Huddled against the rain, the intruder slid a key into the lock of the dead bolt, then with surprising ease broke into Randi McCafferty’s Lake Washington home.
The area was upscale, and the condo worth a fortune. Of course. Because the princess would have no less.
Inside, the unit was a little cluttered. Not too bad, but certainly not neat as a pin. And it had suffered from neglect in the past few months. Dust had settled on t he surface of a small desk pushed into the corner, cobwebs floated from a high ceiling, and the dust bunnies had collected in the corners. Three-month-old magazines were strewn over a couple of end tables and t he meager contents of the refrigerator had spoiled weeks ago. Framed prints and pictures splashed color onto the warm-toned walls, and an eclectic blend of modern and antique furniture was scattered around the blackened stones of a fireplace where the ashes were cold.
Randi McCafferty hadn’t been home for a long, long time.
But she was on her way.
Noiselessly, the intruder stalked through the darkened rooms, down a short hallway to a large master suite with hist sunken tub, walk-in closet and king-sized bed. There was another bath, as well, and a nursery, not quite set up but ready for the next little McCafferty. The bastard.
Back in the living room there was a desk and upon it a picture, taken years ago, of the three McCafferty brothers–tall, strapping, cocky, young men with smiles that could melt a woman’s heart and tempers that had landed them into too many barroom brawls to count. In the snapshot they were astride horses. In front of the mounted men, in bare feet, cutoff jeans, a sleeveless shirt and ratty braids, was Randi. She was squinting hard, her held tilted, one hand over her eyes to shade them, the same arm obviously scraped. Twined in the fingers of her other hand held the reins of all three horses, as if she’d known then that she would lead her brothers around for the rest of their lives.
Disturbed, the intruder looked away from the framed photograph, quickly pushed the play button on the telephone answering machine and felt an instant of satisfaction at having the upper hand on the princess. But the feeling was fleeting. As cold as the ashes in the grate.
As a single message played, resounding through the vaulted room, it became evident that there was only one thing that would make things right.
Randi McCafferty had to pay.
And she had to pay with her life
Rain spat from the sky. Bounced on the hood of her new Jeep. Washed the hilly streets of Seattle from a leaden sky. Randi McCafferty punched the accelerator, took a corner too quickly and heard her tires protest over the sound of light jazz emanating from the speakers. It had been a hellish drive from Montana, the winter weather worse than she had expected, her nerves on edge by the time she reached the city she’d made her home. A headache was building behind her eyes, reminding her that it hadn’t been too many months since the accident that had nearly taken her life and robbed her of her memory for a while. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in t he rearview mirror. Her head had been shaved for the surgery and now her red-brown hair was nearly two inches long. For a second she longed to be back in Grand Hope with her half brothers.
She flipped on her blinker and switched lanes by rote, then eased to a stop at the next red light. Much as she wanted to, she couldn’t hide out forever. It was time to take action. Reclaim her life. Which was here in Seattle, not at the Flying M Ranch in Montana with her three bossy half brothers.
And yet her heart twisted and she felt a moment’s panic. She’d let herself become complacent in the safety of the ranch, with three strong brothers ensuring she and her infant son were secure.
You did this, Randi. It’s your fault your family is in danger. And now you’re compounded the problem with Kurt Striker. What’s wrong with you? Last night . .. Remember last night? You caught him watching you on the ledge, knew that he’d been staring, had felt the heat between the two of you for weeks and what did you do? Did you pull on your robe and duck into your bedroom like a sane woman? Oh, no. You put your baby down in his crib and then you followed Striker, caught up with him and—
A horn blasted from behind her and she realized the light had turned green. Gritting her teeth, she drove like a madwoman. Pushed the wayward, erotic thoughts of Kurt Striker to the back fo her mind for the time being. She had more important issues to deal with.
At least her son was safe, Randi thought, as she drove through the streets of Seattle. Well, at least he was safe for the time being. She missed him horridly already and she’d just dropped him off at a spot where no one could find him. It was only until she did what she had to do. Hiding Joshua was best. For her. For him. For a while.
Short while, she reminded herself. Already attempts had been made upon her life and upon the lives of those closest to her, she couldn’t take a chance with her baby.
As she braked for a red light, she stared through the raindrops zigzagging down the windshield, but in her mind’s eye she saw her infant son with his inquisitive blue eyes, shock of reddish-blond hair and rosy cheeks. She imagined his soft little giggles. So innocent. So trusting. Little J.R, Joshua. Her baby.
Her heart tore and she blinked back a sudden spate of hot tears that burned her eyelids and threatened to fall. She didn’t have time for sentimentality. Not now.
The light changed. She eased into traffic heading toward Lake Washington, weaving her way through the red taillights, checking her rearview mirror, assuring herself that she wasn’t being followed.
You really are paranoid, her mind taunted as she found the turnoff to her condominium and the cold January wind buffeted the trees surrounding the short lane. But then she had a right to be. She pulled into her parking spot and cranked off the ignition of her SUV. The vehicle was new, a replacement for her crumpled Jeep that had been forced off the road in Glacier Park a couple of months back. The culprit who’d tired to kill her had gotten away with his crime.
