Authors: Susan Mallery
|Shelter in a Soldier's Arms|
|Silhouette Special Edition |
When Jeff Ritter offered Ashley Churchill shelter, the struggling single mom longed to lean on his broad shoulders. And though she accepted a job as his housekeeper, Ashley was determined to make her own happiness, without the heartbreak of loving a man. No matter how tempting that man was....
It was Jeff's nature to protect, but his heart was off-limits--even to the woman and child he came home to each night. For life had made Jeff a hardened soldier, not a man to love. And despite the hope he saw shining in Ashley's eyes, Jeff didn't dare dream she could truly be his....
SHELTER IN A SOLDIER’S ARMS
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There was trouble.
Jeffrey Ritter sensed it even before he spotted the flashing light on the security console mounted in his car. At five o’clock in the morning the offices of Ritter/Rankin Security should have been locked down and empty. According to the red flashing light, the building was neither.
Jeff touched several buttons on the console to confirm the information. The front and rear doors were locked, but inner doors were open. Lights were on as well, he noted as he drove into the parking lot and headed for a spot to the left of the double glass doors-glass that was deceptively clear but could in fact withstand severe artillery fire and a small bomb blast.
Trouble, he thought again as he put the car into Park and turned off the engine. He popped the trunk of his black BMW 740i and stepped out onto the damp pavement. Although it wasn’t raining, the air was heavy and wet, as if the Seattle skies were about to do their thing at any moment.
Jeff circled the vehicle and removed his personal firearm, which he checked and slipped into his specially designed holster. Next came the black stunner, designed to immobilize an attacker without permanent injury. He punched buttons on his beeper, setting it to standby so that a single touch would alert his partner and the authorities. He didn’t usually get the latter involved in his operations, but his office was in downtown Seattle. The local police wouldn’t appreciate a predawn shoot-out, and they would absolutely expect an explanation.
He turned his attention to the quiet building. Nothing looked out of place. But in his experience that was common. Danger rarely announced itself with a neon sign.
Jeff walked quickly and quietly, moving around the building to a side entrance without a lock. Only a small keypad allowed access. He tapped in the code and waited for the door to unlock. If someone was waiting in the small alcove, the door wouldn’t open. There was a slight snick as the locking mechanism released, and he entered the protective space tucked along the main corridor.
He was surrounded on three sides by glass coated to be a two-way mirror. Dropping into a crouch, he surveyed the length of the corridor. Nothing. From the corner of his eye he caught a flicker of movement in the east hallway. It was gone before he could register who or what it was. Damn.
Still crouching, Jeff pushed the concealed button to let himself out into the corridor. He hurried in the direction of the movement, keeping low, running soundlessly. As he rounded the corner, he reached for both the gun and the stunneronly to slam to a halt, as immobilized as if he’d just taken a jolt from his own weapon.
Breath left his lungs. Involuntary impulses forced him to his feet even as he slipped the weapons out of sight. He didn’t remember making a sound, yet he must have because the intruder turned and looked at him.
“You hafta be quiet ‘cause Mommy’s sleeping.”
In less than a second he’d scanned the immediate area and absorbed all that he saw. No dangerous intruders, at least not in the traditional sense. Which was unfortunate. Jeff Ritter knew what to do when facing an insurrection, a terrorist hit squad or even a stubborn client. But he had absolutely no experience with childrenespecially little girls with big blue eyes.
She was small, barely coming to midthigh on him. Dark, shiny curls caught the overhead light. She wore pink kitten-motif pajamas and fluffy, cotton-candy-colored slippers. A stuffed white cat filled her arms.
He blinked, half wondering if she was an illusion. But she remained stubbornly real. As did the woman on the floor beside her.
Jeff took in the cart of cleaning supplies and the woman’s casual, worn clothes. Grown-ups he could handle, and he quickly cataloged her flushed face, closed eyes and the trace of sweat on her forehead. Even from several feet away he could sense her fever, brought on by illness. She’d probably sat down to rest and had slipped into semi-consciousness.
“Mommy works hard,” the little girl told him. “She’s real tired. I woke up a while ago and I was gonna talk to her ‘bout why she was sleeping on the floor, but then I thought I’d be real quiet and let her sleep.”
Chubby cheeks tilted up as the young child smiled at him, as if expecting praise for her decision. Instead Jeff turned his pager from emergency standby to regular, then flicked on the safety on his gun and switched off the stunner. Then he crouched next to the woman.
“What’s your name?”
He was speaking to the adult, but the child answered instead.
“I’m Maggie. Do you work here? It’s nice. One of the big rooms is my favorite. It’s got really, really big windows and you can see forever, clear up to the sky. Sometimes when I wakes up, I count the stars. I can count to a hundred and sometimes I can count higher. Wanna hear?”
“Not right now.”
Jeff ignored the ongoing chatter. Instead he reached for the woman’s forehead and at the same time he touched the inside of her wrist to check her pulse. Her heart rate was steady and strong, but she definitely had a fever. He reached to lift an eyelid to examine her pupil reaction when she awakened. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared at him, her expression telling him he was about as welcome as the plague.
A man! Ashley Churchill’s first thought was that Damian had come back to haunt her. Her second was that while the cold-looking man in front of her might be second cousin to the devil, he wasn’t her ex-husband.
Her head felt as if it weighed three tons, and she couldn’t seem to focus on anythingbut gray eyes and a face completely devoid of emotion. Then she blinked and brain cells began firing, albeit slowly. She was sitting in a hallway that looked vaguely familiar. Ritter/Rankin Security, she thought hazily. She was working, or at least she was supposed to be.
