Protecting Her Secret Son (Escape Club Heroes)
USA TODAY bestselling author Regan Black returns with a pulse-pounding new Escape Club Heroes romance!
After escaping a world of ruthless crime with her child, Shannon Nolan finally thought she’d left her nightmares in the past. Then the worst thing she could imagine happens: her son is kidnapped! With nowhere else to run and no one else to trust but her boss, she puts her life in Daniel Jennings’s hands.
Firefighter Daniel knows Shannon is safe under his protection, but the one threat he doesn’t want to face is his growing passion for her. Moreover, she’s vulnerable and isn’t searching for love. But as they put everything on the line to rescue her son, that very connection might just be what saves them all…
Take a peek behind the scenes of this book here: https://youtu.be/E6CgRJzdzRg
“With the perfectly balanced energetic suspense and emotional romance, the story touched all the feels and had me enthralled from the very first page until the sweetest ending that had me swooning!” -5/5 spoons! Read the full review at Books and Spoons
Shannon Nolan loved this stage of a building project, the spark and buzz in the air when the crew rode the rush of adrenaline as they neared another finish line. Dipping her brush in the small cup of paint, she glided another coat of glossy gray over the wide wood trim around the doors and windows. Her boss’s eye for design was almost as good as his eye for detail. It only spurred her on knowing that, when she was done here, she’d be assigned to the pro bono project the company had taken on last month.
Another perk of working for Jennings Construction, she thought. Beyond the steady work, good pay and great supervisors that made it easier on her as a single mom, the company kept a finger on the pulse of the community and frequently stepped in to help. The way she understood this project, a charity group had reached out to her boss, Daniel Jennings, and his father, the company owner, for help remodeling a home to make it more accessible for a police officer injured in the line of duty. She couldn’t wait to get over there and pitch in.
“That’s coming along, Shannon.”
Speak of the devil, she thought, smiling to herself. She carefully finished painting the section before turning to greet Daniel. Since he was a Philadelphia firefighter, the construction work was his secondary interest, although he could easily make an excellent living based on his construction skills. With his black hair, dark blue eyes and fit body, he probably made hearts race whether he was in his turnout gear or the Jennings T-shirt, jeans and loaded tool belt he wore now.
“We appreciate you coming in on a Saturday,” he said.
“No problem.” She stepped back to check her work. “The extra hours this week are a big help to me.”
He was paying her time and a half. The extra pay would be a welcome boost heading into the holidays. In her mind, she already had the money divided between her son’s college fund and the Christmas fund. At four years old, Aiden had a wish list for Santa Claus that ran toward a big-boy bike, a train set, Lego blocks and the perpetual request for a puppy. Although they were in a no-pet rental now, once they had a house with a little yard—still two years to go on that goal—she planned to make his puppy wishes come true.
The Christmas lists would only grow more elaborate and expensive as her son got older. However, raising him alone was a decision she’d never regretted. Despite the challenges and the occasional longing for adult conversation, she enjoyed every high and low moment with her son while squeezing the most out of every dollar she could earn.
Daniel cocked a hip and rested a hand on the hammer in his belt. “You’ve done great work for us. I can certainly use more time in the coming weeks if you’ve got it to spare.”
She wanted to leap on the offer and purposely bit back the instant agreement. Her budget was like walking a tightrope and everything had to be balanced with Rachel, the friend and neighbor who kept an eye on Aiden while she worked. “Are you talking about the charity house?”
“Yes.” He stepped up to the window, peering out at the crew. “The timeline is ridiculously tight there, but we need to get it done before the weather changes.”
As the end of October closed in, the temperature would drop and the first reward would be the trees going from bright summer greens to the burnished tones of autumn golds and reds. It was her favorite season. The transition meant longer sleeves and shorter days packed with trips to the park for Aiden to play and collect fallen leaves. How much of that time did she want to miss for the sake of enhancing her bottom line?
“That sounds like you want me doing more than painting.”
“You’re one of our best with tile. That new ADA shower is big, not to mention the flooring. Plus upgrades in the kitchen, too, that could fall to you. I mean to take this one beyond practical. I want it to be something special,” he finished, his jaw set in a determined line.
That required lots of hours added on to her usual painting and finishing work with those tasks. She knew they were going with the best and most efficient crew there, for the family as well as the general company schedule.
