Born in Danger

Born in Danger

Susan Kearney

July 2014 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-504-1

Book 2 of The Braddacks

 
Our PriceUS$13.95
Code978-1-61194-504-1
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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She kidnapped the groom . . . 

And in one afternoon, billionaire Ford Braddack’s life of privilege, ease, and wealth alters. He’s thrust into a world of danger and intrigue with sexy Private Investigator Devlin Ward, who has been hired to find his wife’s murderer. 

Devlin needs Ford’s connections, and he’s more than up for the challenge. Of course he’s going to help. And he’ll rely on her savvy street smarts to further the investigation—especially when the murderer stalks them across two continents. 

While Devlin is surprised by Ford’s fierce protectiveness, she’s even more stunned by the feelings she’s been denying. And the secrets she’s been keeping are bound to get out. 

Romantic sparks are flying. But so are the bullets . . .

 


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Excerpt

Chapter One

A GROOM SHOULD be happy or at least eager on his wedding day, but roiling thunderclouds reflected Ford’s mood. Thirty weeks and four days had passed since his precious Rhonda had died in the avalanche.

He should be done grieving. He wasn’t.

He ought to accept her death, but he couldn’t.

Adjusting his bow tie, he looked in the mirror and scowled at the dark circles under his eyes. What had happened to his renowned control? Since he’d awakened from a coma to learn of his beloved wife’s murder, he’d functioned by ruthlessly suppressing his grief. As he slipped into the black jacket of his tuxedo and tugged on the cuffs, he couldn’t help remembering how Rhonda’s eyes had shone with pleasure as she’d performed the wifely task for him.

His inability to sleep most nights would disappear with his new marriage. Lindsay Betancourt would make a fine wife, easing the sadness and loneliness that weighed on his heart. He had to accept he would never love another woman like his Rhonda and shed the sorrow that weighed like lead on his chest. He had to move on, recover, get on with his life.

He didn’t regret giving Lindsay carte blanche over the wedding arrangements when it had made her so happy. If she’d asked his opinion, he’d have chosen a quiet ceremony with only family and close friends, instead of the extravaganza she’d planned. And he’d much prefer driving his sports car rather than riding in his company’s stretch limo. But she’d planned the frilly details and hadn’t asked anything of him but to show up at the church on time.

He straightened his collar with distaste. Yet if wearing this tight-necked monkey suit made Lindsay happy, he’d do it, grateful for such an easy way to indulge her. Determined to make a success of this marriage, he shoved aside his brooding over last-minute doubts. All grooms had second thoughts. With strict, practiced control of his emotions, he thrust his reservations aside. He’d spoil Lindsay, and in return, his loneliness would ease.

He would not take after his older brother Craig who had lost his wife in a recent drowning accident. Craig had withdrawn from family and friends. He’d let his business interests slide. Ford was made of sterner stuff. He was going to live his life. Rhonda would have wanted him to be happy.

Checking his watch, Ford frowned. Where was the limousine?

Patting his pocket to ensure he had the rings to give to Max, his identical twin and best man, Ford rolled his luggage outside because the staff had the week off. The security system was activated. He’d cleared his desk of work for the week. Determined not to show up late for his wedding, he waited, impatient for the limo to arrive.

Gray thunderheads furrowed the Louisiana sky. Steamy humidity clung to his flesh and dampened his clothes. Lightning zigzagged earthward, and thunderclaps warned of an early fall storm. As Ford walked from the shelter of the house, the skies opened, spattering the brick walkway with fat droplets.

Finally. The white limousine pulled through the electronically opened wrought-iron gates and onto his driveway. He didn’t recognize the uniformed chauffeur from the company driving pool, who without a word of greeting exited the vehicle, his face hidden by a cap drawn low over his face. The driver produced an umbrella and held open the passenger door while Ford slipped into the car.

He’d barely seated himself and brushed the stray drops of rain from his hair before the door slammed with an ominous thud. The driver carelessly tossed the luggage into the trunk. Ford opened his mouth to complain, but hail the size of marbles pelted the car’s roof, setting off an enormous din. He fastened his seat belt, and as the driver jerked away from the curb, Ford glanced at the car door.

The handle was gone.

His gaze darted to the far door. Another missing handle. The hardware’s absence was no coincidence. The prickling hairs on his neck turned to a full-fledged stab of alarm. He couldn’t open the door from inside the vehicle.

Despite the hail pinging against the roof, he pressed the electric window switch. The glass didn’t budge. What the hell was going on?

He reached for his cell phone.

The driver behind the bulletproof shield tapped the glass. With his phone.

Damn it. The driver must have picked his pocket as he’d slid into the vehicle.

Ford picked up the limo’s phone. But it was dead.

Looking out the window at the familiar route to the church, his temper welled up like lava. While the New Orleans downpour might be normal, this limo ride was not. Trying to break out a window was not an option. His entire car came equipped with bulletproof glass. Until someone from outside opened the car door, he was incarcerated. He commanded thousands of employees with a crook of his finger, transferred millions of dollars with a punch of a button, but he couldn’t control where his damn car took him.

He rerouted his rippling anger into precise, constructive analysis, putting the intellect that had made him several fortunes to work. Possibilities raced through his mind. A man in his position had many enemies, but he couldn’t think of one who’d go to such extremes. Whoever set up this operation had gone to considerable trouble. Unfortunately, the time and location of his wedding had made the papers so anyone could have anticipated his schedule.

