Truth or consequences, p.1

Truth or Consequences, page 1

 

Truth or Consequences
 



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Truth or Consequences


  What the hell was he doing?

  How could he even think of kissing Zoe Zagretti, and in the middle of an incident site? Nobody—nothing—ever distracted him from the job. Maybe he needed a long cold shower…or six. “I…ah…” The words stuck in his throat. “I apologize.”

  She nodded, her elfin face thoughtful. “Because it was unprofessional conduct, or because you lost your nerve?”

  He hadn’t lost his nerve since he was fourteen. Until now. “It would be a conflict of interest.”

  She nodded. “I see. You’re conflicted about your interest.” She stepped away, putting much-needed distance between them. “I agree, this isn’t the time or the place. But later, when you’re ready, let me know, okay?”

  He was sorely afraid he’d end up doing exactly that. He’d faced armed robbers, survived firefights, been trapped in a raging inferno. But this woman shook him to the core.

  What other incurable cravings would he catch when he finally gave in and kissed her?

  TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES

  DIANA DUNCAN

  Books by Diana Duncan

  Silhouette Intimate Moments

  Bulletproof Bride #1284

  *Midnight Hero #1359

  *Truth or Consequences #1373

  DIANA DUNCAN

  Diana Duncan’s fascination with books started before she could walk, when her librarian grandmother toted her to work. Diana crafted her first tale at age four, a riveting account of Perky the Kitten, printed in orange crayon. The discovery of her mom’s Harlequin Romance novels at age fourteen sparked a lifelong affection for plucky heroines and dashing heroes. She loves writing about complex, conflicted men and strong, intelligent women with the courage to dive into the biggest adventure of all—falling in love.

  When not writing stories brimming with heart, humor and sizzling passion, Diana spends her time with her husband, two daughters and two cats in their Portland, Oregon, home. Diana loves to hear from her readers. She can be reached via e-mail at writedianaduncan@msn.com or snail mail at P.O. Box 33193, Portland, OR 97292-3193.

  Char, you invited me into the condos and changed my life! Jubie, hon, thanks for your dedication and hard work. Without your gorgeous contributions, I wouldn’t make it through some days with my sanity intact.

  To our Beautiful Bad Boy, mere words don’t do the job. If not for your constant inspiration, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Many blessings, and wishes for success and happiness.

  Thanks bunches to each and every one of my TAG Sisters for your encouragement, support and friendship over the years. You gals taught me the important basics of drool buckets and bibs.

  Bundle up, girlfriends. This one’s for you. ;)

  Contents

  Prologue

  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

  Prologue

  When you are pushed to the edge, you will either find something solid to stand on, or you will learn how to fly.

  —Old Adage

  Riverside, Oregon, SWAT rear guard Aidan O’Rourke crushed the impatience nagging at his heels as he coordinated the tactical operation forming in Riverside Mall’s parking lot. He was too busy to think. Too focused on the job to feel. At least, that’s what he kept telling himself. Maybe, eventually, he’d believe it.

  Hell, he shouldn’t have any problem. Incarcerating his emotions in a steel cage was his MO for getting through life.

  Sleet stung his face, but he ignored the rotten weather, just as he ignored dread’s smothering weight on his chest. Normally, he guarded the team’s back. But unless Captain Greene arrived, which didn’t look promising, Aidan was high-ranking officer. Team leader and incident commander by default.

  All the other members of Alpha Squad had answered the call-out, except his younger brother Conall, the team’s door-kicker. Con was trapped inside the mall with a crew of bank robbers. Unarmed and defenseless.

  Con’s fiancée, Bailey, was trapped along with him. The robbers held three additional hostages—the bank manager, a pregnant woman and the O’Rourkes’ eighty-year-old neighbor, Letty Jacobson.

  Aidan had played with, worked with and fought shoulder-to-shoulder beside Con. He admired and respected his brother.

