“This is a must read. A keeper. If you have never read Marliss Melton, she is a powerful and talented author who not only has heartfelt stories of heroes but they are realistic stories of elite warriors, the U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. “The Protector” is a wonderful story of love, facing your past, and moving forward to find love and happiness.”
—April Renn MyBookAddiction.com
“...the kind of intrigue I enjoy, much like Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci and Steig Larsson. In my opinion they have nothing on her.”
—John Lund, US Air Force Retired.
Well, I’ll be damned, thought Ike. He’d been studying the back of the safe-house waiting for Cougar to show up when the part of the fence he’d compromised keeled over and out stepped the woman he was supposed to recover, all blue eyes and wild hair.
Up till then he’d had no idea how Cougar had planned to retrieve her without the FBI agents’ knowledge. He stood up, relieved. She’d saved them a hell of a lot of trouble.
To his incredulity, she took one look at him, clutched her handbag to her chest, and sprinted the other way, up the grassy alley with the dog at her side, heading in the opposite direction from his getaway vehicle.
The other camera, tucked under the rear eaves was filming her exodus. It would film him, too, if he went after her, but the odds of snagging her were better now than they’d ever be, especially if the FBI caught her first.
So Ike took off after her.
The girl was surprisingly fleet-footed. She had almost made it to the tree line before he curled a gloved hand around her elbow and swung her around. Lunging for the dog’s collar at the same time, he pulled them both to a jarring halt. “Wrong way,” he grated.
“Let go of me!” Her voice came out high and thin. “I’m not going back.” She struggled against his grasp, proving more difficult than the dog, who eyed him warily.
The odds of a successful nab and grab depended significantly on the amount of time it took to seize the recovery target and disappear. Ike had two minutes, tops, to make them disappear.
Ignoring Eryn’s shriek, he banded an arm around her waist and plucked her off her feet. “Come,” he said, relying on the dog to follow his mistress. He carried the squirming woman into a fenceless back yard where he hid them all behind a utility shed.
She was a wriggling bundle of resistance. “Let me go!”
He had to pin her to the shed’s wall. “Quiet,” he ordered, covering her mouth with a gloved hand. Her face went waxen; her pupils dilated. Christ, she was terrified of him, and he had mere seconds in which to reassure her.
“Look, I’m not with the FBI and I’m not a terrorist,” he said, peering around the corner of the shed for any sign of pursuit. “Your father sent me.”
She sucked a startled breath through her nose.
That’s right, princess. “The safe word is Lancaster. He said you’d understand that.” Not that he did.
Looking back into her eyes, he was relieved to see her fear fade. Suddenly, she looked more like the teenager in the photo on Stanley’s desk at HQ, all freckles and periwinkle eyes. Except the lithe body crushed under his most definitely belonged to a woman.
Easing his hand off her mouth, he saw that her jaw now bore the imprint of his glove.
“Lancaster,” she whispered, touching the tip of her tongue to her full upper lip.
She was too beautiful. Aware that his right thigh was wedged between hers, Ike eased his weight off of her. They needed to get moving. “I’m here to take you somewhere safe,” he added, measuring the distance to his car as she took stock of him.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“Isaac Calhoun.” He glanced at his watch. No more time to chat.
But then she gave a cry of relief and threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. “Thank you!” she cried, leaving an impression of soft breasts and fragrant hair.
Ike disguised his sudden befuddlement by tying a short rope to the dog’s collar in a makeshift leash. “We need to go. Can you run?”
“Of course.” She seemed more than eager, looping the strap of her purse over her head.
He swept the area one more time. “Now.” Seizing her hand, he tugged her back into the grassy alley toward the condo he’d been using.
Sliding open the rear entrance, he pulled her and the dog inside and locked it behind them. In seconds, they were stepping out the front door. The man who owned the place happened to be in the service, making him compliant to the Commander’s strange request for a house key.
Everything was legal, right down to the parking space, one lot south of the one fronting the safe house.
“Look casual,” he said, ushering Eryn to an older-model Mercedes.
They passed a young mother buckling her baby into the back of a van. The rest of the parking lot stood deserted, with most residents away at work.
Ike opened the door. No alarm sounded yet. He might just pull this off.
Ten seconds left. He trundled Eryn into the front seat. “Head down,” he said, pressing her head to her knees.
He opened the back door for the dog. “In, boy,” he said, but the dog balked.
“Winston, come!” Eryn called, popping up in order to coax her dog into the back.
