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Intimate Strangers

(based on the novel Tender Mercy)


Laura Taylor

Smashwords Edition Copyright 2011 by Laura Taylor Published in the United States by Blue Jay Media Group ebook ISBN: 9781936724055 Copyright 1994 by Laura Taylor, Based on Tender Mercy

Cover design 2011 Blue Jay Media Group

All rights reserved. No portion of this book, whether in print or electronic format, may be duplicated or transmitted without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

Discover Other Books by Laura Taylor

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Jade's Passion Starfire Promises Just Friends| Heartbreaker Wilder's Woman Winter Heart Lonesome Tonight Seduced Dangerous Surrender Slightly Scandalous Cloud Dancer Anticipation The Christmas Gift Smoke and Mirrors Honorbound, hard cover and paperback

Smashwords Edition, License Notes Thank you for downloading this free ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of Laura Taylor, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at, where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support. Heartfelt thanks to Patricia Maas and Gabriel Porras of Blue Jay Media Group.

Innocent people sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. George Orwell

Nicholas Benteen knew the instant the intruder violated the boundary line of his property. A red light glowed on the console built into the top of his oak desk. A low hum followed, the sound prompting him to activate the six foot by six foot computer screen that was positioned on the wall opposite his desk.

Pushing aside the open file in front of him, Nicholas automatically dismissed the notion that the intruder was nothing more than a lost tourist. NO TRESPASSING signs lined the entrance as well as the extensive perimeter of his property. Only a blind man would ignore them. And only a fool would challenge Nicholas Benteen on his own turf. He sank back in his chair, steepled his fingers beneath his chin, and observed the intruders progress like the predator hed been for his entire adult life. The illuminated grid provided him with an overview of the nearly ten thousand acres of forested land that he called home. His land. His private retreat from the decade and a half of violence hed witnessed, participated in, and survived. His home. A home Nicholas intended to preserve and defendwhatever the cost. A skilled warrior, he watched the intruder with slatecolored eyes narrowed to slits. And he waited, his powerful body deceptively still despite the wariness pulsing through his bloodstream. The driver slowly navigated the rutted, overgrown excuse for a road that led to his home deep in the forested land of northern Nevada. Delicate fiber optic motion sensors Nicholas had installed with the assistance of a select group of loyal friends during his first months of ownership allowed him to track the vehicles progress. Nicholas remained in his office, noting the passage of time whenever he glanced at the clock on his desk. Reaching out almost an hour later, he flipped a switch on the console to activate the bank of television monitors which scanned the terrain surrounding the glass and wood structure hed occupied for the last five years. He observed the late model van as it inched its way up the driveway and finally stopped near the front walk. Nicholas stiffened with surprise when a woman slipped out of the drivers seat of the vehicle and then slammed the door behind her. Frowning, he studied her as she paused to gaze at his home. He took in her expression, an obvious mix of awe, admiration, and delight as she scanned the sweeping lines of the wood and glass dwelling hed designed. He already knew that his home appeared to be a natural extension of the magnificent beauty of the statuesque fir trees and rugged terrain of the area. Still, he drew satisfaction from the appreciation he glimpsed in the womans expressive face. He exhaled. The harsh sound of the air escaping his body was ragged enough to make him angry with himself over the sharp bite of hunger he experienced for a woman who wouldnt judge him or his past deeds. But Nicholas Benteen knew better than to indulge in such fantasies.

He swiftly controlled his thoughts and emotions, his gaze narrowing yet again as he watched the woman. Petite, fairskinned, ravenhaired, and slimlimbed, she didnt look like an assassin, but he knew from many years as a highly paid mercenary that professional killers came in all sizes and shapes. Gender wasnt a deciding factor. It hadnt been since the beginning of time. Women, Nicholas knew from personal experience, possessed the same deadly capabilities as men. And in his judgment, some often displayed far more finesse and lethality. He counted two such seductive black widows among his past lovers. This particular member of the socalled weaker sex, Nicholas decided as he focused on her slender figure and shoulder length dark hair, represented a new player in the games of retribution routinely orchestrated by one or another of the enemies hed acquired over the years. His jaw tight with annoyance, he recalled the last time a female had invaded his private retreat and threatened his life. Hed become careless, almost paying for the lapse with his life. This time, he promised himself, he would maintain the upper hand. This time, his latest unwelcome guest would leave promptly. Otherwise, she would suffer the consequences. Nicholas Benteen didnt feel the least bit tolerant as he continued to observe her. If anything, he grew increasingly more tension filled. He told himself that he loathed interruptions when he worked. In truth, he resented the unexpected desire that flirted with his senses. In spite of his dark mood, he studied and then grudgingly admired her lithe, shapely body as she lifted her arms and stretched. He wondered, too, if she was half as good as she looked. Heat and hunger flooded his veins. He muttered an expletive, a violent and crude sound. Clad in a cranberrycolored pair of leggings, matching sweater, and hiking boots, she seemed amazingly lighthearted as she paced the gravel driveway to work the kinks from her limbs. Nicholas was puzzled by her ease in an unfamiliar environment, and he closed his hands into fists as he forced his thoughts beyond her physical attributes. Given her need to stretch her legs, he concluded that shed been on the road for a long time, a conclusion he assumed she wanted him to draw. He noticed, too, the out of state license plate on her late model van. He gave her high marks for attempting to appear unthreatening. Settling back in his chair, he reclaimed the file atop his desk. He tried to focus on the typed pages, but he failed. Nicholas resigned himself to staring at them as he listened to the woman knock on his front door for a solid ten minutes.

At first, he found her relentless knocking mildly amusing, although far less subtle than hed anticipated in a professional. He leaned his head back against the high back edge of his leather chair, closed his eyes, and ignored her, certain she would soon grow weary of pounding on his door. Thirty minutes later, he officially misplaced his sense of humor, discarded the word subtle from his vocabulary, and allowed himself to bask in the irritation he felt. He stood abruptly and crossed the room to stand before a wall of tinted, bullet proof glass. Aware that she couldnt see him, Nicholas peered down at her through the oneway glass from the upper floor of his trilevel home. He suddenly frowned as he perused her facial features. Open, accessible, and vaguely familiar, her appearance tugged at his memory and made him wonder if she was an ally or an adversary from the mercenary life hed abandoned. He immediately discounted that possibility. This woman reminded him too much of innocence and youth, qualities that neither he nor his few trusted friends possessed any longer. Still, Nicholas continued to examine her delicate features. He finally, and very reluctantly, admitted to himself that she fascinated him. She roused his senses and stimulated his imagination. She also made his blood run like heated currents through his body. Her eyesbig green cat eyeswere faintly almond shaped. The lushness of her mouth and the poorly concealed bounty of her hourglass figure prompted memories of sultry feminine heat and the erotic sounds of passion hed known with past lovers. Nicholas felt his insides clench with an almost violent sensation of need, and his muscles trembled like highlystressed ribbons of steel. He grew angry with himself and with the woman, because his anatomy insisted on responding to his thoughts and to endless months of abstinence as he stared down at her. He finally decided that she had no intention of ending her assault on his front door. As a result, Nicholas Benteen stopped trying to pretend that he could ignore the determined creature whod violated his privacy and his peace of mind, the same creature whod unknowingly forced him to acknowledge the fact that he craved a woman with satinysoft skin, a gentle, knowing touch, and the kind of passion that could restore his soul and bring his heart back to life again. Nicholas took the stairs two at a time as he made his way to the front door. Once there, he flipped the intercom switch and glared through the oneway glass. ** ** **

Although no one seemed inclined to answer the door, Hannah Cassidy refused to stop knocking. She also refused to be ignored. Driven by instinct and a singlemindedness that had always set her apart from family and friends, she was determined to make Nicholas Benteen aware of her presence. She suspected he was already. She stepped back from the front door, primarily to give her knuckles a brief rest. She peered up at the top level of the cathedrallike dwelling shed discovered in the middle of the woods. She knew from extensive research that this was the home of one Nicholas Benteen. Referred to as an antisocial survivalist by residents of the nearest town, those few people who knew him had cautioned Hannah against disturbing him. As far as she was concerned, he defied the stereotype of a survivalist. His extensive land holdings and his elegant home made a statement about him that she couldnt ignore. Hannah suspected that he was simply an affluent loner. Local folklore had evolved as a result of his desire for privacy, shed concluded. Although puzzled and somewhat amused by the attitude shed encountered in town, she still felt compelled to take her chances and risk a less than friendly greeting. Too much was at stake, and her primary concern was finding her brother. She refused to pander to the quirky nature of some reclusive man whod buried himself in the back woods for the previous five years. Whatever it took, she intended to conduct a facetoface meeting with the man, even if she had to wait him out by camping in her van. The idea of spending even a few hours in a sleeping bag lacked any real appeal. A confirmed city dweller, Hannah favored hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and room service when she traveled. She sighed audibly as her gaze swept up and across the contemporary lines of the vaulted ceilinged house. She couldnt recall having ever seen anything quite so beautiful, or quite so appropriate to the natural environment. Hannah also felt certain that Nicholas Benteen hadnt skimped one bit on essentials like plumbing and heating. Smiling, she recalled her discovery that hed designed and built his home. That particular tidbit, which shed unearthed by combing through county tax, land, and licensing records, gave her hope that he possessed the sensitivity that such creativity implied. As well, she prayed that he wou1d agree to help her in her search for Sean. Hannah breathed deeply, filling her senses with the evergreen scent that permeated the air. She liked the dry mountain climate, despite the crisp breeze and threatening snow flurries. She also couldnt help but admire the serenity of the secluded location Nicholas

Benteen had chosen for his residence. Squaring her slender shoulders, she approached the front door once again, briefly mourned the absence of a doorbell, and resumed her knocking. State your business, a male voice ordered thirty seconds later. Use the intercom to the left of the door. Startled, Hannah flinched and stepped back. It took her a moment, but she gathered her wits and approached the intercom. Im sorry to disturb you, but Im looking for Nicholas Benteen. Hes not available. Id be happy to wait for him. I really need to speak to Mr. Benteen. My name is Hannah Youre trespassing, he broke in. His hard voice reminded her of a slab of granite. Suddenly chilled, Hannah rubbed her hands together. Her gaze strayed to the bank of tinted windows on her left, and she experienced a sudden certainty that she was visible to the man on the other end of the intercom. Hannah lifted her chin, an indication of her determination not to be swayed from the purpose of her trip. Not ever. Who are you? He ignored her question. State your business and then be on your way. Frustrated by his attitude, she silently questioned the wisdom of revealing the reason for her visit to anyone besides Nicholas Benteen. Seeing no way around the truth, Hannah admitted, Im searching for my brother, Sean Cassidy. He may be known to Mr. Benteen as Sean ONeill or Neill Cassidy. Theres no one here by that name. Please leave. Look, Ive driven halfway across the country in order to speak with Mr. Benteen. Sean is my brother, and its imperative that I get in touch with him. I cant help you. Hannah insisted, I am not leaving here until I speak to Nicholas Benteen. Youre trespassing. The edge in his voice was as sharp as a carefully honed blade. She deliberately softened her voice, although the tension flowing through her body made the pretense of calm difficult. I heard you the first time. I apologize for trespassing, but it was necessary. Im still not leaving. I must make contact with Sean, and Im absolutely certain Mr. Benteen can help me to locate him. Theyre friends. At least, they were several years ago. Mr. Benteen is not available.

Her patience bottomed out, but she kept her tone even. Thats the third time youve said that. I must speak with Mr. Benteen, so Ill wait. When he is available, please let me know. She turned away from the intercom, unwilling to continue their verbal wrestling match. She hesitated when she heard his voice. Youre wasting your time. He wont be available to you. Slowly turning back to the front door, Hannah promised, I refuse to give up, and I refuse to leave until I speak with him. When hes ready to talk to me, Ill be in my van. The authorities will be summoned if you do not leave within the next five minutes. Hannah shrugged. Knock yourself out. The man cursed. The word, exceedingly vivid, reflected Hannahs own frustration. She grinned in spite of his rudeness. Ditto, she thought. Right back atcha! Then, Hannah relented. Look, this is the very last place I want to be, but Im here. I dont want to bother the man, but I really must speak with him. I only need a few minutes of his time, and then Ill be on my way, never to darken his doorstep again. No response. She huffed out a gust of air. If you need proof of the connection between Mr. Benteen and my brother, I have letters with me from Sean. In them, he describes Mr. Benteen as his friend. More silence. It lasted for several long minutes. Nonetheless, Hannah prayed shed made at least a minor dent in the mans surly nature. Please, this is an urgent situation, she said, her tone somber. You sound very sincere, Miss Hannah Elaine Cassidy, she said, hurrying to fill in the gap. Seans youngest sister. First grade teacher from St. Louis, Missouri. Totally harmless person. She extended her arms, displayed her open palms, and very slowly pivoted full circle for his inspection. No weapons. No magazine subscription order pads. No cookies. Nada. Just me. Five feet, three inches, one hundred and ten pounds of female who skipped judo in favor of ballet. I can prove my identity. If you want to check me out, be my guest, but please dont turn me away. I must find Sean. Im here on an urgent family matter. I cannot help you, he muttered through what sounded to Hannah like gritted teeth. She articulated the next thought, which sounded ludicrous even to her, that popped into her head. You could blindfold me before I speak to Mr. Benteen. I promise not to tell anyone

Ive spoken to either one of you. In fact, I wont tell a soul that Ive even been here. Im more than willing to protect your privacy, which is obviously very important to you. A heavy masculine sigh echoed through the intercom. Hannah heard exasperation in the sound, which she knew she routinely inspired in people. She also heard something more. She couldnt define the something more, but she hoped it meant that she was wearing down his resistance. Grasping at straws, she said, You neednt be embarrassed if youre damaged in a physical sense. I work as a volunteer with battered children at my local hospital, and Ive seen She cleared her throat. Ive seen very difficult sights. I dont frighten easily, if thats what youre worried about. Please leave, Miss Cassidy, he urged in a voice that seemed to resonate with sadness. The answers you seek will not be found here. She heard the finality in his voice. Whats your name? My name isnt important. Of course, it is. Her voice reflected the same kind of patience she exercised with her first grade students whenever they grew irritable from boredom or fatigue. I want to be able to tell Mr. Benteen of your vigilance when I meet him. Spell your name for me, wont you? Miss Call me Hannah, please. And I should warn you, I can be as stubborn as the day is long. A grudging chuckle escaped him. Thats quite evident. She seized on his unexpected, albeit wry, humor. Im not dangerous, Im not lying, and Im not crazy. The Chief of Police in St. Louis knows me. His daughter is one of my students, and I know hell vouch for me if youd just call him. I can also give you the phone numbers of my parish priest, my hairdresser, my accountant, and the veterinarian who takes care of my dog. Set whatever conditions you like, but please tell Mr. Benteen that I need to speak to him. Youre very persistent, but youre wasting your time. Her temper ignited. My brother is not a waste of time! Thats not what I said. Its obviously what you meant. Do you routinely endow people you dont know with unattractive motives whenever they arent willing to give you what you want? Only when theyre being bullheaded and obtuse. He laughed, the sound low, warm, and stunningly sensual.

Hannah felt the vibration of that sensuality sing across her senses. Wideeyed, she said, You sound almost human when you laugh. You should do it more often. Please leave, Miss Cassidy. As charming as you probably are when youre not behaving like a pit bull, youre still not welcome here. I am not leaving. Ill wait you out. Eventually, youll have to come up for air or food or exercise at some point in the not too distant future. Finding Sean is more important than the inconvenience of sleeping in my van. Now, please do me the courtesy of giving my message to Mr. Benteen. And tell him one more thing for me. I dont believe my brother would have given his friendship or respect to a man incapable of recognizing an honest plea for assistance. Spine stiff, head high, Hannah marched back to her van, yanked open the door, and crawled inside. She did all this under the watchful gaze of a man who placed a high value on his privacy, but not nearly as high a value as he placed on the survival of his few living friends. ** ** **

The temperature plunged to a single digit reading as the afternoon spent itself. The forecasted snow flurries lasted only minutes, to be eclipsed by a steady onslaught of plump snowflakes that coated the landscape like a dense layer of white icing. Nicholas absently listened to the powerful gusts of wind that whistled through the eaves of the house, made the already heavy branches of the fir trees tremble with tension, and created haphazard snowdrifts. Accustomed to the unpredictable nature of the weather, Nicholas didnt give the outdoor conditions a second thought. Neither did he assume that the weather would act as a catalyst to hasten the departure of the unwelcome guest parked in his driveway. Darkness arrived with the usual suddenness of a dropped curtain. It consumed the surrounding terrain and silenced the wild creatures that roamed the area by day. Nicholas Benteen, employing the discipline and precision he invariably demanded of himself, returned to the contents of the file on his desk. He worked far into the evening to accomplish the goals hed set for himself at the start of the day. Although the woman who claimed to be Seans sister flirted with his consciousness, he devoted little time to planning their next encounter. He knew what needed to be done, and

he intended to do it. After confirming her continued presence in the van, he indulged in a late supper and a hot shower to ease the tight muscles in his shoulders and neck. Nicholas set out on his mission shortly after midnight. Clad in black trousers and turtleneck sweater, leather boots, and a knit cap, he carried a flashlight and a tool of persuasion that had never failed him. He disliked using terror tactics on women, but he decided to make an exception in Hannah Cassidys case. Having experienced her stubborn nature, he sensed that fear was the obvious weapon of choice in order to achieve the results he desired. He also reminded himself that once Hannah Cassidy departed, he would regain the serenity and solitude he desired. When his conscience called him a liar and taunted him with the unceasing loneliness that haunted him, he muttered a lethal word and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. He exited his home and blended into the inkdark night. Nicholas didnt intend to harm Seans little sister, but he felt justified in raising sufficient doubt in her mind about her safety if she remained on his land. He hadnt taken a life or fired a weapon in several years. Although still more proficient than most with the tools of death, he savored too completely the life and the peace hed found in northern Nevada to revert to the violence of his past. Amazed that shed left her van unlocked, he eased open the rear door and crawled inside. Nicholas found her sprawled on her back, encased in a sleeping bag, the top edge tucked beneath her chin, and sleeping soundly. He crouched over her, his knees positioned on either side of her hips. Nicholas flicked on the flashlight, positioning it for a clear view of her face. He hesitated, the opportunity to study her features in repose more of a temptation than he intended to resist. His gaze swept over the tousled cloud of black hair that framed her heartshaped face. Unwilling to fight the impulse, he reached out and ran his fingertip across the wayward lock of hair curled against her cheek. He inhaled, shaken by the silken softness of her dark hair and the honeysuckle fragrance of her skin. He froze when she turned her face toward his hand. A soft sigh whispered past her parted lips. Her warm breath grazed his palm. Desire, immediate and incendiary, spiked within his large, muscular frame. Nicholas pulled back, damning himself for a fool as his sex hardened. His hand shook as he withdrew it. He held very still, listening to the slow, even cadence of her breathing as he brought himself under control. A hint of a smile lifted the edges of her lips. He stared down at her, amazed by the depth and innocence of her sleep. Nicholas briefly wondered if she was the kind of woman who dreamed happy dreams. If so, he envied her.

He also recalled a comment hed once heard about the sleep of angels and innocents. His conscience suggested that she was a heady combination of both, and he felt a momentary urge to absolve her of any negative motives. Even though a part of him wanted to believe that she really was Sean Cassidys little sister, Nicholas recalled the duplicity of those who populated his past, and he discarded the charitable impulse. He marveled yet again at the peaceful depths of her sleep. Watching her through narrowed eyes, his thoughts shifted with resentment to the insomnia and nightmares that had plagued him for years; haunting byproducts, Nicholas supposed, of the life hed lived and the choices hed made so long ago. Forcing himself past his memories, he refocused on her delicately constructed facial features. The graceful arch of her eyebrows, the minkthickness of her eyelashes, and the flush in her cheeks fascinated him, but not nearly as much as the shape of her lipsripe fruit. A shudder ran through him. Air gusted free of his lungs, and he felt compelled to sample that mouth in order to discover if she tasted even half as delectable as she looked. Nicholas froze. One taste of this woman would not suffice. He reluctantly acknowledged the wisdom of erring on the side of caution and avoiding the temptation she posed. Instead, he leaned forward, and he permitted himself the singular luxury of stroking the side of her face with the blunt tips of his fingers. Her skin reminded him of warm satin, and he felt his body respond to the image of her that flashed in his mindnaked, vulnerable, and writhing beneath his hands and mouth. She reached out to him in his thoughts, welcoming his sensual campaign. Hannah groaned, the sound like an invitation to a solitary man starved for true emotional and physical intimacy. His heartbeat accelerated, and he trembled as his blood rushed hotly through his veins. Hunger assaulted him like the fiercest adversary, making him ache, filling him with a souldeep need that stunned him. Hed lost his damned mind, he thought as he stared down at this woman. His thigh muscles strained, and his sex pulsed with heat and hunger. He sucked in enough air to fill his lungs before exhaling raggedly. Then, he closed his eyes, his struggle for control etched into his hard features as he slowed his respiration. Determined to exercise his legendary control, forty year old Nicholas Benteen remained still. He very reluctantly acknowledged far too many years spent in a state of selfimposed emotional isolationhis penance for dispensing death to those who preyed on the weak and vulnerable across the globe. His penance for survival.

Finally and quite deliberately, Nicholas settled atop her, his loins lodged in the cradle of her thighs, his knees bracketing her lower torso. He felt her shift against the press of his weight, and he knew exactly what would happen next. Tightening his grip on the ten inch steel blade hed carried since becoming a man, he curved his free hand over the lower half of her face. And then, he waited.

Hannah murmured a sound of protest in her sleep. She stirred beneath the unexpected sensation of weight pressing down on her hips. She blinked, frowned as she focused on the unforgiving facial features of a man she didnt know, and then went totally still. She stared up at the crazy man crouched over her in the back of her van. She paled as she registered the masculine contours of his muscular body. For a terrifying moment, she wondered if anything but skin separated them. Hannah floundered, mind going blank, muscles rendered slack, and shocked to her core. Then, she struggled for a calm she doubted she would ever feel again. As she looked into his cold, remorseless eyes, she ransacked her befuddled mind for some semblance of coherency. Instead, disbelief continued to dominate her thoughts and emotions. The man lifted his other hand into view, exposing the weapon he gripped. A raw, panicked sound escaped her. She bucked beneath him, stilling when he shook his head and settled even more intimately against her. Hannah stiffened. Wary and alert now, she followed his lead as her heart stuttered in her chest and then began to beat again, this time so wildly that she almost blacked out. They stared at each other for several long minutes. His body, she realized, was as lethal as the knife he held, his facial features as hard and unforgiving as granite. His eyes were the part of his face that captured her attentionglacial slate gray eyes that looked as old as time and just as weary, too old and far too weary for a man so obviously in his prime. Hannah couldnt recall a single one of the rules shed learned in the selfdefense course shed taken several years earlier, so she stopped trying. A woman who tended to rely on her instincts in time of crisis, she cautioned herself to take this situation one moment at a time. The futility of trying to fight off a man this massive, muscular, and thoroughly menacing didnt escape her. Breathing deeply despite the fact that his hand still covered her mouth, she felt amazed by the unexpected spark of anger that ignited within her. You sleep like the damn dead, he said accusingly.

Despite his ludicrous comment, she recognized his voice. Stunned, her eyes widened even more, her gaze darting between his hard featured face and the knife he gripped. Hannah tried to speak, tried to move beyond her anxiety in order to reason with him, but her vocal cords felt paralyzed. I dont know who or what you are, lady, but youre too damned careless to be an assassin. He glared down at her. Maybe this innocent act of yours is just a new spin on an old but very clever game. He lifted his hand from her face. She sucked in air and then moistened her lips. Hannah peered up at him, bewilderment and anxiety blending with her growing anger. She cautioned herself not to challenge him, not to do anything foolish. Are you going to hurt me? Give me a good reason not to. Answer my question, please. He chuckled, a darkly sensual rumble. Hannah blinked. Are you planning to rape me? she demanded without really thinking through such a question. Not my style. Then I shouldnt have to provide you with a reason to behave in a civilized manner, especially since Ive already told you who and what I am. He smiled, but his expression remained cold and dangerous. She sensed his capacity for retribution if he felt wronged or threatened. I asked you very politely to leave. She shook her head. No, you ordered me to leave. Theres a difference. You were rude. Surprise flashed across his face. She watched him, and she decided that anyone who contradicted him did so at his or her own peril. She wondered why shed felt she could. And she wondered why and how Sean had chosen him as a friend. Certain now of his identity, she prayed he would feel reluctant to harm the sister of a friend. Hannah met his gaze and waited for Nicholas Benteen to speak. Why are you still here? Ground glass, she thought, mentally cataloging the sound of his voice for later retrieval and consideration. I told you why earlier. And Im supposed to believe that you always speak the truth. Give me a fuckin break, lady.

She glared at him. Why wouldnt you believe me? I have absolutely no reason to lie to you. I told you, I dont have any information for you about Sean Cassidy, aka Sean ONeill or Neill Cassidy. I didnt believe you then, and I do not believe you now. Youd be well advised to believe anything I say to you, Ms. Cassidy. He settled more heavily against her, as if to punctuate his warning. She felt the flex of his powerful thigh muscles and the hard, thick length of his sex. She realized that shed never known a man who emanated such barely leashed strength or who was so unashamed of his aroused body as he glared down at her. Unbanked anger blazed in his eyes. An ancient battleone whose rules were divined solely by the participantsensued as they stared at one another. Neither spoke. Neither moved a muscle. Hannah experienced a profound awareness of her own physical vulnerability, something that had never happened to her before, not even as a teacher in the inner city of St. Louis, where crime ran rampant and people struggled to survive from one day to the next. She also felt a subtle and unexpected change taking place deep inside herself, a peculiar kind of heated tension she automatically credited to the situation, not the man. A heartbeat later, she knew she was kidding herself. Nicholas Benteen was a throwback to a time when a man demanded and attained control over his world, his destiny, and his woman. Although horrified that she could respond sexually to him, she understood and then tried to rationalize his appeal. She failed, because she knew that he wasnt just some guy on a par with Neanderthal cave dwellers. He was complicated, ruthless, and capable of scaring her to the point of witlessness. And she couldnt dismiss him as unimportant. She couldnt dismiss him at all, and that realization gave her pause. Hannah breathed shallowly, her courage flagging but not totally lost to her. She decided to take her chances and roll the dice. Youre Nicholas Benteen. Do tell. She glanced at his knife once more, recalling a story Sean had shared in one of his letters from somewhere on the other side of the world. Hannah tried to quell the shudder that rippled through her as she dragged her eyes from the sharp blade and back to his face. Something my brother said about you in one of his letters, she finally admitted. His gaze pierced as he studied her, giving her the feeling that he was caressing her with his eyes. The sensation, both terrifying and seductive, rocked her to her soul. Hannah sucked

in a breath, held it, and tried to read his expression. It was akin to trying to read a book in the dark. Why are you staring at me? she whispered. He continued to probe her features, saying nothing. She didnt feel violated, just extremely vulnerable. Please move the knife, she breathed. I swear Im not a threat to you or your privacy. And Im definitely not a threat to my big brother. He moved the deadly knife tip back a few inches. Hannah exhaled, but only a fraction of her tension departed. He searched her face once more. Then, he frowned. She asked, You see the family resemblance, dont you? He shrugged, his broad shoulders shifting with unexpected grace. Perhaps once, a very long time ago, but not any longer. Hes changed. Weve all changed, he added, an after thought that seemed to surprise even him. I imagine hes gotten older, but everyone does. He remembers me as an awkward teenager with a mouthful of braces. She attempted a smile. She couldnt make it happen, so she stopped trying to display her even white teeth. Youve seen him recently, havent you? He narrowed those slatecolored eyes. I didnt say that. You didnt need to say anything. I can see the truth in your eyes. Hannah tried to free her arms, which were still trapped by the sleeping bag and his position atop her. Give me a break, please. Im starting to feel like a sardine in a tightly packed tin. I think it should be obvious to you by now that Im not dangerous. Ive never harmed anyone in my life, so you dont need your knife. He laughed, the sound short, hard, and filled with disdain. Sean is not here. As a result, you do not belong here. I want you off my property by dawn. She shook her head, too intent on her determination to have the facts about her brother to be driven off by the commandostyle raid on her van by Nicholas Benteen. Why are you lying to me? His jaw went so tight, a muscle twitched. A painful possibility entered her mind, and she thought of what it would do to her mother. He isnt dead. Please tell me that Sean is not dead. Please. Nicholas narrowed his gaze. Thats an odd thing to say. Why?

