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Authors: Pamela Palmer

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BOOK: The Dark Gate
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She uncrossed her arms and moved away, unable to withstand his probing stare a moment longer. He could have stopped her if he'd wanted, but he didn't. “There's nothing to deny. I wasn't there when the murder happened.”

“I'm not trying to say you were. But you saw something, or someone, that alarmed you. Something that might help me solve this case.”

“The only person who alarmed me was a poor girl who looked like she'd been undergoing chemotherapy. Otherwise, I'm afraid you're mistaken—”

He grabbed her wrist and turned her to face him. “I'm not mistaken. I know the difference between illness, worry and fear, lady. I've seen them all. What I saw in your eyes was raw terror.”

“You saw what you wanted to see.”

“You're lying to me.” He pulled her closer until she could see the deck lights reflected in his eyes like chips of blue ice. “You know something. When I first saw you outside the church, you were running. Don't try to tell me you weren't.”

It was as if he could see right through her! Larsen gathered every ounce of coldness she could manufacture and stared pointedly at her bound wrist, then into his eyes, but he ignored her not-so-subtle hint.

“Four women have been assaulted, now a man brutally murdered, and I don't have a single witness.” He finally released her and turned away, raking a hand through his hair. “Not a single clue to help me solve this case.”

He whirled back to face her. “It'll happen again,
Ms. Vale.
Again and again and again, and I don't know how to stop it.”

She didn't want to hear this. Guilt already tore her to shreds, but she couldn't tell him. She could never tell anyone.

“Help me, Larsen.” His handsome face implored her to cooperate. “Help me stop him before he does it again.”

“I can't. I don't know anything.”

He stared at her for long minutes, then released his breath on a slow burst of air. “Tell me about the chemo patient.”

Larsen frowned. “Why? She was just a sick kid.”

“She caught your eye.”

“Well…
yeah.

“It's all we've got to go on, Larsen. Maybe it's nothing, but the subconscious tends to see more than we realize. Humor me.”

So she told him what she remembered about the girl in the too large clothes with the clean-shaven head and startlingly violet eyes.

When she was through, Jack's mouth skewed left. “Doesn't sound like much of a lead, but maybe she saw something. It should be easy enough to track her down. Was there anyone or anything else that caught your attention? Anything at all?”

“No. Nothing.” Nothing in real time, anyway. Nothing she could tell him.

His gaze held her captive even as she prayed he'd accept her answers and give up. She sensed rather than saw the predatory tension ease out of him.

“All right. If you think of anything else…”

Larsen had to bite back a nearly audible sigh of relief. “I'll be sure to let you know.”

Jack Hallihan pulled out his wallet and handed her his card. As she shoved it into her pocket with one hand, his hand closed around her other. “Larsen…”

As his warm fingers slid over hers, a flash of movement sliced through her peripheral vision. Pain exploded in her shoulder, knocking her back into the rail.
She'd been hit.
With a panicked gasp, she realized the thing was still on her.

An arrow.
An arrow was sticking out of her shoulder! Was this some kind of sick joke?

“Get it out of me. Get it out!” She grabbed it, trying to pull it away, but pain seared through her body.

Jack grabbed her wrist. “Don't touch it. You'll do more damage.” He swept her into his arms and ran for the door to her houseboat. Every step made the arrow bounce, setting fire searing in her shoulder. She squeezed her eyes closed and clamped her jaw shut to keep from crying out.

“Stay here. I'm going to try to catch the archer.”

She felt the soft cushions of the sofa at her back, then Jack released her and ran for the door. Agony radiated from her shoulder outward, as if a shark had clamped onto her and would not let go.
She wanted it out of her.
She squeezed her eyes closed as tears ran down her cheeks.

An eternity later Jack was beside her again, his forehead glistening with sweat.

“Did you…catch him?”

“No.” He leaned over her, his blue eyes tight with concern. “Hang on. There's an ambulance on the way.”

She could hear sirens. They were growing louder. “Did you see who did it?”