When the limousine passed the empty church parking lot, the magnitude of this operation sank in. Where was everyone? Somehow his huge society wedding had been canceled. Had his bride been kidnapped, too?

He gritted his teeth in frustration and took a moment for his thoughts to race past the astonishing fact that not one family member had called to commiserate about his canceled marriage. His parents, Eva and Red, hadn’t phoned, and neither had his elder brother Craig, Max or his sister-in-law, Brooke.

No matter what reason his mother had been given for the change in plans, that his mother hadn’t called weighed heavily on his heart. Eva, the ultimate party planner, couldn’t resist interfering—helping, she called it—in her sons’ lives. That his foe could outsmart his mother chilled him to the spine.

Snapping on the intercom, Ford forced his tone to normalcy. "Where are you taking me?”

"To the airport,” a female voice replied, surprising him with her gender.

The rearview mirror angled downward, and he couldn’t see her face. Releasing his seat belt, he slid to the other side of the car and frowned. Her exotic cheekbones and delicate tawny skin looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her. Wisps of curly hair escaped her cap, and while she kept her hands steady on the wheel, the pulse in her throat beat wildly.

She wasn’t as calm as she appeared. Good. He could use that to his advantage.

"In the pocket behind my seat is a pair of handcuffs.” She issued instructions in a voice accustomed to giving orders. "Place them over your wrists and lock them.”

In your dreams, lady.

Ford hadn’t felt this helpless since Rhonda had died. Not only had he been unable to prevent her death, he lived with the failure of locating and identifying her murderer. That he’d hired the best private investigators and they’d found nothing didn’t ease his need for justice. Being forced to face a dead end hadn’t sat well with him. Neither did being forced to don handcuffs.

Seething, he swung around until his back rested on the seat with his soles placed against the rear window. Jerking his knees to his chest then straightening his legs, he rammed his heels into the glass.

The window didn’t crack. The driver didn’t say a word. With a muffled curse, he repeated his kick twice more, receiving a wrenching jar to his joints for his effort. But the glass remained intact.

The handcuffs dangled tauntingly from the seat pocket. It didn’t help his temper to realize he wouldn’t be leaving this vehicle a free man.

"The car’s equipped with gas,” she informed him, her tone casual. "Unless you put on the cuffs, I’ll be forced to knock you out. The choice is yours.”

"Some choice.”

"The gas won’t hurt,” she assured him in a naggingly familiar voice, "but you’ll wake up with a ferocious headache.”

He straightened in his seat. "After the airport, where are you taking me?”

"We’ll refuel in London before flying to Bern.” He removed his bow tie and slipped it into his pocket. "What about customs? I don’t have a passport.”

"I’ve taken care of the travel arrangements.” Holding a passport to the glass partition separating them, she verified her statement. He recognized the coffee mark that had stained the cover during a bumpy flight from Saigon to Singapore.

Damn! He’d had that passport in his hands this morning. She or a cohort must have broken into his home, either while he’d caught a two-hour nap or during his shower. Only a pro could have successfully sneaked past his security system and picked his pocket.

"Who hired you? Who canceled my wedding, and where is my fiancee?”

The driver didn’t answer.

Frustration wrapped around his chest and squeezed. The lack of answers infuriated him almost as much as his lack of control over the situation.

Who could have arranged this?

Lindsay was the obvious suspect. His bride was in charge of the wedding. She had the phone numbers of guests, caterers and flower shops, but he couldn’t picture her canceling the wedding. She had nothing to gain from his kidnapping.

When his kidnapper drove past the New Orleans airport toward the private planes, his eyebrows rose a notch. A commercial flight with other passengers offered opportunities for escape, but now that chance would be denied him. However, there would be other chances—even if he had to create them. He’d survived tighter spots than this one, and he wouldn’t remain the victim for long or his name wasn’t Ford Braddack.

Biding his time, he took in the deserted private fields. Few pilots would choose to depart in this thunderstorm. Unfortunately, if she gassed him, no one would witness his body being carried aboard a plane.

He refocused his attention on the driver and used the direct approach to learn more about his abduction. "Why are you kidnapping me?”

"For the money,” she told him without a trace of shame.

"I’ll double your fee to let me go.”

She pulled off her cap and shook her head. Curly golden hair streaked with blond and honey cascaded past her shoulders. "I can’t accept.”

"Why not?” he pressed, curious what she wanted from him. She’d captured his attention, and it wasn’t just her brazen attitude or the defiant tilt of her head. There was something about her he should remember...

"I gave my word,” she explained. "To change sides would be dishonorable.”

He groaned. Lord save him from an honorable kidnapper. "At least tell me who hired you.”

"I don’t know.”

"What!”

The woman wasn’t just a little unhinged, she was certifiable. Or she’d reached the limit of information she was willing to share. Or she was lying.

She drove slowly to the electric gate of the Executive Center, for a moment cutting off his ability to speak through the intercom. She spoke crisply and confidently to the guard, "NC33NI. I’ve baggage to unload.”

He recognized the tail number of his Gulf Stream Five. The woman intended to kidnap him with his own plane.

Ford slammed his fist into the glass and waved, but the guard didn’t appear to notice him through the darkly tinted windows.

At the same time he spoke to the driver, unable to keep the sarcasm from his tone. "You don’t know who you work for?”

She drove through the gate and glanced at him in the mirror, her eyes wary but determined. "My assignments from this client come by mail, my fee paid in cash and delivered by messenger.”

