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   CODE NAME: WILLOW
    .............................................Excerpt

Bang bang bang!

Loud pounding from the security agency's main lobby sent adrenaline pulsing through Jack Bennett's nervous system. He grabbed his Glock and edged to his office door. Overkill, probably, but twenty years in the Secret Service had made suspicion second-nature. Anticipating danger kept people alive.

Switching off his office lights, he opened the door and peered into the darkened reception area. The front door was all glass—bulletproof, of course. No one outside could see in through the mirrored glass, but Jack had a great view of his late-night visitor.

Definitely female, her drenched gray T-shirt clinging in all the right places, from round breasts to narrow waist. Wet jeans encased her shapely legs, sucking the air from his lungs.

Coaxing his gaze upward, he noted tangled dark hair and wide-set eyes narrowed in an attempt to see through the mirrored glass. Jack looked her over with more professional eyes, checking for the shape of a weapon out of habit. Her hands were visible and empty. No obvious bulges under her clothes, unless you counted the ones that were God-given gifts.

And God was good.

He crossed to the door and jerked it open, catching the woman off guard. With a huff of surprise, she lifted her startled gaze to meet his. A dozen different expressions darted across her face in the span of a second before she flung herself at him, her arms roping around his waist. Off balance, he had to take a couple of staggering steps backward to steady himself.

"God, Jack, I never thought I'd be this glad to see you again!" Her breasts flattened against his ribcage, her thighs opening to accept the pressure of his left leg. Her drenched hair smelled like flowers.

His head swam as his blood rushed south.

She pulled away, her expression mortified. "God, how pathetic was that?"

He pulled her out of the rain slanting through the doorway. As he opened his mouth to speak, she preempted him, wiping her rain-streaked face.

"I heard you'd retired and gone back home, so I hoped—" She looked up at him, breathless, her expression tinged with embarrassment. "I stopped across the bay and found your ad in a phone directory." A half-smiled curved her lips. "'I've protected presidents—I can protect you.' Catchy."  

She shivered as she spoke; whether from nerves or being drenched to the skin, he didn't know. He laid his hand on her shoulder, intending to ask who she was. But when she shuddered at his touch, as if her body were stuck in fight-or-flight mode, he lowered his voice to a gravelly half-whisper and said instead, "I'll get you a towel."

Swallowing hard, he went to the bathroom in his office, which was fully equipped with a shower and all the amenities. He grabbed a towel and returned to the front office, ready to find out just who his mystery woman was.

But the door stood open and she was nowhere to be seen.


        

MAGGIE OPENED THE COROLLA'S passenger door and bent to look at the boy inside. "Come on, Remy, Jack's here."

Remy Chauvin met her gaze with dark, wary eyes. "You sure he's not gonna nark on us?"

Maggie quelled her doubts for the boy's sake. "Protecting people is his job."

Remy got out of the car, hunching his shoulders against the rain. Maggie put her arm around him and led him up the walk.

The office door whipped open and Jack appeared in the entry, a large gun gripped in one hand. Squinting against the sheeting rain, he stepped back to let them inside.

"I didn't want to leave Remy in the car by himself any longer," Maggie explained, huddling the boy through the door.

She watched Jack assessing Remy, wondering what he saw. She could guess; most people looked at the sullen teen and summed him up in one word: Trouble.

Jack was no different. She saw it in his narrowed eyes.

Remy returned Jack's gaze with raw animal wariness. Maggie broke the silence to deflect the mounting tension. "Jack, this is Remy Chauvin. Remy, this is Jack Bennett. We go way back. He's going to help us figure out this mess."

At her words, Jack's eyebrows twitched, his gaze slanting to meet hers. Heat rose on the back of Maggie's neck.

Maybe coming here was a bad idea.

Jack locked the door and handed her the towel. Ignoring her own disheveled state, Maggie tended to Remy, draping the dry towel over his shoulders to warm him. Thin and wiry, all muscle and bone, the boy had a hungry, feral look to his sharp features that all her work with him had yet to dispel.

But he was learning to trust her. She saw it in the way his eyes softened and his lips curved in a smile when he looked at her. She blinked back tears, determined to protect this boy at all costs. "It's okay, Remy," she crooned. "Jack's good at what he does. He'll know how to help us."

