Watching the strangers scurry past her brother's grave, Abby Trevor felt blessedly numb everywhere…except her feet. The designer shoes she'd bought on a whim last spring with Jason hurt like crazy and pain was the only thing keeping her focused. The pinch in her right instep reminded her of the day she and her brother had shopped themselves silly in New York. At the moment that needlelike sensation was the way she knew the coffin in front of her was not some hideous nightmare as the rain fell in sheets from the dark morning sky.
If she let herself believe for one second the sea of black umbrellas around her was a dream, she'd stand up, kick off those wretched shoes and run screaming from the drowning cemetery. That would certainly set the tongues to wagging, especially here in Washington, D.C.
But she wouldn't disgrace her brother or his memory that way. Her mama's Southern belle training was too ingrained in her, despite the fact that she was one thousand miles from the Mississippi Delta and the small town that had been the cradle of her genteel upbringing.
Still, that home training—and her uncomfortable shoes—kept Abby's butt firmly planted in the soggy funeral home seat under the green awning. She'd never be able to stand the sight or scent of stargazer lilies again. Thunder rumbled in the distance, serving as another reminder that despite the surreal atmosphere, this was no dream.
Jason was dead. Killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street on his lunch hour. D.C. police were still looking for the driver.
God, Jason, what happened?
She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the rain was coming down in biblical proportions and almost everyone was gone. She wouldn't be surprised to see frogs falling from the sky soon. She felt nearly alone in the world. Nearly.
Estranged relatives in Mississippi didn't count. But Karen Weathers did. Even if her beloved mentor was in a nursing home in Dallas. Abby tried to imagine herself in happier days sitting in her old college professor's office at Southern Methodist University sipping tea and arguing about William Faulkner, anything to mentally take herself away from her present location. It didn't work. She was too aware of the rain. The overpowering scent of the lilies. The pain in her feet. And the temptation to run screaming from it all.
"Miss Trevor, I'm terribly sorry for your loss. Your brother will be missed." The deep voice had a rich Irish lilt to it.
The speaker was tall, wore a trench coat and held a massive golf umbrella against the dreary weather. Rain splattered his outstretched hand but she reached to take it anyway. His grasp was warm and wet.
"My name's Abigail but everyone calls me Abby." She glanced up with her practiced "polite funeral smile" in place only to get a distinct jolt when she stared into unusual blue-green eyes that reminded her of dark Caribbean waters that could change to a deep emerald when the light hit just so. She took a moment longer to study the man's Cary Grant cleft chin and high cheekbones. But that's where all similarity to her favorite movie star ended.
His aristocratic nose had been broken somewhere in the past and his dark hair, misted by the rain, was cut in a longer variation of a military "high and tight." The combination made him a bit dangerous looking, but his air was open and friendly. Overall, the nose kept him from being too pretty, otherwise he would have looked like a chiseled European model.
Somewhere in her perusal she found her voice again, glad to be shaken from her pity party and wild thoughts of running barefoot like a banshee from the cemetery. His grip was firm and he had a bandage on his index finger. She wondered what had happened to it.
She let go of his hand and asked, "How did you know Jason?"
"By reputation, initially. I was a great admirer of his work. My name is Shaun Logan. We became…friends later."
An admirer of Jason's work.
What a strange thing to say. She didn't think her brother's work was necessarily well-known. Jason was a concept development engineer, albeit a good one, for Zip Technologies. Zip Tech for short. A cyber-security start-up. And now the man was staring back at her in the oddest way. She had a feeling she was missing something significant.
She'd never thought of Jason as having admirers, unless…Ah, color her embarrassed. Of course.
Her brother was gay. And this lovely gentleman must be as well. Okay, so she'd missed that entirely. She'd been too busy checking him out herself.
"I had no idea." That covered such a multitude of things about her brother—his love life and her present gaffe.
Jason had been very open about his choices but not his lovers. And Abby had adored him—not judging, even when her parents had, to their own detriment.
She swallowed past the emotion clogging her throat. "Thank you for coming today. I appreciate it. I didn't know many of his…friends."
