Authors: Kristen Robinette
Luke nodded and disappeared through the doorway, leaving Dana alone. What she'd said was true. She could pick that deep, captivating voice out of a crowded room. Maybe it was the tense circumstances, but that voice had the power to soothe her and, if she was honest with herself, to make her want to crawl into the shelter of his arms.
Power. The word stuck in her brain as she pointed Luke's gun toward the empty door frame as he'd directed. Hadn't she learned a thing or two about giving up her power? But this was hardly the same as her marriage had been. Luke had just given her the power of his weapon and, with barely a word of instruction, his trust.
Time passed. Five minutes? Ten?
“Yes,” she responded, lowering the gun and, with it, her defenses.
Welcome to another month of the most exciting romantic reading around, courtesy of Silhouette Intimate Moments. Starting things off with a bang, we have
To Love a Thief
by ultrapopular Merline Lovelace. This newest CODE NAME: DANGER title takes you back into the supersecret world of the Omega Agency for a dangerous liaison you won't soon forget.
For military romance, Catherine Mann's WINGMEN WARRIORS are the ones to turn to. These uniformed heroes and heroines are irresistible, and once you join Darcy Renshaw and Max Keagan for a few
you won't even be trying to resist, anyway. Wendy Rosnau continues her unflashed miniseries THE BROTHERHOOD in
Last Man Standing,
while Sharon Mignerey's couple find themselves
In Too Deep.
Finally, welcome two authors who are new to the line but not to readers. Kristen Robinette makes an unforgettable entrance with
In the Arms of a Stranger,
and Ana Leigh offers a matchup between
The Law and Lady Justice.
I hope you enjoy all six of these terrific novels, and that you'll come back next month for more of the most electrifying romantic reading around.
Leslie J. Wainger
Silhouette Intimate Moments
In the Arms of a Stranger
could never decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wanted to be an archaeologist, a firefighter, a psychiatrist, an equestrian, an artist, a police officerâ¦all at the same time. After deciding that her affliction was actually the urge to
about such things, she set out to become an author. Four romance novels and multiple fiction careers later, she couldn't be happier! Kristen lives in Alabama with her husband and three daughters. When not at the keyboard, she can be found spending time with her family, pampering her horse (who believes he's a dog), boating, reading and generally avoiding domestic chores.
To Adrienne, who made us complete.
to my sister, Kathy,
who always slowed down so that I could catch up,
held my hand in front of the “big kids”
and still comes out to play.
hief Luke Sutherlin sat his coffee mug on top of a battered file cabinet and watched chaos consume his police station.
“Chief, another storm report is coming in.” Lieutenant Ben Allen hovered over the computer terminal as it began printing.
Luke nodded, dreading the fact that he'd be trapped in the station today. Working closely with his officers wasn't a favorite part of his job. His men accepted that a Sutherlin was, yet again, in charge. Respected his authority, maybe. But they didn't like him. Not even on a good day.
And today was definitely not a good day.
He walked slowly to where Ben stood and scanned the information as it printed. When the terminal finally stilled, he ripped the paper away and read it in detail.
“Looks like the storm will go north of Sweetwater, after all,” Lieutenant Allen offered in a too-cheerful voice.
A winter storm had built west of the Mississippi River
and was now burying North Alabama and Tennessee under a blanket of ice and snow. It was a freak storm, the television meteorologists explained with panicked expressions, something they'd never seen before, much less in early March. Authorities originally predicted it would sweep across the North Georgia Mountains with the same fury, but the storm had weakened and was headed north of them.
Luke breathed a sigh of relief. They were accustomed to occasional snow flurries but were ill equipped to handle a storm of this magnitude. This was the South. He could count ten tornadoes for every true snowstorm he'd seen. He tossed the report on Ben's desk.
“What's that?” He pointed to a crumpled slip of yellow paper with his name scrawled at the top.
“Ohâ¦” Ben smoothed the paper before offering it to him. “It's a message, sir. I'm sorry. I took it late last night.”
He pulled it from Ben's hand. Shelly Henson. The name stopped him cold. His father's mistress.
mistress, he amended. He hadn't seen or heard from Shelly in over a year. Why had she called the station?
Ben had scribbled the message with a fat felt-tipped marker: “I'll be returning what belongs to you.” Shelly had taken a couple of hundred dollars from his wallet a year ago, the night he'd taken her in. He winced at the memory.
