One Hot Target
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
March 2007
ISBN: 0-373-27528-5

Excerpt




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"Don't you want to be in love?"

Yes, Carmen Coyle so desperately wanted to be in love. But with her best friend of more than twenty years? JR had always been there for her, but she didn't like him that way, did she? To complicate matters, a stranger was targeting her--hunting her down for mysterious reasons. JR was determined to keep her safe--at all costs.

Protecting Carmen meant staying close to her, and JR knew she'd be a difficult temptation to resist. And as friends became lovers, JR wondered if this hot target would consent to be his...forever.




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Excerpt
When the service was over, JR and Carmen rose together and watched the family filing out. After they’d paid their respects, he glanced around for Mac, but he was nowhere in sight.

Outside in the parking lot, he asked her if she wanted to go to the graveside, but she shook her head. “We don’t really belong there.”

“Okay, then, where to now? I cleared the morning.”

“You didn’t have to do that, JR.” Her smile was sweet, letting him know she was glad he had.

“I wanted to.”

“Thanks.” She thought for a moment, then her face lit up. “You know where I’d love to go? The Venice boardwalk. That always cheers me up.”

“I was hoping you’d choose someplace a little less public, Carm.”

Her gaze narrowed. “Because you think I’m a target?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Didn’t we have this discussion yesterday? And didn’t I tell you I can’t live my life that way?”

“I’d hoped you’d changed your mind.”

“I didn’t.” She sighed, gazed around her. “JR, I saw a woman die a few days ago. And we just came from her funeral. Life is too short. Way too short. I won’t live it looking over my shoulder. If someone is out to get me—and until you give me proof, I still don’t think they are—then being out in the open air, surrounded by people, feels as safe to me as anyplace else. I’m going to the Boardwalk.”

“Then so am I.”

As they drove north, JR tried to tamp down his anxiety about Carmen’s safety. He kept an eye on the rear view mirror. From what he could tell, he didn’t think they were being followed, but being on the lookout for bad guys in cars wasn’t his job. Was Mac still with them?

When they’d spoken outside Carmen’s little house yesterday, the detective had said all they had at the moment was a theory, and theories didn’t warrant police protection. But Mac had promised he’d do all he could, at least until they knew if they were on the right trail.

And JR had believed him. He’d met many officers of the law over the years, had heard numerous horror stories from other lawyers, but Mac seemed to have a little more heart and a little less need to clear cases, no matter the cost, than most.

Carmen needed protection, that much JR knew, whether she wanted it or not. Maybe he would hire a private firm to do that. Even if she protested. Tough. He would do it anyway.

The Venice Boardwalk was actually a long, paved strip that ran parallel to the ocean for several miles. It was a mix of new, upscale, ocean view homes and rundown brick apartments in need of repair, alongside modest restaurants, businesses, and shops. A mélange of vendors were set up on the ocean side of the walk, selling original art and jewelry, hawking tarot card readings and massages. There were deep discounts on socks, tees, sunglasses and bikinis; body piercing and tattoos were available.

The day was a gray, overcast one; summer was gone and with it, the tourists. Even so, a steady stream of people of all ethnicities and ages rode by on bicycles, strolled, jogged and inline skated. At the outdoor basketball courts, a few men shot hoops; nearby, several muscular specimens worked diligently on becoming more so.

And pouring out of each storefront and vendor’s cart, there was music. As Carmen and JR walked along, the music changed every few seconds, like a radio set to Scan. Salsa, rap, reggae, folk, Kanye West to Ella Fitzgerald to Beethoven, Carmen, with her amazing ability to escape reality, bopped and hummed along with each new rhythm. She seemed happy to be here.

JR, on the other hand, couldn’t help wondering if any of the faces they passed belonged to a killer.

“Hey, JR,” Carmen said with a happy smile. “Race you to the water.” Before her words registered, she’d slipped off her shoes and was running over the sand toward the shoreline.

He took one last look around the crowd before kicking off his loafers, peeling off his dress socks and taking off after her. Hell, what did he know? Maybe being on guard was a waste of time. Was he allowing the tension of the past few days to get to him? The murder, the investigation, Mac’s frowning face, the funeral—had it influenced his thinking?

What were the odds, knowing what he did about Carmen and her life, that someone was actually trying to kill her? Maybe there was some other explanation for this entire thing, one that had nothing to do with Carmen being in danger.

“Give it up, Carm,” he shouted as he gained on her. “You can’t win!”

