He was supposed to be deadhellip;But Jack Starling was very much alive and looking for answers. His investigation into his crew's ambush leads him to the fling he had a year ago with Hannah Marks. Although Jack is reluctant to believe Hannah had a role in the attack, it is clear she's hiding something, and Jack's suspicions only mount when he meets her daughter.Determined to unveil her secrets, he vows to stay close. Then Hannah is nearly killed, and Jack must step in-as her baby's bodyguard-while battling his growing desire for the woman who might have betrayed him.
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June 01, 2010
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Excerpt from The Baby's Bodyguard by Alice Sharpe
Someone was watching her.
Hannah turned quickly. The three women and one old man behind her in line at the small market either smiled or looked bored. No shifting feet, no averted glances.
"Miss Marks?" the young clerk said, jerking Hannah's attention back to him. He nodded at the debit card in her hand. The groceries were neatly tucked into cloth sacks, ready to go.
"Oh, sorry, Dennis." She ran the card quickly through the machine, determined to get herself under control. But the sensation persisted all across the parking lot and more than once, she stopped to look around, each time expecting to spot someone studying her. Why had she parked at the back of the lot? Finally she was close enough to push the button on her key chain and pop the trunk.
The flat tire taking up two-thirds of the space reminded her she needed to swing by the service station and get it fixed. She'd thought working part-time would be a piece of cake, but there were always errands to run, as well. She fit the bags around the tire and slammed the trunk. That left her looking across the top of the car toward one of Allota's two accessible beaches, this one a narrow span of gray sand leading to the deep blue Pacific Ocean.
It was a cold sea this far north of San Francisco, barely fifty degrees even in summer. On a late May day, with the sun barely peeking from behind high clouds and the wind blowing, just a few hardy souls braved the elements.
A car door slammed nearby and Hannah jumped. She knew she wasn't the only woman in the community to be nervous--there were two unsolved murders of lone women sitting in their cars, both of them parked in their own garages. But she wasn't a lone woman and she didn't park in a garage so there went that excuse.
"Nerves and lack of sleep," her friend and coworker had pronounced when Hannah mentioned the sensation at work. No doubt Fran was right.
Still, it was with a sense of relief that Hannah slipped into the car. What had she done with the keys? Patting pockets proved fruitless. She finally found them stuck in a side pocket of her handbag.
As she bent forward to put the key in the ignition, the passenger door abruptly opened and a man got in beside her. She gasped as impressions struck like stray bullets. Tan skin, long black hair, angular face, straight eyebrows hovering over brilliant blue eyes.
Eyes filled with scathing anger.
She instantly reached for the door handle with one hand and slammed the other down on the horn. He grabbed her hand from the steering wheel and shouted, "Hannah. �Parada!" in the ensuing silence.
With her name and the sound of his voice came recognition. Her hand went limp in his grasp and he released it. Barely able to keep from rubbing her eyes, she whispered, "Jack?"
His eyelids flickered.
"It can't be you," she mumbled.
His shoulders lifted in an elegant shrug and she realized why she hadn't immediately recognized him. He was so much thinner than the last time she'd seen him, so much more weathered. There were a few scars that hadn't been there before, too, one by his nose, another along his jaw. His hair, which had been military short, was now shoulder length, wavy and wild.
Her impulse was to reach for him. "Jack! I thought you were dead--"
He caught her arms in strong hands, stopping her momentum. She fell back in her own bucket seat and after swallowing her shock, murmured, "What's going on?"
"That's what you're going to tell me," he said.
"I don't know what you mean." But of course Aubri-elle popped into her mind. Did he know about her? Was that why he was here?
"I want to know who put you up to it, Hannah. Simple as that. Give me a name and I'm out of here."
He'd lost her.
There was a rap on Hannah's window. She looked around to find a very old man with bushy eyebrows peering in at her. She flicked the key to the right and used the switch to power down the window a few inches.
"Everything okay, miss?" he asked, a white handlebar mustache obscuring his lips.