You seemed convinced he was alive this afternoon when you were hammering on my front door. I havent seen him since my fifteenth birthday, and Im thirty now. Its been years since his last letter. She swallowed against the emotion threatening to choke her. I need to believe hes alive. Hes alive, Nicholas said sharply. Leave the man in peace. Hes not prepared to deal with people who think they can fix everything with a strong dose of TLC. I will not leave him in peace! Hannah exclaimed. And I will not leave you in peace, Mr. Benteen. Sean has a family, and Im part of that family. We love him, and we miss him. Then hes a fortunate man, isnt he? The real question is does his family love him enough to honor the choices hes made? He grabbed her chin when she looked away, forcing her to meet his gaze. Do you love him enough to allow him the luxury of being himself? Or will you track him like a hunter who feels compelled to run an animal to ground just for the sport of it? Sean Cassidy is doing whats right for him. Can you and your family respect his choices and decisions? Can you and your family move beyond your own selfinterest and just leave him the hell alone? Because He broke off, making an obvious effort to tamp down his emotions and lower his voice. because thats what he needs from you. She heard pain and anguish, and she sensed that hed spoken of himself, not just her brother. She wondered what had happened to him. She also feared that Sean might feel the same way, perhaps even behave in the same hostile manner once she found him. Why? she wondered. Why had Sean avoided all contact with his family for so many years? Shaken by her own thoughts and by Nicholas Benteens intensity, Hannah felt the sudden urge to reach out and offer comfort. She resisted the impulse. He was not, she decided, the kind of man who would welcome empathy or compassion. It would translate to weakness, a quality he wouldnt be able to tolerate in himself. Sean needs us, Hannah insisted. How can you possibly know what Sean needs? She looked away for a moment, then met his hard gaze. I just know. I can feel it. She blinked in surprise as he set aside his knife, leaned forward, and placed his hands on either side of her head. Hannah exhaled an uneven breath, but she remained focused on his unyielding features. Something unexpected and wild stirred inside her as she stared up at him. Shocked by the currents of desire and anger mingling within her, she told herself that the close confines of the van, his overt sexuality, and her simmering anxiety were just making her a little crazy.

You feel need? You think you understand need, Hannah Cassidy? You dont even know the definition of need. His low, rough voice sent a shiver up her spine. He shifted his hips forward, his arousal even more blatant now. His body heat encompassed her, scorching her even as he bracketed her head with his hands. I know when the people I care about need my love, she whispered. Lucky them. Youre trying to intimidate me, she accused. He smiled, but it was a predators smile. Are you intimidated yet? Absolutely not, since I refuse to give you that kind of power over me. She glared into the wintery depths of those eyes of his. Theres no reason for you to behave this way. Cause and effect, he said. Deal with it. Because you cant? She exhaled, angry and frustrated. Get off of me. Right now. Grudging respect sparked in his gaze, but he didnt budge. If anything, he seemed amused. Hannah throttled back her temper. Alright, Ill admit that people who know me really well think Im too persistent for my own good, but thats the way I am. Its too late to change, so I wont apologize for being assertive. It serves me well in my personal life and in my work. He went utterly still. Work? Hannah made a disgusted sound. I told you before, I teach first grade in St. Louis. Sometimes I have to fight for the children, she explained, passion rising in her voice. Especially if theyve been harmed by people who are supposed to love them or by a system thats designed to meet their needs and that seems destined to fail them. They have no one else. Great. A crusader. She heard his contempt and instantly bristled. No, damn it, just a woman who believes in right and wrong. I have standards. Dont you? she challenged, her green eyes filled with the fire of the fiercely committed. Nicholas straightened and reclaimed his knife, but he didnt answer her question. Why are you so suspicious of me? I want to understand. Youve invaded my property, youre demanding to be given information I do not have, and you refuse to leave. I consider your behavior aggressive and intrusive.

She laughed, pure disbelief in the sound. What do you call what youve been doing to me for the last half hour? Protecting what is mine. Like any territorial animal. Youre a man, not an animal. And youve been wounded one too many times, she realized with the insight of a woman whod spent most of her free time during the last ten years dealing with battered children. And youre trespassing, he repeated in a voice riddled with tension and distrust, which is a violation of the law and my privacy. People are shot for less in this part of the country. Hannah shifted, inadvertently bringing her hips into even more intimate contact with the blunt ridge of male flesh pressed against her pelvis. She froze, her eyes darting to his face. A sudden flood of heat consumed her, sucking the air from her lungs, searing her veins, and making her more than a little lightheaded. Youre so large, she whispered faintly as he loomed over her. He smiled at hera slow, hot, and completely unexpected smile that threatened to unhinge her senses. So Ive been told, but usually by my lovers. Embarrassed by her thoughtless comment and annoyed by the sexual gleam in his eyes, she protested, Thats not what I meant, and you know it. Freudian slip? No, damn it! I meant that youre really big you know, tall, muscular, broad shoulders big! She clamped her lips together and tried to wiggle free of him. Exasperated when she failed to dislodge him, she muttered, Youre also very heavy. Nicholas drove his hips against her, pinning her down and drawing a muffled gasp from her. And youre a fool to squirm beneath a man who hasnt had a woman under him in a very long time. You wouldnt harm the sister of a friend. At his skeptical expression, she added, I can prove my identity, if youll let me. Youre presuming an awful lot, arent you? Instinct, she snapped. Youre protective of Sean, not angry with me. Its not in your nature to harm an innocent person, if you can help it. Your conscience wont let you. The expression on his face assured her that he knew she was speculating, but she didnt intend to admit the truth even if he challenged her. Proof, he prodded.

I have photo albums with pictures of Sean before he left home, as well as pictures of the entire Cassidy clan. I thought hed want to see them. I also brought some of the letters and postcards he sent to us. She glanced at his knife and then up at his face. Family pictures dont lie. Everything can be manipulated. People, situations, photographs, you name it. There are a thousand and one potential versions of the same truth, Hannah Cassidy, if thats even your real name. I want to sit up. No sudden moves, he cautioned. She nodded. Amazed by his wariness, she looked first at the gleaming blade he gripped and then back at his hardfeatured face. Finally, he shifted to one side, grabbed the front of her sleeping bag, and jerked her upright. He made her feel as inconsequential as a sack of grain. Hannah kept her eyes glued to his face as he slowly lowered the zipper of the sleeping bag. Although still clad in a heavy sweater and leggings, she breathed in sharply when she felt the back of his hand skim down the center of her chest. Nicholas halted the zipper at her waist. Keep your palms open and exposed as you lift your hands to a position just above your head. Im not a criminal. Despite her comment, she followed his order. She stiffened, shocked as he conducted an upper body search with a clinical efficiency that both startled and enraged her. His hands felt cold and impersonal. For the first time that night, she felt violated. She finally grasped the depth of his suspicion of her. Lift your purse off the floor. Dump the contents into your lap, and then hand the purse to me. She nodded, still too shocked by his behavior and the entire situation to object. But her mind raced a hundred miles an hour as she tried to understand the reasons for Nicholas Benteens attitude. She moved slowly, keeping her hands exposed to his gaze as she leaned forward and caught the leather strap of her purse with her fingertips. After following his orders to the letter, she watched him flip through the contents of her wallet. He glanced at her drivers license. Lousy photo. I had the damn flu, for heavens sake. His lips twitched as he inspected each item in her lap, scooped everything back into the leather shoulder bag, and then shoved it beyond her reach.

She watched him, her eyes on the shadowed contours of his face as she quietly asked, Has Sean become like you? Apprehension filled her, making her throat ache with sudden unshed tears as she waited for his answer. Nicholas flinched. She saw pain flash in his startled gaze, but the telltale emotion disappeared, leaving her to speculate about what had happened in his life to make him so wary and defensive. She suddenly regretted her blunt question as well as the possibility that she might have hurt him. She just as quickly felt like a fool for allowing herself a sympathetic response to a man whod provoked, threatened, and then terrorized her with ease. She knew she owed him nothing other than the civility and good manners her mother had drilled into all of her children. Unfortunately, a part of her wanted to give him much more. Hannah exhaled a shallow breath, banished the insane thought from her mind, and kept her conflicted emotions to herself. After devouring the contents of the photo album with an attitude that went far beyond simple curiosity, he set aside the leather bound photo album. Now do you believe Im telling the truth? she asked. A photo album doesnt prove anything. Of course, it does! It proves that Im who I say I am. Hannah Cassidy, Seans sister from St. Louis. Who else, other than a close relative, would travel almost two thousand miles, tolerate being scared half to death by a knife wielding lunatic, and then put up with the interrogation youve just conducted? Certainly not a stranger off on some lark. Drivers licenses and credit cards are easy to fake. Youre either a hell of an actress or very sincere. Only a sincere person could be so stupid. I am sincere. Whats the family matter you mentioned this afternoon? She hesitated. Its private and very personal. Too bad. I dont know you, Mr. Benteen. In my family, we protect the privacy of those we love. And where I come from, Hannah Cassidy, were willing to kill in order to protect our friends. She blanched. Cant you give me the benefit of the doubt and believe me when I tell you that Sean is my brother? Hardly.

She exhaled softly as she tried to think of another way to deal with him. Do you have a family, Mr. Benteen? Thats none of your concern. He suddenly jerked her forward until their faces were just inches apart. Hannah stared at his lips, and then looked up. He glared at her, his penetrating gaze so intense that she blinked and then closed her eyes. A sigh washed past her parted lips. She felt his grip on her upper arms tighten, and the heat emanating from his body reminded her of a furnace. Hannah managed not to plead with him to release her. Instead, she concentrated on the sound of her heartbeat as it thundered in her ears. And she tried to ignore the chaotic throbbing of every pulse point in her body. He pushed her backwards, his large hands like weights atop her shoulders as he held her in place. This is my land and my home. Youre trespassing. I want you gone, lady. I cant, she whispered. I must speak to Sean. Please help me. He hissed a curse. The word was so vicious, Hannah cringed, but she refused to back down in the face of his anger. She reminded herself that he was just frustrated with her. Shed caused and then dealt with that reaction in others for most of her life, so she would deal with it now. You can come home with Sean, if youd like. Reaching out, she flattened her hand against his chest. The rapid beat of his heart hammered an invisible tattoo into her open palm. We would all welcome you as his friend. Nicholas stared down at her slender fingers as they rested against his chest. Then, he lifted his gaze to her face. You are not real, he told her. Either that or you live in some fairy tale world where reality is an alien concept. Dont dismiss me because you dont know or understand me. Thats not fair. He shoved aside her hand. Lifes not fair. I know, because Ive dealt with the results of the actions of selfserving crusaders who invariably turned into greeddriven bastards for most of my adult life. People arent perfect, but your problem is that you obviously expect the worst of everyone. As a result, thats what you get. If you werent so cynical, youd be a far happier man, and you wouldnt be living out here in the middle of nowhere like some hermit. Its late, Im tired, and Ive had enough of you and your convoluted reasoning. Are you ready to leave? he asked, his tone of voice reminiscent of taut piano wire. She lifted her chin, clenched her fists, and glared at him. Ill leave once youve told me everything you know about my brother, including how to find him.

Youll wind up buried in a snowdrift, he said. Hannah considered his warning. Perhaps I could park in your garage. She grinned. That way, you wont have to go to the trouble of digging me out. Youll dig yourself out or youll freeze to death. Your choice. She sighed. Ive already made my choice. Sean comes first. Ill do whatever it takes to find him. Whatever? His eyes darkened as he glowered at her. Whatever, she confirmed, heart racing and nerves coiled into knots. However, she contemplated him with what she hoped was an unruffled expression. Nicholas shoved his knife into the leather sheathe strapped to his lower leg, kicked open the rear door of the van, and barked a oneword command. Out! Shocked, Hannah scuttled backward, but she didnt get very far. As she fought to free herself from the sleeping bag, Nicholas seized her. He subdued her flailing arms, stripped the sleeping bag from the lower half of her body, and then dragged her out into the cold and falling snow in less than five seconds. What do you think youre doing? she shouted as she sank into kneedeep snow. After slamming shut the van door, he lifted her and tossed her over his shoulder, driving the air out of her lungs. He set off into the darkness as Hannah gasped for breath and hammered his back with her fists.

What in the hell am I doing? Nicholas asked himself that question at least a dozen times as he hauled Hannah Cassidy into his home and kicked the front door closed with his booted foot. He decided that hell would probably freeze over before he came up with an answer that satisfied him. He subdued her squirming body, eased her off his shoulder, and slid her down the front of his body. She flowed over him like molten satin. He cursed himself for wanting her even as he inhaled the subtle fragrance of her skin and savored the feel of every curve and hollow of her petite figure. Hannah tried to pull free once her feet touched the floor. Nicholas jerked her forward. She slammed against him. He held her still, molding her against his powerful frame with one hand at the base of her spine and the other curved carefully at the back of her head. He

didnt want to harm her. If anything, he simply wanted to indulge himself just one more time with the luscious feel of her. Nicholas closed his eyes. He gently flexed his fingers in the dense silk of her hair, marveling yet again at the soft texture of each strand and the warmth of her scalp. He ignored her protest, an inarticulate sound that conveyed equal parts outrage and confusion. Nicholas understood the depth of her frustration with him. He already knew she possessed the ability to turn into a hissing feline in the blink of an eye. His conscience continued to nag at him with the suggestion that he might have misjudged her. Her manner since her arrival shouted her innocence, but the betrayals and violence of his past thwarted his desire to believe that she might really be as innocent and forthright as she appeared. Hannah renewed her efforts to free herself, wriggling back and forth against his hard body. He felt a rush of heat spill into his bloodstream, and he knew he was in danger of losing his legendary control. He shuddered, suddenly as angry with her as he was with himself as she twisted against him. Gritting his teeth, Nicholas separated their bodies. He seized her shoulders and gave her a firm shake. She lifted her head, her expression mutinous, her blazing green, cat eyes shooting sparks of fury. He nearly smiled. He admired her stubbornness and sense of purpose, but he couldnt dismiss her quest and his own personal commitment to Seans safety. Hold still, he ordered, too aware of her ability to disturb the serenity of his home and arouse his body to the point of combustibility. No one deserved to have that kind of power over him. No one. Nicholas refused to take her at her word that she was Seans sister, but he couldnt allow her to freeze to death while parked in his driveway or camped out at the entrance to his property. He felt certain that she would do the latter if he decided to escort her there. Frowning down at her, he momentarily wondered what it would be like to have such a fierce little creature committed to him, fighting for him, her searing passion and heart stopping tenderness devoted solely to him. He breathed in sharply, body and soul hungry enough to threaten his control. How dare you Hannah began. I dare, so shut up and dont move. He kept his gaze on her as he released her and discarded his knit cap and gloves. Reaching out, he flipped a switch on a nearby wall panel. She tugged her long sweater into place and then shot him a belligerent look.

Soft light glowed behind him. As he studied her, he thought again about Sean. Too fragile emotionally to ever jostle, Nicholas had no intention of disclosing his location to anyone. Sean was under his protection. He had been for several years, and he would remain that way. You have got to be the most overbearing, arrogant, mean spirited bastard Hannah broke off, clearly stunned as she caught her caught her first glimpse of the interior of his home. He watched her eyes widen as she scanned the vaultedceiling of the living room, the wall of glass that in the daylight revealed a panorama of rugged, snow dusted mountains and towering fir trees, and the hundreds of volumes that filled the floor to ceiling bookshelves, all chosen and read by Nicholas. When her gaze came to rest on the collection of oil paintings grouped on the opposite wall, he felt satisfaction shimmer through him as he drank in her obvious appreciation of his home. He quickly smothered his response, because he still considered her motives highly suspect. Oh my Her attention had snagged on the enormous stone hearth positioned in the center of the room. Crafted of native stone, it was beautiful and functional. Whats wrong now? he asked. She gave him a blank look. Nothing. Try again, he ordered. Lifting her hands, she made a sweeping motion with them. Its magnificent. Your home, I mean. I saw the plans, but I couldnt even begin to imagine the end result. I dont understand how you Her voice trailed off. Nicholas experienced a surge of pride, but he tempered his response with an ingrained caution that was as instinctive to him as breathing. Youve seen the architectural plans for my home? She nodded absently, but she didnt bother to meet his gaze. You had to file them with the county in order to get your building permits. I noticed you used a corporation instead of your own name, but that stuffs not too difficult to research if youre motivated. I must admit, finding you took me a bit longer than usual. Lots of left turns thanks to a series of dummy corporations. His gaze narrowed as she edged past him and into the spacious living room. Awe was etched into her features, surprise deepening the green of her eyes. He didnt block her path. He knew he could stop her whenever he felt compelled to do so. In truth, he was too busy considering her admission that shed penetrated a complex

series of front companies that stretched across the globe, as well as encryption techniques and various firewalls designed by a renowned hacker. Her thorough research alarmed him, and he tracked her progress as she wandered deeper into the room. When she skimmed her fingertips along the uneven grain of the hardwood wall and then over the high back edge of a burgundy leather couch situated before the fireplace, he wondered what it would feel like to experience her touch gliding over his naked flesh. Nicholas groaned in the silence of his mind. Desire kindled within him. He quickly clamped down on the images flitting through his mind, forcing himself back to her comment that shed investigated him. He couldnt fathom the reason for her candor. Was she clever enough to try to disarm and distract him with a partial truth in order to gain access to his world? You have an extraordinary home. Ive never seen anything like it. Nicholas moved up behind her with the silence of a puma making his way through the forest. As if sensing his presence, she turned to look up at him. Her unguarded expression revealed an array of emotions, but curiosity seemed to dominate. You designed every bit of this, didnt you? Few people possess that kind of talent or the courage to create something so unique. You must be very proud of what youve accomplished, Mr. Benteen. He shrugged, unwilling to allow her to charm him from his wariness and irritation that shed disturbed his world. Perched high atop the side of a cliff, the house represented the privacy and serenity hed long desired. Nicholas thought briefly of his attempt to create a retreat that he could defend with a minimum of manpower. Until Hannah Cassidys arrival, hed felt certain hed succeeded. As she returned her gaze to the wall of windows, he recalled the exact moment in which hed promised himself that he would never again feel like a caged animal. A shudder ripped through him, and then another. He loathed any reminders of the months hed spent as a prisoner after his capture by Middle East terrorists. Or of the fact that hed been the only one whod survived the torture and deprivation. The other fiveall friendshad been executed, their beheadings recorded and broadcast across the globe. It had been Sean Cassidy whod led the rescue effort to save his life. At that moment, Nicholas resented the woman who had provoked a resurgence of those dark memories. It took conscious effort to clear the past from his mind, but he managed. Then, he studied Hannah.

She smiled, but it was an oddly tentative smile. You must have a remarkable view of the mountains during the day. Nicholas shrugged. I like it. You dont seem like the type of man who would She looked away, scanning the spacious room again. Never mind, its not important. Go on. Hannah gave him an unwavering look. Im not afraid of you. A smart woman would be. He exhaled. You cant figure out how a man like me could design and build this place, can you? She shook her head in denial, but he saw the truth in her eyes. Aside from a few close friends, no one realized that he fed his soul with diverse creative endeavors. How else would he have survived the death and destruction hed endured? But would he ever be able to do anything more than endure and survive? he wondered. Why did you bring me inside? Explaining your frozen corpse on my land would be a problem with the local authorities, and I tend to solve problems with as much efficiency as possible. Couldnt we call a truce? she asked quietly. Ive driven more miles during the last few days than I want to count, and Im tired. Youve already admitted youre tired. His silence prompted her to keep talking. Ill go back to my van, and then we can talk in the morning when were both calm enough to have a civil conversation. I promise to leave once I get the answers I need. I believe that youre trying to protect Sean. Why, I dont know, but it isnt necessary to protect him from his family. We love him, and wed never harm him. Youre going to bed. Despite the alarm that flared in her eyes and stiffened her body, Nicholas reminded himself that fear was still his weapon of choice with Hannah Cassidy. I am not! He moved swiftly. She looked stunned when he grabbed her arm and tugged her down a long hallway. She struggled to free herself. I refuse to have sex with you. Nicholas drilled her with a disdainfilled look and muttered an earthy word. He paused before the open door to a tastefully decorated bedroom. I dont recall expressing any interest. Youre too skinny, and you never seem to know when to shut up. She wrenched her arm from his grasp. Go to hell! Ive already been there, and more times than I can count, he muttered, more to himself than to Hannah. He pushed her forward, his expression menacing enough to draw a

frightened glance from her. This is the guest bedroom. Im offering you the hospitality of my home since the temperature will likely drop well below zero tonight. Youll be leaving first thing in the morning. Is that clear enough for you? She shook her head. Not until I find Sean. I know you can help me. Your success or failure in locating Sean Cassidy is your problem. Im not involved, and I dont intend to become involved. I suggest you remain in your room. I dont like people wandering around my home unescorted. If you need anything during the night, use the intercom. Ill hear you. Hannah exhaled, and some of the rigidity left her limbs. Nicholas thought she looked uncertain, even vulnerable. Was this another variation on her innocent act? Why are you being so unkind? she asked. I told you. I tend to deal with problems in an efficient manner. Her temper flared. Quit calling me a problem! Im just a woman whos searching for a brother I havent seen in fifteen years. Good night, Ms. Cassidy. I will not give up until I find Sean. He crossed his arms over his powerful chest, leaned against the doorframe, and gave her a hard look. Hannah stepped back, uncertainty in her expressive features despite her brave words. Are you finished? Instead of answering him, she asked, What kind of life have you lived that you feel the need to be so suspicious of me? Why cant you believe that I just want to know how to locate my brother? Sean is needed at home. Two people in town were sure theyd seen a man who resembles him, and they said youd know how to find him. Despite how youre behaving, I believe they spoke the truth. Nicholas ignored her questions and comments. Good luck and good night. He started to turn away. Hannah reached out, placing her hand on his arm. Wait, please. I dont want to fight with you. He flinched, although he found pleasure in the gentle press of her fingertips. Withdrawing his arm, he glanced back at her. As a general rule, I dont wage war against women or children. Then help me.

Youve convinced yourself that I know how to find him. Ive come to a logical conclusion, and we both know it. Look, wouldnt it be simpler if you just tell me what you know about Sean and let me be on my way? He carelessly drove his fingers through the thick dark hair that capped his head as he contemplated her. During those very silent minutes, he promised himself that he would know the complete truth about Hannah Cassidy. A part of him, he realized, wanted her to be as genuine as she seemed. She took a hesitant step toward him. Please answer me, Mr. Benteen. You should know by now that nothing in this life is simple. Nothing. There was that sound of ground glass again. Why? she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. I must find him, so why cant this be simple? Nicholas shrugged. He refused to respond to the emotion welling in her eyes, although a part of him longed to offer her comfort and the refuge of a warm embrace. As he stood there, the urge to console her grew inside him, nearly exploding like unstable dynamite. He knew better than most people the danger of offering comfort to a stranger. He also sensed the risk inherent in even touching this woman again, because he doubted that he would ever be the same if he allowed her access to his emotions. Dont ask why, he finally suggested. You wouldnt like the answer. Nicholas turned and walked away from her, spine rigid, fists clenched as he fought the urge to claim her. He longed to lose himself in what he felt certain would be the sweet, hot, healing passion of her body, but he denied himself for both their sakes. As he stalked down the hallway, he didnt look back. He paused only once when he heard the slam of her bedroom door, but he forced himself to continue walking. Hed provoked her anger and frustration, but he derived little pleasure from the realization that hed behaved with all of the ingrained instincts of a coldhearted bastard. Alone in the master suite, Nicholas could not sleep. Instead, he grappled with the desire that ravaged his body for a woman he barely knew. And he periodically glanced at the motionsensor installed in the wall opposite his bed. He felt almost fatalistic as he waited for the inevitable to happen. ** ** **

After she locked the guest bedroom door, Hannah inspected the guest suite. She calmed down enough to realize the good fortune of being able to sleep indoors, even if she still felt uneasy about the motives of her host. After shedding her clothes, she took a warm shower. She slipped into a mans white silk shirt that she found hanging in the closet and crawled into bed. Weary to the bone, she closed her eyes and waited to fall asleep. But sleep refused to come. Instead, Nicholas Benteen dominated her thoughts, despite her repeated attempts to cast him from her mind. His behavior confused and infuriated her. Cold and heartless one minute, and then oddly vulnerable in the next, he was unlike any man shed ever known. She understood his determination to protect Seans privacy, although she didnt yet know why. She even respected his loyalty to her brother, although it still represented a major roadblock in her search for him. Hannah shivered, recalling how shed wakened to find him crouched over her in the rear of the van, the sharpedged blade hed waved in her face, and the terror that had gripped her. She also remembered his ability to control his physical power and the unexpected tenderness of his touch. His intent had been to frighten, not harm her. She loathed his methods, just as she knew her anger with him for using such tactics against her was justified. She wantedno, not wantedshe needed to understand the reasons for his behavior. Then, Hannah wondered if he realized shed caught fleeting glimpses of pain, loneliness, and hunger in his eyes. All too familiar with haunted eyes of abused children, she pondered who or what could have wounded a man like Nicholas Benteen deeply enough to make him retreat from the world. Cowardice? Hardly. There wasnt a cowardly bone in the mans body. Selfpreservation? No. Protector? Yes, she thought. For reasons she didnt understand, he had appointed himself as Seans protector. But, why? Hannah turned over, punched her pillow a few times, and snuggled beneath the comforter. She tried willing herself to sleep as the minutes ticked by on the clock beside her bed, but the tension caused by her confrontation with Nicholas Benteen, her concern for Sean, and the gnawing emptiness of her stomach, the result of missing both lunch and supper that day, refused to abate. When her stomach growled for the fifth time in as many minutes, Hannah flipped back the quilt, climbed out of bed, and approached the bedroom door on bare feet. She ignored the intercom as she unlocked the door and stepped into the dark hallway. She was certain she

would earn her hosts ire if she disturbed him, so she skimmed her fingertips along the wall as she moved quietly through the darkness. She decided she could locate the kitchen with a minimum of effort when she abruptly ran out of wall and stumbled to a stop. Hands extended in front of her, Hannah cautiously stepped into the living room. She spotted the fireplace in the center of the room, thanks to the few remaining live embers beneath the grate, so she kept moving forward. What she didnt see, however, brought her to a dead stop and sent fear skittering down her spine. Hannah let out a squeak of surprise as she plowed straight into nearly six and a half feet of solid muscle and warm, hairroughened skin. She instantly leapt back, but capable male hands shackled her wrists and jerked her forward. She managed to stop herself from slamming into him, but only because she stiffened her arms and stopped her own forward momentum. Her open palms flattened against the wall of his chest, a too sturdy surface that made her think of steel encased in heated silk. She gritted her teeth, her senses reeling as she registered the flex and flow of solid muscles and the seductive warmth of his skin. She trembled as he held her firmly in place. And even though she couldnt see his facial expression in the dark, she knew Nicholas Benteen was furious with her. He muttered a low, gritfilled word. She flinched and tried to duck to one side, but his grasp on her wrists didnt ease. If anything, his hold tightened. Feeling faint, Hannah told herself that she was just hungry. And once he knew, he might even offer to feed her. This was about hungerfor foodand nothing else. She didnt want to have sex with the man, she wanted food. Liar, her conscience shouted. She swayed against him, unprepared for the scorching need that suffused every centimeter of her body as wave after wave of heat rolled off his large frame and slammed into her. Hannah? She moaned, closing her eyes in the aftermath of the way he said her name in that low rough voice of his. She breathed shallowly. She felt as though shed been running wind sprints for the last hour. Her nerves tightened into knots, her throat closed, and her brain short circuited. Hannah? This time he sounded irritated. Yes? The word slowly spilled out of her as she lost her battle for perspective and poise. If anything, her senses heightened and she just grew more aware of himthe heat emanating from his body, the sound of his steady breathing, the alluring scent of his skinas he towered over her in the dark living room.

Explain yourself. Her fingers flexed against the wall of muscle. Im hungry. He swore. Hannah carefully withdrew her hands. She wanted to blame him for rattling her emotions, for making her want insane things that would only cause more problems between them. But she didnt. Shed never been a coward, and she didnt plan to start acting like one now. I was looking for the kitchen. I havent Am I supposed to believe you? Its the truth. I told you before, I dont lie. You didnt use the intercom. I saw no reason to bother you, Mr. Benteen. I just wanted something to eat. My name is Nicholas. Use it. And for the record, you bother me, Hannah Cassidy. You bother me a whole hell of a lot, and I dont think that particular fact is going to change anytime soon. I apologize, but Im really hungry. Right on cue, her stomach gurgled. Loudly. ** ** **

He spanned her waist with his hands, his fingertips meeting as he brought her closer. She felt his strength, then the shudder that ripped through him. She held her breath, conscious of her naked body beneath the silk shirt. She drew little comfort from the fact that the garment covered her from throat to knees. Wearing it now felt oddly intimatetoo intimate given the current charged circumstances. The breath shed been holding escaped her in a warm rush. His hands tightened at her waist. He reeled her into him, molding her to his strength with unexpectedly gentle hands. And then she felt the hard length of his sex pressing against her belly. She finally remembered to breathe. Lifting her head to look up at him, she saw nothing more than the shadowed outline of his broadshouldered upper body. I really am sorry, she managed, the words too soft, too breathless. Dont apologize. He slid his hands lower, cupping her buttocks, lifting her, rocking her back and forth so that her pelvis stroked the ridge of flesh trapped between them. I

shouldnt be touching you like this. His muttered words sounded like a warninga strained voice of sanity barely contained within a maelstrom of need and shock. Hannah ached, frissons of desire spiraling through her body to create a craving for this man that boggled her mind. He cradled her even closer, smoothing her legs around his waist. She almost thanked him. Under her own power, she would have been sprawled on the floor at his feet, a concert composed of pure sensation taking place in her body. She slipped her arms around his neck, seeking stability and something more. She experienced the sudden realization that Nicholas Benteen made a joke of the caution that had always marked her relationships with men. Always. Until now. Now, however, sensual hunger shimmered inside her like streaks of incandescent flame. I dont even know you, she whispered, more as a reminder to herself than to him. How why I Her voice trailed off. Yes, shed just pointed out the obvious, but she didnt know what else to say, how else to resist a man so able to shatter her common sense. And I dont know you. So where does that leave us? She smoothed her fingertips up the center of his chest and then across to his upper arms. Wonder flowed through her as she touched him. Muscles that reinforced his physical prowess flexed beneath her fingertips yet again, and his heat swamped her senses. Answer me, Hannah. In an extremely awkward situation? she suggested on a tired sigh. He released a harsh breath, and then he rested his chin atop her head. Thats one way of putting it, I suppose. I really didnt want to bother you. Its just that I didnt have time for lunch or supper, and all Ive had to eat in the last twentyfour hours is an energy bar. Bad planning. His hands moved from her waist to bracket her hips. He held her still, lowering his head and nuzzling the side of her neck with his parted lips. He didnt frighten her. Instead, he seduced her with gentleness. She didnt fight him, and not because she lacked the will or the strength. She simply sensed that their bodies felt compelled to communicate on a totally different level, a non verbal exchange that was older than time. Youre right, Nicholas, she agreed belatedly. I usually am, he remarked, his sharp tone unexpected and jarring. He suddenly released her.

