Read Midnight Hero Online

Authors: Diana Duncan

Midnight Hero

“Don't make this harder than it already is,” she whispered.

Hurt seared Conall's insides. “If you think I'm going to walk away from you without an explanation, you don't know me very well. There's not a snowball's chance in hell, Bailey.”

“I'll explain.”

“Damn right you will. You would have let me make love to you last night.”

“Don't you see? That's exactly why we have to break up.”

“How is the fact that we're extremely sexually compatible a problem?”

“I'm not a casual affair girl. I can't make love to you and go our separate ways. And I can't fight temptation any longer.”

Midnight Hero
DIANA DUNCAN

Books by Diana Duncan

Silhouette Intimate Moments

Bulletproof Bride
#1284

*
Midnight Hero
#1359

DIANA DUNCAN'S

fascination with books started before she could walk, when her librarian grandmother toted her to work. Diana crafted her first tale at age four, a riveting account of Perky the Kitten, printed in orange crayon. The discovery of her mom's Harlequin Romance novels at age fourteen sparked a lifelong affection for plucky heroines and dashing heroes. She loves writing about complex, conflicted men and strong, intelligent women with the courage to dive into the biggest adventure of all—falling in love.

When not writing stories brimming with heart, humor and sizzling passion, Diana spends her time with her husband, two daughters and two cats in their Portland, Oregon, home. Diana loves to hear from her readers. She can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or snail mail at P.O. Box 33193, Portland, OR 97292-3193.

For my husband, Darol, who supported me, helped me, dried countless tears, washed endless dishes and put in over 7,000 hours of overtime the past six years so I could follow my dream and write.
I love you, honey. You'll always be my hero.

“Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow is wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly.”

~ Old Eskimo Proverb

Prologue

Riverside, Oregon
New Year's Eve, 8:00 p.m.

S
WAT team door kicker Conall O'Rourke studied the blood under his fingernails. He'd scrubbed his hands, but blood under the nails was always a bitch to get out. How'd he end up butt-deep in bullets and blood anyway? He'd started the day off with a promotion, and had planned to cap it with a long-overdue marriage proposal. Today was supposed to be one of the happiest of his life. Instead, he was grimy, battered and exhausted.

Trapped like a rat in a maze.

His chest tight, he stared down at Bailey dozing beside him in the cold gloom of the canvas tent. She trusted him to keep her safe—enough to sleep in the middle of combat—and he wouldn't let her down. Her long, coppery eyelashes rested against her creamy cheeks, and delicate blue veins traced under her eyelids. Her pulse fluttered evenly in her throat. She was beautiful, but he'd never been big on dating women for their looks. He was far more intrigued by what went on inside them. What made them tick. And he'd chosen well. Bailey's tender emotions warmed his aching heart like flickering candlelight in a dark room. And without her quick intelligence, he might not be alive right now.

His girl only
looked
fragile. Only
thought
she was weak. Deep down, she was made of sturdy stuff. Otherwise, she wouldn't have triumphed over tragedy with her spirit intact.
Wouldn't have won freedom from her oppressive mother. Wouldn't be the caring woman he loved. He stroked her red-gold curls, and she breathed a soft sigh. If the worst happened, and Bailey had to live without him, he hoped he'd given her enough tonight to sustain her.

And if
she
died?

Wrenching pain stopped his heart. Then it resumed beating, steady and determined. He would do anything to make sure that didn't happen. Give everything.

Even his own life.

He was grateful she'd finally succumbed to fatigue. At least he didn't have to fake it anymore. It was damned hard to project strength when he was afraid clear to his bones. To stay upbeat, when the odds were so long against them, that even he, an incurable optimist, wouldn't bet on himself in the coming battle.

He could no longer pretend confidence, when every instinct he possessed screamed they were all going to die.

If it were only his life at stake, he wouldn't be worried. He'd launch a tactical assault, and accept the risk. But how was he supposed to keep the woman he loved and three hostages alive against six Uzi-toting bank robbers? With no way out, no backup and armed only with a baseball bat. Wait, make that five bank robbers. He'd taken one down earlier in hand-to-hand combat. Still, five Uzis against one Louisville Slugger wasn't such hot odds.

