Undercover cowboy, p.1

Undercover Cowboy, page 1

 

Undercover Cowboy
 



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Undercover Cowboy


  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  Excerpt

  Dear Reader

  Title Page

  Books by Beverly Bird

  About the Author

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Copyright

  “I know why you’d let yourself touch me,”

  Jack said. “Because I’d be safe. I’ll be gone in a week. No expectations, no nasty surprises. You can’t get left holding the pieces of your heart if you know going into it that there’s no future, right?”

  Carly finally met his eyes. Her chin tilted up. “Okay,” she said softly. “So what if you’re right, cowboy? I don’t think you’re the type who…sticks.”

  “Don’t kid yourself. If I tried it once—” his eyes coasted deliberately over her again “—I’d sure be back for more.”

  Her pulse went wild. “In…in a physical sense, maybe.”

  “That’s the part that counts, cowgirl.”

  Dear Reader,

  Wow! What a month we’ve got for you. Take Maddy Lawrence’s Big Adventure, Linda Turner’s newest. Like most of us, Maddy’s lived a pretty calm life, maybe even too calm. But all that’s about to change, because now Ace Mackenzie is on the job. Don’t miss this wonderful book.

  We’ve got some great miniseries this month, too. The One Worth Waiting For is the latest of Alicia Scott’s THE GUINESS GANG, while Cathryn Clare continues ASSIGNMENT: ROMANCE with The Honeymoon Assignment. Plus Sandy Steen is back with the suspenseful—and sexy—Hunting Houston. Then there’s Beverly Bird’s Undercover Cowboy, which successfully mixes romance and danger for a powerhouse read. Finally, try Lee Karr’s Child of the Night if you enjoy a book where things are never quite what they seem.

  Then come back again next month, because you won’t want to miss some of the best romantic reading around— only in Silhouette Intimate Moments.

  Enjoy!

  Leslie Wainger

  Senior Editor and Editorial Coordinator

  Please address questions and book requests to:

  Silhouette Reader Service

  U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

  Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

  Undercover Cowboy

  Beverly Bird

  Books by Beverly Bird

  Silhouette Intimate Moments

  Emeralds in the Dark #3

  The Fires of Winter #23

  Ride the Wind #139

  A Solitary Man #172

  *A Man Without Love #630

  *A Man Without a Haven #641

  *A Man Without a Wife #652

  Undercover Cowboy #711

  Silhouette Desire

  The Best Reasons #190

  Fool’s Gold #209

  All the Marbles #227

  To Love a Stranger #411

  *Wounded Warriors

  BEVERLY BIRD

  has lived in several places in the United States, but she is currently back where her roots began on an island in New Jersey. Her time is devoted to her family and her writing. She is the author of numerous romance novels, both contemporary and historical. Beverly loves to hear from readers. You can write to her c/o Silhouette Books, 300 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017.

  For George M. Harvey and his speedy and professional “editing service,” for bucking me up and bailing me out more times than I can count.

  Chapter 1

  The bar was dark, too smoky, and the hum of conversation from the other patrons was a steady buzz punctuated by bursts of laughter. The big, balding man seated at a table far in the back did not contribute to the noise level. He tore the retirement application neatly in half without so much as a word.

  Jack Fain frowned at the gesture, a quick knitting of his blond brows. “Come on, Paul. You and I both know it’s dangerous to send out an agent who’s lost his nerve.”

  Not that he considered it shameful for a man to lose his nerve. The only shame was in not admitting it and acting accordingly, he thought. He had spent six weeks in ICU and another six recuperating at home after the gut shot that had nearly killed him. As far as he was concerned, any sane man would be cautious after that. Any sane man would adjust his priorities.

  But Paul Manning shook his head. “You could lose half your nerve and still have more than most.”

  “I’m forty-three years old. My reflexes are getting slow.” Not to mention what was happening to his instincts, he thought.

  “You’ve still got a few good years left in you.”

  “And I intend to spend them on a beach somewhere watching hard brown bodies stroll by in the sand.” He signaled the waitress for a beer. Florida, he thought. Maybe it was time to go back to Florida. The thought was new and vaguely alarming. He justified it with thoughts of hard, brown bodies who could speak his name—his real name—without an accent, the kind of women he had grown up with before spending so many years out of the country.

  “I could hold up your debriefing,” Paul pointed out.

  Jack shot him another impatient scowl. “I don’t care as long as I’m inactive in the meantime. And you’ll get tired of the games eventually.”

  “Can you honestly tell me you’re willing to leave with Scorpion just…dangling?”

  “He’s not dangling. The game’s over. Scorpion won.”

  A telephone rang from somewhere beneath the table. Paul held Jack’s gaze for a moment, then he reached down for his briefcase. He removed a cellular phone and listened briefly.

  “I’m with him right now. I’ll ask him,” Paul said after a moment.

  Jack stiffened.

  Paul placed the receiver back in the case. “Speak of the devil,” he mused, then he gave a satisfied smile.