Her bare feet hit the hardwood floor with a thud. His steadying hand kept her from falling on her nose. An instant later, he seized her hand and dragged her through the darkness to the kitchen. Hannah heard the click of a wall switch. She blinked in surprise as bright light flooded the room. He was the first thingthe only thingshe saw. Dragging her gaze from the powerful lines of his massive body wasnt an option. Speech didnt seem possible, either. So, she gave in and scanned his broad shoulders and hairdusted chest. Moving lower, she took in navy pajama bottoms that rode low on his narrow hips, revealed a flat, muscled belly, cradled the potent evidence of his sex, and clung to his long, muscular legs. Hannah inhaled shallowly. Then, she exhaled just as shallowly. Nicholas Benteen personified every erotic fantasy shed ever had about the perfect lover. She forced herself to meet his eyes. Only then did she register the set of his jaw and the frank sexual appraisal in his slatecolored eyes. The latter prompted her to take a backward step, but the granite edge of a countertop brought her up short. All the while, Nicholas simply watched her.

Say something, Hannah. She stared at him for a long moment before she said, I feel like my brain has taken a leave of absence. Look, we shouldnt I mean you make me feel as though Do you really want to pursue this particular topic? he asked. Hannah shook her head. Probably not a great idea, she agreed. She felt his gaze sweep over her like a consuming tide, reminding her that she wore nothing other than a mans silk shirt that shed found in the guestroom closet. His shirt? Of course. She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. His eyes dipped beneath her chin to focus on her chest. She glanced down, saw what had drawn his attention, and dropped her arms to her sides. The shirt billowed free to flow loosely over her slender figure. Hannah straightened and crossed the kitchen, her entire body still clamoring with sensitivity. Suddenly angry with the entire situation, she gave herself a short lecture on the merits of clearheaded behavior.

While Nicholas played lord of the manor and took a chair at the head of the kitchen table, Hannah paused in front of the refrigerator and glanced at him. Help yourself, he said as he watched her. She heard encouragement, but nothing more, so she inclined her head. Thank you. She forced herself to concentrate on the task at hand as she carried a container of milk, a loaf of bread, a few condiments, and a plasticcovered platter of sliced turkey to the table. Before she settled into the chair opposite him, she paused. He didnt disappoint her. Plates are in the upper cupboard to the left of the sink, utensils in the drawer next to the dishwasher, and glasses are right behind you. She nodded, collecting the various items she needed. Under his steady gaze, Hannah made a thick turkey sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and peeled and sectioned an orange from the bowl in the center of the table. His silent study of her wore on her nerves, but she still managed to concentrate on filling her empty stomach. She didnt taste anything she ate, she simply refueled her body. She met his gaze after pushing aside her empty plate and drinking the last of her milk. Its official. Ill live. He halfsmiled, but he said nothing. Do you cook for yourself, or do you have a housekeeper? she asked. I prefer my privacy, he reminded her. Im a train wreck in the kitchen, she confessed with a faint smile, humor lighting her eyes. My mother claims Im her only failure among her daughters. He gave her a considering look, something shifting behind those steady eyes. She paled under his scrutiny. Silence stretched tautly between them. Nicholas finally said, I assume you have other talents. She grinned, thinking of her students. I like to think so. You arent married? She shook her head. Nope. What about you? What about me? Have you ever been married? He shrugged, but the gesture was anything but careless. Im not much of a catch. Surprised by his comment, Hannah suspected this wasnt the time to tell him that he was wrong. Nicholas Benteen might be a complex man, but he possessed an appeal that defied explanation. In fact, she was surprised that some female wasnt already in residence with him.

I guess living out in the boondocks puts a major crimp in your social life. Hannah noticed the hint of a smile tugging at the edge of his mouth. Be careful, she teased. I almost caught you. Wariness sparked in his steely eyes. At what? You were about to smile. What exactly led you to my doorstep? She loved the chagrin she heard in his voice. I began with Seans old letters. His return address turned out to be your post office box in town. My last four letters to Sean were marked refused, rather than no forwarding address available. I finally reasoned that, if I could locate you, then I could probably find Sean. Flimsy. She felt a moment of triumph. It worked, didnt it? Finish your story. Complete anonymity isnt possible any longer, she continued. Public records make it relatively easy to locate almost anyone. I started with drivers licenses, car registrations, that sort of thing. I assumed you were a property owner, so once I persuaded the postmaster to tell me who paid the rent on the post office box, it was a simple matter of more research, which I conducted by studying the county land and tax records. I also contacted the utility companies. The internet usually streamlines the process, but I found a virtual maze of dummy corporations. That tweaked my curiosity even more. In the end, it took me about a week during my spare time, a lot of patience, and no small amount of convoluted thinking. Theres still tons of stuff I dont know, of course, but none of what I did is rocket science. Finding Seans still the real problem. Hes completely off the grid, invisible, so youre still my best resource. Itll remain a problem, Hanna. Thats up to you, but I dont plan to give up until I find him. She paused for a long moment, searching for a crack in Nicholas Benteens demeanor. What she saw, however, was an unfathomable gaze, a neutral facial expression, and a broad naked chest. She exhaled ever so softly, aroused yet again by a man who seemed to embody the rigors of what she assumed had been a complex and dangerous past. She also wished she understood the depth of her attraction to him. Hannah still needed his help to find Sean, so she told him the truththe why of her trip to northern Nevada, the why of her stubborn determination. My mother needs to see Sean. I dont intend to fail her. Her throat closed, and she couldnt say anything more.

Hannah stood, carried her plate and glass to the sink, and then returned the milk and other items to the refrigerator. After filling the sink with warm, soapy water, she felt Nicholas at her side, a dishtowel in his hand. She slowly reached out, careful not to touch him as she accepted the small towel. Once she closed her fingers over the edge of the towel, he slowly tugged her forward, his own grip firm on the edge of the towel, his expression intent. She looked up, amazed by the tenderness in his eyes. He lifted his free hand to smooth a stray lock of hair away from her cheek. He tucked the silky lock behind her ear and then curved his broad palm against the side of her head. Wide eyed, she continued to stare up at him, breath frozen in her chest even as her senses burst to life. Nicholas frowned. Hannah lost her grip on the towel. It landed on her bare feet, but she made no move to retrieve it. She doubted she could have moved at all. And, truth be told, she didnt want to move, didnt want to risk disturbing the charged currents of awareness arcing between them or the sense of expectation she felt. He trailed his fingertips across her cheek before stroking the fullness of her lower lip with his knuckles. She stopped breathing. He kept doing that to her respiration, she realized. Shed be breathing one second, and then not breathing. She felt the tremor that ran through his hand. She reached up, slipped her fingers into the warmth of his broad palm, and pressed his knuckles back against her lips, instinct driving her. Shock flared in his eyes. My God, he muttered between gritted teeth. Hannah felt the change in himthe tightening of his musculature, the heat rolling off of him in waves. She trembled as she stood in the shadow of his large body. Closing her eyes, she bowed her head. He slid his fingertips under her chin and tilted her face up to his view. She met his gaze, no longer willing to deny or to conceal her confusion. Im frightened. Nicholas shook his head. Dont be. I just want to hold you. Nothing more. Why? A combination of vulnerability and raw male hunger flashed in those steely eyes. Its just something I need to do. She possessed not a single defense against his candor, because she found it so unexpected. She went willingly as he drew her into his arms, fitting her to his hard length by smoothing his hands down her back and over her hips. She felt him shudder, and she finally realized that he was equally unprepared for this nameless thing happening between them.

Hannah sighed, resting her cheek against his shoulder. She savored being surrounded by his strength, the sense of safety she found in his arms. No man had ever made her feel more precious, more alive, or more protected. The incongruity of his behavior hit her like a sudden slap across the face. She felt his tempered strength, his hands gentle as he stroked her back and threaded his fingers through her thick, shoulderlength hair. His earlier harshness, obviously designed to provoke terror as hed crouched over her in the van, had stunned her. As she stood before him now, Hannah vowed to solve the puzzle posed by Nicholas Benteen, just as she would discover why Sean had abandoned all contact with his family. She regretted his absence the instant he released her and walked away, although she respected his inclination to honor his word. As she watched, he paused, keeping his back to her. He gripped the edge of the granite counter top with both hands. They were strangersstrangers who shared an instinctive intimacy unlike anything shed ever experienced. Whatever the reason for the attraction that repeatedly flared between them, they could not risk allowing it to spin out of control, but neither could she just stand there like some helpless fool. Helplessness wasnt a word in her personal lexicon. She crossed the kitchen, reached out, and smoothed her fingers over one of his white knuckled fists. Youre a very gentle man. I think I first realized it in the van. You could have hurt me, but you didnt. Someday, I hope youll tell me why you tried to frighten me half out of my mind. I dont think it was something as simple as your trying to run me off. It was then that she noticed the muscle ticking in his upper jaw, but she forged ahead, trying to keep the lines of communication open between them. Did I say something wrong? He shook his head and straightened, but strain remained etched into his hardfeatured face. Nothing at all. Why do you live here all alone? Get some sleep, Hannah. He sounded too weary for words. Its a long drive back to St. Louis. She smiled. Now you sound like Sean. He always thought if he ignored me, Id leave him alone. It never worked. Still doesnt. Taking her by the hand, he turned off the light and led her out of the kitchen. Less than a minute later, they stood facing one another at the entrance to the guest room. Is he alright? Hannah asked. Sean is not a subject Ill discuss with anyone. Has he become like you? she pressed, willing to be reckless.

He grabbed her shoulders. Dont do this. Is Sean all closed up and cut off from his emotions, too? If hes become that way, then I need to know before I see him. Nicholas swore, the word explosive, brutal. Hannah jerked with surprise. She tried to step back, but she only succeeded in losing her balance. His hands shot out, and he steadied her. I must know. She felt desperate for any bit of information that could help her, even if it meant pushing Nicholas well beyond the edge of his tolerance. His fingers dug into her waist. Stop hammering at me. I cant! Tears stung her eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks as she stared up at him. Why wont you understand? I cannot stop. Too much is at stake. He swept her forward, his arms circling about her. He smothered her cry of panic by settling his mouth over her lips. Hannah struggled, fighting his superior strength. His frustration with her was apparent, and she knew shed earned whatever shed provoked as she fought her bodys instinctive welcome of his potent sensual assault. She felt the change in him the instant his anger turned to hunger. He traced her lips with the tip of his tongue. Hannah moaned in capitulation, almost ashamed that she sounded so relieved and hungry for the taste of him. He sipped and bit and ate at her mouth, his hands gripping her waist. His tongue plunged deep. He feasted on her, faint tremors of need racking his large body. All the while, Hannah ignored the shrill voice of caution in her mind. Instead, she responded wholeheartedly, parting her lips to welcome the intrusive thrust of his tongue, her own darting forward, stroking, tasting, and tempting in an erotic, incendiary duel. She savored every bit of his desire for her as he explored her mouth. He tantalized the sensitive flesh behind her lips, deepening his exploration of her sweet heat with sweeping strokes of his tongue. She skimmed her fingers up and over his broad shoulders before sliding them into the thick, dark hair that curled at his neck. A heartbeat later he filled his hands with her breasts, measuring the fullness he found there, plucking at her tightlybeaded, silkcovered nipples until she thought she might scream from the feverish pleasure threatening to overwhelm her. Hannah sensed that Nicholas Benteen would be the fiercest kind of loverthe kind of lover who would demand every bit as much as he gavethe kind of lover capable of allowing her to reveal the passions that ran deeply in her nature.

Trembling as his hands moved lower, she felt her stomach muscles quiver when he smoothed his knuckles back and forth across her abdomen. A starburst of sensations exploded within her. Hannah shifted even closer, the need to crawl beneath his skin nearly obscuring her connection to reality as streamers of fire unfurled in her bloodstream. Aching for Nicholas, she welcomed the images flashing across her mind of their bodies joined in the ultimate intimacy. She savored the feel of his strong fingers as he cupped her hips and brought her against his swollen, throbbing loins. Hannah sighed into his mouth, the power of his need and the stunning reality of her own nearly mindless craving to mate with him devastating her senses. Without a hint of warning, Nicholas tore his mouth free of her lips. She felt as though her soul had been ripped in two when he jerked back from her. She clutched his forearms to steady herself. His ragged breathing matched hers as they stared at each other. She saw the shock in his eyes. Although she longed to fling herself back into his arms and insist that he continue his assault on her senses, she withdrew her hands and backed away from him. The insanity of her behavior jolted through her like a thunderclap. She felt stunned and disbelieving, her emotions reduced to so much rubble in the aftermath of the storm that had swept over them. They were strangers, she reminded herself. Intimate strangers fated to be adversaries because of her search for her brother. She knew it was insane to think or to hope that they could ever be anything more. As she stared up at Nicholas, Hannah raised trembling fingers to her swollen lips. With his head thrown back, his eyes closed, and his entire body corded with strain, he reminded her of a warrior in the heat of a fierce battle, a battle she didnt completely comprehend. Awash in uncertainty, she feared hed chosen to use any tactic available to him in order to silence her. Any tactic, she thought, up to and including seduction. While her common sense suggested that that was exactly what hed just done, she still prayed that hed touched her out of desire and not as the result of his need to manipulate her into submission. Hannah sagged against the doorframe. Lifting her hands, she pressed her fingertips to her temples to ease the dull pain throbbing there. All the while, she again tried to convince herself that she hadnt driven Nicholas to the point that hed decided to shut her up any way he knew how. She failed in both endeavors. This cant happen again, he told her in a low, gritfilled voice. If my brother has become at all like you, then its a good thing I didnt wait any longer to search for him.

He reached for her. Hannah She ducked away from his hands, certain that if he touched her again she would throw herself directly into his arms. Turning away from him without a backward glance, she fled his sad eyes, the bleak expression etched into his harshly carved face, and the knowledge that she still craved the intimacy and intensity of his possession. After locking her bedroom door, she crawled into bed and tugged the covers up to her chin. Hannah fought the urge to weep. And each time she thought about the vulnerability shed seen in Nicholas Benteens eyes, she clenched her fists at her sides and told herself to quit crediting the man with human qualities. Hed tried to seduce her, she decided, as a mean by which to distract her from the real purpose of her trip. He didnt deserve the benefit of the doubt, although a part of her longed to give it to him. The tension in her body slowly retreated. Hannah fell asleep, too emotionally bruised and physically depleted to resist her bodys need for rest. ** ** **

Nicholas walked into the kitchen late the following morning. He didnt bother to disguise his ugly mood as he glowered at Hannah. She glanced cautiously at him and then returned her attention to the platter she was filling with scrambled eggs and bacon. She kept her thoughts to herself as she added several slices of buttered toast to the side of the platter. Nicholas blamed her for a sleepless night and the lowlevel state of arousal that still tortured his body. He felt like a fool for allowing her mere presence, whether or not she knew it, to bring into sharp focus the loneliness that had been his constant companion in recent years. He considered her a disruptive force in the parcel of the world under his control, and he vowed to put an end to the situation as quickly as possible. Nicholas hadnt bothered to return to the master suite after their late night confrontation. Instead, hed spent the intervening hours in his study. Frustrated with his inability to concentrate on his work, he grew more and more annoyed with Hannah. Hed monitored her throughout the night and well into the morning hours. Thanks to his sophisticated security system, he knew the instant shed left her bed, showered, and dressed. He tracked her movement through the house as she made her way to the kitchen, courtesy of

a bevy of motion sensors and a few wellplaced microphones. Once she initiated breakfast preparations, he allowed himself the time to shower and dress for the day. Do you ever do anything besides eat? He filled a mug with coffee before he slouched that long, muscular body against the edge of the countertop. Hannah swallowed a laugh. Arent we in a good mood this morning. She looked far more rested than she had any right to after what he knew had been a very restless night. Clad once again in her leggings, sweater, and hiking boots, Hannah resembled a model in an advertising campaign for the allAmerican woman. Although his instincts insisted that she was as harmless as she appeared, past experience continued to urge him to err on the side of caution. Ulterior motives possessed the power to pervert the most decent of people. Eggs and bacon? she asked. I see youve made yourself at home. His chagrin underscored every word. A hint of wariness showed in her expression as she returned his gaze. I love exploring new places. Besides, your kitchen is very organized, so I didnt have any trouble finding what I needed. Obviously. Nicholas watched her place the full platter in the center of the table, settle into a chair, and reach for her napkin. Although he noticed the slight tremor in her fingers, he said nothing. Please join me. She smiled as she looked up at him. We really do need to talk. His grip tightened on the mug he held. He recalled her sweet taste and the feel of her shapely body as theyd explored the passion that had exploded between them. He forced himself beyond those sensory memories, reminding himself that she couldnt remain in his home. Wrong. You need to listen. I suspect it will be a new experience for you. He heard her soft sigh and saw the instant that the hopeful expression disappeared from her heartshaped face. His body responded to the sound, his emotions to her disappointment. Nicholas loathed the idea of hurting Hannah, but he considered his response to her a weakness fueled by sexual desire. Nothing more. It couldnt be anything more. The lives of those who resided in the more remote sections of his property depended upon his vigilance. Their loyalty and friendship, not simply their collective need for a retreat from the world of violence theyd endured and survived, made him willing to carry the burden of protecting them. It didnt matter that he no longer commanded them on battlefields across

the globe. What truly mattered was that he considered them his family, and he would guard against anyone he deemed capable of harming them. Nicholas refocused on Hannahs face. When he noticed her curious expression, he felt a reluctant kind of gratitude that she didnt feel compelled to hammer at him with questions about the current state of his mind. Im more than willing to listen to what you have to say, but conversation is a twoway street where I come from, so Ill expect you to return the courtesy. Hannah took a sip of her orange juice before reaching for her fork. Dont hold your breath. She smiled gently. The eggs are getting cold. He joined her at the table, flashed a quick glance at the platter, and then peered at her as he set aside his coffee cup. I thought you said you couldnt cook. Breakfast is the sum total of my skill in the kitchen. He sipped his coffee while she sampled each item of the breakfast shed prepared. Only then did he indulge his own hunger and serve himself. They ate in silence. Nicholas noticed with no small amount of surprise that Hannah had the appetite of a linebacker. For such a small woman, he wondered where she put it all. He also noted that she seemed suspiciously unruffled by his close scrutiny as she concentrated on her food. Halfway through their meal, she retrieved the pot from the coffee maker. Nicholas clenched his fists in his lap when she approached his side of the table. Her fragrance, something light and far too alluring, teased his senses. By the sheer force of his will, he managed not to touch her as she refilled his cup. A tremor of nervousness in her hand caused her to splash coffee on the table as she poured. Nicholas didnt let himself react. He waited until she stepped away, then blotted the small puddle with his napkin and finished his meal, consciously quelling the urge he felt to apologize for being so rude to her. I havent had homemade preserves in years. Its a lost art. A gift from a friend? She smeared raspberry preserves on her toast and then took an appreciative bite. Nicholas glanced at the jar of preserves, his thoughts on the woman who kept him well supplied with all manner of canned fruits and vegetables. He knew the former covert field operative used the activity as a form of therapy, especially if her emotions became fragmented or her thoughts strayed back to a past that included the loss of her hearing thanks to a malfunctioning bomb.

He gave Hannah a hard look, a look designed to intimidate the recipient. I meant it when I said you talk too much. You also ask too many questions. She stared at him then, clearly baffled by his hostility, but he had no intention of letting up on her now. Ive got someone I trust checking you out, so I suggest you sit tight in town. None of the local motels are full this time of year, so you shouldnt have any trouble with accommodations. If youre who you claim to be, then Ill discuss Sean Cassidy with you. Until then, youre persona non grata around here. Youre absolutely paranoid, arent you? Careful, he warned. Be very, very careful, Hannah Cassidy. Youre up to your ass in a situation you couldnt possibly understand. Who are you? Shock resonated in her voice. A man who has reached the age of forty by using his brains, not his emotions. She shook her head. No. He frowned. No? No, I will not leave. In fact, Im certain I shouldnt leave, because youd find a way to make it impossible for me to ever return. And if that happens, Ill never locate Sean. No, Nicholas. I wont risk leaving. This isnt a damn debate! Then stop giving me orders like some kind of of petty tyrant! If you dont want me in your house, fine. Ill stay in my van. Ive done it before. Absolutely not! Its too dangerous. The forecast is lousy. Temperatures are about to drop back down below zero and stay there. And more snows on the way, probably a couple of feet. Muleheaded to the end, she announced, Ill take my chances. Damn it, woman! I dont need you freezing to death in my driveway. She glared at him, ignoring his derisive tone. May I still have kitchen and bathroom privileges? Ive got a stack of books with me that Ive been meaning to read, so Ill stay busy while we wait for your report. He sprang out of his chair, too agitated to sit still any longer. You never quit, do you? Doesnt it matter to you that youre trespassing? Hardly! Do you really expect me to give up on a goal because Ive temporarily inconvenienced you? she challenged.

He moved in her direction. I expect you to respect my privacy, which you seem to have a hard time doing. And I expect you to respect the fact that I cannot and will not abandon my search for my brother. Her shoulders slumped, and her fingertips strayed to her temples. Finally, she peered up at the man towering over her. Look, we got off on the wrong foot yesterday. Couldnt we start again with a clean slate, maybe even try to be friends? He ignored her hopefulness. What about last night? Nicholas demanded as he prowled back and forth, his longlegged stride making the huge kitchen seem small. What about it? Her voice sounded faint, and her cheeks lost their rosy flush. Theres too damned much chemistry between us. She gave him a prim look. Then well both have to be more circumspect in our behavior, wont we? Circumspect? Amazed by the drawing room quality of the word, he bellowed, Circumspect? Hannah flinched, and then she nodded. Precisely. Nicholas muttered an ugly oath. I cannot and will not promise to keep my hands off you. Do you want to risk a repeat performance of what happened between us last night? I guarantee that, if it does happen again, youll definitely end up in my bed. She paled even more, and then she squared her shoulders. Lets just chalk up last night to the tensions of the moment, and forget it even happened. Easier for both us that way, dont you think? Nicholas seized her and jerked her to her feet. You dont get it, do you? Dont shout at me! Hannah And no, I dont get it. She tried to squirm free of his hold, but her body went very still when she caught a glimpse of the expression on his face. I also dont understand why what happened between us even happened in the first place, unless you were just trying to shut me up. If that was the case, then next time just tell me you are tired of hearing the sound of my voice. You wanted me! he gritted out. And I thought you wanted me! she blazed, matching his decibel level. But whats the point of even discussing it? You obviously suspect me of of God! I dont even know what you suspect me of. You keep treating me like some sort of deranged mass murderer. Hannah took a steadying breath. Be reasonable, Nicholas. Were hopelessly mismatched. Youd

never become involved with someone like me. You dont even like me. And Im not the sort of woman who has meaningless affairs. If and when I become intimate with a man, its only because Im sure its right for both of us and he cares enough to treat me with respect and honor. Containment, he muttered more to himself than to Hannah as he shifted mental gears with an agility honed to a knifes edge during his past. Containment was his next logical move, perhaps the only tactic that would sober Hannah sufficiently for her to grasp her current jeopardy. He heard the voice of his conscience as he studied her through narrowed eyes. Registering the bewildered look on her face, he silently acknowledged that he wanted the time to know her better while also safeguarding the lives of his friends. Hannah gave him a wary look. What did you just say? The only way to deal with you is to contain you. She bucked beneath his hands. Dont you dare try to tie me up and shove me into a closet. He tightened his grip on her shoulders, shooting her an incredulous look. Im going to contain you, not terrorize you. Youve already done more than enough terrorizing. Talking to you is like talking to a wall. How flattering! Her tone of voice would have withered a lesser man. He gave her a little shake. Pay attention. Youre not to wander around. If you want something when Im working, use the intercom. She flushed. They both already knew that she had a tendency to ignore his edicts. I will. Im serious, Hannah. You could be injured if you stick your nose where it doesnt belong. Youll restrict yourself to the use of the living room, the kitchen, and the guestroom. Thats it, unless Im with you. You will not go outside unescorted. I dont want to deal with the inconvenience of having to search for you if you get lost, or explain to the authorities why a civilian was taken out while on my land. She stared at him. Taken out? You heard me. As in killed? she squeaked. Now youre getting it. She exhaled, the sound tremulous. Now I know how Alice must have felt.

Alice, who? he demanded. In Wonderland. Nicholas swore. Colorful. After a searching look, she further shocked him when she said, I agree to your terms, Nicholas. All of them. Youre out of your mind. A faint smile lifted the edges of her lips. Possibly. Theres no possibly about it. Triumph flickered in her eyes. Nicholas didnt miss it, but he already cared enough about her to allow her this small victory. He exhaled a harsh breath, trying to persuade himself that having Hannah with him suited his purposes. He had the uneasy feeling that Hannah possessed the ability to bulldoze her way through any and all emotional blockades he might erect. As for the feelings she stirred within his weary heart, he knew hed finally met his match. She fascinated, intrigued, amused, and aroused him to the point of physical anguish. He craved a steady diet of Hannahs spirited and passionate nature, but he wouldnt risk putting her in danger, even if that danger had diminished over the last several years. He already knew the toll taken by a heightened state of alertness against potential threats, because hed lived his entire adult life in that manner. Had anyone ever cautioned him that a woman he hardly knew would touch him so deeply or make him ache with constant hunger, he would have denounced the possibility. But now, a part of him wondered what might have happened between them had he lived a less lethal life and become a different and far less wary man. Nicholas, suddenly tired of his conflicted thoughts and their verbal sparring, said, I am nothing if not reasonable, provided you honor your promise. She sputtered with laughter. Reasonable? In your dreams. He scowled at her. I knew we could find a compromise, she said hurriedly. No compromise. My turf, my rules. Ill get your luggage out of your van. I can help. Theres no need for you to He jerked her against his chest, cutting her off. I told you, Hannah. My turf, my rules. He spoke over her when she opened her mouth to argue. Stay put. I havent got the time or the patience to put up with much more static from you. Do you get the picture? She nodded, unexpectedly subdued as he released her.

Ill be back in a few minutes. Do the dishes or sweep the floor if you feel inclined to pull your own weight around here. Neanderthal. Hannah smiled broadly as she said the word. Nicholas smiled, too, but only after he stepped past her and strode out of the kitchen. His pleasant expression soon faded, though, thanks to his awareness that he flirted with danger and seductive temptation as long as Hannah remained in his home.

Hannah glanced up from her book as Nicholas walked into the living room. She watched as he sank down onto the couch, closed his eyes, and massaged the back of his neck. Although she thought he looked tired, she didnt voice the observation. She felt reluctant to disturb the delicate thirtysix hour old truce theyd managed to forge, in spite of how much she longed to quiz him about Sean. Hed made his feelings about information sharing quite clear, limiting their time together to the silent meals they shared in the kitchen. Hannah disliked his deliberately aloof behavior, but she quelled the urge to comment on it. She was a guestan unwelcome guest in his home. Drawn to Nicholas on a variety of levels, she recognized that hed awakened emotions within her shed never before experienced. Shed pondered her feelings at length during the hours shed spent alone, finally and very reluctantly concluding that he wouldnt welcome them. It wouldnt matter that what she felt for him was both genuine and heartfelt. Hannah made herself behave with an out of character restraint against which she instinctively chafed. Nicholas was not a man willing to make himself emotionally vulnerable, especially not for a woman whod intruded on his life and his privacy. She sighed, the sound very soft. Nicholas opened his eyes. Hannah lowered her book to her lap, tucked a bookmark into it, and switched on the lamp beside her chair. Any word yet? He shook his head. Flicking a glance at the cover of her book, he frowned and then gave her a probing look. Hannah straightened in her chair, her fingers curving protectively over the hardcover exterior of the book. Is something wrong? Not a thing. Is that yours? Nicholas asked.