Eerie silence crept over him, prickling the hair on the back of his neck, and he glanced up, straining to hear the slightest noise. Being hunted had honed every sense to a razor's edge. Careful not to disturb Bailey, he tore open a pack of cinnamon gum. Chewing gum helped him focus on the way to an incident site, and in the midst of long sieges. During an assault, the spicy taste overrode the smell of gunpowder and gore. Right now, he needed the boost to his concentration. All his focus. Four other lives depended on him.

He needed every scrap of wits if they were to survive until dawn.

Chapter 1

Earlier that morning.

C
onall O'Rourke was psyched to take the biggest risk of his risk-filled life. Determination and adrenaline pumped in his system as he strode across the parking lot toward the diner. Tucked into one pocket of his jacket were two dozen gold-shield condoms. In the other was the best platinum-and-diamond engagement ring a public servant's salary could buy.

The ring might be premature. The condoms were way overdue.

Winter clouds loomed on the rainy Oregon horizon like smoke over a battlefield. Con flipped up the collar of his black leather jacket to stave off the dropping temperature. A winter storm was in the forecast. But no matter what the weather threw at him, it was gonna be a beautiful day. And night.

He paused outside the door in the chilly gloom to automatically scan the interior, and brushed his hand across his thick black hair. The habitual gesture was one of the reasons he went for a short spiky cut. Women had dubbed his hair “adorably tousled, stylishly edgy and just-went-a-wild-round-between-the-sheets sexy.” To him, it was convenient. When you could be called out any time to bash down doors and eat bullets, there was no time to screw around with your hair.

He rolled his wrist and consulted his watch. Ten in the morning, right on time. His girl's idea of punctuality was arriving everywhere five minutes early. Through the window, he caught a glimpse of her and smiled. As dependable as the sunrise, Bailey was sitting in their booth at the back. The familiar cocktail of lust and tenderness kicked him in the chest—as it had the first time he'd seen her, and every time after that.

His woman. His soul mate. His future.

Some guys might consider proposing after only six months moving too fast. He didn't. The average SWAT assault-and-rescue, from door breach to secure status, lasted four to nine seconds. His life and the lives of his teammates depended on his ability to devise a plan and act. Make quick decisions. Good decisions. Waffle, and you die. Worse, your buddies die because of you.

Fast was relative.

Bailey's early phone call requesting a breakfast meeting had been unexpected. They already had plans to ring in the New Year tonight at the Montrose Hotel. She knew about dinner and dancing. His bended knee proposal and the resulting night of passion in the Ambassador Suite would be a surprise.

He couldn't wait to see her face when she saw the ring. He'd scoured jewelry shops, hating the ice-cold stones and sterile settings. Discouraged, he'd stopped for a coffee break and spotted the ring in the window of an antique store next door. A one-carat emerald-cut diamond flanked with smaller heart-shaped diamonds. Vintage 1930s. Like the woman he'd purchased it for, the ring was unique. Old-fashioned yet stylish. Classic, yet romantic. Sparkling with warmth and personality. Like their love, it was timeless, and would last forever.

As he stepped inside, the smell of crisp bacon and fresh biscuits in the steamy air heightened his anticipation. Working up the nerve to propose cranked up a guy's appetite. A clanging brass bell over the door announced his arrival, and Bailey's head jerked up.

Her amazing blue eyes connected with his and his blood heated. He couldn't believe his good fortune. One breakfast a day for the next sixty years equaled…21,900 chances to sit across the table from this fascinating, intelligent, sexy woman. The rest of his life. He fingered the velvet ring box in his pocket and fought the urge to jump the gun and propose now. Timing was everything. He, of all people, knew that.

He grinned and waved. Her posture tense, she didn't return his smile. Instead, her wary stare watched him approach the booth. He blinked away a discomfiting mental flash of a hawk swooping down on a defenseless robin.

What the hell? He replayed their date last night. Had he said or done something to upset her? Where had he slipped up? They'd watched a chick flick. He hadn't minded too much, as long as he was with her. They'd consumed popcorn and soda, and then made out on her sofa until his pager beeped. A lucky interruption, considering how tough it was to fight his desire to make love to her. He chafed under the growing need for her to belong to him in every way. For him to belong to her.

“Mornin', darlin'. Switch with me?”