It all came down to time. He could leave the dog if he had to, but then he’d have a hysterical woman on his hands.
With the last precious seconds ticking off the clock, Ike muscled the dog into the back, slammed the door shut, and rounded the vehicle to slip behind the wheel.
Two minutes and five seconds had passed since he’d grabbed her. The odds were against them already.
Pulling briskly out of the parking space, he took the route out of the area suggested by the GPS device stuck to his dash. He had programmed it to guide him through a maze of back roads, avoiding Randolph Road and Viers Mill, where the FBI had parked their RV.
A sudden explosion shattered the morning quiet, so loud that the windows of the car reverberated. Eryn screamed and ducked. Ike, startled by the sound, swerved and recovered. What the hell was that? He increased his speed.
“It was a bomb!” Eryn cried. “I knew it was a bomb!”
He glanced at her sharply. “What was? Where?”
“The UPS man was knocking on the front door. He had a package in his hand. I knew it was a bomb!”
No way. Terrorists had just tried killing her again? “Did you see him? Did you recognize him?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. There was a man at the door with a box. He might have been the one who killed Itzak. I couldn’t tell.”
The surface of Ike’s skin abruptly cooled. He increased his speed, not at all surprised to hear sirens wailing in the distance.
Eryn, who looked like she was going to throw up, peered fearfully through the back window.
“Head down,” he reminded her. At least the bomb, if that’s what it was, would make it harder for the FBI to pursue them. But would they deem him responsible when they replayed the surveillance tapes?
Cued by the GPS, he swerved right, cutting through a middle-class subdivision, past a busy elementary school with kids pouring out of yellow busses.
Out the corner of his eye, he watched Eryn drop her face into her hands and rock herself. The shock had finally gotten to her. He braced himself for the sight of her vomiting or, worse yet, sobbing hysterically. But, with a sharp sniff, she dashed the moisture off her cheeks and turned her lowered head to look at him.
“You s-saved me, Ike,” she said in a shaky voice.
Startled to hear his nickname, he looked back at her. “Why’d you call me that?”
“Ike? That’s what my f-father calls you, right? I recognize you f-from pictures in his e-m-mails.” Dragging her purse closer, she started fumbling through it.
“That wasn’t me,” he said, amazed that she could talk without biting her tongue. Not that he blamed her for being shaken. Christ, if terrorists had just bombed the safe house, then that had been one hell of a close call. If she hadn’t run out to greet him, she might well have been killed.
He swallowed convulsively as he imagined telling Stanley that he’d been too late.
“Sure it w-was you,” she insisted. “You had a b-beard back then, and your hair was reddish gold.” She fished a prescription bottle out of her purse and wrestled with the safety lid.
The comment proved she knew exactly who he was. Before the clusterfuck that had left most of his squad dead, he’d had the coloration of a young man. Grief and guilt had turned his hair silver, practically overnight.
“But your eyes are the same,” she chattered on, shaking a pill into her palm. “I never forget a face. It’s a gift, I guess.”
He glanced at her, surprised she found his face memorable at all. He had no exceptional features, no disfiguring scars. Pretending to scan the road signs even though the GPS would tell him the way, he focused on the mission.
“Do you have any water?” she asked.
“No.” He glanced curiously at the pill.
She swallowed it anyway, making a face that told him it was lodged in her throat.
The GPS prompted him to turn right in fifty yards. As he swung onto a boulevard jammed with service stations and auto parts stores, the sound of sirens grew louder. Flashing blue lights bore directly down on them.
Ah, shit! But the black and white cruiser screamed past without even slowing. Probably heading to the scene of the explosion, he figured. Something sure as hell had happened.
“That was close,” Eryn commented, clutching her purse with white-knuckled fingers.
He slowed, searching for the narrow entrance to the garage where his Durango was parked.
There. He braked abruptly, grabbing Eryn’s shoulder to keep her head from plowing into the dashboard. As he swerved into the alleyway between two buildings to a lot in the rear, she glanced up. “Why are we here?” she asked.
The yard behind the mechanic’s shop was crammed with dilapidated European cars. “Changing vehicles,” he said.
Cougar could tell her the whole story once he finally checked in. What the hell was keeping him, anyway? As Ike saw it, he had done his part. Cougar could do the rest. He never wanted to see Eryn McClellan again. She made him think about the past. She brought urgency and agitation to the present. He would rather just exist in limbo, wanting nothing for himself.