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Troy Hill has been tirelessly working for months to bring down a corrupt congressman. When the man’s goons capture him and lock him up, he knows they can’t afford to leave him alive. His only chance at escape is the congressman’s new security guard, Claire Montgomery. He expects he’ll have to either manipulate her into setting him free or kill her. He doesn’t expect to fall in love with her.
They locked him up in the basement, in a steel cage enclosure normally housing the Rottweilers that guarded Congressman Wharton’s D.C. mansion. Undercover agent Troy Hill struggled against the plastic cuff that trapped his hands behind him, careful so the guard outside the cage wouldn’t notice as he shifted on the cold cement floor.
Step one: Get his hands free.
Step two: Deal with the two-inch wide metal chain and the padlock that kept the door secured.
The sooner he escaped the better. He knew too much, enough so that his captors couldn’t afford to let him live.
Next time they came for him, it wouldn’t be for another brutal interrogation. They knew now that they couldn’t impress him with pain. Next time they came, they would be coming to kill him.
The guard, a six foot ten massive ex-football-player type, cursed as he restarted the game he’d been playing on his phone. He adjusted his large frame on the barstool, engrossed in hitting the right buttons with his oversized thumbs.
Troy didn’t plan on going up against him, not with the cracked ribs, the busted knuckles on his right hand, and the swollen kneecap that had met with a baseball bat repeatedly during his questioning. Much better to hedge his bets and go for the weakest link.
Which meant the female. She had the least amount of weight and muscles among the three guards who switched out every two hours. She’d be on guard duty next. Troy stretched his legs, warming up his muscles, getting ready.
She hadn’t been there when the others had beaten him. On her previous shift, she’d brought him extra food and water. Seemed nice enough—another weakness he might be able to exploit. She was tall and lean, dark hair in a tight bun at her nape, the clearest green eyes he’d ever seen.
And something behind those eyes... A wall. Or maybe more than one, a whole defense system. Her muscles had been tense. Not a temporary thing. Her body language… He knew people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, who walked like that, watched like that, always on the edge, on the ball of their feet as if they were ready at a moment’s notice either to lunge into a fight, or flee.
Among the three guards, she’d be the easiest one to rattle.
But she wouldn’t be a pushover. He would have to kill her to get away.
His conscience pinged.
He silenced it and focused on the cursed plastic cuff once again.
* * *
Claire Montgomery stood at attention in Congressman Wharton’s office with half of his security detail. The six guys were all at least a head taller than she, with more muscles than a body builder, uniform tough-guy looks on their chiseled faces. Prime male specimens, yet she couldn’t relate to them, let alone feel attracted to them. She couldn’t see whatever it was they had that so titillated the maids.
Standing next to them, she felt like she was in some photo in an activity book for kids. Which one of these things is least like the others?
They were a well-oiled team, with her being the recent hire, the outsider. The photo op. Seemed suspicious that on her first day on the job last week, the Congressman just happened to walk around the grounds during her shift, started a chat with her, and the press had happened to be there to record everything.
CONGRESSMAN WHARTON BELIEVES IN HIRING RETURNING VETS, the headlines read the next day, above a picture of the man smiling benevolently at her.
He loomed now behind his desk, ready to dismiss the team. In light of the intruder, they’d been discussing various security upgrades to avoid something like this happening again. He’d called the meeting, his last one for today. He often worked in the middle of the night, and nobody seemed to think it strange.
“I think we should call the police, sir,” she blurted her opinion. They should have called the cops the second they’d caught the intruder hours ago.
She hated that she’d been on break when the man had been apprehended. She’d only found out about him when everyone around her started running. Her earpiece must be acting up again, because she didn’t even hear the alert.
The Congressman’s aide, standing on his right, flashed her an annoyed look for speaking out of turn. “The FBI is on their way. They’re going to take him in. If we call the local police, the media will be alerted. They monitor the police channels. We want to keep this under wraps.”