When he shifted his stance to face her, the sunlight through the window seemed to disappear in his thick black hair and sparkle in his deep blue eyes. Belatedly, she realized he was smiling at her, patiently waiting for some reply.
“I can manage all of that.” She resumed her painting, deliberately shaking off the lingering effect of her curious hormones. Gorgeous and hot Daniel was her boss. While she had yet to count herself out of the dating game, being a single mom cast a big shadow over that aspect of her life.
“What’s on tap for the rest of your weekend?” Daniel asked.
“Nothing too exciting.” At least nothing he would find exciting. She and Aiden had a standing plan of action on Saturdays. After the obligatory trip to the park for slides and swings, there would be a big cheese pizza to go with the cartoon superhero marathon tonight. Once Aiden was in bed, she planned to tape off her tiny kitchen and give it a fresh coat of paint. “I’m giving my kitchen a little face-lift.”
“Need any help?”
She carefully set the brush across the cup of paint. Avoiding his gaze, she floundered for a polite way to turn him down. He had to know she had a son. She didn’t keep Aiden a secret from the crew, and Daniel had been on the site at least once or twice when she’d had Aiden with her to watch the big delivery trucks or cement mixers. On his fourth birthday, the crew had given him a tool belt complete with plastic tools so he could pitch in when she brought him to visit a site.
In her back pocket, her cell phone buzzed, belting out the old-school ringtone she used for unknown calls and text messages. Saved from the awkward moment, she set aside the paint cup and pulled out her phone, swiping the screen to view the text.
No words, only a picture of her son. He was strapped into a car seat, his shirt rumpled, his pale blond hair windblown, and his cheeks and eyes were red. His lashes were spiked with tears and his lower lip thrust forward in a pout.
What had happened? Why would her neighbor send this rather than call? Then she realized what she was looking at and her heart thudded in her chest. The fabric on the booster seat was all wrong and Rachel’s van didn’t have black leather upholstery.
Staggered, terrified by her worst fears, she dropped the phone as she doubled over, clutching her stomach as if she’d taken a punch.
Daniel caught the phone and steadied her with a hand at her elbow. “Shannon? What’s wrong?”
“I—I’m not sure.”
The ringtone sounded as another text came in and she grabbed the phone from Daniel.
If you want to see your son again, tell his father to cooperate.
Her stomach clenched and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Whoever was behind this had chosen the wrong leverage. She’d never had any influence over Aiden’s father. Naturally, the sender’s number was blocked, but she hit the icon to call back anyway. It rang and rang, and no one answered.
“I have to go,” she said. With tears blurring her vision, she scrolled through her call history and dialed the sitter. No answer. She tried Rachel’s house phone, stumbling out the front door of the nearly complete job site.
“Hang on,” Daniel said.
“Can’t.” She had to get over there, had to find Aiden. Dreadful scenarios tore through her mind, each worse than the last as she bolted across the lawn for her car. How had anyone connected Aiden to his father? It seemed all her precautions had done no good at all.
“Shannon!” Daniel’s voice followed her, the sound faint as if reaching for her from the far end of a long, dark tunnel.
She ignored him, focused solely on getting to the sitter’s house. Denial warred with logic, all of it blurred by a frantic desperation. Digging into her front pocket, she found her car keys.
She’d barely pressed the unlock button when her wrist was caught. Bigger, calloused, Daniel’s hand took her key and held her in place.
“Let me go.” She reached for the key, missed.
“You’re in no condition to drive,” he said in that unflappable way he had.
“Let me go!” She twisted against his grip, made zero progress.
His eyes were filled with concern. “What happened?”
“My son is—is…” She couldn’t finish the sentence, not until she had proof this wasn’t some sick joke. She had to see for herself that Aiden wasn’t safely where she’d left him early this morning. “The sitter called,” she fibbed.
“No.” She couldn’t, this was her son, her responsibility. “I’m okay. I just need a second.” She gulped in air, forced it out. “The call startled me, that’s all.” She held out her open palm for the car key. “I’m okay. I need to get over there.” Another breath. “I’ll come right back.” A cold wave of fear crashed over her. Please don’t let that promise turn into a lie.
