| MAJOR NANNY
The bomb went off, and for a minute, Harlan McClain was back on a dusty road in Iraq, his ears ringing. Everything around him moved in slow motion—debris flying, people falling.
There were screams. Always screams. The training never prevented the screaming.
You're not in Iraq. You're in Austin, Texas, and a bomb just went off. Get your backside in gear.
Over a decade of Marine Corps training taking over as chaos unfolded around him, he scanned the area for a quick damage assessment. Car bomb. Not a huge one—the blast radius wasn't anywhere near the size of something like Oklahoma City—but the dais where Governor Lila Lockhart had stood moments earlier was a ruin, reduced to jagged metal and splintered wood.
Was the governor buried somewhere under the debris?
The crowd surrounding the platform had already begun to disperse in panic, leaving behind some of the fallen. Many were still moving, trying to drag themselves to safety. Others lay motionless in the grass in front of the dais.
Triage, he thought, pulling out his cell phone to call 911. His call was one of many, he discovered. To his relief, the dispatcher told him units were already responding. But he couldn't sit tight waiting for the cavalry to arrive—some of these people might not survive the wait.
As he hurried toward the first fallen victim, a slim, dark-haired woman raced across his path, heading toward the collapsed platform. Blood stained the side of her face without obscuring her delicate profile. Pretty, he thought. Scared as hell. She looked familiar.
"Governor!" she cried, trying to pull away a piece of metal from the pile.
Harlan raced forward to stop her. The wrong move could bring the rest of the debris falling down on top of anyone buried underneath. And the last time he'd seen his boss, Bart Bellows had been only a few feet from Lila Lockhart.
"Don't try to move anything," he barked, his voice coming out more gruff than he'd intended.
She turned a fierce glare his way. "The governor is under there."
"And if you do the wrong thing, you could bring the rest of this mess crashing in on her."
Her nostrils flared. "You were with Bart."
"Harlan McClain." He nodded, remembering where he'd seen her before. "You're the governor's aide, right?"
"Stacy Giordano." She pressed her fingertips to the side of her head. When she drew them away, they were bloody. Her face went even paler. "What happened? Was it a bomb?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure."
She shook her head, looking stunned and scared. "But Frank Dorian is in jail."
He'd had the same thought. Even Bart, who was a suspicious old cuss, had thought that stopping Frank Dorian solved Governor Lockhart's problem. Dorian had come damned close to killing the governor before Wade Coltrane had stopped him, but once he was in custody, everyone at Corps Security Investigations had thought the trouble was over.
Harlan should have known better. Trouble never went away for long.
"We need to help the injured." He caught her arm, making her gasp. He loosened his grip, tried to soften his voice. She looked shell-shocked and he didn't need to spook her any further. "Go find as many able-bodied people as you can. We need to start some sort of triage—"
She straightened, as if she'd found her core of steel. "Okay." Her chin lifted and her eyes flashed with determination as she headed out in search of help.
He wasn't surprised when she returned a few minutes later with several people in tow. Most had clearly survived the blast themselves, their clothing covered with grime and fine debris. Some, like Stacy, had cuts and scrapes, but they all seemed relieved to have a purpose—something to take their minds off witnessing their world upended.
Sometimes, Harlan knew, finding something useful to do was the only thing that kept you sane in a crazy world.
He sent Stacy Giordano and her army in search of people who were moving around, while he checked on the ones who weren't moving. Unlike his civilian helpers, he had plenty of experience in dealing with mortality. Too much experience.
He found two D.O.A.s and a couple more who might not make it. As he moved to the next body—a man in a state trooper uniform lying near the mangled remains of the dais—he heard sirens approaching at a clip.
"It's Chip!" Stacy Giordano rushed past him toward the state trooper. "He's part of the governor's security detail."
Harlan raced to catch up, not sure what she'd find when she reached the trooper's still body.
Stacy crouched next to the man, her fingers on his carotid. "He's alive," she said briskly. Her hands moved over his body, searching for injuries. She moved with a sureness that caught Harlan by surprise. "You a nurse or something?"
