Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
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.
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.
sparks are flying. But so are the bullets . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
watch, Ford frowned. Where was the limousine?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the intercom, Ford forced his tone to normalcy. "Where are you taking me?”
airport,” a female voice replied, surprising him with her gender.
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,
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.
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.
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.
dangled tauntingly from the seat pocket. It didn’t help his temper to realize
he wouldn’t be leaving this vehicle a free man.
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.”
"The gas won’t
hurt,” she assured him in a naggingly familiar voice, "but you’ll wake up with
a ferocious headache.”
straightened in his seat. "After the airport, where are you taking me?”
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.”
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
you? Who canceled my wedding, and where is my fiancee?”
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
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.
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.
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.
his attention on the driver and used the direct approach to learn more about
his abduction. "Why are you kidnapping me?”
money,” she told him without a trace of shame.
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.”
Lord save him from an honorable kidnapper. "At least tell me who hired
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.
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.”
the tail number of his Gulf Stream Five. The woman intended to kidnap him with
his own plane.
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?”
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
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.”
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.
had many classified government contracts. Hiding his latest alarming thoughts
behind a stoic expression, he vowed to react to the slightest opportunity for
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
"Have we met?”
he asked, confounded by the disappointment in her expression.
"Once. At your
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.”
There’s nothing funny about missing your wife’s funeral,” she said angrily.
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.”
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
Ford kept his
voice as reasonable as possible under the circumstances. "My family put out
false information to protect me.”
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?”
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
investigators you hired didn’t look hard enough.”
sounded as if she’d had a personal stake in Rhonda’s death, a fact that
contradicted his image of a hired kidnapper.
than ever, he closed his eyes. Suddenly the pieces clicked.
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.
remained silent, she stared at him accusingly. "I thought you might help me.”
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?”
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—”
"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.”
FORWARD in the seat, his eyes glinting with a savage inner chill. "You’ve found
"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.”
police may have forgotten the murder, Devin hadn’t. The unsolved crime gnawed
at her like an aching tooth.
found something, why didn’t you pick up the phone and tell the police?”
have spoken to me.”
"I was going
to, but you didn’t show at Rhonda’s funeral.”
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.”
died, too. But I also had no motive.”
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.”
"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?”
"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.”
"But my client
forbid that tactic, insisting that I kidnap you from your wedding before
revealing what my investigation has uncovered.”
his eyes. "And why should I believe you?”
everyone has your kind of money. I needed funding to go after Rhonda’s killer,
so I have to follow my client’s wishes.”
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.
this clue you’ve found that my experts missed?” he prodded.
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
"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.”
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?”
rearview mirror, she caught the taut look of horror on Ford’s rugged face and
flinched. His eyelids compressed into a hard-bitten anger.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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.
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?”
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.
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.
She led him to a padded leather chair. "Have a seat.”
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
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.”
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.
warily, she restrained his ankles. She removed a gag from her pocket. "I can’t
have you calling for help.”
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.
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.
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.”
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—”
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
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.
all patience with me,” Rhonda had admitted.
"What do you
mean?” Devin had expected Rhonda to tell her about some silly marital quarrel.
forbidden me to attempt another pregnancy.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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—”
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
hammered stupidly, and she clenched her hands stiffly at her sides. "Calm down,
"It’s too late
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
The time for
force was over.
"Get off me,
and I’ll unlock the handcuffs.” She had to bite her tongue from adding, please.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"Do it.” His
voice whipped her with the lash of command.
her lips hard. If she refused to comply, he could pin her in the seat until
they reached Europe.
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.
jangled as he dropped both hands to her hip and reached around to her pocket.
"Lean forward,” he ordered.
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.
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.
impatience at his fumbling, she muttered, "Oh, for heaven’s sake. Can’t you
he said tightly.
haven’t even found the pocket.”
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.
She snorted. "I’m so lying. Lying about a key to get you to fondle me.”
woman who canceled my wedding and kidnapped me?”
"I’m not that
hard up for a man’s touch.”
Just when she thought she couldn’t bear
another second, his fingers dived deeper.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
When pigs fly. She didn’t argue. But
she didn’t agree, either. "What do you want to know?”
what you told my bride-to-be, my family and my wedding guests.”
them you canceled the wedding. I didn’t give a reason.”
would never buy that flimsy story.”
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
He drummed his
fingers on the table. "Go on.”
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
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
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.
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?”
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
to be an actress. For her, the money is a way to achieve her dream.”
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
remained silent, he rubbed the handcuff key between his fingers. "I suppose I
should thank your client.”
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
spoke carefully as if weighing how much to reveal. "Martin Crewsdale, my
partner, warned me repeatedly against marrying Lindsay.”
your partner hired me?”
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.”
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.”
She rolled her eyes. "You really suspect one of your brothers hired me?”
"Right now, I’m more interested in finding Rhonda’s murderer. Tell me about the
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—”
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.
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.
renewed her determination to find the killer. "I searched Henschel’s financial
went through those records, too. His transactions were always in cash, and
wired two substantial cash deposits to a Swiss bank—one about a week before
your wife’s death, one the day after.”
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.”
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.
handcuffs, he tossed them onto the table. "Go on.”
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?”
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?”
another maid, my informant.” Devin raised an eyebrow. "Suspicious, yes?”
"Yes.” He shot
her a look of approval that had her nerves revving.
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.”
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
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