"Hot and fast from beginning to end."Kate Douglas
Cara Paulsen does not give up easily. A scientist and a single mother, she's used to fighting for what she wants, keeping a cool head, and doing whatever it takes to protect her daughter Janie. But "whatever it takes" has never before included a shotgun wedding to a dangerous-looking stranger with an attitude problem. . .
Sure, the mysterious Talen says that he's there to protect Cara and Janie. He also says that he's a three-hundred-year-old vampire. Of course, the way he touches her, Cara might actually believe he's had that long to practice. . .
Release date: March 1, 2011
Print pages: 324
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“Mama! Mama, wake up.” Tiny hands clutched at Cara’s worn nightshirt, shaking with all their might. Cara’s eyes flew open, and her heart hitched in her chest. Terrified blue eyes speared her through the dusk of the morning. The little girl must have had another nightmare. “Janie, sweetheart, what?”
“They’re coming. They’re coming now, the bad men. We have to run.” Janie’s breath came in sharp gasps before she let out a high-pitched sob.
Cara shook her head, reaching out to enfold her daughter in a hug. She slowed her own breathing, the need to comfort her child overwhelming her. Poor Janie. Not another nightmare. She reached for her reading glasses on the table only to realize she’d fallen asleep with them on. Again. The newest edition of Botanical Magazine hadn’t been the barn-burner she’d expected.
She smoothed Janie’s hair down while silence echoed around them. Now more than ever, she wished Simon had lived, maybe he could have soothed their daughter’s fears. She flipped on the antique pink Depression glass lamp. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m sure it was just a bad drea—”
A loud crash came from the other room and Cara yelped. The sound of splintering wood propelled her to action. She leapt from the bed, yanked Janie into her arms, and sprinted for the master bath, barely missing the potted fern in the corner. Her heart slamming against her ribs, she locked the door and rushed toward the small window. She failed to unlock it before the thin door burst open behind her.
A broad hand stopped the door from clanging against the wall. At least six and a half feet of muscle-packed male filled the doorway.
With a cry, she dropped Janie to her feet and dodged in front of the four-year-old. The air caught in her throat and her ears started to ring as adrenaline spiked through her blood. This was not happening. She yanked her head to the side and forced herself to accept the situation. Accept that she needed to fight. She dragged oxygen into her tight lungs and searched the tiled counter for a weapon—her tweezers probably wouldn’t harm anybody.
She pushed Janie back against the wall. Retreating a step, she held one hand out to ward off the threat. His size made her gulp. Brown eyes raked her from his hard cut face, and raven black hair reached his collar with a freedom that disavowed any ties to the military—although he wore the requisite flack boots and dark jeans under a bulletproof vest. She’d seen the gear on a Discovery Channel special about soldiers.
The energy emanating from him stole her breath.
“Get out,” she said, shielding her child. Trying to shield herself from the feelings he threw at her. Anger, passion, and urgency all swirled together, mixing with her own panic and making her light-headed. Her knees wobbled, and her head began to ache. She usually blocked better than this. Or maybe his emotions were just that strong.
“We need to go.” His tone was water over sharp rocks, as if he was trying to gentle a naturally rough voice. Then his eyes dropped to her faded nightshirt to see the image of Einstein surrounded by shopping bags—”Quantum Shopping.” His top lip quirked up and a dimple winked. Her heartbeat slowed in response. Then he stalked a step closer, his hands at his sides, and her gaze flew to the gun on his hip, to the several knives secured in his vest.
Her heart leapt back into action. “You have the wrong house.” She glared up at his implacable face—a face cut from granite with a jaw made to take a punch. She’d have to jump to even come close.
The scent of spiced pine and male infused the room.
He shook his head. A pit the size of a large rock settled in her stomach as adrenaline slammed the room into sharp focus. Her breath came in short pants, and her scientific mind sought an answer. A way to take his massive frame down. She stamped down on the rising panic when nothing came to mind, and again searched for a weapon, spotting the tiny Fittonia “White Anne” in the terra-cotta planter. She couldn’t throw Annie at the man; the plant would never survive.
The intruder took another step to peer over her shoulder. “It will be okay. We have to go.” His large hand encircled Cara’s bicep before dragging her into the bedroom. Fear seized her vocal cords for a moment, and her mind scattered. Should she tell Janie to run? Could she slow him down long enough?
Then, with a muffled curse, he dropped her arm. A low growl emanated from him as he peered at his hand. He wiped it on his pant leg and grabbed her again. What had been on her shirt?