“Yeah.” He took her hand, his expression grim. “It was a bald girl, Larsen. A tiny little thing in a Redskins T-shirt.”

She stared at him. Her mouth opened then snapped shut on the metallic taste of fear.

Jack's expression turned grave and worried. “I don't know what you've gotten yourself into.” He stroked her hair back from her face. “But I think you're in over your head. Sooner or later you're going to have to trust someone.”

She blinked, sending more tears sliding down her cheeks.
Trust someone.
The one thing she could never do.

 

He had to win her trust.

Jack glanced into the rearview mirror of the police-issue sedan. Tucked into the corner of the seat behind him, hidden behind tinted windows, was Larsen Vale. The answer to his prayers.

Tension tightened his grip on the steering wheel as he maneuvered the roads clogged with morning work traffic. He didn't remember the last time he'd been this nervous over an assignment. Over
anything.
But never had anything mattered so much.

She quieted the voices.
If he could just figure out how. Hell, he didn't care how. All that mattered was keeping her close enough to touch.

And the only way to do that was to make her fall for him. To win her as his own. A girlfriend would stay by his side. A wife. He had to make her love him if he wanted to save his sanity. Crazy, yeah, but it was all he could think of.

Unfortunately he also had to get to the bottom of her involvement in this case, but pushing her to tell him what she knew would only earn her anger, if not her hatred. He squeezed the steering wheel until he feared it would snap off in his hands. How could he possibly win both the woman and her secrets?

He had to win her trust. Get her to volunteer the information.

Yeah, right. He'd just wine and dine her for…what? Twenty minutes?
He didn't have time.
Every day he didn't catch the rapist was another day a young woman might lose her innocence…or her life. Someone had died, now. Things were escalating.

The only thing in his favor was the bizarre twist of fate that had dropped the pretty attorney right into his hands. He had one chance to charm her. Once chance to win her over. But he had to move fast. And he had no clue how to go about charming a man-hater.

“This is kidnapping,” she muttered, her words slurred from the heavy sedative they'd given her before they'd dug the arrow out of her shoulder in the emergency room.

He glanced at her again. Her head was back, her eyes closed, a scowl marring the beauty of her face.

“Yeah. So sue me for not taking you back to your houseboat where the little archer could take another shot at you.”

“I want you to take me to a motel.”

“For the time being, you're stuck with me.”

“I don't want to be stuck with you. I don't want to be stuck with anyone.”

Jack sighed. He'd known this wouldn't be easy. “Your life's been threatened by a murder suspect, Larsen. You're under police protection until the captain decides otherwise.”

“I need to go back to my houseboat. I need some things.”

“You can borrow one of my T-shirts and a toothbrush. My partner's wife can loan you whatever else you need. Try to think of this as a short vacation.”

Her frown deepened. “At
your
house.”

“Only the finest for D.C.'s most formidable prosecutor.”

“You're mocking me.”

“You? No. My house? Maybe.”

She didn't reply. He glanced into the rearview mirror to find her expression had evened out. The pain medication was kicking in.

She'd been lucky. The arrowhead was small and had gone cleanly through her shoulder, doing minimal damage. A few inches and the arrow would have gone through her heart. His own heart lurched at the thought of how easily he might have lost her—his salvation gone in the blink of an eye.

By an arrow.
What in the hell was going on?

Somehow, Larsen Vale held the key to this case. How, he couldn't begin to guess, but he'd stake his life and his reputation on the fact that she'd seen something in that church yesterday. She'd witnessed something that had sent her running from the scene. And someone knew it. All he could do now was protect her—and get her to confide in him before she was permanently silenced.

By the time he arrived at his modest row house apartment, the focus of his thoughts was fast asleep. He carried her inside and back to his bedroom, laying her on his bed. The morning sun shone through the blinds, casting thin rows of bright sunlight across both the woman and the unmade bed.

He pulled the cord, adjusting the blinds, then stared down at his very own sleeping beauty.

“What am I going to do with you?” He slid a thick lock of silky golden hair between his thumb and forefinger, feeling a shaft of desire spear through him. Damn. His own lust was a complication he could do without. But she was beautiful. There was no denying it.

