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CHAPTER ONE

It felt like someone had thrown a fistful of sand in each of Caleb O’Halleran’s eyes. The rigorous tactical training he’d been taking part in with his K9 partner, Jake, and the rest of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team had kicked his ass. The still-healing gunshot wound to his shoulder ached like a bitch, and he had bruises in places bruises had no business being. All he wanted was to take his dog home, crack open a cold one, and watch Jake run around and play in the backyard. After that, the only thing on his wish list was a little one-on-one time with his king-size bed.

Instead, he’d rushed to this swanky soiree straight from their training segment on Alcatraz Island. His 5.11 tactical pants and HRT T-shirt were a stark contrast to the fancy dresses and tailored suits mingling about the room. They didn’t know it, but everyone at this swanky soiree should appreciate that he’d managed to sneak in a quick camp shower. Thank God for rainwater. An awful lot of unique smells started coming off a guy’s body after ten days of strenuous work, outdoors, without running water.

As he took in the crowded room, he swelled with pride for his sister-in-law. The party was a celebration of the official opening of Maggie’s Embrace. The community center and homeless shelter was her dream realized. She’d not only survived a nightmare; she thrived in spite of it. After the hell she’d endured, Caleb sure as hell wasn’t going to complain about a few aches and pains or being tired.

He rocked his head side to side, rolled his shoulders. Maybe a beer would help ease the strained muscles at the base of his neck.

He flagged the bartender. “Yeah, can I get an IPA, please?”

The bartender dug into a large cooler, popped the top on a bottle and set the beer in front of Caleb.

“Here ya go.” He turned and started restocking the liquor.

“Thanks, man.” Caleb dropped a five-spot in the jar and leaned back against the bar. He took a swallow of his favorite brew, enjoyed the bitterness of the hops as it flowed over his tongue. Damn. After the past few weeks, that was just what the doctor ordered.

He scanned the crowd for his partner and finally spotted him across the room, sitting at his sister-in-law’s feet. If Gwen was in the vicinity, Jake found his way to her side. It was as if the dog knew she’d been through hell and wanted to provide whatever comfort he could. Eyes closed, tongue hanging out, a big slobbery grin on his dark face, Jake was the picture of four-legged contentment.

Caleb tsked and shook his head. Anyone who didn’t know better would think Jake was a pussycat, not a badass tactical K9. His dog could take down a man twice his size, rappel from helicopters, and ignore explosives going off all around him, yet he was putty in Gwen’s small hands.

Gwen’s hand moved away from scratching behind his dog’s ears only to be replaced by another woman’s long, slender fingers. Caleb’s eyes made a leisurely trip up the lean arm to a bare shoulder. He slowly lowered his beer and tilted his head to the side, shamelessly enjoying the view of a neck created for open-mouth kisses.

The dangling of an earring drew his eyes upward, away from the elegant neck, and Caleb was thunderstruck when he got his first look at her face. Whoever she was, she was … exquisite. Yep, hokey as it sounded, exquisite was the perfect word to describe her. And to think he’d almost begged off coming tonight. Maybe he wasn’t so tired after all.

Her warm olive skin seemed to glow from within. If he had to guess, he’d say she was of Mediterranean descent—Greek, Italian maybe.

She crouched down next to his dog. How she managed it in those sexy high heels of hers, he had no idea. They had these thin strappy things tied around each of her delicate ankles, and Caleb wanted to undo them with his teeth.

Jake, the lady-killer—and unabashed opportunist—licked her on the chin. She giggled, and Caleb saw the sparkle in her huge, almond-shaped eyes from across the room. He squinted but couldn’t make out the color from so far away. His dog, the lucky mutt, drew his sloppy tongue across her tempting neck, the very same one Caleb had just been fantasizing about, and she threw her head back and laughed with unrestrained joy. It was a husky, deep, from-her-toes kind of laugh.

Caleb put his hand to his chest—holy shit, be still my heart.

He looked around. He wasn’t the only one affected by her. The woman was totally unaware of the attention she got from every man in the room. He stifled a growl, wanted to tell every single one of them to back the hell off. Which was stupid since he had no more of a claim to her than any one of those assholes. Hell, for all he knew, one of them could be her boyfriend or husband. His eyes flew to her left hand, and he tried not to think too much about why he was relieved not to see a ring. Thoughts of her with some other guy really bugged the shit out of him. And wasn’t that moronic?

She wasn’t even his usual type. His tastes steered more toward stacked, blond-haired, blue-eyed gals who were in it for a good time. Caleb had no time for and certainly no interest in anything more. One or two nights of fun and stress release in the form of some good old-fashioned sheet wrestling, then they would part friends. Everyone got what they wanted, and no one got hurt. His siblings gave him grief about being a man-whore, but, at this stage of his life, it worked for him.