She smiled and nodded. I noticed you have his entire collection, too. Hes one of my favorite authors. When Hannah noticed his surprise, she said, Hes a wonderful writer. I think TENDER IS THE MERCY OF A LOVER is his best novel yet. Youve read his other books? Her smile widened to a grin. Every single one, and each one at least a half dozen times. The critics dont always appreciate him, of course, but thats their problem. Im a bona fide fan. Nicholas watched her as she smoothed her fingertips across the books cover. Even though he probably writes for the express purpose of entertaining his readers, he always seems to go a few steps farther than most writers. In what way? Nicholas asked in a subdued voice. Most people might consider his books straight forward actionadventure stories, but theyre also morality plays. This book is a particularly poignant story about a man whos nearly destroyed by his life as a soldier of fortune. Im only a few chapters into the book, and I already feel as though Im taking a stroll across the heros soul. What about the violence? Its unsettling, she admitted, but it fits into the broader context of the story, part and parcel of the world contained in the book. Besides, it also shines a spotlight on the violence mankind is capable of, but the author also reminds his readers that humane behavior is a matter of choice and that peace only occurs if its a common goal. Momentarily startled, he managed to conceal his reaction behind a neutral expression. Youre crediting him with a high mindedness that he might not possess. Hannah leaned forward, the book cradled against her breasts. I dont agree. Edmond St. Gregory is unique, and he stands head and shoulders above his peers. I always gain new insights about myself and the world in which I live whenever I read his books. Nicholas savored Hannahs praise. Of course, he didnt intend for her to discover that his work under the pen name of Edmond St. Gregory satisfied a deep inner need to share the lessons of life and death that hed learned as a mercenary. It also financed a lifestyle that allowed him to assure the protection of his friends. Despite his status as an internationally known, bestselling author, he never discussed his writing with anyone other than his editor and closest friends. Rumor has it that St. Gregory is a recluse, she continued, but I dont think it matters to his readers. As long as he keeps writing powerful stories, they wont care if he lives under

a rock or eats tree bark for lunch. Being shrouded in mystery probably even helps his publisher market his books. You sound almost proprietary when you talk about him. Nicholass eyes narrowed speculatively. She shrugged. I hadnt thought about it, but he feels familiar, almost like a friend. Thats a bit of a stretch. Not at all, since Im not planning to nominate him for sainthood. I just hope he doesnt ever stop writing. He has a moral compass, and its evident in every word he writes. Besides, his skill as a writer is a gift, and he should use it. Its simple if you think about it, Nicholas. Good writers produce good books. Good books are like friends. You have a very unique view of the world. She shook her head in denial. Im simply a product of my environment. I grew up with lots of brothers and sisters, and we looked out for each other as kids. With the exception of Sean, were still a very closeknit group. When you have parents who make you feel secure and loved, you cant help but feel encouraged to work hard as you pursue your dreams. What do you dream about? Fascinated anew by the animation in her facial features and the brightness of her large green eyes as she spoke about her family, he wanted to understand everything about her. Now theres a question that deserves a bit of thought, Hannah remarked. Nicholas nodded, pushed up to his feet, and wandered to the wall of windows on the far side of the room. He wondered if Hannah grasped his motives for asking such a question. He doubted it. She would be very candid with him. She also didnt have a clue about his susceptibility to her warmth and accessibility. Small blessings. Or was it his curse to forever suborn his own needs? Hannah set aside her book and joined Nicholas. They stood side by side for several quiet minutes, both looking out across the snowdusted valley that stretched for miles below them to the jutting mountain peaks in the distance. She finally said, I dream about an end to the abuse of small children who dont have a prayer of defending themselves. I dream about children whose eyes arent glazed over with pain and fear. I dream about finding stable homes for them, because they deserve a chance to be loved the way I was loved as a child, and I dream about them becoming healthy in spirit and in body so that they dont repeat the mistakes their parents made. A crusader, he said quietly, this time without censure or derisiveness.

In some ways. She met his gaze, a blend of sadness and gentleness in her eyes. Im just one woman, Nicholas. I know I cant accomplish miracles, but I give of my time because I care deeply about children. Its the reason I became a teacher, but even I get tired of the battle. There are times when I want to curse God for allowing people to turn innocent children into victims. Some of the sights Ive seen just break my heart. Then why keep fighting the battle? Because I choose to. Because the alternative . pretending there is no harm being done to so many children would be morally bankrupt. His expression grew troubled as he studied her. Lifting his hand, he stroked the side of her face with his fingertips. He watched her eyes widen, felt her tremble beneath his touch. He already knew she didnt fear him, and he felt relieved. But he also felt uneasy about the feelings she inspired in him, not just the reemergence of his own youthful dreams, dreams that harsh reality and even harsher experience had destroyed. Have you ever gotten caught in the middle of the violence? The possibility of someone harming her made his hand shake. He withdrew it, closing it into a fist. Hannah reached up and took his hand, her touch warm and gentle as she pried his fingers apart. She brought his hand back to the side of her face, covering it with her own. Only once about five years ago. As terrified as I was, I dont regret being there. Otherwise, a wonderful little boy would have died after witnessing his mothers murder and before his father turned the gun on himself. Christ! Hannah continued in a quiet tone meant to reassure. Usually, I witness the aftermath of events like that. During my first year as an inner city teacher, I cofounded an advocacy organization that watches out for abused or traumatized children. Our advocate role starts as soon as law enforcement becomes involved, extends to their time in the hospital, and then continues into the court system. We testify in court, counsel the lawyers and the judges, that sort of thing. In effect, the child has a friend, guardian, and advocate as he progresses through what can be an emotionless and intimidating system. I volunteer my time after school and on weekends. Once a child is placed in a foster home, we continue to act as an advocate until, hopefully, the child is adopted. Dont you have dreams for yourself? She smiled. Of course. He lowered his hand, curving it over her shoulder as he peered down at her. Tell me. His intensity contrasted with the cool slate of his eyes.

My dreams are quite conventional, probably downright boring to a man who has breathtaking views of mountains and eagles whenever he looks out his living room window. Im interested. She gave him a quizzical look. You keep surprising me. Why? Why would you care about my life or my dreams? You seem to have abandoned your own dreams. He flinched. Besides, you dont want me here, she reminded him. Youve made it very clear that Ive intruded on your world, and you havent spoken ten words to me since yesterday morning. Nicholas shrugged, uncomfortable because her comments were justified. He purposely ran hot and cold when they were together, purposely kept her offbalanced. What she didnt realize was that his efforts to remain aloof where she was concerned were woefully half hearted most of the time. Now you know why I live out in the boondocks. Im too moody to fit in anywhere else. Hannah made a rude sound. I dont believe that for a minute. In fact, Im sure you can be ruthlessly charming when you put your mind to it. She didnt resist when Nicholas drew her to a position in front of him, circled her midriff with his arms, and tugged her back against his strong, hard body. She relaxed into him as if shed done it a thousand times before, the back of her head cushioned by his shoulder. He savored the feel and scent of her. Most of all, he marveled over the fact that she trusted him enough to allow him to hold her. Hed never known a woman like her, just as hed never wanted a woman as much as he wanted her. When he heard her sigh, the sound hinting at contentment, he encouraged, Tell me more about your dreams. They arent complex. I just want a long, full life with She paused, turned in the circle of his arms, and looked up at him. With? he prompted. the right man. You dont already have a man in your life? She didnt answer as she stared up at him. Nicholas withstood her scrutiny. He knew his face reflected his past. Weathered, even grim, scarred at the temple and beneath his chin by battle, he looked like what hed once

beenand still was, he supposed. A hard man capable of doing hard things to survive and to protect those he valued. And what do you dream about, Nicholas? Caught offguard, he answered bluntly, Things Id rather forget. Hannah noticed the scar beneath his chin and skimmed her fingertip over the uneven mark. What happened here? Shrapnel from an IED an improvised explosive device, more commonly known as a roadside bomb. He waited for her to recoil. Where? Where else? The Middle East. It must have hurt. I didnt even feel it when it happened. She released a shaken breath. People died. A statement, not a question. Score one for you, Hannah Cassidy. He answered, Too many to count. Im glad you didnt. She stared up at him as she whispered, So glad. She reached higher to stroke the narrow, two inch scar that paralleled his hairline. She made him feel as though hed been sucked into a whirlpool of softness. Although troubled by his response to her, he permitted her touch. Another shrapnel wound? She healed him in ways she would never understand with her gentle nature and delicate touch. Yes, but I imagine youve seen much worse as a child advocate. Emotion brimmed in her eyes. All I see right now is you. He stiffened at the sight of her tears. I dont want or need your pity. The only thing I feel is sadness that someone hurt you. Youre the last man in the world Id pity, although I do still wonder why you live such an isolated life. Dont you get lonely? Suspicion flashed like a neon sign in the depths of his mind. Hed known far too many women capable of offering aid and comfort for their own purposes. As a result, he fought giving Hannah the benefit of the doubt. She had said that shed do whatever it took to find Sean Cassidy. Ive always been a loner, he said warily. Hannah turned to stare out the window, watching the steady advance of the dusk as it consumed the rugged terrain stretched for miles before them. I have the distinct impression

that theres a lot more to your lifestyle, to all of this She gestured to the endless expanse beyond the window. than your preference for privacy. Nicholas frowned. He took her by the shoulders, forcing her to face him. What are you thinking right now? She looked on the verge of smiling. You dont want to know. I dont ask idle questions. Alright then, have it your way. Im thinking its a shame we started out so badly. And Im thinking that youre a very special man, even when you scowl at me or treat me like Im some crazed serial killer. I hate it that youre so suspicious of me. Baffled by her candor, anger sparked inside him. You are not real. You keep saying that, but what you see is exactly what you get with me. Im not giving a performance. I simply am. She hesitated, and then forged ahead. Id have to be as emotionally inept as a rock not to realize that you were deeply hurt at some point in your life. Dont add me to your collection of walking wounded. It wont work. What about friendship, Nicholas? Would you allow me to add you to my collection of friends? Im not some helpless child. Ground glass, she reflected, certain now that the sound reflected layers of pain. I know that, she assured him quietly. Im not a child, either. You made the point yesterday that there is a certain amount of chemistry between us. You were right, so why shouldnt I admit it? Desire tightened his muscular body, his amazing eyes darkening as they gazed at each other. Currents of heat and hunger seemed to flow between them. Hannah trembled, forcing herself to look away. Are you saying you want me in your bed? She laughed. Leave it to a man to make that kind of mental leap. No, thats not what Im saying. Then why bring it up? he demanded. To make the point that it seems stupid not to find some common ground with each other. Youre tense, defensive, and you seem preoccupied. Im bored witless when Im not sleeping or reading. Im also very anxious about Sean, but Im trying to keep a lid on those feelings and not annoy you with incessant questions about him. So, instead of ignoring each

other, couldnt we at least talk when we share a meal? Perhaps getting better acquainted would eliminate some of the tension we both feel. Why? He deliberately goaded her. Perhaps obtuse behavior on his part would help to distract him from the overwhelming urge to suspend his common sense and take her into his bed once and for all. She muttered her frustration. This is useless, isnt it? Is that what you think? You are not going to make me lose my temper, Hannah announced, her stubborn nature evident in her tight voice and the flashing green of her eyes. With more insight into his complex personality than she realized, she continued to speculate aloud. You know, every time we talk, you remind me of the hero in St. Gregorys book. Hes deeply troubled by the way hes spent his life, hes lonely, and he craves some kind of emotional fulfillment. His problem is that he wont trust anyone long enough to let them step beyond the barriers hes erected around his heart and his emotions. Youve been reading too much fiction. He gave her a little shake, something akin to alarm flashing across his hardfeatured face. Stepping back, she shrugged, trying to appear indifferent to his scathing tone. Some sixth sense, however, told her that shed found a hairline crack in his lone wolf faade. Perhaps, she conceded. Nicholas clenched his fists to keep from reaching for her again. Im going back to work. What kind of work? Not important. He turned on his heel and walked away from her without a backward glance. Shoulders slumping, Hannah watched him stride out of the room. She remained at the window, mired in conflicted thoughts and emotions as she watched the darkness consume the panoramic view. She lost track of time as she grappled with the avalanche of emotionsall centered on one very difficult manthat threatened to overwhelm her. Part of her wanted to shake Nicholas until he abandoned his suspicious attitude. Another part, the more dominant part of her nature, wanted to hold him and love him until the flashes of pain and loneliness in his eyes finally disappeared. But she couldnt do either, no matter how compelling the impulses. Hannah returned to her chair and collected her book, but she didnt open it right away. She felt too unsettled to reimmerse herself in the story just yet. Her thoughts were admittedly wild and farfetched as she pondered the kind of life Nicholas had probably lived before hed built an elegant fortress in the center of a wilderness

area. Those thoughts repeatedly led her to the same conclusion. She risked losing her heart to Nicholas Benteen with every passing moment she spent in his company. The man puzzled and angered her, but he also tantalized her with glimpses of tenderness and compassion. Would he always feel reluctant to allow anyone access to his emotions? What would have happened between them if theyd met under circumstances that hadnt involved her brother? She doubted that he would ever set aside his emotionally defensive stance. Deeply troubled by that reality, she decided to stop kidding herself and focus exclusively on Sean. He was the reason shed traveled to Nevada. Shed just have to suck it up and get on with the purpose of her trip. Nicholas was not for her. Hannah worked to remain calm in the face of his constant moodiness as the days slowly crept by. She also struggled to sustain her optimism that he would help her to locate Sean. She grew restless and tense, alternately smothering her desire to reach out to Nicholas and worrying over her brothers welfare. And then, of course, there was her mother, who languished in a St. Louis hospital. She eventually felt like an idiot for comparing Nicholas Benteen to the hero in St. Gregorys latest novel. At least the fictional man possessed the ability to reach out to those for whom he cared, something Nicholas appeared to be opposed to doing under any circumstances. During the few hours they shared each day, she did most of the talking. Nicholas asked questions. She answered them. After a while, she felt like the object of an interrogation as he pressed for information about her family, her work as a teacher, and what she did in her spare time. Still, she didnt hold back. She hoped that knowing more about her and her life would encourage him to open up about himself. But all of her questions went unanswered, her host as closemouthed as ever, so she finally stopped asking them. When she caught him staring at her, she didnt conclude that his close scrutiny was based on anything more than his wary approach to the entire world. Hannah spent her nights fending off sensual dreams of Nicholas. She spent her days telling herself that she was crazy to think of him as anything more than a grudging host. If a woman was foolish enough to fall in love with Nicholas Benteen, Hannah pitied her. Rejection would be the end result. By her fifth day in his home, and with no reprieve from the steady snowfall and his chilling politeness, Hannah felt ready to scream with frustration. She restlessly paced up and down the long hallway adjacent to her bedroom. She couldnt take the isolation another

minute more. She abandoned the restraint shed exercised since moving into the guest room, no longer willing to honor the rules Nicholas had imposed as a condition of remaining in his home. Shed had enough. Hannah explored a game room that contained everything from a billiards table to a carved teak backgammon table with two leather wing chairs positioned on either side of it. She inspected two additional guest rooms decorated in sophisticated styles similar to her own room. Her curiosity also led her to a store room that appeared to contain sufficient provisions, as well as heavy clothing in a variety of sizes for men and women, to see a large family through a long winter. She accidently discovered a temperature controlled vaultlike room on the bottom floor of the trilevel structure, which contained an extensive collection of gallerysized oil paintings and numerous sculptures that took her breath away. Despite the muted lighting, she thought she recognized a Chagall and a Monet as she meandered through the spacious area. Then, she told herself that that was impossible. The paintings had to be copies since purchasing the originals would have cost millions of dollars. As she made her way through the sprawling house, Hannah rationalized her behavior, blaming her curiosity on a severe case of cabin fever and her hosts surly nature. Nonetheless, she refused to curb her curiosity or her frustration with Nicholas. She continued her selfinitiated tour as she climbed the stairs to the uppermost level of the house. Logic told her that Nicholas worked and slept in this part of his home. Only when she reached the landing and faced two closed oak doors did Hannah hesitate.

Youre obviously looking for something, Hannah. Care to tell me what it is? She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard his voice. Just as quickly, she squared her shoulders and glared at the intercom on the wall to the right of one of the heavy doors. He chuckled, the sound like a rumble of thunder and offthecharts sexy. Cat got your tongue? His humor annoyed her. Big time! Im just stretching my legs. Since youve come this far, you might as well take the final few steps. Use the door on your right, he instructed. Hannah turned the knob and pushed open the door, but she hesitated in the doorway. She spotted Nicholas, who appeared relaxed as he sat at his desk in a highbacked leather chair.

She scanned the rest of the room, taking in dense burgundycolored carpeting, mahogany paneled walls, several floor to ceiling bookcases, and an extensive array of office equipment. When she returned her curious gaze to his face, she thought he looked mildly amused by her behavior. Come on in, he invited. I gather you ran out of ways to entertain yourself and decided to explore. Hannah lifted her chin and shot him a defensive look. Stepping into the room, she waited for what she assumed was the inevitable chastisement for breaking his rules. And as she waited, she glanced beyond him and registered yet another sweeping, floor to ceiling expanse of tinted glass. This view, as was typical throughout the house, was breathtaking. Its safe to come all the way into my office. I dont keep untamed animals in here. Puma, Hannah absently corrected. Her attention remained snagged on the natural beauty beyond the window. She watched an eagle swoop down out of the sky and glide to a perch atop a snowcovered outcropping of rock less than a hundred yards from the house. Puma? As in the predator? She nodded as she slowly edged into the center of the room, her stockingcovered feet sinking into the plush carpet as she glanced at Nicholas. Clad in a heavy sweater of forest green, black jeans, and leather boots, and with his harshly carved features and collar length dark hair, he reflected the rugged northern Nevada image of a hot blooded male animal intent on capturing its prey. A shiver ran up her spine, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with fear. Her insides quivered, all of her senses lighting up like blazing neon in response to him. You remind me of a puma with all of its wariness and stealth. You have since that first night. He halfsmiled, but the slight upturn of the edges of his mouth failed to gentle his hard features. Should I be flattered or insulted? Thats entirely up to you. At first glance, Hannah had thought him to be relaxed. She realized he wasnt when she noticed his whiteknuckled grip on the pen in his hand. When he saw the focus of her gaze, Nicholas discarded the pen and flattened his hands atop the surface of his desk. Make yourself comfortable. Hannah glanced at the two chairs positioned in front of his desk. I am comfortable, she lied while insidious streamers of heat and desire unraveled within the confines of her body. She edged forward, but she didnt sit down.

If you say so. You know where Ive been. Again, not a question. A statement. Nicholas shrugged. Of course. I was lonely and on edge. Her frayed nerves made her blunt. Ive been busy, although I empathize with how restless you must feel. Its clear you arent accustomed to being inactive. If its any consolation, I dont react well to restrictions, either. And the weather hasnt exactly cooperated, has it? She smiled tentatively, relieved that he hadnt launched into more grilling about her life. She noticed the files stacked on the side of his desk. The work you mentioned? Nicholas nodded, his gaze dismissive as he flicked a glance at the thick files. I broke your rules. She sounded more unrepentant than usual, which made him chuckle. The sound, so soft, so sensual, lifted the fine hairs at the nape of her neck. She kept her gaze on his face. Youre forgiven. Why? she asked. Because I think youre on the verge of running into the woods and screaming yourself hoarse. I recognize cabin fever when I see it. The scenery, the house, its extraordinary and I love it, but I loathe feeling trapped. She moved closer. Pausing behind one of the chairs, she gripped the top edge with both hands. Im mildly claustrophobic. He frowned. Any problems when you were in the art vault? She shook her head, surprised by his obvious concern. Its a spacious area. Ill show you the control panel for the wall of windows on that level. My dealer in London urged me to avoid subjecting the artwork to sunlight, but its shaded on that side of the house in the late afternoon. She stared at him. Those paintings are originals? He shrugged. Seemed logical to buy the originals since I like them so much. Oh, she breathed. He smiled. Beautiful, arent they? Too tame a word. Magnificent seems better. Im glad you like them. I do. Very much. Hannah circled one of the chairs and settled into it. Look, Im sorry to bother you, but

but youre feeling anxious, he suggested. Forget anxious. Im a train wreck! Nicholas eased back in his chair. Hannah took the direct approach. I must know if youve tried to get a message to Sean, and if you really have any intention of helping me to find him. When he remained silent, she continued, no longer caring if she sounded reckless. Ive been here for five days. I didnt expect it to take this long to locate my brother. His eyes reminded Hannah of the steel in his personality as he studied her in the diffused midafternoon light. He exhaled, the air that gusted free of his body sounding like a signal that hed made a difficult decision. Im willing to talk to you about my friendship with Sean, but there are limits to what I can reveal. Startled, she asked, Why now? Why not five days ago, or two days ago? I think youre ready to listen. She bit back a sharp retort, a chastisement for his decision to delay this conversation. Talk, Nicholas. I met Sean eighteen years ago in London when I was on a mission. What I liked most about him was his ability to adapt to any environment. We had friends in common and worked in the same world, although Sean was fairly new to it. Anyway, he had a quiet but very competent manner about him that inspired trust. We parted on good terms. Although I respected him, I sensed his reluctance to form close friendships, which is surprising given the nature of the work we did. Warfare tends to foster blood bonds, especially when blood is shed in defense of a brother or sister in combat. Long retired memories surfaced in Hannahs mind. Sean was a courier for the State Department in those days wasnt he? Nicholass expression suddenly looked less open, although he nodded. At the time, he worked for State. We both traveled a lot, and we ran into each other about two years later in the Middle East. We were staying in the same hotel when the political situation exploded, and we wound up trapped incountry for several months. Sean saved my life and the lives of several other people when our safe house was targeted to be overrun by counterinsurgents. By the time we got out of the country, wed become friends. Hannah straightened in her chair. Youve left out some important details. He didnt even break stride. Sean and I teamed up, and several associates with similar backgrounds joined us.

You were mercenaries? She whispered the question, her body still, eyes wide. We did some troubleshooting for a variety of international oil companies and the odd collection of Third World regimes, most unstable, he conceded. Our reputation for getting the job done made its way to a few Western governments, and we accepted several commissions. From there, we intersected with representatives of our own government, and so began a series of black ops missions for an array of alphabet agencies. As youd expect, some of those agencies operate totally off the grid. A wideeyed Hannah could not have spoken even if shed wanted to. She did pick up on the care with which Nicholas chose his words. He named no one. He offered no clarity when it came to identifying agencies of the U.S. government, although she could guess at some of them. We worked all across the globe Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East more times than I care to count, and all points in between. You name a country mired in political strife or coping with rebel insurgencies, and we were there. When wed all finally had enough, we pledged our loyalty to each other, and we vowed to protect all of the members of the group in the same way that wed protected each other in the field. When Nicholas paused, Hannah saw the stress etched into his features and shadowing his eyes. She whispered, You told me before that Sean is alive. Did you lie to me? Of course, not! Then whats wrong? He frowned. Hannah She waved him to silence. Whats wrong? Listen, damn it! Ive said all I can. Im between a rock and a hard place. Just trust me, please. I really cant say anything more. Why not? Youre asking me to violate a vow I made. I cant. Hell, I wont do it, not even for you. Seans one of my closest friends, and I value both his friendship and our shared history. I also respect his privacy. Until Im absolutely certain that you pose no threat to him, I cannot and will not initiate messages, searches, or anything else. They stared at each other, locked in unspoken combat as they waged a war of wills replete with need and refusal, desperation and empathy. Several minutes ticked by. Still, neither spoke.

Hannah tried to read the emotions in his face, but all she saw was his stubborn determination to keep a vow. She sensed his distress went far deeper, however. She pressed her palms together, struggling to rein in her temper, her escalating anxiety over Sean, and her frustration with the entire situation. When the fax machine situated on a long narrow table behind his desk beeped suddenly, Hannah nearly leapt out of her chair. Nicholas scrubbed his face with his hands, and then raked long, narrow fingers through his hair in a universal gesture of male frustration. He muttered three words as he turned his chair to the table. About fucking time. Hannah, too disconcerted to say anything, simply sat in her chair and stared at him. Her thoughts drifted back to his comments about Sean. Something didnt add up, she realized, but it took her a moment to discern exactly what. Meantime, Nicholas retrieved several pages from the fax machine once it completed its transmission. She watched him scan four printed pages as he sank back in his chair. He slid the material hed just received, printed side down, onto his desk blotter, and then typed a brief message on his laptop keyboard. The email sent, he shut down the computer and returned his attention to Hannah. She spoke quietly. What youve told me coincides with the letters and postcards I used to receive from Sean, but I need more than a travelogue, Nicholas. Whether out of loyalty to him or out of some desire to stop me from finding my brother, youve skimmed the surface of his life. I dont appreciate your clouding the issue, nor do I care where hes been, or, for that matter, what hes done since he left home. I have no intention of judging or condemning Sean, so theres no need to protect him any longer. Its not necessary. It never has been. He pondered her for several silent minutes, then reached out and flicked a series of switches on the panel atop his desk. Two wall panels simultaneously slid out of sight to reveal a large, sensorstudded grid map of his property. The second expanse contained a collection of TV monitors, which scanned every room in the house, except the bathrooms, and the exterior grounds immediately around the dwelling. Nicholas then flipped another switch. First, she heard the sound of the radio shed left on in the kitchen at lunch time. The whistling sound of the wind followed as it buffeted the roofline of the house. She gaped at the exotic array of security devices and communications equipment housed in his office. When she finally dragged her gaze back to Nicholas, she said, Im in way over my head, arent I? On the surface, it probably appears that way. Theres no need to worry about your own personal safety.

But most people dont She groped for the right words. I mean, youve got enough equipment here to open your own electronics outlet. This is not just a simple case of protecting your privacy, is it? Exactly. And youre certain youre not being paranoid? Hannah couldnt wrap her mind around the idea that anyone could require such elaborate protection from the outside world. He smiled, but his attempt at a reassuring expression served to enhance the strained look on his face. I probably am a bit paranoid. Is Sean in danger? Threats exist, he conceded, but theyre manageable, as you can see. Are you Hannah paused, suddenly flustered. In the seconds that followed, she tried to come to terms with what Nicholas had just revealed, not just her realization that his survival and happiness meant everything to her. She made herself complete the question. Are you in danger, too? I have been. For heavens sake, why? she exclaimed. What kind of man are you? What exactly have you and Sean done to cause people to want to harm you? Nicholas exhaled, the harsh sound revealing the toll of too many years lived in a heightened state of selfprotective awareness. Leaning forward, he rested his forearms atop his desk and peered at Hannah with an intensity that assured her he was doing more than gathering his thoughts. He finally said, Were just men whove lived life by a different set of rules, rules that alter a mans values and make it hard for him to trust anyone. Do you trust yourself enough to know the difference? she couldnt help asking. I mean, you cant really believe that most people hold a grudge against you or want to kill you. Not most people, he agreed, although the last woman who wandered onto my property was a paid assassin. You must be kidding! I dont kid about death, Hannah. She heard resignation to a reality she could barely comprehend, not just the echo of loneliness in his voice that made her heart ache. What had Nicholasor Sean, for that matter done to become the target of even one act of violence, let alone the possibility of repeated attempts to kill them?

She nodded. I believe you. In that moment, Hannah stopped blaming Nicholas for his baffling behavior. She also ceased her resentment of his suspicious nature. She even forgave him his commandostyle raid on her van that first day. And she thanked God that he was still alive and that her brother possessed such a faithful friend and ally. Hannah? Yes? He straightened in his chair, as if steeling himself to withstand a crushing blow. What are you thinking right now? Im thinking my big brother is fortunate to have you for a friend. Dont look so shocked. She smiled, but her eyes remained troubled. Now, are you going to stop treating me like the enemy? I think of you in a variety of ways, but thats not one of them. He shoved the fax hed received across the blotter atop his desk. You have more staying power than any woman Ive ever known. Thank you, I think. She took the pages hed shoved in her direction, but she glanced at Nicholas before inspecting them. The enigmatic expression on his face concealed his emotions. However, she thought she saw a hint of worry in his eyes. Under his watchful gaze she scanned a copy of her drivers license, which topped the first page, then copies of her library card, school identification, and her court certified child advocate credentials. She paused, uneasiness sweeping over her. Her frown deepened as she skimmed what amounted to a summary of her thirty year life. She grew more and more disbelieving as she read the location and date of her birth, a Cassidy family bio that listed the names and current ages of her siblings, the name of the surgeon whod performed her tonsillectomy on her seventh birthday, her grade point average in college, and a note about her broken engagement to fellow teacher Len Hillman five years earlier. Her jaw sagged in disbelief when she read the details surrounding the parking ticket shed received less than three weeks earlier. How? Who? she managed in a strangled voice. The process isnt complicated, although it took longer than I expected. His negligent tone grated on her nerves. Who who sent this to you? she asked, her voice faint with shock. It doesnt matter, Hannah.

Of course, it matters. The FBI? The CIA? Tell me, damn it! Dont ask questions I cant answer. His level tone provoked instant fury. Appalled by the thoroughness of his investigation, she said, I dont know if I should smack you into next week or applaud your nerve. Youve invaded my privacy without any regard for how I might feel about it. Why didnt you just ask me about my life? I dont have any secrets. I had to know, but in my own way. And for the record, everyone has secrets. She fought for and found the strength to control her temper. Because of Sean? She waited for him to speak, to somehow justify his behavior, but he simply nodded. Youre not telling me everything, are you? Nicholas shrugged, leaned back, and closed his eyes. He rubbed his temples as Hannah studied him. Despite her anger, a frisson of compassion passed through her. She ached for him, but she refrained from indulging the urge to put her arms around him and offer him a taste of the compassion that was integral to her personality. You cannot go on like this, Nicholas. He refocused on her. Like what? You deserve to be a part of the world. And so does Sean. Your lives are starting to remind me of some selfimposed prison sentence. Youre wrong. Im comfortable here, and I value my privacy. Sean feels the same way. Im right, she shot back, and you know it, even if youre too stubborn and too paranoid to admit it. It may be beautiful here, but youve created a fortress, not a home. Hannah slapped the fourpage report onto his desk and surged to her feet. She paced the length of his office several times, glancing repeatedly at the wall map and TV monitors each time she passed them. She finally paused, gave Nicholas a searching look, and then approached him. You should be able to come and go as you please. You shouldnt need to worry about people who might want to hurt or kill you. You should feel secure in your own home without all of these exotic security devices. You never cease to amaze me. Why? Youre so fucking innocent! Wrong again! I am not innocent! She thought of the traumatized children she mothered and loved when she wasnt elbowdeep in first graders. But if Im innocent of your particular world, I think Im lucky, but it doesnt mean Im stupid, or nave, or that I should be treated

like some bubblehead who cant be trusted. Neither does it mean that Im blind to the fact that youre lonely. Nicholas went rigid with tension. Dont. Dont what? Dont be honest with you? Dont care about you? Dont feel sad that youre trapped by circumstances you seem unwilling or unable to change? Dont tell you that you deserve to be loved? My God, Nicholas, youre missing out on so much that life has to offer. Do not assume that you know what I need or want. You dont know a damn thing about me or the life Ive lived. I may be a loner, but Im not a fool. I dont think youre a fool she protested. I just think Stop thinking. Itll just get you into more trouble. She bristled. Quit telling me what to do, because I have no intention of following your orders. Being rude or condescending will not change the facts. Youre a guest in my home. His eyes looked glacial as he abandoned his chair, advanced on her, and then glared down at her. She glared right back at him, hands knotted into fists and parked on her hips, stubborn chin jutting forward, and green eyes flashing fire as she snapped, Guest or not, I have every right to my opinions. He grabbed her by the shoulders and jerked her forward. You do not have rights unless I grant them. Hannah pulled free, backing away from him. She stopped once shed put a chair between their bodies. Ill leave you to your solitary life the instant you tell me how to find Sean. No! But you said He didnt let her finish. I said nothing of the kind. You bastard! Youre just being perverse, she accused. Life is perverse. His voice matched the bleak expression on his face. Nicholas thought then about the man that Sean Cassidy had become, in particular his aversion to being around people. Any people. No exceptions. Post traumatic stress disorder. Sean suffered from one of the worst cases Nicholas had ever seen. His heart sank, because he grasped the shock and disappointment that Hannah faced if he even managed to arrange a meeting between the brother and sister. For his part, he felt torn between an old and time tested loyalty and his hunger for this fierce woman who defended the innocent and challenged him at every turn.

