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with USA TODAY Bestselling Author 

Julie Miller!


  April Book Giveaway!
Entry Deadline April 24th


Kansas City Cover-Up by Julie Miller


Congratulations to Cynthia Rivera! She won a Kindle copy of my current release, KANSAS CITY COVER-UP in my March Book GiveAway Contest. Like many of you, she knew that the heroine’s name in KANSAS CITY COVER-UP was Olivia Watson. (btw, look for her brothers and widowed father to have stories of their own in a new miniseries that starts in 2016!)

This month I’m giving away a copy of any available book from my back list for print or digital readers, winner’s choice. Please check my Book List page and throughout the site for story blurbs to see about all your choices!

To enter,
read the excerpt from my current release, KANSAS CITY COVER-UP, the first book in my Precinct: Cold Case miniseries. Answer the easy question at the end. Then email me your answer, along with your contact information. My dog, Maggie, will put her nose to work and select a winner from amongst all the correct entries. Deadline to enter is April 24th.








Rules for Julie's Contests

  • One entry per person.
  • By entering, entrants grant permission for their name to be posted on the Julie Miller web site at and in Julie's newsletter.
  • Winners will be chosen by random drawing from among all entries.
  • The odds of winning depend upon the number of participants.
  • Void where prohibited.


May 12 - 17

RT BOOKLovers Convention, Dallas, TX

July 21 - 25

Romance Writers of America Annual National Conference, New York City  


Julie in San Antonia, TX at the 2014 RWA National Conference


50 Book pin presentation is Craig Swinwood-CEO Harlequin Enterprises, Dianne Moggy-Editorial Director, HQ Ent, Moi, Leslie Kelly-fellow 50-book award recipient, Lorianna Sacilotto-VP, HQ Ent

Sitting beside me at the Harlequin party is Linda O. Johnston


BJ Daniels, Delores Fossen and me


Julie in Atlanta, GA at the 2013 RWA National Conference

Julie with good buddy B.J. Daniels

Delores Fossen, Julie Miller, B.J. Daniels



Julie Miller at the PRW 20th Anniversary

Julie's local writing group, the Prairieland Romance Writers, celebrates 20 years of excellence in romance fiction at an anniversary Open House in Grand Island, NE
Prairieland Romance Writers celebrates 20 years of excellence in romance fiction!


Author Julie Miller

Authors Scott and Julie Miller

Kearney, NE Booksigning, The Sequel Bookshop
Julie Miller, and Scott & Julie Miller


Independence, MO Booksigning
L-R Saranna DeWylde, Julie Miller, Janette Kenney, Sherri Shackelford, Cheryl St. John

Julie in New York City at the 2011 RWA National Conference

Julie Miller--Times Square

View of Times Square from Julie's hotel room

Julie Miller @ Transformers movie premiere

Julie at the Transformers movie premiere (Hi, Bumblebee!)

Julie Miller--Times Sqaure & Broadway

Times Square and Broadway

Julie Miller--RWA NYC 2011

My roomie, Elle James, Brenda Jackson, and my agent Pattie Steele-Perkins at the RWA booksigning

Julie Miller--RWA NYC 2011

The massive Literacy Autographing at RWA



Julie in Los Angeles, CA, at the 2011 RT BOOKreviews Convention

""The Do's & Dont's of Series Romance " workshop with Judy Duarte, Candace Havens, Julie Miller and B.J. Daniels.

"Lights! Camera! Party! the Series Romance Way" Reader Event
Back row: Kira Sinclair, HelenKay Dimon, B.J. Daniels, Lynn Raye Harris
Middle row: Judy Duarte, Crystal Green, Rebecca York, Candace Havens, Janette Kenney, Jan Hambright, Delores Fossen, Brenda Jackson
Front row: Kathleen O'Reilly, Kimberly Lang, Jade Lee/Kathy Lyons, Carol Erickson, Julie Miller


At the Booksigning

View from my hotel The Westin Bonaventure  in downtown L.A.

Went to hear Dean Koontz speak. Delightfully witty and educational! (and one of my fave authors!)

Barn View from my hotel, the Hollywood sign in the distance up in the Hollywood Hills.





Copyright  ©2015 by Julie Miller

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.










(from Chapter 7…)
            Gabe sat on the rear bumper of the ambulance, dutifully holding the oxygen mask to his nose and mouth while the paramedic cleaned and doctored the cuts on his hand.  He’d sat here more than an hour now, watching the organized chaos of first responders and follow-up personnel.
            Three fire engines had been called to the scene, along with two ambulances and enough black & white and unmarked police vehicles to line the block and two side streets.  Either there was some historical significance to the roofless shell that had once been Morton & Sons Tile Works he didn’t know about, Olivia was a relative or friend to half the department, or they’d all come to see for themselves if KCPD Enemy #1, Gabriel Knight, had perished in the blaze.
            He’d seen the looks, caught some snippets of gossip about the trash-talking reporter who thought he could do their job better.  And what the hell was Thomas Watson’s daughter, Olivia, doing with him, anyway?
            The fire had been contained.  The scene was secure.  He’d been questioned by an arson investigator with an artificial leg, and had given a statement to both a uniformed officer and a detective.  He’d even chatted with some reporters and photographers he knew from the Journal and other media outlets.  Night had fallen and various headlights and spotlights added brightness and created shadows.  And while there seemed to be just as many spectators as there were professionals on the scene, his attention remained focused on the short-haired detective with her left arm in a sling and her beautiful eyes fixed in an expression of weary patience.
            He’d watched a buff, Italian looking cop pull up and try to start a conversation with Olivia.  But her touch-me-not body language and the arrival of the other members of her cold case team had sent him away.
            Olivia was leaning against her car now, maybe twenty yards from his position, close enough that he could make out parts of their conversation through the noise around him.  A big blond guy who needed a shave, and an even bigger, clean-cut guy who ought to be playing the offensive line for the Chiefs, each gave her a brotherly squeeze on her good shoulder before apologizing about a car they’d searched being “clean as a whistle.”  From the gist of the conversation, Gabe figured out that they were the ones who’d gone through Dani’s car, looking for any sign of the missing flash-drive.
            A third detective in a suit & tie had brought his wife to the scene.  Gabe’s guess was that they’d been on a date or to some function--but they cared enough about Dani’s murder--or the lead detective on the case, at any rate--to interrupt their evening and be here to check on Olivia and the new developments she’d found.  And while his dark-haired wife waited at their pickup truck, chatting with friends she knew on the scene, the blond detective bagged the gun Gabe had pulled from the hiding place inside the warehouse Olivia had found.  Now the man was jotting notes while she talked.
            “I’m done, sir.”  A voice from right beside him interrupted Gabe’s observations.  Gabe pulled off his oxygen mask and the paramedic with the blue gloves handed him a card.  “If you develop any of these secondary symptoms from smoke inhalation, get to an ER immediately.  Otherwise, you’re already on antibiotics that’ll help these cuts, and your lungs and sinuses look clear.  Just get some rest.”
            “Thanks.”  Gabe handed off the gear, pocketed the card and picked up his smoke-filled jacket before making a beeline for Olivia.  He didn’t like this distance between them, didn’t like not knowing all the details her team was discussing about Dani’s case, didn’t like the protective impulses firing inside him each time she rubbed her temple or reaffixed that “I’m okay” smile on her face.
            He no longer had any doubts that Olivia Watson was good at her job.  She was as dedicated and smart as he’d want any cop to be.  But he wondered if anyone else was aware of her fatigue, her pain, or those glimpses of frustration and vulnerability that cowed her posture or flattened her smile for a split-second when no one was looking.  Maybe it was just his eye for detail that noticed those tiny chinks in her armor and wanted to make sure that no one took advantage of them.  She was his strongest ally in solving Dani’s murder, after all.
            Plus, he was seeing a painfully familiar parallel between the dangers Dani had faced during her investigation and the two life-threatening events he’d been through with Olivia.  Someone in Leland Asher’s organization or on Senator McCoy’s team, or a third party they had yet to uncover, was working very hard to keep old secrets buried.  They’d killed a naively ambitious young reporter, and now they seemed to be targeting the sexy lady detective.
            He had to finish Dani’s story.  He had to find the truth.
            But he couldn’t go through the pain of losing someone he felt responsible for twice.  Whatever he could do, whatever the task required of him, he would see that Olivia didn’t end up the same way Dani had.
            As he approached Olivia’s car, Gabe could make out more of the conversation with the cop in the suit.  Olivia was giving him a vague description of the black car they’d seen speeding away after their escape.  ”I didn’t get a good look at it.  I have no idea if it’s connected to the fire or even my investigation.  But I’ve seen it before.” 
            “Do you think the driver has been following you?”
            “Possibly,” she admitted.  Gabe didn’t like the sound of that.  Had he put her in more danger than he thought?
            “That’s not a lot to go on, but I’ll make it my first priority.”
            “Thanks, Jim.”
            The male detective put away his pen and paper.  “You going to the hospital or home?”
            “Home.  The medics cleared me.  I just need a long, hot shower.”
            Really?  An image of those long, lean curves naked and glistening under a spray of steam and water should not be the first thing that popped to mind, given the seriousness of the conversation and Gabe’s intent for joining them.  The leap in his pulse and the interest stirring behind his zipper fought to keep hold of the wish he forced from his mind.
            “Good.  I’ll call you as soon as I find out anything.”  The blond picked up the paper bag with the gun they’d recovered off the hood of Olivia’s SUV.  “I’ll get this over to the lab.”  He waved an almost done to his wife before turning back to Olivia.  “What about Knight?  Have you had your fill of him?  You want us to drive him home?”
            Olivia’s head turned, hearing Gabe’s footsteps as he joined them on the sidewalk.
            “Knight can take care of himself if Detective Watson needs to get home right away,” Gabe announced.  He didn’t stop until he stood beside her, facing the male detective.  “I saw the black car, too.  Got a glimpse of it, anyway.  It was a newer model.  Six or eight cylinders under the hood, judging by the sound of the engine.  Not manufacturer issue.  Could have been a souped-up Charger or Challenger.”
            Olivia straightened away from the car, cradling her arm in the sling, or maybe just hugging a protective shield around herself.  “Gabe, this is my partner, Jim Parker.  Gabriel Knight.  He’s a reporter with The Journal.”
            Detective Parker stepped forward to shake hands, his expression polite but wary.  “I’ve read your articles.”
            “No doubt.”
            “Olivia?  You want me to stay?”  Her partner wasn’t budging until she gave him the all clear.  Good.  She wasn’t as alone against this chaos as he’d imagined her to be.
            She shook her head.  “I got it.  Keep me posted on anything the lab says.  Thanks, Jim.”
            “See you in the morning at roll call?”
            Olivia nodded.  Jim rejoined his wife in their pickup truck and drove away.
            “Come on, caveman.”  Her gaze tipped up to his for a brief moment, revealing surprise, embarrassment and ultimately regret before she raised a placating hand and turned toward the car.  “Sorry.”
            Okay, so it wasn’t the most flattering nickname a woman could give him.  Yet Gabe liked the fact that Olivia Watson wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, right to his face instead of behind his back.  He headed around the car while she fished her keys from the pocket of her soot-stained khakis.  “It’s okay.  Blame it on the long day and let’s get out of here.”  He nodded toward the sling she wore around her left arm.  “Unless you want me to drive?”
            “I don’t need a man to drive my car for me.”
            But she was clearly exhausted.  When she dropped her keys and muttered a curse, Gabe beat her to the curb to retrieve them from underneath the car.  “Switch.”
            She arched an eyebrow at the order.  “You do realize there’s not a cop on this block who isn’t watching us right now.”
            “I know.  Does that bother you?”
            “Doesn’t it bother you?”
            “I call things as I see them.  I understand there will be hard feelings with that kind of honesty.”
            With a reluctant sigh, she walked around to the passenger side door.  “Everything’s black and white with you, isn’t it.  Right or wrong.  Good or bad.  That seems like a cold, lonely way to live.”
            She had no idea.  “I’m not always right, Liv.  I don’t get my facts wrong.  But sometimes, I make mistakes about people.  I made a mistake about you.  I’m sorry I judged you against the standard of any other cop.”
            “Like my dad?”
            Ouch.  So defending the family honor was working on her, too.  Gabe absorbed the rightful pang of guilt and opened his door.  But he didn’t get in.  This needed to be said.  “I thought your dad and Junkert should have solved the case.  I didn’t know about his accident or how he felt about leaving the force with unfinished business.  I’m coming at this from the victim’s side when I’ve criticized the department for dragging its feet on an investigation.  Finding answers and hearing someone take responsibility for the wrong they’ve done is all we have to make up in some small way for the loss we’ve suffered.”
            “You think we don’t know that?”
            Gabe tapped his fist on top of the car, torn between his loyalty to one woman and his concern for another.  “I’ve always believed that victims and their families need a voice.  And I’m the SOB who’s going to stand up and be that voice.”
            Her eyes were a deep storm green in the shadows.  “Most of the time, we do our job right.  We get the bad guys off the street and the victims and their families thank us for it.  Why don’t you print any of that?”
            Because he’d been eaten up by guilt and pain for so long that it was hard to put a positive, hopeful spin on things when he hadn’t felt much of that positivity and hope.  Until now.  Until Ron Kober’s murder offered them a lead.  Until Olivia Watson took over the case.  “I’m sure your dad tried to find Dani’s killer.  If he’s got half the determination you do, I know he tried.  I didn’t fully understand how determined Leland Asher and Senator McCoy were about keeping their collusion a secret.  But I do now.  I’ll try to keep a more open mind about the department.”
            “You really do have a way with words, don’t you.”  Why didn’t that sound like a compliment?  Olivia tipped her chin up to a nearby street lamp, stretching her long neck before meeting his gaze over the roof of the Explorer.  “How do you feel about no words at all?  I’ll trade ten minutes of not talking about the fire, not talking about the case, not talking about my family--not talking about anything--for that ride back to your car.”
            He braced his forearms on the door frame and leaned toward her.  “Olivia, you know what we need to talk about.”
            That kiss.  The way her hand felt in his.  This unexpected emotional connection.  The hungry urge simmering beneath the surface to kiss her again.  To do it right this time--not on a concrete slab, not when they both reeked of smoke and fatigue.  Not when she was locked down so tightly that he could see the muscle pulsing along her jaw.
            She was no dummy.  The blush on her cheeks indicated that she knew exactly what he was referring to.  But she shook her head adamantly and opened her door.  “Ten minutes, Gabe.  Please.  I need some time to sort through things and regroup.”
            In ten minutes, she’d be dropping him off and driving away.  “So we catalogue what happened between us with your phobia of small rodents?  We keep it a secret, or else?”
            Her voice was an angry whisper over the roof of the car.  “I won’t threaten to shoot you because you kissed me.”
            “You kissed me back.”
            “Ten minutes, Gabe.”  Her temper dimmed as quickly as it had flared.  “Or you’re walking.  Deal?”
            He wasn’t going to add to her stress.  As long as they solved Dani’s murder, it would be enough.  It should be enough.  But it didn’t feel like finishing a long overdue job and then walking away could ever be enough with this woman.
            Still, he’d been driven and obsessed and shut off from his heart for so long, he wasn’t used to feeling anything but grief or guilt or anger.  He’d be foolish to think whatever emotions he was feeling tonight meant anything to her--meant anything at all.  Maybe he needed those ten minutes, too.
            Gabe waited until she was buckled in before climbing in beside her.  “Deal.”


