Authors: Rachel Lee
New York Times
bestselling author Rachel Lee's sizzling Conard County series continues!
Hunted by an anonymous killer, rogue CIA agent Trace Archer seeks out a trusted buddy in Wyoming. With danger stalking him, the last thing he expects is innocent civilian Julie Ardlow to offer him help. But when the beautiful kindergarten teacher with a brave heart gives him a cover he can't refuseâpretending to be an old flameâsparks begin to fly!
Brave heart? Try
. Because though Julie will do anything to save the sexy spy's life, he's eventually going to leave, right? But she can't resist emotionally withdrawn Trace and his soulful eyes. And the deeper they dig into his past to suss out a murderer, the closer danger creeps toward them both...
“What?” Trace asked jokingly. “No torrid affair?”
“I'm not sure I could carry that off without actually having had one.”
Julie's honesty was touching, but her statement fell into the room almost explosively. He tried to lighten the moment when he saw her cheeks start to color. How many women still blushed? he wondered. “We could always have one now.”
He gave her a few seconds to stare at him wide-eyed, then he laughed. “Just joshing you. I mean, sure, I'd love to, but under the circumstances, it wouldn't be wise.”
Not when someone was trying to kill him. Not when he might have to leave at the drop of a hat. He had limits, and taking advantage of a woman was a hard line for him. He had few hard lines left, and not crossing them was all that kept him from feeling he was simply scum.
Then she stunned him. “What makes you so sure it wouldn't be wise?” she asked pertly as she slid off the bar stool. She headed for the bathroom, saying she'd be back in a minute to work on the story.
For the first time, Trace wondered if he'd wandered into a new kind of quicksand.
* * *
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* * *
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Much to my surprise, when I finished writing a Special
Edition that will be published in a few months, I found one of the characters
was haunting my waking thoughts. Julie Ardlow had captured my mind and heart,
and demanded her own story.
The next book on my list was Romantic Suspense, and Julie
wanted to be right in the middle of it. So here she is, outspoken, beautiful and
with a heart that doesn't count the cost when it cares. She thrusts herself into
a situation that could get her killed, and she does it to protect her friends.
In the process she becomes involved with a wounded spyâa real spyâand finds that
his heart has nearly shut down.
Well, Julie won't stand for that.
In the odd way of the publishing world, this book is a sequel
to the Special Edition to be published soon. I tried not to give away much, but
if you want Ryker and Marisa's touching story...well, it's coming soon.
Conard County Spy
was hooked on writing by
the age of twelve and practiced her craft as she moved from place to place all
over the United States. This
New York Times
bestselling author now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing
Books by Rachel Lee
Harlequin Romantic Suspense
Conard County: The Next Generation
Visit the Author Profile page at
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For all my readers who help bring Conard County to life, and many thanks to Ashley Granger who volunteered the use of her name for a character. Hope you're pleased, Ashley.
he hotel room was opulent, befitting an important man, one on a diplomatic mission for his country. But there was not a diplomatic discussion taking place within its confines. Deadly business was on the table.
The gray-haired man sitting near the window in a very expensive tailored suit looked at the dossier in his hands. He appeared to be extremely fit and when he moved, did so with fluid ease.
The man who faced him was decades younger, dressed in much less expensive garb suitable to a government clerk. He was also a little nervous, no matter how calm he tried to be. He was the cover for the people helping the older man. They both knew it. They both also knew it could end badly for this young man if this meeting became known to the wrong people.
The gray-haired man had a lot of experience judging people, and he knew that this one knew only what he needed to in order to complete this task. “So this is the one who betrayed me? Trace Archer?”
“Yes, sir,” said the other. “We told you that several months ago.”
“Where is he now?”
“We sent him on his way to recuperate away from here. We're tracking him.”
“So you know where he is?”
The younger man nodded. “What he did put you in great danger, General. My superiors understand.”
“My man did a poor job of taking him out in Bulgaria. It will be harder here.”
“It will be cleaner here. You know we value you highly. But if something happens to him on his trip, no explanations will be needed from anyone. That's how we all want it.”
The general put the dossier aside and went to stand at the window. “In Ukraine, the situation is very delicate. Now it is even more delicate because of this man.”