Through narrowed eyes, his mouth thin and tugged down on one side, her boss studied her with the same drawn-out assessment he gave to imperfect corners and uneven subfloors. Reluctantly, he handed her the car keys.
She pushed her lips in to a smile, knew she’d failed to sell it when he scowled. “I’ll be right back.” Opening the car door, she slid behind the wheel. As she pulled away from the curb, she used the hands-free button on her steering wheel to dial Rachel again.
With every unanswered ring, she cursed Aiden’s father, cursed herself for falling for the glossy facade hiding his ugly nature. She reminded herself that without him, she wouldn’t have Aiden, the love of her life. Of course, without her brutal ex she wouldn’t be terrified for Aiden’s safety right now, either. It was a circular, unwinnable chicken-and-egg argument that had no real bearing on the crisis at hand.
In her rush to get to the sitter’s house and see firsthand what was going on, Shannon pushed the speed limits and ran yellow lights, heedless of the truck following her.
She’d left her husband nearly five years ago, relieved for once that his connections paved the way for what might have been the fastest divorce on record in New York. After much deliberation, she’d chosen Philadelphia to start over, creating a new life for herself just in time to become a mother.
How had anyone tied Aiden to his father? She’d changed her name and left her ex’s name off Aiden’s birth certificate, refusing to saddle her son with that burden.
She parked in front of the sitter’s house and raced up the lawn, shouting for her friend and her son. “Rachel! Aiden!”
Dialing Rachel’s cell phone again, she followed the sounds around to the backyard. Her breath stuttered when she saw the gate swinging back and forth in the breeze, the latch broken. She pushed through, still shouting.
The yard was empty and far too quiet. The swings on the playset swayed listlessly, no boyish laughter spilled from the fort and the trucks in the sandbox were stalled out.
Aiden had raced to the playset when she’d dropped him off this morning while Rachel’s twin boys, a year older than Aiden, had been carving ruts in the sandbox with their dump trucks.
As she turned for the kitchen door, her heart leaped into her throat. The door had been forced open, the doorjamb a splintered mess above and below the lock. Her phone rang in her hand as she debated whether or not to call for help.
“If you call the police, I’ll send the kid back to you in pieces,” a man said.
She blinked and turned her face to the sun in an effort to erase the terrifying images the rough, mean voice created.
Aiden’s voice carried over the line, bringing her a rush of relief along with the pain of knowing a stranger held her son hostage. “Let me talk to him,” she pleaded.
“Sure thing. Just as soon as his father toes the line. I want my property and an apology to go with it.”
The call ended and the cruelty in that unfamiliar voice quashed Shannon’s hope. Aiden would not be inside the house.
A sob tore free from her throat on a tide of emotion. Her son was gone, out of sight and out of reach, but still alive. Would the same be true for Rachel and her boys? If her ugly past had brought harm to her friend and neighbor, too, she’d never forgive herself.
She spun around, struggling to fit her boss into the miserable context of this godforsaken day. “Daniel?” He should be at the site, not here. “How did you…?” Her voice trailed off as she figured it out.
“I followed you,” he replied, confirming her guess. “What are you doing here?”
Rachel’s phone had gone silent, so she hit redial. “My son.” She choked. “Should be here. H-he’s not.” Daniel wasn’t a cop, but he knew plenty of them. She had to tread carefully. Aiden’s life depended on it. “The sitter should be inside.” With the phone in her hand, she fought tremors as she pointed to the busted door. “I need to check on them.”
“Hold up.” He stepped in front of her. “We need to call the police first.”
“No!” She made a grab for his phone. “You can’t call anyone or he’ll hurt Aiden.”
“He who? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know yet,” she admitted. “Just hold off on the police for a minute and let me check on my sitter and her kids. I’m going inside.” She used her elbow to nudge aside the broken door, calling Rachel’s name again. Daniel followed, silent as a shadow. She found her friend’s cell phone under the toe kick of the kitchen island, the screen cracked.
As the ringing died and the voice mail message came through her phone, Shannon caught the unmistakable sound of crying children from the other side of the basement door. The doorknob was broken off, preventing their escape.
“Rachel? Boys? Are you okay?”
The crying faded and she heard shushing noises. “Shannon, is that you?”