Question:  What one word will complete this quote by heroine, Olivia Watson

 “I won’t threaten to shoot you because you ________ me.”




Enter Now!

Back To Top





Julie Miller





Copyright  ©2014 by Julie Miller

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.

Chapter One
            Sweat gathered at Jim Parker’s temples and trickled down the back of his neck.  His boots were heavy with the muck from Falls Creek, his brown uniform wet up to the thighs.  His chest burned with the six mile run through the rocky hills and woods southeast of Kansas City, Missouri.
            But he didn’t dare slow down.  He heard the bloodhound on his trail baying in the distance.  The creek water might have hampered the men pursuing him, but the dog hadn’t lost his scent.  Jim smelled like blood and pigs and desperation, giving the dog plenty to track.
            The thick plastic envelope stuffed with photographs and police reports that didn’t match scratched at the skin inside his shirt where he’d stuffed it.  If he didn’t make it out of this mess with the evidence he’d stolen, there wasn’t much point in making it out at all.  Everything he’d given up to do this job, every hope he’d sacrificed, every person he’d lost, would be for nothing.
            His vision blurred as he fought the rough terrain and summer heat and dangerous men who were after him.  The roaring in his ears could be the engines of the pursuing vehicles closing in on him.  It could be his own oxygen-starved blood pounding through his veins.  It could be...
            Falls Creek.
            A root reached up from the ground, catching his right foot and tripping him.  He hit the ground hard, knocking the wind from his chest.  The rocks and roots chewed at his skin, bruised him as he rolled himself to his hands and knees and pushed himself onto his feet.
            The brush thickened as he neared the waterfall.  He stumbled forward, reaching the edge of the falls that tumbled down into a lake.
            As he leaped off the bank and sailed down toward the water, there were only two thoughts in his head.
            Getting caught meant certain death.
            And no one would miss him when he was gone.
Chapter Two
Six weeks later…     
“Those boys still giving you trouble?”
            “I’m fine, Uncle George.”  Natalie Fensom tucked her phone between her shoulder and ear, draped the bag with her bridesmaid’s gown over one arm, gathered up the gifts she’d picked up for the candle lighters and guest book attendants in the other, and nudged the car door shut with her hip.
            It wasn’t every teacher in Kansas City who got a personal phone call from KCPD’s Deputy Commissioner to see if two teenage hellions who’d flunked junior English and blamed her for being sentenced to summer school had continued to harass her.  The rudeness in class she could manage.  She had no problem being tough when necessary.  Drawing foul pictures instead of answers on their tests meant a trip to the office and a lecture on the legal consequences of sexual harassment.  Egging her car required them staying after school to wash and buff it clean.  But the cruel message on her answering machine, teasing her about Jim Parker, had crossed a line.
            “Where’s your boyfriend, Natalie?”
            Buried in Washington Cemetery.
            The man she’d dreamed would be the love of her life had been snatched away the day after their first date six weeks earlier.  Detective James Parker.  Killed in the line of duty.  His body so mangled by the deliberate hit and run that his closed casket hadn’t even given her a chance to say goodbye.
            And those two walking hormones with all the attitude had dared to use that loss to get under her skin as some form of juvenile payback.
            So yeah, she’d reported the prank call to her uncle.  And she’d mentioned those two times last week when she swore someone had been watching her exit the school parking lot and follow her practical little sedan through Kansas City’s rush hour traffic.
            “I did exactly what you said.”  She’d agreed to teach during the summer session to keep her mind off the funeral and losing Jim.  As if helping with her brother’s wedding to a sweet, smart woman who could stand up to him and make him happy wasn’t already enough to keep her busy.  But so many things seemed to have conspired to keep her and Jim apart until that one perfect date at the end of the regular school year, that it felt even more crushing--and seriously unfair--to lose him so quickly after finally making that connection.  However, she hadn’t counted on the teen tyrants to steal the joy she normally found in the classroom.  “I reported Danny and Tom to the principal, and I asked the school officer to walk me to my car after classes.  They denied making the call, of course, but at least they’re keeping their mouths shut in class.”
            “Glad to hear it.”  George Madigan wasn’t a man to mince words, or be stingy with his efforts to keep the people he cared about safe.  “I know the family is focused on Nick and Annie’s wedding this weekend, but I don’t want you to feel like the issues you’re dealing with aren’t important.”
            “I know that.”  Natalie pushed open the door and climbed the steps to her second floor apartment.  “But I’m glad the focus is on my big brother and not me right now.  Everyone else would try to help, and I just need time to work through a few things on my own.”
            She heard an uncharacteristic hesitation in the deputy commissioner’s voice while she juggled the items in her arms to unlock the door.  “Natalie, I guess I didn’t realize the depth of your feelings for Jim Parker.  After all those years he and Nick were partners on the force, I thought it was just a schoolgirl crush on your big brother’s friend.  I... regret reassigning him.”
            “You didn’t run him down.  And you can’t fix this for me, either.  Between you and Nick, I understand the risks of getting involved with a cop.  It’s my own fault that I didn’t weigh the practicalities of giving my heart so quickly.”  She laughed wryly and pushed open the door.  “The one time I throw caution to the wind...”
            She froze.
            Her apartment was a shambles.  Sofa cushions had been torn open and tossed aside.  The drawers in her desk had been pulled out and dumped.  A photograph of her and Jim had been ripped out of its frame and was missing.  And though her television was intact, her computer had been taken.
            “Uncle George?”  A wave of goose bumps dotted her skin beneath the shorts and blouse she wore.  “Send one of your units to my place right now.  Someone’s been in my apartment.”


