Authors: Lena Diaz
Tags: #Harlequin Intrigue
After another deep breath, he shoved out of the chair to fix the sexy little distraction something to eat. After that he’d call down to the office in the bunkhouse and make sure Griffin and his men knew to be on the lookout for anything suspicious. Iceman didn’t strike Dillon as the kind of man to give up. And if he figured out Ashley was here, a few security cameras weren’t going to stop him from going after his target again.
* * *
opened her eyes. It took a moment to get her bearings. She was lying on the couch in Dillon’s family room, a royal-blue quilt tucked around her and a soft pillow cushioning her head. The sun was fading from the large bank of windows out front and the glass oval in the door was turning black as the sun began to set. The last thing she remembered was thanking Dillon for the ham-and-cheese sandwich and vegetable soup. She must have fallen asleep and slept right through the dinner hour.
Deep voices carried to her from the back of the house somewhere. She recognized Dillon’s voice, and realized the other voice must be Chris. She must have been exhausted to sleep through his arrival.
She sat up and twisted around. The door to the bedroom wasn’t that far away, and Dillon had mentioned there was a connected bathroom, a facility she was sorely in need of at the moment. Calling out to him to carry her to the bathroom was an embarrassment she didn’t relish, especially if Chris was here, too. Surely she could hobble by herself without his help.
By using the arm of the couch, and then the back of the couch for support, she slowly, painfully made her way upright. Her feet were tender, bruised, but the fiery burn was gone. The salve Dillon had put on her cuts had already made a huge difference.
It took far longer than her bladder wanted, but she made it into the bathroom all by herself. She fist pumped the air, ridiculously happy to not be an invalid anymore, and quickly took care of her needs. She hobbled to the duffel bag on the bed and riffled through it. Sure enough, Donna had gotten everything on her list—clothes, makeup and even her laptop. Ashley grabbed a hairbrush and some makeup and made a mental note to find a way to express her appreciation to Donna and the men who’d risked their lives yesterday to save her, both at the office building and later on Cooper’s Bluff.
A few minutes later, with her hair brushed and some makeup on her face, she felt like a brand-new woman. She slung the strap of her laptop case over her head, letting it hang across her shoulder. Then she cautiously made her way down the hallway she’d spotted underneath the staircase earlier.
Following the voices, she ended up in the doorway of a massive room in the back right corner of the house. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined two of the walls. The third wall had a bank of small TV screens, which she realized showed pictures of the road out front and various other angles of the farm—probably that fancy security system Dillon had told her about. The last wall was a bank of windows with an incredible view of the sun sinking over the mountains. Little puffs of white mist rose into the air all across those mountains. She remembered staring at that same mist as a little girl, asking her daddy if the mountains were on fire. He’d laughed and told her no, the mist was a natural phenomenon because of the climate, and the reason people called the mountains the Smokies.
“Well, hello,” a male voice called out.
She tore her gaze from the picturesque view out the windows. Apparently Chris was the one who’d spoken, because he gave her a friendly wave. The two men sitting on either side of him around an enormous cherrywood table in the middle of the room smiled at her, as well. They were the SWAT officers who’d been with Dillon and Chris yesterday, the same ones who’d rescued them on the island—Max and Randy.
She returned Chris’s wave and hobbled into the room. “Where’s Dillon?” she asked.
“Right behind you.”
She whirled around in surprise at the deep voice that sounded so close. The movement sent a sharp, fiery spike of pain up her calves and she started to fall.
“Whoa, whoa, I’ve got you.” He caught her in his arms and lifted her against his chest. “You okay? Did you need something?”
“I, uh, no. I don’t need anything. And you certainly don’t need to carry me again.”
“I don’t mind.” He winked.
Her face flushed hot. “I woke up and thought I’d do a little work.” She patted her laptop bag. “I heard voices and followed them back here.”
His gaze traveled over her hair and her face in a soft caress. “Looks like you might have made it into the bedroom, too, and did a little primping,” he teased, his voice a whisper only she could hear. “For the record, you were already beautiful. But you look even better now.”
She blinked, not sure what to say.
“So what’s the verdict? Now that you know all us guys are here, do you want to stay or go back to the family room? We’re reviewing the case files and brainstorming.”
“I’d rather stay, if you don’t mind. I won’t get in the way. And if you have any questions for me, I’ll be right here.”
“Works for me.” He strode to the table and gently set her on one of the padded chairs, then sat next to her.