  He also loved him—with bone-deep, fierce and abiding loyalty. Closest in age among the four siblings, he and Con had forged a nearly inseparable bond since birth. The O’Rourke brothers shared not only the calling to be SWAT cops, but also a connection of the heart that grew stronger by the day. No criminals would steal that from him. Nine years ago, Aidan had become head of the family when his father had been killed, a victim of senseless violence. One wrenching loss was enough. He’d vowed to protect his loved ones at any cost. He would get his brother out alive.

  As he prepared to head across the street, his shoulders stiffened in rebellion, his warrior’s instincts outraged at leaving the combat zone. He forced himself to move. He had to go. Had to establish the command post. Stick to procedure. Don’t let emotions interfere. Bring everybody home breathing.

  Blinding light stabbed his peripheral vision, and he pivoted. What the—?

  A TV news crew had encamped in the rear of the parking lot, setting up cameras and floodlights around a white van. The lights illuminated Aidan, the team and the mall. A slick blond male reporter sporting a salon tan postured in front of the cameras, emoting dramatically into a cordless mike.

  “Who the hell let civilians leak into the inner perimeter?” Aidan roared. “Tighten up that line! Not even a freaking gnat gets through unless he’s packing a badge and a weapon!”

  An abashed chorus of “Yes, sirs” swelled in the frosty air.

  Swearing, Aidan stalked toward the van. “Kill those lights!”

  A petite woman with short, wispy brunette hair stepped in front of him. Dressed for the turbulent weather in a well-worn purple parka, red scarf and matching gloves, she planted both palms on his Kevlar vest, jerking him to an abrupt stop. “That’s Parker Dane, the award-winning anchorman.”

  Aidan glanced down into intelligent hazel eyes and deliciously feminine, almost feline features. The jolt to his senses, the kick of heat in his belly was anger, nothing more. “I don’t care if he’s the Pope, in town to bless the masses. Kill those damn lights, they’re compromising my operation.”

  The exotic-looking brunette dropped her hands. Colorful beaded earrings swung as she waved at a stocky guy standing beside the van. “Douse the lights while Parker rehearses.” She turned back to Aidan. “And you are?”

  “Officer Aidan O’Rourke, acting SWAT Incident Commander.”

  Her gaze, a fascinating, changing combination of green, brown and gold, traveled the length of his body from tousled, wet hair to scuffed combat boots, then back. Unwelcome, uninvited warmth flooded his bloodstream, and he clenched his jaw. “You’re in a secured area. Clear out.”

  She tilted her head. The icy wind tumbled shiny chestnut curls around her face like a halo. Talk about blatantly deceptive packaging. Her spicy tropical fragrance seemed incongruous in the dangerous winter night as she grinned up at him. “What does SWAT stand for? Sure, we are tempting?”

  Like a numb limb with circulation suddenly restored, long-dead, disturbing feelings tingled painfully to life. A distraction he didn’t need, and sure as hell didn’t want. “I don’t have time for ga
mes—”

  “I’m Zoe.” She interrupted him, a rare occurrence. His fierce concentration and alpha-wolf attitude intimidated most people. Apparently, it didn’t impress the little gypsy, because she didn’t budge an inch. “Zoe Zagretti, with KKEY, your key to breaking news. See it happen as it happens. I’m Parker’s fact checker.”

  “I’ll just bet you are.” His libido was lusting after a reporter, for crying out loud. Perky harbingers of doom. Peddlers of destruction and death. Vultures, pimping people’s anguish for the ratings god. Been there, done that, had bitter, painful scars on his soul. He’d rather suck face with a scorpion. He drilled her with a lethal stare that had made hardened felons cower. “You’re endangering my officers and the hostages. Leave. Now.”

  Apparently also immune to the death stare, she whipped a notepad and pen from inside a battered canvas bag. “You can confirm there are hostages? How many? Who’s holding them?”

  Widening his stance, he stepped closer, aggressively invading her space. “I’m going to say this once. Pack your stuff, clamp a leash on your pet monkey and bug out.”

