In stores June1, 2015
USA TODAY bestselling authors Debra Webb and Regan Black continue the thrilling new series The Specialists: Heroes Next Door
A former solider must protect his ex-fiancée and his secret son…
Before he could say “I do” on his wedding day eight years ago, former special ops soldier Drew Bryant was hustled away for a top secret mission. Everyone—including the bride he left behind—believes he’s long dead.
But now his former fiancée is on the run from a vengeful fugitive, and Drew is handpicked to bring her to safety. When he finds Addi Collins deep in the swamplands of Louisiana—with the son he never knew existed—he has to earn her trust to protect her from a vindictive desperado. And prove he won’t break her heart a second time.
“I highly recommend this book for any fans of romantic suspense and good storytelling.” -amazon reviewer
“…the fast pace, the storyline always makes me hold my breath and go for the ride.” -Gloria Lakritz, reviewer
Interstate 10, West Texas Thursday, June 19, 3:10p.m.
Addison Collins checked the fuel gauge, quickly calculating how many more miles she could put between her and the inevitable pursuit before they had to stop. Her brand-new BMW could’ve done that for her, but not this ancient, new-to-her Land Rover. That was what math was for, wasn’t it? This was the perfect example she would keep in the back of her mind for the day her son complained about his math homework. “Mom, how much longer?”
She recognized that tone. He was about to complain but not about math. Using the rearview mirror, she aimed a confident smile at her son. His bright hair gleamed in the sunlight coming through the window, but the glare on his face bordered on mutinous.
She couldn’t blame him. They’d been on the road for two days straight and had another day left. Possibly more. “About another half hour and we’ll stop again.”
“I have to pee now.”
“You’ll have to hold it for a few minutes.”
“A half hour is thirty minutes. A few is more like three.”
Instead of maternal pride, Addison couldn’t help wondering why she’d ever been inclined to teach him the difference. “And how many threes are in thirty?”
“Ten.” He turned his face to the window. “I still have to pee.”
“All right. I’ll find a place to stop.”
“This car stinks,” he said a minute later.
“The car is clean. It’s just new-car smell.” With a persistent undertone of mildew, but she kept that thought to herself.
“But it’s an old car.”
“True.” Patience will pay off. “The car dealers spray a strong deodorizer to make it feel new.” They had periodically rolled down the windows, but the heavy-duty deodorizer scent lingered, punctuating the mildew rather than overpowering it. This vehicle might be a major step down in value from her BMW, but the dealer in Arizona had been willing to meet her trade and cash terms without any questions, and that had been priceless.
“So they can sell it faster.”
“Will our car stink like this when we go back home?”
“I don’t know.” It was the only safe answer because she hadn’t yet found the courage to tell her son they weren’t going back. She hadn’t lied to him and she wouldn’t start now, but she wasn’t ready to discuss it. The words he needed to hear to understand the gravity of their new situation just weren’t coming to her, and she wasn’t ready to cope with the fallout when he realized he wouldn’t see his friends again.
Her own grief was too fresh, her fear of the unknown too big. When she had a handle on her feelings, she would be better able to help him with his. Coward, an annoying little voice in her head muttered.
“It’s yucky in here,” he said, making a gagging noise.
He had a point, though she wasn’t about to admit it. “I feel sick.”
Addison’s patience was fraying, but it wasn’t Andy’s fault they were in this mess. No, this was all her doing. She’d been the one to screw up their picture-perfect life by getting conned by a not-nearly perfect man. He’d looked like Mr. Right, and until a few days ago, she’d been sure he was the right man for both her and Andy. The only silver lining—and she was clinging to it—was that she’d learned the truth before the wedding.
“Roll down the window,” she said. “Some fresh air should help.”
His face brightened momentarily, then clouded over again. “Where’s the button?”
She rolled her eyes. “Use that little handle thingy.”
She stretched but couldn’t reach it from the driver’s seat. The Land Rover was built so much wider than her sedan, and the only power was under the hood. How ridiculous that an old-school vehicle could stump them both. “The window isn’t electric like you’re used to. Just wind it down, remember?”
She had a few minutes of peace while the manual crank amused her seven-year-old son. In a few months, he’d be eight. Although less than a week ago she’d been kicking around ideas for his birthday party, now all bets were off. She didn’t know where they’d be living by his birthday, only that she intended to be sure they were both alive to celebrate it—even if it was just the two of them.
She immediately pushed that train of thought off the tracks. Right now all Andy needed to know was that they were on a summer adventure. Providing for him, taking care of his education—those questions would be answered later.
“Are we there yet?” Not even close. “Almost.”
“Mom, I can’t hold it much longer.”
“Hang on.” With her eyes on the road, she caught the squirming in the backseat. “There’s a place at this next exit.”
“Two minutes,” she replied, her voice leaving no room for argument. “You can time me.”