She set her laptop on the table and turned it on. But the silence had her glancing back up. Three pairs of eyes were watching her. The only one who wasn’t watching her was Dillon, who was silently reading from one of many folders scattered across the tabletop.
“Um, hi,” she said. “Don’t mind me. I need to finish my report for Mr. Gibson’s bank. I’ll sit here quietly.”
Chris slid a bowl of pretzels across the table to her. “Hungry?”
“I could eat. Thanks.” She popped a pretzel in her mouth.
“You’ll need a drink,” Max said. He appeared to be the youngest of them, probably fresh out of school. His angular face and dark hair made her wonder if he might have some Cherokee in him. “Water? Sweet tea? Beer?” he asked.
“Seriously, no one needs to wait on me. I’m fine.”
Dillon looked up and frowned as if just realizing his men were staring at her. “We have work to do, guys. Max, you can grab her a drink, then hurry and get back in here.”
Max eagerly nodded and headed out of the room.
For the first time since she’d met him, Ashley realized Dillon seemed aggravated. He must be irritated that she’d interfered with their work. She gave him an uncertain smile and focused on her computer screen, determined not to interfere anymore.
When Max returned with a glass of water, she thanked him. He nodded and gave her a shy smile before returning to his seat. The conversation started up around her again and she tuned it out so she could concentrate on typing the final conclusions into her report. It didn’t take long, since she’d been mostly finished with it.
Using the Wi-Fi hotspot feature on her computer to access the internet, she emailed the report to the bank, with a copy to Ron Gibson. The poor man was probably grieving over the loss of his son and didn’t care about the report right now, but he would later. And when he did, he’d be pleased to know she’d concluded his company was sound with no obvious causes for concern. He’d be able to get that bank loan if he still wanted it. She sent another email to Lauren, letting her know she’d be delayed a few more days before going home, and reminding her of her promise not to worry Ashley’s family.
After shutting off her computer, she stowed it back in her laptop bag and looked around the table. It shocked her to realize that Max and Randy had left and she hadn’t even noticed. Chris had slid over into the chair Max had occupied earlier, the one next to Dillon. They were both speaking in low tones to each other as Dillon wrote notes on a legal pad.
Chris glanced at his watch and shoved his chair back. “I guess I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow at the office. Or are you working from here?”
“That depends on Ashley,” Dillon said.
“I don’t mind going to the office with you, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Both men looked at her in surprise.
Dillon smiled and stood. “I thought you were still buried in that laptop of yours. Did you finish your report?”
“Yes. Finally. What about you two? Any progress?”
“Some. I’ll catch you up in a few minutes. I’m going to lock the door behind Chris.”
“Actually, can you give me a minute alone with Miss Parrish?” Chris asked.
Dillon’s brows rose but he nodded and headed to the door. “I’ll meet you on the porch.”
“Thanks.” Chris waited until the sounds of Dillon’s boots on the hardwood floor faded before turning back toward Ashley. He crossed to her chair and took the seat beside her.
When he didn’t immediately say anything, she teased him, “Let me guess. You want some tax advice, right? Happens all the time. People hear I’m a CPA and they think I can save them some money on their taxes.”
His look turned thoughtful.
“That was a joke,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. But still. Maybe you can save me some money. We’ll have to talk about that later.”
She shrugged. “Sure, I don’t mind. What did you want to talk to me about now?”
A light flush colored his cheeks and he stared down at his hands. “I, ah, wanted to thank you, actually.” His dark eyes shot up to hers. “You saved my life this morning, on the boat. You saw that guy, the one you call Iceman, before anyone else did. If you hadn’t tackled me, I’d be dead. The bullet went right through the boat’s windshield, right where I was standing. Thank you is hardly adequate but, well, thank you.”
“Are you kidding? I’m the one who owes you and the entire SWAT team my thanks. If you hadn’t risked your lives and gone into Gibson and Gibson yesterday, I’d be dead right now, or at the very least, a prisoner of Iceman. And I’m not kidding myself that he wants to keep me alive long-term, so either way you did save my life. Thank you.”
He seemed to sit a little straighter in his chair. “Well, I guess we’re equal, then. We saved each other. But I still owe you a debt of gratitude. If you ever need anything, I’m there. All right? Just say the word. I mean it.”
She put her hand on his where it rested on the table. “The one thing I could use right now is a friend.”
He grinned. “Now, that I can do. See you tomorrow, friend.”
Ashley called out to him when he reached the door. “Hey, Chris?”
He turned. “Yeah?”
“Do you like chocolate?”
