The Bachelor Bodyguards of Payne Protection Agency are back—and this time, it's personal
Walking away from then-fiancée Amber Talsma was one of the hardest things sexy bodyguard Milek Kozminski ever had to do. But it was nothing compared to the shock of hearing she'd been killed in a car accident alongside the son Milek knew, deep down, was his.
Amber will do anything to keep her child safe. Which was why she had to fake their deaths—to evade the assailant who murdered her boss, then came after her. But now someone has found them. And when Milek learns the truth, he'll stop at nothing to protect his son...and the woman he never stopped loving.
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Ever since Lisa Childs read her first romance novel (a Harlequin of course) at age eleven, all she ever wanted to be was a romance writer. Now an award winning, best-selling author of nearly fifty novels for Harlequin, Lisa is living the dream. Lisa loves to hear from readers who can contact her on Facebook, through her website www.lisachilds.com or snail mail address PO Box 139, Marne, MI 49435.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Amber Talsma had been dead for a year. But no one had gotten any closer to finding out who had killed her. Or tried to. Amber hadn't lost control of her car and driven into a ravine. She had actually been shot at—just weeks after her boss had been gunned down outside his home. Someone had wanted her dead, too.
So she had died—to keep herself and her son safe. The accident had been staged; empty caskets buried in their graves. Then she and Michael had disappeared. They were Heather and Mason Ames now.
But when she glanced in the rearview mirror—as she did now as she drove to Mason's school—she still saw Amber. Her long red hair had been cut and dyed brown. Brown contact lenses covered her green irises. But her features were the same. Was that how someone had recognized her?
The letter had arrived just an hour ago—delivered to the mailbox of Heather Ames. She hadn't recognized the handwriting, but she'd opened it. Photos had fallen onto the floor. Several of them of her and Michael—at the park. At his school. At the grocery store. And through the front window of the very house in which they lived now. She'd turned over the back of one of those photos to find a note, an implicit threat, scrawled across the back: I know who you really are...
And obviously where she was, as well.
Only one person knew she was alive: the FBI agent who had helped fake Amber's and Michael's deaths. Special Agent Nicholas Rus had been the one she had called about the shots being fired at her—into her home.
She shuddered as she remembered how close the bullets had come to hitting her son—to taking his life. If she'd lost him...
It wasn't a risk she'd been willing to take. Sure, she could have hired bodyguards. Agent Rus had even suggested that—while he tried to find her boss's killer, who was probably also the person who'd shot at her—she should hire the Payne Protection Agency.
But she had been too proud to reach out to Milek again. He would have cared she was in danger, but would he have believed she was? He hadn't believed her when she'd told him she was pregnant with his son. He'd accused her of using her pregnancy to get him back—to trap him.
Even now, over five years later, the heat of embarrassment rushed to her face. That was why she had never admitted to her best friend she'd actually told Milek about his son. But it hadn't been just embarrassment. Her best friend was also his sister, and she hadn't wanted to cause problems between Stacy and her brother.
Growing up as they had, the Kozminski siblings were close. They'd had to stick together because they'd had no one else. When Milek had been in juvenile detention and Garek in prison, Stacy had grown close to Amber, too—so close that they were like sisters. Her husband, Logan Payne, the CEO of Payne Protection, would have protected Amber and Michael. Or he would have tried.
But a year had passed without the DA's killer being apprehended. Could anyone have kept Amber and Michael safe for a year if the killer had known they were alive?
It had been safest for her and her son to play dead. She had convinced the FBI agent of that, and he'd agreed to help her. Then.
But he'd also promised to find whoever was after her—whoever had killed her boss. The FBI agent had been assigned to the River City Police Department to clean up the corruption within. The DA could have been killed to cover up some of that corruption, so it had definitely been Rus's case. But it was one he had failed in his promise to solve.
She had trusted him, not just because he was an FBI agent but also because he was the half brother of Stacy's husband. But he wasn't a Payne. And the corruption in the police department and perhaps in the DA's office, as well, proved that nobody was incorruptible.
Had Agent Rus sold out to whoever wanted her dead? Had he told them where she was?
"You told me she's alive. You need to tell me where she is," Milek said, and his voice cracked before he could add, Where they are...
FBI Special Agent Nicholas Rus's wide shoulders slumped with guilt, his black-haired head bowed. "I shouldn't have told you."
"No," Milek agreed.
