Duty To Protect
Crisis counselor Ginny West confronted danger every day. But when a bomb blast trapped her in a burning building, she never thought she’d make it out alive.
Just in time, Riley Sinclair rescued her from the deadly blaze. The ruggedly sensual firefighter awoke a different danger, arousing a need that rocked her to her core.
Riley had risked his life to save Ginny. And he’d do it again. Yet even as he swore to keep her safe, he couldn’t reveal his tragic secret. Until desire ignited…and a violent stalker came after Ginny. Riley knew he had to share the truth about his painful past…or jeopardize his duty to protect her.
Read an Excerpt
“He said he’d kill me if I left him. And he meant it.”
Her client’s assertion sent a prickle of ill ease skittering down Ginny West’s nape. Even hearing such statements on a disturbingly regular basis didn’t lessen the gut-twisting impact the words had on Ginny. The threat of such extreme violence had to be taken seriously, had to be dealt with quickly. Domestic violence by its nature was volatile and dangerous, and Annie Compton’s situation had just reached critical mass.
Ginny looked up from her notepad and leveled a firm but sympathetic gaze on the battered wife sitting across from her at the Lagniappe Women’s Center. Annie’s freckled face sported a fresh set of cuts and contusions courtesy of her jealous and controlling husband and his nasty temper.
Ginny cleared the tension from her throat. “You need to get out of that house, Annie. Take these threats seriously, and get yourself and your kids out of harm’s way.”
Annie shook her head, tears welling in her dark eyes.
“Didn’t you hear what I just said? If I leave him, he’ll kill me! He’ll find me, and he’ll kill me. I know he will.” She swiped at her damp cheeks with the sleeve of her oversized sweater. “You shoulda seen him last night. He was so mad. And he hadn’t even been drinking. I told him what you said about him needing counseling, anger management.”
“You told him you talked to me?”
Annie nodded. “He’s always asking where I am and who I’m with. I had to tell him the truth. He checks up on me, and if I lie, it just makes him more jealous. Anyway, he said I had no business talking to you about private family business and that you should butt out. That’s when he swore he’d kill me dead if I tried to leave.” Annie closed her eyes and sighed. Her slumped shoulders were the image of defeat. “I just don’t know what to do.”
“You’re going to get free of him and his violence and make a fresh start. And I’m going to help you. I know it’s hard. But you are strong, Annie, and you can do this. You need to get yourself and your kids out of that house.”
“I can’t. I have nowhere to go. He’ll find me and—”
“Then you’ll go to the women’s shelter.” The springs in her wear-worn office couch creaked as Ginny leaned forward and laid her hand on Annie’s arm. “He won’t find you there. The location of our shelter is kept secret so that abusive husbands like Walt can’t find you. You’ll be safe, and you won’t be alone. We have people in place there to help you get a fresh start. I’ll check in on you, too. We can start working on getting a restraining order against Walt right now. Just say the word, and I can put things in motion.”
Ginny met Annie’s watery eyes and gave her an encouraging smile. “We’re going to get you through this, honey. I promise.”
“I’m scared,” Annie squeaked through her tears.
“I know. I understand.” Ginny’s heart squeezed. The pain in Annie’s eyes sliced her to the core. “What I’m asking you to do is scary. Change can be scary. But I’ll be here for you the whole way. I won’t let you go through this alone.”
No matter how many times Ginny guided a client through this process, the emotional toll never got easier. And she knew what she felt was a mere fraction of what the frightened women she helped were experiencing.
Ginny took Annie’s hands in hers. She rubbed the young woman’s icy, trembling fingers, hoping to infuse her with warmth and courage. “Should I call the shelter and tell them to expect you?”
Annie hesitated, then gave a small nod.
“And the restraining order?”
“No piece of paper will stop Walt.”
“But it is a legal tool for the police if he tries to bother you. It gives them grounds to arrest him and keep him away from you. Shall I get the paperwork started?”
Annie drew a shaky breath. “Okay.”
Ginny smiled and pulled Annie into her arms for a bear hug. “Good. I have a few calls to make. You can stay here if you want, or you can go across the hall to the playroom to sit with your children if you’d rather. I’ll let you know when the arrangements are finished.”
“I’ll go to the playroom. I need to be with my kids.” Annie backed out of the hug, and Ginny walked her to the door of her office.
