“Moose, hold up. I haven’t cleared the area,” Delta called out to the man jumping out of the passenger side of the armored black SUV.
Former Navy SEAL and decorated war hero Carrick Byrne tilted his head back, giving Delta the usual ‘don’t even start’ expression.
“Relax, big rig. This is just a little ‘find and retrieve’ contract,” Carrick said in a skeptical voice tinted with the slightest Irish accent as he leaned back into the idling SUV. “I don’t think we need to worry about one little girl.”
Delta narrowed his brown eyes, and a lock of his slicked-back dark-blond fell onto his unimpressed face. “She’s been on the run for years. Don’t underestimate her.”
Carrick looked around with obvious sarcasm at the fact that they were literally about to walk through a park on their way to finish the job. Glancing back, Carrick raised his eyebrow to his friend, recognizing the face of someone who wanted to punch him.
“Come on. How much trouble could one chick cause?”
“Your client seems to think she can cause a lot of trouble,” Delta reminded him. “And our intelligence suggests the same. She’s slippery, Carrick—and I don’t think your client is very forgiving.”
“Don’t overdramatize this,” Carrick warned. “This is a nothing contract.”
The two strong, opinionated men exchanged looks before Delta backed off, seemingly knowing that at the end of the day, Carrick was the CEO of Sea-to-Sky Security.
“Have it your way,” Delta said, leaning back. “You’re the boss.”
Moving away from the SUV, Carrick slung his old black hockey skates over his shoulder, heading toward the rink. He flipped up the collar of his black work coat, even further concealing his identity. He had a target to follow. Years of urban reconnaissance and black ops had given him more than enough tactical training to handle the job.
Popping a black baseball hat on and smoothing back his black hair that was peppered with gray, the dark Irish-American moved stealthily.
Delta took off behind him with gusto, but Carrick didn’t care. He just needed to get the job done and over with, then move on to the next one. It should be in and out—quick and easy. Those were the types of cases Carrick needed to build his client base and his reputation as the premiere private security firm in LA.
And, damn it, he was going to do the best job he could—because after losing everything that mattered to him, this new business venture was all he had left.
Carrick focused on the scene before him. The crowd had thinned. It was growing quiet. As he came up to the skating rink, a young couple passed him on the other side of the pathway leading out of the park. They seemed happy—in love. His only instinct was to scowl, and he pulled down the brim of his hat farther as he stooped to put on his skates.
The target was on the ice. It was time to get closer.
Out on the rink, it was nearing closing time, and everyone was clearing out. He was the only one heading in. Good. He needed the space. It was much easier to keep eyes on the target.
At least, that was what he told himself. He wouldn’t admit it, but at that moment—Valentine’s Day night—he wanted nothing else than to have a reason to be alone—alone and away from everything to do with his life, away from the memories. Is this my second Valentine’s Day alone? He shuddered, pushing the thought aside. That wasn’t something he was prepared to feel.
He didn’t have to. The girl was in sight.
Hockey skates on, Carrick moved hard down the bumpy outdoor ice—as hard as the restrictive leather strap of his shoulder holster would allow. Wearing a pistol was like wearing boxers. He did it every day, no matter what. It had come to feel like a second skin.
Keeping his eyes on the ice, not on her, his blood pumped to his engorged muscles and a sated grin crossed his lips. There were very few things in life that served to alleviate his stress—hockey being one. The other was a similar cardio-exhausting exercise that elevated his endorphins, pumped his blood and left him satisfied and spent.
Pushing forward, he observed her—the lone woman skating in the opposite direction, once again nearing his position. Her long brown hair had escaped her pink toque, and her warm breath visibly illustrated her panting chest, even from afar. Carrick had to admit that her form was more than pleasing to look at. Athletic and swift—he didn’t doubt she could give him a run for his money in a race, but he kept his gaze down. He made sure to give her enough space so that he wouldn’t scare her away.
As she was skating past him, he stole one glance of her face, locking eyes. He had to see her face in person. All he’d seen was a picture.
He wasn’t disappointed.