This woman seemed to be the antithesis of all those things. She exuded sophistication and elegance, but not in a stuck-up, cold kind of way. She wrapped her arms around Jake and rested her cheek on top of his head. Dark, shiny hair slid over her shoulder and draped over his dog’s back. Caleb reflexively rubbed his fingertips together, itching to feel its silkiness. The deep, rich color reminded him of expensive dark chocolate. She looked up and said something to Gwen. Just watching her full lips move sent his mind in a decidedly sinful direction. Oh, the places he’d love to see … and feel those lips.

He shifted his stance to gain some relief, since a certain part of his anatomy didn’t seem to give a shit that every vibe she put off indicated she was a one-man woman, not the kind to go for casual … well … anything.

What got to Caleb the most was the way she didn’t seem at all concerned about getting dog hair all over her. Most women wouldn’t go anywhere near a dog as fierce-looking as Jake, let alone frolic with him on the floor wearing a fancy dress.

She bestowed upon his partner another big hug and a few scratches behind his ears.

“Lucky son of a bitch,” Caleb muttered against the edge of his bottle before taking another long swallow. For the first time ever, he was jealous of his damn dog.

In one smooth motion, she rose and stood next to his diminutive sister-in-law. Even without her sexy sky-high heels, she had to be at least five nine. Unlike a lot of statuesque women, she owned her height. No slouching or shying away from it. She commanded it. And sweet merciful heaven, her little black dress showed off smooth shoulders and hugged subtle curves, stopped a few inches above her knees, granting him an unfettered view of the longest, shapeliest pair of legs he’d ever seen.

She smiled and thanked the waiter when she accepted a glass of champagne.

When she turned back to Gwen, the waiter surreptitiously checked out her ass.

Caleb scowled and straightened from the bar. He would react the same way no matter what woman the guy gawked at. At least that’s what he told himself.

A nudge to his shoulder and he turned to find his older brother, Beck, chuckling at him.

“What’s so funny?” Caleb grumbled.

“You.” Beck smirked. “I’m laughing at the way you’re looking at Dawn. It’s an awful lot like the way people say I look at Gwen.” A sappy look hung on his brother’s face as he stared at his wife across the room.

Oh, hell no!

Beck was full of shit. Ever since marrying Gwen, he seemed to think everyone should get tied down. No-o-o-o thank you!

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Who is Dawn?” Caleb took a long swallow of beer.

“Uh-huh, sure you don’t. Dawn is the woman standing next to my wife, and you’re looking at her like you want to throw her over your shoulder and cart her out of here. And you’re looking at that poor guy,” Beck tipped his head in the direction of the server working his way around the room, “like you want to take him outside and beat the shit out of him.”

Caleb turned his back to the room and leaned his elbows on the bar. No way would he let his brother know how much he was getting on his nerves. Or how right he was.

“You’re full of shit.” Caleb shrugged. “I don’t even know her, and I could give two shits about some server checking her out.”

“Ah, so you did notice.” Beck reclined on his elbows against the bar, all smug in his marital bliss.

If Caleb didn’t think Gwen would kill them both, he’d knock that grin off his brother’s stupid face. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d thrown down. Growing up in a family with five aggressively rambunctious boys, tussles were a common occurrence.

“Give it a rest, will ya?” Caleb picked at the label on his bottle.

 “So, you guys ready?” Thanks to Beck’s powerful connections, he knew the purpose behind their current training.

“Yeah, we’re beyond ready.” They’d been busting their asses running through every possible scenario until things happened instinctively.

Not that it bothered him. Caleb loved everything about being part of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. Only the best of the best were selected and made it through the demanding training. He would argue it was even tougher for the K9 handlers.

He and Jake were assigned to Grey team, referred to as the support team. It included the other K9 operators and their partners, mobility, medical, and breachers—the guys who got them through the door, wall, roof or whatever else stood in their way. Blue, Gold and Silver teams were all tactical operators. Members of Grey team supported the other teams, based on where they were in the rotation. For this mission, he and his partner would be backing up Gold team. Not that it mattered. Every single member of every single team was highly skilled and Caleb trusted them to have his and Jake’s back during any operation.

“But, as you know all too well, we can’t make a move until we get the all-clear from higher up.” Caleb added, knowing his brother understood his frustration. Waiting around for the bureaucrats to get their heads out of their asses had been one of the reasons Beck bailed on the Bureau.