  As far as Jack was concerned, there was only one devil. He was a political assassin whom the agency had code-named Scorpion. His strikes were lethal and fast, and he disappeared very well afterward. Jack had chased him for eleven years, roughly half his entire service. Three months ago, it had been Scorpion who had finally caught him.

  It had happened in Brazil, in Sao Paulo. He’d received a tip from a previously reliable contact that Scorpion was visiting a back-alley brothel. He’d gone to the place and Scorpion had come up behind him, greeting him gently, urging him to turn around.

  The gun…hard and cold in his gut. Pain flaring, exploding, driving him backward, red fire bursting into the night…

  And worse than the pain, so much worse than the pain, was knowing that he had been played for a fool. That had never happened before. More than anything else, it told him it was time to quit.

  Jack rubbed unconsciously at the scar on his belly. “You set this up,” he snapped.

  “No.”

  “Are you trying to tell me that Scorpion struck again now, even while we sit here arguing about this? Cut me a break.”

  “Our boy’s always had an excellent sense of timing.”

  That was true, Jack thought. “Where?”

  “In the Caymans.”

  “The Caymans? What in the hell is he doing there?”

  Paul shrugged. “You tell me. You’re the man who’s been on him all this time.”

  Jack ignored that subtle bit of coercion. “Who’d be hit?”
>
  “A Judas in a money-laundering operation. Scorpion took the guy out, then he stole the jet and the money, and he disappeared again. Except this time Tony Esposito thinks he has the plane on radar. Sloppy, sloppy.” Paul paused, seeming lost in thought. “Well, at least Tony has a rogue in the air, a Lear that hasn’t filed a flight plan. That was him on the phone. He’s thinking that maybe it’s not Scorpion this time. Maybe we’ve got…I don’t know, an impostor. Tony wants to know what you think.” Paul outlined the gruesome details of the hit.

  Jack scowled. It made no sense. “He stole the money that he was supposed to retrieve? No. No way.” It wasn’t Scorpion’s usual scene, not his typical sort of work. There were no political overtones to it. There was no international intrigue. Scorpion had never worked for dirty American money, not since the first time he’d struck.

  And then, suddenly, Jack understood. It was finally going to happen. Something inside him went hot, then cold. The picture.

  “It’s him,” he said flatly.

  The waitress brought his beer. He pushed it away without tasting it. “Turning renegade with the money forces him into retirement. His name will be mud after this.”

  “One would think so,” Paul agreed.

  “So he’s finally reached the point where he wants to get out. Probably because he thinks I’m dead. Hell, he killed me. He saw me go down, stood over me….” Kicked him in the ribs, he thought, to watch for any sign of a grimace, any clue that he was still alive.

  Jack had been beyond grimacing. It was the only thing that had saved him.

  “So if you run off to a sunny beach somewhere, he’s the world’s most successful renegade,” Paul pointed out. “He’ll disappear one last time and that will be that.”

  The phone rang again. Jack finally reached for his beer, drinking deeply. His pulse started doing odd things as Paul talked and finally hung up again.

  “Tony definitely has a trace on the plane.”

  “It’s heading for the Midwest,” Jack said flatly.

  Something flared behind Paul’s eyes. “There, you see? No other man would guess that.”

  Jack waved an impatient hand and put his glass down on the table with a sharp crack. “It only makes sense. Scorpion’s first hit was in Dallas when Kenny LaFrancke recruited him for his nasty friends.” He and Kenny had been in the service together. And then, Jack thought, they had gone bad together.

  Actually, Kenny had been the first to turn. He’d gotten involved doing some dirty work for an American oil cartel, but he had balked at actually committing murder. Instead, he had recommended his old buddy from the Marines, Brett Peterson, a man with a fascination and proclivity for guns and all they could do.

  The agency had gotten Kenny LaFrancke off the streets some time ago. The man had sung like a bird, trying to cop a deal for himself. That was how they’d learned that the cartel had paid Peterson to kill when Kenny found himself a little squeamish in that area. It had only been LaFrancke’s word that that was how the whole thing had gone down, because the cartel had effectively erased all signs of their involvement by then and Peterson himself had vanished into thin air. But Jack tended to believe Kenny.

  After that, Peterson had no longer used his real name. The agency had dubbed him Scorpion, but he had used any number of aliases. His original identity had died as his reputation and the demand for his services grew.

  Still, Kenny’s testimony, and that one link to a real name, had allowed the agency to learn that Peterson had been born in Dallas and that he had been involved with some small-scale criminal activity even before LaFrancke’s friends recruited him. And then Jack had found one more link between Scorpion and the man who had once called himself Brett Peterson—the picture that had been haunting him for years now. He had waited a long time for that photograph to mean anything. Once again, he got the strong, frightening sense that that was going to happen now.

  Now…when he had lost his nerve.

  “It’s all in his file,” he went on hoarsely. “You don’t need me. All you’ve got to do is put an agent on this who can read.”

  “Reading’s a far cry from having been there.”

  “Having been there wasn’t always so damned cozy, either,” he snapped back. He and Scorpion had never really spoken, Jack thought, and only once, in Sao Paulo, had they looked fleetingly into each other’s eyes. Still, there had been a certain intimacy involved. Jack had eaten the man’s leftovers on occasion, and more than once he’d grabbed a catnap on the same sheets the man had just left.