Did Hannah possess the strength and courage to accept Seans radical personality changes? Would she accept Seans altered reality, or would she become the avenging crusader and set out on a hopeless mission? Please help me find him, she whispered. You dont know him any longer. Hes changed in more ways than you can possibly imagine or understand. He hesitated. If he views you as a potential threat, he could None of that is important, she interrupted. I just need to speak to him, Nicholas. And I need to get back to work. He abruptly turned away from her and returned to his desk. Hannah swore, the word stark even by her hosts standards. She marched to the open door and stepped into the hallway. Hannah! he shouted. She reappeared in the doorway, glowering at him. What? Sean is alive and safe, and I intend for him to remain that way. She sighed. Please just ask him if hell see me for ten minutes. Thats all the time Ill need. Then Ill leave, and I wont ever bother you again. Nicholas hesitated. He finally nodded, aware that he owed her an attempt to orchestrate a meeting, not just for her sake, but for Seans as well. He watched Hannah disappear from sight. The prospect of never seeing her again brought to mind the darkest period in his life, a time during which the inhumanity of others had shriveled the hope in his heart and the constant threat of death had dominated the landscape of mind and soul. He shook himself free of the melancholy settling over him. He devoted several hours to repeated attempts to establish contact with Sean, sending coded noncrisis messages to each cabin on his property. He knew that all of the residents of the preserve would search for Sean and convey his desire for communication. He didnt bother to join Hannah in the kitchen for supper. He noted, courtesy of a concealed monitor, the disinterest she displayed for the meal shed prepared. He noticed, too, that she made a salad and a sandwich, covered both with plastic wrap, and left them in the refrigerator for him. Amazed that she felt inclined to be thoughtful of his needs despite her anger, Nicholas allowed himself the luxury of imagining what it would be like to be loved by Hannah. His emotions and his body responded instantly, eliminating his ability to concentrate on his writing as he awaited Seans radio call.

The radio sparked to life shortly after midnight, rousing Nicholas from a restless doze on the couch in his office. After securing his office door, he retrieved a radio headset and spoke briefly but firmly to his old friend. As he neared the end of their onesided conversation, he knew hed failed to persuade Sean to participate in a facetoface meeting with his sister. Not a huge surprise. Nicholas finally, and very reluctantly, agreed to arrange for Sean to see his sister, but only at a distance and without her knowledge. As he departed his office for the night, Nicholas silently cursed the emotional anguish that had become Sean Cassidys constant companion, the realities of his own life as gatekeeper to the privacy and protection of his small band of brothers and sisters, and the knowledge that Hannah would always remember Nicholas Benteen with regret and anger.

Nicholas found Hannah in the living room. Moonlight spilled across her nightgown clad body, spotlighting her as she sat huddled on the couch. With her head bowed, her shoulders slumped, and her arms looped around her upraised knees, her posture told an eloquent tale of dejection and isolation. He silently cursed himself when he heard the shuddering sigh that escaped her. She didnt stir as he approached her. Dropping to his knees before her, Nicholas took her hands and felt her chilled skin. He shared his warmth and patiently waited for her to respond to his presence. She finally raised her head and looked at him. He considered the dark shadows of fatigue beneath her eyes yet another indictment of the tactics hed used on her. I couldnt sleep. Did I wake you? she asked. I couldnt sleep, either, he admitted, too disturbed by her vulnerability and his desire for her to release her hands and put a safe distance between them. He felt his once iron control start to shatter and his emotional defenses begin to crumble with each moment that passed. Did you find the salad and sandwich I left in the refrigerator for you? He nodded, and then admitted, I wasnt hungry. I didnt mean to hurt your feelings earlier. Sometimes I speak before I think. His grip on her hands tightened. You didnt say anything I havent already said to myself, so quit worrying. He smiled. Your hands feel like ice. You need to take better care of yourself. You arent used to the climate.

Im not used to a lot of things, I guess. She freed one of her hands and pressed her palm to the side of his face. His smile faded as he searched her expressive features for some hint of her state of mind. Despite our differences, I care about you, Nicholas, and I really am sorry if I hurt you with what I said. He turned his face into her hand, kissed each fingertip, and then pressed his lips into the center of her palm. When she whispered his name, he died a little inside. She would leave soon, and he would never hear her speak his name in the throes of passion. You need to sleep. Youre exhausted. My bodys willing, but my brain refuses to shut down. Lifting her into his arms, he cradled her against his chest and carried her to her bedroom, his body as powerful and his footsteps as soundless as the predator shed compared him to earlier that day. Nicholas knew he needed to leave her alone the instant he lowered her to the bed, but he lingered, drawn to Hannah on so many levels that his hand shook as he turned on the lamp next to the bed. He sat down beside her, his muscles knotted with tension, his body enflamed by desire. His gaze swept over her, his hands closing into fists in order to keep from touching her again. Can we talk for a few minutes? She settled back against a mound of pillows. Nicholas watched the gentle sway of her breasts beneath the simple nightgown she wore. Of course. She took one of his hands, brought it to her lap, and tangled their fingers together in a loose clasp. Nicholas welcomed her gentle touch, even though his conscience urged him to stand up and walk away before he lost control of the situation. She skimmed her fingertips over the back of his hand, effectively heightening his arousal. His inner tension ratcheted higher and higher until he noticed that Hannah seemed distracted, as though something weighed heavily on her mind. He already felt responsible for the emotional roller coaster ride shed endured since arriving at his home. He remained at her side, finding the patience within himself not to rush her as she readied herself to speak. Youve probably noticed that I call home almost every day, she began. He nodded. He had noticed, although the conversations hed overheard had seemed benign enough.

Since I dont think youve listened in on my I havent, he broke in. Then you arent aware that my mother is very ill. She has a heart defect. The doctors are trying to get her strong enough for open heart surgery. Although she doesnt say much to anyone about Sean, shes afraid shell never see him again. Christ! You should have told me. Hannah nodded, her facial expression revealing her regret that she hadnt spoken sooner. But then, hed treated her as an adversary from the beginning, hadnt he? Hardly an inspiration for shared confidences. Youve been suspicious of my motives since the beginning. I thought youd feel I was trying to manipulate you if I told you the truth. I probably would have. I hate seeing the constant fear in her eyes, Nicholas. I came here because I dont want her to be worried or afraid any longer. I need Sean to come home for Moms sake. If she doesnt Hannah cleared her throat. . . . if the surgery fails, then this will be her last chance to see him. If Sean refused to speak to his sister, how in the world could he be persuaded to travel to St. Louis? That may not be possible, he cautioned. It has to be possible. It just has to be. Tears welled in her eyes. Damn it! I promised myself I wouldnt fall apart like this. He gave up the fight. Easing her into his arms, he held her with gentleness that seemed at odds with his physical strength and fierce nature as she wept. As she straddled his lap, Hannah wrapped her arms around him and turned her face into his neck, dampening his warm skin with her tears. He soothed and comforted her with near heartbreaking tenderness, and he couldnt produce even token resistance to the emotions clamoring within his own heart. Hannah finally lifted her head, eased back, and looked at him, her face pale and her cheeks wet. Nicholass control snapped, and he gave into countless years of emotional starvation. He claimed her mouth, his hunger for her exploding like a fireball in a long, searching kiss. He wanted to absorb her into his flesh, to lodge her permanently in his heart. He needed to feel her body writhing in passion beneath his own. And he craved that small death and then a glorious rebirth in her arms. He accepted, however, the limitations of nature and his own conscience as he devoured her mouth like the man that hed becomea man desperate

for tenderness, compassion, and love. With Hannah, he couldnt mask his desperation any longer. She gasped beneath his mouth, but she didnt pull away. Instead, she allowed him to delve past the barrier of her teeth and welcomed him into the sweet, hot depths and textures of her mouth. Circling his shoulders with her arms, she murmured indecipherable words as she angled her head to encourage even more intimate access. Although he ached to tuck her beneath him and bury himself in her heated silken flesh, Nicholas put the brakes on before he went spinning out of control. He forced himself to gentle his kiss. Slowly, regretfully, he released her lips and lifted his head. They stared at each other, both trembling, both stunned. Nicholas muttered an angerfilled curse. Im sorry. That shouldnt have happened. Still shaking with reaction, Hannah pressed her fingertips to her swollen lips. You dont want me? What man in his right mind wouldnt want you? Furywith himselfvibrated in every word. Theres only been one man in my life, but you know that from the report. He groaned her name, and he heard the supplicant in search of his own salvation in the sound. Im sorry, Nicholas. He saw what resembled guilt in her eyes. For what? For making this so awkward. For throwing myself at you like this. You havent, he said, and you didnt. Ground glass, she whispered. What? Your voice sounds like ground up glass when youre upset with me. Im not upset. He shifted, trying to relieve the throbbing of his hard shaft even though he sensed the futility of his effort. Hed been aroused for five and a half solid days, and he didnt expect his need of her to politely retreat. Im not upset with you, he repeated. You obviously dont want to be here right now. He stared in disbelief at her upturned face. Had he been so cruel to her that shed failed to grasp the impact she had on him? Hannah nervously shoved her hair back from her face. Im a mess. His hands shook as he smoothed them up and down her narrow back. The most beautiful mess Ive ever seen.

She laughed then, the sound faintly soggy from her tears. Ive never been one of those women who look good when shes crying. I just get all puffy and pale. Still perched in his lap, she twisted suddenly. Her breasts brushed across his chest as she reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand and blotted her wet cheeks. Nicholas bit back a groan. To his mind, she personified the ultimate sensual temptation even if she didnt seem to realize it. Hannah glanced at him. I really didnt mean to make you feel uncomfortable with all the waterworks. He chuckled at her choice of words. Uncomfortable didnt even begin to cover it. You havent got a clue about how you make me feel, Hannah Cassidy. I can guess. My sisters insist that I have an abrasive personality, and my brothers claim Im about as subtle as a ten car pileup on the freeway when I want something. Nice, huh? He gripped her upper arms, held her still when she tried to move, and settled her deeply into his lap, no longer attempting to conceal his arousal. You cant even begin to understand how I feel about you. Her eyes widened with surprise at his lack of subtlety, but she didnt try to shift away. She studied him then, her expression reflective. I think you find me annoying. At times, he agreed. She stuck out her tongue like a five year old. I also think you respect me. He nodded, a hint of gentle humor in his normally cool gaze. And you might even get to like me if we could stop doing battle over Sean. Amazed when she fell silent and simply looked at him, he shook his head in disbelief. Thats it? Theres more? she asked. You really arent very experienced, are you? His voice contained a raw hunger that blistered his veins with desire and sent hot blood surging into his already hard sex. Thats not the sort of thing a woman wants to apologize for. Hannah lifted her hand. She trailed her fingertips across his chin and then up the side of his face. He ground his back teeth together, trying to mute his reaction to her touch. Then, he saw her eyes widen fractionally, felt the tremor that shook her fingers, and experienced it right down to his soul when surprise and sensual recognition flushed her cheeks. He turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm. Talk to me. You do want me, she breathed. You neednt sound so shocked.

I just assumed Her voice trailed off. What did you assume? he prodded. I you youve avoided me whenever possible. You only speak to me when youre forced to. I thought What did you think? What was I supposed to think? she countered. Have you ever asked yourself why Ive tried to keep my distance? At first, I thought you disliked me. But then I realized that, even if you liked me, your loyalty to Sean well, I assumed your friendship with him kept you from treating me normally. She frowned. That sounded really lame, didnt it? Nicholas understood all too well what she thought. Hed wanted her to believe that his loyalty to Sean would prevent him from treating her like any other woman. And it should have. Little did Hannah know how much he wanted her as his woman, or how much he longed to steal a few moments out of time with her that were free of obligation and the haunting memories of his past. Perhaps Im not as honorable as youd like me to be, he remarked. Startled, she gripped his shoulders. Youre the most honorable man Ive ever met. Your opinion of me seems to be improving. Pay attention, Nicholas. It never needed to improve. She paused, frowned, and then gave him a look that sparkled with unadulterated challenge. Im attracted to you, and I care about you far more than any other man Ive ever known. What does or does not happen between us has nothing whatsoever to do with my big brother. Are we absolutely clear on that? Astounded by her bluntness, he knew hed never known a woman more honest or more willing to make herself vulnerable to rejection by a potential lover. He brought his hands up, encircled her with his arms, and drew her into the heat and hardness of his body. Her breasts plumped against his chest, her nipples stabbing like delicate daggers through the barrier of their clothing. Ive been trying not to take advantage of you, he managed through gritted teeth. Then stop trying right now. Making love isnt about taking advantage, not when both people care about each other and want it to happen. He held her close, emotions in chaos, his desire for her clamoring to be appeased. Sliding his hands down her back to her hips, he shifted her forward, allowing her to feel the extent of his need.

I trust you, she whispered as she met his steadily darkening gaze and undulated against him. I trust you more than Ive ever trusted anyone in my entire life. Why? His voice when he spoke sounded tattered. His hands shook as he shifted them up her body and closed them over her high, full breasts. He heard her moan, absorbed the shudder that rocked her slender frame. She wanted his touch, he realized as he watched her head fall back and her eyes close. Almost as much, it seemed, as he wanted, needed, to touch her. Youre a good man, Nicholas. No one, not even you, will ever persuade me otherwise. How can you possibly know what kind of man I am? He sounded aggressive, demanding. He knew the truth of what hed once been, even if she refused to see or accept it. Instinct. Youre stubborn, dictatorial, and temperamental, but you are not mean spirited or cruel. He began, You dont know I know enough. Youve got a conscience. Otherwise, you wouldnt be holding back with me even now. I am holding you. His fingers tightened over her breasts. She arched her back, delivering herself more fully into his hands even as a hint of rebelliousness blazed in her eyes. And are you going to stop? she challenged. How could he stop now? Would he ever be able to stop? he wondered as her nipples tightened even more beneath the light cotton of her nightgown. They stabbed into his palms, searing his flesh and his senses. All he could think about was taking them, one by one, into his mouth and suckling until he sent them both over a sensual cliff. The pulse throbbing in the hollow of Hannahs throat beckoned. Leaning down, Nicholas laved her skin with the tip of his tongue. When he lifted his head, he saw the flush in her cheeks. She smiled then, a slow womanly smile that eclipsed the brilliance of a sizzling summer sun. I never intended to take advantage of you. He withdrew his hands from her breasts and closed them into snug fists. Ive treated you like hell, youre obviously exhausted, and youre worried about Sean. Hannah pressed a fingertip against his lips to silence him. I want you. Why wont you believe me? He gave her a hard look. He wanted to believe her, more than he wanted air to breathe, but he feared hurting her if he lost himself, however briefly, in her heat and sensuality. And

he hated what it would do to her when he was forced to send her away, because he would send her back to her worldfor her sake. Nicholas froze as she brought her slender fingers to the buttons at the front of her nightgown. He watched her, the air in his lungs trapped and burning, the disbelief flooding his mind almost crippling, as she undid the buttons one by one. He lifted his gaze to her face, and he knew hed never before seen a look of such utter determination and love in a womans eyes. The sight shocked him, tantalized him, utterly seduced him. Hannah shrugged free of her nightgown, which flowed down past her shoulders and away from her body to settle in a cottony drift around her hips. Nicholas groaned her name, entranced by the beauty of her creamy skin, the fullness of her tightly peaked breasts, and the soft swell of her stomach. She was everything hed imagined she would be, and hed never seen anyone or anything more beautiful. She gripped his wrists and tried to return his hands to her breasts, but he used his superior strength to keep his closed fists a centimeter above her trembling flesh. Nicholas felt the heat emanating from her skin. His fingers ached. He ached. Then, he noticed the telltale signs of her nervousness, even though she tried to conceal them. Deep in his heart, he felt humbled by her willingness to risk her emotions, because he understood better than most the anxiety involved. But he also felt wary. Touch me, Nicholas. Diverse emotions played across her face as she stared up at him, making him feel like an intruder on her most private thoughts. I think Ive waited my whole life to feel your hands on me and to know what its like to have you inside me. His heart stuttered in his chest. Eyes riveted on her expressive features, he unclenched his fists, circled the undersides of her breasts with his fingertips, and stroked his thumbs back and forth across her distended nipples. She shuddered in response, and the barriers that had surrounded his heart for what seemed like an eternity turned to dust. Heat cascaded through him, scalding his veins. Pressure throbbed with near violence in his loins. Theres no future in this, he warned her in a low, gritfilled voice. I wont make promises I cant keep. I wont lie to you, Hannah. She trembled, but she didnt draw back from him. Theres always a future in caring and in sharing honest emotions. She gripped his shoulders, groaning when he encompassed her breasts with his hands and kneaded them. But Im not asking for promises. I just want you only you. Hed never known anyone like her. He owed her the truth. She knew so little of his life, past or present, and yet she still wanted him, wanted him with an honesty and openness that

bewildered him. Even more, she made him believe in the possibility of loving and being loved without motives or hidden agendas, a belief hed abandoned as a boy. Reaching for Nicholas, Hannah met his gaze and whispered, Let me love you, Nicholas. Thats all I want to do. She bathed his lower lip with the tip of her tongue, then captured and worried it with gentle teeth until he groaned. The sound resonated with defeat and hunger. Although curious about the former, she focused on his hunger. She tempted and she healed as she kissed him. Without separating their mouths, she tugged up the hem of his sweater, lightly scored the hard muscles of his belly with her fingernails, and then sank her fingers into the dense mat of black hair that covered his chest. She felt his shudder, and she gloried in her ability to arouse him. Hannah cried out in protest when Nicholas wrenched free of her several moments later. She knelt in the center of the bed, her hair a wild dark halo around her face, her breasts bared to his gaze. She made no attempt to conceal herself. If anything, she felt uncharacteristically brazen. She watched Nicholas discard his clothing, just as he watched her the entire time with an expression on his face that made her think of stone carvings. But she knew that stone was cold to the touch, just as she knew that Nicholas was a constant source of heat. Hannah shimmied free of her nightgown, tossed it aside, and then sank back across the center of the bed. She waited, her eyes never leaving his face as he towered over her. As his gaze repeatedly swept over her naked body, she felt as though hed waved a wand of flame across her skin. The desire she glimpsed in his eyes dispelled her nervousness and infused her with even more couragethe courage she needed thanks to her one failed experience as a lover. She consciously discarded all thoughts of Len Hillman and the feelings of inadequacy hed inspired in her. Nicholas was nothing like the selfish man whod bypassed her emotional needs in favor of his own hurried sexual satisfaction. She studied him then, taking in the unyielding contours of his muscleridged body. She let her gaze drift slowly downward from his broad shoulders to his haircovered chest and then on to his flat belly. Hannah shivered, her insides dissolving into thick, steaming currents of need as her attention was arrested by his sex, which jutted strong and proud from a dense nest of dark hair. When she took in his heavily muscled thighs, and she realized that he was more physically magnificent than any wild creature shed ever seen or imagined. Quite simply, he made her heart race.

She lifted her gaze back up to his face, and she opened her arms to him in welcome. He dropped down onto the bed and stretched out beside her. The mattress shifted beneath his weight. She felt the rippling tension in his body as he gathered her into his arms and rolled her onto her back. She absorbed his heat through hands pressed against his chest as he moved over her. Hannah held her breath for a long moment, the image of their bodies joined and moving as one dominating her thoughts and bringing a flush to her skin. Nicholas peered down at her, his face taut and dangerous looking, his slate colored eyes dark and intense. I cant seem to resist you. She smiled up at him, her expression infinitely tender as she smoothed her fingertips down the sides of his hardfeatured face. She sensed that he still doubted the wisdom of what they were about to do, but she refused to turn back now. She couldnt. Sean, she thought, would not judge her. If he did, she would make him understand that she was falling in love with the man who protected him. Im glad you cant resist us, Nicholas. I think I would die if you did. Tell me what you want, he urged as he braced his weight on his forearms, bracketed her head with his hands, and settled his narrow hips between her thighs. Startled by his question, Hannah looked at him for a long moment. She suddenly felt even more conscious of her lack of sexual sophistication. The pulse points in her body throbbed wildly. She saw by the look in his eyes that she could ask anything of him. A hot greedy rush enflamed her senses. She wanted to know every bit of him, share all of the experiences possible between a man and woman. I want everything and then I want more, but first I need your taste in my mouth. He exhaled a choppy gust of air. Youre going to be hell on wheels, arent you? Im yours. No rules. No games. No pretense. And very little experience. I just want us both to feel good about what we share, and I want to please you. You do please me. Christ, woman, if you pleased me anymore, I wouldnt survive the experience. She laughed, certain he lied more out of kindness than from any desire to make her feel foolish. But I havent done anything. Youre wrong. Youve done everything. Now, its my turn. He blocked out the light from the bedside lamp, took her lips, and nibbled at her until she felt like a delicacy created for his pleasure alone.

Her eyes fluttered closed as he took possession of her. Parting her lips, she moaned into his mouth as he deepened their kiss. He gave her his taste, and she savored it. He drenched her senses in his passionate intent with a taunting preview of all that they would eventually share until she felt overcome by endless waves of emotion that threatened to submerge her. Pleasure simmered in her veins. Her heart pounded so hard, she experienced a moment of fear. She clutched at his shoulders as Nicholas repeatedly delved past her lips and into the wet heat of her mouth. He teased her without mercy, scavenging her senses, staking his claim, and tantalizing her with peaks and valleys of sensation. He devastated her grasp on reality and sent her spinning into space. Then, he stole her breath, and he made her skin tingle. Hannah craved every sweep and thrust of his tongue, every skilled movement of his mobile lips, and then she craved even more of the same, but she knew she wasnt guilty of greed. She needed, and Nicholas alone inspired her need, just as he alone possessed the power to satisfy it. He drove his fingers into her thick hair, blunt fingertips kneading her scalp as he angled his mouth over hers and invaded her sweetness once more. She sucked at his deft tongue while her hands roved across his broad shoulders and down his back to his hips. She silently marveled over the strength and power of his body even as streamers of unfamiliar tension came to life within her own. With each thudding beat of her heart, her insides heated and expanded. Straining beneath Nicholas, Hannah struggled to get closer to him. She wanted to crawl into his heart and never leave. Sensing her escalating tension, he released her lips and shifted down her writhing body. He clasped her breasts with possessive hands, sucking and biting at first one beaded tip and then the other. Hannah groaned low in her throat, the pleasure he brought to her cascading endlessly over her like a series of starbursts in the night sky. She arched more fully into his mouth as he alternated from one taut nipple to the other with relentless, tormenting skill. She dug her fingers into his shoulders, too mindless from his stunning assault on her senses to realize that her nails marred his skin. Nicholas sipped and nipped at her until she nearly screamed out from the pleasure that seemed to ribbon through her body like a thousand glittering streamers. Nearly overwhelmed by feelings and emotions shed longed to experience but had never before known, Hannah surged up against him. Her body demanded what she didnt have the words or the strength to request.

He shifted down her torso, easily evading her attempts to bring him up and into her shaking body. He plucked at her nipples with startlingly clever fingers, stoking the flames of her desire even higher as his mouth traveled over her ribs and past her narrow waist. He sampled the quivering flesh of her firm belly with love bites, then soothed her flushed skin with hot, openmouthed kisses that scorched her soul. She felt tormented by the flashfires of sensation he left in his wake as he inched lower and lower. Nicholas shouldered her thighs apart, curved his hands beneath her hips, and lifted her to his mouth. Hannah cried out when he combed his fingertips through the black silk curls that concealed her sex, closed his mouth over the delicate flesh, and gently eased his finger into her swollen depths. She jerked up off the bed with a startled cry, her hips seeking more and the muscles in her slender body tensing. Heat bloomed brightly inside Hannah, only to mushroom outward in billowing, encompassing waves. Her body softened even as it wept its desire. Gasping for air, she stirred restlessly beneath his touch as he continued to torment her. She longed for the feel of Nicholas deep inside her, possessing her with his strength, loving her with his passion. He pressed a chain of stinging kisses down the length of one leg and then up the inside curve of the other. She groaned, too frantic for release to understand that the inarticulate sounds escaping her simply served to spur him on. Hannah began to feel nearly faint with anticipation. His breath flowed across her already sensitized skin like the heat from a blast furnace before he began to sip from her again. She trembled and quaked. Gasping little cries of disbelief and pleasure spilled past her lips. Nicholas gentled her with his mouth. Then, he reversed course, stoking the incinerating flames even higher, catapulting her into a state of mindless need. She tumbled back against the pillows, quivering as he explored her swollen wet flesh with a seemingly insatiable need. He slipped a second finger into her core, adding fuel to the fire already raging within her. A tumult of sensations swept over her as he coaxed her to the edge of a sensual abyss. He ravaged her emotions and destroyed her control. Hannah surrendered to Nicholas and to the feelings threatening her with devastation. She gasped his name as her body began to gather and tighten inward, but the inarticulate sounds she made seemed to tremor with fear. Nicholas realized an instant later that Hannah had never experienced a satisfying release with a lover. He silently cursed the carelessness of the man shed almost married, and then

thanked God that shed been reprieved from such a fate. He shifted up her body, his intent clear in the harsh contours of his face and in the straining muscles of his body. As she opened her eyes, he gathered her into his arms and surged into her tight wet heat. And then he went perfectly still, straining against his own need to plunge even more deeply into her. He was a big man, so he gave her the time she deserved to accustom herself to the intrusive intimacy of their joined bodies. He saw the glazed look in her eyes a heartbeat before he claimed her lips. He pumped into her, slowly, steadily. He handled her with exquisite care, hungry for his own release but mindful of Hannahs needs as he allowed her to find her rhythm and set their pace. The quickening sensations began again in her lower abdomen, spirally slowly outward to encompass her entire body. Despite her efforts to quicken her movements, he refused to allow her the haste she sought to achieve her quest for fulfillment. He wanted nothingnot even his own driving needto diminish the full impact of what she was about to experience for the first time. Hannah suddenly cried out in surprise. Nicholas drew out her climax with deliberately timed movements. She splintered beneath and around him, clinging to him, gasping his name as tears seeped from her eyes, and surging against him even as her tight channel quivered around his sex. His release threatened. And as her hot core milked his hard, pulsing length, he felt the pressure building at the base of his sex. He followed her into oblivion, the force of his own climax powerful as he repeatedly plunged into her and filled her with his seed. He nearly collapsed atop her when it finally eased. Stunned by Hannahs volatile passion, Nicholas held her close, shifted their bodies to one side, and listened to the sound of her ragged breathing and his own pounding heart. Eventually, he said, Its a damn good thing you didnt marry that selfish bastard. She opened her eyes and met his gaze. Youve never been loved properly, have you? Not until now. She burrowed closer, pressed a kiss to his collarbone, and sighed her contentment. He tipped up her chin and took in her tired, but contented smile. And I was right. About what? You are hell on wheels. She laughed, the sound soft, innocent, and seductive all at the same time. He rolled her onto her back and leaned over her.

Is that a complaint? she asked. God, no. Praise, then? He smiled down at her. Definitely praise. A few moments later, he savored the sound of her laughter when it turned into a moan of pleasure as he captured a swollen nipple between his lips and sucked at the puckering tip. Hannah arched beneath his mouth and hands as he began to reacquaint himself with every inch of her responsive body. He roused her passions and reawakened her senses repeatedly throughout the night. He terrorized her with tenderness, and then he rode her hard and fast, taking her to shattering sensual heights unlike anything shed ever imagined or experienced. He shocked her, as well, with his knowledge and skill as a lover each time he made her frantic with desire. He pleasured her until she screamed out her satisfaction and then fainted in his arms on the heels of one particularly stunning climax. But, most of all, Nicholas simply loved her, giving himself free rein to experience complete emotional and physical intimacy, something hed never done with a woman. And although he considered asking Hannah to share his life, he knew it was too much to expect of anyone.