"Where was the letter postmarked?”

"New Orleans.” She held up her hand to forestall his next question. "I tried to trace the messenger, but his boss had taken a cash order with no name or return address.”

He couldn’t think of a way to shake her story or bribe her and wished that didn’t impress him. Now was not the time to concede admiration for the enemy, but as a businessman, he knew the rarity of employee loyalty. He also appreciated the difficulty in carrying out a complex plan with such military precision.

He thumped his fingers on the armrest. "You’d risk jail time?”

"I don’t think you’ll report me.”

She said the words with such confidence, he could only conclude her employer meant to kill him—especially since she hadn’t concealed her face. Or maybe his foe wanted something from him before killing him.

His companies had many classified government contracts. Hiding his latest alarming thoughts behind a stoic expression, he vowed to react to the slightest opportunity for escape.

"You don’t remember me, do you?” Her soft question broke into his gloomy thoughts.

She tilted the mirror to reflect her face back at him. Her hair, a rich, glowing bronze-gold, tumbled carelessly down her back. Wispy bangs caressed her forehead. Tawny skin showed off generously curved lips, a straight nose and arched golden eyebrows. The defiant line of her jaw contrasted with the momentary hint of vulnerability flickering in topaz eyes emboldened with a dash of gold. Then her lids lowered, and he questioned whether the vulnerability had been there at all. He must have been mistaken.

"Have we met?” he asked, confounded by the disappointment in her expression.

"Once. At your wedding.”

He shrugged. Why was his failed memory of a brief encounter five years ago important to her? Now he must really be imagining things. "I’m afraid that was a long time ago.” Since then, he’d loved and lost Rhonda, had to go on alone and had to bear the knowledge that she’d been murdered without ever knowing she had a daughter. "Since then. I’ve met many people...”

"I thought I’d renew our acquaintance at Rhonda’s funeral. But you never showed.” Her eyes gleamed with an accusatory shimmer.

He kept his tone calm. "I was in a coma.”

"Don’t joke. There’s nothing funny about missing your wife’s funeral,” she said angrily.

"I’m telling the truth. I almost died in the avalanche.” Suddenly he wanted her to believe him, although he wasn’t sure why. "A rock hit me in the head. I spent several months recuperating in a hospital.”

"Odd how your family claimed you were in Europe—grieving.”

The driver knew a lot about his past, and that should be a clue to her identity, but he still couldn’t place her. She was the kind of woman he tended to notice. With her striking skin and hair, those topaz eyes and full lips, he failed to see how he could have forgotten her.

Was she a friend of Rhonda’s?

If she was out for revenge, setting her straight had to be his first priority. Only his parents, brothers and sister-in-law knew the truth, and they’d all lied to the press.

Ford kept his voice as reasonable as possible under the circumstances. "My family put out false information to protect me.”

"Protect you?”

"From Rhonda’s killer. My parents feared Rhonda’s murderer would return to kill me as I lay unconscious. So while I was in a coma in a New Orleans private hospital, they’d put out the word that I was still in Europe.”

"No one ever found your wife’s killer, did they?”

At the reminder of his failure, acid burned his stomach. "I spent a fortune on private investigators. None of them turned up a clue. It was as if her assassin vanished.”

"Those investigators you hired didn’t look hard enough.”

The driver sounded as if she’d had a personal stake in Rhonda’s death, a fact that contradicted his image of a hired kidnapper.

More confused than ever, he closed his eyes. Suddenly the pieces clicked.

"You’re Devin—Rhonda’s cousin.”

"Bingo.”

No wonder he hadn’t recognized her. Although roommates in college, Devin had never been around when he picked up Rhonda. After their wedding, he hadn’t seen Devin, although his wife had often spoken to her cousin on the phone. That’s why he recognized the voice; he’d taken messages.

He vaguely recalled the woman had majored in criminal justice and owned a P.I. firm. She’d never married—no wonder. He was beginning to think she had gone off the deep end.

"Just where in hell do you think you’re taking me?”

"I heard you once swore to track down Rhonda’s killer.”

He had, but how had she come by the information? His brothers wouldn’t repeat such a private confession, and he didn’t think Max’s wife, Brooke, would either.

When he remained silent, she stared at him accusingly. "I thought you might help me.”

According to Rhonda, Devin was a real loner. But his wife had never mentioned mental instability or a life of crime. At the time, he hadn’t pressed the issue, letting Rhonda deal with her relatives as she thought best.

Now he wished he knew more. He forced himself to focus on the present and put the past aside. "Help you how?”

"Find Rhonda’s killer,” she said as if he were denser than a pet rock. "My normal P.I. skills usually involve tracking cheating husbands and divorcees who avoid meeting their financial obligations to their ex-wives and children, not going after killers. Besides, I don’t know my way around Europe—”

"Hire a guide.”

"I don’t have your business or social connections.”

A lot of good his money and networking had done him when he’d tried to find the killer. "I told you already,” he repeated as if she were denser than wood. "I hired the best private investigators. None of them turned up a clue.”

Pride and a hint of challenge entered her tone. "You should have hired me.”


 

 

Chapter Two

FORD LEANED FORWARD in the seat, his eyes glinting with a savage inner chill. "You’ve found something?”

"Have you ever heard of the Black Rose?” Devin asked, dreading the consequences if she couldn’t win him to her cause. Not even the cancellation of his wedding and kidnapping him had shaken his infamous control.