"That's what you said about those guys in New Orleans."

"Jack's different." Maggie looked up at Jack, torn between fear and hope. "Right?"

His ice-blue eyes searching her face, Jack nodded toward a nearby door. "Remy, there are more dry towels in the bathroom in my office. Get a couple more for you two."

The boy looked at Maggie as if asking permission. She nodded, smiling at him. "Go on."

Remy shot Jack a warning look. Jack returned the glare, clearly not willing to give Remy an inch. Remy looked away and slouched his way to Jack's office.

Jack waited until Remy was out of sight before turning to Maggie, his expression dark. Her stomach began to ache. "Remy's one of the kids I counsel," she explained. "I work at an inner city center for troubled kids." She smiled self-consciously. "Bet you never thought you'd hear me say that."

She'd been a different person when Jack knew her. Skinny, with spiky bleached blond hair and more makeup than a drag queen, dressed in whatever had been the trendiest, most daring thing a girl of twenty-one could wear ten years ago. She'd been in full hate-the-whole-world mode back then and not afraid to show it, especially to Jack.

She was lucky he hadn't barred the door tonight.

Jack closed the distance between them, his body heat surrounding her. A shudder of awareness rippled through her, throwing her mind into a tailspin. He'd touched her the first time they met. Right after Jimmy's death. Those days had been a blur, a nightmarish tilt-a-whirl of images. Thousands of sympathetic well-wishers surrounding her father, held at bay by his handlers. The press, eager for all the dirt on how her brother had ended up dead of a massive heroin overdose in a seedy Georgetown dive. Her stepmother's pale hands, fluttering like a nervous butterfly as she tried to offer unwanted comfort.

And then, Jack's hand on her shoulder. Warm, big and strong. A squeeze that made her look up, way up into clear blue eyes full of gentle sympathy. Those eyes had made her cry for the first time since Jimmy's death.

And she'd hated him for it. At first, anyway.

Jack's voice pulled her out of the vivid memory. "Want to tell me what's going on, Marguerite?" he murmured.

She met his hard gaze, relief fluttering through her. "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten who I was."

"I did for a minute," he admitted. "Until you disappeared on me. That's a Marguerite Cole move if I've ever seen one."

She stepped away from him, bumping into the door. She flattened her back against the hard surface and kept her voice light. "Here I thought I was unforgettable."

He remained unsmiling. "Why are you here?"

Her stomach twisted with anxiety. She felt twenty-one and foolish all over again. "I know we didn't part as friends." Her hand rose to her throat, fingering the diamond ring that hung on a slim gold chain around her neck, worrying the stones beneath her damp t-shirt. "I just thought—"

A cool wariness settled over his features. "Willow—"

She looked away. "I hated that name."

"No, you hated me."

She looked at him again, her expression softening a little. "As I remember it, the feeling was mutual."

"Marguerite—"

"I go by Maggie Stone now. Lower profile."

He looked her over as if he didn't quite believe who she was. To be fair to him, she'd looked almost nothing like the girl she'd been when he knew her.

"You never called. You never wrote," he murmured.

Remy returned before she could respond, swaggering into the room with the extra towels. But Maggie could see the fear beneath the bravado. The poor kid had just been through a hellish day and things weren't looking up much.

She felt Jack's gaze on her and looked up, glimpsing a hint of surprise in his expression. Fair enough; the Marguerite Cole he'd known was definitely not the "pick up a stray and bring him home" type, unless you counted six-foot-two club studs too wasted to get home on their own after a night of partying.

"So, Doc, you tell the big guy about the cop who popped that dude?" Remy asked.

Jack looked at Remy. "Excuse me?"

"Oh. Guess you ain't there yet." Remy folded his arms over his chest, looking pleased with himself.

Jack looked at Maggie. "What is he talking about?"

She frowned, wondering how to phrase their dilemma in the best light possible. "Remy has a bit of a problem."

Jack quirked one eyebrow.

She took a deep breath and started at the beginning. "A few weeks ago, walking home from the youth center, he saw a New Orleans police detective execute a man. Remy told me, and I helped him report it to the authorities."

"But the cops, they all cover for their own, you know?" Remy's face twisted with disgust. "Dude busts my head, tells me I'm lyin' and if I don't cop to it, I'm gonna do juvy time. I say, 'Dude, I'm not lyin' man, I seen him.' But he pushed me into a fence and called me a delinquent."