"'Tis my honor to be here. I only wish we could be meeting under more pleasant circumstances." His accent was like sliding into a warm comfortable coat on a cold day.
"Your brother was quite famous in the high-tech world," Shaun continued.
She shook her head, still at a loss to reconcile the Jason she'd known and to understand this aspect of his work.
"It's not something you would have been aware of if you weren't in the industry, especially as his sister. You just loved him for himself, aye?"
Again, Abby swallowed hard as sudden scalding tears burned the corners of her eyes. There were so many things she didn't know about Jason's life. Had he told this man all the details?
She sighed. "Jason never shared much with me about his job. It was so proprietary."
He nodded and offered her a neatly pressed handkerchief from his coat pocket. "Everyone at Zip Tech signs a nondisclosure agreement. Applies to family members, as well."
"Did he speak with you about his work?" she asked.
"Only in the most general of terms. He worked on some very interesting projects."
Abby tilted her head. That voice. Shaun Logan could charm snakes with it. She'd be completely intimidated if he wasn't gay. She looked directly at him and smiled. "Jason told me a little about the new security project—Zip-Net, I believe it's called? He was thrilled and so hopeful for the direction of the company. I can't quite believe he won't be here to—"
She stopped. She couldn't think about that now or she'd never make it through everything she had to do today and the rest of this week.
"It's an exciting concept. Everyone at Zip Tech is optimistic about the future and they owe your brother a great deal," said Shaun. "He was a wonderful man."
"He was a pretty terrific brother, too." She bowed her head and dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. It smelled like the same fabric softener she used herself. She was struck by the incongruity of that as she felt Shaun's hand on her shoulder.
"If there's anything I can do," he murmured.
She looked up. There was nothing to be done now but grieve, and there would be time for that later, in private.
"I'd missed several of his calls lately. I assumed he was traveling. We'd been playing phone tag for a couple of weeks and I hadn't been able to catch up with him." Or hear about who he was seeing?
"Right. He was traveling with lab testing all last month."
"I wondered why we kept missing each other." She thought of Jason's garbled voice-mail message a few days ago. She'd only caught the beginning because the connection was so bad. Buttercup, how are you ?
She'd assumed his call was more decompressing about his schedule. While he couldn't tell her much about his actual work, he could bitch about the insane deadlines of a start-up company and the unique personalities involved—all while managing to make it sound entertaining. That was Jason. And that information wasn't proprietary. She'd always been willing to listen. He'd certainly listened to her enough.
She fervently hoped Jason had had others to listen as well and to give advice. Others perhaps like Shaun? He certainly seemed to know her brother.
Could he tell her more about Jason? They were alone now in the cemetery under the awning. Everyone had fled the rain except for the funeral director and the limo driver. She dove in without really thinking it through, especially as she assumed he "hit for the other team" so to speak.
"I won't keep you any longer in this horrible rain, but I've really enjoyed talking with you about Jason's work. I'd like to learn more about that part of his life. Do you have a business card? Could I perhaps email you?" she asked.
He reached into his pocket and handed her one. "Nothing would please me more."
"Thank you." She slid the calling card into her purse, disinclined to leave but knowing it was time.
"How long have you been in D.C.?" he asked.
"I got in the day before yesterday. Wait, I guess it was yesterday." She shook her head. "My internal clock is turned upside down. I flew in from London and I don't have my times figured out yet."
"Do you live in the U.K.?" He took her elbow, helping her through the rain to the limo. The golf umbrella was huge, yet the swirling rain still found them.
"I do now… for the past three months. I'm a professor at SMU. This semester I'm guest lecturing on Southern Literature at Cambridge University while one of their professors is teaching English literature in Dallas. We swap apartments and everything."
"What a fascinating way to see the world."
"It is. I've done this in Italy and France, as well."
"Where are you staying while you're here?" They'd reached the limo and he helped her inside.
"I'm at Jason's. I'll close his condo while I'm in D.C. Then—" She stopped and stared hard at her wet right shoe before she took a deep breath. "I suppose I haven't really gotten that far yet."