"Is the Black Rose your employer?”

She shook her head, his suggestion enough to make her eyes sting. "I loved Rhonda, and I wouldn’t work for her killer. In fact, my client hired me to find the Black Rose. These past six months I’ve kept searching for clues concerning Rhonda’s death.”

While the police may have forgotten the murder, Devin hadn’t. The unsolved crime gnawed at her like an aching tooth.

"If you’ve found something, why didn’t you pick up the phone and tell the police?”

"They weren’t interested.”

"You could have spoken to me.”

"I was going to, but you didn’t show at Rhonda’s funeral.”

"So you thought I didn’t care,” he guessed.

"I thought you might have hired someone to kill her.”

At her words, his eyes narrowed with rage. His lips tightened, and if a stare could kill, she’d be dead meat.

"Look you have the means. You were right there.”

"I almost died, too. But I also had no motive.”

"Maybe. It’s my job to consider every option. At the moment, I’m inclined to believe you. My employee said you had nothing to do with Rhonda’s death, and I believe it.”

"How very good of you,” he spat sarcasm at her.

"After I heard you’d hired three different investigating teams, naturally, the best money could buy, I investigated on my own, but... I ran out of funds to pursue a European investigation. Then my client hired me to solve the murder and kidnap you.”

"And?”

"Now I have the means to go after the killer. If I have to, I’ll work alone, but your assistance will increase my chance of success.”

"You think I’m going to help you? Are you always this insane or just off your meds?”

Devin sighed. "Obviously winning your trust would have been easier if I could have openly approached you with the clues I’ve found and asked for your help.”

"You think?”

"But my client forbid that tactic, insisting that I kidnap you from your wedding before revealing what my investigation has uncovered.”

Ford rolled his eyes. "And why should I believe you?”

"Look, not everyone has your kind of money. I needed funding to go after Rhonda’s killer, so I have to follow my client’s wishes.”

As Devin stepped on the brake, parking inside Norton Industries’ hangar, she glanced back at Ford. He wasn’t buying her story. On first glance he appeared stoic. But a closer look revealed that his fingers bit into the soft leather seat, a muscle pulsed in his jaw and a lethal iciness frosted his eyes. His awesome control reminded her of the power he wielded, the respect he commanded in the financial world and how very much he had loved her cousin.

"So what’s this clue you’ve found that my experts missed?” he prodded.

"According to a maid at your Swiss hotel, a black rose was left on your wife’s pillow. The maid threw it away without mentioning it to the gendarmes during their investigation.”

"So what?”

"This is just a guess, but I think the killer left the flower as a calling card. There were two of them, by the way. One on each of your pillows.”

"So you don’t think I killed my wife, because there were two black roses?” His gaze pierced her with bold frankness.

"Yes. I think both of you were supposed to die in that avalanche.”

The American papers had lacked details on the skiing accident that had claimed Rhonda’s life. From the reports she’d read, the couple had been skiing the same Swiss slope. Was it simply fate that Ford had survived and her cousin had not?

Devin had a hunch Ford was telling the truth when he’d claimed he’d been in a coma. Oddly, the Swiss police report was just as deficient in facts as the news stories in the States. She softened her tone. "You were skiing together. How did you survive the avalanche?”

In the rearview mirror, she caught the taut look of horror on Ford’s rugged face and flinched. His eyelids compressed into a hard-bitten anger.

Sitting back, he crossed his arms over his broad chest. Fury and pain lurked in his eyes, and his lips tightened with disapproval. "Why did you cancel my wedding? What did you tell my family?”

His harsh questions rolled off her like rainwater on the limo’s hood. Clients often vented their fury on her, but never did a client draw her as he did. She made herself look at him. In his hot rage, he was compelling, and her blood thrummed at the sight of all that contained power. His dark hair emphasized the grim line of his square jaw, while the muscles flexing in his neck warned her to be careful. As his searing glare struck her like a thunderbolt, she realized she’d caused that smoldering hostility.

She fiddled with the gas switch, wondering if handcuffs would be enough protection from him. Even now, kidnapped and caged, he refused to answer her questions and instead, demanded answers. Feeling as if she held a predator at bay, she attempted to calm her jittery nerves by taking a deep breath.

"Why don’t we discuss our plans on the plane?” she said.

"My plans don’t include you. I’m not going anywhere until you supply answers.”

His voice was so shivery-cold that despite the protective glass between them, Devin recoiled. For a moment, she saw herself through his eyes. An unprincipled private investigator. A liar. A kidnapper. But no matter his opinion, she would never forget that Rhonda had been like a sister, and she owed her, bigtime.

So did Ford. Her cousin had loved him enough to risk her health to try and bear his child. Rhonda had thought Ford could walk on water. Years ago, for two college semesters, Devin had listened to her cousin sing Ford’s praises, but she’d never begrudged her the happiness she’d found.

Especially since she and Ford had never really met. Devin had liked seeing her cousin so happy. She hadn’t wanted to meet the man her cousin thought was perfect. It had been so much more fun imagining the dreamy, perfect man that her cousin loved than confronting the reality. Because from Devin’s perspective—the reality of a real man always disappointed.

So when Ford had called Rhonda from the phone in the lobby of the all-female dorm, she’d always gone downstairs to meet him, flying out of the room with a smile on her face.

Devin had stayed behind, dreaming how there must be someone out there for her. But it didn’t happen. So she’d had a secret fantasy life about Ford, the man she didn’t want to meet. Why spoil the image of perfection?