He managed to pass her but stopped short at the water’s edge; she ran partway into the surf, holding her skirt above the waves, dancing and laughing. “It’s freezing! Come on in.”

“If it’s freezing, why would I want to?”

“Chicken!”

“And proud of it,” he replied, smiling at the picture she made, at the way the wind whipped her hair and made her skirt billow around her knees. When she came out, shivering, he grabbed her hand and they jogged for a while in silence along the shoreline in the clear chill of an autumn afternoon, while sunlight danced on the water.

After a while, they slowed down. Carmen said, “That poor man.”

“Who?”

“Her husband. Sergeant Davis. So stoic. I hope he breaks down soon.”

“Men grieve differently from women. Or most of them do.”

“Why do you think men don’t cry more?”

“We’re taught not to. Society frowns. Or maybe it’s all physiological. We have a different hormonal structure.” JR shrugged. “Lots of reasons.”

“But it’s such a relief to cry.” She angled her head to face him. “You don’t cry, do you?”

“Not since I was a kid and someone took my Batman action figure.”

“Poor JR. Who would have done such a cruel thing?”

He chuckled. “Pretty much anyone back then. Remember?”

Oh, yes, Carmen remembered. Her nerdy, awkward, socially backward little friend, Stanton Fitzgerald Ewing. Such a big name for such a little guy. He’d asked to be called Stan, but she’d refused, insisting instead that he call himself JR, after the character on the TV show, Dallas. The TV JR was cocky, confident and ruthless; Carmen had hoped her new friend would be a little more like a JR and a little less like a Stanley. For whatever reason, the name had stuck.

She took in a huge breath of sea air and sighed happily. Next to the smell of mulch and fertilizer and newly-watered roses, this was her favorite. Once again the ocean was doing its magic, relaxing her, helping her to forget. “Yes!” she said, letting go of JR’s hand, flinging her arms out, and dancing in a circle, “I love the smell of rotten fish in the morning!”

That got a laugh out of him, so she went on. “And tides fascinate me. They come from so far away, thousands of miles, all the way from Asia, along with the winds and stuff. Sometimes I think about a wave and its journey. You know, like it’s a person? It has this life span. It begins as this little bitty ripple thing, way way back, and then it grows and gathers strength, and then it hits the shore, and then it’s over.” She snapped her fingers. “A life. Gone. Like that.”

For a moment it all came back, the wasted young life of Peg Davis, and she nearly got sad again, but JR—who could always read her—gave her a crooked smile. “Waves aren’t human, Carm,” he said lightly. “They aren’t even animals.”

“I know. I just think about it.”

He reached out, grabbed her by the arms and pulled her to him. “You think about a lot of things, don’t you,” he said, smiling into her eyes. “Such a busy mind.”

“Such a silly mind,” she said with a laugh, even though her mouth had suddenly gone dry, “filled with all kinds of silly things.”

He was close, so close. Was he about to hug her? And would it be a friendship hug? Or was JR going to kiss her, the way she had kissed him yesterday? Were they about to start something? And did she want it to start?

Oh boy, talk about confusing.

Dancing away from him, she glanced around, hoping to find some distraction. “Oh, look,” she said, bending over to pick up something shiny—a shell? An earring?—lying half buried in the sand.

The next few seconds happened in a flash, too quickly for her brain to register details.

First she heard what sounded like a car backfiring, followed a fraction of a second later by a whiz-z-z-z ing sound above her head. Without thinking she began to straighten up, but was tackled by JR, and not gently.

“Hey!” she said, then didn’t get a chance to say or think much of anything else as she heard another backfiring car—no, no, not a car, something in her mind yelled at her, a bullet! More whiz-z-z ing sounds. And JR was doing something weird—covering her body with his and rolling along the sand, over and over, like children tumbling down a snow-covered hill in the middle of winter. Only there was no hill. Or snow. They were on level ground, on the sand by the ocean.

She heard a man shouting and a woman’s high-pitched scream. And finally, JR stopped making her roll over and over, and they came to rest partly in the water. The ocean was freezing and she couldn’t stop shaking. JR lay on top of her like a huge immovable lump.

“JR?” she said, but he didn’t answer. “Hey, get off of me.”

JR still wasn’t answering. Panicking, she pushed at him and managed to heave him aside so that he lay next to her, further submerged in the water.

Scrambling onto her knees, she stared at him. His eyes were closed. She didn’t see any blood, not at this angle. She shook his shoulder. He didn’t respond.

He lay there, half in and half out of the ocean.

Lifeless.

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