  He knew him. And right now, he was pretty sure that Scorpion was heading back to a woman with hair the color of night, a woman with hearth and home in her eyes.

  Once, in Holland, Jack had been so hot on the assassin’s heels that when Scorpion had reached his room at the Amsterdam Hilton, the man had had no choice but to keep going, right out the window. Even so, he’d left a handful of his hair behind, as well as a gym bag in the hotel closet. The bag had contained a razor, some cologne and a half dozen counterfeit IDs that Scorpion simply had never used again. But at the bottom of the bag there had been something far more curious and potentially useful. Jack had found a dog-eared photograph of a woman, standing in front of what looked like a barn.

  That photograph was in Jack’s wallet now, if only to remind him how deadly it could be for a man like Scorpion or himself to love so strongly. Then again, Jack rarely needed reminders. He more or less lived with the knowledge in the area of his gut, a squirming thing that hit him whenever a woman— whenever anybody—got too close.

  Close was deadly. Close was fatal. Close hurt.

  Still, he could fully understand why a more foolish man, a less wary man than himself, would be drawn back to the woman in Scorpion’s photograph. Jack had allowed himself to get sucked into marriage once, too—and Zoe had not had all that many of the hinted qualities the woman in Scorpion’s photograph seemed to possess. Still, he had liked Zoe enough to respect her, enough to let her go when it had become quickly and painfully clear that he could not, would not, give to her what she needed.

  Scorpion had let go, too, but now he was going back to his woman, and that would be a fatal mistake even while Jack thought it was an understandable one.

  There was something true and honest about the woman in Scorpion’s picture. She was not actually beautiful, but there was a certain irresistible warmth about her. It was, Jack thought with rare sentimentality, like a banked fire, beckoning with heat and promise. The photo was black and white, flat, yet her image stroked something in. a man’s heart, lured him, called to him. He couldn’t tell the color of her eyes, but her hair was long and rich and it looked very black. In her eyes was an offer of both simple pleasures and keen intelligence. She wore a white gauze dress and was endearingly barefoot.

  She had been young in the picture, in her early twenties. She had certainly aged by now, but Jack had always known that sooner or later, Scorpion would have to go back to her, to touch her, to see her, to taste her, one more time. He hadn’t carried her picture because she meant nothing to him, and Jack knew she was still alive. ‘”

  The agency had identified her. Brett Peterson had been married once, very briefly, before he had disappeared into his Scorpion persona. Periodically, the agency checked on that woman’s whereabouts, making sure she was still where she was supposed to be, making sure she’d had no apparent contact from the man. She never had. Scorpion seemed to have been…saving her.

  Jack realized that Paul was watching him, waiting for him to go on.

  “He’ll go find her now,” he said carefully. “That woman in the picture.” Jack fought the urge to take it out of his billfold and examine it one more time. It wasn’t necessary. He had long since memorized her face, and every limited detail of the background.

  “So Tony Esposito should just walk up her rose-trimmed path, knock on the door and say, ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Scorpion, but I’d like to arrest your husband now’?”

  “No. He won’t stay ther
e. My guess is that he’ll collect her and disappear. How much money did he come out of the Caymans with?”

  “We’re putting it at about fifteen million.”

  Jack whistled. “No,” he said again. “He won’t stay in Oklahoma.”

  “Oklahoma?”

  “She was still there a year ago.”

  “Do you think she’s been waiting for him all this time?” “You mean, as in she’s expected that he’d eventually come back for her? I don’t know yet,” Jack answered honestly. “He hopes so.”

  “Should I arrange a ride to the airport for you?”

  Jack’s eyes narrowed on him. He didn’t comment.

  Paul held his napkin up to inspect it in the dim, golden light. He’d folded it into a neat triangle while they’d talked. “Tell you what,” he proposed finally. “Go after him this last time and wrap this thing up, and I’ll sign your retirement papers without a peep. Hell, I’ll even buy you a gold watch.”

  Jack sat back in his chair. His heart was racing too fast. It was wrong for all the right reasons. It was foolish, dangerous, and all his instincts told him to stop, here and now, with his guts once again tucked safely inside him where they belonged.

  But he’d been waiting a long, long time for the assassin to make this move, to go after this woman.

  “Yeah,” he said finally. His voice was hoarse, almost a groan.

  “Yes, as in you need a ride to the airport?”

  Jack nodded. His adrenaline surged. The briefcase rang a third time. Paul talked and hung up.

  “You’re good, my friend.”

  “Where’d he land?” His voice still sounded too eager…too scared. This was wrong. But he had no choice, not really. He had to finish this. Otherwise, he realized, it would haunt him forever.

  Like the woman with the long dark hair had haunted Scorpion.

  “He’s in Oklahoma City,” Paul answered. “We’ve put men from the Tulsa office throughout the airport. They’ll keep him in sight until you can get out there and take over. My God, he walked right into our hands this time.” He hesitated. “Are you sure it’s him?”

 
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