FBI Special Agent Zane Wolfe edged away from the encroaching sunshine and deeper into the shadowed grove. Listening intently over the thrum of the Pacific Ocean, he watched the ethereal-looking blonde tiptoe furtively down the driveway across the street.
About damned time.
Surveillance—hours of teeth-grinding monotony for a five minute payoff.
Barefoot, and dressed in a sleeveless coral tank top and ragged denim cutoffs that exposed mile-long legs, his quarry carried herself as elegantly as if she were wearing an evening gown. Tousled, shoulder-length hair shone like Kansas wheat in the summer sun as her honey-colored brows slanted into a frown.
“Aragorn!” she warned in a low, melodic voice that reminded him of Grace Kelly in the old movies his mom had loved. His gut clenched. He’d had a secret jones for cool, sophisticated Grace. “You get back in here right now, or I’m going to confiscate your nuts!”
Zane winced. So maybe less Grace Kelly and more Kelly Osbourne.
He stayed hidden, watching her through his portable hi-def binoculars. Over the past five months, she’d left dozens of messages demanding he get in touch ASAP. He’d been buried undercover in a desert hellhole half a world away and hadn’t received them until last night. He’d phoned her from D.C., but she’d insisted he fly to Oregon to speak to her in person. Immediately.
The lady was very persuasive.
“How about a little cooperation here, Aragorn? I have your favorite treat.” She fished in her pocket and pulled out a package of salted peanuts. Waving it, she crouched beside a Pepto pink older Mini Cooper convertible. The wrapper crackled enticingly in the mellow warmth of the late August afternoon. “Look, baby, peanuts.”
A huge, hairy white paw crept out and stealthily patted the asphalt.
The blonde’s husky chuckle did funky things to Zane’s blood pressure. “Oh, no you don’t. You know you have to go in the house first.”
The biggest cat Zane had ever seen skulked out from under the car. A cat that eats peanuts? Man, now I’ve seen everything.
“There’s my good boy,” the woman crooned.
The white behemoth stared snootily at his mistress before sticking his nose in the air and ambling across the lawn. Feathered tail twitching, he pranced inside the open screen door of the yellow two-story Cape Cod.
Heaving a relieved sigh, the woman followed the beast inside. Zane did not look at her luscious ass. Much. She closed the screen, but left the front door ajar.
Ingrained caution held Zane immobile as he scanned the perimeter for signs of an ambush. During the last two hours, a skateboarding kid cruising past, an elderly man mowing a lawn four houses down, and the blonde were the only people he’d seen.
A junior D.C. field office assistant had compiled a hasty dossier on the woman and tossed it to Zane on his way out to catch his flight. Jillian Kathleen Ramsay, age twenty-five, had grown up in the medium-sized coastal town of Cape Hope, Oregon. She was the assistant director at Hope Community Center, a facility that offered programs for disadvantaged and high-risk children from preschool through high school. Her mother had died of an aneurysm when Jillian was eleven, her father Dean was a contractor. She had three older brothers, all Navy SEALS, all shipped out on active duty. The Ramsay clan looked squeaky clean.
Zane frowned. What the hell did she want from him?
Her summons probably wasn’t a setup. But working for the FBI, he’d met his share of wackos. He hadn’t survived a brutal childhood and a decade with the Bureau making inaccurate risk assessments.
As throbbing music drifted out the screen door—seriously, disco?—he again cased the grounds. Although he’d refused to pick up his drawing pencil or paints for a decade, he’d never been able to squelch his artistic vision. An enormous pine tree guarded the grassy expanse. Rioting flowerbeds flanked both sides, and a trellis crowned with crimson roses arched across the front walk. Baskets of cheerful pink flowers dangled off the front porch railing and more tall orange blooms in pots splashed both sides of the doorway with hot color.
Zane breathed in sweet-scented air and glanced up at the cloudless cerulean sky. The weather was ideal, the small suburban neighborhood peaceful. A bright community of happy families. Something he’d always wanted, but never had.
Could never have.
His chest constricted. He knew better than anyone things weren’t what they seemed. Perfect façades often concealed ugly secrets. Nasty skeletons dangled in his own closet.
Everyone had something to hide.
What was Jillian Ramsay hiding?
High time to find out. He pocketed his binoculars, broke cover and strode across the lawn. The sun’s heat seeped through his suit jacket, chasing away the shaded grove’s chill. His shoulders tensed. Lurking in the shadows was much more comfortable. Bright sunlight exposed every detail, left a man no privacy.
Above all else, Zane cherished his privacy.