Even then Devin had known that no man could live up to the romantic perfection Rhonda had spoken about—not even Ford. So what if he was hot? And rich? And had the sexiest deep voice she’d ever heard?

Damn it! Devin admonished herself. She was supposed to be on a job—not on a trip down memory lane. She had no doubt meeting the real life Ford would reveal his flaws and banish all her silly fantasies about him, as well as lead them to Rhonda’s killer.

As she drove into the hangar, she reached forward, her fingers on the switch that would release the gas into the passenger compartment. Hoping he wouldn’t see through her bluff, she hardened her tone, "You prefer to sleep through the transfer to the plane?”

As if the gesture meant nothing, he plucked the handcuffs from the seat pocket and snapped the metal over his wrists. He moved so quickly, she lost the chance to demand he place his hands behind his back. Now it was too late.

Gulping air, she exited the car. When she opened the door, she half expected him to lunge and tackle her. A muscle pulsed in his jaw, the cords in his neck tightened above his loosened shirt collar, and there could be no mistaking the formidable menace in his stare. To her relief, he didn’t attack—for which she offered a silent prayer of thanks.

He held up his manacled wrists, a patronizing curl on his lips. "You do have a key to these?”

"On the plane,” she hedged, lying through omission since she had no intention of unlocking the cuffs until the plane flew past the turning-back point.

"Let’s go.” One step at a time. Get him on the plane. Then deal with the consequences.

He strode toward the plane, no doubt hoping the pilot might come to his rescue, but the man was procuring a last-minute weather report in the Executive Center.

"Wait a sec.” From the rear seat of the limo, she removed her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, leaving her hand free for his luggage—packed for his honeymoon. Thankful for the wheels that made towing the bag effortless, she followed him into the plane, leaving the baggage by the door for the pilot to stow.

"This way.” She led him to a padded leather chair. "Have a seat.”

When she pulled another pair of handcuffs from her pocket along with a syringe, he went still. She could see him half crouched, probably debating whether to tackle her.

"Don’t even think it,” she said. She raised the syringe without hesitation, yet wondered if she’d really use it. "I’m confining your ankles around the table post only while I go to the Exec Center to bring back your pilot.”

"Fine.”

He eased into the seat and stretched out his feet on either side of the post. His catlike movements reminded her of a panther curling up for a nap, relaxed, but ever ready to pounce.

Watching him warily, she restrained his ankles. She removed a gag from her pocket. "I can’t have you calling for help.”

He didn’t protest, but his scowling lips let her know exactly how he felt about this last indignity and warned her payback time wouldn’t be pleasant.

After tying the gag, she clasped her hands behind her back to hide their shaking. She must have been crazy to agree to kidnapping him. Only her love for Rhonda gave her the courage to proceed. Still, one glance into his dangerous eyes confirmed he would not soon forget or forgive what she’d done.

Her stomach churned with anxiety as she recalled Ford had made his fortune, not inherited it. His ruthlessness was feared by his competitors. Even his wife had been awed by him. And Devin had had the temerity to kidnap him from his wedding, handcuff and gag him aboard his own plane. He might be sitting helpless before her, but she was shaking so hard, she had to fight the urge to beg forgiveness.

She fled the plane and his accusing stare as fast as her legs would take her. On the way to fetch the pilot, she wiped her fingerprints off the syringe, broke the needle and tossed it into the glove compartment of the limo, where later one of her employees could see to its safe disposal.

She found the pilot and chatted with him, mentioning how anxious Mr. Braddack was to take off. Her hint worked, and for once luck was with her as the wind died and the rain ceased falling. After stowing their bags, the unsuspecting pilot climbed into the cockpit and began his preflight check.

When the jet’s engines revved to life, Devin, trying to calm her speeding heart, returned to Ford. As she untied the gag, the scent of his spicy cologne assailed her. Her fingers itched to smooth a stray strand of hair off his forehead. "I’ll unlock your ankles in a minute.”

Thick eyebrows raised, he cocked his head to the side. "What about my wrists?”

"I’ll be happy to remove those once we pass the halfway point.”

"And thenwhat’s to keep me from wringing your neck?” The violence of his statement contrasted vividly with his calm. His eyes were distant and hard. He used the same unemotional voice one might use to discuss the weather, his icy, controlled tone making him all the more menacing.

"Is that what happened to Rhonda?” she countered, resisting a shiver. "Did you leave black roses on the pillows, imitating—”

His eyes glittered like sapphires. His jaw clenched. "You know damned well Ididn’t kill her.” Despite her accusation, he spoke coolly, keeping his voice low, almost a growl.

At the threat in his tone, her stomach twisted into an icy knot. He might not be shouting and lunging at her, but she couldn’t mistake the coiled power in the set of his shoulders.

Despite the dangerous jut of his jaw, she still saved a soft spot in her heart for Ford. She believed he’d loved Rhonda with all his heart and grieved for her still. The sorrow in his eyes told her... and yet, she couldn’t forget her last phone conversation with her cousin, before Rhonda had taken that fatal trip to Switzerland.

"Ford’s lost all patience with me,” Rhonda had admitted.

"What do you mean?” Devin had expected Rhonda to tell her about some silly marital quarrel.

"He’s forbidden me to attempt another pregnancy.”