The phone near the bed caught her eye, and she lunged for it. He jerked her back, his hand warm and firm on her arm. Cara dug her feet into the carpet but their forward momentum didn’t slow, so she tried to yank away as he pulled her toward a basket of clothes at the foot of the bed.
“Janie, follow us,” he tossed over his shoulder.
Cara coughed out air. He knew Janie’s name. This wasn’t random. Fear choked her again. “How do you know her name?”
He pivoted until she smacked flush against him. Heat filled her, surrounded her. His hands settled on her arms, and his determination and intent beat at her. Damn it. She couldn’t block him—she sucked as an empath. Then he lowered his head.
“I know both of your names, Cara. Listen. My name is Talen Kayrs, and I won’t hurt you. I’m here to help.” Determined eyes captured her while he gave her a moment. “Take a deep breath. I can feel your power. You can find the truth here. You know I won’t hurt you.” His voice rumbled low. Soothing.
Her body softened from his tone even as her mind rebelled. Her breathing evened out. Danger radiated out of the man, but she could sense no intention to harm her. Or Janie.
Janie tugged on her waist. “It’s okay, Mama. We have to go. They’re coming.”
Cara stepped to the side and nodded. “Fine. We’ll leave. We can follow you.” If she could just get Janie to the car—
He grinned, flashing even white teeth. “You can’t lie worth spit. You have one minute to throw on clothes.” The sound of his rough voice shot nerve endings alive through her skin. But not from fear. He turned toward the door.
“No.” She again tried to wrench away while her body tingled where it met his.
“Then you go in your pajamas.” He grabbed the basket of clothes in his other arm while he towed her into the hallway. “Keep up, Janie.” The little girl stumbled behind, keeping her hands glued to Cara’s waist.
“Wait, no, Mama,” Janie cried out, pulling on her mother. “I need Mr. Mullet.” Her voice rose to a shrill sob.
Talen whirled around and squinted over Cara’s shoulder. “Mr. Mullet?” He eyed the living room entrance and then focused on the little girl.
Cara pressed a hand against his chest, settling her stance to protect her child. “Mr. Mullet is her stuffed bear—she doesn’t go anywhere without him.” If Janie could leave the room, Cara could really fight.
Talen raised an eyebrow, his gaze thoughtful. “Hurry, Janie. Get the bear—we have to go.”
Quick as a flash, Janie darted from the room. Dark eyes met Cara’s and she wavered, then shot her knee upward to his groin, simultaneously punching her fist toward his face with a fierce grunt.
He shifted, allowing her knee to connect to the muscle of his upper thigh while his arm shot out to stop her punch. His broad hand enclosed her fist inches away from his chin, and the slap of skin on skin echoed around the room. The basket of clothes remained safe in his free arm.
Pain lanced through her leg, and fear cascaded down her spine. Panting out breath, she waited for retaliation. If he hit her, he’d knock her out. What about Janie?
Talen tilted his head to the side, his hand warm around hers. “Is your leg all right?”
He asked about her leg? Seriously? She’d just tried to turn him into a eunuch. “Fine,” she hissed through her teeth.
“Hmmm,” he said, twisting his hand to grasp her wrist and yank her into the living room. “You might want to work on not broadcasting your intent with those pretty blue eyes next time.” Mere politeness colored his tone, not an ounce of anger to be found.
Cara stumbled, truly off balance for the first time that evening.
“I got him, Mama,” Janie chirped, running into the room with the stuffed bear and her worn blankie. “We can go now.”
The front door hung drunkenly split in two. At the sight, Cara began to struggle again. With an exasperated sigh, Talen dropped the basket of clothes, shifted her to the side, and lifted Janie into his arms.
“No!” Cara cried out, reaching for her daughter before pounding on his broad back. Pure instinct moved her to protect Janie, and rage choked her as she beat on his dark vest.
“Get the clothes and move it,” he growled over his shoulder. He crossed the front porch, heading toward a black Hummer idling at the curb.
Cara threw herself against the man holding her child, knocking over the basket. Clothes scattered across the wooden planks.
“Let her go, you bastard!”
He may not intend harm, but he had no right to kidnap them. She clutched one arm around his massive neck as her knees dug into his spine. She jerked hard against his windpipe. A rush of anger slammed through her body, pushing out the fear.
Even with her struggling on his back, his long strides continued toward the vehicle unhampered. He yanked open the rear door, placed Janie in a booster seat, and buckled her in with quick motions. Cara moved to jump off him, only to have him close the door, grab her arm, and pull her around. Two strong hands held her aloft. Hard steel met her backside when he stepped into her, his face lowering to hers. “Stop fighting me.”