“Sure.” Her agreement was too quiet. Foreboding itched between his shoulder blades. During a siege, things often got too quiet right before all hell broke loose. She rose, her usual graceful movements awkward. “Sorry, I'm distracted this morning. I forgot you like to sit where you can see the door.”

As she passed, he breathed in her scent. Rose petals and peppermint. Warmth curled through him. “No biggie.” He slid into the seat across from her and brought her hand to his lips. Her deathly cold fingers quivered. Not passion. Distress. What was up with that? “What's got you so upset, sweetheart?”

Before she could reply, the stocky, gray-haired waitress moseyed over with coffee for him and requested their orders. Con looked at Bailey. She nodded, and he ordered their usual breakfasts.

The waitress sauntered toward the kitchen and Con turned back to Bailey. The silver hummingbird charm he'd bought her on their first date nestled in the hollow of her throat. Right above where her pulse throbbed a shade too fast. The charm dangled from a black ribbon she'd tied around her neck. She never took off the trinket.

The pink ruffled blouse she wore normally complemented her creamy complexion. Today, her face was a wan contrast to her shoulder-length strawberry-blond curls. A barely touched mug of peppermint tea sat on the tabletop. That wasn't like her at all; his girl loved her tea. Something
was
wrong.

She tugged her hand free, and his muscles tensed in apprehension. “Bailey, what's wrong?”

“Nothing. Exactly.” She shifted. Scrubbed her palms on her gray wool slacks. Wouldn't meet his eyes. All the nervous tells
he'd seen in suspects sweating out an interrogation. His own tungsten nerves were taking a beating. If she didn't get to the point soon, he was going to start twitching.

“No, everything's wrong.” Her teeth bit into her bottom lip. Last night, his teeth had teased and tempted that lush bottom lip until they'd both been gasping for breath. “I've agonized for a long time, and finally made a decision.”

He relaxed. She'd had problems with her job for weeks and struggled with the options. Bailey gave every decision careful consideration. Loyalty to her customers and co-workers warred with her desire to escape an obnoxious boss. “Finally decided to tell Mole Man to stuff it, and take that management position in the other store, huh?” He lifted his mug in a salute before gulping the hot, rich coffee. “Way to go.”

“This isn't about work.” She absently sipped her peppermint tea. “Things nearly got out of control between us last night.”

He switched gears without effort. Ah. Like him, she'd reached her sexual frustration limit. Unlike him, she was shy talking about it. They'd have as much rapport in the bedroom as they did elsewhere. “Now, darlin', just because I scorched your sofa…”

“If you hadn't been called up, we'd have ended up in bed.”

He shook his head. “I was pretty far gone, but not out of control.” Perilously close, he'd clung to the razor's edge. She'd want commitment first, because that's the woman she was. Her utter commitment was one of the qualities he admired about her. But asking him for it had her tied up in knots. She was probably afraid he'd run—the typical male response.

He'd never been typical. Falling in love with quiet, intense Bailey was a prime example. His previous women had been blatant extroverts. Good-time girls. Fun, but as shallow as a politician's promise. He hadn't known he was missing a soul-deep emotional connection until he'd met Bailey Chambers.

Con again brushed his fingers over the velvet ring box. Hoo boy, was she in for a surprise. “Baby, I wouldn't have taken you any farther than you wanted to go.”

“That's the problem. I wanted to go farther—” She swallowed hard. “My decision is about us.”

He grinned, deciding to end her misery. Give her the commitment she needed to take the next step. What the hell. In his line of work, he'd learned to improvise when things changed without warning. He'd propose now and they'd celebrate later.

“What a coincidence. I've also made a decision about us.” In spite of himself, nerves jittered up his spine. Damn, this was more intimidating than eating bullets. His mom would call it a “life-defining moment” and caution him to remember it. He would. Every detail. Someday, he'd tell their children the story, and if he was very lucky, their grandchildren.

The atmosphere wasn't moonlight and roses like he'd planned, but at least he would go down on one knee and do that part right. Con slid toward the edge of the seat. “Bailey—”

She stopped him with a shaky grip on his arm. “Please let me say this before I lose my nerve.” She inhaled, shuddered. “I'm sorry, Con. So sorry. We have to break up. It's over.”

He froze. Impossible. He'd misunderstood, that's all. It was hard to hear over the roaring in his ears. “What?”