She glanced up at him. "Can I give you a lift to your car?" She was reluctant to leave him now. Hearing him talk, she wouldn't have cared if the Irishman was reading the phone book. She felt peaceful for the first time in four days, like she wasn't going to jump out of her skin. It felt for some reason as if she were letting her last ties with Jason go.
He shrugged. "No worries, I took a cab."
"Can I drop you somewhere? It's raining so, please…get in." She stopped again and blushed. "Oh, my, I'm not trying to pick you up at my brother's funeral. Not that you'd be interest—"
She stopped and shook her head, wishing suddenly for the earth to open and swallow her up. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant at all."
She felt herself blushing, and suddenly she was back in Ms. Martin's seventh grade class, stammering through her "How to Make the Perfect Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich" demonstration speech. On top of spreading peanut butter on her speech notes instead of the bread, she'd dropped and shattered the strawberry jam jar in front of the entire classroom. That day, she'd wished for the world to end, as well—for an entirely different reason.
Shaun couldn't help but smile as she flushed again, a pleasant pink, to the roots of her hair. It was lovely. He hadn't seen a woman who got embarrassed and blushed like that in a long time.
The part of his conscience that was still active was mildly bothered by the fact that he was deceiving a woman who had just buried her brother. That twinge of remorse surprised him. Intellectually he knew how she felt. But the remnants of his own grief and loss had been buried for so long, they no longer clouded his judgment.
Growing up in a country filled with centuries of violence had not produced an idyllic childhood, nor had losing both parents to "the Troubles" of his homeland in a bomb blast at the tender age of eight. Years of denial had worked in his favor at cementing a manhole cover of ice over that dark mental abyss. He shook off the old ghosts.
He hadn't planned to introduce himself at the funeral and certainly not as Jason Trevor's boyfriend. He'd been ordered to keep an eye on Abigail, possibly even protect her—as needed—from the background. He wasn't supposed to make contact yet. Donner needed this woman's cooperation but that wouldn't happen if Shaun spooked her first. He'd considered the funeral as more of a scouting opportunity, but this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
Getting her to lean on him, trust him was the job he'd been assigned. Abigail Trevor was clearly in pain. Plus, she was in an unfamiliar city with no family or friends close by. He'd been over and over how to play this the past three days. The problem was time and how little there was of it. Winning her trust in such a limited time frame called for a wee…creative manipulation of the truth. Such as concealing, for now, the fact that the female Trevor sibling was much more to his taste than her brother would have been.
Maybe he should have corrected Abigail's assumption and told her that he was definitely not gay. But he had to insinuate himself into her life as soon as possible. So he let her mistake stand as the quickest way to get under her defenses.
Shaun was just grateful he worked for Michael Donner now, instead of his old boss at Storm's Edge. He could trust Donner and his motives. In other words, he could lie with impunity.
There was certainly no one around to contradict him. No one knew him or could question whether Shaun had known Jason Trevor as a colleague, a lover, or if he'd never laid eyes on the man until today at the funeral home viewing.
Jason had kept his personal life extraordinarily private, and Shaun had seen the change in Abigail's eyes when she thought she'd put it together, so he didn't set her straight in any sense of the word.
Seeing Jason's coworkers hurry past, most not saying anything to her due in part to the torrential downpour, he realized that right now was the perfect time to approach her. She was off balance, grieving. Not evaluating or thinking clearly. Any slipup he might make could be more easily covered. Letting himself be "talked into" a ride was the perfect setup.
Except when he felt that niggle of conscience and a real surge of attraction that was completely out of place here. Then she was talking and he almost missed what she was saying.
"… it's just I don't want to ride by myself and it seems a waste. I can drop you at a hotel in Georgetown at least. It'll be easier for you to grab a cab that way in this rain."
Shaun grinned. This would be okay. It would be splendid, in fact. "Sure and I'd be a fool to turn down a lift from a lovely lady. Just drop me at the nearest metro station. I'll take the train home."
What could be more ideal?
Abby moved over as Shaun climbed in beside her. He was much bigger than she'd realized once he was seated beside her—at least six foot three. He wasn't imposing exactly but he was built like someone who worked out a lot.
Jason, even from the grave you snag the most amazing-looking men. What is that about?