A look of confusion crossed his face. “Who doesn’t? Why?”
“Just wondering. Good night. See you tomorrow.”
He nodded and headed out the door.
Ashley yawned. The past twenty-four hours were catching up to her. Even with the long nap she’d had, she was suddenly exhausted.
“Let me guess. You’re too sleepy to stay up for dinner and to hear an update on the case, right?” Dillon stood in the opening of the room Ashley thought of as the library, his tone teasing.
“Actually, yes. I’m bushed, and not at all hungry. Maybe you can catch me up on the case tomorrow at the office?”
She put her laptop bag over her neck and shoulder again and stood, wincing at the pressure on her sore feet. Suddenly she was in Dillon’s arms and he was carrying her back through the house.
“I really can walk now, you know. You don’t have to keep carrying everywhere.”
“It gives me an excuse to hold you,” he teased. “I really don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind, either,” she breathed.
He shot her a surprised look, then frowned and carried her into the master bedroom, depositing her gently on the bed.
What had that frown meant?
“I’d like to leave around seven, if that’s not too early,” he said.
“Not at all. I’m an early riser. I’ll be ready.”
He glanced at the windows and frowned again. He made a circuit around the room, checking the locks on the windows and closing the heavy curtains.
“Dillon, the name of your farm, was that handed down through the generations, too?”
He slowly shook his head no.
“Well, it’s a pretty name, Harmony Haven. How did you come up with that name?”
He stood like a stone, his mouth drawing into a tight line. The silence stretched out between them, turning awkward, the air charged with some indefinable emotion. Pain? Regret? Anger? Then, without answering, he left and closed the door behind him with a firm click.
The sun was barely up the next morning by the time Dillon finished his rounds of the barns and checked in with Griffin, who assured Dillon that he and his men understood the danger and would be on their guard in case Iceman somehow ended up here.
Satisfied he’d done everything he could to keep his home and workers safe, Dillon left his filthy boots in the mudroom at the back of the house, washed up in the utility sink and headed into the kitchen. He froze at the smell of warm chocolate and stared right into the smiling eyes of Ashley Parrish.
His kitchen, in the two hours since he’d left the house, had been transformed into a bakery. And the person responsible was standing right in the middle of the chaos in a pair of jeans, fluffy pink bunny slippers and an adorable “Kiss the Cook” apron, watching him warily, as if she expected him to yell at her.
He sighed and locked the door behind him. He owed her an apology for last night, but Harmony was one subject he had no intention of discussing with her. Ever. She was here on a temporary basis. She’d made that abundantly clear. And he wasn’t going to share the memory of Harmony with someone who’d be gone in a few days.
The unexpected sadness that shot through him at that reminder—that this beautiful, spunky, smart woman would be out of his life so soon—bothered him far more than he cared to admit.
She set the mixing bowl she’d been holding back on the counter and bit her bottom lip. “I’m sorry if you’re upset that I made a mess of your kitchen, and used your supplies from the pantry. But I’d hoped you wouldn’t mind. I love to bake, and I thought I’d make something special to thank everyone at the police department for everything they’ve done, and are still doing for me. I couldn’t find you this morning and thought you wouldn’t...” Her shoulders slumped. “You’re angry. I should have waited and asked permission.”
He reached her in three long strides and put his hand beneath her chin, gently forcing her to look at him. “I’m not angry.”
Her whiskey-colored eyes searched his. “You’re not?”
“Not even a little bit. I’m just...surprised.” He glanced at the mounds of muffins and cupcakes and cookies piled on plates in the middle of the table. “Are we hosting a party for five-year-olds and I forgot?”
She lightly shoved him. “Don’t be silly. Adults love cookies and cupcakes, too. And it’s not all junk food.” She hurried over to a plate of dark bread and held it up. “I made some bran bread. It’s healthy and tastes good, if you want to try it.”
He joined her at the table but passed up the bran bread in favor of one of the chocolate chip cookies. He took a bite and closed his eyes as the warm, gooey chocolate-and-cookie mixture did a dance across his taste buds.
“Do you like it?” She sounded worried.
He opened his eyes. “Best cookie ever. I mean it. The guys at the office are going to go crazy over this.”
She grinned and clapped her hands together. “Thank goodness. For a moment there, I thought I’d lost my touch.”
The sheer delight on her face because her hard work would make others happy tilted his world for a moment, long enough for him to consider doing something he knew he’d regret. But he couldn’t help himself.