“I don’t want this in the news,” the Congressman cut in, wearing his best vote-winner smile, disarming and trust-inspiring at the same time. “An attack on me will either paint me as a victim, or a man hated enough for assassins to be stalking him. Not the image I’m trying for just when I’m announcing my bid for presidency.”
Everything had a political angle here, probably even the choice of what color socks the Congressman put on in the morning. Since she desperately needed the job, she just had to learn to live with that. “Yes, sir.”
Wharton’s gaze moved from man to man. “I want you to find out how he got in and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison, then backed out of the room, each going to their station.
She swung by the security office, grabbed a new headset then headed straight to the basement room where they held the intruder.
Her personal cell phone buzzed. She glanced at the display, and flipped the phone open immediately. “Is everything okay, mom?”
“I wish you would come home.” The words were spoken in the tone of a long-suffering martyr.
“Mom, it’s midnight.” Claire rubbed the bridge of her nose as she walked. “We’ve talked about this.”
“You know how bad stress is for my health.” Her mother switched to accusation right on schedule.
“Then don’t stress over it.”
“You’re sick, too, you know. You should have never taken that job. You should be home recuperating. You shouldn’t take any job, period.” She paused before she added, “Hector’s been asking about you.”
“As soon as I’m ready to be a trophy wife, you’ll be first to know.” Hector Merrick was one of her father’s business associates, a man twenty years her senior.
“Don’t use that mocking tone on me. I’m your mother.”
“Sorry.” She swiped a bottle of water from the pantry as she walked through what had been the servants’ quarters when the sprawling Washington D.C. mansion had been built over a hundred years ago.
“I want the best for you, you know. You should have never joined the Army. Good Lord, with your height and those check bones—”
“Mom!” She couldn’t deal with another lecture on her wasted life.
“Well, they broke you then spit you out. You’re very lucky that Hector is interested at all, with your sort of sordid history. Not many men would consider a burned-out soldier, for heaven’s sake, who deliberately involved herself in all that unpleasantness, to be the mother of his children.”
And Hector was only interested because he fancied taking over after her father retired. But pointing that out to her mother would have been useless. “I have to go, mom. My shift is starting.”
“You don’t have to work. I don’t understand you, Claire.”
“I’ll call you later.” She hung up the phone and drew a deep breath before she plodded down the stairs.
She liked having a job. The job kept her sane. The job kept her alive, saving her from having to go back under her parents’ roof where her mother would have auctioned her off to the highest bidder. The job made her feel productive. Made her feel normal, even if she was anything but, even if she hadn’t slept more than two hours at a stretch since she’d returned from Afghanistan.
She pushed the door open.
“About time.” Jason slid off the barstool without looking at the man in the cage.
But she did, and blinked hard at the blood. “What happened to him?”
“Asked to use the bathroom. Tripped over his own shoelaces on the way back in.” He shrugged. “Wiped the cement floor with his face.”
“You could have cleaned him up.”
“He refused first aid.”
She could believe that. The man’s steel gray eyes, cold and calculating, watched her without emotion—a possible assassin, or domestic terrorist.
She’d just spent two consecutive tours of duty fighting foreign enemies. Frankly, she thought people like him inside the U.S. should appreciate their hard-won freedom and stop being jackasses.
“Did I miss anything interesting?” Jason asked about the meeting.
“That’s what I thought.” He stopped by her on his way out and lowered his voice. “How about a drink when you get off?”
“Don’t drink.” She had enough other problems.
“You’re a hard one to figure out, Claire.” He shrugged then pushed by her, closing the door behind him.
Perhaps compared to the maids who spent half their day trying to get the guys to notice them. She wasn’t as mesmerized by muscle in a uniform. She hadn’t felt attracted to a man in… She couldn’t remember the last time. She felt dead inside, for all intents and purposes—another legacy of the war. Although, to be honest, she wasn’t sure she’d ever believed in love, to start with.
