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In Safe Hands

April 2009
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
ISBN # 978-0373276288

The trail had gone cold in Major Colin Fairfax’s highstakes murder investigation. Then danger struck…and he took a bullet for a feisty redhead who had information on his brother’s killer. Maggie Ryan assaulted his senses with her potent beauty, yet Colin’s hackles rose when he realized the P.I. was keeping secrets.

Tainted by dark misfortune, Maggie refused to let Colin’s orphaned niece become collateral damage in the Mexican drug trade. However, she was less certain about her feelings for the overprotective Brit who kissed her breathless one minute and roused her Irish temper the next. But nothing would prevent her from bringing Colin home to Texas to face down their enemy…

More about The Safekeepers

In Safe Hands

 

Chapter One

Colin Fairfax took another shot of brandy from the flask he’d begun keeping in his pocket and resumed pacing the threadbare carpet in this run-down New York flat.

Bugger.  It was freezing in here.  No wonder the place was all but deserted.  What kind of human could live for long in conditions like this?  He’d agreed to wait for twenty-four hours, but now he was wondering if that had been the most intelligent thing to do.

He’d been through much worse, of course.  Fighting alongside his men in the freezing blizzards of mountain passes in Afghanistan, he had known hell.  Yet even that extreme cold hadn’t chilled his bones in the same way these icy drafts singing down tenement walls battered both his body and psyche.

Fingering the weapon at his waistband, Colin was pleased he’d thought of obtaining the automatic from his embassy before embarking on his personal mission.  The secretive man he was supposed to meet claimed to have information that would be the most vital clue in Colin’s search to date.   According to other local contacts, this man was covertly employed by the Americans.  His job was to keep tabs on just the sort of thing Colin wanted to find.  Allowances must be made for that kind of knowledge.

Covert was one thing, though.  Being stupid was quite another.

Impatiently awaiting the creak of floorboards on the stairs right outside his door, Colin wasn’t sure how much longer he could bide his time in this godforsaken hovel. 

But obtaining information about his brother, John, from the mystery man who called himself “El Cuervo” was important enough to keep Colin right here, freezing his bum for the duration.

A sudden soft knock from the other side of the door took Colin by surprise.  At last.  An end to this ridiculous waiting charade.

Blowing out a pent up breath and deciding that his best defense was the element of surprise, he ripped open the flimsy wooden door.  Only to find a curly-headed leprechaun standing in the shadows at the threshold.

“What?” he asked irritably and half-turned away.  This little person resembled one of his annoying mother’s fairie creatures.  It couldn’t be the man he’d been expecting.

“Colin?”

That word caught his attention, and he swung back.  A low and sexy female voice had come from the short lumpy body—and that voice had spoken his name.

Colin did what his gut told him to do.  He grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her off her feet as he popped her inside the room.  Using his foot, he slammed the door behind them.  Then, reaching out with a steadying hand, he turned her around so that he could better study the small, odd female in the combined glow from an overhead bulb and the dusty lamp on his makeshift desk.  Was she carrying a weapon?

“Hey!” she complained and batted at his hands.  “Cut out the manhandling.”  The woman sounded as surprised to be here as he’d been when she’d first appeared at his door.

No gun.  And at an inch or two over five feet tall, she posed no immediate danger.

“Who are you and what do you want?” he demanded.

She took off the mannish gray fedora and a tumble of auburn curls spilled out over her shoulders and halfway down her back.  Colin revised his original opinion.  Not a leprechaun at all.  No.  Even in the shadowed glow of lamplight, the sight of this woman’s wide and frightened eyes sent a sucker punch of heat straight to his gut.  She was actually quite beautiful underneath the ugly green covering.  But that doe-eyed look made her appear vulnerable—and too much like the very thing he’d long ago vowed to steer clear of.  A lovely woman in distress.  Trouble.

He needed to get his head back into the game.  She knew his name.  Perhaps she had been sent with information. 

With his senses strung tight, Colin tried to ignore his primal response to her.  He was certainly experienced enough to maintain appearances.

Except for her hair.  Colin lost focus again as he stared at her glorious hair.  Even in the dim lighting he could see a hundred different colors shining throughout that mass of curls.  Reds and chestnut and ebony.  Even a few sprinkles of burnished gold.  His hands ached to glide their way through that silken, shiny mane.