Chapter Three
            “I hate secrets, Natalie.  Where’s Jim?”
            Natalie stepped away from the happy commotion at the front of the church to read the cruel message on her phone.
            As the photographer near the altar tried to line up her extended family, straighten her new sister-in-law’s lacy white gown, and keep her brother from smearing the bride’s makeup with a dozen stolen kisses, Natalie sank onto the back pew.  Her plan to upload some candid photos from Nick and Annie’s wedding was forgotten beneath the crushing weight of grief, regret and paranoia that nearly suffocated her.
            Oblivious to the whispering rustle of her dove-gray bridesmaid’s gown, or the dewy perspiration gathering at the nape of her upswept hair, she touched her thumb to the picture of the wheat-colored crew cut touching her own dark ponytail on her social network page.  An image from one perfect day, frozen in time, reflecting laughter and the blossom of new love--a moment that could never be recaptured, a future briefly hoped for that would never be.
            Detective James Parker, her brother’s former partner at KCPD, the man she’d been seriously crushing on since high- school, had finally decided that, as a college graduate with two years of teaching under her belt, she was finally old enough to ask out.  And, after Jim and Nick had been given different assignments, the awkwardness of dating his friend’s sister was no longer an impediment.
            She’d been primed for love.  Ready to prove she was an adult, eager to turn the longings of her heart into the reality of a summer romance and so much more.
            One day of fun at the amusement park, one night of trading stories and sharing souls.  One perfect kiss, and it was all gone.
            Jim was supposed to be her date today.
            But six weeks ago she’d laid a rose on his casket, instead, weeping for the life they’d never have together.
            Since the break-in at her apartment two days ago, she’d been bombarded with similar messages.  All senseless.  All mean-spirited.  All calculated to make her afraid.
            The private message sent to her e-mail from the ominously named X at a generic dot-com was even more unsettling.  Don’t think that moving back into your parents’ house will keep you safe.  Hiding in a church won’t save you, either.  If I can’t find him, I’ll find you.  You can take his place.
            Natalie looked up from the message at the beautifully decorated sanctuary.  She could identify everyone in her family, everyone working for the wedding planner from Fairy Tale Bridal.
            But she knew he was here.
            X was watching her.
            Following her.
            Looking for a dead man?
            Or stalking her?


Chapter Four
            “Hey, kiddo.”  A shadow loomed over Natalie, startling her before her uncle’s crisp tone voiced concern.  “How are you holding up today?”
            Natalie blanked her phone screen and scooted over as George Madigan settled onto the pew beside her.  “It was a beautiful wedding, wasn’t it?”  She looked down the aisle at the perfect symmetry of her two younger brothers and two younger sisters lining up in their gray tuxes and knee-length dresses with royal blue sashes and red boutonnieres.  “Who knew they’d clean up so nicely.”
            Her uncle reached over to squeeze her hand.  “You okay?”
            She nodded, keeping the latest threat to herself.  “Just a little tired.”
            But her mom’s brother wasn’t buying the reassurance.  “You’ve kept your mother calm and your siblings organized.  And who knows how many other crises you’ve averted behind the scenes.  But I’ve noticed.  When no one’s looking, you’re not smiling.”
            “It’s not my day, Uncle George.  I’m fine.”
            He arched a skeptical eyebrow.  “That’s the story you’re going with?”
            “You sure nothing else is bothering you?  I’m used to trading those bemused smiles with you over whatever the rest of the family’s latest chaos entails.  Did something else happen after the break-in?  Is it those students from your school again?”
            “Danny and Tom still aren’t doing their homework, but I’m managing.”  She’d considered that their tolerable behavior in school could be a front, and this secretive terror campaign was their way of tormenting her outside the classroom.
            Still, she wasn’t going to tell anyone about the creepy messages and ruin Nick and Annie’s wedding day.
            His gray eyes narrowed.  “Is it Jim again?  Sweetie, I--”
            “It’s okay, George.  Really.”  She patted the sleeve of his tuxedo jacket.  “I don’t blame you for what happened to him.  He was doing his job.  And he loved being a cop.  Just like you do.”
            George seemed ready to argue, but clamped his mouth into a thin line instead.  “How about you go find Grandma Connie.  We need her for the family picture.  Take a few minutes to powder your nose or do whatever you women do.  You’re already beautiful.”  He leaned over and kissed her temple.  “But I want you smiling in that picture.  Otherwise, I won’t be able to smile, either.”
            That earned him half a grin.  “We can’t have that, can we.”
            George winked.  “It’d ruin the whole wedding album.”
Chapter Five
            “I’ll find Grandma.  She said she was going to put on her comfortable shoes for the reception.”  Natalie stood and moved past her uncle, but paused for a moment before heading out the back of the sanctuary.  “Don’t tell Nick or Annie, or Mom and Dad--or anyone--that I’m being such a downer today.”
            George pantomimed locking his mouth and throwing away the key.
            She bent down to kiss his cheek before walking away.  “Love you.”
            Natalie’s silver heels clicked on the marble floor as she headed down the long hallway into the Sunday School wing to check the room where the wedding party had changed before the ceremony.
            “Grandma?”  The guests had already moved on to the reception, and the wedding planner and her staff had cleared out everything except for their personal items.  Although she spotted the flat shoes her grandmother had mentioned, there was no sign of anyone in the room.  She stepped back into the hallway, raising her voice a notch.  “Grandma?”
            From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed someone turning the corner at the far end of the hallway.  Natalie clenched her painted toes at the darting shift of sunlight and shadow.  Then she forced herself to ease out a steadying breath.  It was probably just a car driving past one of the windows outside.  Those creepy messages were making her jumpy, that’s all.
            She stared a few moments longer into the shadows, ensuring she was alone before stepping across the hall to the restroom.  Since the light was on, she pushed the door open and looked inside.  “Grandma, are you in here?  The photographer is ready to take the family picture.”
            Bending her knees, Natalie peeked beneath a closed stall door.  Empty.  Just in case, she pushed open all the doors.  Maybe her grandmother hadn’t come back to this end of the church, after all.
            “Where does an eighty year old woman disappear--?”
            Strong arms grabbed her from behind, and a hand clamped over her mouth.
            Natalie clawed at the hand and screamed as the lights went out.


Chapter Six
            Muscular arms pulled her up against a hard chest and her feet left the floor as she screamed beneath the muzzle of her attacker’s hand.  “Shh, baby, it’s me.  Nat, it’s me.”
            Natalie went limp as the hoarse voice from the grave whispered against her ear.  She dropped her fingers from the sinewed forearms and braced them against the cold tile wall.  Suddenly, the hands that had trapped her were the only thing keeping her on her feet.
            “No more screaming, okay?”  The man’s warm breath caressed her ear and nape, a remembered touch that pricked the sting of tears in her eyes.  “When I let go, not a peep, promise?”
            Natalie nodded.  She turned as the hand slipped away.  “Jim?”
            She stretched onto her toes to wrap her arms around his neck and hug him tight.  He hugged her right back for several seconds, reminding Natalie how perfectly her body fit against Jim Parker’s six-foot frame.  Then his hands were cupping the sides of her face and his lips were on hers.  His hips drove her back against the wall as his tongue claimed her own.  Natalie was breathless and clinging to the soft cotton of his T-shirt, and the cords of muscle underneath, before he raised his head and exhaled a noisy sigh of satisfaction.  “God, I’ve wanted to do that again for six weeks.”
            She felt lightheaded with shock and shaky with newly awakened desire.  She ran her fingers over the sandpapery angles of his jaw and neck, flattened her palm over the thudding beat of his heart.  Then she pushed some distance between them and smacked his shoulder, hating that she felt as much hurt as she did relief at discovering he was still alive.  “How dare you.  Who do you think…?  How... how are you here?  I don’t understand.”
            His warm chuckle made her wish there was more light so she could see his face.  “So Nick’s sensible little sister does have a temper.  Glad I got that kiss in first.”
Chapter Seven
            “Don’t tease me, Jim.  Five minutes ago you were dead.”
            Natalie’s eyes had adjusted enough to the dim light to see the rueful look on Jim’s face.  The military cut hair she remembered was slightly longer, pushed back from his face in rumpled waves.  And the scratchy stubble on his cheeks and jaw told her he needed a shave.  He still wore a gun at his waist, but there was no badge hanging around his neck or clipped to his belt.  This Jim was the same man from that perfect date at the beginning of summer.  Only, there was something different, harsher, maybe even a little more desperate, about the man rubbing his calloused hands up and down her bare arms.  “Do you have your cell phone on you?”
            Not I’ve missed you or Sorry I hurt you.  Certainly not I love you.
            Still, she nodded and pulled the phone from her wristlet to hand it over.  The bright light of the phone screen lit up his face, exposing a catlike gleam in his green eyes and familiar lines that seemed to be etched a little more deeply beside his eyes and mouth.  She thought he needed to make a call.  Instead, Jim pulled up those last few texts that had frightened her so, swore beneath his breath, and then tossed the phone into the nearest toilet.  “What are you--?”
            “That’s how they’ve been tracking you.”
            “Who?  You can’t just barge into my life and expect me to act as if nothing has changed.  I need answers, Jim.  What is going on?”
Chapter Eight
            He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the door behind him.  “I know I have a lot of explaining to do.  But I need to get you to safety first.”
            “Me?  Safe from what?”
            He inched open the door to check the hallway.  “Take off your shoes and carry them.”  Before she could ask another question, he answered.  “They’re noisy.  And I don’t want anyone to follow us.”
            Once she’d slipped the high-heels off her feet and anchored the straps around her fingers, he pulled her out the door into the shadows.  The marble floor was icy beneath her bare feet, but his quick stride and solid grip forced her to hurry along behind him.  “Where are we going?”  She thumbed over her shoulder toward the sanctuary.  “I’m part of Nick and Annie’s wedding party.  I can’t leave.”
            “And you’re crazy hot in that sweet little dress, showing off all that skin.  But you can’t stay.”
            Natalie tugged against his hand.  “Pretending to be dead is a pretty big lie, Jim.  I don’t know if I can trust you now.  You have no right to come in here and haul me off like so much--”
            She plowed into his broad back when he abruptly stopped.  Jim turned, catching her by the shoulders, his fingers pinching as he dipped his face close to hers.  “Have you felt someone’s been following you the past few weeks?  They have.  I’ve seen them.”  Natalie braced her palms against his chest, trying to push him away, not liking this cryptic bully he’d become.  “How many of those threats have you gotten asking about me?  Trust me, they’re real.”
            She stopped struggling, curling her fingertips into cotton and muscle, unable to hide her wary reaction to his knowledge of the terror campaign being waged against her.  “Do you know who X is?”
            He shook his head.  “Who’s X?”
            “That’s what I call him.  The man who sends me the messages.  His addy is X-something dot com.”  She could tell from the narrowing of his eyes that he knew who she was talking about.  “Who is he?”
            Jim swore.  “Not anybody I’d ever want you to meet.”
            “Someone broke into my apartment, too.  I’ve been staying at Mom and Dad’s the past couple of nights.”
            He shifted his grip to her hand again, pulling her into a jog behind him, leading her to the parking lot door.  “I am so sorry, Nat.  Once I slipped off their radar, I was afraid they might target you.  It’s that damn picture on your social network page that connected you to me.”
            “Who are you talking about?”
            “The men who want me dead.”