Maggie could tell what Jack was thinking—real shock, the cops believing one of their own over the smart-mouthed juvenile delinquent. She ignored his skepticism and continued. "This detective, Mark Blevins, is the department's golden boy. Decorations out the wazoo, squeaky clean record, a real poster boy for the new, cleaned up New Orleans Police Department. We tried talking to the D.A. about it. He said he'd look into it, but he never got back to us."

"So you ran?" He looked at her as if she'd lost her mind.

"Well, no—" Maggie's lips pressed into a line. She took a moment, carefully choosing her words. "At least, not then. This afternoon, something happened—"

"Aw, Doc, just spit it out!" Remy said. "Some goons popped the Bakers this afternoon. They'd have got me too, except I heard 'em downstairs, got my rear in gear and got outta there."

"We think someone may have done something to Remy's foster family," Maggie translated.

Jack's eyebrows arched. "Killed them?"

She didn't answer aloud, for Remy's sake, but she gave a slight nod. There'd been no bodies in the house when Remy took her there an hour or so after he left, but something bad had happened there. She'd felt it in her bones.

"Why didn't you call the police?"

"Ain't you been listenin'?" Remy rolled his eyes. "Cop's are the bad guys. I go to the cops, I kiss my butt goodbye."

"Didn't you even try the D.A. again?" Clearly, Remy's tough guy act was trampling all over Jack's nerves.

"There wasn't time. Remy was in danger." She lifted her chin and met his gaze directly. "I did what I had to."

"And what was that, exactly?" Jack asked.

Before Maggie could speak, Remy answered for her, his lips stretched in a gleeful grin. He looked at Maggie, his eyes glowing with admiration. "The doc—she kidnapped me."

At Remy's words, Jack's eyebrows met in a "V" over his nose. Maggie shot a glare at Remy, silently warning him to let her do the talking. Jack already remembered her as a flighty, bitchy little rich girl hell-bent on self-destruction. No need to reinforce that image.

"Kidnapped?" Jack repeated.

Maggie took a deep breath. "Technically, yes. I transported a minor across state lines without the permission of his legal guardian—"

Jack grimaced. "That would constitute kidnapping."

Damn it, Jack shouldn't still have the power to make her feel like an irresponsible wild child with one twitch of his eyebrows. She jutted her chin and forced herself to meet his troubled gaze. "We can sort out the legalities when Remy's safe and we know what we're going to do next."
        
Jack's frown deepened. "This is bad."

Remy slid between Maggie and Jack in an endearing show of bravado. "The doc did what she had to, man. She's a hero."

Jack's grim expression gave no indication of softening.

Remy turned to Maggie, his dark eyes gentle. He gave her the extra towel he'd gotten from the bathroom in the back office. "Here, Doc. Dry off, and we'll get outta here, okay? We don't need him. We're doin' fine by ourselves."

She took the towel and wrapped it around her, grateful for the added warmth. She squeezed Remy's arm. "Jack didn't say he won't take our case." She looked pointedly at Jack. "Did you?"

His mouth made a couple of false starts before he finally said, "Tell me more about what happened." He nodded toward a grouping of chairs across from the reception desk.

Maggie nudged Remy toward the chairs and settled across from Jack. Jack switched on the table lamp and a golden glow cocooned them, shutting out the dark and dangerous world outside the office windows.
        
For a long moment, no one spoke as Jack studied Remy with the same watchful gaze with which he'd scrutinized everyone who came within ten feet of Maggie back in the old days. Maggie had hated that look ten years ago, hated having people watching her every move, twenty-four seven.

So why did that watchful gaze bring tears to her eyes and a hollow, needy feeling to her belly?

As bad as her relationship with Jack had been during his time on her Secret Service protective detail, Maggie had never for a moment doubted that he'd keep her safe. He'd proved himself more times than she cared to admit, including quite a few times when she'd wished him anywhere else.

Jack Bennett was good at his job. If he weren't, she'd never have brought Remy here looking for Jack's help. And if helping her old times' sake wasn't exactly an incentive, she was willing to pay him a generous fee for his help.

After all, everybody had a price.