His small, straight nose wrinkled as he fiddled with the big Captain America watch on his wrist. He flipped up the red, white and blue shield cover and busied himself with the stopwatch feature. Her little man had begged for the watch for Christmas and had worn it from the moment he’d ripped open the package. Only his fear of ruining it made him take it off for bath time.
She happily nurtured his love of comic book heroes, and reading through various adventures with him was part of their bedtime routine. Even in the horrible, desperate rush to get away, she’d grabbed his entire collection. More than once she’d wondered if some part of his attraction to comics was genetic. Andy’s father had been a soldier, a good man and a lifelong fan of the Marvel universe. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to have him here with her now.
“One minute,” Andy announced.
“My personal town crier,” she mumbled, taking the exit.
“What’s a town crier?”
Nothing wrong with her boy’s hearing. “Lots and lots of years ago, people didn’t have smartphones or clocks or watches, so someone would walk the town streets and call out the time. ‘Three o’clock and all’s well!’ Like that.”
“We’re here.” She pulled into the parking space closest to the front door of the gas station, knowing that thoughtful “huh” sound meant more questions were dancing at the front of his brain. “You can unbuckle now.”
“You made it with ten seconds to spare.”
“Guess I should’ve been a race car driver.”
“Did town criers drive this old kind of car?” he asked when she came around to open his door.
“No. Town criers were way before cars.”
“Then how did they get around town?”
She held out her hand, her heart giving a happy bump when he placed his in hers without argument. “People walked or used horses and carts.”
“That’s weird. Horses poop a lot.”
She laughed. “Everything has a by-product.” Inside, she glanced around for the restroom sign, leading her son back by way of the motor oil aisle rather than the candy aisle. “I know at school you’ve seen pictures of cities before cars.”
“And the museum field trips.” He shrugged, his gaze roving across the labels at his eye level, his feet slowing as he tried to read the words and logos on each one. Grateful for the distraction, she wasn’t surprised it didn’t last. When she pushed open the ladies’ room door, he stopped short in the narrow hallway.
“I’m a boy,” he whispered as if she might’ve forgotten.
“Road rules, remember? We stick together.”
“Mom.” He scowled at her and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m too old to go in there.”
She bent close to his ear. “I understand. I even almost agree.”
“Almost?” He tilted his head, wary. She nodded, smothering the smile for the sake of his pride. “But today it’s a safety issue. We stay together.”
“It’s been nothin’ but safety since we left home.”
“I know. And it has to be safety for a little longer.” She silently vowed to make it up to him. Somehow. “Soon you’ll have all kinds of new places and things to discover on our adventure.”
He looked back at her with the big, soft brown eyes that reminded her more and more of his father. His small hand patted her cheek. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll stay with you.”
“But I want to make a new deal for when I turn eight.”
“That’s certainly up for discussion.” Right now she had to be sure they lived that long.
With bladders relieved and hands washed thoroughly to the tune of the alphabet song, they cut through the store to get back on the road.
“Can I have a Coke?”
“It’s ‘may I,'” she corrected automatically. “And no. We have water in the car.”
“Can I have a peanut butter cup?”
So much for her efforts to avoid the candy and junk food. “When we stop for dinner tonight, you can have a Coke and a peanut butter cup.”
“Both?” His eyes went wide with hope.
“How long to dinner?”
She laughed and checked her watch. “A few hours.” She wanted more distance between her and the man who had the resources to chase her off the edge of the world. Addison refused to think of him as her fiancé anymore. Although she’d done her best to blur any trail, to escape somewhere he didn’t even know to search, she couldn’t be sure it would work.
The idea of being so completely duped by Craig Everett infuriated her. Worse, her relationship with him was now an embarrassment in both the professional and personal context. When she thought of how much she’d shared with that worthless excuse for a man, she wanted to shoot something. Preferably Craig. They’d shared lovely romantic evenings, familytype outings with Andy and lazy sleep-late weekend mornings. All of it made her feel dirty now.
Assuming she could evade Craig until she got word the authorities had him locked down, assuming she could eventually return to her life in San Francisco, she wasn’t quite sure how she’d find the courage to look her friends or her boss in the eye again.
It was hopeless to think his arrest and illegal dealings wouldn’t make news up and down the West Coast. More likely, it would be national news for a short time. Which meant she and Andy would be dragged into Craig’s horrendous mess by association. Their lives would be picked apart and exposed for everyone in the world to judge. It was possible even her secluded destination in the uncharted depths of a Louisiana swamp wouldn’t be shelter enough.
Because she’d been the idiot who nearly married an American traitor.
She buckled Andy into the booster seat and closed the door, stifling the violent words that wanted to pour out of her whenever she thought about what Craig had done. Telling herself she’d broken up his system and stopped him didn’t help as much as it should. Maybe that would change with time. So many things did.