They had reliable intel that children were being exposed to some pretty dangerous shit at an isolated religious community hidden away up in the mountains of northwest Montana. Religious community. What a fuckin’ joke. It was a cult, plain and simple.

Two men ran the place. John Proctor, their self-professed religious leader, was, by all accounts, a depraved sociopath with a taste for young girls. His partner, Grady Teague, was a disgraced cop hell-bent on retribution for something that happened to his brother.

“Still no word on the missing girl?” Beck kept his voice low as he glanced surreptitiously around.

“Not a damn thing.” They suspected Proctor was connected to her disappearance, but all they had were a few somewhat reliable and chilling rumors. They couldn’t do a damn thing without proof.

“Shit.” Beck muttered.

“Yeah. Shit.” Caleb would never forget how devastated her mother looked when he’d watched the playback of their interview with a local news station. Her desperate plea for information about her teenage daughter would shatter the hardest of hearts. How awful it must be not knowing where your only child was, or if she was even alive.

The parameters of this mission were alarmingly similar to the whole mess with the Branch Davidians. There were a lot of lessons learned as a result of that nightmare. Still, Caleb prayed for a better outcome for this operation.

Beck glanced over and caught Caleb sneaking a look at Dawn.

“Geez, dude. You are pitiful. Come on.” He tilted his head. “I’ll introduce you to her.”

Yes! Caleb did a mental fist pump.

“Nah, I’m good.” He stayed where he was and took his sweet time draining his beer.

Beck pointed at Caleb’s empty bottle and held up two fingers to the bartender. “Come on, just admit it, you know you’re jonesing to meet her.”

Hell, yeah, he was, but he wasn’t going to let his brother know that.

“Eh, she’s not really my type.” Which made him sound like the world’s biggest dumbass, because seriously, what normal heterosexual male wouldn’t want to meet the most beautiful woman in the world?

Beck handed Caleb a beer, shook his head as they clinked the bottoms together.

 

“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?” He started ticking off with his fingers. “Number one, she’s crazy smart, a doctor. She was working the ER the night we found Gwen. Number two, she’s tough as hell. Had to be, since she pretty much raised her kid sister by herself. Three, she provides free medical exams to people here at the shelter. Shall I continue?”

Hold up. Did his brother just say Dawn was at the hospital that horrible night? How the hell had he missed her? And why the hell hadn’t his brother introduced him? Asshole.

“I get it, I get it.” He held up his hand. “She’s a brilliant doctor, a freakin’ saint, a real goody-two-shoes.” The hottest thing he’d ever seen on two legs and, sadly, totally wrong for him. “No thanks. Like I said, not my type.”

Just then, a throat cleared behind him.

Caleb closed his eyes on a sigh and his head fell forward. Crap. Ready to pay the piper, he straightened from the bar, pasted on a smile before he turned around and came face-to-face—well, face-to-top-of-head, really—with his sister-in-law. Gwen tilted her head way back, like she had to do with most everyone. From the scowl on her cute pixie face and the way she stood with her arms crossed atop her baby bump, he could tell she wasn’t pleased. He understood why as soon as he saw his very own Mediterranean mystery woman, the one he’d just mocked, standing next to her.

Crap.

Jake gave an excited yip, as if to brag, look what I found. His dog looked much too damn happy and content leaning against her leg.

“Zrádce.” Jake’s head cocked to the side when Caleb mumbled the Czech word for “traitor.”

Looking down at him was the perfect excuse to get a nice, long look at her spectacular legs. Yep, they would be featuring prominently in Caleb’s future dreams. Hell, he was already imagining them wrapped around his waist as he …Hold the phone! Now was definitely not the time to be having thoughts like that.

He gave Beck a thanks-for-the-heads-up kind of look, and his brother just shrugged and tipped back his beer to hide his grin.

“Hey there, Little Bit.” Caleb leaned over, gave his sister-in-law a peck on the cheek and wrapped his arms around her He hoped using the beloved nickname their father gave her would butter her up. “Congratulations. Everything looks great.”

When she didn’t immediately return his embrace, Caleb knew he was in trouble. He leaned away and looked down.

Her eyebrow arched up high.

Nope, his masterful strategy of using her nickname failed. If he could see past her tummy, he’d bet she was tapping her foot, too. She wasn’t going to make this easy for him. Not like he deserved easy—what he’d said was pretty jackassy.

He could easily blame it on being tired and beat up, which would be partially true. Mostly, it was because the woman standing next to Gwen, trying unsuccessfully to hide her disdain, managed to do something in a matter of minutes no other woman had ever done. She’d burrowed under Caleb’s skin, and he didn’t know how to handle it. So, he’d acted like an immature jerk instead.

Great fallback, dumbass.