As he approached, the music swelled in volume. By the time he hit the front porch, Donna Summer was yodeling the virtues of “Hot Stuff” so loudly, his eardrums threatened to implode. He pounded on the door frame, but Ms. Ramsay didn’t appear. No surprise. With that racket, she wouldn’t have heard an armored personnel carrier jolting through a minefield.
Zane swung the door open and hollered, “Hey! Ms. Ramsay?”
No answer. Obviously, the music drowned him out. But she had begged him to come. In spite of appearances to the contrary, had something happened? Was she in some kind of trouble? “Ms. Ramsay, this is Special Agent Zane Wolfe. Are you okay in there?”
He eased inside and scoped out the first floor. The interior, decorated in restful nature colors of green, blue and tan, was as cheerful and neat as the outside. His right hand on the Beretta tucked into his shoulder holster beneath his jacket, senses on red alert, he followed Donna Summer’s disco din and the sharp smell of paint fumes down the hall. Both grew stronger as he loped to the second floor.
He paused in the hallway outside an open doorway. Jillian had her back to him. Enthusiastically dabbing brown blotches onto the light blue wall, she sang off-key at the top of her lungs in a throaty contralto and wiggled that fabulous ass to the pulsing disco beat.
A bullet of lust streaked down his spine and ricocheted to his dick. Zane dropped his hand from his weapon and sucked in a sharp breath.
He cleared the sudden thickness from his throat. “Excuse me,” he shouted. “Ms. Ramsay?”
Jillian whirled, jerked backward, then overcorrected and stumbled forward.
He lunged, barely catching her. Her brush slapped his cheek, trailed a wet streak across his nose. Holding her securely against him, he swiped at his face. His fingers came away brown and sticky. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said into her ear. “I knocked, but...”
Smelling enticingly of patchouli, she froze in his arms. Beneath his palm splayed across her ribs, her heartbeat fluttered wildly.
“Ms. Ramsay? You all right? You didn’t hurt yourself?”
“No.” A slight shiver wracked her before she twisted out of his hold. She strode to the vintage boom box in the corner and hit the button. Blessed silence descended. Her eyes widened as she studied him.
“Ms. Ramsay, I’m—”
“You can’t be anyone other than Zane Wolfe. What are you doing inside my house?”
How did the woman know who he was? They’d never met. He wouldn’t have forgotten her. Caught, he stared into her eyes. Lavender-blue irises conjured a startling memory of fragrant violets hidden in sun-dappled hollows beside the creek where he and his youngest brother had played as boys. A secret retreat where he and Trevor had escaped their father’s merciless campaign to mold them into “men.”
The wooded hideaway discovery had come too late for Zane’s oldest brother Brent. By then, Brent had already caught the fast track to destruction.
Jillian waved the paintbrush at him. “Hello?”
Zane jerked back to the present. He hadn’t revisited that nightmare for years. And Jesus, he’d stood there gawking at her like a geek getting an eyeful of his first triple-X website. “Yes, I’m FBI Special Agent Zane Wolfe.” On auto-pilot, he slid out his I.D. and flipped open the wallet. “I knocked, but with the concert at ninety decibels, I guess you didn’t hear me.”
Her cheeks flushed as scarlet as the roses outside. “I latched my screen. How did you get in?”
“The door was open.”
“No, I’m positive …” She shook her head. “Aragorn the escape artist strikes again. Well … You and I have something important to discuss.” She glanced at his face and her flush deepened. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.” She hurried out of the room.
Zane stashed his wallet and perused the mural. Some sort of wildlife scene? Ms. Ramsay obviously had more ambition than talent.
His fingers itched to pick up the brush and add the strokes that would bring the picture to life. But he couldn’t draw or paint anymore. Not since Trevor had died.
He turned his back to the wall, shutting down his feelings with long-practiced expertise. The past was gone. Dead and buried.
Like his little brother.
Jillian returned and handed him a damp washcloth. “Sorry about your face.” As he scrubbed away the paint, she gestured at the mural. “What do you think?”
“Uh ... that’s a tall ... groundhog. Very lifelike,” he lied.
Her expressive mouth drooped. “He’s supposed to be a Wookie.”
It looked like a mutant squirrel on steroids. He bit his tongue against the urge to smile. “A Wookie?”
“Chewbacca. From Star Wars.”
“I know what a Wookie is.” Cheeks aching from corralling his grin, he tilted his head. “Ah … sure, I can see it now.”
“Here, you missed a spot.” She took the washcloth from him and gently dabbed his temple. As the warmth of her fingers penetrated the damp terrycloth, another stampede of desire charged through him, and he flinched.