His gaze traveled over her features as he drank his fill, at last. He brushed the pad of his thumb over the softness of her cheek, a fine possessiveness rising inside him. She was made for him, the cure to his madness, the escape from his own private hell.

Determination bordering on desperation fired his blood. He wouldn't lose her. He
couldn't.
He couldn't return to the building insanity in his head knowing…
knowing
…the cure was lost to him. If he ran Larsen off now, how would he stay sane when the noise grew beyond bearing? How would he stand it when he knew a single touch of her hand would silence the chaos?

Stay by my side. Silence my madness.

“Trust me, Larsen,” he whispered into the stillness of the room. “When you wake up, tell me what you know. Help me catch these guys before they hurt you again.”

His gaze slid from her face to her shoulder. The sight of the bandaged wound made his gut clench. He'd whispered the words for her benefit, in the hope she'd remember them subconsciously, but he meant them, he realized. He didn't want her hurt again. There was something about her, something fierce and proud, that drew him. Something within her he recognized in himself.

Secrets.

Chapter 3

L
arsen opened heavy eyelids. Where was she?
Why wasn't her boat rocking?
Her sleepy gaze caught the slow spin of a fan on the ceiling above and she felt the breeze waft over her. The musical score from
Les Miserables
drifted in from another room, accompanied by a deep masculine voice.

Jack Hallihan's.

Memory slammed into her, stealing her breath. She was in his house.
In his bed.
Thanks to the little bald girl.

She'd tried to kill her.

A surge of fear jolted her awake.

Why would the girl have attacked her? She'd seemed so sweet. So shy. It didn't make sense. But then, not much in her life ever had. All she knew for certain was that death seemed to have his eyes on
her
this time.

Heaven help her.

She was suddenly glad for her cop bodyguard.
Jack.
If only he would stop asking questions.

Larsen levered herself to a sitting position, her shoulder throbbing beneath the heavy bandage. Her gaze drifted, taking in the Spartan masculinity of the room. The dresser was made from the same sturdy oak as the bed. In the corner, a single chair, barely visible beneath a mound of discarded clothes, appeared to serve as the hamper.

The light filtering through the blinds had a late-afternoon feel to it. A glance at the bedside clock told her it was almost seven. She'd slept the entire day. The entire Tuesday.

Damn.
She'd had two meetings with clients and a court appearance on her calendar for today. First thing in the morning she'd have to make some phone calls to apologize.

Larsen pushed back the sheet and swung her legs over the side of the bed, then stilled at the waft of air across her privates.
What in the…?
Her startled gaze dropped to her lap. The oversize T-shirt was bunched at her hips, but there was no hiding the fact she no longer wore anything beneath.

Jack.

Her heart lurched in her chest. What had he done? Just how badly had she misjudged him?

As she grabbed the sheet and yanked it over her lower half, her gaze snagged on something familiar lying across the bunched-up bedspread at her feet. Two somethings. Her shorts and panties, looking freshly washed.

She stared at them, her heart rate slowing. He'd washed them. Jack Hallihan had washed her bloodstained clothes…after undressing her.

Her breath caught in her throat. The thought should have outraged her. Instead heat pooled deep in her abdomen and throbbed between her legs. A fine time for her hormones to decide to do the cha-cha. Not that they hadn't been practicing that little step for months now, since the first time she'd seen the handsome cop.

She reached for the clothes and managed to get the panties on one-handed with maximum struggle. Exhausted, shoulder throbbing, she sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the shorts with their neat little zipper and button. No way.

“Need help?” Jack stood in the doorway looking impossibly handsome, one muscled shoulder propped against the doorframe. He was casually dressed in khaki shorts and a navy T-shirt with MPD emblazoned across the chest in bold white letters. His short dark hair was appealingly tousled.

He watched her with that blue intensity she was becoming used to, but this time it was warmed by sympathy…and something more. Something that made her increasingly aware she wore nothing beneath the oversize tee but a thin pair of panties.

