Authors: Diana Palmer
T WAS AN UNUSUALLY COLD
morning for October in Houston, Texas, and Colby Lane's left arm ached. There wasn't a lot left of it, thanks to a stint as a covert specialist in Africa. He'd been too drunk to take proper precautions and it had been shot off, then amputated from just below his elbow. The state-of-the-art prosthesis he wore was classified technology, very advanced, and the hand at the end of it looked real enough to fool most people. He even had sensation in it, thanks to implanted computer chips. He was, he mused, a walking, talking lab rat with stealth capability. He grinned to himself at the mental picture that thought produced.
But the smile faded rapidly. He was in a foul mood. It was only his second full day on the job as new assistant chief of security for the Ritter Oil Corporation's Houston branch. He'd taken the job as a favor to his old friend, Phillip Hunter, who was training him to be his replacement. The Hunters were considering a move back to Tucson, Arizona.
Meanwhile, Colby was trying to get used to new surroundings and at least two department heads who thought they knew how to do his job better than he did. He'd formerly worked for the international Hutton Corporation as another friend's assistant chief of security. Then the Hutton Corporation gave notice that it was moving overseas. He didn't want to go with it. Colby knew Hunter from his childhood on the reservation. Like him, Colby had Apache blood. But Colby also had an innate dislike of tight schedules, corporate politics and wearing a suit. His background in covert operations as a mercenary soldier, not to mention a brief stint in top-secret intelligence work for the government, made this routine job an uncomfortable fit. Office politics was a far cry from going after the enemy with weapons. The amputation of his arm had cost him the work he'd done all his life. He was bitter about that; in fact, he was bitter about a lot of things. Life had failed him. One old friend had voiced the opinion that Colby's growing array of wounds stemmed from a death wish. He hadn't admitted it aloud, but the accusation hit a nerve. He was tired of aching wounds, broken dreams, shattered illusions. He was tired of life itself.
Here in Houston, he was trying to settle down for the first time in his life, with two failed marriages behind him and a past history of alcoholism. He'd overcome the drinking problem years ago. He was sober as a judge these days. But he no longer had the physical means to continue in demanding special operations work overseas. He resented forced retirement from his vocation of choice. His aching arm reminded him of all that he'd had to give up.
He'd tried hard to put his past to the back of his mind. He had enough to worry about, getting used to this new job. His background, however, predisposed him for security work. He was an expert in martial arts and small arms, not to mention counterterrorism. He was a past master in interrogation techniques and he'd almost learned diplomacy. He had credentials that had even impressed Hunterânot to mention Eugene Ritter, the head of Ritter Oil Corporation. Now he had to find a way to exercise diplomacy with words when he was used to doing it with firearms. It wasn't easy.
He walked in the front door of the sprawling modern building in an industrial complex outside Houston, absently displaying his ID on a card clipped to his lapel as he passed the security guard at the desk. Ironic, he thought, that he was chief of security and still had to flash his own badge to get into the building he protected. The guard seemed to see the same irony, because he couldn't resist a grin. Colby returned it.
He was an impressive figure in his navy-blue business suit. He was tall, handsome, lean, and physically formidable, with thick, shining black hair that held a slight wave. He had deep-set black eyes and an olive complexion, and he wore his hair conventionally cut. He never discussed his Apache ancestry. It wasn't immediately apparent, anyway, because there was a comfortable amount of white blood in his lineage. He was wearing his newest prosthesis, linked not only to muscle remnants in his left arm, but to his brain as well. It looked quite real, even up close, and he could do almost anything with itâexcept lift. He could even “feel” hot and cold. The sensors were incredible.
As he turned the corner toward the executive offices, he noticed two children playing in the corridor. Both were dark-haired and dark-eyed. Both were girls. He'd almost forgotten that it was bring-your-daughter-to-work day for Ritter's employees. Just what he needed, a floor full of hyperactive children to contend with at the beginning of a new job. It wasn't that he didn't like children. But he was bitter because he had none of his own. He'd wanted them badly.
His ex-wife, Maureen, had taunted him with his sterility before she left him. It was just as well, she'd said, because she didn't want mixed race children. She hadn't realized that he was part Apache when they'd married, or he might have been saved a lot of heartache.
She'd been an obsession with him, in those days. When she walked out after only two years of marriage, he thought he'd die. When she'd divorced him three years later, he was devastated and turned to the bottle. It had taken him months to dry out and get his life back, with some help from friends and a psychologist. He'd conquered his demons. But children still reminded him of the pain.
One of the children ran laughing down the hall. The other, who looked about six years old, stopped and stared at Colby from a pretty, intelligent face dominated by big brown eyes. She had long brown hair that reached her waist in back. She was lovely; Hispanic in appearance. Or perhaps she had Native American ancestry. He knew that Hunter had a little girl who was on the premises today. Perhaps this was her.
The little girl came right up to him and reached up to touch the sleeve where the prosthesis protruded. “I'm sorry your arm got hurt. You shouldn't have been drinking. You weren't quick enough, so you couldn't get out of the way in time. But this hand looks very real, doesn't it?” She touched the hand, which he jerked back at once. “Does it still hurt you?” she asked matter-of-factly, staring up at him with dark eyes that seemed oddly familiar.
His eyes exploded with rage. What had possessed Hunter to tell his daughter so much intimate information about him? How dare a child criticize Colby for not being quick enough to save his arm! In fact, how dare she make such a personal comment to a total stranger? He was touchy enough about missing part of his arm in the first place, without having attention drawn to it. Even close friends, whose interest he didn't mind, knew better than to say such things to him. It made him furious that a child should be so forward.