Accustomed to being in total command of his body and emotions, the loss of control threw him. Zane needed to be in control. Couldn’t function any other way. “You a Jedi groupie?”
She wrinkled her nose and mischief danced across her face. “If this were my room, Champ, I’d be painting up a life-sized yummy blond elf with a great big … bow and arrow. Planet Endor wasn’t my idea.” Humor fled and her irises clouded with pain, and something that looked like fear. “Let’s go downstairs.”
Uh oh. His pulse kicked. Show time.
The subtle feminine sway of her hips as she led him downstairs revved his pulse up another hundred BPMs, and he inhaled sharply. He’d just wrapped up a tense, bloody, five-month overseas op. Since he never allowed any distractions—including women—on the job, he was suffering from self-imposed drought. His dick obviously thought he was way overdue for R&R. “You should keep your front door shut and locked. A latched screen won’t keep anybody out.”
“I usually do, but the paint fumes were making me dizzy.” She gave him a nervous smile and gestured at the living room sofa. “Sit, please.”
Instead, he chose an overstuffed chair opposite the sofa, where he had his back to the wall and a clear view of the staircase and front door. “So what’s the emergency summons?”
“Um … just give me a minute.” Jillian retreated into the kitchen.
For a woman who’d relentlessly harassed the D.C. field office to contact him, Jillian suddenly didn’t seem in a big hurry to chat. He examined the bookcases flanking the fireplace. Fairytales, legends, and fantasy romance novels lined the shelves, some collectors’ editions. Added to the Star Wars tribute upstairs and the Legolas worship, the evidence was clear. The lady lived in la-la land.
He groaned. What wild fantasy had she cooked up? In his years with the Bureau, he’d heard them all, from insane conspiracy theories to lurid “the aliens probed me” abductions.
Yup, Jillian Ramsay was looking like one beautiful, sexy package of crazy.
Muscles taut, senses buzzing, Zane catalogued the comfortable, welcoming room. The warm sunny atmosphere was so different from his somber black and chrome high-rise, it might ordinarily have appealed to him. But his instincts were screaming.
Zane never ignored his instincts.
The big white cat strutted into the room, tail twitching. He stopped in front of Zane’s chair, slanted green eyes suspicious.
“Hey, Aragorn. How’re the nuts?”
The beast swelled to twice his normal size. His fur spiked, and a rumbling growl erupted from his throat. Hissing, he swiped at Zane’s calf.
“Whoa!” Zane jerked his leg back, only his lightning reflexes thwarting a trip to the ER. “Sorry I asked.”
Jillian reentered, carrying a tray that held two mugs brimming with steaming coffee and a matching plate piled with cookies. She handed Zane a warm cup. “I see you two are getting acquainted. Isn’t Aragorn a darling?”
“Oh yeah.” The feline from hell blinked at him with exaggerated innocence and bared his fangs. Zane moved his leg farther out of reach. “A real prince.”
She set the tray on the coffee table and fidgeted with the cookie platter. “A king, actually. I named him after Aragorn, because he’s so noble and regal.”
She should have named the psycho Jack, as in, The Ripper. “Look, lady, I didn’t fly three thousand miles for a tea party. Whatever you have to say, just spit it out.”
“You must be tired and hungry after your long trip. At least have a cookie to fortify you before we talk.”
He stared at the offering. Cookies, just like mom never made. Freshly baked chunky oatmeal raisin, dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Not dainty morsels that teased a guy’s taste buds and left him wanting more, these were fist-sized, to satisfy a man’s appetite. His mouth watered. But he wasn’t here for refreshments. He strictly separated his work and his private life, rejecting anything that blurred the boundaries.
“Whatever you have to say isn’t going to be shoved down my throat any sweeter with a cookie. Cut to the chase, Ms. Ramsay. What do you want from me?”
“Call me Jillian.” She perched on the edge of the sofa opposite him, clutching her coffee cup in trembling hands. “All right. First, I need to make absolutely certain I have the correct man. You are FBI Special Agent Zane Kintan Wolfe? You grew up in a suburb of Wichita, Kansas, and attended the University of Texas at Arlington where you played both football and baseball, and pitched the Mavericks to four straight championships?”
He scowled. How the fuck did she know all that? “Yes.”
“Your middle name means ‘royal’ in Cherokee according to the online baby name book where I looked it up. Your mom was half Native American, and you go by her last name, right?”
He went rigid. For a woman he’d never met before, she was way too interested in his personal life. What game was she running? “What does my heritage have to do with this?”
Her cup wobbled in her grasp, and her fingers whitened. “I— Agent Wolfe, do you remember a woman named Deb Stuart?”
