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Taking the Heat (Shadow Stalkers #2) : Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Two explosions rocked Deputy U.S. Marshal Brian Simmons on August 15 at 4:32 in the afternoon: the first was the sight of his perennial wet dream, Layla Creed; the second was the detonation of a launched grenade.

Brian heard the whistling of the approaching explosive a second before the projectile hit one of three Chevy Suburbans waiting to transport Layla from a safe house to the Baltimore/ Washington airport. Lunging forward, he tackled her to the ground, shielding her with his body with only seconds to spare.

The blast radiated from the point of impact, sending a surge of heat roiling over them. The shock wave jolted her slender body and he curled around her, clutching her tightly. The ringing in his ears was deafening, dulling the sound of Layla’s screams. But he felt them. Felt them vibrate against him.

Shrapnel rained down. Fire licked at the soles of his shoes. He scrambled to his feet, pulling her up and hauling her back into the apartment building. His ears felt as if they were stuffed with cotton, his focus narrowed by the instinctive need to get Layla to safety.

Layla.

Withdrawing his service weapon, Brian steered her with a firm grip on her elbow. They bypassed the elevator and slipped into the stairwell. He glanced up, momentarily considering the viability of returning to the room she’d occupied the night before. Then, he pulled her down toward the subterranean garage.

The safe house had been compromised. At least two deputies had lost their lives, one of whom was a friend he’d known for years. He wasn’t certain who he could trust, and with Layla in the crosshairs, he wasn’t taking any chances. Hard-driving possessiveness pushed him forward. She kept up; her fingers linked tightly with his as they thundered down the stairs.

They burst through the metal stairwell door into the garage. A forest green Honda was backing out of a parking spot to their left and Brian stepped behind it, withdrawing his badge and identification from his pocket.

He met the gaze of the female driver who gaped at him through her rearview mirror. “I need you to get out of the car, ma’am.”

A harried-looking brunette climbed out from behind the wheel, her widened eyes on his Glock. She held both hands up, her purse dangling from the bent crook of her elbow.

He holstered his weapon and handed her his business card. “Call that number and they’ll get you squared away.”

Grim-faced, Layla slid into the passenger seat without prompting.

Brian was pulling out of the garage when the wail of sirens announced the arrival of the local authorities and fire engines. He could see the black plume of smoke as he hit the freeway on-ramp.

Chapter 2

Layla gripped the edge of the Honda’s passenger-seat cushion and glanced at the man she hadn’t seen in the flesh in five long years. He looked different than he did in her dreams. Harder. Leaner. Still dangerous. A person would have to be nursing a death wish to face off with Brian Simmons.

Which hadn’t stopped her from giving him her virginity ...

“Are you hurt?” He glanced at her, cutting straight through her with his crystalline green eyes.

“No. Wh-what about—” She cleared her dry, aching throat. “Sam? The others?”

He shook his head.

Jesus. Her stomach knotted so tightly she thought she might be sick. Sam Palmer had become a friend over the last three years she’d spent in the Witness Security Program. Beyond his job, the inspector had become her lone tie to reality. His monthly phone calls to check up on her had become the only reminder that she was still Layla Creed underneath her assumed identity of Layla Cunningham.

She used to live a normal life. She used to live in the same town she’d been born in and have friends who knew her well enough to put up with her pining over the man sitting just inches away from her now. She’d lost it all that fateful weekend she partied in Tijuana, trying to prove to herself that she was truly over Brian Simmons.

Pulling a cell phone out of his pocket, Brian hit a speed-dial button.

“We’re hot,” he said without preamble to whoever answered the phone. “They hit the convoy with a f**king grenade launcher.”

In the midst of a nightmare, Brian’s low-pitched and faintly husky voice was soothingly familiar. She dreamed of that voice, remembered it groaning with pleasure and biting out raw, heated sexual words. He was a vocal lover and his openness made her shameless. She’d had no inhibitions with him, no reservations or hesitation. Nothing to shield her heart from a man who lived to be in the line of fire.

He could have died today, right in front of her. The biggest nightmare of all.

“No,” he went on. “I’ll have to get her out of town another way ... I can’t do that either. Someone leaked the safe house. I don’t know who to trust ... I can guarantee she had nothing to do with word getting out ... It’s Layla, Jim. Yeah, that Layla. Listen—I need a favor. Take everything you need out of the Bronco, toss what body armor and camping gear you can spare in the back, and head over to the gas station on Main and Seventh. Leave the keys in the ashtray and go for a walk ... Thanks, man. I owe you.”