The general doubted the younger man knew even that much or had any real understanding of the complexities here. He was simply doing his job. “I will not trust this to anyone else. That failed last time. So this time you will get
close to him.”
The younger man hesitated. Apparently this had not been in his brief. “General, the risk...”
“There will be no risk. I am here on a diplomatic mission, yes?”
“But that won't protect you if...”
“There will be no
. This man has threatened my life, my family, everything I have worked for. I must know he is taken care of, see it with my own eyes.”
After a moment of hesitation, the younger man agreed. “As you wish.” Clearly he had been told not to disagree with the general.
“I would expect no less. I have worked with you for many years, first from my position in the Russian army, and now in Ukraine. You owe me.”
The general smiled for the first time. “Soon we will resume our mutually beneficial relationship. Once I remove the traitor.”
race Archer hesitated on the porch. The address was correct, but he hadn't been expecting such a large house. It rose two stories on a street that would be shady in the summertime, but on this cold March night boasted leafless branches. Probably close to a hundred years old.
In fact, he didn't know what he had been expecting and wasn't remotely certain what he was doing here. And even though an old friend lived here, he doubted he'd be welcomed.
As he was standing there hesitating, a woman popped out the front door. Covered by winter clothing, her figure was obscured, but in the porch light he couldn't miss the long, shiny auburn hair, and when her gaze settled on him, he could tell her eyes were an unusual green, undimmed by the poor light.
“Well, hello,” she said, pausing.
He must be at the wrong place. John Hayes had shown him a photo of his wife once, and Ryker Tremaine had married her after John died. This woman didn't match the photo at all.
“Sorry,” he said automatically, shifting a little to ease the everlasting pain in his arm and hand. “I must have the wrong house.”
He couldn't mistake the appreciation in her eyes as her gaze swept over him. He wasn't sure what she was appreciating, considering that, like her, he was wearing a heavy winter jacket.
“I wouldn't be so sure,” she said. “I don't live here. Who are you looking for?”
“Right house,” she said, then before he could respond she turned and threw the door open. “Hey, Ryker, you've got a friend out here.”
“Bring him in,” came a familiar but muffled voice from inside.
The choice taken out of his hands, Trace followed the woman inside, entering a warm, pleasant foyer. Gleaming dark wood surrounded him and a staircase led directly upward. It made him feel like a puzzle piece that didn't fit the picture.
“I'm Julie, by the way,” the green-eyed woman said, stripping off her gloves and offering her hand. “Julie Ardlow.”
Trace shifted uneasily. He still wasn't used to all the limitations of his injury and had to make a conscious decision to offer his gloved left hand to shake hers. He saw the way her eyes widened, then saw comprehension dawn. Well, it wasn't as if he could hide it indefinitely.
Then he heard heavy footsteps from the back of the house, and Ryker appeared. Trace experienced a sense of shock. In all the years he'd known Ryker, never had he seen the man look this relaxed, and right now he had a faint smile around his mouth. As he saw Trace, that smile vanished, and he once again looked like granite.
“Well. I'll be damned,” Ryker said.
“I can leave,” Trace replied. “I was just in the area...”
“No,” Ryker said slowly. “No. Julie, you still need to run?”
Julie looked between the two men. Trace could almost sense her calculating whether that was a dismissal or an invitation to stay.
“Yeah,” she said finally. “School tomorrow and all that. See you, Ryker. Nice meeting you, whoever you are.”
“Sorry,” he said. “The name's Trace.”
She cocked her head a little, smiled slightly with a mouth that seemed to beg for a kiss, then headed back out the front door. Neither man moved until it closed behind her.
“I heard you were sidelined,” Ryker said. “Didn't expect you, though.”
“No reason you should. I wasn't expecting to show up here, either. If it's a problem, I'll leave.”
Ryker shook his head a little. “I'll tell my wife you're here and make some coffee. Just...no lies, okay? There've been enough of them.”
Trace didn't have to imagine those. He lived them. But he did wonder what lies the man was expecting. Between them, there didn't need to be any. When Ryker waved him into the living room, he unzipped his jacket partway with his good left hand, then sat on the battered burgundy gooseneck chair.