His blue eyes wide with surprise, Rus glanced up from his desk in his office at River City PD. His assignment was lasting so long he'd been given an office that had once belonged to one of the captains he'd arrested for corruption. It had windows looking out onto the busy precinct. But his attention was focused only on Milek.
"You shouldn't have told me now," Milek explained. "You should have told me a year ago."
"I didn't know you a year ago."
Milek snorted. "We met at least a year ago."
"We met," Rus said. "But we didn't know each other yet. I didn't know then if I could really trust you."
"Obviously you know now that you can, or you wouldn't have told me she—they—are alive."
Rus cursed. "And that was a mistake."
"Why?" Milek asked.
"Because now you want to know where she is."
He didn't just want to know. He had to know. He had to see her—had to see for himself that she was really alive. And so was their son.
"That's not all I want to know," he said.
"I want to know why." For a year she had haunted him—so many images of her had played through his mind. Amber smiling, her beautiful face aglow with love. Her face flushed with passion, her lips swollen from his kisses. Amber crying, her green eyes drenched with tears. But the one that had haunted him most had been the horrific footage of that crash. He'd imagined those flames consuming her and their son—taking them away from him forever.
But they had never really been his.
He shook off his regrets and asked, "Why would she go to such lengths to fake her death?"
And the death of their son...
"Was it because her boss was murdered and she was afraid she might be next?" She had worked more closely with the DA than any other assistant had. It was possible that whoever murdered him might have wanted to kill her, too.
Rus sighed again and leaned back in his chair. "There was no might about it. She and her son were nearly killed the night before the crash."
Milek shuddered. He hadn't lost them, but he'd come close. "What happened?"
"Shots were fired into her house."
"I didn't see it on the news." Not the way he had seen the footage of the vehicle crash. And if the shooting had been reported, it would have been brought up during the coverage of the accident. The media would have speculated that the crash hadn't been an accident. But nobody had questioned it. There had been an ice storm the night of the crash; it hadn't just seemed possible but probable that she'd lost control.
But Amber had never really lost control of anything. Not the way he had.
Because he'd known her so well, he should have questioned the wreck—especially after her boss's murder. And because he'd once been so connected to her, he should have known she wasn't really dead. But he had lost her years before she "died."
"She didn't report it to the police or the media," Nicholas Rus replied. "She reported it to me."
She had called the FBI agent. Why hadn't she called him? Probably because she hadn't trusted he would come. Or that he would care.
When he'd broken their engagement, he had worked hard to make her believe he hadn't cared about her anymore. He had succeeded—too well.
"And you kept it quiet."
Milek cursed him.
"I didn't know who I could trust," Rus reminded him. "I came to River City to investigate corruption. I didn't know who all might be involved in that corruption."
Rus nodded. "You and your family have quite the notorious reputation."
And that was why Milek had ended their engagement. For her.
His reputation hadn't been the only reason, though. "Now I know that reputation is undeserved," Rus added.
It was undeserved for Garek and Stacy. Milek couldn't claim the same. He sighed. "You were right," he grudgingly admitted. "You were right to keep the shooting quiet. You were right to trust no one."
If not, Amber and Michael might really be dead.
"I didn't think it would take this long," Rus murmured.
Milek glanced out the windows of the corner office. Even though the detectives and some uniformed officers appeared busy, they spared glances at Rus's office—at Rus. Some of those glances seemed uneasy. "To clean up the corruption?"
He nodded. "That, too. But I meant I didn't think it would take this long to find her boss's killer. I didn't think she would have to stay dead as long as this."
"Was that why you told me?"
"You weren't getting over her."
Milek had broken up with her nearly five years before her death, and he hadn't gotten over her in all that time. It didn't matter that he knew she was alive; he was still mourning her—still mourning what they'd once had, such passion. His pulse quickened just thinking about her—about how badly he'd wanted her—needed her.
But if it had only been passion, he wouldn't have broken their engagement. He'd loved her too much to risk ruining her future. "I need to see her."
To talk to her. To apologize.
"I can't risk it," Rus said. "Until now, I was the only one who knew the truth."
"I'm not going to tell anyone," Milek said. He wouldn't compromise her safety, or their son's.
"We can't take the chance of either of us going to see her. We can't risk someone following one of us."
"But why would they?" Milek asked. "Nobody but us knows she's alive. So they're not looking for her any longer." But somebody needed to be looking for him—for the shooter who had nearly killed her and Michael.
He believed Rus was still working the case. But it wasn't his only case. He'd just taken down a major crime boss. "Does Chekov have any ideas?" Milek asked. "He's been talking to you pretty freely."