Chapter Nine
            Jim turned onto the highway and put his burner phone on speaker mode on the seat beside him to listen to the last of Deputy Commissioner Madigan’s explicit instructions regarding his niece.  “I’ll hide her someplace safe until Paine and Butler can be rounded up.”
            If only he’d been able to find more evidence on the crooked sheriff who ran Falls City like a mob boss before Jim’s cover as the town’s new deputy had been blown.  But with citizens too scared of the consequences to stand up and tell the truth about their small town southeast of Kansas City, Jim’s only option had been to disappear into K.C., waiting until Sheriff Paine and the rest of his thugs had been arrested and he could testify against them.  He’d been more than eager to accept the assignment with the state bureau of investigation’s task force, and earn some points toward his next promotion with the commissioner’s office.
            But now he regretted that his career goals had put Natalie in harm’s way.  With no parents or siblings to worry about, he’d figured he was a good candidate for undercover work.  He hadn’t counted on that one incredible date he’d had with Nick’s younger sister putting her on Arnold Paine’s radar.  “You’ll explain Natalie’s disappearance to her family?”
            George Madigan heaved an onerous sigh over the phone.  “I’ll come up with something that won’t frighten them too much.  But I want her home in one piece.  Understand, Parker?”
            “Yes, sir.”
            “Listen to him, Natalie.  He’s a good cop.”  Jim glanced across the truck.  But she was staring straight ahead through the windshield, refusing to answer.  “I love you.”
            She waited until the call disconnected before speaking.  “Uncle George knew you were alive?”


Chapter Ten
            Jim’s stomach turned at the quaver he heard in Natalie’s quiet voice.  He spared a glance away from the rush hour traffic that was backing up the Interstate.  Her eyes were as blue as that ribbon tied around the fancy lace dress she wore.  But they were shadowed with sadness and grief and a whole lot of mistrust.
            A fitting mental slap in the face, he supposed, for a man who’d left her without a word of explanation or even a proper goodbye.  He couldn’t even use the excuse that they’d only had one date--that they weren’t in a committed relationship and he didn’t owe her anything.  Because they both knew that those twenty-four hours they’d spent together had changed them somehow.  He’d found a soul mate, discovered the sexy woman beneath the practical exterior, learned that he could care about something more important than his job.
            The loyalty he’d sworn to KCPD and this undercover op gone south felt wrong somehow.  He’d owed a loyalty to Natalie that he’d betrayed.  Any kind of explanation or apology in the face of those sad eyes seemed pretty lame right now.
            “The deputy commissioner is in charge of personnel assignments.  Since the men we were investigating were already suspicious of the state Bureau and had killed one of their agents, they asked KCPD for a volunteer.  George signed off on the transfer.  Only he and my handler with the MBI knew I was going undercover.”  He gripped the steering wheel of his truck, eyeing the four lanes of traffic heading south at a snail’s pace.  “The perps we’re after have inside intel to law enforcement.  We faked my death so they couldn’t track me back to the department.”
            “Jim, I’ve been heartsick and feeling sorry for myself for weeks now.  I...”
            Anything she had to say, any name she wanted to call him, he was going to listen.  “You what?”



Chapter Eleven
            Natalie twisted her fingers together in her lap and went silent on him again for a minute.  The silence was harder to bear than the angry words and punch on the arm had been.  “Talk to me, Nat.”
            “I went to your funeral.  I cried.  For days.”
            “I’m sorry, hon.”  Jim reached across the seat.
            But she yanked her hand away.  “No.  You don’t get to call me that.  Or baby or anything.  What was I?  Part of some cover story to make everyone believe you were dead?”
            “The funeral convinced the people I was investigating that Jim Parker, the KCPD detective, no longer existed.  But Bobby Jensen, a good ol’ boy looking for a job with the Falls City sheriff’s department did.  And yes, you played an unwitting part in that.  You know I’ve got no family.  A bunch of uniformed cops attending a memorial service could be faked.  But a beautiful woman crying over the poor schlep who died?”  Ah, hell.  There were tears in her eyes now when she whipped an accusatory glare at him.  “That convinced the people after me that I really was gone, without having to see the body.”
            “Glad I could help.”  She smeared her mascara with the back of her hand as she angrily wiped away the tear that spilled onto her pale cheek.  “I thought that day was special.  I thought I meant something to you.”
            “It was.  You do.”
            I think I fell in love that day, he wanted to add.  And I’ve never said that to any woman before.
            But Natalie was in no mood to hear a stupid confession like that.
            After the way he’d been forced to lie to her, she wouldn’t believe him, anyway.
            A quick shift across highway lanes five cars back distracted his attention in the rearview mirror, making confessions of any kind right now a moot point.  “If I didn’t have feelings for you, Nat, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”


Chapter Twelve
            Natalie gripped the door handle and held on as the truck picked up speed and lurched over the seams in the pavement.
            The flash of red and blue lights in the side view mirror alerted her to the big sedan that had pulled onto the shoulder behind them.  “Jim, that police car is coming after us.  Pull over.”
            “That’s the last thing I want to do.”
            The grim line of his jaw told her that whoever he’d seen pursuing them meant real trouble.  “Is the officer helping us escape?”
            “Hardly.  He’s the one following us.”  He nodded toward the phone that had slid across the seat and wedged beneath her thigh.  “Call your uncle.  Put him on speaker phone.  Now, Natalie,” he ordered when she hesitated as if he’d spoken gibberish.
            Fighting the bounce and sway of the truck as they skidded over loose gravel and cut across a grassy ditch to speed up an embankment, she punched in George’s number, hit the speaker button and held the phone up for Jim to hear it ring.  “Why wouldn’t another cop help you?”
            “He’s not KCPD.  That’s the sheriff’s department from Hanover County.”  Natalie recognized the name of a county about a half hour past the city’s southeast limits.  “And believe me, if they’re wearing a Hanover County badge, they’re the last guys we want to trust.”
            Natalie smacked against the door as Jim hit the brake and spun the truck into a U-turn.  She dropped the phone on the second ring, but quickly scooped it up again.  “That’s who you’ve been investigating?  The Hanover County sheriff’s department?”
            He nodded, sparing her a glance before racing onto a side road.  Their path would take them right past the tan and white sheriff’s vehicle slowed by traffic on the Interstate.  “I went in as a new deputy after reports of corruption were filed with the Missouri Bureau of Investigation.  One of their agents went to Falls City to investigate and ended up MIA.  My job was to find him.”
            “Did you?”
            He ground his jaw into a hard line before answering.  “Yeah.”  He glanced across the seat, his eyes looking just as grim.  “What was left of him, anyway.”
Chapter Thirteen
            “What do you mean, what was left of him?”
            Jim never took his eyes off the road.  “The MBI agent had been shot and buried in a shallow grave on a pig farm outside Falls City.  Do you know what pigs do to the things they dig up?”
            Natalie’s heart constricted in her chest at the horror he must have witnessed, and she nearly reached for him.  But she wasn’t sure she could offer anything more than polite sympathy yet.  “I’m so sorry.”
            “I found out members of the sheriff’s department weren’t just covering up crimes, but that they were committing a few themselves.”
            Three rings.  “Besides murder?  Like what?”
            “The sheriff and one of the other deputies raped a woman they’d pulled over for speeding through town.  Said they’d call it even payment for the fine she would have gotten.”
            “Oh, my God.”  She felt sick to her stomach.  And it wasn’t from the wild, bumpy ride.  “Did she report them?”
            “To who?”  Jim’s gravelly voice sharpened with contempt.  “The authorities in that town are part of a violence and extortion racket.  There’s another deputy who wanted no part of it, but he’s too cowed by Sheriff Paine and afraid of losing his job to do anything about it.  Most of the victims are too scared to say anything, and anyone who does stand up against them gets a visit from your mysterious Mr. X and either changes his story or isn’t seen again.”
            “You think this Sheriff Paine is the man who was looking for me?”  Finally, the last few days began to make sense.  But understanding didn’t ease the chill shivering along her spine.
            “Either that or his enforcer, Deputy Butler.”  Jim darted around a slower car, then pressed on the accelerator as they approached the flashing lights on the highway below them.  “They’re hunting me because I know enough to take them down, and I’m not afraid to testify.  He’s looking for you because--”
            “He thought you and I were a couple.  He thought I knew you were alive and that I would know how to find you.”
            “Butler would get the information out of you one way or another--or he’d turn you over to Sheriff Paine and use you as bait to get me to come out of hiding.  I interviewed that woman in the hospital.  I saw what they did to her.”  A tight knot of emotion pulsed along his jaw.  “And that’s not gonna happen to you.”
            For a few moments, Natalie forgot to breathe.  The phone kept ringing.  “You did come out of hiding to find me.  You wanted to get to me before they did.”
            “Told you I cared.”
            “Don’t be flippant, Jim.”
            “Honey, I’m not... I mean, Natalie, I wouldn’t--”
            The phone picked up.  “Madigan.”
            The mirror outside her window shattered and Natalie screamed.
            She turned in her seat to see a gun sticking out the passenger window of the Hanover County car.  “They’re shooting at us.”