Rhonda’s inability to conceive had been the source of many an argument between the pair. Ford didn’t want his wife to go through any more grief in hopes of conceiving a child. But dedicated to giving her husband an heir, Rhonda had doggedly refused to accept defeat.

Devin had never forgotten the ominous emphasis Rhonda had given to forbidden, as if Ford’s command was law, neither questioned nor amended. And the sorrow in her cousin’s tone had carried the implication of great failure, which had shocked Devin, who considered Rhonda a roaring success.

Although she’d been sympathetic, she had difficulty comprehending her cousin’s obsession with having children. Still, she understood impossible dreams, and clearly, the problem was affecting their marriage.

Rhonda had sobbed into the phone. "This trip is supposed to put the romance back into our lives. I don’t dare disappoint him.”

"Come on, it can’t be that bad. This is Ford Braddack we’re talking about, remember? He treats you like spun glass.”

"That’s the problem. He won’t talk to me about his problems. He’s so tense. He never relaxes anymore. I think we’ve forgotten how to have fun, and I’m so afraid I’ve lost his love.”

"Not possible. Everyone loves you.”

Less than a week after Rhonda’s phone call, the avalanche struck down her cousin. While Ford had presumably remained in Switzerland, Rhonda had arrived in New Orleans. In a coffin.

Now her cousin’s husband sat across from her, clearly angrier than a stinging hornet. After all it was possible that Ford himself had left two black roses on those pillows. That he had arranged for the avalanche that had almost killed him, too. Her mouth went dry. She distracted herself by unlocking his ankles, then strapped herself into her seat.

In the space of the breath it took to fasten the belt, Ford pounced. He vaulted over the table, landed astride her lap, seized her by the neck with his manacled hands. As the plane taxied down the runway through the clearing skies, his strong thighs pinned her to the seat. His fingers flexed lightly but threateningly on her throat. His touch, though fierce, applied the most minimal of pressure.

While the storm’s rage had spent itself and the takeoff was smooth, she watched Ford’s irises deepen to a steely blue. Anguish and violence warred in the depths of his eyes, surging toward her in pulsing waves. She fought her urge to test her skill against his strength by throwing him to the plane’s floor.

She wasn’t the vulnerable one here—at least not physically. Her hands were free. But to overcome his superior strength, she’d have to hurt him badly. With well-placed blows to groin, nose and temple, she could escape the threatening fingers on her throat. But such actions would damage his pride, and he didn’t deserve humiliation. She had no wish to embarrass him, and she couldn’t bring herself to hurt him further—not after what he’d already suffered.

"What are you doing?” Her voice vibrated as she released the seat belt and heaved up, pushing and straining in the hopes of getting him off her without injuring him. His weight, combined with the plane’s acceleration, pressed her deeper into the seat. "If you have the crazy idea I’m going to—”

"Unlock these handcuffs. Then we’ll talk.”

Just as she suspected, she couldn’t budge him and ceased struggling. After hazarding one long uneasy glance at him, she ducked her head, before he read more in her eyes than she wanted him to see. She might not be in jeopardy of strangulation, but there were other kinds of physical danger.

His hot breath ruffled her hair. His nearness caused her pulse to race and her stomach to lurch in an unfamiliar way that had nothing to do with the plane’s takeoff. Damn him. He smelled good, manly smells from a shower and shave and a hint of spicy cologne.

Her heart hammered stupidly, and she clenched her hands stiffly at her sides. "Calm down, Ford.”

"It’s too late for that.”

She licked her bottom lip and wished she hadn’t. While he stared at her mouth, she risked another peek into his eyes and trembled at the crazy, hard edge to them. He wasn’t bluffing. His banked temper had erupted. Only his strong-willed control kept him from snapping her neck, and she questioned her ability to dislodge him.

The time for force was over.

"Get off me, and I’ll unlock the handcuffs.” She had to bite her tongue from adding, please.

"No.”

She frowned. "No?”

"Unlock me,” he demanded, "Then I’ll let you go.”

She tilted her head back and allowed a tiny smile to curve her lip. "I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

"Why?”

"Because the key’s in my back pocket,” she told him, unable to keep amusement from her tone. His fierce expression lightened with comprehension. With the plane in flight, the force of acceleration eased, but while he pressed her into the seat, she couldn’t possibly reach the key. "Now, let go of me.”

"Put your arms around my neck,” he ordered, ignoring her demand.

"What’s your point?” When she’d considered whether to take this assignment, she’d imagined many scenarios between her and Ford—but never one like this! She hadn’t expected to be so close to him, and the reality surpassed her most vivid imagination. He was larger and stronger than she’d have guessed, but it was all that energy focused on her that set her nerves flaming.

His eyes gleamed, indicating she’d lost control of the conversation. She’d underestimated him, and he’d quickly turned the situation to his advantage. While she couldn’t guess what he had in mind, she suspected she wouldn’t like it. She clenched her thighs tight. She’d grown careless. Now she’d pay for her mistake. "I’ll feel safer with your hands occupied,” he said.

"Safer?” She felt like a parrot, repeating his words, but she couldn’t help herself. She was too aware of the hard strength of him. With his chest so close to her face, his weight straddling her lap, her brain had gone on strike.

"While you lift yourself off the seat, your hands won’t be free to strike.”

"But the key—”

"I’llretrieve the key.”

Oh, God. He meant to... his hand would... "I don’t think—”

"Do it.” His voice whipped her with the lash of command.

She clamped her lips hard. If she refused to comply, he could pin her in the seat until they reached Europe.