Seldom had he ever felt more out of place. What had brought him here, anyway? A desire to find out if life after the job was possible? Ryker seemed to be making it, but then it hadn't been that long.
This whole house smelled of baby, he noted. Powder and sour milk. He almost smiled thinking of the huge transitions Ryker must be going through. Nothing about this would resemble being a field operative.
At last Ryker returned with coffee for each of them. “The baby's been fussy the last couple of days. A cold. My wife's going to try to catch some sleep, so it's just us.”
That was fine by Trace. The devil of it was, he'd brought himself here and now didn't have a damn thing to say.
“How bad is it?” Ryker finally asked.
“I won't be working in the field anymore.” The least of it in some ways. Being crippled was harder to deal with than a change of jobs.
Ryker settled on the couch and crossed his legs loosely. “Sorry, man.”
“Not so sure I am.” This visit was pointless. He honestly didn't know what he'd expected to find here in Conard County, Wyoming. Answers to questions about a future he was having trouble facing? He needed a shrink for that, not an old friend. Maybe he should just congratulate Ryker on his new life and get the hell out.
“You going to be staying in town for a while?” Ryker asked.
Was that a suggestion he leave? Trace couldn't tell, but then Ryker had always been difficult to read. “I wasn't planning to. I just wanted to drop by.”
Ryker nodded slowly, still watching him. “Where will you go next?”
“Damned if I know. Does it matter?”
A faint frown flickered over Ryker's face. Then he sighed. “Yeah, Trace, it matters. Word I get about you isn't good. We haven't always seen eye to eye, you and me, but I'm hearing things. You got trouble on your tail?”
“I'm not sure. No one's sure.”
Ryker stood up then, and now there was no mistaking his reaction. “You brought that trouble right to my door? To my wife and baby?”
“I've been careful. No one knows where I am right now.”
Ryker paced three steps quickly before turning and stabbing his finger at Trace. “You came here. Who told you how to find me?”
“Bill. Damn it all to hell.”
Trace stood up, battling to ignore the savage pain in his right arm. “Consider me gone. No one knows I'm here.”
“I know and Bill knows. That's one too many. Why the hell did he tell you?”
“I don't know. I'm just rambling.”
“With a tiger on your tail?”
“Nobody knows that for certain. And frankly, I don't believe it.”
This was a side of Ryker that Trace wasn't used to seeing. Usually the man went into overdrive to help a buddy. Now he was in a different mode, a lion protecting his pride. This had been a huge mistake. He put his coffee down. “I'll leave now, R.T. Gone tonight.”
“But to where?”
Ryker scowled at him. “I do, damn it. They shouldn't be cutting you loose like this.”
“I'm a liability now. Obviously.” Nothing like facing the cold, hard truth.
Ryker shook his head. “Sit down, drink your coffee and shut up. I need to think.”
An eternity later, Ryker settled and faced him again. “You got a number of IDs? Some that they don't know about?”
“A few. I've been using different ones everywhere I go.”
Ryker nodded. “Use one of them tonight. Check into the motel on the edge of town with it. Stay low.”
“I'm going to talk to the sheriff here.”
Everything in Trace rebelled. “You can't tell him...”
“I can tell him enough. He's a good man to have on your side. But one thing you are most definitely not going to do is come back to this house. Got it?”
“Yeah.” Trace practically snapped the word.
“Stay tonight. I'll see you in the morning.”
Ryker shook his head. “Trace, you're hanging in the wind. You can't do that until you die. So shut up and get that room. We'll talk again tomorrow once I figure out some things.”
* * *
Julie Ardlow decided not to head straight home. Instead she went to Maude's City Diner and ordered a latte to drink while she went over her kindergarten students' pictures. The exercise was designed to do two things: associate a printed color name with the actual hue, and work on fine motor skills by drawing inside the lines. Each child's first name had to be crayoned at the top. Beyond that, she didn't care how much they added their own inventions to the simple picture, but she often enjoyed them.