Because he had cut a deal to keep his daughter from going to a maximum security prison for murder. She was going to a locked psychiatric facility instead. Milek doubted she would ever leave it.
Rus shook his head. "Chekov claims he doesn't know anything."
"Do you?" Milek asked. "Where are you at with this case?" He needed to be apprised of the investigation, so he could help. Payne Protection bodyguards protected their clients by physically guarding them, but also by eliminating the threats to their safety.
Rus admitted, "I know who killed the DA."
Milek gasped. "Really? If you think that's the same person who went after Amber, why the hell is she still gone?"
Had she decided she liked her new life better than the one she'd left behind?
"I know who pulled the trigger," Rus said. "But I haven't apprehended him. And until I do, I won't know who hired him."
"The shooter was a hired killer?"
Rus nodded. "Ballistics matched up to other hits. A fingerprint recovered from a shell confirmed the shooter is Frank Campanelli."
"You know who it is but you can't find him?" Milek was appalled. Rus needed help. He needed Payne Protection. Nikki Payne could track down anyone.
"They call Frank Campanelli 'The Ghost,'" Rus shared. "So I don't know when or if I'll be able to find him. Nobody has ever been able to arrest him."
"The same was true of Chekov," Milek reminded him, "until Garek and Candace and I helped you." And Milek had even more motivation now. Anger heated his blood, making it pump fast and hard through his veins. When Milek found the man who'd tried to kill Amber and his son, he might make him a ghost.
Rus shrugged. "Even if we catch Campanelli, I doubt he would talk. Hired assassins rarely give up their clients. So I'm focusing on finding the real killer—whoever hired him. I'm checking into all the cases DA Schievink and Amber Talsma were both working at the time Schievink died, and even the cases they'd worked together before his death."
Milek nodded. "Someone could have gunned down the DA out of vengeance."
Rus narrowed his gaze and studied Milek.
Milek couldn't deny he had a motive to want to kill Gregory Schievink. The guy had done his damnedest to break up him and Amber. When she'd become pregnant, Schievink had sought out Milek and insisted the baby was his—not Milek's. His hands curled into fists as they had that day. But that day he hadn't kept them clenched at his sides; he'd swung. He'd hit the slimy bastard, and in doing so, Milek had confirmed his worst fears to himself.
"Schievink was an amoral son of a bitch. But I wasn't the only one with a grudge against him. You have to have a long list of criminals." Not to mention the man's wife— Schievink had been married.
Rus nodded. But his intent stare didn't leave Milek's face. Of course, he probably ranked Milek among those criminals, if not at the top of the list.
"I would never hurt Amber and Michael." Not intentionally. Not physically. In fact, he'd done everything in his power so he wouldn't hurt them.
"Was it a mistake to trust you, Kozminski?" the agent asked.
Milek shook his head.
But he could tell the FBI agent wasn't convinced. The man opened his mouth, but before he could ask whatever question he'd wanted, an alarm beeped from his computer.
Rus glanced at his computer monitor, then turned his full attention to it. As he read whatever was on the screen, a muscle twitched along his tightly clenched jaw.
This obviously wasn't good news for the agent.
"What is it?" Milek asked. Hadn't the city been through enough over the past year or so?
"I flagged my computer to alert me whenever a report came through with a certain name on it," Rus said.
He knew. Instinctively Milek knew what that name was. But he moved around Rus's desk to stand behind his chair. He needed to see it for himself.
"Amber Talsma... " It was highlighted within a police report. He glanced up at the corner of the screen to read the incident number. This wasn't an old report—from a year ago. This was a recent one. From just days ago.
"Why did it take your computer so long to alert you?" he asked.
"The incident happened days ago," Rus confirmed. "But the report just got completed and uploaded to the system."
"What took so long?"
"It wasn't a priority," Rus said.
Anything involving Amber was a priority.
"Why not?" He leaned closer, trying to read more of the report over Rus's shoulder.
As he read, Rus surmised, "It was assumed to be just vandalism, malicious destruction of property..."
"What does any of that have to do with Amber?" Milek asked. "Her house was sold nearly a year ago." He doubted she had any other property in River City.
"This incident didn't happen at her house," Rus replied. "It happened at a cemetery."
Milek's heart began to hammer hard and fast—with dread. He already had a sick suspicion, but just as he needed to see Amber and Michael to believe they were really alive, he needed Rus to confirm his suspicion.
"Two graves were ...
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