His strength was unbelievable. Her own vulnerability beat into her as she realized her nightshirt had risen to reveal pale pink panties. The cool night air rushed across her bare legs. Dark denim scratched the tender skin of her inner thighs, and she opened her mouth to scream.
One swift movement and his mouth covered hers. Hot, firm, and somehow restrained. The effort of his restraint belted into her. He fought to control himself. Heat slammed through her. A roaring filled her ears and her breath hitched. Her heart slowed, and time stopped. For a brief moment, his heartbeat echoed throughout her body to a spot below her stomach.
He growled low and his mouth moved over hers, no longer silencing her, but tasting. Exploring. One thick arm swept around her waist and pulled her into him; the other lifted to tangle a hand in her hair. He tugged, angled her head more to the side. He went deeper.
She moaned as his tongue met hers. He explored her mouth like he owned it. For a moment, he did. She forgot everything. There were only his lips on hers, demanding. Promising. His heat warmed her as she returned his kiss, pushing closer into his hard body, forgetting reality.
Pure strength surrounded her. Hot. Dangerous. Tempting. Then a bird screeched high above and awareness crashed into her.
She jerked her head back, her lips tingling, her mind spinning. Deep brown eyes kept her gaze. His arm tightened around her waist while he raised his head farther.
“Don’t scream.” His voice had deepened to something guttural, something that added to the fluttering in her lower stomach.
“Mama?” Janie’s voice wavered from inside the vehicle.
“She can’t see us—I have the privacy screens up,” Talen murmured.
Great. So no one could see in, either. Smart kidnapper.
“Tell her it’s all right.” He released Cara’s hair to allow space between them.
“No. Let us go.” Reality cascaded back with the coldness of his moving away. What had she done? She brought her elbow down on his collarbone. Hard. A shaft of pain shot up her arm, and her eyes widened. How did that not injure him?
He grinned, amusement softening his hard mouth. Releasing her, he yanked open the passenger side door and lifted her inside, snapping the seat belt before she could blink. Then his face was in hers again. “Undo this belt and I’ll bind you.”
The door slammed, and he was back in the car before she drew another breath. His words should have frightened her. But instead, fury threatened to explode out of her. She tamped down on it with a scientist’s mind—she’d get out of this.
With a screech of tires, he pulled the Hummer into the quiet street. She searched frantically for some type of weapon. Mere minutes had passed since Janie had awoken her—they were taken so quickly, nobody would even know they were gone. She flashed her gaze toward the now silent man. The early light of dawn filtered through the tinted windows and danced across the hard planes of his face. She studied him, searching for a weakness. Any weakness.
“Janie, you’ll be safe soon.” Kindness wove through his words.
Cara swung her head around. “It’s going to be okay, Janie,” she whispered to her daughter, fighting tears.
Janie, her blue eyes sparkling, grinned back. “I know, Mama. I knew Talen was coming.”
“Yeah. I dreamed about him. But I didn’t know when.” Grinning, she clutched her worn teddy bear to her chest, snuggling her nose into his fluffy hair.
Cara faced the front, her mind whirling. She was in the middle of an experiment at work—she needed to be there tomorrow. What if she rolled down the window and screamed? Would anybody hear?
“I’m not going to hurt you, Cara.” He entered the empty highway.
She worried her lip with her teeth. Miss Kimmie would be the first to know they were gone when Janie didn’t show up for preschool tomorrow. She’d call someone, right? Or just assume Janie was home sick with the stomach virus going around the class? “So how about you let us go, um, Talen?” She wondered if he were crazy, if she could somehow reason with him.
He flashed her a glance at the use of his name and heat rushed to her face. “I can’t let you go.”
Nope, no reasoning with him. “Why not?” She slid her hand down to her belt buckle.
“I wasn’t kidding about binding you.” His warning rumbled through the small space. She jerked her hand back to her lap. “You’re in danger, more than you can understand right now.”
Oh, she understood all right. She straightened in her seat when he exited the highway at the edge of Mercy Lake, her safe little town on the outskirts of Boston. Her stomach dropped as she realized there was only one place they could be going. “You’re taking us to the private airport?”
“Why?” The exclusive airport was used only for corporate jets and small water planes.
“Because that’s where the plane is.” His tone didn’t invite further discussion.
“I can’t fly somewhere in my nightshirt.” The comment slipped out before she could stop herself.