The waitress reappeared, bearing a loaded tray. Bailey's heart-shaped face crumpled in silent misery while the woman placed steaming plates in front of them. The fine tendrils curling at her temple made Bailey appear delicate. Like one of the china dolls his mom kept in a sturdy, locked cabinet safely out of reach of her four rambunctious sons.

The waitress strolled off, and Con shoved away his breakfast. He couldn't force a single shred of food past the burning lump in his throat. Not even if someone held a loaded AK-47 to his head. “What did you say?”

Bailey pushed aside her veggie omelet. Apparently she didn't have an appetite for this, either. “We have to break up. I can't see you anymore.”

Con's heart tried to slam out of his rib cage, and he fought to keep his voice level. There had to be a logical explanation for her sudden change of heart. Or was it sudden? Had he misread the situation? “What's going on? I love you. You love me.”

“Please,” she whispered. “Don't make this harder than it already is.”

Hurt seared his insides. “If you think I'm going to walk away from you without an explanation, you don't know me very well. There's not a snowball's chance in hell, Bailey.”

“I'll explain.”

“Damn right you will. You would have let me make love to you last night.”

“Don't you see? That's exactly
why
we have to break up.”

Was she implying that he'd forced her? He swallowed a surge of nausea. No. Her soft lips had parted willingly for his kisses. Her eager hands had sought his body, and her hips had arched as he'd rocked against her. “How is the fact that we're extremely sexually compatible a problem?”

“I'm not a casual affair girl. I can't make love to you and go our separate ways. And I can't fight temptation any longer.”

Did she think he was a jerk who would use her and dump her? Maybe she
didn't
know him. Funny, he felt as if he'd known
her
forever. “I realize that, sweetheart.” He thrust his hand in his pocket, and his fingers clenched on the ring box. “That's why—”

Panic skittered across her face. “Please, wait, and hear me out. I've thought about our relationship, agonized over all the angles. My mother suggested I carefully weigh the pros and cons of staying together.”

The picture morphed into painful focus. Dr. Ellen Chambers hadn't bothered to hide her icy disapproval of him. The chilly polar opposite of her vibrant daughter, Dr. Chambers was a renowned cardiac surgeon. He could see why. She'd have no problem cutting out hearts. At their first meeting, the austere brunette had cornered him in her kitchen after an uncomfortable dinner filled with too-long silences. In a voice that could have flash-frozen his gonads, she'd told him he wasn't a good influence on her child.

He'd just as bluntly reminded Dr. Chambers that her daughter was an adult. And what Bailey did with her life, and who she spent time with, was her decision.

Bailey was her own woman, but even the toughest barricade eventually collapsed under relentless pressure. He was in for serious damage containment. He leaned back and crossed his arms.
“My brothers have pointed out I'm far from perfect, many times. I'm open to new ideas. Go ahead. Let's hear all my faults.”

She shook her head. “There's nothing wrong with you. Nothing wrong with me. We're both good people. We simply aren't right for each other. I'm not trying to hurt you, just trying to explain. We're too different. There's no need to hash out—”

“There's every need.”

“All right.” She paused. “You're quick and decisive, I'm deliberate. You kick down doors and nail bad guys to the wall, I sell books and visit sick kids in hospitals.”

“So, we have some differences. Enough differences to clash—in a positive way—and enough similarities to click. We complement one another.”

“We don't have
any
similarities.”

“Don't we?” He smiled at her. “We're both intense. Both dedicated to our jobs. Loyal to our loved ones. We care about people and their welfare. You educate, enlighten and entertain them, I protect them.” He grew serious, leaned forward. “Most importantly, we love each other.”

She hesitated. “Where do you see us in five years?”

He held her gaze, his thoughts tender. Five years? He could see them in fifty-five years. “Married. Happy.”

She gulped and looked down at their uneaten food, breaking the connection. “Where do we live? How many kids do we have? Are you still in the same job? Am I? What kind of shape are we in financially? What are our interests, who are our friends?”

He'd known her propensity for planning, but this was overkill. And smelled like more of Ellen Chambers's influence. “Darlin' there are unanswerable questions in life. Some things can't be scheduled. Sometimes it's better to keep things simple. Ad-lib.”

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