Hannah rested her arms atop the flagstone ledge that circled the black marble whirlpool tub in the master bathroom. Gazing out the window that overlooked the valley below Nicholass home, she shifted lazily in the warm water and watched the snowflakes as they drifted down from the pale winter sky. Nicholas smiled when he heard Hannahs sigh of contentment, but he didnt open his eyes. She was relaxed and within reach, and that knowledge filled him with a sense of well being hed only dreamed of in the past. Chest deep in water as he reclined on a submerged bench that ran the length of the oversized tub, he couldnt recall a time in his entire adult life when hed felt more physically depleted or more sexually sated. Hannah turned away from the view and moved to the opposite side of the spacious tub a short while later. Warm water surged against her body, pummeling her as she paused to sample a piece of fruit and a small wedge of cheese from the platter Nicholas had left on the ledge. Next to the platter sat a bottle of champagne and two halffilled crystal goblets.

After selecting an apple slice and a piece of cheddar for Nicholas, she floated over to his side. She kissed his chin and then ordered, Open wide. She tucked the fruit and cheese into his mouth, and then lingered beside him as the water lapped at her shoulders. He opened his eyes, watching her as he chewed. Flushed and pink cheeked, Hannah reminded him of a rose in full bloom. He expressed with his gaze his appreciation for her thoughtful gesture. And he knew from her gentle answering smile that she understood his silent message. Before she could return to her underwater perch before the window, he drew her forward and arranged her atop his reclining body. He closed his arms around her, trapping her legs between his powerful thighs. She flowed against him like liquid satin, her full breasts nudging at his chest, her nipples tightening, and her hips undulating against his hardening sex thanks to the constant movement of the swirling water. Heat rushed into his bloodstream, and he savored every seductive inch of her naked body as he recalled the night theyd just shared. Nicholas clenched his jaws, resisting the need to lift her out of the water to suckle her breasts. He contented himself, instead, with the feel of them nudging suggestively into the dark hair that covered his chest. Glancing down at her, he saw that her smile had changed. She looked now as shed looked the night beforehungry for him and willing to share any experience he initiated. His muscles tensed, his body flooding with renewed desire, the kind of desire that would never be appeased for more than a few hours at a time. Im not sure I like what youre thinking right now, he warned, his voice unexpectedly low and lethalsounding as he stroked her narrow back. Hannah squirmed closer, and then she grinned. I feel absolutely decadent. Thats all? Hardly. I want you again. He chuckled, amazed and delighted by her frank words. This is a far cry from a classroom filled with first graders, isnt it? She playfully nipped at his stubble covered chin. What do you think? Im too numb to think. Youve worn me out, woman. She moved experimentally against him, trapping his thick sex between her thighs. She tantalized him with a slow rolling motion of her hips, which sent a burst of glittering heat into his bloodstream. Hannah breathed against his lips, You dont feel numb. In fact, you feel

He settled his hands on her hips, stilling her movement. Slow down. You need a break, even if youre not willing to admit it. Your bodys not accustomed to all of this activity. She groaned a protest. But it feels so good when youre inside me. Greedy, arent you? Only where youre concerned. She slipped her arms around his neck, relaxing against him. He came up out of the water and shifted into a seated position on the underwater ledge. He settled Hannah atop his thighs so that her hips and legs remained submerged. He held her still with his hands anchored at her waist, although she tried to inch closer for more intimate contact. Unable to resist her sensuality, he groaned out a curse, lifted her out of the water, and brought her breasts level with his mouth. He licked at her nipples like a predatory cat with long, tantalizing strokes of his tongue. Sometime later, he pressed an openmouthed kiss to the scented valley between her breasts. He lingered there as she clutched at his shoulders, his breath hot against her skin. Shifting his mouth to one of her breasts, he sucked the nipple deeply into his mouth and flicked his tongue back and forth across the distended tip until Hannah moaned and trembled beneath his hands. He then gave her other breast the same lingering attention. Hannah arched into his mouth, her body begging for more even as she closed her fingers around his throbbing sex. Nicholas ended his sensual torment of her just as abruptly as hed begun it. He ached with need, and he knew hed take her soon if he didnt restrain that need. She didnt relinquish her hold on him as he lowered her back down to a position astride his powerful thighs. I adore touching you. As if to demonstrate the validity of her remark, she clasped him more snugly and stroked his hard length until he thought he might burst. He finally muttered, Youre torturing me. I am? she purred. She slipped her fingertips down beyond the root of his sex and cupped his balls. He jerked beneath her fingers as she fondled him. Yes, you are. He sucked in enough air to feed his lungs before he tried to speak again. I thought we decided you arent quite ready for this yet. You decided. She groaned as he closed his hands over her breasts and rolled her nipples between his fingers. I seem to know your body better than you do.

She laughed. You certainly do, and I love it. She eased her hands free of his flesh and settled them on his shoulders. Im happy, although I still have a lot to learn. You dont mind, do you? He stared at her. She still shocked him with her seemingly boundless enthusiasm for everything. There are times when I think you view the world as some kind of enormous playground. She sank against him, looping her arms around his neck. Not really. Its just that theres sadness any place you might want to look, so when you have a chance to experience the good in people, my personal policy is to welcome the more positive emotions that come along for the ride. It all boils down to having a positive attitude. Im not Mary Sunshine, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I do look for the good in everyone. I also give them a chance to be their best, and I try to cope with my disappointment when theyre not. Nicholas sobered, thoughts of his past intruding on the serenity hed found with her. Ive seen people at their worst. The world can be an ugly place, Hannah. He exhaled. The sound, ripe with frustration, was harsh enough to make her frown. She bracketed his face with her hands and studied him, her gaze moving slowly over his thick damp hair, high forehead, dark brows, and eyelashes now spiked from the sweat dripping down his face. Whats really wrong? Nothing. Everything. Take your pick. He shifted her to the bench and surged to his feet, his mood altered by realities he couldnt ignore any longer. Water cascaded down his tense, hairroughened body. Hannah stood, too. She tried to slide her arms around his waist, but he sidestepped her and reached for a towel from a stack on the tubs ledge. Shoving a towel into her hands, he climbed out, dried himself, and shrugged into a heavy terry cloth robe. A puzzled Hannah followed him. She patted her body dry, encompassed her wet hair with a second towel, and accepted the robe he offered her. She belted it before she rolled up the toolong sleeves. Tugging up the hem of the garment so she wouldnt trip over it, she trailed after Nicholas. She joined him on the couch situated before the fireplace of his bedroom. When he remained broodingly silent, she speculated, Theres something you need to tell me, but youre not sure how Im going to react. Settling back against the armrest, she lifted her feet, wrapped her arms around her updrawn legs, and rested her chin on her knees. Then she watched him as she waited for him to speak.

He glanced at her before shifting his gaze to the flames that danced across the logs in the fireplace. Its obvious that somethings troubling you, Nicholas. Why dont you tell me what it is? Once the snow stops, Ive decided to show you where Seans been living. Thats wonderful! she exclaimed. Nicholas shook his head, his gaze still fixed on the flames leaping up from the logs. He didnt want to see the excitement or anticipation lighting up her eyes right now. Not necessarily, Hannah. I doubt hell even be there. Sean has trouble staying in one place for very long. When he gets restless, he wanders. I often dont see him for weeks, sometimes even for months, at a time. But he might be there, she pointed out. So its a place to start. He sighed. We need to start somewhere else. I dont understand. Her smile faded. I know you dont. She hesitated, as if sensing the need to proceed with great care as she studied his hard profile. Its become apparent that your lives are linked by many shared experiences, not simply friendship. And its also obvious that some of those experiences were extremely difficult, perhaps even traumatic. Nicholas reluctantly nodded. Then why dont you start at the beginning? she encouraged, the patience and compassion shed acquired in her work with abused children guiding her now. He finally looked at Hannah. The stark emptiness in his eyes chilled her heart, but she cared too deeply about his emotional wellbeing and loved him too much now to ever abandon him. Whatever his personal burdens, she intended to share themall of them. You make it sound easy. Thats not my intention, Nicholas, but you have to admit that Im operating at a slight disadvantage here. So, the best thing I can do for you right now is to listen. She watched him thrust the fingers of his right hand through his stilldamp hair. A stray lock escaped and fell back across his forehead. Hannah quelled the urge to reach out and smooth it out of the way, just as she forced herself to smother the urge to put arms around Nicholas and hold him. I told you before that Ive worked all across the globe. My parents died when I was a kid, and I wound up spending my teenage years on my uncles ranch in northeastern California. I was bitter and angry in those days. There wasnt any money for college, so when

I graduated from high school I joined the Army. My superiors spotted me for exactly what I wasa cocky loner with a chip on his shoulder who knew his way around weapons. I received specialized training. For the next few years, I served in a variety of hot spots around the world. Which translated into no home and no emotional bonds, Hannah realized. My missions were clandestine, and I ceased to exist in an official sense as far as the regular Army was concerned. My actions, and the actions of people like me, had to be deniable from both a military and diplomatic standpoint. You must have felt very isolated. A frisson of uneasiness worked its way up her spine. He shook his head. Not at first. What I really felt was invincible, and I didnt take the time to consider that there might eventually be a price to pay for what I was doing. I even managed to con myself into believing that I was operating for some greater good. All I concerned myself with was my ability to slip into any country in the world, do my job, and then exfiltrate without being caught. And what was your job? She feared his answer, because she believed she already knew what his response would be. Her gaze dropped to his hand, which had closed into a white knuckled fist. He shot an angry look in her direction. Do I really have to spell it out for you, Hannah? Do I need to say that I was a governmentsanctioned assassin? She winced and then exhaled softly, but she didnt speak. She felt as though hed just smacked her, and she lacked the words to express the despair she suddenly felt for him. And, no, he hadnt needed to tell her. Shed known the truth on an instinctive level, although she hadnt wanted to admit it, not even to herself. I was very good, one of the best. Once a target was designated, I went in and eliminated that target. I told myself it was nothing personal, just a job my government needed done. I left my emotions and my morals, if I ever had any, on a shelf in my locker. It didnt take me long to figure out how underpaid I was or how much more lucrative freelancing would be. So I left the Army and government service, knocked around Europe for about six months before I moved on to the Middle East, Africa, and Central America. Theres an international underground of people like me, so it didnt take me long to work my way into the system. These people dont hand out business cards, but they do congregate wherever theres political instability or the possibility of warfare. When he paused, Hannah said quietly, If this is too painful for you, its not necessary to

You need to understand, he cut in. For Seans sake, and for your own. She nodded. Alright. I also did odd jobs for covert government agencies that most lawabiding citizens dont even know exist. Theyd used my particular skills when I was still in the Army, so they knew what I could handle out in the field. Soon after, I graduated into guerilla warfare in a collection of hellholes, primarily in the Middle East, places I never want to see again. You already know Ive accepted contracts from international companies that are inclined to employ hired guns when they cant get what they want through diplomatic channels. I got the job done. So you became what people call a soldier of fortune? He barked out a harsh laugh. Nothing so euphemistic or romantic, so do us both a favor and get that notion right out of your head. I was a mercenary when I freelanceda killer for hire, Hannah. I helped to topple governments across the globe, some legitimate and some not so legitimate. I took out dictators, brokered arms, trained rebel insurgents, and I cleared the way for the commercial business interests of drug cartels and other upstanding citizens, but only for very high fees some would say, exorbitant fees. All of those greedy, selfmotivated assholes made me a very rich man, but I soon discovered that all of the money Id stacked up in a Swiss bank account didnt mean a whole hell of a lot while I was rotting in a terrorist stronghold in the Middle East. Nicholas she began, her heart breaking for him. Let me finish this. I thought a lot about my life and how little value it had when I was in that cell. Several months passed. The men captured with me were executed, one after the other. They were saving me for lasta beheading that would be shown live on an international broadcast of Al Jazeera Television. Sean and some of our friends rescued me. I should have walked away from the life then, but I didnt. Vengeance drove me. I was determined to find the men whod betrayed me. I lived for revenge, and I didnt let anyone get in my way. It took a few years, but I finally tracked them all down and executed them. Hannah remained frozen on the couch as he stood and approached the fireplace. Resting an elbow on the oak mantle, Nicholas stared at the fire. She felt helpless as she waited for him to continue. When I looked into the faces of those men, I saw my own reflection I saw the man Id become. He finally turned and looked at her, his features ravaged by regret. I loathed what I saw, Hannah. I walked away then, but I knew Id waited too long. People like me dont fit

into the world as you know it. Our defenses are too wellhoned. We arent capable of trusting people, so we never really relax. When did it all end? she asked quietly. She hated the loneliness hed endured, and she felt deep compassion for the mistakes hed made. She realized how easily he could have died on some lonely battlefield, at some remote jungle outpost, or in some hellhole terrorist encampment. But hed found the strength and courage to turn away from the life hed once lived, although he seemed unable to give himself credit for making that lifechanging decision. Hannah felt unbearably sad, as well as a strange kind of emotional fatigue that comes with trying to cope with facts almost too shocking to grasp in one sitting. Five years ago. It took a lot of time and planning, but the short version is that we dropped out of sight one by one and came here. Are you telling me Sean lied to us, that he wasnt a courier for the State Department? That he lived the life youve just described? Sean started with State, but he worked only briefly as a courier before transitioning into diplomatic security for a few years. But who did he end up working for? she asked. He met her gaze. Sean and I teamed up. He was my second in command. What did he do? He did what we all did, Hannah. He tried to stay alive in every hot spot we were in, but he suffered in ways most people cant even begin to understand. You said he isnt comfortable around people any longer? Is that why he never came home again? Does he think he poses a danger to us or to himself if he leaves here? Sean is the most fragile of our group. Souldeep pain emanated from his voice. A few of the men are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, but Seans case is the most advanced and emotionally precarious. One too many battles, and far too many deaths. He cant forget what he saw or what he did. Hes lost in the past, and I dont know if hell ever find his way back to the present. Why havent I seen Sean or the others since Ive been here? My holdings are extensive. I own tens of thousands of acres. We dont crowd each other, and we avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Several have become highpowered financial investors, and some have started businesses, but all very lowkey and with highlytrained security personnel. Hannah watched him as he searched for the right words.

We prefer our privacy. Most of us dont trust ourselves not to react instinctively when were threatened, and the results could be deadly. Until you mentioned that people in town thought theyd spotted Sean, I didnt even realize hed wandered off my property. You watch over all of them, dont you? He nodded. We consider ourselves a family. I led our missions. A mercenary never completely gets out of the business. You make too many enemies along the way and the possibility of retribution is very real, but so far weve managed to neutralize the attacks that have been mounted against us. He shrugged tiredly, as if to indicate that this was the routine of his life and hed accepted the leadership role without hesitation. Hannah felt almost overwhelmed by the fact that hed flirted with death on a daily basis, but she now understood all of the reasons for his suspicion of her motives and his insistence on such extensive security precautions. We still make the people we once worked for, especially the ones who havent yet decided if it would be wise to try to take us out, very uneasy. Safeguards and a certain amount of paranoia offset the potential threats. Hannah said quietly, You all live in a selfimposed state of exile. Ive already explained that. Were protected here. Even more important, people are protected from us, from what were capable of doing if were pushed too hard. Hannah finally found the strength to get up from the couch. She longed to walk straight into his arms and ease his obvious distress. Instead, she crossed the room and paused before a wall of windows that offered a view of towering mountain peaks. She stood there for a very long time, her arms wrapped around her waist. Although she felt the press of his gaze as Nicholas watched her, Hannah took the time she needed to gather her thoughts and to confront her conflicted emotions. She needed to make him understand that she cared too much about him to ever judge him, especially since he was his own harshest judge. What she wondered and worried over as she prepared herself to face him was whether or not he would ever find a way to forgive himself. If he didnt, he would never be whole again. She turned as Nicholas finished adding logs to the fireplace. He glanced at her as she approached him. The anxiety she glimpsed in his eyes nearly shattered the control shed struggled for and found. Why in hell are you still here? he demanded as she paused before him.

She flinched, jarred by his hostile tone. Stiffening her spine, Hannah uttered the first words that popped into her head. I love you, Nicholas, even though youre about to try and run me off. Dont do this, God damn it! he shouted. Dont love you? she repeated in a tone of voice that was far steadier than she actually felt at that moment. Dont feel sad that you barely survived a living hell? Dont despair that you may never be able to trust yourself, or me, or the feelings I have for you? Dont what, Nicholas? Dont have any compassion? Dont be honest? Dont speak the truth? He seized her upper arms. Dont lie to yourself, he ordered, and dont lie to me. You cannot love a man who was a trained killer. No one can. What you think you feel isnt rational. Youre wrong about yourself, and youre wrong about me. Ill feel any damn thing I want to feel, without your permission and without your approval, thank you very much. Im nothing more than a novelty, like some strange animal youd find in the zoo. Youre fascinated now, but youll feel nothing but contempt and revulsion for me once youve had a chance to think about what I am and what Ive done. Dont you lie to yourself, Nicholas, she flared, her temper emerging. And dont you dare to tell me what Im feeling now, or what Ill feel next month or next year or fifty years from now. Youre a man who lives with realities most people cant even begin to comprehend and with restrictions that are necessary to ensure your survival and the survival of those whom you care about, but you are not some caged animal. You are not the monster you make yourself out to be. Hannah paused, searching his hardfeatured face, desperate to know if anything shed just said had penetrated the veneer of his selfprotection. Yes, Nicholas, I feel sad. Yes, my heart aches for you, but Im proud of you, proud that you saved yourself and the others. If you hadnt, youd be dead by now, and that would have been a colossal waste. You made the right decision when you abandoned the cruelty and violence of the life you once lived, but you screwed up along the way because you persist in exacting some insane daily ration of penance from yourself for past transgressions. Youve cut yourself off from life and from your emotions. I cant forget the faces, he admitted, his voice raw with the kind of pain she doubted hed ever completely escape. I cant forget what Ive done. Then dont try to forget, but dont make those people out to be saints, either. She seized the lapels of his robe when he began to turn away from her. Listen to me, please. No

one, not even God, would punish you in the way that youre punishing yourself. Of course you have memories that still hurt you, but your gift is that youre still alive. Youve given yourself a second chance to become a better man, a man who places value on the right things, but if you keep hammering at yourself this way, whats the point of having rescued yourself and the others in the first place? Wake the fuck up, Hannah. This is the real world. She ignored his snarling sarcasm, and she gripped the front of his robe even more tightly. I know about the real world. I know about children so damaged, they cringe at the thought of ever being touched again. Can you imagine never being hugged or having your hand held? Those children fear love, and they fear compassion, because love and fear can be used against them by the wrong people. But those same children must learn to receive love. They need it more than anyone. The children who survive are the ones who make the effort to trust and risk reaching out again, just as youve made the effort to restore yourself by walking away from a lifestyle that was on the verge of robbing you of your soul. What happened to you would have destroyed a lesser man, but you stopped it in time, Nicholas. Dont compare me to an innocent child. I knew exactly what I was doing and what I became. But youve suffered in much the same way as those children. He stared at her. His features looked as though theyd been etched in stone, but his eyes reflected both shock and a flicker of hope that she spoke the truth. Hannah slipped her hands around his neck. Tugging his head down, she whispered, Youre spending way too much energy right now trying to shut me out. You seem to view yourself as some kind of killing machine, but I dont see you that way at all. When I look at you, I see courage and strength and honor. I also see the toll your past has taken on you, but I also see that others depend upon you and trust you with their lives. Its clear that youve shouldered the burden of protecting Sean and the others because youre committed to their survival. That requires integrity. Youre living honorably now, and youre doing what is morally correct, not just for the others but also for yourself. Nicholas, you are making amends for your past. Why wont you give yourself credit for that? I dont deserve credit. I dont deserve anything but your contempt. Damn it to hell! she exclaimed. Youre an imperfect man, but you still deserve to live your life, not merely exist in some void of selfimprisonment. Someday, I hope youll see your own value. And someday, I hope youll believe that youre worthy of being cared about and

loved for the man youve become, not the misguided person you once were. Until that day arrives, youll only be going through the motions of life. How can you care? he demanded, seemingly baffled and angered at the same time by her stubbornness. How can you defend me, Hannah? How? Ive met evil, Nicholas, and I know what it looks like. You do not qualify. Her voice held a certitude that brooked no challenge. Cant you just accept that I do care about you? she asked. Wont you at least try to accept the fact that I consider you worthy of my friendship and my affection? Wont you try to build on that with me? I do not understand you. She smiled up at him. She sensed that shed finally penetrated the wall hed built around himself, and she prayed that shed have more time to whittle away at his defenses. Somehow, someway, she vowed, she would make Nicholas see himself as she saw him. I dont understand why you arent furious with me that I took you into my bed before I told you all of this. Ill help you to understand, if youll give me the time, she promised him, but please stop trying to drive me away. Let me be your friend and your lover, even if you cant let yourself love me. I promise I wont ever ask any more of you than youre willing to give. Not ever, Nicholas. He planted a hot, heartstopping kiss on her lips. A better man would send you packing, but I want you. His arms closed like steel bands around her slender body. He drew her close and buried his face in the curve that joined her neck and shoulder. Then have me, Nicholas, she invited. Have all of me. She silently vowed to love him until he believed himself worthy of being loved. And then she would continue to love him until she drew her last breath. He drew her up and into his arms, and he carried her to his bed. Sprawled on her back, she opened her robe and shoved it aside before she unfastened the sash on his. She trailed her fingers from his chin to his groin, and then she smiled when she heard the moan that escaped him as he sank down over her. His hands trembled as he clasped her head and met her gaze. I need you, Hannah. I need you so much more than you will ever know. She stroked the side of his face with her fingertips. Turning his head, he sucked her fingers into his mouth and sent an opening salvo of sensation spiraling through her body.

And I need you as much as you need me, Hannah confessed as he scalded her skin with his body heat, claimed her mouth with heady, hungry kisses, and then entered her with incredible gentleness for a man of his size. I will always need you, just as I will always love you, Hannah silently promised a long while later as Nicholas drove her beyond the brink and into yet another stunning climax.

An experienced pilot, Nicholas skillfully landed his helicopter the following morning in a small, snowcovered clearing adjacent to one of several primitive log cabins that Sean often used for shelter. The prearranged and very remote location suited both men, primarily because the area was accessible only by air or on foot. Nicholas had permitted the old logging trails that crisscrossed his property to become overgrown with vegetation as a means of discouraging the use of offroad vehicles by tourists or other curiosity seekers. He knew that Sean, like a few of the other men who resided on his land and personified the definition of true survivalists, required the serenity of the isolated terrain for the peace of mind it offered. Defensive and unpredictable in the presence of strangers, Sean now viewed the socalled civilized world as a threat on a variety of levels. As well, he perceived himself as a deadly threat to ordinary people. Nicholas knew that the simple act of prowling the land for days and weeks at a time had evolved into a form of psychological therapy for him, a process hed once rejected while still hospitalized despite repeated urging from Nicholas. As he checked the cockpit controls and released his seatbelt and shoulder harness, Nicholas recalled how desperate hed felt several years earlier while trying to deal with Seans wildly fluctuating moods and lethal behavior. Each medical facility Nicholas had taken him to had drugged Sean into a mindnumbed state. Infuriated by the callous treatment of his old friend, hed finally decided to transport Sean to his northern Nevada refuge and allow him free rein. Much to the collective relief of his fellow exmercenaries, Sean had found in the towering pines, unforgiving terrain, and jutting mountain peaks what the doctors and psychiatrists had failed to providea sense of belonging and the means by which to cope with the selfhatred that often filled his heart when he remembered the acts of violence hed committed against others.

Although Sean rarely articulated his feelings, Nicholas knew that he now experienced at least limited relief from the demons that tormented him and memories of the torture hed endured at the hands of others. Like Nicholas, hed also been imprisoned during his years as a mercenary. The grotesque conditions of a Central American prison and the torture hed barely survived had damaged his soul and broken his spirit before Nicholas had successfully rescued him. But unlike Nicholas, Sean Cassidys mind still remained a captive of the past. No one among his friends expected him to regain the ground hed lost as a person, least of all Nicholas, but they were all dedicated to his daytoday survival until God or the natural environment relieved him of the burdens he carried. Nicholas exhaled quietly before he removed and set aside his headset. He glanced at Hannah, who responded to him with a wide smile. Seeing the optimism and hope in her bright green eyes and animated face gave him pause and filled him with guilt. Ignorant of his reluctant agreement with Sean, Hannah was destined for disappointment if she expected to see her brother again. Taking her glovecovered hand, he squeezed it before exiting the helicopter and walking around to her side of the aircraft. He lifted her out of the helicopter, steadying her when she lost her footing on a patch of snowdusted ice. Hannah looked eagerly in the direction of the cabin, but she frowned just a few seconds later. Nicholas knew shed finally registered the absence of signs of habitation in and around the cabin. Theres no smoke coming out of the chimney. She shivered as a gust of cold wind buffeted her body, adding color to her cheeks. Nicholas nodded, his expression grim. I noticed. She turned, extricating herself from his steadying hand. May I go inside? Of course. There arent any locks on the door, so you wont need a key. Take your time. The weathers on our side today. Her attention fixed on her destination, Hannah carefully made her way through the low drifts of snow that stretched across the clearing to the front of the log cabin. She pushed open the door, pausing once she stepped inside. The starkly impersonal quality of the interior of the oneroom dwelling surprised her. She eased the door shut behind her, then leaned back against it. Her gaze slowly traveled over log walls, curtainless windows, planked flooring, a rudimentary kitchen with a water pump, a table and two wooden chairs, and a narrow bed

topped with a stack of neatly folded blankets. She tried to picture Sean in such a barren environment, but she had trouble summoning the image. Noticing a stack of wellthumbed paperback books, she sighed with relief because she recalled his love of books. A cupboard without doors displayed countless jars of homemade jams and vegetables, prompting her to wonder if both Sean and Nicholas enjoyed the friendship of the same creative cook. Hannah ventured deeper into the room, absently fingering the sealed envelope tucked inside her jacket pocket. She paused behind one of the chairs, studying the native stone fireplace that dominated one wall of the modest cabin. The workmanship seemed vaguely familiar, although she couldnt have said why. Despite the logs, bits of kindling, and crumpled newspaper that filled an old woven basket positioned on the hearth, Hannah detected no scent of a recent fire. She pivoted full circle, searching out some hint of Seans presence. In the end, she found nothing beyond the stack of old books. Sadness bloomed within her. Her throat ached and her eyes began to sting with the threat of tears. Shoulders slumping, she accepted the fact that the brother she remembered, the young man whod laughed easily, played football like a pro, and teased his younger sisters without mercy, had indeed become the man Nicholas had described. A man she no longer knew. A man she might never know again. Hannah tugged the sealed letter Nicholas had encouraged her to write that morning from her pocket. She placed it beside the lantern that sat in the center of the wooden table. Smoothing her fingertips across the front where shed written Seans name, she whispered, Please stay safe, big brother. I love you. Nicholas caught Hannah as she burst out of the cabin. He saw her grief in the tears that trailed down her cheeks. He held her through her brief struggle to free herself, a subsequent woundedsounding cry of anguish, and the sudden slump of her body against his own. While she wept, he silently cursed both himself and Sean. Although he tried to comfort her, he felt a sense of helplessness that hed never before experienced. She finally eased out of his embrace, wiped her cheeks with the backs of her hands, and headed in the direction of the helicopter without saying a single word. Nicholas followed her, alarmed by the depth of her despair and her silence. He caught her easily, sliding his hands around her waist and tugging her back against his powerful body. They stood in the center of the clearing, and this time she didnt fight him. Instead, she rested the back of her head against his shoulder and exhaled shakily.

Why did this have to happen to him? she asked so softly that the wind nearly obliterated the sound of her voice. Why? Nicholas doubted that she really expected an answer, so he didnt try to provide one. He simply held her, aware that Sean watched them from the stand of trees at the edge of the clearing. They stood there for a long while, neither one moving, neither one speaking until the wind picked up and the cold drove them back into the helicopter. Hannah finally met his gaze as he leaned toward her from his side of the cockpit and made certain her seatbelt was secured correctly. Im so cold, she whispered. Please make me warm again, Nicholas. He paled before jerking a nod in her direction and starting the engine of the aircraft. The weather cooperated by remaining crisp and clear as they returned to the landing site hollowed out of the side of the mountain he called home. Nicholas lifted her out of the helicopter and carried her down the steep trail that led to the house. After helping Hannah out of her heavy jacket, boots, and gloves once they entered the kitchen, he cared for her as a parent would a small, defenseless child. He guided her into the nearest chair, made a quick trip to the bar, and returned with two brandyfilled snifters. Tell me exactly what you need, Hannah. He settled into the chair across from her as he spoke. She lifted bleak eyes to his face. You. I need you, Nicholas. Just you. What can I do? he asked. Youre here. Thats what I need right now, because I wouldnt be able to deal with this without you. She took a sip of the brandy before she lowered the snifter to the table with shaking hands. Finally, she asked, Isnt he lonely? He spoke without thinking. Were all lonely, but its different for each one of us. As for Sean, he needs the silence and the open spaces in order to survive. But who would help him if he became ill or was injured? Would you even find him in time if he had an accident? We all look out for each other, Hannah. The systems been tested many times, and it works. Trust me on that, please. I do trust you. You know I do, but my heart breaks for Sean, and Im so worried about him. He reached across the table and clasped her hands. Try to see this place through the eyes of a man whos been surrounded by death and destruction, some of which he has

personally caused. Try to visualize a man so consumed by his guilt that he feels like hes being driven insane by it. Then, try to understand that this land has become a retreat for him, a safe haven that allows him to vent his rage and frustration with himself and with the world he was a part of for far too many years. But hes so alone, she insisted, still fixed on the isolation. Youre all so alone. That may be true, but there are ways to deal with the loneliness and isolation. Almost everyone here has found a way to carve out a new life and new identity, he explained, his thoughts on the salvation hed found in his writing and in her arms. Without his writing, he would never have discovered an outlet in which he could express his conflicted emotions. And without her, he would never have unearthed his capacity to love again. The others youve mentioned. Are they happy living this way? Nicholas nodded. For the most part, although not everyone appreciates the spartan lifestyle that Seans chosen for himself. Several of the homes weve built here are very similar to mine. Others are far more spectacular. He paused, and then said, And Sean is welcome in every one of them whenever he chooses to visit an old friend. It doesnt happen often, but each residence has a separate cabin designed to meet his needs. Youve all gone to a great deal of effort for him. Whatever he wants or needs, he receives, Hannah. And does everyone fly a helicopter? she asked, her natural curiosity diminishing at least some of the anguish that still shadowed her eyes. He shrugged. Most of us do. Its a simple matter of convenience when you live in such a remote area. Besides, I own tens of thousands of acres, and backpacking out on foot during the winter months through twenty or thirty foot high snowdrifts can be dangerous, especially for the women in our group. She blinked in surprise. Women? I didnt realize that you had women living here. Were not monks. He laughed when he saw the expression on her face, an expression that he rather liked because it smacked of jealousy. And he wanted to believe that, under different circumstances, Hannah would feel compelled to exercise her territorial rights where he was concerned if put to the test or challenged by another woman. Theyre friends. Good friends. Women mercenaries? she said in disbelief. He nodded. Rather a foreign concept in your world, I would imagine.