He leaned down and kissed her. Her soft lips tasted like chocolate and honey, a heady combination that had him lingering when he knew he should stop—especially since she’d frozen like a surprised rabbit as soon as his lips touched hers.
Frustration curled inside him, but he broke the kiss and pulled back.
She threw her arms around his neck. “Don’t you dare stop now.”
His shock at her boldness turned to laughter as she tugged at his hair to make him lean down. He put his arms around her waist and lifted her up until she was at eye level.
“Demanding little thing, aren’t you?” he whispered before his mouth met hers. He turned with her in his arms, intending to brace her against the tabletop, but she surprised him again by lifting her legs and wrapping them around his hips.
White-hot heat whipped through him and he groaned low in his throat. Her soft lips opened beneath his in an invitation he couldn’t have resisted if the entire town was under siege and he was their only hope to save them.
Neither of them seemed inclined to stop. The kiss grew wild and his pants grew uncomfortably tight. When he realized he was seriously considering shoving all her cookies and cakes off the table so he could make love to her right then and there, he finally pulled the strength together to break the kiss.
Ashley clung to him, her eyelids half-closed, panting through her swollen lips, every breath pushing her soft, full breasts against his chest, making him want her even more.
“We have to stop,” he whispered, even as he leaned down to kiss the tip of her perky little nose. He moved to her cheek next and licked the small spot of chocolate smeared on her soft skin.
She whimpered in the back of her throat and closed her eyes, leaning back against his arm and turning her head for his wandering mouth. Her sheer joy in life and her trust in him to hold her and keep her safe stunned him. What would she do if he took her to the bedroom right now? Would she welcome him? Or would she come to her senses and stop him?
He took a step toward the kitchen archway. Then another.
No, stop it. What was he doing? He might not know Ashley Parrish very well, but he didn’t believe she was a one-night-stand kind of woman. And that meant Ashley Parrish was off-limits.
It almost killed him to pull back and set her away from him.
She looked up at him questioningly, her eyes so full of trust, that it hurt to meet her gaze. Once again, he owed her an explanation. But once again, that was more than he could bear.
“I’ll grab a couple of boxes to help us carry all those cakes and cookies into the office.” With that incredibly thin excuse, he hurried out of the kitchen and tried to convince himself he hadn’t seen the hurt in her eyes when he turned away.
* * *
exactly how he’d expected Ashley to act once he’d showered and changed for work. But surely after that earth-tilting kiss they’d shared she should have looked at him differently, or even been angry because he’d ended the kiss so abruptly without a decent explanation. He sure hadn’t expected her to act as if nothing had even happened. But that’s what she’d done, happily chattering all the way to the office.
Apparently baking made her a chatty Cathy. Maybe she should have been a baker instead of an accountant, because talking about recipes made her animated like nothing else. She looked so adorable waving her hands around, her eyes sparkling as she discussed the right temperature to bake the perfect banana-nut bread. And damn if he didn’t want to kiss her all over again.
Well, he’d managed not to make a fool of himself by kissing her again, but three hours after arriving at the office, he wasn’t so sure bringing her here had been any better of an idea. From the moment he’d set the boxes of baked goods in the kitchenette, everyone had shoved him out of the way to get at the cookies, cakes and breads. And once they’d tasted the heaven of Ashley’s homemade concoctions, she’d become an instant celebrity.
They’d passed her from desk to desk, asking her secrets and talking recipes until he’d had to order some of the worst offenders to leave her alone and get back to work. The chief had come out of his office to see what the noise was about, and after a brief conversation with Ashley, he’d led her into his office. That was more than forty-five minutes ago and they were still in there. What was the chief talking to her about? How to bake the perfect brownie?
Chris rolled his chair over to Dillon’s desk. “You look angry enough to kill someone. What’s up?”
“Nothing.” He forced his gaze away from the chief’s closed door and tried to focus on the interview report in front of him, one of the many interviews from survivors of the Gibson and Gibson shooting. He’d already read the interviews several times, but he was rereading them to see if he could pick up on anything he’d missed.
“Nothing, huh?” Chris teased. “I don’t suppose nothing has something to do with one very perky little brunette living at your house right now?”
“Did you complete that background report on Todd Dunlop I asked you to do?”
Chris chuckled and rolled his chair back to his desk. A moment later he wheeled back over and plopped a thick manila file folder on top of the interview Dillon had been reading. “I was going to review it again before I gave it to you, but hey, since you’re so anxious for it, here you go.”
Dillon flipped the folder open. “Give me the highlights.”
