| ONE TOUGH MARINE
Abby Chandler shifted the grocery bag to her left arm and fumbled in her pocket for her keys. Arriving home later than she'd planned, thanks to a pileup on I-5, she had to hurry and put away the groceries so she could pick up Stevie by six. After six Mrs. Tamburello charged time and a half, and the budget this month couldn't take the strain.
She unlocked her apartment and pushed the door open with her foot, stumbling as her toe caught on the rubber welcome mat inside. Muttering a curse, she kicked the door shut behind her and took a half step forward before she realized what she was seeing in the dim afternoon light filtering into her apartment.
Sofa cushions, ripped apart and tossed on the floor. Paintings torn from the wall and dismantled. Her coffee table upended in the middle of the room.
Her heartbeat barely had time to notch upward when a voice, inches from her ear, sent it hurtling into hyperdrive.
"You're late, Mrs. Chandler."
At the sound of the deep male voice, her body jerked into one jangling nerve. Her keys dropped with a clatter from her numb fingers while her mind flew haphazardly through her options. Run? No, the man with the deep voice stood between her and the door. Try to outrace him to the kitchen for the knife block by the refrigerator? Not a chance.
"Sorry for the mess. We became bored waiting for you." A second voice, not quite as deep as the first, spoke to her right. She heard more than a hint of Boston Brahmin in that accent.
"What do you want?" She felt her grip on the grocery bag slipping and tucked it to her side to keep from dropping it.
"Please don't move, Mrs. Chandler," the man behind her said. "We don't want things here to escalate."
Escalate to what—unadulterated terror? Too late, buster.
The second man moved into her field of vision—tall, well built, dressed in black from his soft-soled shoes to his knit ski mask. Clear blue eyes, direct and confident, gazed out from the eyeholes. He was light-skinned, with a hint of freckles, she noted for future reference.
Assuming there'd be a future in which to reference.
"Are you going to tell me what you want?" She tried not to give in to the panic buzzing like wasps in her brain. Her muscles were already beginning to ache from tension. If someone didn't start talking, she might just snap in half.
The freckled man took the grocery bag from her trembling arms and set it on the floor. "Your husband took something that didn't belong to him. We're here to retrieve it."
The man behind her pushed something cold and hard against the back of her neck. It took no imagination to guess it was the barrel of a pistol.
"My husband's been dead for three years. Most of his stuff has been sold or given away." Her answer had the benefit of being the truth. Matt hadn't collected much in the way of personal belongings during his foreshortened life. Most of what he possessed had been government issue, from uniforms to gear to weapons. "If you've been through the trunk at the foot of my bed, you've seen all I have left of him."
The Brahmin, as she thought of him, made a low tsk-tsk sound. "Perhaps you are mistaken. Did your husband have a safe-deposit box? A storage unit located elsewhere?"
"I don't know," she answered, and again it was the truth. "He was a soldier. There was a lot about his life I don't know. Can you at least tell me what this is about? Maybe I could help you find what you're looking for if you told me what it was."
The Brahmin hesitated a moment. She caught a slight flicker in his eyes and realized he wasn't sure how to answer.
Oh, God, they don't even know what they're looking for.
"We're not at liberty to reveal that to you if you don't already know what we're talking about," the man behind her said, and she almost laughed at the absurdity. They'd broken in and trashed her apartment on a hunch that maybe, possibly, her husband had hidden—what? A million dollars? A stash of gold?
"We're looking for files." The Brahmin's accent slipped, she noticed. He might be playing the role of the upper-crust Bostonian, but for just a moment he sounded more like a South Boston street punk. His Brahmin accent clicked back into place almost immediately. "Of a sensitive nature. Your husband took them from an associate of ours who wants them back immediately."
"Paper files? Digital?" The growing discomfort of her captors had begun to ease her own sense of terror. If they didn't know what, precisely, they were looking for, maybe she could buy time to get herself out of this mess. "My husband's personal notebook computer is in the closet. It stopped booting up a year ago, but maybe you could get something off of it."
"We have it. We'll certainly examine it," the Brahmin said. "But what we're looking for won't be on a computer. Your husband was too smart to keep it in such an obvious place."
He was right, of course. Matt had been the king of secret-keepers. It had come with his career in Marine Corps Intelligence. God knew, she'd had to get used to being out of the loop when it came to the biggest part of his life.
"If you knew my husband at all, you'd know he didn't share his work with me." By the end, there'd been little they'd shared besides a house and a few good memories.
"That's unfortunate," the Brahmin said. Behind her, the man with the gun pushed the barrel more firmly against her neck.
The unnatural calm that had briefly settled over her shattered. When she spoke again, her voice shook. "I don't know what you want from me."
"I suggest you find out," the Brahmin said. "Assuming you enjoy your life with your adorable little boy."
The mention of Stevie made her heart skip. "What do you mean by that?"
"Mrs. Tamburello is getting along in years, wouldn't you say? Accidents can happen so easily."
"Where's Stevie?" Ignoring the man with the gun behind her, she rushed forward and grabbed the Brahmin's arm. "If you've done anything to him, I'll—"
"Rage impotently?" the Brahmin said dismissively.
"You son of a bitch!"
"Your son is well. Mrs. Tamburello is well." The Brahmin motioned with his head, and the man behind her grabbed her arm.
She wheeled around to face him and found another masked man, slightly shorter than the Brahmin. African-American, judging by the café au lait skin visible through the eyeholes, along with intelligent brown eyes that met hers with surprising gentleness. Nevertheless, he held her gaze unflinchingly, slowly lifting the pistol he held in his right hand as if to remind her who was in charge. A Colt M1991, stainless with a black grip, .45 caliber. Nasty piece of work.