But not for long, she told herself as she swung out of the vehicle and grabbed her bad from the back seat. She had work to do; serious work. She glanced over her shoulder one last time. No shadowy figure appeared to be following her, no footsteps echoed behind her as she dashed around the puddles collecting on the asphalt path leading to her front door.
Get a grip. She c limbed the two steps, juggled her bag and purse on the porch, inserted her key and shoved hard on the door with her shoulder.
Inside, the rooms smelled musty and unused. A dead fern in the foyer was shedding dry fronts all over the hardwood floor. Dust covered the windowsill.
It sure didn’t feel like home. Not anymore. But then nowhere did without her son. She kicked the door behind her and took two steps into the living room, then, seeing a shadow move on the couch, stopped dead in her tracks.
Adrenaline spurted through her blood stream.
Goose bumps rose on the back of her arms.
Oh, God, she thought wildly, her mouth dray as a desert.
The killer was waiting for her.
“Well, well, well,” he drawled slowly. “Look who’s finally come home.”
In an instant Randi recognized his voice.
His hand reached to the table lamp. As he snapped on the lights, she found herself staring into the intense, suspicious gaze of Kurt Striker, the private investigator her brothers had seen fit to hire.
She instantly bristled. Fear gave way to outrage. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Damn, his drawl was irritating. So was the know-it-all attitude that emanated from him as he lounged on her chenille couch, the fingers of one big hand wrapped possessively around t a long-necked bottle of beer. He appeared as out of place in his jeans, cowboy boots and denim jacket as a cougar at a pedigreed-cat show.
“Why?” she demanded as she dropped her bag and purse onto a parson’s table in the entry. She didn’t step into the living room; didn’t want to get too close to this man. He bothered her. Big-time. Had from the first time she’d l aid eyes on him when s he’d still been recuperating from the accident.
Striker as a hardheaded, square-jawed type who looked like Hollywood’s version of a rogue-cop. His hair, blond streaked, was unruly and fell over his eyes, and he seemed to have avoided getting close to a razor for several days. Deep-set, intelligent eyes, poised over chiseled cheeks, were guarded by thick eyebrows and straight lashes. He wore faded jeans, a tattered Levi’s jacket and an attitude that wouldn’t quit.
“I asked you a question.”
“I’m trying to save your neck.”
“So call the cops.”
“Enough with the attitude.” She walked to the windows, snapped open the blinds. Through the wet glass she caught a glimpse of the lake, choppy, steel-colored water sporting whitecaps and fog too dense to see the opposite shore. Folding her arms over her chest, she turned and faced Striker again.
He smiled then. A dazzling, sexy grin offset by the mockery in his green eyes. It damned near took her breath away and for a splintered second she thought of the hours they’d spent together, the touch of his skin, the feel of his hands . . .oh, God. If he wasn’t such a pain in the butt, he might be considered handsome. Interesting. Sexy. Long legs shoved into cowboys boots, shoulders wide enough to stretch the seams of his jacket, flat belly . .. Yeah, all the pieces fit into a hunky package. If a woman was looking for a man. Randi wasn’t. She’d learned her lesson. Last night was just a slip. It wouldn’t happen again.
“You know,” he said, “I was just thinking the same thing. Let’s both shove the attitudes back where they came from and get to work.”
“To work?” she asked, rankled. She needed him out of her condo and fast. He had a way of destroying her equilibrium, of setting her teeth on edge.
“That’s right,. Cut the bull and get down to business.”
His eyes held hers for a fraction of a second she knew in that splintered instant that he was remembering last night as clearly as she. He cleared his throat. “Rand, I think we should discuss what happened—“
”Last night?” she asked. “Not now, okay? Maybe not ever. Let’s just forget it.”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell going to try.”
He silently called her a liar.
“Okay, if this is the way you want to play it.”
“I told you we don’t have any business.”
“Sure we do. “You can start by telling me who’s the father of your baby.”
Never, buddy. Not a chance. “I don’t think that’s relevant.”
“Like hell, Randi.” He was on his feet in an instant, across the hardwood floor and glaring down his crooked nose at her. “There have been two attempts on your life. One was the accident, and I use the term loosely, up in Glacier Park, when your car was forced off the road. The other was when someone tried to do you in at the hospital. You remember those two little incidents, don’t you?”
She swallowed hard. Didn’t answer.
“And let’s not forget the fire in the stable at the ranch. Arson, Randi. Remember? It nearly killed your brothers.” Her heart squeezed at the painful memory. To her surprise he grabbed her, strong hands curling around her upper arms and gripping tightly through her jacket. “Do you really want to take any more chances with your life? With your brothers’? With your kid’s? Little J.R. nearly died from an infection in the hospital after the accident, didn’t he? You went into labor early in the middle of no-goddamn-where, and by the time some Good Samaritan saw you and called for an ambulance, your baby almost didn’t make it.”
She fought the urge to break down. Wished to heaven that he’d quit touching her. He was too close, his angry breath whispering over her face, the raw, sexual energy of him seeping through her clothes.
“Now, I’m not moving,” he vowed, “not one bloody inch, until you and I get a few things straight. I’m in for the long hall and I’ll stay here all night if I have to. All week. All year. So let’s start with one important question. Who the devil is J.R.’s father?”