She tried to give him her chilly look, to push him away, but she was so far from cold it wasn't funny, so she glared at him instead and held up the shorts. “I suppose you know how to get these on since you took them off.” The thought of him peeling them off her had her hands shaking. She struggled to keep her voice even, struggled to meet his gaze.

He pushed away from the door and came to kneel in front of her, inches from her bare legs, his face nearly on a level with hers. He held out his hand for the shorts. She handed them to him as her gaze roamed the strong planes of his face—his pronounced cheekbones, his strong, faintly stubbled chin. The firm mouth that even now tilted into a sensual smile.

With effort, she tore her gaze away, but his warm scent wrapped around her, sending need rippling through her body.

Damn hormones.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

His words, the movement of those lips, pulled her gaze back to him and she couldn't help but wonder what it would feel like to have that mouth pressed against hers.

How was she feeling?
Like a woman who hasn't had sex in eight years.

She took a deep breath, struggling to find air, scrambling for an appropriate answer. “Hot. Sore. Definitely sore.”

She caught a glimpse of laughter in his eyes before his mouth compressed with sympathy. He set the shorts on the floor at her feet.

“Step in.” He rose and held out his hand to her. “Can you stand?”

She wanted to say, “of course,” but she wasn't sure. It annoyed her that she might need help, yet she took his hand. “Let's find out.”

He gave her a small, approving smile and closed his warm hand around hers. Pure attraction hit her hard. She struggled to keep her face impassive.

“Okay?” he asked.

Her bare feet sank into the soft beige carpeting. “So far, so good.”

“The room's not spinning?” A hint of a smile lifted the words.

Oh, yeah, it was spinning all right. Just not the way he meant. She had to get rid of that lethal smile of his before it caused her to do something she'd regret. Like smile back. He could
not
know what he was doing to her. He'd have power over her she desperately couldn't afford to give him.

She met his probing gaze with a glare. “I'm fine,” she snapped, pleased with the bitchy sound even as it extinguished the teasing light in his eyes. She felt only a twinge of regret.

With swift, clinical movements, he pulled the shorts up and over her bottom. No lingering touches, no seductive fumbling.

But it didn't matter. Her body was like dry brush ready to ignite. The rough slide of his thumbs over her thighs and hips as he pulled up the shorts, the warm touch of his fingers at her stomach as he fastened the button, set up a throbbing between her legs just below the place he reached for the zipper.

She held her breath against the wave of sensations pricked by his nearness and his touch. If he ever decided to seduce her, she'd be in deep trouble.

Who was she kidding? She was already in trouble. First thing in the morning she was making some calls to get herself a different bodyguard.

Jack met her gaze, his expression enigmatic. “Dinner's almost ready.”

Larsen nodded and followed him into the hall, but as he led her into the living room, his hand slipped around her upper arm, gripping her lightly just beneath the sleeve of her T-shirt. His thumb brushed over her bare skin in a soft caressing motion that was too intimate, too pleasant.

She jerked her arm away and winced as harsh discomfort radiated down her arm from her shoulder. “I'm not an invalid,” she said tightly. Silence, heavy and reproachful, followed her into the living room.

The room was as masculine as the bedroom, but more fully decorated. Leather upholstery and rustic wood sat against a backdrop of light olive walls and hardwood floors with area rugs reminiscent of the southwest. On the walls were framed prints of sailboats caught on rough seas. The room was simple, yet attractive. Inviting. The kitchen, on the other hand, was plain and functional.

She caught the scent of a mouthwatering aroma and made a small, involuntary sound of appreciation. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until that moment.

He watched her with an expression that appeared almost boyish. “I tried something new tonight. I hope you like it.”

Be the bitch,
she told herself, but she couldn't do it. Self-protective she might be, but she'd never intentionally crossed the line to cruel.

“It smells delicious.”

Though the words were without inflection or an ounce of enthusiasm, the smile that lit his eyes set butterflies to flight in her stomach. Larsen nearly groaned out loud. She might as well admit defeat right here and now. How was she ever going to steel herself against this man's charm? And she must. She couldn't let him get too close.