Reluctantly, she wound her arms around his neck. His flesh was hot, firm, and his silky hair caressed her skin. Beneath her forearms, his shoulders tensed, bracing as she gingerly pulled herself upward.

The handcuffs jangled as he dropped both hands to her hip and reached around to her pocket. "Lean forward,” he ordered.

She complied, gnashing her molars and foolishly wishing she possessed the svelte lines of the women he usually dated instead of the lush hips of a gypsy. The handcuffs made him awkward, and his hand roved across her bottom for an unusually long time, sending a warming shiver through her. A hot ache grew in the back of her throat, and her pulse pounded. Her breasts squashed against his chest.

In her adolescent dreams, she’d envisioned hot kisses. Not in her wildest fantasies had she considered this man first caressing her backside, and she managed to resist the urge to squirm only by holding her breath.

Wild with impatience at his fumbling, she muttered, "Oh, for heaven’s sake. Can’t you find it?”

"Find what?” he said tightly.

"The key.”

"Lady, I haven’t even found the pocket.”

"Oh.” Mortified at his insinuation that her rear was so large, she pressed her lips together, determined not to utter another sound.

"You sure the key is there?” he asked, as if suspecting she enjoyed the forced intimacy.

"Yeah right.” She snorted. "I’m so lying. Lying about a key to get you to fondle me.”

"Says the woman who canceled my wedding and kidnapped me?”

"I’m not that hard up for a man’s touch.”

"Hmm.”

Just when she thought she couldn’t bear another second, his fingers dived deeper.

"Got it!”

He stood, breaking her hold. She plopped back into the seat, willing back a blush, trembling and hoping he didn’t notice. Running a hand through her curls, she glared at him. "I’m allowing you to free yourself—”

"Is that so?” His hand with the key paused over the lock while he eyed her skeptically.

"To help me find the Black Rose,” she continued as if he hadn’t interrupted.

"Suppose I don’t want to find your Black Rose? What if I order my pilot to turn myplane around and report you to the authorities?”

If he was trying to bully her, his tactic wouldn’t work. "I can kick the key out of your hand from here. I can’t guarantee where it’ll land, but I assure you, I’ll be the one who finds it.”

"Meaning?”

She shrugged, matching him stare for stare. "Meaning, I don’t go down easy. But I didn’t bring you along for a punching bag.”

"Glad to hear it.”

"I’d hoped you’d cooperate.” She held her breath, waiting to see what he’d do. Would his curiosity and intelligence win out over his anger?

He closed his fingers around the key so tightly the skin across his knuckles stretched taut. He took the opposite seat without unlocking the handcuffs, his face inscrutable, his mouth hard. "It’s time you explained.”

"I’ll tell you what I can.”

"You’ll tell me everything.”

When pigs fly. She didn’t argue. But she didn’t agree, either. "What do you want to know?”

"Start with what you told my bride-to-be, my family and my wedding guests.”

"I informed them you canceled the wedding. I didn’t give a reason.”

"My mother would never buy that flimsy story.”

"She didn’t.”

He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, listening with a rigidity that was almost frightening. A tension vibrated between them—a tension that made her feel like a cornered rabbit about to be bagged for supper.

Devin took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I told your mother that I’d been working for you since Rhonda’s death and I’d uncovered a clue that you intended to pursue immediately. That your bride didn’t want the wedding delayed, and so you called it off.”

He drummed his fingers on the table. "Go on.”

Wishing she knew the thoughts behind the unfathomable expression he wore, she forced out the rest. "I asked your mother to arrange for the plane and pilot to fly out today.”

His eyebrows knitted in a frown. "She must have thought your request unusual.”

As the plane rose, her ears popped. "She didn’t appear suspicious. After I told her about the Black Rose, Eva agreed to contact your pilot. She also volunteered to inform the rest of your family of your change in plans, so I never spoke to your brothers.”

His eyes bored into hers. "And my bride? What did you say to her?”

She thought it odd and significant he’d taken so long to ask about Lindsay Betancourt. She stared out the window. The sun peeked out from behind a sky clotted with clouds. Perhaps they could put the stormy weather behind them. Peering into a fat mattress of clouds, she gathered her thoughts. She’d dreaded this moment ever since his fiancée had happily agreed to take the payoff.

Although she didn’t know him well, Ford was obviously a man of deep pride, and for his bride to callously leave him would hurt worse than a punch in the gut. She searched for the right words to soften the blow.

As the plane leveled, she picked out a spot beside his ear and focused there, speaking past the tightness in her throat. "I offered Lindsay money to leave you.”

"And she took it,” he finished. "But if she wanted money, she would have gotten more by staying. So why would she go?”

His imperturbability surprised her. She’d expected icy denial. Instead, he appeared more analytical than hurt, infuriated or indignant. His temper had evaporated as if it had never been, and his cool control made telling the rest a bit easier.

"Lindsay wants to be an actress. For her, the money is a way to achieve her dream.”

"Apparently the role of wife wasn’t enough,” he said thoughtfully, as if he’d known Lindsay’s affection for him hadn’t been deep. But if he had known, why had he asked her to marry him? Could he have fallen head over heels in love with his bride, thinking she’d learn to love him? If so, he wasn’t showing much disappointment.

When she remained silent, he rubbed the handcuff key between his fingers. "I suppose I should thank your client.”

"Thank?”

