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Authors: Rhonda Nelson

The Closer

BOOK: The Closer
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Subject: Griffin Wicklow, aka “The Closer”
Current Status: To protect stunning jeweler and a priceless piece of...lingerie?

Ranger Security has just assigned former ranger Griff Wicklow to protect a priceless diamond-encrusted bra. And while Griff has more experience removing bras than protecting them, his job is about to get even more complicated. Because Temptation just walked in disguised as Jessalyn Rossi, the drop-dead delectable jeweler who is escorting the piece....

The attraction between them is immediate...and irresistible. And Jessalyn's learning that there's a lot to be said about—and done with—a wickedly hot security agent like Griff. But once the job is finished, will their bedroom antics come to a close, too?

Reader favorite Rhonda Nelson
is back with more.…

MEN OUT OF UNIFORM!

These hot Southern heroes have spent years taking on anything the military could throw at them and they always came out on top. So why do they get knocked off course by the first sexy woman who crosses their path?

Don't miss

THE CLOSER
September 2013

and

THE NATURAL
January 2014

There's nothing like a man in uniform…
or out of it!

Dear Reader,

Fall is getting ready to make its appearance in my little
part of the world. The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler and football
fever is in the air. (Not that I care, because I don't watch football, but there
are a lot of people in my family who do J.) I always look forward to this time
of year, when Mother Nature says it's time to rest, soup is the meal of choice
and the scent of a wood-burning fire surrounds me. It's the perfect time to curl
up with a good book—one with a
very
hot hero—and
fall into the story. And Griffin Wicklow is certainly hot.…

Former Ranger Major Griffin “Griff” Wicklow has left the
military for honorable reasons—he's the only match to his half brother, Justin,
who needs a kidney transplant and will ultimately die without it. Griff
eventually trades his career for Justin's life and the new path he finds himself
on leads him directly to Ranger Security. Accustomed to dodging bullets and
IEDs, Griff's used to a certain level of tension, but when his first assignment
for Ranger Security involves guarding a jewel-encrusted bra—and the hot little
liaison who must travel with it
from the jeweler's company—the tension
Griff's experiencing is of a decidedly different variety. And man, does he like
it.

I love to hear from my readers, so please be sure to check
out my website—
www.readrhondanelson.com
, like me on Facebook or follow me
on Twitter
@RhondaRNelson
.

Happy reading!

Rhonda

The Closer

Rhonda Nelson

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A Waldenbooks bestselling author, two-time RITA® Award
nominee,
RT Book Reviews
Reviewers' Choice
nominee and National Readers' Choice Award winner, Rhonda Nelson writes hot
romantic comedy for the Harlequin Blaze line and other Harlequin Books imprints.
With more than thirty-five published books to her credit, she's thrilled with
her career and enjoys dreaming up her characters and manipulating the worlds
they live in. She and her family make their chaotic but happy home in a small
town in northern Alabama. She loves to hear from her readers, so be sure to
check her out at
www.readrhondanelson.com
, follow her on
Twitter
@RhondaRNelson
and like her on Facebook.

Books by Rhonda Nelson

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

255—THE PLAYER
277—THE SPECIALIST
283—THE
MAVERICK
322—THE EX-GIRLFRIENDS' CLUB
361—FEELING THE
HEAT
400—THE LONER
412—THE HELL-RAISER
475—LETTERS FROM
HOME
481—THE SOLDIER
545—THE RANGER
549—BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY
          “The Prodigal”
557—THE
RENEGADE
579—IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE
MISTLETOE…
          “Cole for
Christmas”
586—THE REBEL
594—THE WILD CARD
615—REAL MEN WEAR
PLAID!
645—THE SURVIVOR
657—THE PHOENIX
664—THE KEEPER

688—BLAZING BEDTIME STORIES, VOLUME VII
          “The Steadfast Hot
Soldier”
711—BLAZING BEDTIME STORIES, VOLUME IX
          “The Equalizer”
717—THE
PROFESSIONAL
724—HIS FIRST NOELLE
743—THE RULE-BREAKER

For an old friend and his beautiful wife
for reminding me what
real
romance is all about.

Prologue

Summer 1992

G
RIFFIN
W
ICKLOW
SAT
on the front porch of the house and idly tossed a baseball into a glove, though there was nothing idle about the rage simmering inside him.

Lazy bumblebees buzzed around the hydrangea bush while their dogs—Brooks and Dunn—took shelter beneath its shade in a vain attempt to combat the heat. It was sweltering—he could feel the sweat sliding down his back—but the heat matched his mood, so rather than go inside and cool off, he remained on the porch.

And he watched. Glared. Not that it made any difference.