He ended

the call.

Layla blinked through her tears. She didn’t ask any questions. If there was anyone on earth she trusted with her life it was Brian. It was the way he took care of his own hide that had led to their breakup.

They pulled into a retail store parking lot. He took a spot in the very back, near the garden center, and dropped the keys in the ashtray and closed it. Then he popped the battery out of his cell phone and tossed the separate pieces on the backseat. As if on cue, Layla’s cell began to ring. She wriggled it out of the small backpack-style purse she wore and handed it to Brian, who waited with his hand held out.

As he disassembled her phone, he said, “There’s a bank inside. We both need to pull out the maximum amount we can from the ATM. When we leave, we’ll be traveling on cash to California—gas, food, lodging, the works—and we won’t be able to pull out more. We’ll need to grab clothes and toiletries while we’re inside, and we need to be quick.”

She nodded, briefly examining the crushed sunglasses in her bag before discarding them in the center console. “Are we hiding from the good guys, too?”

“For now.” He tossed her phone onto the rear seat beside his. “Let’s go.”

Layla climbed out of the car with a racing heart. Her palms were damp and her breathing shallow. When she rounded the trunk, he caught her by the hand and set off at a brisk pace. They entered the store and it felt like every eye was on them. Her ears were still ringing, whether from the explosion or her own thundering blood, she didn’t know. Her grip on him tightened.

Giving her a reassuring squeeze, Brian leaned in close. She saw the words on his lips more than heard them. “It’s okay, baby. I’ve got you.”

He’d said the same thing to her while she’d quaked with her first orgasm, his breath humid against the slick folds of her pu**y. A shiver accompanied the memory, still so vivid despite the years that had passed. He pulled free of her grasp and draped his arm over her shoulders, careful to keep the loose tail of his unbuttoned flannel shirt over his holster.

“You’re in shock,” he murmured with his lips to her ear, sending another tremor through her body. “Just hang on to me.”

The warmth of his leanly muscled frame sank into her side and she soaked it up, her arm wrapping around his waist. He wore Dr. Martens and loose-fitting jeans with a super-soft white jersey T-shirt. His green, tan, and aqua flannel was so attractive she would have stolen it if they were still together.

Brian got a shopping cart and led her through the store with swift efficiency, thinking of everything from underwear and toothbrushes to disposable cell phones and two small wheeled suitcases. They separated briefly, standing across the aisle from one another while she grabbed clothes and he picked up razors. They were in the checkout line in less than twenty minutes. The ATM was next, where they withdrew a collective fifteen hundred dollars. They exited out the front entrance instead of through the garden center, and he stopped by a bench near the main doors to cram most of the clothes in one carry-on and the rest of the items in the other.

“We’re going to cross the street to that convenience store.” He reached for the packed bags, but paused, studying her. Whatever he saw caused him to straighten and reach for her. He cupped her nape in one hand, her hip in the other, and pulled her close. Their foreheads touched. “You’re being so brave, baby. I’m proud of you.”

Her eyes stung. “I’m not a little girl anymore, Brian.”

“Believe me, Layla. I know that.” Releasing her, he dug two baseball caps out of the bag and slid one onto her head. His fingers sifted through the dark tresses draped over her shoulders, as if he couldn’t help himself. “When we get to the car, I want you to change your shirt and tie up your hair.”

“Okay.”

He grabbed the bags and set off, heading in the opposite direction of the Civic he’d commandeered. They made their way across the street, his stride smooth and easy, but she knew he was sharply focused on their surroundings. He was always alert, but he was inclined to be hypervigilant with her. Not just because she was a protected witness, but because she was his best friend ’s younger sister and the woman he’d once loved.

He walked directly to a beat-up Bronco parked off to the side of the convenience store and tossed the bags through the lowered rear window. “Hop in.”

When he slid behind the driver’s seat, he handed her a body armor vest he’d pulled out of the cargo space.

They were back on I-70 in less than five minutes.

Brian took the cap off his head and tossed it on the floorboard behind Layla’s seat. She was already pulling her Henley off, as comfortable in her own skin as any woman had a right to be. As she bared a tealcolored lace bra that perfectly matched her irises, he could barely keep his eyes on the road.

“So the guy whose car this is,” she began. “A deputy? Or a SEAL?”

“Can’t he just be a civilian?”

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