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   TWO SOULS HOLLOW
    ....................................................Excerpt

Kittens. Bunnies. Lemon icebox pie with whipped cream. The real stuff, not that gunk that came out of a can.

That was Ginny Coltrane. Soft, sweet and delicious.

So what the hell was she doing walking into the seediest bar in Ridge County?

Anson Daughtry’s cell phone buzzed. He glanced at the display and grimaced as he answered. “Hey, boss. Can I still call you that? This whole administrative leave thing is a little confusing.”

“I’m still writing your paychecks,” Alexander Quinn answered in that toneless voice he used when he didn’t want to let anyone know what he was really feeling. Of course, that usually meant he was ticked off and didn’t want to give anyone the pleasure of knowing it. Anson took a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing he could get to the unflappable ex-CIA agent that way. Felt like a victory, and he’d had damned few of those in recent days.

“Boss it is, then.”

“I wanted to let you know I’ve taken Darcy off administrative leave.”

Keeping his eyes on the entrance of the Whiskey Road Tavern, Anson tried to keep any hint of emotion out of his own voice. “Already heard.”

“You’re angry.”

So much for keeping emotion out of his voice. “Don’t know why you’d say that. I mean, it’s not like I’m now your prime suspect for corporate espionage or anything.”

“I have to go through the process.”

“And Darcy gets a free pass why?” Anson stopped trying to hide his bitterness. Quinn would see through him anyway. “Because he saved an FBI agent in trouble and fed her corrupt supervisor to the band of domestic terrorists the man was trying to use for his own purposes? Stupid me, not stumbling into a chance to play hero and win your approval.”

“Get over yourself, Daughtry. Unless you’d like me to cut you loose and let you see how easy it is to find another job with a cloud of suspicion hanging over your head?”

He hated when Quinn got haughty. And the temptation to turn in his resignation, regardless of how hard it made his life, was almost more than he could resist. He’d never been much of a joiner anyway.

But an IT job at a commercial company would bore him senseless. And he’d worked for law enforcement agencies before and quickly discovered he was ill-suited for the law-and-order mindset.

He was a cyber cowboy, he thought with a wry grin. And the high stakes security firm known as The Gates was Anson’s version of the Wild, Wild West. Hell if he’d let anyone drive him out on false charges.

“Fine. Darcy is cleared. I’m not. Is that the only reason you called?”

“I hoped, in vain, to reach you before you’d heard.” Quinn’s voice lowered. “And to make sure you understand that this suspension is not an indication of my own opinion about your guilt or innocence.”

“You believe in me so much you’re extending my paid vacation? I’m touched.”

“I realize it’s hard to believe this, but I am not your enemy.”

The front door of the Whiskey Road Tavern opened and Ginny Coltrane exited, her arm around the waist of a tall, dark-haired man. He leaned heavily on her, clearly not in complete control of his motor skills, as she guided him toward her little blue Ford Focus.

Anson leaned toward the windshield of his own car, trying to get a better look in the blue glow of the streetlamp. What was a sweet little gumdrop like Ginny Coltrane doing hauling a strapping hunk of a drunk out of a notorious mountain honky-tonk?

Boyfriend?

“Daughtry?” Quinn’s voice rose in his ear, and he realized his boss had been repeating his name.

“Yeah, gotta go, Quinn.” He hung up and watched Ginny try to squeeze the slobbering drunk into the passenger seat of the Ford. He wasn’t cooperating much, reaching up to grab her face and grinning like an inebriated ass.

Anson had his hand on the door handle before he stopped himself. He couldn’t exactly rush to her rescue, could he? He certainly didn’t want her knowing he was following her around like some kind of stalker.

Which he wasn’t. Not at all. Lemon icebox pie with whipped cream was entirely too rich and sweet for a guy like him. He had other reasons for tailing her.

He watched as Ginny finished folding her drunk companion into the passenger seat and closed the door behind her. Pushing her mussed hair out of her eyes, she started to go around the car to the driver’s side when four dark shadows emerged from the woods that edged that end of the tavern’s parking lot. The shadows materialized into four large men clad in dark clothing. Before Ginny could react, they surrounded her in a menacing semicircle, trapping her against the side of the car.