She glanced at him. "No. Search and rescue medic training. There's a lump here at the back of his head. Skull feels intact, but it may be a concussion." She checked the man's eyes with a small penlight attached to a keychain. "Pupils reactive. Good sign."
The man made a low groaning sound.
"EMTs are arriving. We should back off, let them work," Harlan suggested.
"There aren't going to be enough for everybody. Not yet—"
He caught her arm and tugged her to a standing position. "We'll be in the way. And we don't know that we've seen the last of the blasts."
Her eyes widened. "You think there could be more coming?"
"It's possible," he admitted. "Sometimes there's a secondary device—"
"To hit the first responders." Stacy's jaw squared. "Then we'd better find the governor and get her out of here." She started toward the back of the dais before he could stop her.
He jogged to catch up.
"She was standing back here," Stacy called over her shoulder, "so if she dropped with the dais—"
Harlan spotted a flash of pale blue under the tangle of metal piping and wooden slats that had once constituted the bunting-draped platform where Lila Lockhart had declared her intention to run for higher office. Lila had been wearing a light blue suit, hadn't she?
"Lila!" Stacy dashed forward. "Lila, can you hear me?"
"I'm stuck under this damned mess!" Lila called out, her voice surprisingly strong. "I must've bumped my head—I was out a few seconds—"
"Hold still—you don't want to cause yourself more injury," Harlan warned. "Did you see what happened to Bart?"
"He was right behind me—"
"I'm over here." A man's voice, weak and strained, came from somewhere behind Harlan.
Harlan turned to see a large chunk of the dais had broken off and flown backward in the blast, landing sideways in a shallow rill in the capitol grounds. "Bart?"
"Knocked me clean on my backside!" Bart called out, his voice a little stronger. "But I can't get my chair up."
"Keep her from moving," Harlan ordered Stacy before he hurried to the second debris site. To his relief, Bart had been thrown clear of the twisted tangle of wood and metal, but the old man and his wheelchair both lay on their sides in the grass beyond the rill.
"I'm afraid this is probably a goner," Harlan said as he picked up the wheelchair, pushing it away from Bart's useless legs to free them. He grimaced as his scarred right hand twinged where he gripped the chair handle.
"Is Lila okay?" Bart asked.
"She's alive. She's trapped under the debris, but she sounds good. The paramedics are on the way."
"Who did this? Frank Dorian's in jail."
"I don't know." Harlan ran his hands over Bart's body, looking for injuries. He didn't feel any obvious broken bones, and the old man seemed bright-eyed and lucid. "Do you have any pain anywhere?"
Bart shook his head. "The explosion flung me like a rag doll, but I reckon I landed that way, too. Probably saved me a broken bone or two." He clapped his hand on one useless leg. "Not that I'd have noticed."
Harlan looked again at the wheelchair. The control panel had been damaged by the impact, but the wheels and frame looked surprisingly sturdy. "Let's get you into the chair and see if we can't do this the old-fashioned way."
He picked up Bart and set him in the wheelchair, taking another chance to look him over. Bart's well-seamed face was scraped and dirty, but he didn't seem to have any worrisome injuries, to Harlan's relief.
"Quit lookin' at me like I'm about to keel over any minute," Bart groused.
Harlan bit back a grin. "Let's go check on Lila."
The wheelchair wasn't easy to push over the uneven, grassy terrain, especially with Harlan's hand starting to ache as if he'd taken the shrapnel injury moments earlier rather than months ago. But Harlan was so relieved Bart seemed to be okay that he barely felt the pain.
When they reached the edge of the debris pile, Stacy was crouched outside near the governor, peering through the maze of steel and splintered wood. "It looks as if the main thing trapping her is that crossbeam," Stacy told Harlan as he hunkered down beside her. She pointed to a large steel support bar that once had been one of the stabilizing structures for the dais. It didn't look particularly heavy, but the way the bar was wedged between the ground and clumps of the fallen platform, it wouldn't budge. Lila was effectively pinned in place, unable to move more than a couple of inches in any direction.