  She didn’t so much as blink. “This is an opportunity to provide information to our viewers, and we have an obligation to take that opportunity. Any good news organization would do the same.” She jutted her small pointed chin in a challenging angle. “The public has a right to know the truth.”

  Frustration burned in his gut. He was used to being obeyed without question. “The public has a right to safety. And protection from piranhas who rip personal tragedies apart on live satellite feed and feast on the bloody pieces. If one person, one item of equipment, is still on the premises in two minutes, I will personally place you all under arrest.”

  Her pretty red lips parted in a shocked gasp. “For what?”

  “For starters, interfering with an officer in the line of duty.”

  “You wouldn’t dare! The freedom of the press is a guaranteed constitutional—”

  “Try me. You’ll be on your way to jail before you can say ‘yellow journalism.’” He flicked a glance at his watch. “One minute and forty seconds.”

  Not waiting for her reply, he swung around and strode away.

  That’s when everything went to hell.

  Two four-wheel-drive SUVs careened around the corner of the mall, chained tires sparking on the ice. Gunshots exploded and bullets screamed overhead. Running, shouting police officers dove for cover and returned fire.

  Adrenaline blasted through Aidan’s veins, and his body moved before his brain fully registered the urgency. He whirled and lunged at Zoe, taking them both down in one leap. Cushioning her head in his hand, he rolled on the frozen pavement, absorbing most of the blow, and then rolled again, pinning her small body beneath him.

  She didn’t make a sound, didn’t move as he snatched his Glock from his thigh holster and fired at the retreating SUVs. Dammit, the target was too far away, moving too fast. Sirens shrieked and lights flashed as police cars chased the SUVs into the storm.

  Aidan sucked in a deep breath and holstered his weapon. He rolled to one side, and scooped the woman from underneath him. “Are you all right?”

  Her small body limp, her face bleached by death, Zoe stared sightlessly up at the swirling sleet. Aidan’s heart stopped, frozen with anguish. He’d let her down.

  He’d let her die.

  Chapter 1

  July 26th, 10:00 a.m.

  “Zoe!” Aidan woke shouting her name. Panting, he sat up and blinked away the sweat stinging his eyes. He was no longer in that dark parking lot. He was in his bedroom. He glanced at the peaceful, sun-dappled mocha walls, and then studied the digital clock on the nightstand. It wasn’t a cold December night, but a warm summer morning.

  He exhaled a shaky breath. The mall incident had happened six months ago. When would the nightmares stop?

  He scrubbed an unsteady hand over his bristly jaw. More importantly, why did his subconscious keep replaying it wrong?

  He always dreamed everything exactly as it had happened, in sharply focused detail. The mall’s bank had been robbed, his brother trapped inside for hours. The wheelmen outside had started a firefight and escaped. But nobody had died. Not his brother or his brother’s fiancée, not the hostages, not even the bank robbers.

  And especially not Zoe Zagretti. Since that fateful December night, Zoe and Aidan had continually crossed paths and crossed swords. Like a bad case of heartburn he couldn’t relieve, the rabid reporter appeared at his crime scenes, poking her pert nose where it wasn’t wanted and yammering questions he refused to answer. He’d swear she was tailing him.

  Even worse, she turned up at least once a week in his bed—in his dreams. He climbed out from between navy-blue sheets and twitched the matching comforter into place.

  Make that nightmares.

  Naked, he strode into the bathroom. He cranked on the shower, and steam curled around him. The faint scent of plumeria lingered in the mist. Zoe’s inquisitive, heart-shaped face instantly shimmered into his mind, and his body tightened on a surge of desire. Swearing, he snatched a purple candle off the counter, tempted to toss it in the garbage. Letty Jacobson, his family’s irascible octogenarian neighbor, had given it to him for Christmas. While it seemed an odd choice for a bachelor’s neutral-toned bathroom, he’d been touched by the gaily-wrapped gift, presented with generous delight, and put it on display.

  He set the candle down, unable to bring himself to trash it. The smell appealed to him. The sultry, tropical fragrance reminded him of a trip to Hawaii—their last family vacation before Pop had been killed. The bright flower leis inherent to the islands were made from plumeria. Letty had mentioned fond memories when she’d bestowed the gift.