She stared at him, and the bare overhead bulb shot a single glimmer of light into her eyes.  They were forest green.  The color was blinding.

Whoever the woman was, her body came in a riot of colors under the drab garments.  Perhaps she truly was a leprechaun in disguise, sent to guard the pot of gold.

At that wayward thought, Colin took a sharp breath.  Was John the pot of gold?

“Answer me, woman.  What do you know?”  Furiously he blinked away the guilt and pain that always came when he thought of John.

“My name is Maggie Ryan,” she finally said with a lilting voice and an odd accent.  “I’ve come a long way to seek you out.  You’re hold the key to a child’s future.”

* * *

As the tall man gaped at her from out of those steely gray-blue eyes, Maggie tried to take in the whole picture with one quick glance the way she’d trained herself to do.  Age about mid-thirties.  Clean cut with a strong chin.  A touch of gray at his temples, and exuding an expression that seemed both sharp and wary.  Her initial impression was of a man both sophisticated and deadly.  An odd combination. 

But Maggie Ryan wasn’t one to turn tail and run at the first sight of potential trouble.  Even as a kid she’d stood her ground both against her older brothers and against the magic forces in nature that swirled around their Texas family.  She felt tough enough to get any job done.  Especially one this important.

Maggie had learned a few lessons in self-defense from her Irish-American private investigator grandfather before he’d died, and those would serve her well.  But right now she thanked goodness for Abuela Lupe.  Her Mexican curandera grandmother had located this dangerous- looking man in her crystals and then told Maggie where and when to find him.

All that Maggie knew so far was that his name was Colin and he was the key to solving all of her problems.

He took her by the arm and dragged her closer.  “I expect an explanation—now,” he demanded in a clipped English accent.  “What’s all this nonsense?”

His touch sent heat scorching through her body.  She couldn’t remember a time that she’d had such a spontaneous, emotional response to a man.  Well, not since the idiocy of an ill-advised engagement during her college years.  If she’d had a mind to start that kind of thing again, this intense man with his quiet British accent and his tailored black slacks and expensive black leather jacket would not be the one.

“Can we...um...sit down?  To talk.”  Looking around, she found that the only chair had papers stacked on the seat.

He swooped the papers up and stashed them on the bed.  “Sit, then.”  Folding his hands behind his back in military style, Colin began to pace up and down in the tiny room.

“What or who could be so important, Maggie Ryan,” he said with an arrogant half-smile.  “That you sought me out through…a...”  He shot his hand in the air as if lost for words.  “What?  How did you find me?  A magic spell?”

He didn’t know how close to the truth that was.

Maggie sat on the shaky chair with its one leg shorter than the others and stared up at him.  “I’ve come all the way from south Texas to find answers about a lost child.  It’s the most important thing in the world.  I’m trying to locate any relatives for the orphaned baby girl in my custody.  It’s vital that…”

“Why me?  Why come looking for me?”

Instead of answering she threw a question back at him.  “You don’t live in this room, do you?  This can’t be your home.”

It was a good guess since her grandmother had been so specific about her arriving at this place at just the right time.  Besides, this man didn’t look as if he belonged in a dump like this one.

She sucked up a breath and took a chance.  “Why are you here?”

Colin’s whole body seemed to jerk at her question.  The smile disappeared and the dangerous man returned.  She could see the dire change in those glacial eyes. 

Bloody hell, Colin thought.  She knows something and she’s just playing games.

He swept in closer, loomed over her, grabbed a handful of her hair.  With a swift jerk, he tugged her head back exposing the exquisite, smooth column of her neck.

“You haven’t answered my question.  Stop toying around.  What do you know about my brother?  Tell me quick, love, or I’ll break that pretty neck of yours.”

Maggie blinked.  “Let go of my hair.”  She’d said it in a steady voice, though he could feel her trembling.

Without warning, a heated tingle traveled from her silky hair into his fingers and right up his arm.  He released her involuntarily and rubbed his hands together to quiet the electric jolt he’d experienced.

“Your brother?” she asked, acting as if nothing happened when he released her.  “I’m not sure.  I mean…what’s your brother’s name?”

Outside the filthy window, winter storm clouds stole away with the moon.  Colin’s heart clouded over too with a gut instinct about what this eccentric beauty would say.  For months now he’d been feeling the worst had happened.  But he needed to hear the words.