Jack's gaze moved from Remy's face to Maggie's. "No matter how this turns out, there are probably going to be grave consequences for you, Maggie."

"I know."

"That's a first," he muttered, so low Maggie wasn't sure he'd meant her to hear him.

Her neck grew hot with belated shame. Ten years ago, consequences had been just a word. Her father had been in politics her whole life. Any scrape she'd gotten into had been fixed before she faced any real punishment. "I know I've crossed a few lines here."

Jack huffed at the understatement. "Besides kidnapping, you'd probably be charged with obstruction of justice and fleeing the scene of a crime."

Her stomach cramped with anxiety. "I know."

Jack squared his shoulders, his gaze leveled with hers. "The first order of business is to turn yourselves in to the authorities as soon as possible."

Remy shot from his chair. "Screw that!"

Maggie grabbed Remy's arm. "Let Jack finish." Surely he had some sort of plan. "We turn ourselves in and what, Jack?"

"And then hope they don't nail you for kidnapping."

Her heart dropped. "That's it?"

He met her look of dismay with a quirked eyebrow. "You think you can keep running forever? Not every cop is corrupt. You'll have to trust them at some point, and considering how many laws you've broken today, I'd say the sooner the better."

"I don't trust nobody but the doc." Remy scowled at Jack.

"You're in serious trouble, Remy." Jack pushed his fingers through his hair, lifting it into short, dark spikes, a gesture Maggie remembered well.

"Remy saw a police detective murder a man in cold blood, Jack. We're fairly sure New Orleans police officers are involved in the disappearance of Remy's foster parents."

"This isn't New Orleans. We can call the local police or even the Mobile FBI field office, though that may open a whole other can of worms. They get twitchy about kidnappings." Jack leaned toward her and laid his hand over hers where it curled over her knee. "You can't play fugitive, don't you see that?"

She closed her eyes, trying to still the sudden thunder of her pulse. God please, she thought. Please don't let me turn back into that foolish little girl who fell for her bodyguard.

His voice swept over her like a caress, hammering at the walls around her heart she was desperately trying to shore up. "If I help you break the law, it's big trouble for me, too."

She opened her eyes to look at him, her gut tightening.

"I have a lot to lose. My license. My gun permit." His dry, reasonable words drove away the warmth his touch had created. Barricades went up around her heart, easing her fears even as her body went cold with despair.

Jack was right. She knew he was. Her actions would have grave consequences for everyone involved, and it wasn't like Jack was some old friend she could depend on to help her out no matter what. She'd have to make it worth his while.

After all, he'd been paid to protect her before.

She straightened. "I'm not asking you to do this for free. I can get you money when it's over. You know that."

A dark look passed over his face. "I'm not putting you off here to jack up my fee."

She swallowed a rush of angry disappointment. "So you're really not going to help me."

He didn't speak, but she saw the answer in his eyes. Her heart dropped, weighted down by disillusionment she hadn't even realized she was capable of feeling anymore.

Why had she ever thought he could fix things for them? She should have known better; that kind of trust in other people went against everything she'd learned over the past ten years.

Everything Jack himself had taught her.

She had to think of Remy. Three weeks ago, she'd convinced the scared boy to tell the police what he'd seen. Remy had wanted to keep his mouth shut and stay away from trouble. But Maggie had convinced him to tell the truth, to trust the authorities to do the right thing.

He'd been burned. So had she. By the cops she'd trusted to do right by Remy—and now by the man she given one last chance to help her.

Nobody was going to help them. She understood that now.

Remy glared at Jack, his expression a blend of fear and disappointment. Maggie pulled her hand from Jack's and touched Remy's thin forearm. He twitched, his dark eyes darting to meet hers. She tried to speak reassurance with her own gaze as she turned to Jack. "Okay, go call the police."

Remy jerked, but she dug her fingers into his arm.

Jack released a gusty sigh. "I'll be right back." He stood, reaching out to brush back a strand of hair hanging in Maggie's eyes. Her cheek tingled at the passing graze of his fingertips. She steeled herself against the sensation.

Make the call from your office, she willed.

She watched with relief as he disappeared through the door to his office. The second he was out of sight, she stood, pulling Remy to his feet.

She kept her voice low. "Let's get out of here."


Text Copyright 2007 by Paula Graves.