Anson muttered a low curse and opened the car door, wishing he’d paid better attention at those company threat-containment training seminars. Quinn was a stickler about training everybody in his agency in self-defense and dealing with crisis situations, even support staff and people like Anson, who never went out in the field.

One thing he knew without a doubt—no way in hell could he take on four burly thugs and win. Just one, and he might have a fighting chance. He might not be some muscle-bound special agent like some of the guys at The Gates, but he was fit, strong and agile. And while he preferred to defuse a tense situation rather than resorting to violence if he could, he’d survived his share of fights over the years.

But not four against one.

Dont look like a threat, especially if youre not. Quinn’s words came back to him as he looked across the narrow parking lot at the four men closing in on Ginny Coltrane.

Yeah, got that one handled, he thought, catching a glimpse of himself in the reflection in his car window. Tall, lean, brown hair falling over his forehead and his Weezer T-shirt about three sizes too large, making him look thinner than he was.

“Hey, Ginny!” he called out, slouching his way across the parking lot toward her and the men.

Ginny’s head swiveled, her big blue eyes meeting his, first with hope, then with dismay. Her brow furrowed, the last bit of hope fading from her expression.

Gee, thanks, sweetness. But he kept moving, ignoring the men. “I’m sorry I’m late—I guess you almost gave up on me,” he continued, pointedly ignoring the four men.

They didn’t ignore him. “Get lost,” one of them growled.

He stopped short, looking straight at the man who’d spoken. His direct gaze seemed to catch the man by surprise. “Oh, am I interrupting? Oh, man, I’m sorry. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Since I was late anyway.”

He pulled his phone from his pocket and pulled up his Twitter account.

 

 If I die today,4 burly men @ the Whiskey Road Tavern did it. Check security vid. If 1 exists.

 

“No, you’re not interrupting,” Ginny said. “These fellows were just leaving.”

He glanced at her, surprised by her forceful tone. The Ginny he knew from the office was quiet and unassuming. Pretty as a sunny day but some people missed that about her because they never even really saw her.

“I’m glad you made it,” she added with a bright smile at him, moving slowly around the nearest of the four men and walking toward Anson at a bravely unhurried pace.

He kept his eyes on her, trying not to worry about what the men were doing. As long as she made it to his side and he had a chance to get her out of danger, that was all that mattered. Identifying those men could come later, if at all.

He held out his palm to her. She reached out her small hand and grabbed his. Her fingers were cool. Soft to the touch. But her grip was strong. He felt something warm and unexpected rip its way through his chest. Something he really didn’t want to examine, especially not with four big men bearing down on them.

He bent and kissed her cheek, feeling her tremble beneath that light caress. She smelled soap-and-water clean, the delicate scent filling his lungs and threatening to eclipse everything but the sweet heat of her body curving close to his. “Who’s the guy in the car?” he murmured in her ear.

“My brother,” she answered, brushing her lips against his jawline.

His heart skipped a couple of beats. He wanted to chalk it up to the tense situation, but he wasn’t an idiot.

Ginny Coltrane wasn’t lemon icebox pie, after all. Maybe more of a dark chocolate truffle.

Wait. Her brother?

He looked up to see the four men moving toward them, faster than he’d hoped. “Go back into the bar,” he murmured to Ginny. “The bartender’s name is Jase. Tell him I need help out here.”

She looked up at him, her brow furrowed. “What’s your name again?”

Well. That was nice, wasnt it?

“Anson Daughtry.”

She made an apologetic face. “Right. I knew that.”

“Go now.” He walked with her part of the way, acutely aware of the sound of footsteps hurrying across the gravel parking lot toward them. “Go!”

Ginny started running toward the front door of the bar. One of the big men peeled away toward her, giving Anson no choice.

