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Authors: Susan Mallery

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BOOK: Shelter in a Soldier's Arms
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Before she could protest, he’d gathered the sheets and stuffed them into the tote on the floor by the sofa. Maggie joined in the game, collecting her stuffed animals. While she carefully threw out the empty juice container, Jeff put the baby monitor into the bag. “Anything else?” he asked.

Just her final paycheck, she thought grimly. But that would be sent to her. “Nothing. Thank you, Mr. Ritter. You’ve been very kind.”

She didn’t know what else to say. Would he respond to begging? