Authors: Denise A. Agnew
Book two in the Love Under Fire series
The stakes are high and there’s only one man she’ll trust
when danger rips her world apart.
Kathleen truly understands the saying “always the
bridesmaid, never the bride”. Was she nuts the day she agreed to be a
bridesmaid for the eighth time? Probably. Especially when helping with this
wedding means she’ll be in close proximity to rugged Major Jake Frasier—the man
she fell in love with when they were in high school.
Being out of control is the last thing Kathleen wants, and
Jake tempts her to be the wild woman she used to be. He’s too hot, too
disturbing, too stirring for her blood. But when gunfire strikes close, the
fight for survival will forge a bond deeper than they ever imagined.
The couples in the
Love Under Fire
series find love through the crucible of a mall shooting event.
erotic romantic suspense
from Ellora’s Cave
own military hero, my husband Terry.
“Eight times,” Kathleen McSwain said under her breath as she
stared into the window of the engraver’s shop.
“What?” Lena Williams looked sideways at her.
At least Kathleen thought she did. She was too busy staring
at the sparkly items in the shop window.
“I’ve been a bridesmaid, never the bride,” Kathleen said.
Lena laughed softly. “Seven times. Patrick and Danelle aren’t
Kathleen gathered her hair back in one fist as she bent over
to look at an exquisitely carved crystal statue of a bride and groom. “Where
the heck are the Frasier brothers anyway?”
She said their last name like a curse. She couldn’t help it.
“Hey ladies.” A deep, masculine voice rumbled nearby.
Kathleen started and turned.
Chief Petty Officer Rick Frasier of the United States Coast
Guard sauntered up to them. His hands were stuffed in his jeans. A mile-wide
grin mixed with genuine amusement in his hazel eyes.
Lena blushed to the roots of her short platinum-blonde hair,
her green eyes wide, her expression surprised and maybe a little uncomfortable.
Kathleen tried to stifle her knowing smile and couldn’t. Lena had it bad for
Rick, even if it had been years since she’d seen him and they’d only become
reacquainted the last few days. It was evident as hell—getting her to admit it,
though, was a whole ’nother ballgame.
“Hey.” Lena’s voice was so soft Kathleen almost couldn’t
Rick’s gaze danced over Lena, his gaze assessing the
delicate-looking blonde. “Good to see you.”
“Hello.” Kathleen added her voice to the greeting. “Where
are your brothers?”
Rick cleared his throat and stuffed his hands in his jeans
pockets. He wore a dark jacket and boots ready for the snow. “Matt had some
errands to run but he’s on his way. Jake’s in the head.”
Jake Frasier. Kathleen felt a flush heat her entire body.
From the moment she’d seen him Saturday, her hormones had tripped into overtime
and threatened to derail her cool. It wasn’t as if she’d never met him before,
they’d attended high school together. Many years had passed since they’d seen
each other and she’d tried not to visit Constitution if she could avoid it. But
she certainly hadn’t forgotten everything that had happened so long ago. She’d
known when she left Los Angeles to come to the wedding that they’d run into
each other. What she hadn’t expected was her reaction to the totally hot adult
version of Jake Frasier. She felt like a damn storybook schoolgirl, all
aflutter, breath short and heart pounding with sensual excitement when he
walked in the door.
Get a grip, Kathleen.
All three of the Frasier brothers could have posed for
military recruitment posters. Each possessed that tough, hard and hot brand of
lethal male sensuality that tended to make females sigh and want to have their
. She didn’t have time in her life for men, especially
those who traveled the world putting their fine-looking asses in serious
trouble. The oldest brother, Matt, was thirty-five and in the marines. He’d
recently returned from his second tour in Iraq. Jake was thirty-one and in the
army. He’d returned from a tour in Afghanistan right before coming to Arizona
for vacation and the wedding. Matt, Jake and Rick had grown up in Constitution,
Arizona, with Patrick. Kathleen, Lena and Melanie were friends with Danelle.
The ladies knew what had gone down all those years between her and Jake. At
least part of it anyway. Years of resentment and an equal part shame had
resurrected inside her when they’d come together for this wedding. She’d
thought she’d gotten over him and had learned to forgive. Then he’d walked into
the party Saturday, a badass army major, and every insecurity she’d fought so
hard to cage had burst into the open with snarling intensity, all sharp teeth
and claws. So had the long-suppressed attraction. Now he was a man and she was
a woman, her attraction had reemerged after years of napping.
“I thought you guys were getting your tuxedo measurements
finished?” Kathleen asked.
“We did,” Rick said. “We were late because of me. I have
trouble with that.”
Kathleen laughed softly. “Don’t they teach you to be on time
in the Coast Guard?”
“Yeah. It’s when I’m off duty I can’t seem to get anywhere
“I’ve been known to be late.” Kathleen gave Lena a teasing
look. “Ask Lena, though. She’s chronically early to everything.”
Lena pushed her fingers through her hair. Her lips tightened
and she hitched her black purse higher on her shoulder. “I’m going inside and
getting this show started. The mall is only open for,” she looked at the chunky
white watch on her wrist, “forty-five minutes.”
Kathleen tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’m heading to
the ladies’ room. I’ll be right back.”
She left the two and started toward the ladies’ restroom
around the corner. The narrow hallway between the engraver’s and the coffee shop
seemed to go on forever. Once in the ladies’ room, she freshened up. Her
reflection stared back at her in a mirror above the sink in the three-stall
restroom. She looked tired, her unruly hair tumbling over her shoulders, her
blue eyes marked by dark circles. Yeah, she’d hoped this week of vacation would
mean sleep. What the hell had she been thinking? After the wedding she’d head
back to Los Angeles and her job. She groaned. God, she didn’t want to go back
that soon. She needed a huge break from the crap flying around her office. A
big break of, say…forever?
After she washed her hands, she pondered what to do. She
couldn’t drag her bad attitude with her. Her friends deserved better.
Air roared from the hand dryer but she heard sounds above
The dryer shut off and she listened.
Nothing. She shrugged and left the restroom. Then she heard
it again. The popping this time came faster, louder. Hair rose on her body, a
“What the hell?”
A figure burst around the corner at a run. Jake Frasier. His
face was grim, harder than granite and just as ruthless. All six feet four
inches of male appeared intimidating as hell. More popping noises sounded, this
“Hurry.” He grabbed her upper arm. “There’s a shithead with an
automatic weapon and he’s heading right this way.”
Fear sliced open a raw place inside her. Three people
hurried down the hall toward them. Two men and one female. Jake waved them
toward his position. He grabbed her elbow and propelled her toward the double
doors leading to the outside. They came up against chained doors.
“Shit,” he hissed, looking around quickly as the other
people came running up. “Doors are chained. Into the storage room.”
Her breath hitched as she raced with him to the storage
God, let the door be unlocked.
He yanked the door open. They
surged into the room and Jake secured the door with a chair as soon as everyone
was safe inside.
“Help me move this,” Jake said in clipped tones as he
started to shove an empty metal bookshelf.
A younger man helped while the middle-aged man in a suit did
nothing. Jake and the younger man wrestled the bookshelves in front of the
Jake turned to the small group. “Back in the corner. If this
guy is shooting randomly, the bullets could get through the door and the
Kathleen felt almost as if she couldn’t get her breath but
she did as he said, and so did the young woman nearby. The five of them
clustered at the farthest back corner, against one wall. The storage room was
lined with three rows of shelves from one end to the other, one behind the
other, almost like library shelves—it was a big area. At least the shelving
might afford protection but it cramped them against the back wall since there
wasn’t that much room between the shelves closest to the back wall. Maybe six
feet. Bottles of flammable liquid, buckets, mops and other cleaning supplies
filled the room. It flashed into Kathleen’s mind that bullets could start a
fire. Her heart galloped faster at the thought.
Kathleen plastered her back into the corner. She clutched at
her handbag, fingers tight around the leather. Her heart pounded in her chest,
her throat tight.
Jake stalked in her direction down the row, brow furrowed
and mouth tight. In those seconds, as he walked toward her, she soaked in his
presence with gratitude. She didn’t know why but Jake made her feel safer. Then
again, he always had.
He’d filled out over the many years since she’d last seen
him. He was taller, his broader shoulders encased in a shearling coat.
Everything about him, even his military-short black hair and piercing green
eyes, had the sharper edge of maturity.
His gaze locked with hers, concern in his eyes. She shivered
as goose bumps traveled over her skin. Although the room was icy, her reaction
had as much to do with fear as it did temperature. Jack stood in front of her,
his back to the shelving with his palms flat on the wall on either side of her
A second later shouting came from outside and pounding on
the door. “Come outta there. Come out.”
Kathleen held her breath.
The man’s voice came from the outside again. “What the fuck
is this? Come outta there!”
Jake held his finger up to his lips and shook his head to
warn everyone to stay quiet. Gray-hair’s cell phone went off, a high-pitched
hymn—“Nearer My God to Thee”. He grabbed it off his waist and hit a button to
silence the noise.
Banging on the door made Kathleen jump and the man outside
“Bitches, I’m going to take you down. People will fuckin’
listen to me when I’m through here.”
Before Kathleen could move, gunfire erupted outside.
As everyone cringed, Jake pressed Kathleen against the wall
and curled fully around her as he pressed her head into his shoulder. The man
outside raged again but this time his voice was farther away. Everyone stayed
frozen for several seconds. Kathleen clutched at Jake’s coat, her body
completely sheltered by his. Time seemed to come to a halt. To her surprise,
her never-ending attraction to Jake grew more intense. God, he was big and hard
and smelled like heaven. Her libido liked that he was trying like hell to
protect her. Was she freaking nuts thinking about him this way while bullets
“What just happened?” the graying, middle-aged man asked in
a choked voice.
The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire continued. Jake loosened his
hold on Kathleen and she drew back slightly. He still held her shoulders and
her fingers flattened against his chest. She realized she was shaking.
“You all right?” Jake asked.
“Yes.” Her voice croaked the word, her throat so dry she
could barely make a sound.
He didn’t look convinced and didn’t release his hold on her.
The young man with glasses next to Jake and Kathleen slid
down the wall and sat. Jake grabbed his cell phone from inside his coat and
dialed 9-1-1. While he was talking to emergency and giving details on where
they were and what had happened, the gray-haired man called back whoever had
called him earlier. His voice was thready but deep, perturbed and panicky as he
relayed what happened. Jake broke off his call and started texting.
“Who are you texting?” Kathleen asked.
“Of course.” She kept her voice low, half wondering if the
shooter would come back soon.
Then it struck her, and for a full few seconds so did shame.
She’d just now thought of her dear friends. “Oh God. Lena and Melanie. Oh God.”
Jake paused in his texting. “They’ll be all right. Matt and
Rick will find them.”
“Who are Matt and Rick?” the young man asked.
“My brothers,” Jake said.
The gray-haired man finished his call and placed his hands
on his hips. “We should have found a way out instead of running in here.”
Jake turned a skeptical look on the other man. “This was the
quickest alternative to getting dead.”
Gray-haired man’s mouth popped open but the younger man beat
him to it by saying, “He’s right. We didn’t have any place to go.”
“Is it terrorists?” the young woman asked.
The young woman clutched her purse against her chest. Her
long, straight blonde hair was a mess, her thin face pale. She wore a black
coat, black sweater, black leggings and black boots. Her fingernails were
painted black. Kathleen wondered if she was trying to look goth.
“Don’t think it’s terrorists,” Jake said, still holding his phone.
“How do you know?” gray-haired guy asked.
“Because I’ve only heard one weapon fired,” Jake said.
The older man made a doubtful sound. “Well, he’s probably
killed everyone else out there.”
Kathleen felt a sickening, cold wave roll over her. “Why
would you think that?”
Gray-haired man shrugged. “He’s got an automatic weapon.”
Jake’s cell phone made a dinging noise and he looked at. “My
brothers are alive and so are our friends Lena and Melanie.”
Kathleen’s relief made her lean back against the wall. “Thank
Jake looked squarely at Kathleen. “Melanie’s with Matt, and
Rick just got Lena out of the mall.”
“So there was a way out,” the older man said with an accusatory
tone, glaring at Jake like he’d committed a felony.
Jake’s voice, when he answered, was cool and calm. “Nutcase
out there must have forgotten to chain up one of the doors. If we’re in lucky
he’s a real dumbass and this situation will be cleared up soon.”
“I’ll vote for that,” the younger man with the glasses said.
“Maybe we should introduce ourselves,” Jake said.
After a round of introductions, Kathleen could now put a
name with each face. The older man in the suit was Bob Ceno, the manager of a
local bank. He said he was there for a business dinner at the restaurant in the
mall. The young man with the glasses was a high school teacher and he had been
shopping for a birthday present for his wife. He grabbed his phone out of his
pocket and started texting her.
The young woman was Charity Nicholson, a community college
student studying anthropology.
“You two obviously know each other well,” Mike said.
“Since high school,” Jake said without looking at her.
Kathleen hoped Mike wouldn’t ask for more details, and she
breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t.
She started to feel shaky and unzipped her purse. She drew
out a bag of nuts. “I’d share but I only have a few. I missed dinner and now I’m
paying for it. I have to eat something.”
“You diabetic?” Charity had a concerned look on her young
face. “I have candy if you need sugar.”
Kathleen chewed some nuts quickly. “No. I was on a business
call earlier and it ran longer than I thought it would. I just plain forgot to
“Blood sugar low?” Jake put his left palm on the wall next
to her again, his full attention centered on her.
“Yes. Melanie and Lena keep telling me to stop skipping
meals but sometimes I get caught up in stuff and forget.”
Charity snorted softly. “Watch out for that. I got anorexic
that way when I was sixteen.”
Kathleen jolted with surprise, a pang of pure sympathy
touching her as well as a piercing pain. Kathleen knew that people forgetting
to eat didn’t compel them to become anorexic but she wasn’t starting a nitpick
discussion on the realities of the eating disorder. “I’m sorry you had to go
through that. I… My older sister died two years ago from anorexia.”
Kathleen met Jake’s eyes and saw surprise cross his face.
She was just as amazed he hadn’t heard about her sister. He didn’t say
anything, though, and she was grateful. She finished the small bag of nuts
while Jake continued texting his brothers.
“Are they really safe?” Kathleen asked.
“Yep. Matt and Melanie hightailed it into a bathroom and
they’re locked in there. Lena was knocked down in a rush to escape but Rick
carried her out. She has a sprained ankle.”
“We should get out of here,” Bob said. “We could be in here
for God knows how long.”
“True.” Kathleen gave the man a tolerant look but she didn’t
feel half so generous. “But we don’t know what’s going on out there. If we walk
out that door right now, before the police have a handle on things, we could be
shot. We aren’t the experts here.”
“She’s right,” Jake said.
“I agree.” The schoolteacher nodded and shoved his glasses
back on his nose.
The older man puffed up, or at least that was the impression
he gave. A man with pompous written all over him even in the face of danger. “What
makes you an expert?”
Jake smiled but there wasn’t a hint of amusement in his
face. “I’m in the army. I have combat training and more.”
The man’s jaw went a bit slack. “What sort of training?”
“Secret Squirrel stuff.” Kathleen disliked the man so much
she didn’t hesitate to say the first thing that popped to mind despite how
stupid it sounded. “Don’t ask.”
She met Jake’s gaze and the bright amusement there made her
feel so much better. No one knew what the outcome of their situation would be but
she believed with Jake there everyone’s changes of survival increased by a
Despite what she’d said, Jake elaborated. “Ranger training.
Other stuff. It’s not important. But I’ll do everything in my power to ensure
we get out of here safe.”
The obnoxious man grunted. “Right. Well, the first thing we
need to do is find a way out of here.”
Jake rubbed his chin in a thoughtful way. “There’s a chance
someone could venture out and try to find a way out that isn’t blocked. Maybe
where my brother Rick escaped. But that exit is at least two stores over and
you don’t know where the shooter is. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Why didn’t you go that way?” Bob asked, his tone rough and
Jake’s gaze swung to Kathleen’s and held. “Because I knew
Kathleen had gone this way. I wasn’t leaving her.”
Jake’s statement left her a little breathless.
“You all right?” Jake asked. “Feel better after eating?”
Grateful for his concern, she gave him a shaky smile. “Much.”
Kathleen’s pulse quickened but not because of illness. From
the moment she’d seen him again at the party this last weekend, her body had
responded to his with a mind of its own. Every moment she’d noticed his ripped,
tall body and how good he smelled—and the heat she saw in his eyes when he
looked at her. Well, those were moments she had to ignore. In the end it didn’t
matter if Jake Frasier was the most gorgeous hunk of manhood she’d laid eyes
upon. She couldn’t forget everything they’d gone through and how ruthlessly he’d
tossed her from his life all those years ago. Yeah, she’d been cursed with a
damn good memory. At the same time, shame pricked her. How could she feel like
this stuck in a storage room with strangers? How twisted did she have to be to
think of ridiculous things like the beautiful green shade of his eyes or how
safe he’d made her feel? Somehow Jake mesmerized her, and his protective
attitude awakened primal female needs she wanted to reject. His gaze caught
hers and held fast. Deep interest flared in his eyes and it took her off guard.
Yeah, it was her imagination. It had to be. Jake didn’t find her attractive or
desirable. He never had.
“What do we do now?” Charity’s young voice broke Kathleen’s
Jake shifted away from Kathleen. “We wait.”
Bob placed his hands on his waist and huffed. “There must be
something we can do. I won’t sit around here and wait to die.”
“Die? What are you talking about? We aren’t going to die.”
Mike’s tone sounded mild but his expression reflected disbelief.
Bob pointed back over his shoulder with his thumb. “If we
sit around here like cowards we’ll have a coward’s death.”
Impatience flashed over Jake’s face but quickly vanished. “What
do you propose, outside of going out there and getting our asses shot off?”
“Take out the shooter,” Bob said.
Kathleen almost said something sarcastic but Jake beat her
to it. “With what? Harsh language?”
Mike laughed and Charity managed a small smile.
Bob’s face reddened. “Don’t be preposterous.”
Dissatisfaction with the situation blazed in his eyes. “If you’re such a
military hero, then you should be able to…I dunno, fashion a weapon or
something to take out the gunman.”
Jake grinned but there wasn’t hint of humor in his eyes. “That
only works in the movies, Mr. Ceno. I’m not Steven Seagal or Bruce Willis.
S.W.A.T. is here. They’ll take care of the gunman. The cops might mistake me
for the shooter and cap me in the ass. We need to stay safe and out of the way.
Playing hero will only get us dead.”
“Lot of good your military training did,” Bob said.
Jake didn’t react to the insult. “You have military
Bob shifted on his feet. “No. You have absolutely no plan?”
“My plan is to stay out of the shooter’s way and to keep
everyone as safe as possible.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Mike said.
“Me too,” Charity said.
Bob threw Jake a completely contemptuous look. “Of course
women will believe anything you say. You’re the sort of man who works on a
Kathleen’s patience hung on by a thread but she swallowed
hard and kept her trap shut. Maybe the blowhard would run out of gas if people
didn’t egg him on.
Jake made a sound that confirmed his exasperation. “Hear
that, guys? I’m a ladies’ man and didn’t even know it.”
Mike and Charity laughed softly but Kathleen couldn’t manage
it. Old tapes played in the back of her mind, impeding her ability to see Blowhard’s
statements as amusing.
Mike passed a hand over his hair. “Mr. Frasier is right. We
don’t know what we’re doing. Let the police take care of it.”
Kathleen tossed a fake smile at the suited man. Maybe
reasoning with him would work. “Even if Jake tried something, the rest of us
aren’t skilled enough to escape on our own. We aren’t soldiers and somewhere
Gunshots echoed nearby and Kathleen flinched. Charity made a
startled sound and her eyes widened.
Jake cupped Kathleen’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort. “It’s
okay. He doesn’t even know we’re here and he can’t get in.”
Kathleen knew he meant to reassure her but she knew just
enough to understand a high-powered weapon could fire bullets through walls.
She shivered, and to her surprise he looped his arm around her shoulders and
drew her into his body. Comfort washed over her, and so did that damn
attraction. She didn’t step out from under his embrace but she almost did.
“As I was saying,” Kathleen continued, “we don’t have the
skill set to deal with a shooter, even if Jake does.”
“Young lady, I don’t know who you think you are but you don’t
speak for me or for soldier boy here. God is telling me we need to leave before
that gunman comes back and puts holes in us.”
Anger roared to life and threatened to overwhelm Kathleen’s
hard-won control. Suddenly she felt like that teenager she’d once been, out of
her element and ready to strike back just to survive. She swallowed an almost
uncontrollable desire to tell Bob to stick it where the sun didn’t shine.
“No one is going anywhere,” Jake said, his stance firm and
Bob threw his shoulders back. “You can’t stop me. And if
these people know what’s good for them, they’ll follow me.”
Kathleen watched as Jake straightened, and his height
matched Bob’s easily. Jake released his grip on her shoulders.
“Oh yeah? I could stop you. I don’t think you want to try
me,” Jake said.