“Yes.” Relieved, she felt her hammering pulse ease a bit, though her friend’s voice was faint and full of pain. “Are you hurt? Should I call an ambulance?”
“No. No police!” Rachel coughed and sputtered, tried to talk again. “I’m fine. The boys are fine. They said no police.”
They. So more than one person attacked her neighbor, kidnapped her son. “I know. It’s okay,” Shannon assured her. “She sounds weak,” she murmured to Daniel. “How do we get her out?”
Daniel ran his hands over the door hinges. “On it. Give me a second.” He jogged out of the house.
As she spoke through the door with the boys, they confirmed Rachel’s claim that they weren’t injured. She hoped the same held true for their mother.
Daniel returned, tool belt slung over his shoulder. He made quick work of popping out the hinges and Rachel and her boys emerged from the basement.
For a long moment, Rachel clung to Shannon, quaking from the ordeal. When she finally sat down at the kitchen table, her brown eyes were filled with worry and sorrow. Her gaze shifted between Shannon and Daniel. “You didn’t call the police? He’s not a cop?”
“No,” Shannon replied. “This is my boss, Daniel Jennings. He followed me when I left the job site.”
“Thank God.” Rachel hugged her boys close. “Oh, that’s horrible and I know it.” She pressed her hands to her face, hugged her boys again. “They took Aiden. I’m sorry.” Tears flooded her eyes, rolled down her cheeks. “They promised to come back if we called anyone. Not that I had a phone to use down there. How did you know?”
Shannon couldn’t say the words, just pulled up the messages and showed Rachel. Daniel, too. No sense hiding the truth of this fiasco from him now. He scowled for a long moment at the phone, but he didn’t say anything.
Meeting Shannon’s gaze, Rachel only cried harder. Daniel handed her a roll of paper towels. “They had Aiden before I knew what was going on,” she said, blotting her face dry. “I’m so sorry, Shannon. You know I love him like my own.”
“I know.” She sat down and hugged her friend, taking and offering comfort through an unthinkable crisis. “They didn’t hurt your boys?”
“These two seem to be fine,” Daniel said gently. He had the twins perched on stools at the kitchen island and had given them each a juice box. He handed Rachel a bottle of water. “Tell us how it went down.”
“I heard a loud bang near the gate and suddenly two men stormed into the yard, out of nowhere.” She tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear and dabbed at her eyes.
“They smashed the gate like Hulk,” one of the twins reported, while his brother nodded.
“I was over there—” she pointed “—at the sink, watching the boys play while I cleaned up breakfast. And…” She coughed again.
“Take your time.” Shannon urged her to sip the water.
Rachel obliged. “One of them had my boys,” she continued. “The other was hauling Aiden off the swing, toward the gate.
“There was no time to react. I grabbed my phone to call for help, but it was too late. The one with the twins kicked the door in and shoved his way inside with my boys.” She went over and laid a hand on each head. “He pushed them through the basement door. I screamed and he sprayed something in my face. Knocked my phone out of my hand.” Lost in the recollection, she stared at the cracked phone screen.
“How long ago?” Daniel prompted.
“Two hours, maybe?” She squinted at the oven clock. “No, a little more than that. We’d just had breakfast.”
Shannon’s vision blurred with tears. Two hours was a big head start. “They only called me a few minutes ago. They could be anywhere with Aiden by now.”
“Did he say anything?” Daniel asked.
“Told me not to make a report or—or else.”
Daniel’s nostrils flared and Shannon had the feeling he was suppressing a string of choice words and opinions unfit for the ears of little boys.
“Did they say anything to you guys?” Daniel asked the twins.
“They were bossy,” the first twin replied.
“And mean,” his brother added. “They smelled like spaghetti.”
“Seriously?” Daniel cocked his head.
The boys nodded in unison.
Rachel shrugged. “Maybe. Whatever he sprayed in my face made me groggy and choked me. I woke up on the landing, the boys crying over me and trying to wake me up.”
“You always wake up when we cry,” one twin declared.
“We can take you to a hospital,” Daniel offered. “Get you checked out.”
“I’m fine,” Rachel said.
“The cough may be more related to the spray,” he said. “You shouldn’t take the chance.”
“Not now, not today,” she insisted. “What are you going to do?” she asked Shannon.