“What business is it of yours?” he demanded in a soft tone that nevertheless cut like a whip. Added to the fierce scowl on his unsmiling face, it made him look very intimidating. “I don't answer to kids for my actions. And it's my arm!”
“Iâ¦I'm sorry,” the child stammered, shocked.
“Who told you about it?” he demanded. “Answer me!”
She shook her head nervously and ground her teeth together, tears threatening.
He cursed harshly under his breath. “Get back to whoever you're with today, and stay out of the corridors!'' he snapped at her. “This is a business, not a nursery school!”
She backed away from him with wide, hurt eyes. She turned suddenly and ran back the way she'd come, her voice breaking on a sob.
He ground his teeth together. He hadn't meant to attack the child like that. It had shocked and offended him that a child would be so personal, and so critical, with him. He didn't like remarks about his handicap. But he shouldn't have been so aggressive toward her. She'd been really upset.
He started after her down the hall. Hunter came out of a side door, his eyebrows arching at the look on Colby's face.
“What's eating you?” he asked.
Colby grimaced as he faced his friend, the same height and build as himself, but a few years older. Hunter had a few gray hairs these days.
“Is your daughter here today?” he asked Hunter.
He felt worse than ever. “I upset her. She made a remark about my arm and it hit me the wrong way.” He glared at Hunter. “Why did you tell her how I lost it?”
Hunter's eyes narrowed. “I've never told Nikki about your arm,” he said curiously, puzzled.
He blinked. “Maybe it was somebody else's kid. She had long, dark hair and dark eyes. She looked Hispanic, I thought.”
“Oh, that might be Marie Gomez's little girl. Was she wearing an embroidered dress?”
Colby grimaced. This was not a good way to start a new job. “I didn't mean to make her cry,” he bit off, averting his eyes. “I'm not used to kids. What she said hit me the wrong way. But how would a stranger's child know such personal things about me?” he wondered aloud. He glared at Hunter. “I didn't sign on as a babysitter.”
“It's only for today,” Hunter said. “The kids will all be gone tomorrow.”
Colby ground his teeth together. “I'd better find the little girl and apologize. She went down that way,” he added, and moved reluctantly along the corridor.
Hunter stood still. He was remembering something a friend and coworker here, Sarina Carrington, had said once about Colby Lane. She and her daughter and the Hunters were good friends from Tucson. She'd transferred here recently from Arizona. She was working with Hunter on a project he hadn't yet told Colby aboutâin fact, he couldn't tell him about it. But Colby was about to get a very unpleasant shock. There was a connection that Colby didn't know about yet, and the child might figure in it. He wondered if he should stop the other man. He wasn't sure how he could, now.
Colby noticed an open office door and he heard a child sobbing. He'd have to find a way to apologize for making her cry. He was no good with kids, and he hated women. Probably the child's mother would be out for his blood. He was new here and already he was making enemies. Old man Ritter wouldn't like that. He'd better try to smooth things over. But this was going to be difficult. And he had questions about the child's source of information about him, as well.
He walked into the office in time to see the little girl folded close to a slender woman's breasts, cradled and kissed. Sleek pale blond hair was tamed in a neat French twist at the woman's nape. Her voice was tender as she comforted the child, rocking her in her arms. There was something familiar about that voiceâ¦
The little girl pulled back, as if she sensed Colby's presence. She looked at him from red, angry eyes.
“Â¡Matador de hombres!”
she raged at him in Spanish.
“Â¡Hijo del Diablo!”
“Â¡Lengua como una serpiente!”
he shot right back, dark eyes blazing.
He was just getting over the shock of being called a man-killer by a child in perfect Spanish, when the blond woman rose gracefully to her feet and turned to face him, and a nightmare vision corded his powerful body like a drop from a sudden height at the end of a rope. It was Sarina Carrington. Sarina, whom he'd hurt and rejected. Sarina, the first wife nobody even knew he had. Ex-wife, he corrected at once. But the shock still had him speechless. And he wasn't the only one.
The woman stared at him, silently, with wide, shocked eyes, and her full mouth suddenly flattened. She bent and clutched the child to her and stood up, lifting her in her arms, her own nightmares darkening her eyes. Colby Lane! For a few seconds, she thought she might faint. Her heart skipped like a wet engine. The years fell away and she was a teenager, hero-worshipping the handsomest, sexiest man she'd ever known. Just the sight of him had been enough to leave her tongue-tied and gasping. The first time he'd kissed her, the rapt pleasure in her face had amused him and he'd laughed. She'd loved him more than her own life. It had been almost seven years since she'd seen him. She hadn't even known where he was. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, he was hereâ¦!
Slowly she forced herself to remember that she was twenty-four years old, and in a very responsible position. In the past seven years, she'd grown far away from that sensitive, lovesick teenager who'd inadvertently ruined Colby's lifeâand her own.
Circumstances had forced him to marry her, and he'd made her pay in a terrible way during the one day their marriage had lasted. Perhaps he'd had reason to treat her so terribly. Nevertheless, he wasn't taking out old hurts on her child! Her dark eyes narrowed and she glared at him with real hatred. “What are you doing here?” she asked coldly. “And what did you say to my daughter?”
He was on shaky ground, but it didn't show in his hard face. He glared back. “You should tell your child not to be so forward with strangers. She insulted me.”
She frowned, looking into the child's face so close to her own. “Bernadette, is that true?” she asked quietly.
The child's arms tightened around her neck. She glared at Colby. “No, ma'am,” she said politely.
“She made a personal remark. My life is none of her business,” he replied in a voice dripping like ice.
“I can't think why your life would interest anyone except you and your wife, Mr. Lane,” she said coldly. “Certainly it doesn't interest me.”