But she did believe in humane treatment of prisoners and a fair trial for all. She needed to believe in that because she needed something that separated her from the people she’d fought.
She crossed over to the cage. “Water?”
“Thanks.” The man pushed to his feet. He had a deep voice, raspy, as if at one point he had suffered some damage to his vocal cords. Its deep-timbered tone tickled down her spine, causing all sorts of sensations. Some women might consider that rasp sexy, she supposed.
He stood only a few inches taller than she, but was nearly twice as wide across the shoulders. She appreciated the steel bars between them. Other than his piercing eyes and masculine lips, most of his face was damaged, plenty of old scars under his new scrapes—a man familiar with violence.
With his hands tied behind his back, he couldn’t grab the water. She twisted off the cap then fitted the small bottle through the bars and held it to his lips. He drank down half, left the rest for later.
“You’re not like the others.” He watched her closely as she twisted the cap back on. “I’m guessing you’re new on the team.”
This close up, his voice sounded even deeper, raspier, sexier—quite a combination with his fathomless gray gaze. She walked back to her seat.
He didn’t take the hint. “How long have you been back from the war? You move like a soldier.”
She shrugged. She hadn’t had a chance to assess how he moved. She’d only seen him tied up and locked in a cage, which was where he belonged.
He remained standing and kept watching her. “You could help me,” he said after a few minutes.
“I don’t belong here.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You broke into a Congressman’s home in the middle of the night, armed to the teeth. Did you come to clean the gutters?”
A hint of a smile played above his lips, softening the harsh lines of his face. “Would you believe me if I told you that I came here on the side of justice and the people who locked me up are the criminals?”
“Right. I never heard that from a prisoner before, sure.” She didn’t bother keeping the skepticism out of her voice. “You have a lot of old scars.”
“Got every last one of them working for the U.S. government.” He held her gaze as he spoke, not a blink, not a tic, no sign of lying.
She squashed a sudden twitch of doubt. “Doing what?”
She decided, mostly out of boredom, to play along for a few minutes. She might even gain useful information she could pass on to the FBI when they came for him. Maybe he had been on the good side at one point. He could be an agent who’d gone rogue. Stranger things had happened. “Were you good at it?”
His face darkened. He went back to the wall and sat down again.
She knew that look, had seen it on her friends’ faces from time to time in the Army, had seen it on her own face in the mirror. “You lost people close to you.” She paused. “Is that when you got hurt?”
He stared at the wall opposite of him. “I disabled the timer on the explosives vest, but it had a backup system, operated by remote. I saw the guy reach for it, hesitated a split second because he’d been a friend, and I couldn’t comprehend that he’d crossed over to the other side.” His voice carried no emotion.
Jumbled images flashed through her mind: noise, heat, bombs going off all around her, friends dying. Her throat closed up for a second and she swayed. Sweat beaded on her brows.
“You okay?” He was watching her again.
“Mind your own business.” She sank onto the barstool and forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly until her muscles relaxed a little.
“What happened over there was rough on you.”
She wasn’t going to respond to that, but for some reason, after a minute she said, “It’s rough on everyone.”
“How many tours?”
“Two.” And that was absolutely the last piece of personal information she was going to reveal to him.
“You’ll get better,” he said in a quiet tone. “If you were tough enough to survive two tours of duty, it’s going to take more than a couple of flashbacks to take you down.”
Those quietly spoken words of support surprised her. They were more than what she’d gotten from her parents.
He pushed to his feet and came to stand by the bars. He seemed to have come to some kind of a decision, because he drew a slow breath and said, “My name is Troy Hill. I work for the FBI. I’m on an undercover op here.”
Again, not the slightest nervous gesture betrayed that he might be lying, none of the usual giveaways she’d learned to look for. She’d guarded prisoners before, at the desert base where she’d served. She wasn’t an expert, but she wasn’t a novice, either. “If you were undercover, you couldn’t tell me any of this.”