Why would just looking at this woman from across a room make him want to possess her, to keep any other man from having her? Her beauty captivated him, and being this close to her wasn’t making it any easier to deny.

“Nice try, dipshit,” Beck muttered loud enough for Caleb’s ears only.

Then, like a rat fleeing a sinking ship, Beck set his beer on the bar and moved to stand behind his pregnant wife. Arms around her, he leaned her back against his front and kissed the top of her head.

"Now honey, give Caleb a break," Beck said as his big hands massaged her swollen belly.

What is it with these two? Seemed like whenever they were in the same room, they had to have their hands on each other.

“He drove here straight from some serious hardcore training. He can’t help it if he’s a little tired and cranky.”

 

Tired and cranky?

Caleb glared at Beck. Christ, he made him sound like a toddler who’d missed naptime. Whatever. He would take any help he could get if it meant surviving this encounter unscathed.

“Oh, Caleb. I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”

Gwen slipped out of Beck’s arms and wrapped hers around Caleb’s middle. As much as she could with her tummy wedged between them, anyway.

“When Beck told me you were at training, I guess I didn’t realize how difficult it would be.” She stepped away, both of her small hands enfolding one of his. Patting. Rubbing. Soothing away hurt feelings. The forlorn look of apology on her face made Caleb feel like an even bigger schmuck.

“Nah, that’s no excuse, Gwen.” Caleb brushed his finger down her nose, tapped the end. 

This petite dynamo slipped into his heart the first time he heard his tough, older brother gush about her. Caleb loved her as much as he did his own brothers and sister. He couldn’t let her go on feeling bad just because he’d behaved like a first-class douche.

He snuck a glance at Dawn standing quietly. Listening. Taking it all in. What is going on in that beautiful head of hers? Hell, at this point he’d pay cash money just to hear the sound of her voice.

As if she’d heard his thoughts, she spoke for the first time.

“Gwen ...” She flicked a dismissive glance his way, then turned to face his sister-in-law. “You’re busy with your family. I’m just going to go upstairs and make a quick house call.”

Caleb’s heart skipped a beat. God almighty, her voice. Deep and smoky, it stroked across his entire body like warm liquid velvet. Christ, he’d be perfectly happy to stand here and listen to her recite the alphabet.

Wait? What? Where the fuck did that come from?

He loved women, liked to do a lot of things with them. Talking wasn’t generally one of them. And it was messing with his head how badly he wanted to hear his name on her lips.

“Don’t be silly.” Gwen laid a hand on Dawn’s arm. “You’re a guest tonight. I never expected you to treat patients. Besides, I want you to meet Caleb.”

Finally! He’d been worried she would get away before he had a chance to meet her. And to apologize.

“Dawn.” She patted his upper arm. “I’d like to introduce you to Beck’s younger brother, Caleb O’Halleran.” She smiled from her to him. “Caleb, this is my very good friend Dawn Pannikos.”

Nose in the air, Dawn drew her shoulders back as if heading into battle, then turned to Caleb.

He felt like a dick knowing he was responsible for the tension in her gorgeous shoulders and for making her look like she wanted to escape.

He also felt cheated, because the forced smile she gave him didn’t sparkle like the one she’d lavished on Jake or even the polite one she’d directed at the asshat server.

She took a deep breath and extended her hand. But only because it was the polite thing to do, and they had a rapt audience. “Nice to meet you.”

Did she just roll her eyes? Interesting. One side of his mouth hitched up. Seeing that little bit of sass sneak out from behind that veneer of control only served to pique his interest further. 

Thrilled to have an excuse to touch her, he flashed his most charming smile.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Dawn.” He enveloped her long, delicate fingers, their palms met, and a surge of heat scorched up his arm.

You feel it, too.

Her eyes widened in surprise. Intelligence danced in their mossy green depths, partnered with a kind of wisdom that seemed far beyond her years. A shadowy weariness hovered there, as well, and his smile faltered at the sight.

He resisted the unfamiliar urge to pick her up and cradle her in his arms. To take care of her and whisper words of reassurance. Against what, he had no clue. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t be receptive to the idea anyway. Instead, he stroked his thumb across her knuckles, doing the only thing he could to let her know she wasn’t alone. Which made zero sense.

She cleared her throat, tugged her hand free and turned to Gwen. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Caleb missed the warmth of her skin and envied Gwen and Beck the affectionate hugs she bestowed upon them.

“I’m just going to grab some supplies from the pantry and take a quick peek in on Mr. Seiler to make sure he’s taking care of that foot of his.”

Before Gwen could protest further, or Caleb could apologize, Dawn walked away without a backward glance.