Chapter Fourteen
            “Get down!” Jim warned, snatching Natalie’s arm and pulling her onto the seat beside him as the back window splintered with the impact of a bullet.
            “What the hell is going on?” George shouted over the phone.
            Jim drove as fast as he dared with one hand, heading up a hill toward the next interchange.  “Commissioner, I need a couple of black and whites on 435 South to intercept a Hanover County cruiser that’s in pursuit.”
            Natalie shouted from her position beside him.  “They fired two shots at us.  But I think--”  He pushed her back down to his lap when she started to rise to look out the window.  “I think we’re losing them.  I don’t hear any more gunfire.”
            Jim checked the surviving mirrors and saw the sheriff’s car kick up clouds of dirt as its brake lights came on and it skidded off the road.  The exit lane of traffic had come to a complete stop, and one of the semi-trucks had jackknifed across the exit ramp Jim had skipped over moments earlier.
            He eased up on the gas while she held the phone up for them both to report to her uncle.  “Confirm that, sir.  The pursuit is over.  You’ll want to send a helicopter and traffic patrol, instead.  Looks like we may have caused a bit of a pile-up near the Swope Park exit.”
            “Any injuries?”
            Fortunately, Jim didn’t see anything beyond the truck and a couple of cars off on the shoulder.  “Nothing major from what I can see.  Looks like the cruiser is heading south back to Falls City.  I’ll bet they’ve already overheard Dispatch calls regarding the pile-up, and know legitimate officers are on their way.”
            “Good.  I want them out of my town.”  George Madigan’s sigh of relief was audible.  And short-lived.  “Is Natalie ok?”
            “I’m fine, George.  I’m mad at you and Jim for putting me through six weeks of mourning.  But I’m fine.”
            Jim felt the movement of her cheek against his thigh like a gentle caress when she spoke.  But once they made arrangements to contact the deputy commissioner later and ended the call, Natalie squeezed his knee, hitting that ticklish spot that made him jump.  She’d discovered that sensitive spot when they’d ridden the Mamba roller coaster at Worlds of Fun on their date.  Her clutch of fear when they’d made that first giant drop had made him scream out right along with her.
            Was that gesture now the equivalent of another reprimanding swat?  Or an homage to a shared memory and a sign of possible forgiveness?


Chapter Fifteen
            Jim was hoping for the latter as he rubbed his hand along the sleek length of Natalie’s arm.  “Your skin’s like ice.  Let me turn down the air.”
            “Is it safe for me to sit up now?”
            He didn’t want to lose the contact with her body, but with the sheriff’s car disappearing into the distance behind them, he could hardly justify keeping her so close.  “Yeah.”
            “I’m not exactly dressed for this kind of thing.”
            After adjusting the air-conditioning, Jim reached behind the seat to pull out the wind-breaker he’d stashed there.  It was dusty and wrinkled, a sad contrast to the bridesmaid’s dress she wore, but at least he could offer her a little more than two strips of lace to cover her shoulders.
            “Here.  You look beautiful today, by the way.”  Smeared mascara on her cheek, dark brown hair falling from those ringlets pinned up at the back of her head, faded nylon jacket and all.  “You’re still the prettiest woman I’ve ever been on a roller coaster with.”
            “You take a lot of women on roller coasters and car chases, Detective?”
            He grinned, hearing a hint of the banter they’d shared on that best first date six weeks ago.  “Nah.  Only the ones who scare me into thinking I don’t want to be a bachelor all my life.”
            And then she got as serious as she’d been when they’d cuddled close and talked late into the night after leaving the amusement park that day.  “I’m sorry about that woman who was assaulted in Falls City.  I’m sorry about the agent who was killed.  I’m glad you’re putting a stop to those horrible people’s abuse of power.”
            “I will as soon as I can make an arrest without getting my head shot off first.  Then the townspeople will start talking and we can make arrests that stick.”
            “I’ll help you in any way I can, Jim.”
            “I’m not looking to get your head shot off, either.”
            He wanted to reach across the seat and hold her hand, but she had them hidden away beneath the tight clutch of her arms around her waist, and he had to respect her wish to keep her distance from him.
            “I can’t take you to your apartment.  I saw Carl Butler, the deputy I never want you to meet, parked outside your building this afternoon.”
            “One of the men who raped that woman?”  He watched her shiver and go pale beneath that glowing palette of special occasion makeup, and reached for her, anyway.  When he tugged on her elbow, she thrust her fingers out the sleeves of his jacket and latched onto his hand with both of hers.
            Despite the jacket and putting the A/C on low, her skin was still cool to the touch.  He rubbed his thumb across the back of her knuckles, instilling what warmth and reassurance he could.  “Is there someplace else I can take you to get a change of clothes and some toiletries?” he asked.
            “I don’t want to lead them to Mom and Dad’s house.  I don’t want to endanger anyone else.”  Her grip pulsed around his.  “But I know a place we can go.”


Chapter Sixteen
            Natalie stepped out of the faculty restroom into the hallway of the alternative high school where she was teaching English classes this summer.  She’d brushed her hair out into a wavy ponytail and dressed in the workout pants, tank top, zip jacket and running shoes she kept on hand for when she jogged after morning classes before the summer temperatures got too hot and baked her fair skin.
            The silent tomb of a building was scary enough at night when there were no other faculty or students around, and the halls were lit with only the dim greenish hue of security lights.  But the broad-shouldered man with the golden hair and deep verdant eyes was the thing that made her heart race when he unfolded himself from the shadows and pushed away from the cinder block wall across from her.
            Jim reached her in three short strides.  “Nope.  Still sexy.  Don’t know if it’s the legs or the hair or this.”
            He tucked a finger beneath her chin and tipped her face up as he lowered his head and kissed her.  She felt the firm pressure of his mouth, the cat-tongue caress of his beard stubble against her skin, the flood of eager warmth that rushed through her body to where their lips joined.  But his warm, coffee-scented breath had barely mingled with hers before she pushed him away.
            “Too soon, huh?”  Jim stepped back, holding his arms out to either side with a sigh of resignation.  “You think you’ll ever forgive me for the whole not telling you I’m still alive thing?”
            Natalie studied the hard angles of his face that had aged several years in the few weeks they’d been apart.  She read the depths of need and regret in the moss-colored gaze that never left hers.
            She grabbed a fistful of his dark T-shirt and pulled him back.


Chapter Seventeen
            Jim let her take control of the kiss this time, bracing his hands on either side of her head against the wall behind her.  She wound her fingers around his neck, sliding them up into the unfamiliar thickness of his longer hair as she parted her lips, inviting him in to taste and receive.
            The kiss was leisurely, thorough.  A mix of getting reacquainted with something familiar and getting to know something new.  It hummed through her blood, heating her slowly from the inside out.  When her tongue ventured forward, his was there to meet it.  When she tilted her head at a different angle, he countered.  When she demanded a firmer touch, he delivered.  The tips of her breasts tingled in anticipation, and something needy and warm gathered between her thighs.  Jim Parker’s kiss was patient, potent.  And far more dangerous than the kisses she remembered sharing six weeks ago.
            But what her body wanted and what her heart yearned to give were not the same things that her cautious brain would allow her to do.
            With a breathless sigh of her own, Natalie settled back onto her heels, ending the embrace without completely breaking contact.  She smoothed the rumpled mess she’d made of his hair, stroked the warm line of his cheekbone, touched the throbbing pulse beat along his jaw, looked up into his light-catching eyes and tried to make sense of what she was feeling.  “I thought I knew you after one date.  But how could I, really.”  Her hands came to rest against his chest.  “I... have feelings for you, Jim.  But I’m not as blindly naive as I used to be.  I know it’s not smart to give my trust so easily again.”
            He traced a long tendril of hair from her forehead back around the shell of her ear.  “Then I’m going to earn it.  When this mess with the Falls City sheriff’s department is over, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make things right between us.”  He pulled away from the wall to cover her hands with his, trapping her gently against his heat and strength.  “If I can.”
            A crash from the darkness at the end of the hallway shattered the tender moment.
            Someone was breaking in.


Chapter Eighteen
            Jim heard the shattering glass and pulled away.  With every nerve on instant alert, he was even more aware of Natalie’s fresh, citrusy scent and tender strength--and just how badly he wanted to claim her for his own.
            He was also keenly aware of just how vulnerable the gentle woman was in the face of trash like Paine and Butler.  He nudged her back into the faculty lounge and drew his gun.  “You go back to that john and lock yourself inside until I come to get you.  I’ll check it out.”
            But Natalie’s hand closed around his arm, holding him back.  Her eyes were wide with concern.  “Shouldn’t you call for backup?”
            “I am the backup, babe.  I’m the one who’s going to keep us safe.  Now, go.”
            “You don’t know your way around this building.  I do.  And if something happens to you, who’ll protect me?”  She flipped on a mini-flashlight attached to her key chain.  “Besides, I have keys.”
            The light was probably only bright enough to get them spotted by the intruder.  But she had a point about not knowing the lay of the land.  And if it would get her out of there and to his safe house sooner, Jim wasn’t going to argue.  “Stick close to the wall.  And stay behind me.”
            He had her kill the flashlight as they got close enough to hear hushed conversation, heavy footfalls and the screech of furniture legs sliding across the floor on the other side of the locked door.
            “There are two people in there if I’m counting voices correctly.”
            Sheriff Paine and his deputy?
            Natalie curled her fingers into the back of his belt, tugging him back a fraction of a step.
            They’d found her.
            “That’s my classroom.”