Deb Stuart. He and Deb had met in college, where she’d trailed him all over campus. Deb had been a preppy, fresh-faced innocent back then, and he’d stayed far out of her grasp. They didn’t make flak gear strong enough to protect him from collateral damage caused by starry-eyed dreamers.
Those kind of women wanted promises and commitment. He didn’t do commitment.
Then about six or so years ago, a chance meeting with the older, well-versed Deb in D.C. had resulted in a brief weekend fling. Deb had never mentioned Jillian. But then neither of them had done much talking. He took a swallow of coffee to moisten his dry mouth. “I remember her. Why?”
Jillian’s face softened. “When Deb moved here from the East Coast six years ago, she took a job at the Hope Center and we instantly meshed. She was my closest friend.” Tears welled in her eyes, threatened to spill over, and Zane’s gut tightened. “Seven months ago, she … died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said with genuine regret.
Jillian straightened and blinked back her tears. The quietly courageous gesture grabbed Zane by the throat. “She was the sister I always wanted growing up, the sister of my heart.”
His fingers clenched around his cup, fighting the crazy urge to wrap his arms around this woman and hold her close. “I’m very sorry for your loss. But I’m not sure why you called me. Was she murdered?”
Hands trembling harder, she carefully put down her cup and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “There are questionable circumstances about her death. And Deb left behind a little boy named Casey.”
“I see. Is he in some kind of danger?”
“I don’t— First, you need to—” Jillian leaned forward and grasped his hand in both of her warm, soft ones, making every muscle in his body tighten. “Zane …” The grave concern on her face overrode his need to tug away. “Just before she moved here, you and Deb— You spent a weekend together in Washington D.C.”
“Yeah. Listen, I appreciate you personally breaking the news about her death, but we weren’t in a relationship.”
“Casey is five-and-a-half years old.” She sucked in a deep breath, slowly released it. “Zane, he’s your son.”
Blood rushed from his head, roared in his ears. The walls zoomed out, then closed in, smothering him. He was dimly aware he’d dropped his cup as hot coffee scalded his thigh.
“Zane!” Jillian dabbed at his pants leg with a napkin. “Are you burned?”
He couldn’t speak. Couldn’t swallow.
“Zane?” She tossed aside the napkin and rubbed his arms. “You went bone white. Are you all right?”
“Impossible,” he whispered.
But it wasn’t. Vivid images flashed through his mind like a horror movie on fast forward. A broken condom. Deb’s shrug of acceptance. His own rioting fear. Deb had assured him later there’d been no consequences.
Had Deb lied to him?
Or had she lied to Jillian?
“I know it’s a shock.” Jillian’s gentle voice quivered with compassion. “It’s the truth, Zane. Deb left a letter in a safe-deposit box for me in the event anything happened to her, naming you Casey’s father.”
“That doesn’t prove a thing,” he forced through stiff, numb lips.
“Casey looks just like you.”
Reeling, he pushed her hands away. But he couldn’t so easily shove aside her words. “There are millions of dark-haired, dark-eyed kids.”
“The instant I saw you, I knew Casey was yours. He has the same lean athlete’s build, same thick, straight black hair, same dark melted-chocolate eyes. He even wears your intensely focused expression on his face a lot of the time.”
Zane fought to control his too-rapid breaths. “What do you expect from me? Money? Is that it?”
“No!” she gasped. “Of course not! You need to know about him. And Casey needs his father.”
Shaking uncontrollably, he rocketed to his feet. “I don’t want him.”
“How can you say that? You haven’t even met him yet.” She rose and grasped his forearm. “He’s a terrific little boy.”
He wrenched free. “The kid is better off without me.” Blinded by pain, he stalked across the room. “See to it he has everything he needs. Send me the bills.” Zane flung open the front door.
And came face to face with the kid.
In ten shell-shocked seconds Zane absorbed every detail.
Jillian was right. The boy had his build, his hair, his eyes, and the same sober expression he saw in the mirror every morning.
Casey looked like him, all right. But Zane didn’t see himself in the child staring up at him. He saw his brother.
Oh, God, Trevor.
Zane’s heart splintered, and he staggered back from the door.
“Hi, mister,” the little boy chirped. “Who are you?”
The innocent, childish question sliced through Zane like a chainsaw.
Unable to speak, he brushed past the kid and the buxom redheaded woman accompanying him and tore outside. He made it to the sheltered grove across the street before his legs buckled.
He dropped to his knees in the bushes, sweaty and shaking.
For that child’s sake, he had to get as far away as possible.