He’d astonished her back to parroting his words again. Why wasn’t he hurt? Or angry? Or speaking in that ultra-cold voice that indicated real fury?

"I ought to let you stew in your guilt. But I never felt for Lindsay what I did for Rhonda.” He bowed his head, the key in his hand seemingly forgotten. "I should have known better.”

At his simple words, her heart went out to him. She only hoped encouraging him to search for Rhonda’s killer would ease the grief that seemed a permanent part of him. "Who do you think hired me?” At her question, he jerked back in his seat and seemed to look inward, giving her query his full attention. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds, brightening the cabin. The fasten-your-seat-belt lights went off.

Finally, he spoke carefully as if weighing how much to reveal. "Martin Crewsdale, my partner, warned me repeatedly against marrying Lindsay.”

"You think your partner hired me?”

"Martin is rather conservative. While I tend to acquisitions and troubleshooting, Martin runs the day-to-day operations of Norton Industries. Despite our partnership and his disapproval of Lindsay, I doubt he’d resort to kidnapping.”

"Was Martin your only associate who disapproved of Miss Betancourt?”

"That list is quite long. My secretary, several friends, my brothers, even my pilot made their objections clear. Actually, I can’t think of anyone who approved of the marriage.” He paused for a moment as if startled by the revelation, as if he rarely considered the opinions of friends before making personal decisions. "In addition, there are several wealthy women who aren’t above paying off the competition. But I suspect someone closer to me orchestrated this plan.”

She sucked in her breath. "You mean, family?”

"My twin Max told me that hoping to grow a relationship into love was no way to start a marriage. And Craig told me that marrying Lyndsay wouldn’t stop the grief. I didn’t want to believe they were right. I’m kind of stubborn.”

"No kidding.” She rolled her eyes. "You really suspect one of your brothers hired me?”

He shrugged. "Right now, I’m more interested in finding Rhonda’s murderer. Tell me about the Black Rose.”

Good. She’d snagged his attention. Cooperation would follow. She projected her voice above the steady drone of the airplane’s engines. "The black flowers aren’t my only clue. But let me explain the ground I’ve already covered so you understand why this clue is so vital to my investigation.” She paused, putting her thoughts in order. "Dr. Henschel—”

"Died too easy,” he interrupted. His voice cracked like a whiplash. He closed his jaw so tightly, she heard his teeth snap. Ford’s fists clenched, and his eyes smoldered with fury and glazed with regret.

So much for always keeping his cool. Yet Devin didn’t blame him for his outrage. Ford was on the board of directors at the Kine Fertility Clinic. He and her cousin had gone to Dr. Henschel asking for help to have a child. A mix-up had led to disaster when Rhonda’s egg had been implanted in another woman.

Rhonda had miscarried, unaware that another woman, Nicole, had given birth to Rhonda’s biological daughter, Skye. Two months after the baby’s birth, Nicole and her husband were killed in a car accident, and Nicole’s sister, Brooke Evans, raised Skye. Six years later when Brooke discovered Skye was not Nicole’s, Dr. Henschel had been caught trying to save his career by covering up the switched embryos—but not before he’d hired an assassin to murder Rhonda. The doctor committed suicide in jail, leaving few clues to identify Rhonda’s assassin.

Ford’s pain renewed her determination to find the killer. "I searched Henschel’s financial records.”

"My people went through those records, too. His transactions were always in cash, and therefore, untraceable.”

"That’s almost correct.”

"Almost?”

"Henschel wired two substantial cash deposits to a Swiss bank—one about a week before your wife’s death, one the day after.”

"Impressive investigating, Ms. Ward.”

"Devin.” His compliment soaked under his skin like the first blush of summer, warming her to her toes. "That’s why we’re flying to Bern.”

She didn’t have to spell out the implications. From the slight lift of his eyebrows, Ford understood the significance of the timing of Dr. Henschel’s financial transactions. A large transfer of funds from Dr. Henschel to a Swiss bank one week before Rhonda’s death might be coincidence. But a second payment, the day after her death couldn’t be ignored. The timing smelled of a payoff.

Payoff for murder.

Unlocking the handcuffs, he tossed them onto the table. "Go on.”

At his willingness to listen, tension eased from the rigid muscles of her neck and shoulders. Until now, she hadn’t realized how much she’d counted on Ford’s help. "Swiss banks are not in the habit of divulging their customers’ names. Your influence might turn up a lead.”

"You may be overestimating my influence, but,” he paused, "I have a few friends overseas. I’ll make some calls from the plane. What else do you have?”

"Grendal Archer, the maid who threw away the black flowers, disappeared right after she failed to mention the roses to the police.”

"How did you find out about the black flowers?”

"She told another maid, my informant.” Devin raised an eyebrow. "Suspicious, yes?”

"Yes.” He shot her a look of approval that had her nerves revving.

"My informant thinks Grendal will give us a description of the Black Rose. And I have Grendal’s new address.”

"That’s a lot more than my investigators turned up.”

She shot him a saucy grin. "I told you that you should have hired me.”

"Apparently.”

"There’s one more thing you should know.” Her fingers twisted in her lap. She’d wrestled with the knowledge for weeks, unable to turn up any solid evidence. "I’ve heard rumors the Black Rose may be more than a common criminal.”

"What do you mean?”

"The Black Rose is a professional assassin. Even worse, instinct tells me we’re heading into danger.” She looked him straight in the eyes. "And I have very good instincts.”


 

 


 

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