“His name is John Fairfax,” Colin managed in a strangled voice.  “And if you know anything about his whereabouts, you had better speak up.”

She looked thoughtful.  “That could be it, I guess.  The man’s name was John.  But the last name was Sheridan.”  She paused.  “What’s your full name?”

Suddenly furious with her for answering questions with more questions, he growled, “Sir Colin Fairfax, Baron Derwent.  Also referred to recently as Major Colin Fairfax of the third Royal Tank Regiment, Her Majesty’s British Army, retired.  Look, skip over any other questions that may pop into that lovely head of yours and get to the point.  What do you know of John?”

Suddenly weary, Colin turned his back on her and began pacing again.  She had used the past tense.  He knew what that implied.  His younger brother, the one he had lost track of several years ago due to his own misplaced arrogance and indifference, was very likely dead.

Maggie heard the hoarse but heartfelt words and began to experience Colin’s growing misery herself —-by way of empathic sympathy.  “I have to start with the story of the baby.”

Looking up into his bleak eyes as he strode by, she wished she wasn’t so sure about the facts.  “That’s how I got involved in the first place.  I live near the border and about six months ago a couple and their two month old daughter were involved in a terrible car crash on our side of the river.  The couple died instantly on impact but the baby in the back seat survived.”

Sighing, she continued, “The sheriff asked me to take the child into my home as our isolated county doesn’t have any local child welfare services.  My neighbor who runs a daycare center helps me out when needed.”  Maggie swallowed hard, still wishing she could be wrong but knowing full well she wasn’t, and went on.  “I’m a trained private investigator, so I’ve been looking into the deceaseds’ backgrounds, trying to trace any relatives of the little girl.”

A perplexed expression crossed Colin’s face as he quit pacing and slowly shook his head.  “I don’t understand…  Are you saying my brother married?  Fathered a child? Impossible.  I would’ve known.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him?” Maggie asked, going on gut instincts.  “Why are you searching for information about your own brother?”

Even in the dim lighting of the sordid room, Maggie could clearly see the pain streak through Colin’s eyes. She hurt for him.  If it had been one of her brothers..?

Nevertheless, she was still wary.  When Colin accepted the facts, would he be willing to leave Emma in her care?  Or would he do the unthinkable and demand she hand over his niece?  Maggie’s life would stop if that happened.  She needed this child.  Emma had become her heart—her only chance.

“I…uh…”  Colin looked around, staring absently at his surroundings as if he’d only just arrived.  “Our family was divided when John and I were children.  Ages ten and twelve, respectively.  As the eldest, I stayed in my father’s care, went to his old school and joined his regiment in due course.”

Maggie waited.  There was a lot more to tell, she was sure.  But she wasn’t sure how much of it Colin would be willing to give up to a complete stranger.

Funny, though, sometime in the last few minutes she’d stopped thinking of him as a stranger who could take away her whole world.  Something about him called to her.  Disturbed her, yes, yet made him appear much more like a friend in stranger’s clothing.

Still, she hoped he wouldn’t touch her again.  The last two times had completely thrown her out of balance with shots of sexual energy.

She sensed the danger an instant before catching sight of a flash of color outside the window.

“Watch out!”  Maggie jumped up, knocking hard into Colin’s side at the exact moment the window exploded.  Shattered glass and bits of broken wood frame sprayed everywhere as the two of them hit the floor.          

Surprised but unhurt, and by no means put out of commission, Colin rolled Maggie under him for protection and reached for the SIG Sauer at his back.  A loud bang was quickly followed by a hail of bullets through the window.  He ducked his head, and when he looked around, fire had ignited in a corner of the room.  Bugger it.

Ignoring his suspicions for the moment, Colin tensed further at the sudden, deadly quiet and got to his feet.  He stayed hunched over as he palmed his weapon and flattened his body against the wall between the door and the window.  He took aim out the window, trying to get a fix on the shadowy fire escape of the opposite building—without making himself too great a target.

He gave Maggie one swift glance back.  If she was guilty, then her own cohorts had turned against her.  But Maggie Ryan could not be left to die in a burning room.  It was unthinkable, despite the fact she must have betrayed him.  It would be up to him to fight their way out.

“Colin, move farther away from the door.  Hurry!”

Off balance now, he heard another blast just as the wall at his side burst apart.  By then it was far too late to move out of the way.

Everything faded to black.

 

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