all right? There's been some trouble. A.J.'s missing.”
When things went to hell, they did so at light speed. Madison's female guardâaka Natalieâstumbled from her seat. Tanner heard the sound just as he zapped the
guard. Unfortunately she tried the door and found it unlocked. There was the sound of a pistol being cocked.
Tanner dropped the guard onto the landing and waited for Natalie to come out, hoping she was just stupid enough not to follow orders. That rather than staying with her prisoner, she would venture onto the landing.
Sure enough, the door cracked open. He got her in the arm before she cleared the threshold. Which left Madison Hilliard all alone.
Tanner dragged a now-unconscious Natalie out of the way and headed into the suite. He hoped he didn't have to go looking for the rich princess. He also hoped she wasn't a screamer. He hated screamersâ¦well, not in bed.
But Madison hadn't hidden. She still stood by the railing, watching him approach.
“I'm one of the good guys,” he said. “Let's move.”
Her long hair hid most of her face, but he thought he saw her smile. Coolly, though. Not with relief. She wasn't going to throw herself at him with gratitude, but at least she didn't seem to be a screamer.
“I always thought my rescuer would have a better line than that. Maybe âCome with me if you want to live.'”
Tanner couldn't help an answering grin. “Yeah, I'm a
fan, too, but I'd rather talk on the helicopter. Unless you'd like to stay here?”
She didn't answer. Instead she walked toward him.
“Shoes,” he said. “Don't sweat which ones. We're not going to a fashion show.”
She stuffed her feet into loafers and hurried toward the door. He followed her. Once they reached the landing, he took the lead. After grabbing her hand in his, he hustled them down the stairs.
There was no point in telling the team he had her; everyone would have heard their conversation.
“You're clear,” Angel said quietly. “Chopper will be here in thirty.”
They headed out the rear of the house. Tanner pulled off the night-vision goggles as they went. The rumble of a helicopter started in the distance while he and Madison hovered by the edge of the patio.
“How did you find me?” she asked.
He glanced at her. “That's my job.”
“Ah. The strong, silent type. That must have impressed my father.”
Tanner looked at her for the first time. Really looked. Madison Hilliard was no longer a glossy photo, but a real, breathing woman. Her long blond hair began to fly around her face as the helicopter started to descend. She tried to hold it at the back of her neck. One of the lights from the copter caught her full in the face.
Not much shocked Tannerânot anymore. But he was unprepared for the ugly slash scarring her left cheek and the way it contrasted with the beauty of her face. She saw him watchingâstaringâbut didn't blink or turn away.
The helicopter landed. Before they could board, there was a yell from behind the house. Tanner swore and turned in that direction.
“Two guards,” Angel said into his earpiece. “Son of
a bitch. Early shift change. They just drove up. Kelly, get down. On your left. On yourâ”
The sound of gunfire cut out the rest of Angel's words. The pitch and volume of the blasts told Tanner they hadn't all come from his men's guns. Not good, he thought grimly. His team quietly checked in, except for Kelly.
“Go,” he told the woman, pushing her into the helicopter.
Madison scrambled inside.
Tanner hated stepping in next to her, but his men were trained. They would fan out and find their fallen team member. Sure enough, less than two minutes later, three men appeared, although only two were walking. They carried the third between them.
“Get going,” Angel said into Tanner's earpiece. “Kelly got both of the other men after they got him, but they'd already made a call requesting backup.”
“Will do. You get out of there, as well.”
“I'm already gone, boss.”
Tanner helped his men drag an unconscious and bleeding Kelly onto the floor of the helicopter, then he signaled for the pilot to take them up.
As they rose high in the sky, he checked his man. Two gunshots, both bad. One in the chest, one in the leg. Dammit all to hell, he thought grimly and glared at the woman huddled in the far seat. There were things worth dying for, but saving someone like her wasn't one of them.
The other two team members had already started emergency first aid. Tanner moved back to give them room. He picked up a headset and motioned for Madison to do the same.
“Your reunion is going to have to wait,” he told her, speaking into the attached microphone. “I need to get my man to a doctor.”
Her gaze moved from him to Kelly, then back. “Of course. I can stay with you at the hospital.”
There was no point in telling her they weren't going to a hospital. Public health facilities required too much paperwork, and the staff would have too many questions. Tanner had his own state-of-the-art medical center with trained specialistsâall former military doctorsâon call.
“One of my men will take you to a safe place,” Tanner told her. “You can wait there until I'm available to return you to your family.”
He figured Madison and her husband could hold on an extra hour or two before seeing each other. As his was the only face his clients ever saw, he would have to return her himself. Just as wellâhe could pick up his sizable check at the same time.
He jerked off the headset and fought his temper. It should have been an easy job, he told himself. No one was supposed to get hurt. Certainly not Kellyâthe youngest and newest member of their team. Kelly had just gotten engaged the previous month. He was from Iowa, for God's sake. This wasn't supposed to happen to a kid from Iowa.
Madison Hilliard paced the length and width of the small room. She had no idea how long she'd been held thereâno windows provided light, she wasn't wearing a watch and she couldn't find a clock. She figured at least a couple of hours had passed. Maybe more.
The space was spare to the point of being monasticâa single bed, a sink and a toilet. No closet, no desk. Nothing to read, nothing to look at, nothing to do. She supposed she should have sleptâshe hadn't been able to do more than doze since the kidnapping. But anxiety kept her moving. While she wanted to believe she'd been rescued, she knew it was unlikely.
Fear gripped her. In the past twelve days she'd grown used to the cold fingers clutching her midsection and the sense of looming disaster. She tried to tell herself that someone, somewhere would miss her. That her clients would ask questions, that her friends would notice she'd disappeared. But would they? Wouldn't Christopher have already thought of that and planned for the contingency?