After having received a frantic call from the housekeeper, Luke had arrived at his father's house to find Shelly lying on the polished marble floor, her face bruised and the smell of fear in the air. His stepmother had merely watched the distasteful scene play out with cool detachment. But then, Miss Camille, as she liked to be called despite her age and marital status, had never made any secret of his father's affairs. On the contrary, she wore them like a badge of honor. Proof of what she was forced to endure.
His father had made himself conveniently absent by then, leaving Luke to see to the nasty details.
Luke had brought Shelly back to his place, then valiantly tried to wipe the scene out of his head with a bottle of booze. It hadn't worked. Not that night or any night since.
Why Shelly Henson would feel the need to make amends at all was beyond him. The theft was nothing compared to his own behavior that night. He rotated his stiff right shoulder. His shoulder had never failed to predict a storm, not in twenty-two years. Not since his sixteenth birthday, when his father had broken it.
Luke wadded up the note and threw it into the trash can.
Lucas Daniel Sutherlin, Sr., was the financial nucleus of Sweetwater and, therefore, a necessary evil. Sutherlin factories still employed most of the townspeople despite their tragic past. Too bad his father's character hadn't grown along with his stock holdings.
Why was it some men seemed born with absolution while others couldn't be forgiven for simply having the wrong last name?
Luke walked across the station's gritty tile floor and retrieved his coffee. He took a long sip, wishing for the comforting sting of Jack Daniels instead. He examined the faces of his men over the rim of the mug. Their condemnation wasn't visible, but it was there. He was a Sutherlin. The badge he wore would never make amends for that fact. He glanced at the trashcan where the note lay crumpled. Shelly should keep the money.
It was the least the Sutherlin men could do.
“Chief!” someone called.
A few officers had gathered around a small television set, intermittently twisting its antennae to try and capture the reception that bounced elusively off the mountains. Luke joined them. Through the snowy picture, he could see the
smiling face of the meteorologist as he pointed to the fickle storm front on the map.
The man looked immensely relieved. Too relieved, Luke thought.
“Looks like we're out of danger.” Ben offered a grin along with the comment.
Luke rotated his shoulder again, and scowled at the television. He had a feeling otherwise.
now was falling, covering the ground like a fuzzy white blanket. Wet, fat snowflakes covered the windshield as fast as the wipers slid them to one side. Dana Langston had never considered being a Southerner a liability, but it certainly felt that way now. Accustomed to Atlanta's mild winters, she had no idea how to drive in snow, much less on a sheet of ice. She gripped the Acura's steering wheel, too terrified to blink as the terrain of the North Georgia Mountains turned to rock-faced cliffs.
It was almost dark, the storm clouds stealing what was left of the twilight at an alarming rate. The temperature would drop even further soon, freezing the slush to solid ice. Clyde Jenkins, the news station's midday producer and her boss, had given Dana the keys to his vacation cabin, along with a box of tissues, a fatherly lecture on professionalism and three weeks' mandatory leave. Whether or not her job waited on her when she returned depended on how thoroughly she could get her personal life in order.
Your job as a midday news anchor is to inform our viewers without destroying the rest of their day. Let's face itâyour career simply won't survive another on-air breakdown like you had today.
Dana bit her lip as her tires skidded against the shoulder of the lonely road, their traction lost in the gathering slush. The drive became more treacherous as the mountain's incline grew steeper, but it was far too late to turn back. Clyde's last instruction had been that, under no circumstances was she to leave for the mountains before she was certain the storm would miss Georgia entirely.
She'd tried. She honestly had. But the walls of her apartment had closed in on her as surely as the storm had closed in on the South. Dana knew that phone calls from sympathetic friends and family who'd seen her tearful on-air meltdown were inevitable.
But they were also avoidable.
Though the plan was looking seriously flawed, she'd left before she'd had to face the ringing phone. And, if she were honest with herself, she'd been genuinely frightened to spend another night alone in her apartment. The murder trial of Paul Gonzalez had been postponed. Again. She would testify against the monster if it was the last thing she did. But if the court system insisted on making her Gonzalez's target for a little longer, she would at least become a moving target.
Dana concentrated on the twisting ribbon of road. If she'd thought for a minute that the storm could change course, she wouldn't have been so rash. She'd heard a weather report about an hour outside of Atlanta, assuring listeners again that the storm would miss the state. Dana had popped a CD in the stereo right after that and hadn't given it any more thought until the snow started to fall.
She stifled a hysterical laugh. Maybe she should have
hung around her apartment a little longer, at least long enough to watch the weather on the evening news. She gripped the steering wheel tighter. That would have been a lot of fun. She could have sized up potential replacements for her job while she was at it.