"Everything is fine," she said. She wasn't sure what was going on with Jack, but surely it didn't require outside assistance. "I accidentally hit the horn."
"You positive?" he persisted, his gaze sliding past Hannah to look more closely at Jack. She doubted he was reassured by what he saw.
With more conviction than she felt, she said, "Yes. Thanks."
"If you say so," the old guy said and, leaning his weight on an old wooden cane, shuffled off toward a green sedan, his long raincoat almost dragging on the pavement. Hannah turned back to Jack. "Should I have asked him to call the cops?"
"I'll call the cops myself just as soon as I find out who helped you."
"You'll call the cops? Why would you call the cops?"
"I've had months to think," he said with deadly calm. "Months to realize I was conned and you did the conning. Oh, I know you didn't actually kill anyone yourself, but the blood of innocent men is on your hands and you know it."
The relief of realizing his demeanor had nothing to do with Aubrielle quickly gave way to shock as she realized what he was insinuating. "You have to be talking about the ambush down in Tierra Monta�osa," she said, stunned he would think-- "Are you saying I had something to do with it?"
"That's what I'm saying," he growled.
She took the keys out of the ignition and without consciously deciding to do so, looped a few fingers through the door handle. "I heard you were dead, killed with several other men, buried in a mass grave. How did you get here?"
"I escaped. They butchered the others. As for identifying me--they threw my watch in with the corpses and set the whole thing on fire." He looked away as though catching his breath. Her own seemed to come in short gasps as her imagination provided images of what he'd just described.
"I'm so sorry," she murmured.
His nod was barely perceptible.
She didn't know him well, had only spent one night of her life with him, but he'd helped her that night more than he'd ever, ever know, and now she sincerely wanted to return the kindness. He looked as though he needed it.
On the other hand, it was clear he didn't want anything from her but confirmation of some terrible, ill-conceived suspicion.
"Let me tell you what the Tierra Monta�osa government told the Staar Foundation," she said. "The rebel group who carried out the attack call themselves the Guerrilleros de Tierra Monta�osa although they deny they had anything to do with it. I guess they always do that. Their rhetoric is freedom from tyranny, but the truth is they're a Marxist group. I've read about them since, well, since the ambush. They're terrible people. They--"
He waved away her dialogue. "You think I don't know who they are? I was down there to protect people like you from groups like the GTM. It was my job as a bodyguard to know all the organizations and their goals, so don't try to tell me about them. What I want to know is who gave them the inside information to carry out the ambush at Costa del Rio. They had to have inside help to pull that off. They knew where we were going to be and when we were going to be there. You're the one who made the arrangements."
"Yes, I am."
"So who else knew what they were?"
"Until a few minutes before the convoy left, no one knew but you. There'd been threats, we'd been warned to keep it secret."
"What about the founder's son, what's his name, Hugo Correa?"
"What about him?"
"Did he know?"
"No, of course not. You're not suggesting Hugo Correa had anything to do with the rebels, are you?"
"What's wrong? Is it politically incorrect to point a finger at a dead man?"
"Mr. Correa isn't dead."
Jack's brow furrowed. "Run that by me again."
"You don't know?"
"No, damn it. I've been back in the States two weeks. My first thought was to enlist the aid of my sister. I found she was in the middle of her own drama and needed my help. When that was over, I discovered she's pregnant so I left her out of it. As far as Hugo Correa goes, the last I saw of him, he and a couple of the others were being driven away in a truck with about three dozen guerillas pointing assault rifles at their heads. Later we heard they were killed."
"The foundation had kidnap insurance for its officers so they paid off a huge sum to the rebels to get their people back. We heard the rest of you were going to be used to negotiate the release of jailed GTM members."
"It didn't work out that way," he said softly.
"Mr. Correa and the other man were in the hospital for weeks. Apparently Hugo Correa tried to escape by jumping out of the truck and took a bullet in his leg and it got infected. The other man, a guy by the name of Harrison Plumber, had a digestive disease of some kind. As soon as Hugo got out of the hospital, Santi Correa turned over the day-by-day operations of the foundation to his son and more or less resigned."