What could she do? “I’m not sure,” Shannon confessed, staring at her phone. “I won’t report it,” she promised Rachel.
“You have to,” Daniel countered. “The kidnappers are gone, coming back isn’t smart.”
She shook her head as Rachel gasped in fear. “I believe the threats. I won’t put this family at risk.” She pulled Rachel into another hug. “I don’t know why this happened, but I don’t want you in the middle of it.”
“The men this morning put me in the middle of it. You’re one of my best friends. You and Aiden are family. Whatever you need, we’ll help.”
Moved beyond words, Shannon could only hug her again.
Daniel pulled out his phone. “I’m calling one of the guys to take care of this door and the gate.” He turned the phone to Rachel. “Is there someone else to stay with you when he’s done?”
“My husband’s traveling on business. He won’t be home until next week.”
Shannon caught the flare of concern in Daniel’s dark blue eyes. “I’d feel better if you could go somewhere else for a few days at least. You shouldn’t be here alone,” she said.
When Rachel agreed, Shannon helped her and the boys pack while Daniel and one of the Jennings carpenters she didn’t normally work with repaired the damage. She kept expecting another message from the kidnappers, some proof of life or a demand she could work with, but nothing came through.
She leaned against her car door, trying to smile as she waved to Rachel’s boys as the family left their house to visit her mother a few hours away in New Jersey. “At least they’re out of harm’s way. What now?” she murmured, at a complete loss.
“You need to call the cops,” Daniel said flatly.
“I can’t. You heard Rachel.”
“They took your son,” he said, incredulous.
“I know!” She bit her lip against another outburst.
“What aren’t you saying?”
“He called,” she said. “When I got here. When I walked into the backyard, he called and said…” She couldn’t get the words out. “He said he’d send Aiden back to me in pieces if I involved the police.”
“Oh, Shannon.” He rubbed her shoulder.
The immense sympathy in those two words overwhelmed her. She didn’t know if she should lean into him or run away. “Thank you for helping her and fixing everything.”
“I followed you to help you,” he said, a lick of impatience in his voice. “You need to report this.”
“If I do and they hurt my baby, it will be my fault. I can’t live with that.”
“What’s really going on?”
“I don’t know much more than you do.” She didn’t realize she was crying again, or that Daniel had her wrapped in his arms, until the fabric under her cheek was damp.
“Will you trust me?” he asked when she quieted.
It seems she already did. She eased back from his solid warmth and tried to regain some distance and some dignity, a lost cause at this point. “I won’t speak with the police. Not yet, not after those threats.”
“How do you feel about former police?”
She shook her head. “Daniel—”
“Your place is nearby, right?” He looked toward the corner, squinting at the street signs.
“Around the corner,” she answered, caught off guard by the shift in topic. She supposed he knew her address from her personnel file.
“We’ll drop off your car and then you’re coming with me.”
“You need to get back to the job site.” She should go back as well, there wasn’t anything she could do other than wait for the kidnappers to make a demand she could work with.
“Ed’s got it under control.”
She groaned, thinking of her immediate supervisor and the project manager on the house they were finishing up. A little older, Ed Scanlon was patient and easygoing most of the time. Over the past few years, she’d come to think of him as the older brother she’d never had. “I need to call him, let him know I won’t be back.” She pushed a hand through her hair. “What am I going to tell him?” He doted on Aiden. If she told him the truth, he’d be relentless about pressuring her to call the cops. Daniel posed plenty of opposition without Ed chiming in.
“I handled it,” Daniel said. “I outrank him, remember?”
Ed was a friend as well and she didn’t want to hurt him. “Handled it how?” She gaped at her boss. “You didn’t tell him the truth.”
“No, I didn’t. And the guy who helped me with the repairs got a story about an attempted home invasion. Come on now.”
“I’m not talking to the police.”
“Trust me, I got that part loud and clear.” He reached around her and opened her car door. “First, your place. Lead the way.”
She fought back tears as she drove, wishing the phone would ring. Threats or demands, she didn’t care, as long as whoever held Aiden gave her another glimpse of her son, alive.
“I’ll find you, baby,” she vowed to the empty booster seat in the back. “You’ll be home soon.” She put all her thoughts toward how they would celebrate his homecoming and almost succeeded in blotting out the worst-case scenarios.