He ran toward the man in high gear, his long legs eating up the distance between them. His move seemed to catch the other men by surprise; he felt the whoosh of air as they grabbed for him and missed. He hit his target hard, pain ratcheting through his chest as his sternum collided with the man’s thick-muscled arm. He wrapped his arms around the man’s body, not stopping the bearded man’s forward movement but slowing it down just enough for Ginny to disappear safely through the bar entrance.

Anson let go and dropped to the gravel in front of the man, tripping him up. He hit Anson on the way to the ground, his knee slamming into Anson’s side, driving the air from his lungs. Rolling into a ball, Anson struggled to breathe, his chest on fire. It seemed to take several long minutes before he finally sucked in a lungful of cool night air.

Just in time to take a steel-toed boot right to the rib cage.

Son of a bitch, that hurt!

 

THERE WAS NOBODY tending bar. How could there be nobody tending bar in a tavern?

Ginny skidded to a stop in front of the bar, suddenly aware of the roomful of eyes watching her dash across the sawdust-strewn floor. They didn’t scare her, those hard, suspicious men. She’d grown up among them, knew how they thought.

But those men outside—they were different. Cold-eyed. Purposeful.

And she’d left that poor computer guy from The Gates out there to deal with them.

“Jase!” she yelled. “Jase!”

A man approximately the size of Chimney Rock rose from a crouch behind the bar and gave her a puzzled look. “You’re back.”

“Anson Daughtry is outside. There are four big guys beating up on him. He needs your help.”

Jase was around the bar in seconds, slapping men on the back as he moved toward the door. Each of the men he touched rose and got in line behind him, heading out into the parking lot.

Ginny fell in step with them, bringing up the rear. By the time she was out the door, there was no sign of the four men who’d surrounded her car.

But Anson Daughtry lay curled up on the gravel parking lot, bleeding from his nose.

Without anyone to fight, the men from the bar stopped short of the man writhing in pain on the ground as if uncertain how to proceed. Ginny pushed past them with a growl of frustration and crouched beside Anson, pushing his hair away from his face.

He’d taken a few blows to the face, his cheek bruised and swollen, blood still dripping from both nostrils. One of his eyes looked puffy. And his breathing was labored.

“Call 9-1-1,” she ordered the nearest man.

“No,” Anson said, his voice pained. “I’m not that badly hurt. Just give me a second to catch my breath.”

She shot a hard look at the man she’d just addressed. “Don’t be an idiot. He’s injured and probably concussed. Go call 9-1-1 like I asked.”

The man gave a gruff reply. “I don’t have a phone.”

“I do,” another offered, though he didn’t pull it out to start making the call.

She shot him a hard glare. “Call 9-1-1,” she said with the firmness of a mother scolding a child. The man quickly pulled out his phone and started dialing.

“You sounded just like a mom.” Anson’s words came out thick-tongued. “I almost crawled back to the car for my own phone.”

Her soft, involuntary laugh caught her by surprise, because mirth was the last thing she felt at the moment. “Lie still and try not to talk. I need to go check on Danny.”

“Your brother?”

He remembered that much, she thought, relieved. “Yes. He’s…indisposed.”

“Yeah, my dad used to spend a lot of his time indisposed, too,” Anson pushed himself up to a sitting position, groaning. “Those bast—jerks kicked me in the ribs.”

“You can say bastards in front of me,” she said quietly, cupping his chin with her fingers to get a better look at his battered face. “Since I am one—”

His eyes flicked open wider. Well, one of them did. The other was quickly beginning to swell shut.

She couldn’t stop a slight smile at his surprise. She was used to being underestimated. “How’s your breathing?”

“Better now that I don’t have boots hammering my rib cage into my lungs.” He wiped his bloody nose with his shirtsleeve, looking down at the red stain as if surprised to see it. “You should probably check on your brother. I think one of the guys went over to talk to him.”

Right. Her brother.

She pushed to her feet, surprised to feel reluctance as she left his side and headed to her car, keeping an eye on the encroaching woods as she circled to the passenger side. There were plenty of gloomy shadows, but no signs of anyone moving around among the trees.

She squelched a shiver. Who the hell were those guys? And what had they wanted? Was it something to do with Danny?