Jack rubbed his eyes. "Ah mi dios," he mumbled. Looking at her again, he added, "Just tell me who it was."
"Who what was?"
"Who were you working with? And why? Did you do it for money? What other reason could there be, what else could you possibly want from these people?"
"Of course I didn't do it for money!" she said, but the word money thundered in her head. Money. "I didn't do it all," she mumbled.
"People do terrible things when money is dangled in front of their noses," he said.
She looked out the window at the ocean across the street. It couldn't be...
She looked at him without really seeing him. She was remembering the day David showed up at her place with a bundle of money he wanted her to keep and had sworn her to secrecy. It had surprised her--their relationship had been a little rocky--and suddenly he was talking about marrying and moving far away....
How could that have anything to do with this? Yet now that she'd made the connection why couldn't she get it out of her head? She sucked in a tiny breath.
"I know you seduced me the night before the ambush," Jack said. "All I want from you now is the name of the man or woman who put you up to it."
She barely heard him. She had to think. Operating on autopilot, she got out of the car and grabbed her handbag. Her instinct was to walk, to move, to get away.
He was at her side in a moment, taking her arm. One giant question raged like a wildfire through her brain. Had David been involved? And if he had, what did she do now? What could she do now?
They crossed the two-lane road to the far side, then threaded their way through rocks, driftwood and seaweed. Jack released her arm and she stumbled up against an old, dead tree lying on its side.
She turned immediately to face Jack. He looked amazing standing in the wind and sun, his white shirt stark against his skin, his cerulean eyes burning. Those eyes now seemed to watch the way she massaged her arm. Did she sense regret at the roughness of his grip? Probably not.
"You've been watching me for days, for weeks," she said, relieved to have finally identified the cause of her uneasiness. Not that it helped much. His being on the scene might explain that creepy someone-is-watching-me feeling, but it was more than compensated for by his accusations and the potential for disaster his presence in Allota could mean. She added, "I've felt your eyes on me."
"No," he said. "I just got to California last night."
"I don't believe you."
"I'm not the one who lies," he said.
She sank down on the log, trying to organize her thoughts. She had to get home--alone. To do that, she had to convince Jack she had nothing to do with the ambush so he would go look under another rock.
Squinting, she peered up at him through strands of windblown hair. "Whether you believe it or not, I'm no more or less than you thought I was the night we met."
"A woman grieving over her boyfriend's death."
Over the guilt. She'd been about to tell David she didn't love him, she wanted him to take his money and go away and then he'd died in a stupid accident. "Mr. Correa told me I could bow out of going with him to South America for the opening of the new school and I almost did. Everyone blamed my sadness on my grandfather's illness and that was part of it, but the other part was all my inconsistent feelings about David's death. In the end I went and that's where I met you. You'd known David, you were sympathetic and kind. You talked to me, you helped me. It's as simple as that."
"Say it like it is," he insisted, stepping in front of her. Leaning over, he pinned her in place with his arms, his brown hands stark against the bleached wood. He lowered his voice; his face was just inches from hers. "Don't wrap it up in pretty words, cari�o. Your boyfriend was dead less than a month. We had a couple of drinks, you cried, and then we had raw, messy sex. The next day, I slept in. I never sleep in. I was late leaving you. I felt groggy and slow. I was late getting to the Correa vehicle, too, and I played catch-up until the minute the lead car came across the overturned truck in the middle of the road and all hell broke loose. You weren't there. Why not?"
His single-mindedness beat his words into her head like jungle drums. If this kept up she'd spill her guts, voice her concerns about David to get Jack's focus off her. It was way too soon to do that; there were other people to consider. Struggling to stay calm, she said, "I was already at the school. I left right from the hotel. I wasn't part of the caravan. I had to be there earlier to arrange things on that end."
He shook his head. "So, you had nothing to do with anything."
"No more than you did," she said, and again thought of David and the last time she'd seen him. Oh, no, she had to be wrong. Softening her voice, she added, "If you had been in the car with Hugo Correa, it wouldn't have changed a thing."