"You're a big, strappin' fellow. Can't you move it?" Lila asked.
Harlan smiled. "No, ma'am, I'm afraid it's probably going to have to be cut apart to get you out." Especially with his hand being half-useless.
"What about coming at it from the back side?" Stacy asked. "Lila can't turn around because of the debris blocking her, but if I could crawl in and move some of the looser pieces out of the way—"
"No way I'm letting you go under there," Harlan said.
"Now you've done it," Lila murmured.
"Letting me?" Stacy stared at him as if she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. "Not your call, Mr. McClain. If there's even a chance there's a secondary explosive device—"
"There probably isn't."
"But if there is, and someone timed it to go off when it would do the most damage, the governor needs to be out from under there now." Stacy moved away, peering through the remains of the dais—no doubt in search of the best place to enter the maze of rubble. Harlan didn't know whether she was as crazy as a loon or incredibly brave.
"If I go in here and crawl through that narrow breach over there, I can reach the debris blocking the governor from behind," she said, sparing him a quick look.
He bit back his opinion that she was nuts to even try going into that mess, taking a look at what she was proposing instead. She was right about one thing—the path she'd pointed out definitely appeared to be the best angle of attack, and nobody any bigger than Stacy would be able to navigate the tight space.
But the plan was as risky as hell.
"Stacy, you don't need to take foolish chances here," Lila called, drawing her aide's attention back to her. "They'll get to me sooner or later," the governor added with a wry smile. "One of the perks of the job, you know."
Stacy bent down by the opening to make eye contact with the governor. "Waiting could be dangerous, Lila. We need to get you out of there."
"Think about Zachary, honey."
For a second, Stacy's face seemed to melt, her dark eyes liquid and soft, making Harlan wonder who the hell Zachary was. Then her shoulders squared, her chin jutted forward and she met Harlan's curious gaze.
"I can do this. The structure isn't going to get any more stable if we wait, and I probably have more close-quarters rescue training than any of these first responders."
Before Harlan could respond, an emergency medical technician rounded the corner and spotted them. His eyes widened as he caught sight of the governor buried under the debris, and he squatted next to Stacy.
"I'm not badly hurt, I don't believe," Lila said in a firm, strong voice that seemed to relieve the EMT. "I'm just stuck."
"I have a plan to get to her," Stacy said. She told the EMT what she had in mind.
Harlan hoped the man would tell her she'd lost her mind—maybe she'd listen to him. But the EMT nodded. "That'll probably work, as long as you don't dislodge anything supporting the pile. I can get you a hard hat and some protective gear—"
"I'll take the hat, but the gear will be too bulky to let me get through there."
"Be right back." The EMT hurried away.
"I thought he was going to tell you to stay out of his way and let him do his job," Harlan murmured.
The man down the hall was definitely watching her. And given how grubby she looked at the moment, Isabel Cooper didn't think he was ogling her for the usual reasons.
Reaching for the handle of the ice machine door, she dropped her room key card on purpose, giving herself an excuse to shift position and sneak a better look at the man lurking at the end of the hall. He was lean and sandy-haired, wearing a simple black T-shirt and faded jeans. As her gaze rose toward him, he looked away. But she was certain he'd been staring.
Hair prickling on the back of her neck, she scooped ice into her bucket and headed back to her room. The carpeted hallway muffled even her own footsteps, so she couldn't hear anyone moving up the hallway behind her. But she could feel him.
Even though her room was straight ahead, she hooked a quick left into the elevator alcove. It was a dead end, but it gave her a chance to set herself for a fight.
She waited, her breath burning in her lungs.
But no one appeared around the corner.
The elevator dinged behind her, making her jump. The couple emerging from the elevator gave her a curious look. In the mirrored back of the open elevator, she caught a glimpse of her reflection, a wild-eyed brunette in a T-shirt and yoga pants, her feet stuck in a pair of fleece-lined house shoes and her unruly curls caught up in a lopsided ponytail.
