The house appeared normal—the yard nicely maintained, no rusted cars up on blocks, no beer cans scattered on the grass. Maria Kincaid was prepared to drive away if anything seemed suspicious, but the pretty pink flowers in the window boxes calmed her unease. Her pulse raced as she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel with a mix of trepidation and excitement.
“Here goes nothing,” she murmured as she exited her car, dropping the keys in the pocket of her slacks.
It was the end of April and already the afternoon temperature registered in the low nineties, a typical Florida spring day. Heat blasted off the sidewalk, and the silk blouse she’d chosen to wear was already sticking to her skin by the time she reached the door. The choice might have been a mistake, but this visit could turn out to be one of the most important of her life, and she’d wanted to make a good impression.
She put her finger on the doorbell but hesitated. Was this something she really wanted to do? If the man who lived here turned out to be the one, how would it change her life? What if she didn’t like him? She was pretty happy with the way things were now, so why go and mess it all up?
Her purse—heavy because of the law book she’d forgotten to take out—slid off her shoulder, and she shifted it to her other side. Well, she could stand there all day debating the wisdom of ringing the doorbell of a man she’d never met, but if she didn’t do it, she’d never know. The decision made, she put her finger back on the bell just as the door flew open and a teenage girl barreled into her.
“Whoa.” Maria grabbed the girl’s shoulders, stopping her.
“Help me,” she said, her eyes wild and unseeing as she tried to escape Maria’s grasp. The girl’s shirt was torn, and there was a purple bruise blooming on her face.
“What’s going on here?” Maria squinted, trying to see past the girl, but the interior of the house was dark, not a sliver of light showing through the tightly closed blinds. Yet the hairs on her arms stood on end at the sense of being watched.
“He tried to . . . he was going to . . .” The teen burst into tears.
“Who?” Maria gently touched the swollen skin. “Did your father do this to you?” What in God’s name had she walked into?
“He’s not my dad. Please, miss, let me go.”
“Who the hell are you?”
At the accented words, Maria looked up to see a large man outlined by the light shining in through the open door. The sun beat down on her, and a waterfall of sweat flowed down her back. Whether it was the stifling heat or a rush of fear that made her light-headed, she didn’t know.
She did know danger when faced with it, though, and she pushed the teen behind her. “Run!” The girl didn’t have to be told twice, taking off like a racehorse out of the starting gate.
Maria turned to do some running herself when the man’s hand wrapped around her wrist and pulled her inside. Unless this stranger beat him to it, Logan was going to kill her on grounds of stupidity, and he would be entirely justified. She’d spent a large portion of her childhood fending off the unwanted advances of men, and she unleashed every dirty fighting trick her brother had taught her on the man trying to hold her down.
Middle-of-the-night phone calls weren’t unusual. Long accustomed to awakening at odd hours to all sorts of noises, Jake alertly reached for the receiver at the same time he eyed the clock. Had the operation gone wrong?
Maria’s voice was the last one he expected. Just hearing it sent his heart into overdrive. He sat up, as if by doing so he could get closer to her. “What’s wrong?”
She laughed. “Why do you immediately assume something’s wrong?”
One hundred and ninety-three miles between them did nothing to conceal the brittle note of her laughter. “It’s two in the morning for one thing. You should be sleeping. Don’t you have an early class?”
“Dammit, talk to me.”
“I’m in trouble, Jake.” Her voice cracked on his name.
For her, he would step in front of a bullet, but she wasn’t his to protect. She was so far off-limits he might as well be wanting the moon.
He forced the words through his teeth that had to be said. “Then you should be calling your brother, not me.”
“I . . . I can’t talk to Logan right now. I just can’t. Please, you have to come.” The words were punctuated by a sob.