“I was so tired,” she murmured, trying to sound more coherent than she felt. “I sat down to rest. I guess I fell asleep.” She blinked again, then wished she hadn’t as she recognized the man crouched in front of her. He’d passed her in the hall when she first interviewed for the job. The office manager had identified him as Jeffrey Ritter, partner, professional security expert extraordinaire, ex-soldier.
“Mommy, you’re awake!”
The familiar voice normally made her heart leap with gladness, but now Ashley felt only horror. Maggie was up? What time
? She glanced at her watch and groaned when she saw 5:10 a.m. glowing in the light of the hall. She was supposed to have finished her cleaning by two, and she always met the deadline. She remembered something about security systems reactivating after she’d left.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ritter,” she said, forcing herself to scramble to her feet and ignoring the weakness that filled her when she did. “I don’t usually sleep on the job. Maggie had the flu last week and I think I caught her bug.” In fact, she was sure of it. Not that the stern, unsmiling man standing in front of her would care one way or the other.
He turned his attention from her to her daughter. Ashley winced, knowing it looked bad. No one had ever explicitly said she couldn’t bring her daughter to work, but then no doubt no one had thought they would have to. Four-year-olds didn’t belong in the workplace.
“Mommy says preschool is a germ magmagmaggot?” Her rosebud mouth couldn’t quite get around the word.
“Magnet,” Ashley offered automatically. She smoothed her hands against her jeans and offered her hand to the man who was very likely going to fire her. “Mr. Ritter, I’m Ashley Churchill. Obviously I clean the office. Usually I’m out by two.”
“I sleep while Mommy works,” Maggie put in helpfully. “Mommy makes me a really nice bed with my favorite kitten sheets. She sings to me and I close my eyes.” She lowered her voice and took a step toward the man. “I’m s’posed to go right to sleep but sometimes I peek and look at the stars.”
Ashley swallowed against the lump of fear in her throat. “Yes, well, it’s not as bad as it seems,” she said lamely, knowing it was actually worse. She felt slightly less perky than a fur ball and she was going to lose her job. Talk about a lousy start to her day. At least things could only get better from here.
“Your things are in my office?” Jeff Ritter spoke for the first time. His voice was low and perfectly modulated. She had no clue what he was thinking, which made her assume the worst.
“Where do the cleaning supplies go?” he asked.
“There’s a closet at the end of the hall. I’d nearly finished. I still have to take care of Mr. Rankin’s office. Everything else is done.”
He took her elbow and led her down the hall. His touch was steel. Not especially rough or firm, but she knew that if she tried to escape he could snap her in half. Like a toothpick.
A charming visual, she thought with a sigh. Her daughter could collect the splintered shards of what used to be her mother and keep them in a little box. She could bring her out at show-and-tell when she went to school and
Ashley shook her head. She was sicker than she’d thought. Her mind was wandering and she would give almost anything to be in her bed and have this all be a horrible dream. But it wasn’t. As they stepped into Jeff’s office, the proof of her audacious behavior lay scattered all around.
One of the plush leather sofas had been made up into a bed. There were a half-dozen stuffed animals scattered across the kitten sheets. A juice box and crumbs were testament to a late-night snack, while a baby monitor held the place of honor in the center of the large glass coffee table she’d pushed away from the sofa.
He released her and crossed to the table. When he picked up the monitor, Ashley reached into her pocket and removed the small receiver.
“It’s so I can hear her,” she said, probably unnecessarily. The man was a security expert. He would have access to listening devices she could only imagine. “I don’t bring Maggie to work with me on a whim, Mr. Ritter. I go to college during the day, which is why I work the hours I do. I can’t afford to pay someone to spend the night. A sitter would take most of my paycheck and I need that for rent, food and tuition.”
She briefly closed her eyes as the room began to spin. He wouldn’t care, she thought glumly. He was going to fire her. She would lose both her paycheck and her health insurance. Still, she wouldn’t go without a fight.
“She’s never been any trouble. It’s been nearly a year and no one has ever found out.” She winced at how that sounded. “I’m not saying that to excuse my behavior, just to point out that she’s not really a problem.” She’s not a reason to fire me. Except she didn’t say that.
Maggie moved to her side and took her hand. “Don’t worry, Mommy. The nice man likes us.”
Oh, yeah, Ashley thought. Maybe served up for breakfast, but not any other way. There was something scary about the man in front of her. Something she couldn’t exactly put her finger on. A stillness, maybe? Or maybe it was his eyesso cold. He studied her like a predator assessing a potential victim. Jeff Ritter was tall, maybe six-two or three. His tailored suit looked expensive and well cut, but it couldn’t conceal the power of his body. He was a honed fighting machine. Maybe a killing one.
He was blond, with eyes the color of slate. In another life he could have been described as handsome, but not in this one. There was too much wariness in his stance, too much danger.
Because of the hours she worked, she didn’t have contact with very many people in the office. Once every three weeks she checked in with the office manager. Instructions were left on the bulletin board in the supply closet, her paychecks were mailed to her house. But she’d read articles about the security firm. There had been several write-ups when a computer expert’s son had been kidnapped and held for ransom. Jeff had been the one to track down the criminals. He’d brought them back, more dead than alive. The boy had been fine.
A shiver rippled through her. It had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with the fever heating her system. Her stomach lurched and she knew if she’d eaten dinner, she would have just shared it with the world.
Jeff gave her a quick once-over then moved to the sofa. “You’re ready to pass out on your feet. You need to be home and in bed.”