Glancing in her rearview mirror, she looked for the lone set of headlights that had appeared and disappeared behind her during the past twenty minutes as her car had hugged the inside curve of the winding mountain road. Part of her welcomed the idea of another living soul on the road, but part of her wondered if the headlights could belong to Gonzalez.
Paranoid, she scolded herself. The whole day was making her crazy.
Dana switched on the dome light and pinpointed her progress on the map with quick glances. By her calculations she should be only ten minutes from the cabin.
Without warning her car lurched sideways. Dana threw the map aside and gripped the steering wheel with both hands, her worst nightmare realized. The barely passable road had become a solid sheet of black ice. Terror seized her. She hit the brakes but the action only caused her to slide. She was spinning, the interior of the car becoming a sickening blur of light, darkness and fear. Desperate, she turned the wheel in the opposite direction and her car straightened, eventually finding the shoulder of the road in a violent spray of ice and rock.
Then all was still.
For a full minute she just sat there, breathing in gulps of air and willing her fingers to loosen their death grip from the steering wheel. She blinked, her vision clearing as the panic subsided. Her car had gone off the shoulder of the road, coming to rest in an area of tangled underbrush mere feet from the mountain's unguarded ledge.
Dana covered her face with her hands, stifling a sob. It had been foolish to take her eyes from the road. It had almost proved suicidal.
Ignoring the tangle of vines and scrub trees that curled over her windshield, she took a deep breath and pressed the gas. The car lurched forward once before its tires spun, digging ruts into the freezing slush.
Panic tightened her chest. She tried again, slower this time, but the result was the same. She couldn't risk backing, not with the cliff so close. Hot tears of frustration burned her eyes. She gunned it, praying the force of the action would work. It didn't. In fact, she felt the left side of the car settle deeper into the mire.
All the events of the last week slammed into her. She wanted to curl into a ball and cry, sleep and wake to find out she'd only dreamed that her life had gone to hell. Dana shoved the tears from her cheeks. The only thing
would get her was frozen.
Switching off the engine, she donned her down coat and fought her way past the underbrush that clung stubbornly to the car.
The world outside was ghostly silent. The wind seemed to be the only living thing, whipping across the rocky face of the mountain and swaying the trees, their branches now laden with crystals of frozen ice. There hadn't been a turnoff since she'd last seen the headlights behind her. Unless the car had done a U-turn, it would eventually catch up to her, she reasoned.
But did she want it to?
She began frantically searching the side of the road for branches, rocksâanything she could use to stuff beneath the car's wheelsâbut the thick blanket of snow and ice camouflaged anything she might have used. It was then that
she noticed the tracks. Deep tire tracks crisscrossed those made by her car, following a similar path. It appeared the car had been ascending the mountain in the northbound lane and had lost control, just as she had. Onlyâ¦
Dana began walking forward, following the tracks, then paused. Her gaze followed the tracks until they disappeared. Then she saw the massive oak tree, its gray bark scraped clean with a fresh wound. Flanking it were pine saplings, their tops snapped away like gruesome, headless necks.
The car had gone off the cliff.
“Hey!” Dana yelled into the silence, spinning to search the road for help before she began running.
Briars and underbrush scratched her hands as she shoved them aside to reach the cliff. As she'd feared, the car was on a rock ledge below her. It had obviously made a nosedive and had hit a second ledge, crushing the front end. The only thing that kept it from continuing to slide down the mountain was a sharp boulder that had caught the rear underside of the car. Its crumpled front end was now suspended in midair; its tires overlooked a sheer rock cliff.
“Hey!” She yelled again. “Is anyone in there?”
Adrenaline pumped through her, and she assessed the situation with surreal clarity. If anyone had escaped, which seemed impossible, she'd have seen their footprints. The same was true for anyone that might have come to help.
The car was an older-model four-door, its faded blue sides making it nearly impossible to see in the growing darkness. The only way to reach it would be to lower herself down to the second ledge. There wasn't time to consider anything else. Dana grabbed the rubbery trunk of a scrub brush and lowered herself onto her belly, slithering down the sharp cliff until her boots met the crunch of loose stone.
She approached the car cautiously, as though her footfalls could send it toppling off the mountain. The windshields
were clear of snow, and the back door closest to her was slightly ajar. She cupped her hands to look through the window but saw only a tangle of clothing and blankets. Making her way to the other side, she did the same. This time the sight made her stomach lurch and bile rise in her throat.
The driver, a young woman, was visible from this angle. Though she was still in the driver's seat, her body had come to rest at an angle, her head thrown back in a silent scream. The delicate flesh and cartilage that had once formed her features was now pulled away by a vertical gash. Congealing blood had stained and matted her long blond hair.