The car was listing to one side, she noticed as she reached for the door handle. With dismay, she saw that the tires had been slashed on the passenger side. She’d have to call road service for a tow.

“Gigi!” Danny greeted her with a sloppy grin when she opened the passenger door to check on him. He’d attempted to buckle himself in, but he’d fastened the belt just below his breastbone. He had his arms folded over his stomach as if he was cold. Which he probably was. May had finally arrived in the Smoky Mountains, but the chill of spring still clung to the night air. “Are we home yet?”

The urge to cry nearly overwhelmed her. “Not yet.”

“I’ll just sleep a little longer.” His head lolled back against the seat.

She closed the car door and hurried back to Anson Daughtry. He was on his feet, she saw with dismay. Swaying a little, as if buffeted by the brisk night breeze blowing through the trees around them. But upright for now, at least.

She directed a stern look at Jase, who seemed to be the one person the other men looked at with respect. “We should get him inside so he can sit down while we wait for the paramedics.”

“He made us call back and cancel the 9-1-1 emergency,” Jase said quickly. “All his idea.”

“Traitor,” Anson muttered, dabbing his bloody nose with a grimy-looking handkerchief someone had supplied while she was checking on Danny.

“You afraid of doctors?” she asked.

“No.”

“Needles?”

He shook his head.

“Sterile environments?”

He made a skeptical face. “Do you know how many germs there are floating around the average hospital?”

Great. A quick-witted smart-ass. Just her luck.

“I’m okay,” he said, his expression suddenly serious. “Bruises and contusions, but nothing seems to be broken.” He gave a brief nod toward Jase. “Thanks, man, I owe you.”

Jase shrugged. “I’ll let you know when the wife’s laptop goes on the blink.” He nodded to the other men and they all headed back into the bar.

“He seems an odd friend for you,” Ginny said.

Anson managed a lopsided grin. “I’m an odd friend connoisseur. Kind of a hobby.”

“Thank you for tonight. I don’t know who those guys were or what they were up to, but it clearly wasn’t anything good.”

He glanced toward her car. “Did you ask your brother if he knew them?”

She didn’t miss the implication. “He barely recognizes me when—”

“When he’s indisposed,” he supplied.

She nodded. “I need to call for a tow. They seem to have slashed my tires as they left.”

“Strange.”

“Are you sure you’re okay? Maybe we should call—”

“I’m fine.” He offered another pained smile.

“You should at least stop by the after-hours clinic in town. Let them look you over, make sure you don’t have any internal injuries.”

He nodded but didn’t speak. She could tell he had no intention of taking her advice. She was used to that, as well.

“Really lucky for me you were here,” she added.

Something shifted in his expression. She couldn’t quite read the quicksilver emotion, but it piqued her curiosity. She immediately shoved aside the momentary flicker of interest—she might work at a private investigation and security agency, but the last thing she needed in her life was more intrigue.

Besides, Anson Daughtry was in some sort of trouble at The Gates, wasn’t he? He’d been put on administrative leave for some reason.

“Consider the clinic,” she added as a parting shot, then headed back to the car to check on Danny and call for a tow truck.

Danny’s head rolled toward her as she slid behind the steering wheel and gripped it with her suddenly shaking hands. She’d been as solid as steel through most of the past few minutes, but apparently her adrenaline spike had passed, leaving her feeling shivery and enervated.

“Gigi,” he murmured, sounding distressed.

As she turned to look at him, the dome light that had come on when she opened the driver’s door turned off, and she got only a quick glimpse of something dark staining the front of his shirt. For a moment, she felt an old, familiar hardness stiffen her spine. He’d thrown up his night’s liquid intake all over himself and her car.

Except she wasn’t smelling vomit and liquor.

The odor was sharper. More metallic.

She opened the door, engaging the dome light, and for a long moment, simply stared without comprehension at the wet, red stain spreading across the front of Danny’s shirt. It had been hidden under his folded arms before, she realized.

Danny gazed at her, his expression twisted with fear and pain. “Gigi?”

She dug for her phone and dialed 9-1-1.



Text Copyright 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.