Jack seated her at the table, then went to fetch their dinner as Larsen's gaze followed him. He moved with an athlete's strength and coordination, every movement controlled and sure. As bodyguards went, she could have done worse. Much worse. Heaven knew, she enjoyed watching him.

If only his sharp eyes didn't have to watch her quite so closely in return.

 

Jack watched with amusement as Larsen dropped her fork for the second time. She was clearly right-handed, but trying to eat with her left to avoid jarring her injured shoulder. With an exasperated sigh and a wry roll of her eyes, she picked up the uncooperative fork, then dug back into the chicken paprika he'd cut into bite-size pieces for her.

The woman was a puzzle. One moment she was snapping at him for touching her, then minutes later he caught her watching him over her dinner plate with raw feminine interest in those golden-brown eyes. Was the Ice Queen warming up to him at last? Or was she, as he was beginning to suspect, no ice queen at all?

He watched her devour the meal with obvious relish. “You're hungry.”

She looked at him with those wide, naturally slumberous eyes as she swallowed. “I haven't eaten since lunch yesterday. And this is—” she made a sound of appreciation deep in her throat “—unbelievable.”

The compliment pleased him. He saw an opening to draw her out and took it. “Do you like to cook?”

Her mouth twisted into a rueful frown. “As little as possible. I never really learned. My dad didn't know how and my mom…died when I was eight.”

“I'm sorry.”

She shrugged. “It was a long time ago. I'm over it.” But something moved in her eyes, sharp and fresh, belying her words. He could almost see her pulling back and away, her expression turning into that of the aloof attorney. Conversation over.

Not if he could help it. “My aunt taught me to cook when I was ten. Aunt Myrtle. She was an odd bird, nice in a zany sort of way. Her weirdness drove my mom crazy. She finally went too far when I was sick one time. Myrtle took me to her house, tried to cure me. I don't know what happened—just that she used some heavy woo-woo stuff. My mom took me home and never let her visit again.”

Larsen's eyes had lost that defensiveness and had taken on a gleam of interest. “Did she hurt you?”

“No. That's the funny part. When she finished, I was fine.”

“You mean, she really healed you?”

“I don't know. My parents wouldn't tell me what happened and I never saw Aunt Myrtle again. Last I heard she was still living in the Virginia mountains, only about an hour away from here. I should go see her one of these days.”

When they'd finished eating, Larsen dabbed her mouth with the napkin, then stood. “Thank you. Dinner was excellent.”

As she reached for her plate, he grabbed her wrist, blanketing his brain in a calming silence. “Nope. You're company. No touching the dirty dishes.”

She stared at him, but to his delight, a twinkle appeared in her eye. “You're just afraid I'll drop your plate like I kept dropping my fork.”

Self-deprecating humor. Who would have thought? He grinned at her, coaxing the twinkle in her eye into a glimmer of a smile. “Let's just say, I'm being cautiously hospitable.”

A full-fledged smile illuminated her face, transforming the Ice Queen into a true angel, making him ache to pull her close and kiss her.

For a heart-stopping moment her eyes warmed until her expression seemed to be the visual equivalent of his thoughts.

She wanted the kiss as much as he did.

Then golden lashes swept down to hide her emotions. “Do you mind if I watch some television?”

Jack took a deep breath and released her wrist, uncorking the noise in his head. “Help yourself. The remote's on the coffee table.” What just happened?
She wanted him.
She wanted him. Hot damn. He seriously doubted the formidable Larsen Vale ever gave in to such base desires, but a guy could dream.

He carried the dishes to the sink. The soundtrack from a
Friends
rerun and the sweet sound of Larsen's laughter kept him company as he did the dishes. He could do this. Every night for the rest of his life. A woman's company over dinner. Soft, feminine laughter filling his house.
Larsen's
laughter. Hell, yeah.

The sudden jolt of longing startled him. Longing for an honest-to-god life and future with the beautiful woman whose touch could keep the madness at bay.

BOOK: The Dark Gate
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