He turned in surprise, flashing a smile that did odd things to her belly. Man, she was losing it. “I told you to bring the basket of clothes.”
“Listen,” she tried reasoning with him again. “Let us go, and we won’t tell anybody. I promise.”
“I appreciate that,” Talen said dryly. “But I told you I can’t. You’re in danger.”
“Right. Danger.” Dread pooled in her stomach as they rolled to a stop before a sleek silver jet. He switched off the ignition and silence echoed throughout the space. He turned to her, raising an eyebrow.
“Are we going to have a problem getting on the plane?”
“We are not getting on that plane.” She needed to get Janie out of the car so they could run for help. She unsnapped her belt.
A hand on her arm and one at her hip easily lifted her over the console to settle on his lap where her ass briefly rested against the hard ridge of a well-built man. Another smooth motion and they were outside the vehicle with her cradled in his arms. His broad hand had protected her head from the steel carriage, even as she fought his hold.
She jammed an elbow into his ribs.
His face dipped to confront hers. “Cara. Enough. I doubt you want your daughter to see you slung over my shoulder being carried onto the plane. Flashing those pretty pink panties.”
Cara gaped at him, her breath coming in short gasps. He took advantage of the reprieve to drop her to her feet and open the rear door. “Unbuckle Janie.”
His warm body trapped her in place; she had no choice but to unbuckle her daughter. She lifted Janie up and small arms clutched her neck. “They’re still coming,” Janie whispered.
“I feel them, too,” Talen said, his breath stirring her hair. One hand enclosed her arm in a vise. “Let’s get out of here.” He slammed the door shut.
Waves of urgency battered Cara from both sides, propelling her toward the silent plane even as her mind rolled with questions. With reservations. Maybe she and Janie should try to take the Hummer.
“Stop thinking so hard.” Talen released her arm while giving her a gentle push up the small steps. “We’re leaving. Now.”
“Go, Mama. Hurry,” Janie implored.
Cara gave in. She climbed up the steps to sit on a thick grey couch. Janie snuggled up to her side with a sigh of relief, and Cara buckled them both in. Talen secured the door and reached into a cubby above the windows for a blue blanket, which he handed to Cara with a grin. No threat came from him, at least none directed at her. As he dropped into a seat facing her on the couch across the narrow aisle, the engines roared to life, and the plane taxied toward the runway.
Talen allowed himself to relax as the plane leveled off. They were safe. He smiled at Janie while the girl studied him. She was awful tiny to have demolished three centuries of peace. Crocus blue eyes shot curiosity and daring from her young face as she spoke. “So, are you going to protect us?”
Cara jumped at the child’s voice. The small jet lifted into the air like a predator on a mission while two pairs of identical blue eyes focused across the tiny aisle.
“Is that all right with you?” He turned his gaze on the child. She fascinated him. So fragile, even the whispering wind would threaten her. A real child. Human.
Janie squinted before looking his frame up and down, and reaching a decision, she nodded solemnly, her “yes” a bare whisper of sound. The knuckles on her tiny fingers clenched white on her mother’s hand.
Talen remained silent for a moment, taking in the pale features of the two females. The blue blanket enfolded them both. Knowing full well what he pledged, he spoke. “Yes. I’m here to protect you.” His vow threaded through the cozy cabin, and the child let out her breath with a smile while Cara frowned, glancing around. Probably for a weapon.
He knew what he’d promised, and since he hadn’t broken a promise in his long life, he refused to start now. He studied the two as the plane gained altitude. Both had long, curly hair the color of burnished teak, deep blue eyes, and delicate bones. Something close to protectiveness nudged his conscience.
Janie gave him a toothless grin. “So you comed for us. Finally.”
She tugged the tattered brown bear closer to her chest, and Talen grinned. Mr. Mullet did indeed wear a faded blue mullet as his hairstyle. Talen settled into the plush couch. “I’m here for you, Janie.”
“Who are you?” Cara pulled Janie even closer.
Talen sighed. “I’ll explain once we get to DC, Cara. All I can tell you right now is that you’re safe.”
“I don’t think so. What the hell’s in DC?”
“Who is in DC.”
“All right”—her pretty eyes narrowed to daggers—”who the hell is in DC?”
The muted interior lights illuminated her fragile features. The stirring in his loins now made sense to him. He’d felt the change in his skin, in his blood the second he’d touched her, and now had proof of their connection on his palm. Forever. He refrained from studying his hand again—he’d do so later. “The Director of the U.S. Marshal’s Service.”