Every time the door swung open, he could hear his mother, her voice choked with desperation and as much dignity as she had left, plead with his father as he made trek after determined trek to his car, his arms loaded down with his belongings. Griff's little sister, Glory, hadn't quite yet realized what was happening and was peppering both parents with questions. Innocent ones like, “Can I have chocolate milk?” and “Where is Daddy going?”

His lips curled into a bitter smile.

On second thought, that last question wasn't so innocent after all. Gallingly,
everyone
but Glory knew where their father was going. That's why the neighbors had manufactured reasons to be outside, so that they could watch the drama unfold before them firsthand. As if his family's humiliation and pain was for their entertainment.

Across the street, Mrs. Johnson pretended to water her flowers while shooting covert looks across the way. Next door, Mr. Thigpen lingered by his mailbox, appearing to read a circular as he, too, shot furtive looks toward their house.

In and out his father went, over and over again, and with each slam of the screen door, Griff's anger intensified into a white-hot ball of fury, one that made his insides throb, his hands shake and, to his resentful shame, a lump swell in his throat.

After a cursory glance inside the car and trunk, his father closed the lid. He stood there for a moment, his gaze lingering at a spot on the back tire, then he sighed and made his way back to the porch. He didn't go into the house, but rather stopped before Griff.

“I know you don't understand this now, but it's for the best.”

Griff looked up and merely smirked at him. “Oh, I think I understand better than you think I do. Your girlfriend is pregnant. You've started a new family and are chucking the old one.” He grimaced, continued to toss his ball. “Nothing too difficult to understand about that.”

His father's hands fisted at his sides. “It's not that simple. These are adult matters, things you couldn't possibly understand.”

The hell he couldn't—Griff knew selfishness when he saw it—but he wouldn't argue. It was pointless and somehow Griff knew his silence was more painful for his father than if he spoke.

“I'll be in touch,” his dad said. “I promise. We'll do something for your birthday next week. Go to the batting cages, work on your swing.”

A spark of hope flared, but he quickly snuffed it out. They were only words. Maybe even good intentions, but Griff knew better than to believe them, promise or not. He didn't expect his father to show up for his thirteenth birthday any more than he imagined he'd be around for his thirtieth. He might have just now worked his way around to leaving them, but he'd checked out more than a year ago when he'd met
her
. Priscilla. How odd that he could hate someone he'd never met, but he did.

His father took another deep breath, one that seemed to swell enough to sever all ties, heralding the end. “You're the man of the house now, Griff. Look out for your mother and sister.” He turned abruptly and made his way to the car, then backed out of the driveway and drove away.

He never looked back.

He didn't send so much as a card for Griff's thirteenth birthday, or any birthday thereafter.

So much for promises.

1

F
ORMER
MAJOR
G
RIFFIN
Wicklow had heard countless tales about Ranger Security and their often bizarre assignments—ensuring the safe passage of fertility statues, finding lost Confederate treasure, recovering Truffles, the dognapped millionaire—but this...

This had to take the top spot for the Strangest Assignment Ever.

He stared at each of the founding members of Ranger Security in turn. Brian Payne, the Specialist, whose cool demeanor and keen attention to detail was legendary. Jamie Flanagan, a proper genius who'd been a notorious player until he met and married Colonel Carl Garrett's granddaughter, and Guy McCann, the Maverick, whose ability to skate the thin edge between recklessness and brilliance was still locker-room lore.

When their expressions didn't change and he was sure that this wasn't some sort of joke, he looked at the photograph once more and struggled to find the appropriate response. One that wouldn't make him appear ungrateful for the job, because nothing could be further from the truth.

He cleared his throat. “I'm escorting a bra from West Virginia to New York and back again?”

“Not just any bra,” Payne corrected levelly. He hooked a leg over his knee and leaned farther back into the comfortable leather chair he currently occupied. Downtown Atlanta was framed in the window behind him, glittering with glass and steel. “That's a Rossi creation, designed exclusively for the Clandestine Lingerie Company.”

Though Griff had never had any reason to purchase anything from the iconic lingerie company, he could certainly remember thumbing through the catalogs in his teens. His lips twitched. They'd been a source of inspiration, for lack of a better term, and were more easily procured than the traditional skin magazines.

“And that bra, in particular, is worth two and a half million dollars,” Jamie Flanagan added. “Naturally, Montwheeler is keen to protect its investment.”

A tremor of shock rippled through him. Griff felt his eyes widen and he whistled low. “Two and a half million? For a
bra?

Guy shrugged. “It's good advertising for the Montwheeler Diamond Company, for Clandestine Lingerie and the jeweler—in this case, Frank Rossi—who was tapped to create the design. Ultimately, Montwheeler gets the jewels back. They'll put the bra up at auction. If it doesn't sell, they haven't lost anything—they still have the stones, after all, and it's Clandestine who covers the cost of the designer. As far as PR goes, it's brilliant.”