  He scowled. The scent used to appeal to him, before it became associated with a certain sassy, pain-in-the-butt brunette. How could he be so exasperated and so attracted at the same time?

  He stepped inside the shower enclosure. The shiny green/brown/gold stone tiles were the same shade as Zoe’s eyes. Aidan groaned and banged his forehead quietly on the wet stone.

  Exotic and sensual, with her bewitching, ever-changing eyes and lush red mouth, Zoe was not anywhere near his usual type. He preferred elegant, reserved blondes. Passionate, stubborn, rash women, on the other hand…no thanks. He shuddered and reached for the shampoo. Strong emotions were baffling. Crippling.

  Caused way too much misery.

  He’d never met a woman he wanted to risk everything for, or a woman who would risk everything for him. He liked amiable, level relationships maintained at a comfortable emotional distance. There might not be any mountaintops, but there was also no danger of hurtling over unexpected cliffs. As a career SWAT cop who dove into combat all too often, he had no desire to marry. In fact, several years ago when his grandmother’s antique Claddagh wedding ring was bequeathed to him per O’Rourke tradition, he’d refused it.

  His brothers still held out hope he’d change his mind and refused to usurp his bequest. So, the ring would remain safely with his mom until one of his brothers had a son. No way would Aidan put a woman through the hell his mother had suffered. No way would he subject a family to the anguish he and his brothers had experienced.

  He stuck his sudsy hair under the hot spray. So, why couldn’t he wash Zoe Zagretti out of his head? Out of his life?

  Was she some sort of gypsy sorceress? After he’d refused to satisfy her chronic nosiness, had she cast a spell on him?

  That idea was as batty as Letty’s romantic notions about soul mates. Aidan snorted and reached for the soap. No freaking way. He didn’t believe in woo-woo.

  He grabbed a washcloth and vigorously scrubbed his chest. He knew what, or rather, who, was driving him around the bend, and his nemesis had a definite earthly origin. Things could not continue this way. So, what was he gonna do about it?

  About her?

  Dressed in her short yellow-and-orange paisley robe, Zoe opened the front door of her tiny studio apartment and a huge black-and-br
own-striped tabby with one ragged ear streaked inside. “Morning Evander. How’s tricks?”

  The cat trotted toward what the landlord had optimistically called the kitchenette and grumbled the feline equivalent of “Where’s breakfast?”

  Zoe poured food into his dish and smiled as he scarfed it down. The fractious feline had appeared on her doorstep one morning, battered and bloody, and she’d adopted him. Her bond with Evander was her first relationship that had ever lasted more than a few weeks. Moving three to five times a year hadn’t allowed for friendships, even if she’d dared. Loneliness and suspicion had been constant, uneasy companions as far back as she could remember. The one close person in her life, her mom, languished in a hospital in San Francisco, partially paralyzed and mentally disoriented by a stroke. Zoe diligently squeezed every nickel—twice—to maintain Rita Zagretti’s physical therapy, while saving toward the huge sum needed to move her north. Add in tuition loans and her own moving expenses, and she barely made ends meet. So what if she had to skimp on groceries? Thanks to Hollywood, thin was in.

  She strolled into the bathroom and turned on the water in the small stall shower. The apartment didn’t boast a tub, something she missed terribly. But as long as she could scrape up the rent, the shabby studio in an aging neighborhood was all hers. No odd phone call, no chance sighting on the street would send her racing to pack and fleeing in terror to a new city. No matter what happened, she would stand her ground.

  She would never run again.

  Zoe stepped into the steamy stall. On a sunny Saturday morning, she could relax under the hot spray until the water went cold, a favorite indulgence. Someday, she would have a family and a cozy house with a luxurious whirlpool tub. Someday, she would have a husband to cherish, a man who would cherish her in return. And a passel of rowdy kids who would experience the secure, carefree childhood she’d lacked.

 

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