Her red cheeks flashed at him and her eyes sparkled. So youthful and full of life. What he’d seen in a blink of an eye held the promise of an eternity of pleasure as he took in her beautiful face.
But then, in an instant, just as her body floated by him, her skate hit a groove in the ice, an unmistakable sound—and common. Turning immediately, he thrust forward and reached out, catching the young woman as she fell. He quickly heaved her back onto her skates, rescuing her from a hard fall. As he held her, she fluttered her dark lashes at him, enchanting and stunning him.
“You okay?” he asked, looking her over, hoping she hadn’t been hurt.
“I’m okay.” A sweet, feminine voice escaped her full lips.
Holding her close, he realized that her eyes hadn’t been sparkling. They were wet.
Has she been crying?
“I just caught an edge,” she explained, like she’d been caught doing something wrong. “Thank you.”
As she made to push away from his arms, he realized that he had been still holding her all this time. I never let her go.
She frowned as she probably realized the same thing. He released his grip on her thick sweater, letting her float back a foot into her own space. Silence filled the rink. Their gazes did not break, and she continued to blink at him, likely assessing him, given the look in her eyes.
There was something distrustful about the way she was evaluating him. Her body language screamed that she was scared and threatened that she was about to run. Before thinking, he threw out his hand, just knowing she was just about to pop smoke and disappear—and knowing he couldn’t allow that. His client had warned him that she was a runner—and that she could slip out of any situation.
His client had also warned him of the importance of not letting her go.
“Carrick,” he introduced himself, keeping her there.
She took his hand, though hers remained limp, and she retracted it right way. Clearly, she didn’t know what to make of him—but her manners shone through.
Cute. She seemed very sweet, and not at all like the client had described. That was the first thing that brought on his suspicion that something might be wrong and not as he’d been led to believe.
“Nice to meet you,” he replied with a little more meaning than he’d expected.
She responded slow and shy, her voice cracking, “I really do appreciate you saving me from the fall.”
“Forget it.” He shrugged as instinct urged him to back off a little.
But the caveman inside him couldn’t take his eyes off her. Lithe and pert, she almost glowed under the soft lights. There was something different about this target. She continued averting her gaze, looking down at the hard ice and shaking her pretty heart-shaped face.
Something was brewing in his mind that he was unwilling to accept, and his strategy shifted. This was not how he’d planned the operation to go, but he had to adjust on the fly—right?
Carrick checked his watch and turned in the direction she was going. “Heading this way? Last five minutes.”
He motioned, nearly regretting it as he did. Really, he knew better. They didn’t have time for leisurely skating.
“I was.” Her words poured out nervously, responding to his invitation. “But…”
“You aren’t anymore?”
“I mean, I am.” She toyed with her gray sweater buttons as she looked away, seemingly just as conflicted as him. She was a smart little coyote, and he wondered if she was ready to bolt.
She is definitely ready to bolt.
“Well, let’s go then.” He took the lead, pushing off the ice and gliding away from her.
If there was one thing Carrick was good at, it was controlling a situation. After a pause, there was the distinct sound of skates on the ice behind him, and she caught up to glide alongside him. He’d been sure she would follow—had just known it.
A sense of intrigue tugged at his senses as a cold burst of wind blew her long brunette locks across her shoulder.
So he decided to lay it on thick.
“Looks like you’ve got tough luck tonight,” he said.
“It certainly wouldn’t have been the worst thing to happen to me on Valentine’s Day.” The rebellious words seemed to slip from her mouth, and she glanced up with an embarrassed expression.
“That sounds like a good story,” he replied.
Her wide gaze betrayed discomfort. The effect? He was able to observe her eye color more closely. They were a lighter brown, but mixed. With green? Like camouflage. He’d never seen a color like that before.
He continued looking around. “We must be two sad cases—out here alone on Valentine’s night.”
She brought her gloved hands together, rubbing them and offering him a shy smile. “Or, we must both just love skating.”
He couldn’t help but smirk, his chest flexing, “Guilty. I’m a hockey guy.”
What the hell am I doing? He wiped the smile off his face, feeling like an idiot. However, it seemed her guard was lowering—and in return her shy tiny smile grew a bit.