Chapter Nineteen
            Natalie took the keys back from Jim after he silently unlocked her classroom door, and held her breath as he pushed it open and stormed inside.
            “KCPD!  Put your hands up where I can see them.”
            There was a flurry of movement when he flipped on the lights--desks turning over, books tumbling to the floor, two men cursing that their break-in had been discovered.
            “I want you to lie face down on the floor,” Jim ordered.  “Keep those hands where I can see them.”
            Concern for Jim’s safety gave way to fear of a different sort as a moment of clarity struck.
            Not men cursing.
            Two teenage boys.
            Oh, my God.  She left her hiding place behind the door and hurried into her topsy-turvy room.  “Jim, wait.”
            “Damn it, Nat.  I told you to stay put.”
            She touched the closest hand that held the lethal looking gun cradled between them, aimed directly at the cowering forms of Danny Garcia and Tom Kuszak.  “They’re teenage boys, Jim.  Not Sheriff Paine.  They’re students of mine.”
            “Apparently not the top of the class.”  His shoulders rose and fell in deep, steadying breaths as the adrenaline in his system ran its course and he lowered his weapon.  “You two, don’t move,” he ordered, before directing her attention to the white board at the front of her room.  She turned her gaze past the broken glass of the shattered window, and the student desks that had all been turned upside down to the incomplete message spray-painted on the board.
            ENGILSH SUC
            “Really, guys?”  Natalie was steamed that they’d trashed her classroom--and committed the type of crime that had probably gotten them kicked out of a regular school in the first place.  But she was angrier at herself for feeling that gut-kick of emotion when Jim had charged in to face the enemy and she feared that she might lose him all over again.  No sense of self-preservation in that, was there?  “Could you have at least spelled it right?”
            Jim was even less amused.  “I’m calling your uncle to get a squad car down here.  They can handle this.  I want to get you out of here before too many other people show up.”  He circled the room, checking the closet and window locks to ensure they were all secure.  “It’s harder to protect you in a crowd.  If Paine or one of his men gets a hold of you...”
            “You’re Miss F’s boyfriend?” Danny looked up in disbelief, his gaze following Jim around the room.
            “You’re real?”  Tommy echoed the same surprise.  “Dude, I thought she was some sad old lady like my mom, making up stories about her dead boyfriend.”
            “Shut up, Tommy.”
            Jim paused near her desk.  “You talked about me?  You said I’m your boyfriend?”
            “Dead boyfriend,” Danny corrected.
            “Shut up.”  Natalie and Jim silenced the frightened vandals in unison.
            “We were reading Romeo and Juliet,” she explained, trying to diminish the importance of the boys’ nervous rambling that had revealed far more than she cared to.  “Talking about love and tragedy.”
            “They were like, from rival gangs,” Tom informed Jim unnecessarily.
            “Enough, Tommy.”  The seventeen year-old chose now to remember something she’d taught in class?
            “These are the two boneheads who’ve been giving you grief?”
            Natalie nodded.  “I thought I’d handled it.”
            Jim holstered his gun and pulled out his phone.  “I don’t know if I’m flattered to learn that you claimed to love me, or pissed off to hear that you think of us as a tragedy.”


Chapter Twenty
            “I wanted to let you know that I’m changing the safe word with this shift change.  When Dickson and Henley go on duty, the new word is hawthorne.  If they come to the door or call with any directives that counteract mine, they’ll need to use that word.”  Missouri Bureau of Investigation Agent Dave Medlund didn’t have much going on in the personality department, but Jim appreciated that he’d been thorough in all his preparations for both the undercover op in Falls City and in securing the safe house here in K.C.  Regular phone calls like this one on the house’s secure land line assured Jim that the man was being proactive about tightening security now that the Hanover Sheriff’s department had declared Jim their #1 fugitive.  “If they use the previous safe word, or none at all, disregard whatever they say and assume there’s a threat.”
            “Understood, Agent Medlund.  Hawthorne or I’m pulling my weapon and getting Natalie out of here.”  Jim paced the kitchen in the tiny cottage the MBI had set up for his use as a safe house.
            Medlund made some sort of grunting noise.  “I know Ms. Fensom is important to you, Parker.  But understand that you are my priority.  I can’t have you out gallivanting around the city after her and still protect you.  I don’t wish her any ill, but your testimony is what’s going to put Sheriff Paine and Deputy Butler away.  If I lose you, I lose my entire case.”
            “She can testify that Paine and/or Butler were shooting at us this morning.  We can probably dig up evidence to prove they’ve been stalking her, too, to smoke me out.”  Jim tossed the case file he’d been reading on the table and poured himself a cup of coffee.
            “And their attorneys can argue that you were driving recklessly and evading arrest.”  He imagined Agent Medlund shaking his head.  “Your friend at KCPD, the deputy commissioner, has had a team at Ms. Fensom’s apartment, looking for any trace to show who broke in, but I’m not holding my breath.  Those harassing calls she received all came from an untraceable burner phone, and a public computer was used to post that threat on her social network page.  These guys are good.”
            Jim didn’t need circumstantial evidence to prove Paine and Butler were behind the terror campaign on Natalie.  “I’ve heard it before.  They have access to all the same law enforcement resources we do.”
            “And they know all our tricks,” Medlund  added.  “Just remember.  If anything happens, my men’s priority is to save you.”
            And his priority was to save Natalie.  “Understood.  Parker out.”
            After ending the call, Jim pulled a chair out from the table and opened the file to review his notes again.  But his thoughts weren’t really on the case.
            Natalie Fensom loved him.  She just wasn’t sure that she wanted to.
             “So you and me are a Shakespearean tragedy, hmm?”  Star-crossed lovers, doomed by outside forces to be denied a happily-ever-after.
            He toasted the sound of Natalie showering in the next room before turning his attention back to the file.  A night without sleep, a shave and a shower of his own had done little to improve his mood.  And though MBI agents were en route to beef up security, Jim refused to be derelict at his post.  Paine and Butler were in the city looking for him, he had no doubt.
            Let them come.
            As long as Natalie was safe, it didn’t matter what happened to him.  He loved her.  And he knew down in his bones that she was exactly what he wanted.
            Now if he could only stay alive long enough to convince her to forgive him.
            Shakespearean tragedy, indeed.
Chapter Twenty-one
            Jim was cold.  Like the blast of the air conditioner in his truck on a humid afternoon.  Like the alabaster pallor of Natalie’s skin when she was afraid.
            Like a freezing hospital room
            He opened his eyes and looked around at the sterile environment of the Hanover County hospital.  The woman in the hospital bed was still, sleeping—unconscious, perhaps—as he walked toward her across the room.
            He moaned in his sleep.
            He didn’t want to see this again.
            He didn’t need to.
            But his feet were suddenly locked to the floor, and the only place to look was down.  He didn’t need to see Penny Earhart’s chart to know she’d been beaten and raped.  That she’d barely survived the multiple assaults.  He knew it by the bruises and cuts, the swollen lip, the marks on her throat--the blank look in her eyes that told him checking out had been the only way to endure the brutal ordeal.
            Jim reached for her hand.  He wanted to reassure her that he’d get the men responsible for this.  He promised that there would finally be real justice in Hanover County.
            But when he bent down to speak, she had no face.  A stark, white pillow covered her head.
            And then he heard laughter from the corners of the room.  “Got ya, college boy.”  Sheriff Paine materialized on the opposite side of the bed.  He plucked the pillow from the woman’s face.  “Look.  Nobody messes with us, college boy.  We’ve got your woman.  You watch while she pays.”
            Jim looked down at the woman and recoiled as if he’d been jolted by a cattle prod.  Not Penny Earhart.  Not the woman he’d interviewed in the hospital, the woman who either in a delusion or through coercion had revealed his true identity to Arnold Paine.  Not the woman who’d been smothered to death once she’d served their purpose.
            It was Natalie.
            Lying so still.  Looking so cold.
            And then bruises began to appear.  Cuts, abrasions, the same injuries he’d seen on Penny Earhart spreading across her fair skin like a rising tide of pain and death.
            He tried to pick her up.  He tried to stop the creeping death.  “Natalie, no.  Baby, no.  Natalie?”
            “Natalie, baby,” Paine mocked, as Carl Butler reached for her.
            “No!  Natalie!”
Chapter Twenty-two
            “Natalie?”  Jim jerked awake.
            The entire kitchen was dark.  Papers were strewn about the table and crushed beneath his feet.  The nightmare of Penny Earhart’s rape and murder had become his own nightmare.
            “Natalie?”  He staggered to the sink to splash cold water on his face.  How long had he been asleep?  How long had he left Natalie alone and unguarded?  He pushed the light button on his watch.  Hell.  It was after midnight.  “Nat?”
            He touched the gun anchored at his side and moved through the house that was far too quiet, turning on lights as he went.  Back door secure.  Living room, empty.  Bathroom, clear.  Front door locked.  He peeked through the front curtains to verify that an MBI agent was sitting in a car beneath the street lamp out front to provide protection.  There should be another agent walking the perimeter.
            But what if Paine and Butler had already gotten past them?
            Why didn’t she answer?
            He pushed open the bedroom door and saw her still form lying on the bed.
            His blood ran cold as the disturbing images from his nightmare blended with reality.  “Natalie!”
            Jim rushed to the bed and reached for her hand.  It was warm, not cold.  He sank onto the edge of the mattress beside her and pushed a long tendril of hair off her cheek.  But her skin was clean.  Not bruised.  She was asleep.  Not dying.
            “Nat?”  He turned on the lamp beside the bed and her eyes fluttered open.
            She pushed back the cover and sat up beside him.  “What is it?  Did something happen?  Why are all the lights on?”
            He touched his fingers to her lips, tangled them in her hair and tucked it behind her ear.  But his fingers were shaking.  “Honey, you have to answer me when I call you.  I thought…”
            “Jim, what is it?”  She curled her fingers into the front of his shirt.  “You’re scaring me.”
            He gathered her into his arms and dragged her onto his lap, burying his nose in the citrusy fragrance of her hair.  “I’m sorry, baby, I just need to hold you.”