She ought to be panicking instead of noticing the details of a pistol, but the fact that she was still alive after this much time alone with two masked men suggested she might not be dying today. It was in her best interest to remember as much about these two men as she could.
The Brahmin tapped her shoulder, making her jump. She whipped around to face him. "Here is what we're going to do, Mrs. Chandler. You are going to go into your bedroom and close the door behind you. My associate and I will take the items we've collected and leave. When you hear the door close behind us, you may come out of the room."
"Then what?" she asked, knowing it couldn't be that simple.
"Then you will collect your thoughts and memories until you come up with an answer to a very important question. Where would your husband hide sensitive material to keep it out of the hands of his employers as well as any other interested parties?"
Her heart dropped. "And if I come up empty-handed?"
"You will lose your son in a dreadful accident."
She clenched her fists so hard her fingernails bit into her palms. "If you think I'm going to let anyone hurt my son—"
The Brahmin took a leisurely step toward her. "Do you not understand you really have no choices here? A call to the police, an attempt to leave San Diego—any of those things will be met with punishment. You have one simple task. Find what your husband hid. Deliver it to us by the end of the week and we will leave you and your son alone."
"On the contrary. I've spoken only the truth today." The Brahmin reached out and touched a strand of hair that had slipped from her ponytail. "If you trust nothing else, trust that. I will do what I promised, either way. The outcome is entirely up to you."
Behind her, the man with the Colt nudged her neck with the barrel. "Get into the bedroom."
Swallowing the anger rising in her throat, she walked slowly through the upended living room and entered her tiny bedroom, dismay settling over her like a cloud as she took in the shredded mattress and ransacked drawers. Behind her, the door closed, shutting her in.
She leaned against the bedroom door, tears leaking from her eyes as she waited for the sound of the front door closing. A few seconds later, she heard the door click shut.
But she didn't move right away. Her shaking knees wouldn't hold her weight.
Damn you, Matt. Damn your secrets and lies.
After a couple of seconds, the need to see her son overcame her shattered nerves. She left the bedroom and located her keys on the floor near the front door, where she'd dropped them. To her surprise, the men had set her bag of groceries on the dining-nook table before they left. Polite bastards.
As she raced up the steps to the second floor, where Mrs. Tamburello lived, she tried to make sense of what had just happened. Who were those men? From the look and sound of them, she'd say ex-military. The posture was always a giveaway. The Colt M1991 was also a military style of pistol. They'd taken her under control with ease, also suggesting armed-forces training.
So—mercenaries? Private security operatives? If they were working in an official capacity, they wouldn't have had to sneak around. They'd have simply taken her into custody.
Abby paused at Mrs. Tamburello's door, taking a moment to slow her rapid breathing. She didn't want to scare Stevie. It was going to be bad enough taking him back to their trashed apartment. She knocked on the door and stepped back, smoothing her hair and praying she looked calmer than she felt.
Mrs. Tamburello opened the door with a harried smile. "I was about to call you to see where you'd gotten to," she said, waving Abby inside the warm apartment.
"Mama!" Stevie met her before she'd made it two feet inside, wrapping his little arms around her knees. She swung him up into her arms, squeezing him tightly, her pulse pounding in her head. He smelled like peanut butter and chocolate milk. She fought the urge to cry again.
"Traffic was crazy," she murmured against his silky hair, smiling apologetically at Mrs. Tamburello. "Was he a handful?"
"Not at all." Mrs. Tamburello flashed Stevie an affectionate smile. "You're a good boy, aren't you, Stephen?"
Stevie nodded, his gray eyes solemn. "I maded kitty."
Mrs. Tamburello chuckled and retrieved a piece of paper from the coffee table. It was a scribble of bright colors, vaguely in the shape of…something. The oranges and yellows suggested her two-year-old son had tried his hand at capturing Mrs. Tamburello's scruffy yellow tabby in crayon.
Abby took the drawing from Mrs. Tamburello and shifted Stevie to her left hip. "Thank you, Mrs. Tamburello. I'm taking the next couple of days off, so you'll have an extra-long weekend." Remembering the words of her captors, she added, "Maybe you should drive up to see your sister in Temecula."
Mrs. Tamburello smiled, obviously pleased that Abby had remembered that detail about her family. "Perhaps I will. She has a brand-new grandbaby, you know."
"Yes, I know," Abby said, hoping she'd take the suggestion. The two men in her apartment meant business. Abby didn't doubt they'd hurt Mrs. Tamburello to make their point.
She dug in her pocket for Mrs. Tamburello's salary for the week, adding an extra ten. Guilt money for putting the woman in danger, she supposed grimly as she made her way back down the stairs with Stevie clinging to her back like a little monkey.
He eyed the mess in the living room for half a second before tugging at her hair from behind. "I hungwy."
She swung him over her shoulders into her arms, looking into his big gray eyes. The quizzical look on his sweet face brought back a rush of poignant memories.
Large, gentle hands, cradling her face. A deep, warm voice, still lightly graced with the liquid drawl of his native South, whispering words of comfort and passion.
Realization washed over her, producing relief and dread in equal parts. Luke. Of course. If anyone had known Matt Chandler's secrets, it had been his best friend, Luke Cooper. But was Luke even in San Diego anymore? The last she'd heard, almost a year ago, he'd resigned his commission from the Marine Corps shortly after he returned from overseas. Maybe one of her old friends from her Marine wife days would know where to find him.
"Tell you what, scooter," she said to Stevie, her voice settling into the familiar Texas twang of her youth, "how about we go to McDonald's for dinner?" While Mama makes an important phone call, she added silently.
Stevie patted her face with delight. "McDonald's! McDonald's!"
Promising herself to buy him yogurt instead of fries, she lowered him to the floor and led him outside to her car.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.