Her gaze narrowed, her curiosity obviously piqued. Tell me about the person who makes the jams and cans the vegetables. Geneva Talmadge. He grinned suddenly. Whats so damn funny? Genevas a demo specialist. Her late father was an engineer, and he trained her. She was even better at demolition work than Patrick. She looks like an angel, has the body of a centerfold, and shes as tough as steel. Hannah made a huffing sound, and then observed, She certainly doesnt sound wounded. Nicholas sobered. Ive known her since she was a teenager. Geneva worked for me for several years. Shes had a price on her head for years a seven figure price for anyone who takes her out. Shes hearing impaired, so shes doubly vulnerable to her enemies in the hearing world. She claims she spends time in the kitchen as a form of therapy, but I think she just enjoys the process of creating something, rather than the act of destruction. Given the volume of the stuff she produces, its no wonder shes on the verge of opening a shop in town. And if its as successful as I suspect it will be, shell probably wind up with a chain of stores. Im also her business manager, and Ive been pushing her in that direction for the last year or so. Business manager? He grinned, loving her scowl. And friend. Dont forget exboss and protector, she reminded him. Nicholas shrugged. As sexist as this will probably sound, I had no idea that women mercenaries even existed. She laughed, startling him with the return of her humor. What? Given the skills you and your friends possess, not to mention your very protective attitude about your land, the crime rate in this part of Nevada must have plummeted when you all moved into the area. I wonder if the law enforcement authorities appreciate the advantage your presence offers to them and the other local residents. Nicholas studied her features as her smile faded and her gaze drifted to the view offered by the window behind him. While it surprised him that shed picked up on one of the more subtle, but very tangible, benefits of their presence in the region, he kept his reaction to himself. As he watched her, he recalled a conversation hed had with the county sheriff during one of his infrequent visits. The man had voiced a similar observation, as well as a firm

warning that he expected Nicholas to keep a tight rein on the residents of his property, despite the fact that they all seemed inclined to shun contact with most people beyond the boundary lines of his land. I miss Sean so much, she confessed, her mood abruptly shifting again. We all do. Our family feels incomplete without him. He was such an incredible big brother when we were all growing up. He looked out for us, patched us up when we scraped a knee or an elbow, and helped us with our homework. He even protected us from the bullies in the neighborhood. Nicholas said quietly, He saved my life, Hannah, not once but several times, so I think I understand some of what youre feeling. Id give anything to have the old Sean back, but that isnt likely to ever happen. Hes one of the emotional fatalities of our business. She tugged her hands free of his grasp and lowered them to her lap. Sean is completely lost to us, isnt he? And hell never be strong enough to leave here, will he? I think you already know the answers to those questions. Despite his empathy for Hannah, his tone became terse. As much as Id like to, I cant change whats happened to him, not even for you. My God, what will I tell Mom? She knows why I came here. She expects me to persuade Sean to come home. Nicholas stood suddenly, the legs of his chair scraping across the floor as he abandoned it without a backward glance. Walking to the window, he paused there, as though to study the panoramic view, but he didnt actually focus on anything beyond the double panes of security glass. He clenched his fists, the gesture a validation of his frustration. He longed to supply a solution to Hannahs dilemma, but he was fresh out of miracles. You warned me, but I refused to believe you. Ive been such a fool. You arent a fool. No one wants to believe how bad off he is, but we must for his sake. I realize that now. She left her chair, carried the two brandy snifters to the kitchen sink, and placed them there. I left the letter on the table in the cabin. I hope he eventually finds it. He will. Through narrowed eyes, he watched her close the space that separated them. Clad in black leggings, warm socks, and a thighlength white sweater, Hannah looked young, innocent, and vulnerable. She paused just a few feet away from him, her gaze distant as she stared out the window.

Nicholas longed to ask her to stay with him for as long as she could tolerate the isolation, but he knew how selfish such a request would be. He also wanted to tell her that he needed her, but why add another complication to her already complex life? The reality was that Sean Cassidy was one soldier destined not to return home. Hannah now faced the task of carrying that sad news to her family. She deserved to be free to resume her life as a teacher and advocate for abused children, two pursuits that obviously meant the world to her. He had to bite back the admission that he wanted her to stay for a few more days of shared time so that he could collect more memories of her, memories that he would store in his heart and bring out whenever he missed her the most. Instead of being honest about his own motives, he suggested, Why dont you wait a day or two for Sean? I dont want to give you false hope, but if he finds your letter, he may decide he wants to see you. She nodded. Then she turned to him and walked straight into his arms. He held her close, guiltridden as he absorbed the trembling of her slender body. He offered her the reassurance of his embrace while his own frustration with the situation roared through him. And although he nearly lost control and shouted his rage, he managed to confine his turmoil to a silent curse against the forces working against them. A short while later Hannah eased free of his snug hold, lifted her face into view, and searched his features with eyes that reflected the weary state of her emotions. I would like to give Sean a chance to respond to my letter, but I dont expect to see him. I want to stay, though, because I want to be with you. Hannah He felt shamed and humbled by her honesty and her willingness to make herself vulnerable so that he would understand her feelings. Please, let me finish. He nodded. Leaving you will be the hardest thing I ever do, Nicholas, and Im just selfish enough to want a little more time with you. I need The emotions roiling inside her made her pause and blink back tears. I need all the memories I can have of us. Guilt spiked within him like a high fever, but he made himself remind her, Weve both known from the beginning that your stay here was temporary. That doesnt mean I have to like it one damn bit! she snapped, some of her old fighting spirit apparent as she glared up at him, tears spilling from her eyes. His own gaze cooled to resemble glacial ice, his hard jaw reminiscent of an outcropping of solid granite. You have responsibilities. So do I.

Hannah stiffened in his arms, but she didnt move away from him. You dont have to remind me that Im an outsider. I just wish we could find some kind of a compromise that would allow us to We cant, he cut in, unwilling to allow either one of them to hope for or to expect anything more than what they could have in this moment. Only normal people had even half a prayer of sustaining a loving relationship, and he couldnt offer her anything even remotely normal. Their situation was impossible, and he didnt expect it to change. Hannah behaved as though she hadnt heard his words or his implacable tone of voice. She flattened her palms against his chest, slipped her hands up and around his neck, and tugged his head down. His heart shifted painfully in his chest as he looked down into her heartshaped face. The thought of never seeing her or holding her or making love to her again seemed like the worst torture imaginablethe kind of torture capable of permanently maiming his soul. Make love to me, Nicholas. Make me feel as though I really belong in your life just a little while longer. Make me believe that I belong to you, even if its just a fantasy. All of his defenses crashed in on him. He stopped fighting, stopped resisting, and stopped trying to sidestep the need that blazed like an inferno in his soul. He jerked her up and into his arms with a muttered curse and carried her out of the kitchen. He strode across the ground floor level of his home and then took the stairs to the master bedroom suite three at a time, his booted footsteps echoing in the silence. Pausing beside his bed, he lowered Hannah to a position in front of him, his hands shifting to his belt buckle the instant he released her. They kept their eyes fastened on each other as they hastily shed their clothing. Breathing rapidly, Hannah stared up at the hard planes of his face as she discarded the final barriers to closeness with Nicholas. She unhooked her bra and let it drop to the floor. Then, she shimmied free of her panties, feeling them slide down her legs, and then kicked them aside. His gaze, so cold and unemotional just minutes ago, now flared with sensual intent. She shivered beneath the heat of it, but she didnt make any attempt to cover her nakedness. She knew her love for him shone in her eyes. She needed him to see the true depth of her feelings for him, wanted him to finally grasp that she would be anything he needed her to be and give him everything he demanded of her. Anticipation made her breathless, but her desire for him strengthened her ability to display her nakedness without trying to shield herself with any gestures of false modesty. She

saw his appreciation as his eyes skimmed over her. She arched slightly when she felt her nipples tighten into hard buds. His eyes lingered and stroked her with an invisible caress. Her insides clenched, and her breasts felt heavy and swollen. She nearly begged him to touch them, to fondle them with his callused hands and long, narrow fingers, but she couldnt speak. All her of emotions felt wedged in her throat. He brought his hands up to cup her face. A muscle ticked in his jaw. I still cant quite believe youre real, he admitted, his voice sounding raw and ravaged as he spoke. And I dont understand how you can want someone like me. She almost admitted to him that she was in love with him. Instead, she smiled gently and reached for his hands, guiding them to her breasts, offering herself to him with a simplicity that was both innocent and seductive. Her eyes fluttered closed as his hands closed over her flesh, and air hissed as she sucked it into her lungs. She felt the spasm of his fingers as he cupped her breasts with a possessiveness she adored. She stood there, vulnerable to his gaze and his touch, giving herself to him with an innate honesty that seemed to baffle this powerful man. She welcomed the erotic images that flashed through her mind like a thousand brightly lighted neon signs. Make the world go away, Nicholas. Her voice broke as she said his name. She felt exposed, and as terrified of facing the future without him as she was eager for what they could share now. He drew her into his heat and hardness, molding her soft curves to the muscles that ridged the front of his torso and thighs. He swept his hands down her back, his fingertips tracing the faint indentation of her spine before he curved them over her hips and tucked her between his parted legs. His sex throbbed against her belly, warning her with a lack of subtlety of the power of his need and branding her for all eternity as his. She tried to edge even closer to Nicholas. Hungry for the intimacy that would make them one, she savored his strength and derived satisfaction from the realization that he needed her as much as she needed him. She wanted him to claim her, needed him to possess her, felt an almost desperate desire to be the recipient of his love, but she cast aside that latter craving. She sensed that he would never admit to loving a woman even if he felt the emotion. It was not Nicholas Benteens way to chain anyone to him. She respected him for understanding that love could never be managed or manipulated or trapped. Still, she wished for the words, even though shed vowed to never ask anything of him that he wasnt prepared to offer freely. She sighed, shaking herself free of her troubling thoughts.

She reached out to touch him, the sensation of stroking hot, forged steel penetrating her senses as she snaked her arms around his narrow waist and flattened her palms against his lower back. Muscles rippled beneath her fingertips, the surface of his skin scorching her breasts, belly, and thighs in a slow, tantalizing burn. She shifted her hands lower, bracketing his narrow hips with her palms, feeling the tension of flexing muscles before she ventured lower still to the backs of his powerful, hairroughened thighs. The pulsing strength of his hard shaft trapped against her belly promised ecstasy and more. She undulated against him like a slender reed that had been rocked by an unexpected breeze. She quivered beneath his hands when he skimmed his fingertips over her hips and down into the dark cleft that shielded her secrets. He lingered there, touching her intimately, devastating her, tantalizing her with a silent promise of pleasures yet to come. As he caressed the silken folds of her sex, she felt her insides melt into steaming rivers of heated sensation. Hannah rocked forward, her pelvis tilting upward in a suggestive and very elemental invitation. Her nipples tightened, the ache in them so intense, she thought she might die if he didnt take them into his mouth. Nicholas didnt disappoint her. He seized her by the waist, lifted her up so that her breasts were level with his mouth, and flicked his tongue over her sensitive flesh. She gripped his shoulders, her nails biting into his flesh, circled his waist with her legs, and groaned his name. He suckled at her breasts until she lost all awareness of time and space. He alternated back and forth, relentless as he took each hard peak deep into the wet heat of his mouth, and he drove her to tensionfilled heights that shed only ever imagined. When he abruptly lowered her to her feet, her knees buckled, but he caught her in time. Turning, he tumbled her back across the bed, coming down atop her. She welcomed his weight as he settled between her thighs. Hannah tasted his heat and his passion as he claimed her mouth, his tongue thrusting repeatedly past her lips. She experienced the depth of his desire as he tugged at her nipples with skillful, tormenting fingers, and she trembled with a kind of desperate hunger that made her insides quicken with restless, relentless currents of liquid fire. Shaking with need, she eagerly reached out to him with encompassing arms, searching, stroking fingers, and an equally ravenous mouth. When Nicholas dipped a finger into the hot, wet core of her body, she came up off of the bed with a soulshattering cry. A heartbeat later, she splintered beneath his seductive touch, her delicate inner muscles violently tremoring and shudder after shudder ripping through her

until she could barely draw breath. He soothed her with gentle hands, offering what she soon realized was but a brief respite before the next storm. He aroused her yet again, but this time he began slowly. He lulled her into the sweetest ecstasy with lips and tongue that glided over the undersides of her full breasts, past her narrow midriff, and across her stomach until he reached the temptation at the juncture of her restlessly shifting thighs. He covered her tender flesh with his mouth, drinking from her the essence of what made her a woman. He sipped gently at first, allowing her to accustom herself to the sensations spiraling hot and wild through her trembling body, but soon he began to stroke her with the tip of his tongue. As she tightened into herself, he caged her hips with his hands and suckled the swollen nub that crowned her sex. Hannah cried out, arching into the erotic intimacy of the moment. He tortured her, but it was a glorious form of torture. She felt undone by the pleasure hammering at her senses. Her mind emptied of everything but the sensual purity of what they now shared. Desperate to have him buried deep within the heart of her passion, she gasped, Now, Nicholas. I need you now. Disoriented when he suddenly brought her upright, she didnt resist him as he drew her into his lap and positioned her atop his strong thighs. She circled his hips with her legs, cheeks flushed and lips parted as she tried to catch her breath. Placing her hands on his shoulders, she inched closer. She possessed one goal and the singleminded determination to achieve it. He gripped her waist with both hands and stopped her, which earned him a bewildered look from Hannah. His chest rose and fell rapidly. His hands shook. Despite the inarticulate sound of frustration that escaped her, he gave himself time to regain some measure of control. Nicholas felt the almost violent edge to his arousal. His need of Hannah was so intense, he feared he might harm her. Shed reawakened the emotional starvation hed suffered from for most of his life. And now shed forced him with her generosity and sensuality to confront the reality of losing his infamous selfcontrol, something he hadnt ever done with a woman. But Hannah Cassidy was not just any woman. She was his woman, the same woman who now resided within his soul, the same woman who owned his heart. He struggled to control his physical hunger, not simply his longing to make her a permanent part of his life. She searched his face for some hint of his state of mind as she lowered her hands and closed them around the silkcovered steel of his sex. Nicholas jerked beneath her touch, and

then he dragged air into his burning lungs. She stroked him, measuring his length and thickness with gentle hands and something akin to amazement in her beautiful eyes. When she could speak, she asked, Why are we waiting? He closed his eyes, shuddering as his flesh surged and throbbed beneath her caressing fingers. I need you too much right now. Once he opened his eyes, his troubled gaze grazed her face. Im afraid Ill hurt you. Hannah pressed a tender kiss to his lips, and then traced them with the tip of her tongue. You couldnt hurt me, not ever. I want all of you, Nicholas, even the dark side that worries you so much. She shifted forward, and then she flashed him a sexy womanly smile as their loins touched in a uniquely sensual kiss. I promise you, I wont break. I was created to share this with you. Havent you realized that yet? Youre playing with fire, he cautioned, his voice a rough rumble of barely suppressed aggression. I want your fire inside of me, she breathed against his lips. Now, Nicholas. Now. She surged forward without warning, impaling herself with a sudden sharp movement of her hips that rocked them both. She eagerly sheathed his hard length within the dark, humid depths of her body, a fiercely determined expression on her face. She immediately experienced the pulsating power of his erection, feeling as if hed breached her heart with his penetration. Hannah trembled as she rested her forehead against his chin. Youre like fire inside me. Im burning alive, and I love it. He shuddered beneath the exotic feel of her body consuming his, trembling around him. He felt his control start to unravel. Look at me, he ordered. That now familiar sound of ground glass in his voice prompted her to tilt her head back and meet his gaze. The strain in his features was obvious. I need you, Nicholas. I think I always will. He moved with fluid grace, keeping their bodies joined while he shifted her onto her back across the bed. Hovering over her, he drove his fingers into her dense, dark hair, cradled her head, and stilled the restless movement of her body with the press of his hips. He pressed forward, slowly at first. His conscience demanded that he test the tolerance and resilience of her much smaller form before he allowed his control to slip.

Wrapping her arms around him, Hannah followed his lead. Each powerful stroke, each dip of his hard flesh into her body felt deeper and more intense than the one before. Waves of sensation rippled outward from the center of her body. She trembled, her gaze locked onto his steelcolored eyeseyes that gleamed with an emotion she couldnt quite label in the midst of the emotions that stormed through her. His face, all hard bone and even harder angles, and his piercing eyes, made her feel as though some wildly sensual beast had claimed her for his own. The steadily escalating pace he set quickly stripped her of the ability to think or reason. She surrendered totally to Nicholas, declaring her love for him with the answering passion of her body. Although he sensed some profound change in Hannahs response, he failed to identify it as he succumbed to the exquisite pleasure he found within her intimate embrace. Eyes riveted on each other, they matched each other stroke for stroke. Hannah clung to him as he increased their pace, and she met his sharp, deep thrusts with the sudden uptilt of her pelvis each time he buried himself to the hilt. What do you feel? Nicholas demanded through gritted teeth as her sleekly seductive heat quivered and quaked around him. Everything! she gasped in response. She writhed beneath him, inciting an array of emotions and sensations that blazed into his bloodstream like burning comets. Love me, Hannah. Love me. He swept her back into the whirling vortex of their lovemaking once more. He became her focus, her turbulent universe. Nothing and no one existed for her as she circled his hips with her long, slim legs and gloried in the hammering force of his thrusts. Their bodies collided again and again, recklessly unbridled passion and a thousand unvoiced emotions flowing between them as they made their way to a sensual summit that defied description. Her release suddenly exploded across the dual landscapes of her mind and body. She felt utterly helpless, awash in a molten flow of stunning sensations. She stiffened, and then she felt as if she were tumbling through space in a seemingly endless free fall. At the mercy of Hannahs climax, Nicholas lost control just moments later. The milking tremors of her body and the sound of her voice as she cried out his name catapulted him into a sensory oblivion that consumed and devastated him.

Much later, he cradled her in his arms, watching over her as she slept. And in the hours that followed, Nicholas Benteen gave up his efforts to convince himself that he would be able to go on without her once she departed Nevada. He simply couldnt lie to himself any longer.

Their sensual idyll ended fortyeight hours after their return from Seans empty cabin when Hannahs cell phone rang. She glanced at Nicholas as she put the finishing touches on their lunch. Would you grab that for me? Its probably Sarah. He answered it before the third ring tone sounded. He spoke to the caller while Hannah placed a platter of sandwiches on the kitchen table, quickly rinsed her hands at the kitchen sink, and filled two mugs with coffee. Nicholas grinned as he handed the phone to her in exchange for one of the mugs. Your younger sister wants to speak to you. Hi, Sarah. Hannah laughed and then covered the receiver. She says you have a voice to die for. Returning to the call, she scolded thirty seconds later, Youve got a really dirty mind even for a cop. Nicholas arched an eyebrow as he slouched negligently against the edge of the kitchen counter and drank his coffee. Clad in faded jeans that hugged his powerful lower body like a second skin, a heavy cable knit sweater, and boots, he looked more dangerously sexy than usual to Hannah. From the expression on his face, thats not exactly a news flash. She smiled at something her sister said. No, you cannot add him to your list of prospective husbands. Hannah favored him with a thoroughly covetous look. Hes already taken. She listened for a few moments, her smile widening to a grin. Im absolutely sure hes not available. Despite his relaxed posture and contented expression, Nicholas sensed that Hannahs phone conversation wouldnt end pleasantly. Although shed made phone calls to various family members for updates on her mothers medical condition during her stay with him, she hadnt received any from them until now. He watched her grin fade to a sober expression as she listened to her sister.

When? she asked. I dont know if I can get home that quickly, but Ill try. She paused. Ill check my email for the airline information. Thanks for checking the schedule for me. Ill try to get a reservation, and Ill use the shuttle service once my flight lands. Nicholas felt much of the inner peace hed acquired during the previous two days depart as he watched Hannah, who now gripped the cell phone and fought back tears. Setting aside his coffee mug, he began to move toward her. I love you, too. Give Mom a hug for me, and tell her Ill see you all very soon. Nicholas relieved her of the phone, which he placed on the counter, and slipped his arm around her waist. She pressed her fingertips to her temples, a gesture hed come to recognize as a barometer of her worry or frustration. Bad news? he asked once she lowered her hands and squared her shoulders. Not really. Then whats got you so upset? Curving his hands over her shoulders, he felt her tension, her struggle for calm. Talk to me. Let me help. She finally looked up at him. Moms surgery has been scheduled for tomorrow morning. Her doctor apparently believes shes strong enough now to tolerate a lengthy surgical procedure, and Sarah says theyre fairly optimistic about the outcome. He saw guilt in her eyes before she looked away. You think youve failed her, dont you? Whats even worse is how selfindulgent Ive been the last few days. Ive hardly thought of Sean or Mom. Do you regret whats happened between us? Nicholas steeled himself for her reply. She hesitated only briefly. No, as selfish as I probably sound. We needed this, and I dont regret it at all. Not a single moment, she admitted, her feelings for him evident as she gazed up at him. Then dont beat yourself up for putting yourself first. I doubt you do it very often, if at all. He held his own emotions firmly in check. Your brother marches to his own drummer, and your mothers health problems were preordained. My brain tells me youre making total sense, but but your emotions are putting you in a mood to exact penance for what youve done. Close? Reaching up, she stroked his cheek with gentle fingers. Pretty dumb, huh? He nodded. Exactly. He seared her fingertips with a hot kiss after she traced the line of his jaw and then pressed them against his lips.

I want more time with you. I He read the words in her eyes, and he couldnt bear to hear her say them. Not now. Not when she would be gone soon. This isnt the time, he interrupted, setting her aside and stepping back from her. Now, tell me what you need. Hannah flushed, took a deep breath, and then rattled off her game plan. First things first an airline reservation. Theres a flight in three and a half hours to Chicago, and I can get a connection to St. Louis from there. Ill need to leave my van in longterm parking at the airport until I can arrange to come back for it. He shook his head. The van stays here. Go pack a bag while I arrange your flight. I can have you at the airport in short order. She frowned. What about the snowfall we had last night? The roads are probably a mess. He shook his head. Helicopter. She gave him a startled look. Oh. Stop thinking, he suggested as he drew her back into his arms. Ill think for you. Just follow orders. She grinned. Yes, sir. Anything else, sir? I just need a minute. His arms tightened around her like steel bands. Me, too, she whispered, burrowing against him and pressing her lips to his neck. He inhaled the fragrant scent of her skin and savored the now achingly familiar contours of her body, a body he knew as well as his own thanks to the intimate attention theyd showered upon each other during the previous two days. He dreaded her departure, but he knew he couldnt indulge in selfpity. There would be plenty of time for that later, probably in those dark hours before the dawn when he somehow managed to forget that she wasnt there and mistakenly reached for her in his sleep. Before he released her, he said, Everythings going to be alright. I guess the world never really goes away, does it? Her voice, the tone achingly wistful, told him that she too felt as though someone had slammed the door of reality in her face. They couldnt change their situation. They would just have to deal with it. Nicholas reminded her, At least we gave ourselves a short vacation from reality. We did, didnt we? She pressed herself as close to him as she could manage, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head against his shoulder as a heavy sigh escaped her.

He felt the seductive outline of her pelvis against his loins and the swell of her breasts against his chest, despite their clothing. Heat and desire instantly flared deep inside his body. Theyd indulged every possible carnal impulse and appetite during the preceding fortyeight hours, but it hadnt been enough. It would never be enough. He shifted sideways, but she stayed with him. He shuddered beneath her seeking fingers when they stole beneath the hem of his sweater. He covered her hands, trapping them when she began to knead his muscular chest like a feline hungry for attention. Hannah looked up at him, her green eyes darkening, her skin flushing with desire that sent recognition and response lancing through his senses. Her gaze spoke volumes. He wanted to give in to her, wanted to block out the world and claim her yet again. But, he didnt. Youre ruining all of my good intentions. He pulled her hands free of his body, tugged them behind her, and clamped her wrists together with one capable hand. When she squirmed with indignation, he seized her chin with his free hand and forced her to look at him. Pay attention. His sharp tone made her eyes widen in surprise before a mutinous expression appeared on her face. She tried to jerk free of him, but he refused to release her. Id like nothing better than to take you right here, right now. Id eat you alive, little girl, he cautioned in a low, almost menacing voice. And then Id make you die one small death after another until you begged me to stop. Then, Id take my turn, and Id die inside of you until I collapsed. And after a while, Id take you again. Hannah visibly quivered under the flagrant heat of his gaze and the sensual promise of his words. I want you, Nicholas. We have time. He shook his head, his eyes hard, unfathomable. I wont rush you through a cheap quickie and have that kind of an experience as our last memory of our time together. You mean more to me than that. But He shut her up with a thorough kiss that riled his senses and hardened his body even more. She melted into him, pure invitation in her response. No postmortems, Hannah, and no delaying tactics, he warned after releasing her lips. Im holding your van hostage. He didnt bother to tell her that he intended to ship the vehicle to her via rail service from Reno. She nodded her understanding, although her reluctance was more than evident. When he freed her hands, she eased back from him. He immediately felt her absence.

Hannah blew out a breath before she met his gaze. Moms postoperative condition will determine most of my travel plans for the next month or two. Itll be a while before I can I understand. He reclaimed his coffee, grimaced when he tasted the tepid brew, and returned the mug to the counter top. I know you do, Nicholas. You always understand the hard parts, dont you? For both our sakes, I wish you didnt. Her insightful remarks landed like blows delivered by accurately aimed fists. Well, hed needed a reminder that he was too hard a man for a woman like Hannah Cassidy. He would set her free, once and for all, because she deserved much more than he could ever offer her so much more. He hugged her then, his enfolding arms and the expression on his face gentle as he held her for a lingering moment. Now, go ahead and pack. Well leave whenever youre ready. Im coming back, Nicholas, she vowed as she crossed the kitchen and then glanced over her shoulder to pin him with a stubborn look. Were not done. He reached for his cell phone once he heard her footsteps fade down the hallway. He speeddialed a number he knew as well as his own, ignored the usual amenities, and said, Judd, I need a charter to St. Louis right away. He paused, listening for a long moment. For a friend and the situation is urgent. Nicholas passed a hand over his face, massaged the bridge of his nose, and then carelessly raked his fingers through his hair. The tension he felt deepened the grooves on either side of his mouth and shadowed his slatecolored eyes. Excellent. Thanks, buddy, I owe you one. Ill have her there thirty minutes before take off. Nicholas deposited the phone in his pocket and strode out of the kitchen. A minute later he stood in the guestroom doorway, watching Hannah as she folded the clothes shed removed from the bureau and arranged them in her suitcase. Pausing, she looked at Nicholas. I still dont want to leave you. The rebellion of earlier lingered in her expressive face and posture. You dont have a choice. Her chin lifted a notch. That doesnt mean I have to like it. He saw the sheen of tears in her eyes, but he hardened himself against the impulse to comfort her. A good friend owns an air charter service. Hell be flying you to St. Louis. Nicholas, I cant afford a charter flight. I can.