Chapter Twenty-three
            Jim fell back across the bed, his strong arms pulling her on top of him.  One hand palmed the back of her head while he pressed his cheek against hers, holding her close and rocking back and forth.
            Natalie clung to his shoulders and rode the ragged rise and fall of his chest as he worked past whatever devil had possessed him.  “Talk to me.  Tell me what’s happening.”
            “You’re safe?  They’re not here?  You’re not hurt?”
            She went stiff in his arms and pushed against him.  “Who?  Sheriff Paine and his deputy?”
            “I dozed off in the kitchen—I should have been watching.  I never meant for you—“
            “Look at me, Jim.”  She propped herself up on her elbows beside him and looked down at the torment shadowing his eyes.  She brushed a wave of hair off his forehead and cupped his cheek.  “I’m okay.  It was a bad dream.”
            He pressed a kiss into her palm and then dragged her back to cover him like a blanket.  “Do you forgive me, babe?  I never wanted to leave you.  I’m sorry I made you cry.  I’m so sorry I put you in danger like this.”
            I love you.
            Natalie spoke the words in her heart, but wondered if a sleep-deprived man with a guilty conscience and a single-minded mission to save his corner of the world could ever really hear them.  Or feel them in his own heart.
            But maybe she could show him.
            “I need to know you’re safe,” he whispered, rolling her onto the covers beneath him and sliding his hips over hers.  “If Paine or Butler ever put their hands on you--”
            “I’m okay, Jim,” she repeated, over and over, stroking his brow, his cheek, his neck, wanting to ease the fearful desperation in his husky voice.  “I’m safe.”
            He pressed kisses to her cheeks, to her chin, to her temple, to her mouth.  Dozens of kisses.  Tender.  Clinging.  Gentle.  Praising.
            Natalie tunneled her fingers into his hair, meeting him kiss for kiss.  This was a Jim Parker she hadn’t known six weeks ago.  This was a man who’d seen too much, who’d risked his life to save another woman, to save an entire town.  He was a man burdened by guilt and responsibility.
            He needed her to be safe.
            He needed her to give him respite from his nightmares.
             He needed her.
Chapter Twenty-four
            The weight of Jim’s body pressed Natalie into the mattress, imprinting every sculpted inch of his male form on the feminine curves of her body.  His hand slipped beneath her tank top to palm the nip of her waist.  His strong thigh slipped between hers, rubbing denim at that most vulnerable juncture of her body, the pressure sparking an ember of need deep inside her.  When she started at the hard poke of his gun against her hip, he removed the weapon and set it on the table beside the bed.
            But she wasn’t out of his arms for long.
            “You’re so beautiful, Nat.”  He nipped at the soft swell of her bottom lip, then soothed the sensitized nerve bundle there with his tongue.  “So sweet.  I hate that we didn’t have more time together.”  His hand slid up beneath her tank, his callused fingertips tickling and warming her skin.  “Yet I feel like I’ve known you forever.  Like you and I were meant to be.”
            With his mouth claiming hers in a deep, open kiss, Natalie tugged at the hem of his T-shirt, freeing it from his jeans.  His muscles quivered in a needy response as she slid her palms across the fiery skin of his sides and back.  “Jim.  Honey.  There’s one thing we didn’t do that night.  One thing that would make you and me truly perfect.”
            He nodded, palming her breast beneath her shirt, catching the pebbled tip between his thumb and finger, teasing it until she buried her face against his neck and whimpered at the icy shards of sensation that shot from the sensitive nub down to her womb where they melted and gathered and blossomed into feverish desire.  “I know, baby.  I want that, too.  I’ve missed you.   Will you let me?“
            Natalie nodded, assuring him with every touch, every kiss, every needy gasp that she needed this closeness, this reassurance of life and love and belonging just as much as he did.
            There were more soothing words, more greedy touches, more perfect kisses as they stripped away their clothes and bared their hearts and joined their bodies.
            Jim drifted off to sleep afterward, still holding Natalie tightly in his arms.  She dipped her lips to the furrow of worry that lingered beside his mouth and whispered, “I love you, James Parker.  And... I forgive you.”


Chapter Twenty-five
            Jim awoke from the most peaceful sleep he’d had in six weeks to find the covers tucked neatly across his naked body and his arms empty.
            The pleasure of the past few hours disappeared completely as soon as he realized Natalie had left him.  He sat bolt upright in bed, letting the covers pool at his waist.  He reached for his jeans and shorts, and picked up his gun as he swung his legs off the bed.  “Nat?”
            The shower wasn’t running.  The bathroom stood open and empty.
            “Baby, I know I’m not dreaming, but I still get that funny little feeling in my gut when you don’t answer me.”
            “In here,” she shouted.
            He finally smiled when his nose picked up the scent of bacon and followed her voice to the kitchen.  He found her wearing that figure-hugging running suit and lifting crispy little strips of pork out of the cast iron skillet where she was frying them.  “Sorry I didn’t answer.  It’s a Sunday morning tradition at my house to have a big breakfast.  And since you needed your sleep, I decided to cook.”
            Jim tucked his gun into the back of his jeans and reached around her to pinch off a bite from the stack of pancakes on the counter and pop it into his mouth.  “Mmm.  That’s good.  I guess I don’t have any family traditions since it’s just me.  But I could get used to this one.”
            He reached for another buttery bite, but she swatted his hand away.  “Wait until it’s on the table.  I still have to cook the eggs.  Is fried okay?”
            Jim bent down to nibble on the juncture of her neck and shoulder instead.  “Honey, whatever you’re offering, I’m saying yes to.  I’m a hungry man.  You stirred up quite an appetite in me last night.  About wore me out.”
            “Is that why you slept so late?” she teased, cracking an egg into a small bowl before dropping it into the sizzling pan.
            “Maybe.”  He stole a piece of bacon while she was occupied.  But he wasn’t quite ready to play the domestic bliss game and forget the fact they were in a safe house, and that two very dangerous men wanted them dead.  “Still, when I call for you, you need to answer.  I need to know you’re all right.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            “I’m serious, Nat.”
            “I know.”  She wiped her hands on a dish towel, then turned to splay her fingers over the left side of his chest.  Although he was certain the gesture was meant to soothe his concern, his heart-rate kicked up a notch at the feel of her gentle hand against his skin.
            He covered her hand with his and dipped his head, leaning in for a kiss.  But the telephone on the wall beside the refrigerator rang, interrupting the moment of reconciliation.
            “Expecting a call?” she asked.
            Jim glanced at the clock on the stove.  Medlund called in every twelve hours.  This call was early.  That couldn’t be good.  He reached for the phone.  “No.”
Chapter Twenty-six
            “Detective Parker?”
            Jim didn’t recognize the voice.  “Yes?”
            “This is Agent Dickson.  I’ve got a guy out here who says he’s volunteering to join the watch.  His badge says he’s KCPD.  He identifies himself as a friend of yours, Nick Fensom?”   The wary hackles at the back of Jim’s neck relaxed at the mention of his old friend.  “Should I send him on his way or let him sit in his car and sweat like the rest of us?”
            “Nick’s one of the good guys.  I’d appreciate it if he’d stay.”
            Once Agent Dickson had verified the safe word, and he’d exchanged a few words with Nick, Jim ended the call.  Natalie was waiting anxiously at his side.  “What is it?”
            “Surprise, surprise.  Big brother has come to join the watch.”
            She frowned.  “What about his honeymoon?”
            “Temporarily postponed until he knows his sister is okay.  He says your Uncle George has recruited a few more volunteers to reinforce what the MBI has set up.  So we’ll be seeing more men around the place.”
            Instead of looking reassured, her frown deepened.  “Sheriff Paine is that dangerous a man?”
            “He’s been following his own set of rules in Hanover County for the past twelve years, and anyone who dares to stand up to him  winds up dead.”  When she hugged her arms around her waist, Jim draped an arm around her shoulder and hugged her to his side.  “Now come on.  Let’s get back to that discussion about breakfast.  So cooking is only one of your many talents.  Is there anything you can’t do, woman?”
            She smiled at the compliment, then snuggled up to kiss the corner of his mouth.  “I really am quite the catch, Detective Parker.  Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to leave next time.”
            He palmed her butt and lifted her onto her toes to deepen the kiss.  “Don’t I know it.”
            “Why don’t you pour us a cup of coffee while I plate things up.”    She popped a bite of bacon into his mouth, forcing him to chew while she turned away to crack another egg.
            The doorbell rang and anymore conversation was put on hold while Natalie strolled to the door.
            “Yes?” she asked, pausing with her hand on the knob and peeking through the peep hole.
            “Um, yes, ma’am,” a deep voice answered.  “I’m Agent Henley.  Agent Dickson said I could step inside for a minute to use the facilities?”
            “Could I see your badge, please?  Okay.”  After a momentary pause, she stepped back.     
            And then it hit him.  “Natalie, wait.  Did he give you the safe word--?”
            But she had already unbolted the door.
            Jim drew his weapon.  But it was too late to stop the nightmare from happening.
            Arnold Paine grabbed Natalie by the arm and twisted it behind her, forcing her into the room with the barrel of his service pistol.  “Good morning, Deputy Jensen.  Or should I say, Detective Parker?”  The bastard shrugged as if anything he said could be amusing.  “Seems none of us are who we say we are this morning.”