The facts crawled like a line of ants between her shoulder blades. The sensation grew worse when she considered the likelihood that Craig’s slimy dealings had cost other women—other families—the grief she’d felt when Andy’s father had been killed in action on the other side of the world.
If Drew Bryant, her favorite soldier, were alive he’d…
Biting her lip, she pulled herself together. If Drew were alive, all of this would be irrelevant. Unnecessary. She, Drew and Andy would be a family, settled in some happy suburb or on farmland far from California. A road trip like this really would be a grand summer adventure. Complete with two drivers and possibly a brother or sister in the backseat with Andy. Even when she and Drew were children themselves, they’d dreamed of having a big family.
If Drew were alive, she wouldn’t have been with Craig at all. It would’ve been up to someone else to catch that traitorous, double-talking jerk trading secrets and sensitive military information with who knew how many unsavory people.
If, if, if. Exasperated with herself, Addison slid into the driver’s seat and moved the car to the gas pump. Might as well top it off while she was here. Hopefully it would save her a stop later.
No matter how she coached herself, she wasn’t sure catching Craig qualified as a blessing in disguise, not when she knew it could cost her everything she held dear. But turning over the information she’d found had been automatic, a reflex she couldn’t suppress any more than breathing. No one should profit from the pain and suffering of others.
Craig had made a fortune for himself and others through legal means. Discovering the fortune he’d amassed through illegal negotiations had shocked her. She couldn’t fathom how he’d made that leap into predatory dealings. She’d only scraped the tip of the iceberg, but she knew without any doubt what would happen if Craig or his nasty colleagues caught up with her and Andy before the authorities took action.
She smiled at her son through the window as she pumped gas. Being the whistle-blower was difficult for anyone, but a single mom? Although she couldn’t abide letting Craig go unpunished, she kept wondering if there’d been a better way to take him down. She’d completely altered two lives when she’d sent the files as an anonymous tip to the local FBI office. All she could do now was hide and pray for the best.
A few more miles down the road Andy piped up again. “Are we going to SeaWorld?”
She’d noticed the billboard, too, and the question wasn’t unreasonable, but she found herself wishing for nightfall. “Not this trip, honey.” Thinking of the crowds and security cameras raised goose bumps along her arms. An attraction like that could prove more risk than entertainment.
“Will Craig have part of our summer adventure with us?”
Only in my nightmares, she thought. “Not this trip,” she repeated, glancing at the elaborate engagement ring that remained on her hand. Taking it off would have Andy asking still more questions she wasn’t ready to answer. Once they reached the bayou she’d throw the damn thing to the nearest alligator. Imagining Craig’s outrage over that move made her smile.
The diamond caught the waning sunlight and she wondered—again—which part of Craig’s income had paid for it. Knowing wouldn’t change how she felt about wearing it, but the aching, wounded part of her heart wanted the answer. She shut that down. There was no sense in being sentimental over a man who’d not only played her for a fool, but also traded lives for money with dangerous people. People who’d want to punish her for blowing up their system. People who were probably searching for her right now. Maybe it would be smart to sell the gaudy thing. She could invest the proceeds for Andy’s college fund. That seemed like a fair enough solution.
“I miss him already,” Andy murmured from the backseat.
“I know.” Craig was the closest thing Andy had had to a father figure because his father had died before he was born. It made her cringe now, in light of his treacherous side business, but it would be another point of grief for her son when he learned that relationship was over. Forever.
Of all the challenges ahead of her, she dreaded navigating that particular tightrope. How could she ever adequately explain her choices to a seven-year-old who’d been so eager for a dad? In Andy’s eyes, Craig had reached near-hero status. Now, thanks to her, in Craig’s eyes she and her son were no more than risks to eliminate. That was more truth than Andy needed weighing on his young shoulders.
“Will the whole adventure be in this old car?”
“No.” She’d hesitated to tell him where they were going, fearful that someone would overhear his chatter during a stop. “Do you think you’d like SeaWorld?”
“Yes! They have whales and dolphins and sharks and turtles and you can swim with them.”
“That does sound like fun.”
“Please can we go, Mom?”
“I can’t make promises, but if it’s possible, yes, we’ll go to SeaWorld.” Eventually.
“Cool! Jeff and Caleb will be jealous. We’ll take lots of pictures, right?”
“Of course.” As long as those pictures wouldn’t jeopardize their secrets.
“I want to pet a shark.”
You’ve already been too close, she thought, checking her rearview mirror. We just didn’t see his teeth. Yet. “We’ll see.”
“That means no.”
“Not in our house,” she said with more bite than she’d intended. “We’ve talked about that. I need to concentrate right now, okay?”
“We’ll stop for dinner in two hours.” She smiled, determined to regain her composure. “Can you set an alarm, please?”