She heard that ground glass sound again. But Nicholas shrugged. He owed me a favor. I decided that this was a good time to collect on it. She frowned. One of your friends from the past? He gave her a look that would have done a sphinx proud. Does it matter? Then hes a friend of Seans, too? Yes, but he wont discuss him with you. One of our rules. Hannah muttered a word she saved for especially miserable occasions before returning her attention to the clothing shed stacked on the bed. Ill be ready in five minutes. Good girl. He turned on his heel and left her room. As he stood in his walkin bedroom closest a few minutes later, he collected a leather flight jacket, shoulder holster, and a pair of gloves. Then, he retrieved a handgun from a secure wall unit that contained an array of stateoftheart weapons and other high tech equipment designed for personal security. He returned to the kitchen, his heart like a chunk of stone in his chest, his emotions flayed to the point of rawness. Nicholas hesitated in the kitchen doorway when he spotted Sean, who stood beside the kitchen table. Clad in heavy outerwear suitable for the northern Nevada environment, he looked like a throwback to the mountain men whod roamed the western region of the United States so long ago. Setting the items he carried on a credenza, Nicholas slowly entered the kitchen. He didnt extend his hand, nor did he attempt to embrace Sean, despite the warm friendship theyd once shared and the deep affection he still felt for the troubled exmercenary. Instead, Nicholas settled into a chair at the kitchen table, suggesting, Make yourself comfortable. Sean warily eased into a chair across from him after a few moments of consideration. His facial expression told Nicholas that he expected to be chastised for bypassing the security system. Nicholas didnt waste his breath. Sean had helped to design and install the system, his technical skills undiminished by his mental instability. Despite his worry that Hannah wasnt prepared for an encounter with Sean, Nicholas didnt speak. ** ** **

Dragging her duffel bag behind her and carrying a heavy coat, purse, and her copy of TENDER IS THE MERCY OF A LOVER, Hannah made her way to the kitchen on sockcovered feet. She stopped short a few feet shy of the kitchen entrance when she heard a man ask, Is she okay? Hannah is just fine. Ive been watching over her for you. Curiosity roused, she silently lowered her things to the floor and inched closer to the open doorway. Shes so pretty, the man said. She thought his voice sounded familiar, as well as painfully rusty from disuse. Shes beautiful, Sean. The most beautiful woman Ive ever known. Sean? Hannah trembled with shock at Nicholass use of her brothers name. Is she happy? Yes. She has a good life, and shes a strong woman. She was always stubborn. A pause ensued, finally ending when Sean said, I disappointed her. She understands, Nicholas assured him. And shes not the kind of woman who judges people. She longed to fling herself into her big brothers arms, but she quelled the impulse. Just listening to the sound of his voice reinforced everything Nicholas had told her about him. Shed heard fragility and fear and vulnerability in the few words hed spoken, not just in the frequent pauses during their conversation. I dont want her to hate me, Nick. What if she hates me? he fretted. Hannah stepped into the threshold of the kitchen. I couldnt ever hate my favorite big brother. Sean vaulted out of his chair and dashed across the room. Hannah took a step forward, but Nicholas surged to his feet and blocked her path before she could take another one. She nodded when she saw his cautionary look. When he stepped out of her way, she stayed put. Sean, dont leave yet. Please. She watched him hesitate, and she prayed. Standing with his back to her, he clutched at the doorknob to the back door. A violent tremor shook his shoulders, prompting him to hunch forward. Still, Hannah waited, frozen in place by both hope and anxiety. She hoped he would find the courage to share a few minutes with her before she departed for St. Louis.

Sean turned slowly, his gaze fastened to the floor. Hannah nearly wept. Despite his heavy beard, mustache, shoulderlength hair that was mostly gray now, and the bulky clothes he wore, she recognized what remained of the big brother whom shed idolized as a child. When he lifted his gaze and looked at her, she glimpsed the fear in his eyes. She felt momentarily faint from the shock that washed over her. Nicholas selected that moment to place his hands on her shoulders. She sank back against him, relieved and grateful for his support. Hannah used every ounce of inner strength she possessed to silence the scream of pain rising up inside of her as she studied Sean. Steady, Hannah, whispered Nicholas. You can handle this. She drew courage from him as they all stood in the silence of the kitchen. Rigid with tension, Sean watched them both with the wary eyes of a trapped animal. I came here to talk to you about Mom. She wanted me to tell you how often she thinks about you and how very much she loves you. Hannah spoke to him with the same gentleness and caution she employed when dealing with abused children. And as she talked to Sean about their family, she kept her voice as non threatening as possible. She said nothing about the despair and worry their mother had experienced during his lengthy absence from home. Some instinct told her that he could not handle even the mildest chiding from anyone. Although she mentioned that Jessica Cassidy would undergo surgery the following morning, Hannah refrained from revealing the older womans precarious health or her hunger to see her son one more time. When she finished speaking, Hannah noticed that much of the previous tension in her brothers posture had eased. He no longer looked poised to bolt. She felt the dig of Nicholass fingers in her shoulders when Sean began to move in her direction. Hannah held her breath as he closed the space that separated them with hesitant footsteps. Sean paused uncertainly, and then he reached out. He touched the underside of Hannahs chin, a faint grazing by the tip of one finger before he whispered, Thank you. She suddenly remembered a fall from her bike at the age of six. Shed clipped her chin on the handlebars, and Sean had cleaned away the blood, bandaged the wound, and dried her tears. Tears filled her eyes now as she smiled at him. Would you like to hear about the family from time to time? He stared at her, disbelief in his bewilderedlooking gaze. You dont all hate me? We could never hate you. We love you, Sean. We always have, and we always will.

He backed up a step. I could write to you. Nicholas will give you my letters. He nodded. Please. I brought a photo album for you, too. Its in the living room on the coffee table. Tears flooded her eyes, but she blinked them away. I love you, big brother. Please please take good care of yourself. He lowered his head and shuffled past them. Leaving the kitchen, he disappeared from sight without another word. His fading footfalls marked his passage into another part of the house. Turning, Hannah welcomed the haven she found in Nicholass embrace. When she could speak, she said, He remembered the time when I fell off my bike. Hannah Sean touched the scar beneath my chin. He remembered, Nicholas. He took care of me when it happened. I believe you. Will he stay for a while, even though we have to leave? Very likely. He knows hes welcome, and hes got his own room here. Nicholas gave her a hard hug before he released her. Hell do whats best for him, which is the way it has to be. Just then they both heard the muted strains of a piano concerto from a stereo system located deep in the guest wing of the sprawling house. Nicholas flashed a reassuring look at Hannah. Hes settling in the music relaxes him. Although emotionally drained, she felt relieved that shed finally seen Sean for herself. Mom needs me now. Ill get my things. Ill take care of it. Your boots are by the back door. Nicholas caught her wrist, lifted her hand to his lips, and pressed a hot, stinging kiss into the center of her palm. I havent seen him willingly touch another human being in more than five years. That was a breakthrough for Sean, especially given his state of mind. You reached him, and that hasnt happened in too many years to count. ** ** **

After topping off the fuel tanks and conducting a preflight inspection of the helicopter, Nicholas and Hannah lifted off from the helo pad for the trip to the small Lake Tahoe Regional Airport, which housed an executive center for private aircraft. The increasingly inclement weather forced Nicholas to devote nearly all of his attention to piloting the aircraft. Hannah felt his periodic glances and the press of his gloved hand when he reassuringly squeezed her fingers several times during their flight. Once he settled the helicopter on the tarmac near a private hangar, Hannah noticed the armed security personnel stationed around the building and a sleek small jet that was being refueled. Stay put, he said as he removed his headset and released the harness across his chest. She nodded. Then, she watched as he exited the helicopter and jogged over to a stocky, auburnhaired man clad in a heavy leather flight jacket similar to the one Nicholas wore. The two men spoke briefly before they shook hands. Less than a minute later, Nicholas helped her out of the helicopter and guided her toward the waiting aircraft, a white, Frenchmade Falcon 50 jet. He took her things as she climbed the short flight of stairs, and then he followed her into the interior of the plush aircraft. After stowing her carryon luggage, he returned to her side, knelt beside her, and fastened her seat belt. The pilot boarded the aircraft, nodded at Hannah after giving her a curious look, and then disappeared into the cockpit. A second man soon joined him. Nicholas clasped her hands and met her gaze. Youll be in St. Louis in less than three hours. A limo will be waiting for you, and the driver will take you to the hospital. Hell be at your disposal for as long as you need him. She felt vaguely shellshocked by her current situation. Theres so much I want to say to you, but I cant seem to find the right words, she whispered, her heart in her eyes as she looked at him. You dont need to say anything, Hannah. Just focus on your Mom. Everything else will fall into place. She gripped his hands. Why dont I believe you? He smiled, his expression grim. Call me if you need anything. Anything at all. My private numbers in your cell phone contact list. I care He broke off, then continued after a long pause. I care about you, and I want you to be happy. Im happy with you, Nicholas, she said in a small voice.

He squeezed her hands, leaned forward, and kissed her. She trembled beneath the pressure of his openmouthed caress and the predatory thrust of his tongue. Sensations provoked by his darting tongue and the heated branding of her lips cascaded through her. She gripped his shoulders, panicked by the thought that she might never see him again. Hannah suddenly realized that he possessed the power to make certain that their paths never crossed again. She knew he would never deny her access to Sean, but he could and would, if he felt it was the right thing to do, disappear completely from her life. He released her lips and brought one of his hands up to the side of her face. She covered his hand with her own. Make me a promise, she said, the planes engines spooling up and almost drowning out the sound of her voice. If I can. You can, she insisted. He nodded. Whats the promise? Never forget how very much I love you. He muttered an oath, looking as though shed just slapped him across the face. Promise me, Nicholas, or Ill get off this plane and hound you for the rest of my life. He shook his head in obvious amazement, nodded, and then he heaved himself to his feet. Thats not something Im likely to forget, little girl. He peered down at her. With a final stroke of her cheek with his fingertips, he said, I promise. She watched him walk away. Her gaze stayed fastened on him as he paused at the entrance to the cockpit, spoke a few final words to the pilot and copilot, and then exited the aircraft. He didnt look back. Not once. Hannah closed her hands around the book in her lap, her knuckles white with tension. She bowed her head to hide her tears as Nicholas folded up the exterior door, shoved it into position, and slammed his fist against the exterior panel to signal the crew. Her tears persisted long after the copilot reappeared, locked the door, and then ducked back into the cockpit. Takeoff occurred soon after. As she battled for control of her emotionsat first, a losing battleHannah halflistened to the crews conversation with the tower, although she couldnt really make out the words. Once the aircraft hurtled down the runway, lifted off, and achieved level flight, she loosened her seatbelt and shrugged out of her coat. Hannah eventually opened her book, desperate to distract herself from the sense of abandonment she felt. She read until the copilot, also a fitlooking man in his midforties,

offered her refreshments halfway through the flight. Hannah noticed that his gaze repeatedly snagged on the cover of her book, but when she questioned if hed read it, he hastily excused himself from the passenger cabin and returned to his duties. Although baffled by his behavior, Hannah continued to read. She found unexpected comfort in the story, because it engaged both her emotions and her imagination. The time passed quickly. When the charter flight landed, the cockpit crew escorted her to the limo that awaited her at the edge of the tarmac. She assumed that they were following Nicholass instructions. The driver took her luggage and stowed it in the trunk. Hannah shook hands with both men. When you speak to our mutual friend, tell him not to worry. Ill be alright. The pilot and copilot exchanged glances. Hannah sensed their reluctance to promise her anything in the uncomfortable expressions on their faces, so she simply smiled. Never mind, Ill tell him myself. Thank you for helping me to get home, gentlemen. Anytime, maam, said the pilot. And in the event that I run into our mutual friend, I intend to tell him that hes a very fortunate man. Hannahs smile faded. Hes a very lonely man, but he seems to want to remain that way. Turning away from them, she stepped into the limo. The driver closed the door as she sank back against the seat cushion, her exhaustion apparent in the smudges of fatigue beneath her green eyes. The driver started the car, exited the airport facility designated for private aircraft, and joined the traffic headed into the city. Hannah stared at the passing scenery, but all she really saw was the image of man with a hardfeatured face and lonely, steelcolored eyes. It was then she realized that the two men whod flown her to St. Louis had had eyes like his, eyes far too old for men of their ages. As the limo neared the hospital, Hannah started to feel guilty. She couldnt get Nicholas out of her mind. He continued to dominate her every thought and emotion. He had become as essential to her as air and sunshine. He always would be, even if they never saw each other again.

After adding the limo drivers cell number to her phone list and pointing out the location of the coffee shop to him once they arrived at the hospital, Hannah took the elevator to the

cardiac unit. She made her way to her mothers room without bothering to stop at the nurses station. When she saw that the light was still on, she entered the room. She paused to flash a smile at the nurse who stood at her mothers bedside, removing a blood pressure cuff. The woman motioned her forward. You have a visitor, Mrs. Cassidy. One of your daughters, I believe. Hi, Mom. Taking her hand, Hannah leaned down and kissed her brow. She used every bit of her inner strength to conceal the concern she felt as she took in her mothers frail appearance. Im glad youre finally here, whispered the older woman. Pausing in the open doorway of the hospital room, the nurse cleared her throat. Dont stay more than a few minutes. I just gave her something to help her to relax. She needs to be rested for tomorrow morning. Hannah nodded her understanding before she sank down into the chair at her mothers bedside. How was your trip? asked Jessica Cassidy. Good, Mom. Very good. Relief shone in the faded green of the older womans eyes. Sean? You found him? Yes. In fact, I spoke to him earlier today. Hes alive and safe. Certain God would forgive her a harmless lie, she said, He asked me to tell you that he loves you, and hes very sorry youve been so worried about him. He didnt mean for that to happen. Is he Hannah smoothly cut in, It took forever to find him, Mom, but you know how stubborn I can be when I set my mind on a goal. Sean used to compare me to a dog with a bone, and Im afraid he was right. She laughed, forcing the sound past a throat that ached with all of the emotions of a truly difficult day. Anyway, back to your eldest son. He lives in a really remote part of northern Nevada, which is why I had such a tough time locating him. He has several good friends there, people he can count on if he has problems, and hes built himself a log cabin at the foot of one of the most beautiful mountains youve ever seen. Youd love it there, Mom. The air is crystal clear, the trees seem like theyre a hundred miles tall, and the snowflakes are as big as cotton balls. With her mother close to drifting off to sleep, Hannah continued to speak quietly about Sean for another few minutes. She waited until the older woman was breathing deeply before she released her hand, kissed her cheek, and tiptoed out of the hospital room.

Hannah kept her emotions under control while the limo driver transported her to her condominium. Finally alone, she carried her luggage and purse to her bedroom, stripped off her clothes as she walked into the bathroom, and wearily climbed into the shower. As she stood under the hammering force of the hot water, she wept for Seans broken psyche, for their mother, and because she missed Nicholas so much. Then, she became angry with herself for being such a crybaby. This wasnt the time to fall apart, although she silently vowed to allow herself plenty of time for a pity party at some later date. After unpacking, Hannah crawled into bed with her St. Gregory book. She read until she felt relaxed enough to sleep. But much to her frustration, she spent much of the night dreaming about Nicholas and the intimacy theyd shared. She awakened near dawn, hungry for the feel of Nicholass naked body entwined with hers and still hugging her copy of TENDER IS THE MERCY OF A LOVER. After dressing, checking the stack of mail her neighbor had brought in for her, and eating a light breakfast, she called the hospital to confirm that her mother had gone into surgery on schedule. Hannah carried the novel with her when the limo driver deposited her at the entrance to the hospital a few hours later. It became her talisman, and she suspected it was because she repeatedly identified personality traits and speech patterns in the hero that reminded her of Nicholas. Crazy, she knew, but she kept the book with her at all times. She read sporadically when she wasnt pacing the corridor outside the waiting room or glancing at her watch during the course of the long day. She finished the story late that afternoon, but instead of the satisfaction she normally derived upon completing a St. Gregory novel, she felt even more emotionally unsettled than ever. Following eleven and a half hours of surgery, her mothers cardiologist announced to the Cassidy family, which had gathered in the waiting room to await the outcome, that all had gone well. They welcomed his cautious optimism. Hannah excused herself, found a pay phone, and called the private number Nicholas had given to her. His voice mail clicked on after just one ring, an electronic voice that bore no resemblance to Nicholass sexy growl asking her to leave a message. Although disappointed that she couldnt speak to him, she left a message, This is Hannah. My flight home was troublefree. Your friends were very kind to me. Moms surgery just ended, and shes in cardiac recovery. The procedure took more than eleven hours, but the surgeon is cautiously optimistic. When I have more news, Ill call with an update. After a brief hesitation, she said, I miss you, Nicholas, before she severed the connection.

** ** **

Four days later Hannah and her younger sister sat together in the cardiac intensive care units waiting room. Jessica Cassidy was periodically alert, but she still required constant monitoring. Hannah and her younger sister, Sarah, whod taken emergency family leave from her work as a police officer, maintained a daily vigil at the hospital and kept everyone abreast of her progress. Other family members took turns relieving them during the evening hours. How many times are you going to reread that book? Sarah asked Hannah with obvious exasperation. You must have memorized the whole thing by now. She glanced up from a particular passage near the end of the story that kept stirring something in her subconscious mind, even though she couldnt figure out exactly why. What? Get a grip, girl. There are some terrific looking men wandering the halls of this hospital, and youre ignoring them all. Are you really my sister? She frowned. No interest. Theyre all yours, baby girl. Sarah hooted with laughter, her humor contagious enough to make the other people in the waiting room smile at her. A leggy redhead with a perfect peaches and cream complexion, shed just completed her rookie year as a police officer, although she looked more like high fashion model material. What exactly happened to you in Nevada? You havent said two words about your trip, other than the fact that you located Sean. Nothing happened, Sarah. Nothing at all. She returned her attention to the book, rereading a line that tweaked a recent memory. A few minutes later her sister breathed, Oh, my. When she received no response, she elbowed Hannah. That guy definitely gets an A plus. Annoyed, Hannah didnt look up from her book. She simply elbowed Sarah right back, hissing, Will you quit grading every man who walks down the hallway? You sound like an adolescent in the midst of a hormonal crisis. Hes not a doctor. Hannah shrugged. Maybe hes a nurse. Not with two armed bodyguards trailing behind him.

Hannah froze. Bodyguards? She peered at her sister. What did you just say? Sarah spoke out of the side of her mouth. Theyre carrying concealed weapons. Hope theyve got permits for them. She laughed softly. Mister A plus cant take his eyes off you. Smile, Hannah, cause the big guy is coming our way. God, would you look at those shoulders! Talk about sexy and dangerous in one perfect package. Hannah turned in her chair and glanced in the direction of the waiting room doorway. She felt her heart stutter to a stop in her chest. Too stunned to move, her voice reflected her shock when she whispered, Nicholas? Looking more delicious than he had any right to in his three piece navy pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt, and a handpainted silk tie, he paused before her and extended his hands. Hannah snapped shut her book, shoved it at her sister, and reached out to him. The warmth of his touch reassured her that he was real, not some figment of her imagination. Her heart raced. She felt alive again for the first time in days. He tugged her to her feet, his eyes sweeping over her features like a man starved for the sight of her. Hannah made no effort to conceal the hunger she felt for him. Sarah cleared her throat. Whats going on? Hannah laughed, and then bit her lip when she heard the faintly hysterical note in her own laughter. She glanced down at her sister. This is the man whose voice you liked so much. Sarah whistled, one of her less feminine traits, according to her sisters and mother. Now I know why you didnt want to come home. She grinned at Nicholas. He nodded at her with a brusqueness that confirmed he hadnt even noticed her endless legs or brilliant smile. His attention remained totally focused on Hannah. Dont let this guy get away, sis. He qualifies as a keeper. Can we speak privately? Nicholas asked. His low voice rumbled over her, reminding her of the sensuality theyd reveled in less than a week ago. Of course. He slipped his arm around her shoulders and led her out of the waiting room. Sarah grinned and abandoned her chair. She trailed after the bodyguards, who maintained a clear view of Nicholas while also respecting his privacy. Never one to ignore attractive, dangerous looking men, Sarah asked to see their weapons permits after displaying her badge as a member of the local law enforcement community. Nicholas had escorted Hannah down the hospital corridor, where they now stood just outside the intensive care cubicle that housed Mrs. Cassidy.

What are you doing here? Hannah asked, her concern for his safety apparent when she glanced at the two armed men hovering nearby. Ive brought a letter for your mother from Sean. Nicholas should you she began. He settled his hands on her shoulders. Its fine. Why not FedEx his letter to me? Ive never been to St. Louis. Interesting place, from what Ive seen of it. He smiled at the consternation in her eyes. Im going to spend a few minutes with your mother. Wait here for me, alright? You dont even know her. He smoothed his fingertips across her cheek, his light caress reaching into her heart as she looked up at him. Sean asked me to deliver it personally and then read it to her if the need arose. And I expect to get to know her quite well in the years ahead. He frowned as he took in her hollow cheeks and the shadows beneath her eyes. Youve lost weight. Arent you feeling well? She huffed out a gust of air, baffled by his presence and his concern. Hed just admitted that he was in St. Louis because of Sean, not because hed missed her or wanted to be with her. Hannah? She answered his question. I lost my appetite. Ive been worried about Mom. Ive spoken to her doctor. Hes given me a very thorough overview of her medical situation and her longterm prognosis. Im very glad the surgery was so successful. Youve spoken to her doctor? How? When? She pressed her fingertips to her temples. Why do I suddenly feel as though Im in another solar system right now? Please dont ever change, he said as he chuckled. May I see your mother for a few minutes? Of course, but you must be careful with her. I havent gone into any real detail about how much Seans changed since she last saw him. I didnt want to risk the truth of his condition quite yet. His good humor disappeared. Do you trust me to do what is best for everyone concerned? I trust you completely where Seans concerned, and I know youd never hurt my mother.

He drew her into his arms, enveloping her with his strength. She felt like crystal that could shatter at any moment, not to mention terrified that he might leave as abruptly as hed arrived. Sliding her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek against his shoulder, she absorbed the tremor that rippled throughout his sturdy body. But you dont trust me to do whats best for you? he finally asked. She eased back in his embrace and looked up at him. I want to. Good girl. Now, will you wait here for me? I dont need more than a few minutes with your mother. Ill wait but should you even be here? she asked, too worried now about his safety to be subtle. He sobered. Im tired of hiding. She looked past him. And those men? Theyre He shrugged. Old friends. Im still cautious, but Ive given up my paranoia. Youve been a very good influence on me, Hannah Cassidy. She stood in the open doorway as he approached her mother, introduced himself, and then asked if she would listen to a letter written to her by her eldest son. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she heard the almost childlike tone of the letter Sean had written. Having seen her brothers vulnerability firsthand, she understood what an incredible effort the short missive must have been for him. She also felt certain that Nicholas had helped him to write it. Before I leave you so that you can get your rest, Mrs. Cassidy, I want you to know that Sean has expressed his hope that youll visit northern Nevada when your health improves. As Im sure you can tell by his letter, hes undergone many changes since you last saw him changes that must be accommodated for his peace of mind. Nicholas leaned forward to listen to a comment from Jessica Cassidy. And although she couldnt hear her mothers words, Hannah heard his reply and the reassuring tone of his voice. Seans body is healthy, Mrs. Cassidy, but his emotional state is fragile. Hes reluctant to leave his home or to travel long distances, but Hannahs visit helped him to understand that he needs his family, more now than ever. When youre ready to make the journey, Ill send my private jet for you and youll be my guest during your stay. Sean and I have a close friend who is a physician, so youll have the best possible medical care available to you at all times. Hannah knows how to reach me when youre ready.

Nicholas wished Jessica Cassidy a speedy recovery and promised to visit her again. After exiting her cubicle, he silently led Hannah to a vacant hospital room some distance down the long hallway. He shut the door, only to turn toward her and find her backing away from him. She felt the risk to her already battered emotions escalate with every second they spent alone. She paused, forced to a stop when she felt the edge of an empty, unmade hospital bed dig into the backs of her thighs. Nicholas frowned at her as he loosened the knot of his tie, jerked the length of silk free of his collar, and stuffed it into his pocket. He opened the top two buttons of his shirt. Talk to me, Hannah. What are you thinking right now? For Gods sake, who can think? she demanded. I still cant wrap my mind around the fact that youre actually here or that Seans agreed to see Mom or that youve just talked her into visiting him in Nevada. Im actually here at Seans request and because I want to be here, inviting her to visit Nevada was his suggestion, and your Mom likes to travel. End of story, so the only relevant topic left is us. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and tossed it onto the bed behind her. Quit undressing. Come here, Hannah. She stayed put, her chin coming up as she studied him. You cannot even begin to imagine how hungry I am for you or how much I need to feel you in my arms right now. She glared at him. Nicholas, Im starting to feel like a yoyo, and I dont like the feeling. He grinned at her, took a step closer, and jerked her into his arms. He seized her hips, bringing them into intimate contact with his hard loins and muscular thighs. You feel just right to me. Hannah thought of a half dozen questions she wanted answered, but the feel of his powerful body rendered her mute. How, she wondered, could a man look dangerously sexy and jubilant at the same time? Nicholas claimed her mouth in a stunning display of carnal male dominance. She surrendered to the taste and heat of him as he ate at her lips and then plunged his tongue into her mouth. His behavior was so primal, she felt desire spill hotly into her bloodstream. He brought his hands forward, slid them beneath her sweater, and then filled them with her breasts. She trembled beneath his seductive assault, sighing into his mouth as he plucked her nipples to hard peaks of sensitivity.

They both abandoned all pretense of restraint. A souldeep need to touch, to reassure each other that they were really together, and to explore the primitive need exploding between them, sent them reeling into a world of sensation that threatened momentary detonation. Nicholas lowered one of his hands, traced a line down her abdomen with his fingertips, and cupped her mound. Hannah moaned as his long, narrow fingers curved possessively over her throbbing sex. She parted her jean covered legs, craving the intimacy of his caress. I want you, she whispered. Ive missed you so much. He rested his forehead against hers, his breathing ragged as he gentled his stroking fingers. As much as I want you right now, I cant take you here. Come home with me. He shook his head. I cant. Hannah stiffened, her heart plummeting. Youre leaving, arent you? I have to, but only She pulled free of him, turned away, and covered her face with her hands, trying to reclaim her composure. I have an appointment, but Ill be back later. Hannah lowered her hands to her sides, squared her shoulders, and walked to the door. Im not going anywhere. He caught her before she could open the door. Forcing her to turn around, Nicholas waited for her to look up at him. Hannah, I know youve been under a lot of pressure, but relax, will you? Everythings going to be fine, I promise. Ill be back soon. Ive heard those words before, she realized, not just that determined tone of voice. She glared at him then, her mind darting around like a moth attacking a light fixture on a hot summer night. How dare he look so pleased with himself, especially when she felt nearly disabled at the prospect of his impending departure? Nicholas shrugged into his suit jacket. Walk me to the elevator, why dont you? She nodded, suddenly furious with his apparent calm, but too distracted by the passage from St. Gregorys book that started to skip through her mind to put up much of a fight. She heard Nicholas speak each phrase in her head even as he pulled open the hospital room door and they made their way down the long corridor. She kept hearing his voice as he repeated one particular phrase over and over again.

Hannah stopped dead in her tracks, the puzzle in his mind finally coming together. Nicholas Benteen and Edmond St. Gregory had to be the same man. There was no other rational explanation for the similarities between Nicholas and the hero of the book. Nicholas paused in midstride and looked at her, concern and confusion in his eyes as she stared up in shock at him. Hannah? Somehow, she found the courage she needed, the courage to repeat the phrase that echoed repeatedly in her head. Tender is the mercy of a lover, for she will liberate my soul and heal my heart. He paled. Let me be that lover, Nicholas. He took her by the shoulders and gently backed her against the nearest wall. Towering over her, he said quietly, You are, Hannah. Tears filled her eyes. He smoothed his hands over her shoulders, down her arms, and back up again. His gaze narrowed, and his expression grew more vulnerable than shed ever seen it during their time together. You are that lover, Hannah. Youve already liberated my soul and healed my heart. Thats why Im here. I thought you realized that. She gripped the lapels of his suit jacket. Youve been to hell. I refuse to allow you to go back. He smiled at her. I dont plan to, especially since youve taken me to heaven. Youre stuck with me, little girl. Youre Edmond St. Gregory. He winced. Guilty. Why didnt you tell me? Why didnt you trust me with the truth? We were a little busy with other things, but I intended to tell you when the time was right. He glanced at his watch. Where are you going now? I have an appointment with a realtor. Why are you really here? He looked dumbfounded by her question. You really have to ask? Answer me, she whispered. Im making some major changes in my life. Buying property, that sort of thing. Think about it, Hannah. Why a realtor? You can stay with me whenever you want to visit St. Louis.

Obviously surprised, he said, Well have different requirements once were married. Your condos too small. We need more space. Well have a security team when we arent in Nevada, but they wont bother us. She felt light headed. Was that a proposal? I guess it was. He brought his hands up and gently cupped her head. I love you, Hannah Elaine Cassidy. When a man finds a woman who is capable of accepting him for himself, hed be a fool to let her get away. When a man discovers a woman who believes in him and who is strong enough to understand and forgive his past, hes finally able to stop wrestling with his conscience and his selfdoubt. He welcomes that woman into his life and his heart, and he thanks God that they found each other in time to make a life together. And when a man loves a woman whos that unique, he damn well marries her. You make it sound so simple, she said. I dont want to live my life without you, he said with heartfelt sincerity before he dropped a hard kiss on her parted lips. It wont be simple or easy. Your safety means everything to me, so well need to be careful. Ill have to travel back and forth between Nevada and St. Louis, since I wouldnt ask you to give up your teaching or your work as a child advocate. And perhaps someday youll decide to work with children in Nevada. I want you to be happy, Hannah, and I want a life with you. Well find a way to make it work if youll take a chance on us. She trembled, too overwhelmed by her love for Nicholas and the emotions going wild inside her to do anything but stare up at him. I hoped youd approve of the changes Ive already begun to make. I want to be whole, Hannah, not continue this halflife Ive been living for so long. But most of all, I want you, and I dont intend to live in fear of the unknown or allow threats from obscure Third World adversaries from my past to stand in the way of our happiness. Youre making me a little crazy. He laughed. I thought Id make you into something else. What? All of the humor left his face. My wife, if youll have me, Hannah. You havent said youll marry me. Ill have you! Hannah exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck. Of course, Ill marry you. I love you so much. He brought her even closer, embracing her with the tenderness and warmth shed always known were essential parts of his personality. I adore you, Hannah Cassidy.

Nicholas kissed her then, a searching, scintillating kiss that drew a whistle from Sarah, applause from the people waiting for the elevator, and broad smiles from his two armed bodyguards.


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