At that moment Abby had a pang of longing for her brother and all they had lost that was so intense, a tear trickled down her cheek mixing with the raindrops. She turned her head away to the opposite window and saw that the limo driver had provided a couple of towels for her to dry off with. She blotted her face and offered the other hand linen to Shaun.
"Jason would have adored this," she murmured. "He dearly loved a good thunderstorm. They always scared me silly."
The limo driver swung around the gates of the cemetery and paused a moment as a maintenance truck rolled past. The plan was for her to be driven back to Jason's condo in Arlington. Zip Tech had made all the arrangements. She leaned forward to ask the driver to stop at a metro station.
Breaking glass and a soft svit sound thumped the leather seat behind her. The window beside her broke into a thousand tiny pieces, covering her back and hair.
"Get down!" Shaun tackled her, taking her to the floorboard. Suddenly she was facedown underneath two hundred pounds of heavily muscled male, her nose pressed into the taupe-colored carpet. All she could smell was damp earth from their tromp across the cemetery and the strange chemical scent of heavy-duty carpet cleaner.
More glass shattered.
"Damn it!" cried the driver, stomping on the brakes.
“Don’t stop!” shouted Shaun. He raised up on one elbow and for a moment she could breathe. “Someone’s shooting at us. Keep driving.”
The back window imploded and more glass showered across their bodies as the car swerved wildly before righting itself.
“Whatever happens,” repeated Shaun. “Don’t stop driving.”
“Which way do we go?” shouted the driver.
Shaun rattled off an address she’d never heard of in a heavier Irish brogue, adding to the surreal feel of everything. Then he lowered his head again, covering her body with his and she couldn’t get any air. His hair tickled her cheek and his lips were right beside her ear. It was chillingly bizarre, yet intimate at the same time.
“Are you okay?” he whispered.
Words stuck in her throat. “No...no, I’m not. Why is someone shooting at us? Are they following us?”
“We’re going somewhere safe.”
He shifted his weight to pull out a cell phone and started texting.
“You didn’t answer my question. Who are you?” Was this guy some kind of criminal that people were shooting at him in her car? “Why are they shooting at you?” She heard the rising panic in her own voice.
“Abigail, I’m not the person they’re shooting at.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on here. What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I’m trying to get us some help.”
“By texting?” She didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in her voice. Fear made her sound snarky. “I don’t understand. Why are you texting and not calling 9-1-1?”
“I need you to calm down.”
“There are people shooting at us, at me? And I can’t...I can’t breathe.”
She was serious about that part. For some reason her asthma was kicking into overdrive and she was going to have to use her inhaler as soon as possible or she would be in serious trouble here.
He shifted his weight, once again reminding her that regardless of his sexual orientation, he was a man and he had her pinned to the ground.
“Your driver is doing a fine job of getting us away from the situation. I’m making sure we have help when we get to where he is taking us.”
“You haven’t told me who you are.”
He ignored her question and called to the driver instead. “You doing okay up there?”
The guy nodded.
“What’s your name?” asked Shaun. They were speeding along Rock Creek Parkway now.
“Carl, I’m Shaun and you’re doing great. Donner briefed you, right?”
“Okay, I need you to take us to that address I gave you.”
“What’s going on? I still don’t understand. Carl?” She turned her head to meet Shaun’s eyes. “Where are we going? The police?”
They were nose to nose and she could see a tiny scar under his chin. His eyes seemed darker up close than she’d originally thought, with forest green flecks in the irises. She stared, determined not to look away or back down till she got answers.
“’Tis a safe place,” Shaun answered.
“Why no police?”
“Because I’m not sure they can help you right now.”
“Who are you?” she asked again. Fear was giving way to anger.
“A friend.” The snake charmer was long gone; he was cool and business-like.
She shook her head and turned back to face the carpet. No one had started shooting till she met him and up until two minutes ago, Carl had been her driver.
“Why should I believe that?” she whispered.
Excerpt from: BULLETPROOF HEARTS by Kay Thomas
Copyright © 2011 by Kay Thomas
Permission granted by Harlequin Books S.A. and Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.