After alerting the playroom attendant of the arrangements being made for Annie and her family, Ginny headed down the hall to the break room. Her stomach growled, reminding her she’d worked through lunch again. But until she knew Annie and her two young children were safe at the women’s shelter and the legalities of a restraining order put into motion, she wouldn’t stop for more than a cup of coffee. Stepping into the break room, she took her New Orleans Saints mug from the dish rack by the sink and gave the hours-old sludge in the coffeepot a considering glance.
With a grunt of disgust, she turned off the pot and returned her mug to the dish rack. Once Annie was safe, Ginny decided, she’d stop at her favorite deli on the way home for some real coffee and a hot muffuletta. Just the thought of one of the spicy, New Orleans-style deli sandwiches made Ginny’s mouth water.
After reclaiming her chair behind her utilitarian, charity-issue desk, she phoned the women’s shelter, informing them of Annie’s imminent arrival. Next she called her court liaison to start the ball rolling on the restraining order against An-nie’s husband. When she was put on hold, Ginny picked up a pen and began doodling on her notepad. Rather than a distraction, doodling helped her focus, think. Some of her toughest problems had been analyzed and worked through while she scratched out hearts, flowers and strange geometric shapes.
After several minutes on hold, Ginny stood up to pace, the cordless phone tucked between her ear and shoulder. She opened her office door and peeked into the room across the hall, where Annie sat on the floor with her young daughter, building a block tower. Dust motes danced in the November sunlight that streamed through the front window, bathing the woman and little girl in a golden glow. The warm hominess of the picture they made stood in stark contrast to the purple bruises shading Annie’s jaw. The evidence of Walt Compton’s cruelty stirred a deep ache in Ginny’s bones. Annie had a hard road ahead of her, but at least she was on the right path now.
A click preceded the buzz of a dial tone in her ear, and Ginny sighed. Her connection had been cut. Shifting the phone to her hand, she punched Redial and tried again to get through to the court liaison.
Dropping into her desk chair, she glanced at her notepad and smiled when she saw what she’d unconsciously doodled: 4A.
As in apartment 4A.
Which was where her new neighbor, Mr. Tall, Blond and Oh-So-Handsome, lived.
Since she’d moved into the complex three weeks ago, Ginny hadn’t met many of her neighbors. But Mr. 4A she’d noticed. Along with his sunny smile and bare ring finger. He seemed to arrive home about the same time she left for work most mornings, and she’d finally asked him about his odd schedule a few days ago as they checked their respective mailboxes in the lobby.
“Must’ve been some party if you’re only getting home now.” She gave him a teasing grin and keyed open the tiny metal door to retrieve her daily junk mail.
Mr. 4A flashed his white grin and shook his head. “I wish I had a party to thank. Naw, I’m just getting off work.”
“Graveyard shift, huh?” Ginny pulled her crumpled electric bill from the cramped mailbox and cast a sideways glance at her gorgeous neighbor.
“Wrong again. I’m a firefighter. We work twenty-four on, forty-eight off. Shifts begin and end at 7:00 a.m.”
“Ah. A fireman. Gotcha.” Ginny watched as he flipped through his stack of mail. Last week, when she’d started this flirtation, she’d been sure to scrutinize his mailbox for clues about her neighbor. She hadn’t put her name on her box for safety reasons but hoped his mailbox would tell her something about 4A. Like a name. Or a telltale “Mr. and Mrs.” that would effectively put an end to their morning flirting.
But all his mailbox said was 4A.
She’d had plenty of opportunities to ask him his name and introduce herself, but she hadn’t. For now, she like the mystery and fun of knowing each other only by their respective apartment numbers.
“See ya ’round then,” he said with a friendly nod and smile as he walked away.
But that morning, Ginny wasn’t ready to let him get away quite so quickly.
“So tell me, 4A…”
He stopped, turned and cocked his handsome-as-sin blond head after she spoke.
She met his light gray eyes, and their piercing color and clarity stirred a flutter in her stomach. “How does one get the maintenance supervisor for our building to handle repairs? I’ve read over all the paperwork they gave me when I moved in, and I can’t find any number to call to reach the super. I’ve got a list of repairs my place needs that is growing daily.”
“One…” Grinning, he paused long enough to draw attention to his reciprocal use of her formal and generic pronoun. “…usually doesn’t get the super to do much of anything. The guy’s a bum. But he’s also the owner’s brother-in-law or something, so he’s got job security. It can take weeks to get something fixed. I usually do my own repairs.”
“Oh.” Ginny scowled. “Great. So I get to keep hand washing my dishes and bailing out my bathtub for a few more weeks, huh?” She huffed pale blond bangs from her eyes.