Chris propped his feet on the edge of the desk and leaned back with his hands folded behind his head. “Todd Dunlop, fifty-five years of age. Married, father of three adult children—two sons and a daughter. Entrepreneur, started Dunlop Enterprises fresh out of college, which was basically a logistics company that provided transportation and storage for smaller businesses that couldn’t afford to rent a warehouse. In less than five years the company was bringing in over fifty million a year in revenue. Dunlop expanded and diversified and five years after that he became America’s newest billionaire. Then, for reasons unknown, two days ago he went freaking nuts and walked into Gibson and Gibson shooting anything that moved. Killed eight, injured three more. And as we both know, he followed Ashley Parrish around the office like a hunter after a trophy buck.”
Dillon thumbed through the remaining pages in the folder. “Why does a man with everything throw it all away and go on a murderous rampage? The coroner’s tox screen came back clean. He wasn’t drunk or high. So what gives? There has to be more to it than what you’ve got in this report.” He tossed the stack of pages back on his desk. “We have to dig deeper. What about the widow and his children? Are they back from their trip to Europe yet?”
“I’ve left five messages with the wife’s attorney. He’s supposed to call as soon as they get back, and he hasn’t called.”
“Doesn’t sound like a close, loving family if they don’t want to cut their vacation short to find out why their loved one went on a shooting spree. For that matter, you’d think they would have at least inquired about taking the body for burial.”
Chris shrugged. “Rich people are different than other people.”
“No, they’re not. They may hide behind their wealth and possessions, but at their core they’re like everyone else. They love and hate like the rest of us. Someone in that family had to know something about the father. There are always signs before someone snaps. We need to push the family harder, get them in here for an interview.”
The door to the chief’s office opened. The chief stepped out with Ashley. He kissed her on the cheek and wiped his eyes.
“What the... Is the chief...crying?” Dillon asked.
Chris shook his head. “I never thought I’d see the day. What’s going on?”
“I have no idea.”
The chief held Ashley’s hand and spoke to her in low tones. Ashley nodded and smiled. Dillon didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but he was determined to find out. He shoved his chair back just as the front door opened.
A man wearing a dark suit that screamed federal agent stepped inside and held the door open for a woman in a shiny orange suit that screamed money. Her faded red hair was streaked with gray, and diamonds dripped from her ears, throat and fingers.
“You are not going to believe who the woman in the peach silk suit is,” Chris said.
“Who is she?”
Chris grabbed the folder he’d pitched on Dillon’s desk and flipped through to the back. He pulled out a picture and slapped it on top. “This is a picture of Todd Dunlop’s wife. Look familiar?”
The picture was taken years ago but there was no mistaking the similarities. “Patricia Dunlop. The widow has finally arrived. What’s she doing with a federal agent?”
“What makes you think he’s a fed?” Chris asked.
“Cheap suit, white shirt, black tie. And he’s way too pretty to make it as a regular cop. We’d eat him for breakfast.”
“I think you’re wrong. I think he’s her lawyer,” Chris said.
Dillon and Chris started across the room. At the same time, the woman turned and pointed at Ashley.
“There she is,” she said, in a voice dripping with venom. She marched over to Ashley, leaving the suit to chase after her. She stopped directly in front of her. “That’s the woman who ruined our company and killed my husband.” She drew back her fist and punched Ashley across the face.
* * *
ice pack to her throbbing cheek and warily eyed the woman who was arguing with the chief on the other side of the room.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Dillon asked, crouching in front of her chair.
“Okay is relative, I suppose. At least she didn’t knock out any teeth.”
Dillon’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “Let me arrest her for assault. She deserves to be locked up for what she did to you.”
She lowered the ice pack and placed it on top of the desk. “No. She doesn’t. She just lost her husband. No matter what he did, it’s as much a shock to her as everyone else. Her whole world has been destroyed.”
“She’s a billionaire. I hardly think her world has been destroyed, but I get the point.” He sighed heavily. “All right. I won’t arrest her. For now. But if you change your mind, let me know.”
He smiled. “Yeah. I figured. By the way, before Cruella de Vil showed up, what were you doing in the chief’s office so long?”
She nodded and picked the ice pack up. “I told him about some deductions he’s been missing. If he amends his past returns, he’ll probably get about ten thousand dollars back.” She held the ice against her cheek, hoping to numb the pain.
Dillon grinned. “I should have known it was about money. That’s the only thing that would make the chief cry.” He pressed a kiss against her forehead and stood. “I’ll see if I can get to the bottom of this mess. Chris will watch over you until I get back.”