Chapter Twenty-seven
            Jim braced his legs apart, ready for whatever the rat threw at him if it meant getting Natalie out of here alive.  “I never pictured you as a suit and tie kind of guy, Sheriff.”
            Paine shrugged his fat shoulders.  “Our Hanover uniforms were too recognizable here in K.C.  I think I look a lot like that MBI hotshot I killed and buried out on Old Man Haight’s farm.  Don’t you?”  He tapped his gun against Natalie’s neck and she flinched.  Easy, baby.  “Now be a good boy and put your weapon on the ground.”
            “Let her go.”  Jim offered a trade.  “I’m the one you want.”
            “How about you do what I tell ya or I’ll put a bullet in her head.”
            With his hands outstretched to show his compliance, Jim pulled his Glock from his jeans and set it on the floor beside the table.  “Where’s your bulldog sidekick?”
            “Right here, Parker.  The coast is clear, boss.”  Carl Butler turned sideways and came through the door, closing it behind him and turning the dead bolt.  “I took care of the two outside.”
            Natalie’s gaze flew to Jim.  “Nick…”
            “I didn’t stop to ask their names, sweet pea.”  He rolled a toothpick to one side of his mouth and leered.  “You never told me she was so pretty, Parker.”
            At the stroke of his bear paw across her cheek, Natalie jerked away.  “If you hurt my brother…”
            Butler laughed.  “She’s a feisty one, boss.  I think we ought to do her first and make loverboy watch.  That’ll teach him a lesson about what we do to folks who betray us.  Then we kill him.”
            Jim knew he should have been evaluating escape options.  He should have reassured Natalie that there was a good chance Nick was alive and unharmed.  Butler only mentioned taking out two men outside.  But two MBI agents plus Nick made three.  There was still help out there these two thugs didn’t know about.  If Jim could get a message to that man, if that guard noticed the other two men were down, they had a chance of getting out of this alive.
            But all he could see was the beefy deputy’s leering grin.
            “Let me make this clear, Butler.  You lay a hand on her again and I will kill you.”
Chapter Twenty-eight
            Sheriff Paine was laughing as he pushed Natalie farther into the room.  “Down, boy.  You ain’t got no place left to hide from me.  I thought you were one of us, but then that wing nut of a woman in the hospital said you were a Kansas City cop.  She seemed to think you were gonna save her or something.”
            “You killed her, didn’t you,” Jim accused.
            Paine didn’t deny it.  “She was of no further use to me.”  He trailed his gun along Natalie’s neck.  “Come to think of it, I’ve got no use for this one here, either.”
            Jim’s toes gripped the floor to keep him from leaping over the table.  “So let her go.  Let her walk out that door.”
            “I don’t think so.  This is too much fun to watch you squirm.”
            Meanwhile, Carl Butler strolled casually around the kitchen, sampling bites of food along the way.
            “Would you like me to fix you a fresh stack of pancakes?” Natalie offered.
            Her sweet blue eyes locked on his across the room.  Smart girl had a plan.  Paine must be twisting her arm right out of its socket, but she wasn’t complaining.  She was thinking.
            He was the backup.
            Whatever happened, they were in this together.  “I love you, Natalie.”
            “I love you.”
            Paine laughed.  “Now that’s just so damn sweet.”  He shoved Natalie hard enough that she stumbled into the counter.  It took every bit of Jim’s considerable will to lock his feet to the floor and not go to her.  I got your back, baby.
            “I’m okay, Jim,” she assured him.  “I’m okay.”
            Paine laughed while Nat rubbed her sore arm and flexed her shoulder.  “Fix us some food, sugar.  Maybe we’ll eat while your boyfriend’s bleeding out on the floor.”
            Carl joined in the laughter.  “Like this?”
            He swung around, driving his meaty fist into Jim’s cheek and knocking him to his hands and knees.
            “Jim!” Natalie gasped.  She darted behind Butler.  “You creep!”
            Blood oozed from the split in Jim’s cheek and his skull rang with the force of the blow he’d been too late to anticipate. 
            Nah, he’d dropped to the floor just in time.  Just in time to see Natalie pick up a towel to wrap around the handle of the cast iron skillet.  Just in time to flip that hot bacon grease into Butler’s face.  While he screamed in pain and staggered forward to grab her, she swung the heavy pan again, catching the big man on the chin and knocking him back into the counter.
            In the split-second it took for Paine to swing around and fire his gun, Jim dove for his own weapon.  He’d landed in just the right place to fire straight beneath the table to hit Paine’s leg and topple him to the floor.
            Another whack of the skillet and Butler was on the ground.  Keeping his Glock trained on the sheriff, Jim retrieved Butler’s weapon and kicked Paine’s gun beyond his reach.
            “I got this, Nat.”  He eased the skillet from Natalie’s frantic grasp and set it on the back of the stove.  “Get on the phone and call 9-1-1.  Call Nick.  Call your uncle.  Call everybody.  We’ve got these bastards.”  While she dialed her brother, he read the men their rights.  He took the handcuffs off their own belts and put them on, securing the prisoners until help arrived.  “Arnold Paine and Carl Butler, you’re under arrest for kidnapping, rape, murder and witness intimidation.”
            “It’s Nick.  He’s okay.  He’s on his way.  He just found Agent Dickson in his car.  He said he found the other agent first, on the grounds.  Looked like they’d both been tasered.  Attacked from behind.  But they’ll be okay. ”  Natalie was still on the phone when she moved to Jim’s side and leveled a charge of her own.  “You cowards.  Arrest them for impersonating real police officers.  You’re the real deal, Jim.  They’re just... bullies with a badge.”


Chapter Twenty-nine
            A week later, Natalie was explaining the building blocks for creating different verb tenses when Jim Parker walked into her classroom.
            He pointed straight at Danny and Tom.  “You boys aren’t giving Ms. Fensom any trouble, are you?”
            She wasn’t surprised to see them both sit up in their desks.  “No, sir.”
            Natalie’s heart fluttered with anticipation and those little ripples of awareness flooded shamelessly through her blood at the button-down shirt that hugged his broad shoulders.  Snug jeans, a belt, gun... and a badge hanging from a chain around his neck completed the look.
            The crew cut was back, adding striking emphasis to the angular planes of his clean-shaven face and the greenish purple bruise under his left eye.  The injury was the last remnant of the shadowy threat and painful disruption Arnold Paine had brought to their lives.
            “Detective Parker,” she greeted him, gripping the back of her chair.  “Did you finish your deposition with the MBI?”
            “Yes, ma’am.  The Hanover County sheriff’s department is being dismantled as we speak.  The ones who committed the actual crimes and the ones who looked the other way are all being dealt with.  The state patrol will watch over Falls City until a new law enforcement team can be screened and hired.  Arnold Paine and Carl Butler are awaiting trial.  Word is, there are several witnesses willing to testify against them, including one lady who’s stuck teaching summer school.”
            “Are you thinking of applying for one of the jobs in Falls City?”
            He shook his head.  “I’ve got ties here in Kansas City.  I applied for a transfer to KCPD’s Cold Case squad.  I’m friends with the deputy commissioner, so I think I might get the job.  I’m looking forward to avoiding undercover work and sticking close to home.”
            “I see.”
            “No, I don’t think you do.”  Jim grinned and got down on one knee beside her desk.  “One date with you isn’t enough.”
            “Dude.”  Danny Garcia stood beside his desk to get a better look.  Like Natalie, Tom Kuszak was actually tearing up.
            But she only had eyes for the man kneeling in front of her.
            “I know you like things to be predictable and reliable.  I can’t promise you the first, but I can guarantee the latter.  And, just so you understand exactly what I’m saying--I love you, Natalie Fensom.  Will you marry me?”
            Natalie held on to the chair, afraid to move in case her knees failed her.  She looked down into Jim’s moss green eyes, silently weeping with joy.
            He whispered.  “You’re making me look bad in front of our audience here.  You got an answer for me, babe?”
            If her knees buckled, it didn’t matter.  Jim Parker alive and loving her was Natalie’s dream come true.  She threw her arms around his neck.  “Yes.  I love you.  I want to marry you.”
            He stood with her in his arms, and they kissed.  He set her on her feet so he could place the diamond solitaire on her finger, and then they kissed to an outbreak of applause from her classroom.
            “I’m gonna use some of those moves,” Tom declared.
            Danny scoffed.  “What, with a girl?  You ain’t got no game.”
            “Haven’t got any game,” Tom corrected.  “Haven’t you been paying any attention to Ms. Fensom?  Girls like smart guys.  I think I’m gonna be smart now.”
            Jim agreed, looking down into Natalie’s eyes.  “Me, too.  I’m smart enough to never let you go again.”
Chapter Thirty
            “Hurry.”  Uncle George shooed all the family up to the stairs in front of the altar.  “These monkey suits are only rented for the day, and the photographer’s only here for a few minutes.  And I want everyone in the picture.”
            “My hair doesn’t look as good as it did last time.”
            “I can’t get this tie tied.”
            “Do I still have lipstick on?”
            “A woman doesn’t usually get to wear her wedding dress twice.”  Natalie’s mom seemed to be shedding just as many tears today as she had two weeks ago at Nick and Annie’s wedding.  “I’m so glad we could get everyone together again.”
            Nick leaned in to kiss his bride.  “You and I are going on our honeymoon right after this, slugger.  No more delays.”  He turned to include everyone in his next admonition.  “So nobody wander off for any reason until this photograph is taken.”
            Natalie strolled up to the front of the church in her dove-gray bridesmaid’s gown, donning it one more time so they could take the family portrait she’d missed that day Jim had kidnapped her from the church to save her from Arnold Paine and Carl Butler.
            She handed her mother a tissue, fixed her brother Noah’s tie, offered Nadine her lipstick tube and reassured her youngest sister, Nell.  “You look beautiful, sweetie.”
            It took several minutes for the photographer to arrange all of them for the picture.
            While the rest of the family settled into their places, Natalie glanced up at her Uncle George.  He was smiling, glad to have the family all together again.  Glad they were all safe.  Glad that all was right in the Fensoms’ world.
            She looked out to the first pew where Jim sat, and touched her thumb to the engagement ring on her left hand.
            She was smiling, too.
            From deep in her heart to the dimple on her cheek, she was smiling, too.

Read about Jim Parker’s new partner on KCPD’s Cold Case Squad, Detective Olivia Watson, as she forms an unlikely alliance with the department’s harshest critic, reporter Gabriel Knight, to solve a six year-old murder.

Falling in love with the enemy has never been so dangerous.


Available March 17 in print

Available April 1 in digital formats

Only from Harlequin Intrigue


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