Dana felt her entire body begin to tremble. Was it possible to survive such a thing? She stared at the door handle. Any action on her part could send the car careening off the cliff. She took in a steadying breath. The woman was, in all likelihood, dead.
The trick would be to keep the car from dragging her with it if it began sliding.
As gently as she could, Dana lifted the handle and opened the door. It caught on its hinges, grinding against the boulder. The news station had required all its reporters to take basic CPR and emergency training courses, and she called on the half-forgotten knowledge. Leaning partially in, she pressed her fingertips against the woman's bloodied neck. There was no pulse.
A crushing sadness flowed over her as she straightened. “I'm so sorry,” she whispered.
A thin gust of wind whistled through the car, carrying the strong, unmistakable odor of whiskey. Dana's gaze fell to the floorboard of the back seat where several liquor bottles lay next to the woman's purse. More than one was empty, and one was half-finished. The sadness doubled and she hugged her jacket against her body.
The back seat was literally mounded with clothing, and
Dana noticed an upturned laundry basket and a box with linens and partially spilled household items. It was as if the woman had thrown everything she owned into the car. Dana thought of her own escape from Atlanta and the similarities between herself and the dead woman. What had this woman been running from?
A second blast of wind hit the face of the mountain, rocking the car. Dana gasped and took a step backward. There was nothing else she could do. Or was there? She could at least identify her to the police. She carefully leaned in and pulled the woman's purse from the tangled floorboard.
She stared at it in frozen horror. It wasn't a purse.
Dancing blue bears decorated the side of the white satchel. Dana unzipped the top with trembling fingers. Diapers. A pacifierâ¦
Oh, my God. A baby.
She threw down the diaper bag and leaned back into the car, resting one hand lightly against the back seat. “Baby!” she called. The car rocked beneath her.
a voice in her head whispered.
She forced her hands into deliberate action as she began pushing clothing and blankets aside from the center of the back seat. “Baby!” she called again. Her hand hit the solid form of a car seat and she instantly heard a soft mewling sound.
The infant. Elation spread through her. She'd found the infant.
As Dana pushed away the last article of clothing, the baby lifted a chubby fist in the air, turned to look at her, and instantly began crying. It was music to her ears. “It's going to be okay,” she whispered, the wind whipping the words away. It was all the same, Dana thought. She glanced at the child's mother. The words were a lie.
She had to get him out. The car swayed, groaning against the rocky boulder as if threatening her.
an inner voice commanded.
Do it now.
Dana leaned farther in, a million prayers dancing through her head. The carrier-style seat was built for an infant, with the car's center lap belt fastened over it. If she could just unfasten the seat beltâ¦ There was no choice but to climb partially in.
Her entire body was trembling as she placed her knee on the back seat and leaned over the child. He was screaming in earnest now. Was he hurt? The car lurched forward as her fingers found the release button. The seat belt gave way, and Dana scrambled to get a grip on the car seat. Her frantic actions swayed the car just as a gust of wind hit the mountainside.
She knew instantly that the car was going to go over the cliff.
Her fingers dug into the car seat and she threw herself backward with every ounce of energy she possessed. A hard blow smacked the flesh on the left side of her face and as if from a great distance she heard the sound of shattering glass, felt something cold and wet drench her foot. She was tumbling, felt her precarious grip on the car seat slippingâ¦ She hit the ground, her breath leaving her lungs as the car seat landed painfully on her chest.
The sound that followed was horrible. Metal ground against rock, screaming as it slid. Then there was the seemingly endless sound of the car crashing down the mountain face, snapping trees with the force of its weight.
And then there was silence.
Her eyes opened to darkened purple sky, wet snowflakes falling against the skin of her face. The daylight was almost completely gone. She still hugged the car seat but there was no sound. Panic seized her. Where was the baby?
Dana rolled to one side, and the throbbing pain on the right side of her head filled her vision with dancing lights.
She eased the car seat to the ground and scrambled to sit up, blinking to clear her vision. The baby stared back at her, still securely held in its seat, his eyes wide and panicked.
The question registered absently in her brain.
She glanced at the blue sleeper with its bright cars and trucks. The cheerful clothing brought hot tears to her eyes. Yes, a boy. And so young. Probably only three or four months old.
“Oh, little one,” Dana whispered. “My God, what have you been through?” Her fingers fumbled with the restraining belt, releasing it. She scanned his tiny body for injury, finding none. Lifting him from the car seat, she realized that the weather was the next greatest threat to his safety.