“I’ll tell you what, 3C.”
Hearing him address her by her apartment number and knowing he’d taken an equal interest in where she lived sent a giddy thrill spiraling through her, spiking her pulse.
4A took a step closer and propped a muscled shoulder on the lobby wall. “I’d be happy to stop by sometime and see what I can do to help. Plumbing isn’t my specialty, but I’ll give it a shot, if you want.”
She nodded slowly, flashing him a no-holds-barred, seductive grin. “Oh, yeah. I want…” You went unspoken, but not missed.
She watched his pupils dilate as desire darkened his eyes to the color of smoke. His kiss-me lips curved in a tantalizing grin. Pushing away from the wall, he backed down the corridor slowly. “All right then.” His voice was deeper, huskier now. Sexy. “I’ll catch up with you later, 3C.”
“Bye. And thanks,” she called, lingering to admire his broad shoulders and drool-worthy, jeans-clad butt as he strolled toward apartment 4A.
Now, sitting at her desk, still on hold with the courthouse while canned music droned through the phone, Ginny smiled again as she traced the doodle on her pad with her fingertip.
4A. Even thinking about him made her pulse go a little haywire. The man was gorgeous from the light brown stubble on his square jaw to his long, muscled legs. And every taut and toned inch in between.
The slam of a car door and a shout from outside her window pulled Ginny from her erotic daydreams. Her attention shifted to the street in front of the women’s center. An old model sedan was parked at the front curb, and a red-haired man in a business suit stood by the driver’s door yelling obscenities toward the entrance of the center. His dress shirt was half untucked, and his tie had been tugged loose and was askew at his throat.
The mere presence of the hostile man at the women’s center was enough to raise concern for Ginny. A chill of apprehension pricked at her spine. Cradling the phone on her shoulder, she opened her window a crack in order to hear all that the man was shouting and to better assess the threat he posed. The typically mild November air already carried the nip of coolness as evening approached and the sun began to sink.
The man leaned into the sedan and pulled out a six-pack of beer bottles in a cardboard carrier.
Great, the guy’s drinking.
Inebriated people were all the more unpredictable and rash. Ginny had seen enough. Rather than let the situation escalate and get out of hand, she mashed the switch hook—she’d try to reach the court liaison later—and dialed 911. While she talked to the emergency operator, explaining the situation and her concerns, she watched the man shred a T-shirt and poke a strip of cloth into the end of one of the beer bottles.
Puzzled, Ginny squinted for a better look at his odd behavior, just as the man flicked a lighter and lit the cloth on fire. Alarm bells clanged in her mind. Something was very wrong with this picture.
“He’s burning the strips of shirt, like they were a…”
The word filtered through her mind as, numbly, she watched the man hurl the bottle at the front window of the women’s center. She heard the crash of shattering glass.
The concussion of the firebomb wasn’t loud or especially powerful, but the horror of what was happening was enough to render her legs useless for a moment.
Knees wobbling, she gasped for a breath and panted into the phone, “Not beer! Gasoline. He has gas in the bottles! He’s throwing Molotov cocktails at us! Our building’s on fire!”
The man took aim at Ginny’s office.
Quickly, she ducked and rolled under her desk, covering her head. The top pane of her window shattered, the beer bottle crashing against the opposite wall. A small fireball blasted her office. Heat seared Ginny’s arms and cheeks, but her desk protected her from the worst of the fire. The acrid scent of gasoline and smoke filled her lungs.
Covering her mouth and nose with the neckline of her blouse, Ginny scrambled out from under her desk. She assessed the damage, searched for an escape route.
Flames licked her office door, spread across the floor as the gasoline-soaked carpet was gobbled up by the fire.
She turned to the window. Shoving it open wider, Ginny gasped for fresh air. With her office door blocked by flames, she’d have to remove the screen that covered the lower half of the window, and climb out.
She glanced across the front lawn of the women’s center to the sedan. The crazy man, who had apparently launched all of his homemade firebombs, was climbing into his car.
Keeping a wary eye on the vehicle, Ginny fumbled with the latch on the screen. The rusty lever wouldn’t budge.
Her eyes watered from the heat and smoke. Her lungs seized, and she coughed. Gagged. Wheezed.
Still the latch stuck. Taking a step back, she kicked with all her strength.
The screen popped loose and hung drunkenly by one corner. Gripping it with both hands, she yanked the mesh out of her way.