The couple turned left, toward her own hotel room. She followed, darting a quick look down the hallway where she'd seen the loitering man. The corridor was empty.
Isabel released a puff of air. Wasn't it time to stop looking for criminals around every corner? Six months had already passed since she'd resigned from the FBI and returned home to work for her brother.
Six months since she'd buried her partner and said her final goodbye to the man she'd worked with for years, since she was a snot-nosed green agent fresh out of Quantico.
God, she missed him.
Trudging to her hotel room, she pushed the painful thoughts of Scanlon from her mind, thinking about the man she'd seen in the hallway instead. He hadn't looked familiar. And apparently she'd only imagined that he'd shadowed her up the hallway.
Tucking the ice bucket under one arm, she swiped the key card in the lock and let herself inside the hotel room. The door clicked shut, engaging the automatic lock. On instinct, she engaged the safety lock as well, waiting for the prickling sensation on the back of her neck to subside. But it lingered, the tingle of a thousand spider legs dancing across her skin.
She darted to the mirrored dresser, put down the ice bucket next to her overnight case and unzipped the bag, feeling inside for her Beretta 9 mm. She shouldn't have left the room without her weapon, but there was nowhere she could hide it in her yoga pants, and she hadn't wanted to alarm the other hotel visitors.
She ran her hands around the inside of her bag one more time, her fingers moving frantically in search of the weapon.
It wasn't there.
Her heart lurched into higher gear, pounding against her breastbone, as she picked up the bag to see if it could have fallen out without her noticing.
As she moved, her gaze glanced across the mirror on the wall above the dresser. Her heart jolted as she saw a man in a black ski mask standing a few inches behind her, holding her Beretta in his gloved hand.
Terror sucked the breath from her lungs.
"Looking for this?" The man behind the mask spoke in a low, pronounced drawl, the unabashed rural accent of the north Alabama hills.
"You can take all my money," she said, careful to sound neither too weak nor too strong. "Take the gun, too. I won't give you any trouble."
The man laughed. "Turn around."
She obeyed, sucking in another quick breath when she realized the man was not alone. A second man, similarly masked and clad in a dark long-sleeved T-shirt and pants, stood nearby, watching her. He didn't seem to be armed but was large enough, muscular enough, to pose a problem if she had to fight her way out of the situation.
The adrenaline coursing through her veins screamed for her to run. Catch them by surprise. But she'd engaged the safety lock—she'd never get it open in time to make her escape.
Was that the point of the man down the hall? To spook her into taking the extra precaution?
Think, Cooper. How do you get out of this?
"What do you want?" she asked, her voice strained.
"You don't know?" The man sounded surprised.
"You don't want money?" she asked, though it was clear her assailants weren't here for anything as ordinary as robbery.
"Agent Cooper, you're too smart to play games with us."
Which answered one question, she thought. They knew who she was. Their agenda was personal, not random.
But why? She wasn't working a case of any sort—she was here in Fort Payne, Alabama, to give a talk to some mystery writers about investigative procedure. It had been months since she'd worked any cases for the FBI, and she wasn't even working an open case with Cooper Security at the moment.
What would bring three armed men to her hotel room?
"I don't know what you want from me," she said aloud.
The man holding the gun on her glanced toward the other man. Isabel took advantage of his brief inattention and grabbed the ice bucket off the dresser, swinging it at his gun hand. The Beretta went flying, smacking against the motel room wall.
She ran to the door, her fingers clawing at the safety latch. As it flipped open, hands circled her throat and gave a backward jerk. She choked as her windpipe began to close from the pressure, black spots forming in her vision.
"Do it now!" her captor growled, dragging her onto the bed. Terror eclipsed the sense of suffocation as she struggled against the hands holding her down. The pressure on her throat eased, and she sucked in a lungful of air. Her vision returned in time to see a flash of a needle descending toward her neck.
She screamed for help, fighting harder. The man who'd had her gun shoved his gloved hand against her mouth, laughing as she bit at the leather. "Scream again, and we'll kill you now."