He supposed. Still...It was hard to believe that people actually spent this much time and money on something so...unimportant, frivolous even. Given what he'd seen over the past several years in service to Uncle Sam—the death and destruction, the horror, the poverty—it was hard to reconcile this new assignment to those he'd had in the past. He swallowed.

But that's exactly what they were—in the past.

Thanks to some misguided sense of duty and honor—to the very person who'd inadvertently wrecked his family and prematurely propelled him into adulthood, no less—he'd decided a career change was in order. Could he have continued in the military with one kidney? Probably. But given the prep, surgery and post-op care, not to mention his mother's and sister's continued come-home pleas, he'd ultimately decided that Providence was trying to tell him something. Once he was certain of the job at Ranger Security, he'd initiated the necessary paperwork.

And the rest, as they say, was history.

Whether or not this new life was going to be an improvement over the old one remained to be seen. He certainly couldn't find fault with the benefits package, that was for sure. In addition to a very healthy salary and a fully stocked, furnished apartment, a company car had been waiting on him when he'd arrived this morning. He'd been given a laptop, a cell phone, a new Glock with permission to carry concealed and a sincere slap on the back that had welcomed him into the fold.

For whatever reason, that slap had been more appreciated than anything else. He'd instantly liked all three men, felt an immediate kinship. As former rangers themselves, they
got
him. Honor, duty, service. They were more than words; they'd been a way of life. His new employers knew the decision to leave hadn't been made lightly, knew that coming to terms with this career change was a struggle. Because it wasn't just the career—it was a different world, one he knew his place in.

And here? Well, that still remained to be seen.

“We've been hired by Montwheeler to ensure the safety of the bra,” Payne continued. “You're to pick it up at Rossi's in Shadow's Gap, West Virginia, at three tomorrow afternoon—a representative of Rossi's will accompany you—and take it to New York, safeguard it throughout the show, then return it to Rossi. Rossi will make any necessary repairs before Montwheeler takes possession once again.”

All things considered, it shouldn't be too difficult. He nodded. “All right.”

Guy's lips twitched with humor. “There are worse things in life than going to a lingerie show,” he added. “Leggy, half-naked models parading about and all. Consider it a perk.”

Griff grinned. There was that. He hadn't been with a woman, naked or otherwise, in months. No time. Between deployment, surgery and recovery, he'd had very little opportunity to find comfort in the softer sex. While he'd been recuperating at his mother's, one of Glory's friends had visited frequently and had less than subtly let him know that she was available, but Griff knew the minute he showed the least little bit of interest, his mother and sister would have him married off before he could say “I don't.”

In fact, the settle-down-and-find-a-nice-girl refrain had been coming off his mother's lips a little too frequently for comfort, particularly considering he had no plans—immediate or otherwise—to marry. He carried the Wicklow gene, Griff thought darkly, and, based on family history, Wicklows were incapable of being faithful.

It wasn't a theory he was willing to test.

Thankfully, he'd never met a girl who'd made him want to risk it.

Besides, he already had a family to take care of, the one he'd had since he was almost thirteen years old—his mother and sister.

“Do you have any questions?” Payne asked.

Griff shook his head, tuned back in to the present conversation. “None that I can think of at the moment.”

“All right, then.” Payne stood, signaling the end of the briefing. “I think that about covers it. You know where to find us if you need anything.”

Griff and the others found their feet, as well. He shook Payne's outstretched hand. “I don't anticipate any problems.”

Payne merely smiled, but didn't comment.

Griff had almost reached the door when a thought struck. He stopped short and turned around. “The Rossi representative? They're aware that I'm in charge, right?” Considering their company had designed the bra, he could see where they might feel a certain ownership. He didn't want to waste precious time and energy on a power struggle.

Something flitted across Payne's face—humor, maybe?—so fast Griff was inclined to believe he'd imagined it. Jamie suddenly developed a keen fascination with the toe of his shoe and McCann turned a small chuckle into a pitiful replica of a cough.

A finger of unease nudged Griff's spine.

“The Rossis are aware that you were hired by Montwheeler and that, as such, you're the ultimate authority on how to protect the piece.”

Good, Griff thought, still puzzled over their odd behavior. He was accustomed to giving orders and having them followed without question. That this Rossi person had been made aware of the status quo should make his job easier. He could always pull rank, of course, but it was better if he didn't have to.

Determined to get started, he nodded and made his exit. He'd just walked into reception when Juan Carlos, their office manager, halted him with an urgent
psst.

Griff frowned and walked over to the thin Latino man's desk. Juan Carlos wore a perpetually long-suffering look and the latest in men's fashion, and sorted his ink pens by color. “Yes?”

Juan Carlos slid a picture across his desk. “Does this woman look familiar?”

Griff picked up the photo and studied it. One look had confirmed that he didn't know who the woman was, but he was curiously struck by her nonetheless. Inexplicably, his stomach tightened and a tingling sensation flitted through his chest. He told himself it was indigestion and batted the curious sensation away.