“I’m out of choices,” he said reasonably. “Either you’re involved in the Congressman’s dark dealings or you’re an honest person in the middle of this mess. You’re new to the team. Maybe you haven’t been corrupted yet. Maybe you’ll help me. It’s my best bet.”
Sounded logical. From his point of view, anyway.
“If you’re FBI, then you’re in luck. Your buddies are coming for you. The feds are on their way.”
Instead of looking relieved, he swore, his body tensing. “Listen, no way any law enforcement was called in. Whoever is coming for me, if they take me, I’m as good as dead. Wharton can’t afford to let me live.” He pinned that piercing gaze on her. “My life is in your hands, Claire.”
She didn’t like that he used her name. Must have overheard Jason saying it. She rolled her eyes at him, keeping her tone dry as she said, “Nobody likes a drama queen.”
His lips twitched. “You still have your sense of humor. That’s something.” He moved closer to the bars. “You need to get these cuffs off me.”
“You need to stop talking.” Did she look stupid?
He watched her for a long minute, shook his head, then went back to sit on the cement floor in the corner at last, regret and resolution mixing in his gaze.
She pulled out her Smartphone and brought up the mystery novel she’d been reading, watching the prisoner from the corner of her eye. He sat still, his head resting against the wall, staring at the ceiling.
He’d given up. Good.
No way was she going to mess up this job.
She read the book, even if she did find the man behind the bars distracting. When his words came back to echo in her head, she forced her attention to the story. She read a lot these days, had a lot of sleepless hours to fill in the night.
She caught movement from the corner of her eye. She glanced over, but he seemed to have fallen asleep, so she went back to the book.
But it happened again. She watched him more closely. Maybe he just moved in his sleep, adjusting his bruised body on the hard floor. God, to be able to sleep like that, oblivious to the world… She would have given anything for that kind of reprieve.
Time passed, the multiple plot lines in the book grew more complicated. Half her shift was over when the prisoner woke up and pushed to his feet.
“Could I have another drink?” He dragged himself to the bars. “Please?”
He looked worn out. More so than before. Maybe too much. He’d just taken a nap.
She watched him closely. Was he trying to get her to let her guard down?
Her instincts prickled, although she couldn’t put her finger on anything specific. She set the phone down and picked up the bottle, alert and watchful. The basement’s door banged open before she twisted off the cap.
She turned toward Nick, the head of the Congressman’s security team. “Is everything okay?”
“Finished early with checking the security systems. I figured I might as well take over down here.”
“I still have an hour left.”
“You got called in off shift. You deserve a break.”
She nodded, then turned back to the prisoner with the water.
Nick held his hand out. “I can do that.”
She handed him the bottle.
“See you in the morning. You have gate duty at oh-six-hundred.”
She glanced back at Troy—if that really was his name.
Frustration and anger flashed across his face, a determined look coming into his eyes. Then, in a split second, he turned into a dejected prisoner once again.
She blinked. She was probably imagining things. Or it had been a trick of the light. The single light bulb hanging from a wire didn’t exactly provide perfect lighting.
Still, unease ran up her spine. Something felt off but, again, she couldn’t put her finger on what it was exactly.
* * *
Troy gritted his teeth as he watched the door close behind her. He’d spent too much time chatting her up, trying to get her to drop her guard, to help him.
She’d offered him that water, and suddenly he’d balked at taking her out. Idiot. Her mix of strength and vulnerability had gotten to him. Somehow he’d convinced himself that she wasn’t like the others. And he’d decided to see if he could get past her without resorting to violent measures.
He’d hesitated. Again. Hadn’t he learned anything?
Then by the time he’d sawed through the plastic cuff on the edge of a cement block behind his back, by the time he’d called her to the bars again, it had been too late. He’d counted on having her for another hour.
The guard who’d taken over would be a hell of a lot more difficult to tackle. He had forty pounds on Troy, two guns and some serious commando training from the looks of him.
“I’m thirsty,” he repeated his plea. He needed to get the bastard within reach, close enough to the bars so he could grab him.