The papers all said
at the top. As long as the ball was purple and was reasonably neat, she didn't care what they colored the other items or how much they added. The kids seemed to enjoy it, and she had a stack of self-sticking stars and smiley faces to decorate each one with. At this point in the year, most were engaged in simple reading, so she measured their progress, especially in fine motor skills. A big improvement over the beginning of the year.
And they all made her smile. The boys' drawings were often decorated with simple rocket ships or planes. The girls' with flowers or smiling stick figures. Not always, though. Tommy Wells had added what looked like a snake or a dragon to his. Gloria Chase, defying stereotypes as usual, had drawn a big boat on hers.
When she finished with them, she pulled out another stack from her bag. Word matching this time, simple ones they had all learned to read aloud, drawing a line between the ones that matched in separate columns. Following directions, pattern recognition, reading, and...in one case, one student's work indicated some clear dyslexia. That had been brought to the school's attention, and Jason was getting extra help. She gave him a big smiley face and a gold star anyway. She never wanted to discourage a child.
She felt a cold blast of air behind her and heard the bell over the door ring. She looked over and saw that guy she had met at Ryker and Marisa's house earlier. Something about him awoke her sexual radar, but she didn't know why. Maybe because he was new to town? It had been a few years now since she had last felt the desire to even date. And over a decade since her only serious relationship.
He had the kind of face that would probably fit in anywhere, yet still had a strong appeal. Dark hair, eyes a medium brown, a good jaw. And the steel she had once seen in Ryker. Except this guy looked as if something was seriously wearing on him.
When his gaze scraped over her, she knew he recognized her, but he started for another table with his coffee anyway. Unable to resist, she waved him over. Somebody new in town. He probably wouldn't be here long and he knew Ryker, which made him safe enough. She wouldn't mind a little diversion.
His reluctance was obvious as he crossed to her booth. “I'm interrupting,” he said immediately, nodding at the papers spread in front of her.
“A welcome interruption,” she replied. “No point having your coffee all by yourself. Grab a seat.”
Again, that hesitation. What was with this guy? Usually men didn't resist her invitation to coffee. Not that she asked many of them. She'd spent her entire life in Conard County, and she knew all the men. No interesting stories there. She figured she was going to end her days a spinster because she was already bored with the limited local selection of available bachelors.
He slid into the booth across from her, and she didn't miss his wince.
“You're in pain,” she said bluntly.
He didn't answer beyond, “It happens. So you teach?”
“Lots of smiley faces there.” Which brought a faint smile to his face. “You make them color inside the lines?”
She hated that question. “It teaches fine motor coordination. These children are all learning to print the alphabet and their numbers. It's a good exercise, staying in the lines. But no, I don't make them do that all the time.” She eyed him. “You play inside the lines?”
“Depends,” he answered.
Why didn't that surprise her? Julie thought wryly. Ryker clearly hadn't expected to see him, and since they knew each other... Well, she'd already discovered Ryker didn't always play inside the lines. “Will you be visiting for long?”
“That remains to be seen. I may leave in the morning.”
“A rolling stone, huh?”
“At the moment.”
Julie studied him frankly. It was clear to her that this man had been through some kind of wringer, and he seemed tense, as if holding still wasn't comfortable for him. The pain? Or something else? “I gather you know Ryker, but did you ever meet his wife, Marisa?”
Trace shook his head. “I haven't had the pleasure. She must be something to have settled him down.”
“She's something, all right. She's also my lifelong best friend.”
He got the warning, she saw with satisfaction. She had no idea what Ryker had done before he arrived in this town, just as she had no idea what Marisa's late husband, Johnny, had done. All she knew what that it had caused Johnny's death, and she didn't want this guy and whatever secrets he bore to put Marisa in danger.
“So who do you work for?” she asked, pulling her papers together. She could finish the word-match problem later.
Ah, she'd heard that before, from Johnny and Ryker. She wasn't half buying it, but she knew better than to say so. “A lot of traveling?”
“Quite a bit.”
“Traveling for vacation is one thing. Traveling all the time for work is another. I don't think I'd like it.”
“Depends,” he said. “When you stay in one place long enough, you get immersed in a different culture. Lots of new perspectives.”
In that instant, she decided she liked this man. That was an intelligent outlook. “You know, I went to Jamaica a few years back, and I was on a tour bus.”