Long, wavy dark brown hair framed a face that was heart-shaped but lean, emphasizing her high cheekbones and lush mouth. Her skin was luminous, practically glowing with good health and vitality. It looked soft, touchable. Her eyes were large, an unusual misty gray and surrounded by thick, sooty lashes. Hidden humor lurked in that gaze, as though she was privy to some private joke. She was smiling, almost shyly, and there was something about that hint of vulnerability that made her especially attractive. She wasn't merely beautiful or pretty, though those words certainly fit. She was...lovely.

And hot.

Oddly shaken, Griff handed the photo back to the office manager and shook his head. “She doesn't look familiar, sorry.”

Juan Carlos swore hotly under his breath. “Damn them. This isn't funny anymore. They can't keep playing the same joke on every new agent. It's not professional.”

Joke? What joke? Confused, Griff frowned. “Come again?”

Juan Carlos straightened, then seemed to give himself a little shake. “No worries, Major Wicklow, you'll recognize her soon enough,” the little man said grimly. He gathered up a sheaf of papers from his desk, then stood and swiftly retreated before Griff could press him for further clarification.

Rather than dwell on the bizarre exchange, Griff shook it off. After all, he had a strategy to plan...and a
very
expensive bra to protect.

* * *

P
AYNE
WAITED
UNTIL
he was certain Griff was out of earshot and then turned to face the other two. He arched a questioning brow. “First impressions?”

“I don't think we could have matched him up to a better first assignment,” Guy said, dropping back into his chair. “If anyone needs to be able to find the humor in a situation, it's him.”

Jamie nodded thoughtfully. “I agree. Granted, he hasn't had a lot to laugh about of late, but by all accounts he's always been rather...serious.”

Thanks to Charlie, their female hacker extraordinaire, they knew more about Griff than he'd no doubt be comfortable with. School records showed a well-rounded, bright, promising athlete until the seventh grade. Beyond that, various counselors and teachers had noted a distinct withdrawal from social clubs, sports and the like. By all accounts, Griffin had abandoned normal school-age pursuits and started working various odd jobs. He cut grass, hauled hay, raked leaves, bagged groceries, walked dogs, anything that would net him a cash return for his services. And the impetus that had caused this change?

His father had left.

As the only “man” left in the house, amateur analysis suggested that he'd prematurely stepped up to try to fill his father's role and had developed an early sense of obligation and duty. No doubt that's what had appealed to him about the military, where the lines were clearly drawn and order was law. He'd earned an ROTC scholarship, graduated at the top of his class and quickly moved onto Ranger School. He'd excelled in the military, had been routinely given difficult assignments because he'd proven time and time again that he could see them through and, as a result, had been given the nickname “the Closer.”

A quick glance at his financials had revealed that, in addition to buying the house his mother and sister currently lived in, regular monthly transfers had been deposited into his mother's account. Both his mother and sister had obtained their nursing licenses and worked for a small home-health company in Chapel Crossing, just outside the city. Payne would be willing to bet that Griff had paid for that, as well.

“He seems to have recovered well from the surgery,” Guy remarked.

“He does,” Payne agreed. “Dr. Jackson cleared him for work without any restrictions, so I think the physical toll is past him.” In addition to Griff's own doctor, Payne had insisted that theirs take a look at him, as well. Better safe than sorry, right?

Jamie shot him a look. “What about his emotional health? You think his head is on straight?”

Payne hesitated. “I think it's on straight enough to do the job. I think he's struggling with the sudden, unwanted relationship with his half brother.”

Guy grunted knowingly and his eyes widened. “That had to have raked up some shit. Go seventeen years without hearing a peep from his father and then a phone call out of the blue from the man, asking him to give up a kidney for the son he actually raised?” He grimaced significantly. “That would screw with any guy's head.”

“Yeah, but it wasn't the kid's fault, was it?” Jamie added. “Griff's dad was the bastard, not the boy.”

“And the kid was dying,” Guy said. “It wasn't like Griff had a choice.”

True enough, Payne supposed, but it couldn't have made the ordeal any less difficult.

And no doubt figuring out where to go from here was going to take serious thought and consideration. Even from the outside looking in, the family dynamics were a nightmare. Even if Griff decided that he wanted to get to know his little brother, how would his mother and sister feel about it? Would they approve? Or would it be too painful for them? He didn't envy Griff, that was for damn sure.

“Are we certain Jessalyn Rossi is going with him?” Jamie asked.

“Last I heard,” Payne told him. “She wasn't thrilled with the idea, but I gather her father is a bit of a recluse and her siblings no longer have anything to do with the family business. It's her or no one and, evidently, letting someone else accompany the bra isn't an option either.”

BOOK: The Closer
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