“I can’t believe you…caught me.”
“Come on. I couldn’t let you take a nosedive.” He shrugged, pumping harder down the ice.
She kept up, showcasing just how good she was on blades.
She cocked her head and offered the slightest grin, tepid and testing. “You have quick reflexes.”
He shrugged again. “Yeah, when I need to.”
Built from years of Special Forces tactical training.
She shook her head again in apparent disbelief, then looked away. It was almost like she didn’t believe someone would save her.
The bumpy ice on the rink was overdue for maintenance, which tended to be the case at the end of the skating day. There weren’t many rinks in California—and fewer outdoor ones. Her skate caught an edge again, which she was too distracted to see. As she yelped and almost fell, he lunged instinctively, grabbing her against his body one more time.
“Christ.” He exhaled.
Holding her in his arms again, he gazed down on her young, golden face. She bit her lip as she glanced up at him. He was aware of his great height and wide frame, which could be intimidating for some, especially when he was on skates.
“Want to keep going?” he asked, offering his arm. “Or should we head off?”
Danica grinned up to him, making him wait far too long before she answered, her glittery, innocent gaze flickering left and right. Never before had he wanted someone to take his arm so badly. As much as he hated to admit it, he had her exactly where he wanted her. He was forcing her to make a choice. It was going to play into the job nicely.
“One more round.” She grinned her little smile, but her cooperation was tentative at best.
She slipped her hand in the crook of his elbow, only to then avert her gaze from his. The flush in her cheeks grew, and he guessed it was more than just the cool night wind coming in off the Pacific Ocean.
Comfortable silence found them briefly as they pushed along the ice side by side. She never let go of his arm, and for the first time, it felt like they were skating together. Something stirred inside him that hadn’t been there before.
“How long have you been skating?” he asked, propelling the conversation forward.
“Oh, for as long as I can remember,” Danica began, revealing more and more. “I grew up on skates and dreamed of becoming a figure skater.”
Again, the admission was followed by caution that flashed across her eyes. She didn’t want to share much, but she was. She recoiled slightly, as if realizing her mistake, and tried to create space between them until he decided he wouldn’t let her. He didn’t want her to withdraw.
Changing the tempo, he pushed her out a little from him, allowing her hand to slide down his forearm and slip to his just as he twirled her around on the ice. It was so smooth, so natural—like they’d been skating together for years. He didn’t miss the wide smile that crossed her lips.
“It never hurts to dream,” Carrick said as he pulled her back into him, running his gaze over her form for the hundredth time, his curiosity at maximum.
What does Danica want? What does she do? Questions sprang to the front of his mind. Why did my client lie to me?
“I have no shortage of dreams.” Her sweet smile betrayed a longing, and it was clear she noticed the way he was looking at her.
“What do you do for work?” He pressed on as he ushered them farther down the ice.
“I’m a nurse.”
“At the hospital?” His gaze caught the city worker beginning the process of closing the rink.
“No, at a family clinic,” she replied.
“What else?” he probed. “Tell me more.”
She let out a low laugh, as if in disbelief he would even say that. “I think it’s time to go.”
Then she let her hand slip out of his arm, gliding one perfect white skate in front of the other on her way to leave the rink. As he followed, he couldn’t keep his eyes off her, watching her closely as she moved. It was like he’d never met a woman before, never seen one. If he were a wiser man, he’d notice that his chest didn’t feel as tight as usual for the first time in too long.
If he were a wiser man, he’d notice that he’d grown very distracted.
“What about you?” She cut into his thoughts as she held on to the wall of the rink, stepping one foot through the gate. “Are you…?”
If it weren’t for the sound of a man shouting as he sprinted toward them, Carrick would have caught what she said after that. The shouting was unmistakable, and for a second he felt like he could kill Delta for the interruption.
Danica snapped her eyes open like a doe caught in the headlights, clearly frightened by the six-foot-five man running up to the gate. Delta grabbed onto the side of the rink with his meaty SEAL-build as he spoke to Carrick in low tones.
“Moose, there’s a situation. We have to go.”