“You aren’t a U.S. Marshal.” She hurled the words as an accusation. A dare, even.
He grinned. “Not even close, darlin’.”
The accusation and dare he could’ve ignored, but the plea, the concern from a mother attempting to protect her child, well, even he couldn’t disregard that. And considering they had just become his, he should try to make them happy.
“I don’t know all of the details, only that you’re in danger. The life you’ve been leading is now over.”
“What kind of danger?”
He studied her, wondering how much he should reveal. The woman looked to be on the edge, and unfortunately, there wasn’t much he could do about it—if he told her everything, well …
“Your eyes are wrong.” Janie’s soft voice wound through the shrill sound of high-end jet engines.
“My eyes?” He fought a grin. His brother Dage was correct, as usual. Janie was beyond gifted, beyond a normal psychic.
“Yes. They’re not sposta’ be brown.”
“Maybe they aren’t,” he agreed.
“Contacts—like on TV?” Janie scrunched her face in a frown.
“Contacts,” he affirmed.
“Can you take ’em out?”
“Not yet. Later I will.”
“Okay.” The little girl leaned against her mother before closing her eyes with a sigh.
A chill skittered along Cara’s spine as she listened to the exchange. What was wrong with his eyes? Why did Janie know about it already? Why did the sweet child have to see the future at all?
If Miss Kimmie didn’t call to check on them, then surely Dr. Phillips, Cara’s boss, would call. The jerk was under a deadline to keep his grant, and he needed her at work. Her research into creating a virus that would enhance the crop yield of corn showed enough promise to glean two solid grants for the next year. And oh God. Her sister Emma would go freaking crazy. She’d tear apart the U.S. Marshal’s Service to find them.
Cara straightened in her seat, digging her nails into her moist palms as Talen kept his gaze on her. She lifted her chin to glare at the large man sitting so relaxed across the aisle. His size made her feel small. Vulnerable. Feminine.
He had a body designed for billboards. His thick chest, narrow waist, and long legs showed power and strength. Bold eyes sat in a hard face softened not at all by its own beauty; a masculine starkness that would render an observer speechless from afar. This close the effect was devastating.
“It’s going to be all right, Cara.” His voice gentled as he settled farther back in the couch. “You’re safe now.”
She refused to answer and continued to study him. Dark eyebrows slashed over those brown eyes that apparently weren’t quite right. High cheekbones protruded as ridges over deep hollows, and his jaw clenched strong and formidable. And his mouth. God. Full lips didn’t hint at a hidden sensuality; they boldly promised heated sex. Without apology. Minutes before those same lips had been on hers, and as they tipped up at her appraisal, a stirring tickled in her belly. An unfamiliar stirring the scientist in her yearned to investigate.
The woman deep within knew better.
He gave a full grin. “I suggest you get some rest, darlin’. Life just became very interesting.”
“What about my plants?” she mumbled, hating the words even as they tumbled out of her mouth. What the heck? She and Janie had just been taken by an enormous soldier who kissed like the devil, and she was worried about her plants.
Talen lifted an eyebrow. “Your plants at your house?”
She nodded, biting her lip.
“I’ll take care of it.” At her frown, he nodded. “I promise, Cara. Your plants will be cared for.” He cleared his throat. “Any other concerns?”
Pure arrogance, this man. “Yes. My sister Emma will go crazy trying to find us.” As soon as tomorrow night, when they were supposed to have dinner. “I need to call her.” Their parents had died just before Cara had turned sixteen; eighteen-year-old Emma had raised her from that point. As always, they’d make a plan together.
A slow shake of Talen’s head had the nerves jumping along Cara’s skin. “No. Let’s get to the Marshal’s service, and we’ll figure everything out from there. Don’t worry about the plants or your sister—you can trust me. Now try to get some rest.” He crossed his long legs at the ankles and closed his eyes.
She had no choice but to trust him. Her plants would be all right, and she’d figure out a way to get a hold of Emma. Next to her, Janie mumbled in her sleep. Damn it. Janie had a play date with a new friend tomorrow. And Cara had a grown-up date. The first one in—God, how long? The accountant who’d been calling her for months suddenly seemed, well, small. Boring. Pasty. Cara turned away from the bulky soldier relaxing across the aisle. Wide awake, she watched the clouds flash by out the window.
Two hours later Cara stared at the maple conference table while Janie happily ate a doughnut next to her. Crumbs dropped like snow on the smooth surface. They had been waiting for thirty minutes in the innocuous metal building to the left of the sm. . .
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