The needle descended, pricking the side of her neck.
The men held her in place, laughing at her struggles, until she felt her lungs burning for air. The room began to spin and grow strangely out of proportion. On the wall, the bland painting of daffodils started to melt, the colors sliding down the wall to pool atop the dresser.
One of the men had moved away from her, she realized, wondering how that could be possible when it seemed as if a dozen pair of hands still held her down.
She felt powerless to move against the pressure keeping her immobile. Forcing her gaze upward, she found herself staring into a pair of piercing blue eyes.
Jasper Swain, she thought, giving a start when she realized the words had escaped her aching throat in a rasp.
The blue eyes widened.
Then they bled.
And she screamed.
THE CRY DIED QUICKLY, but he knew what he'd heard. It was her. And she wasn't alone.
He flattened himself against the wall of the ice maker alcove down the hall from her room, knowing how disastrous it would be if one of the men inside caught sight of him. But he couldn't let them take her out of here.
He'd considered calling in a tip to the police, but the men in that room were dangerous, reckless men who'd have little compunction about leaving a small-town cop bleeding out in a hotel corridor. The cops would be more likely to get in his way than help him get her to safety.
He closed his fingers around the Glock hidden in the pocket of his windbreaker, grimacing. He wasn't the world's best marksman himself. But unlike local law enforcement officers, at least he knew what he was up against from the start.
How in hell did they think they were going to get her out of here? Was that even the plan anymore? He'd been damned lucky to hear about what the Swains were planning in the first place, considering how close-mouthed the people of Bolen Bluff, Alabama, could be.
He'd overheard the conversation while snooping around Tolliver Feed and Seed. Hidden in the back room, he'd eavesdropped on two Swain clansmen talking cryptically about an operation the next day, something to do with a woman at a Fort Payne hotel.
And if the Swains were up to something, it was bad news.
Down the hall, a door opened, and he heard scuffling sounds. He forced himself to remain in place as footsteps thudded down the hall toward his position.
He edged toward the ice machine, tugging the bill of his baseball cap lower over his face. He didn't have an ice bucket, but someone had helpfully left spares stacked on top of the machine, so he grabbed one of those and opened the ice machine bin. As he dug into the ice, he heard footsteps shuffling past him at a quick clip.
Once they'd passed, he took a quick look down the hall after them. He caught sight of a mass of dark curls and his heart gave a disconcerting flip.
Two men flanked her, holding her up as she sagged against them. A third man lagged behind, watching their backs. All of them wore caps low over their faces, just like his.
They were heading for the stairs.
He waited for them to enter the stairwell before he hurried after them. Cracking the door open, he listened for a second, trying to gauge how far ahead they were.
The footsteps echoed in the cavernous stairwell, making it hard to be sure where the sounds were coming from. He slipped into the stairwell and eased after them, keeping close to the wall to stay out of sight.
He had no idea how he was going to get her away from them without being seen, but if it came to a choice, he'd risk identification to save her. Whatever it took, he was going to get Isabel Cooper away from her captors.
What happened after that, however, would be anyone's guess.
"He knows me. I gave a cave extraction seminar for the Austin Fire Department a couple of months ago."
Harlan shook his head. "Who are you?"
Stacy shot him a faint smile. "I'm the daughter of an Ozark Mountain search and rescue coordinator. I was helping pull people out of caves before I started high school."
"You're sure you want to do this?" Harlan asked.
"Yes." Stacy looked scared but determined. "And we'd better get to it, fast," she added, her gaze sliding past him.
Harlan turned, following her gaze to find a convoy of news vehicles approaching the capitol grounds.
"Get your game face on," Stacy muttered. "We're about to be TV stars." She spotted the EMT returning with a hard hat and hurried to meet him, clearly eager to get to work.
Harlan dragged his attention away from her to watch the approach of the news crews. This whole mess was about to get a thousand times messier.
Right now, he thought, I'd rather be in Iraq.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.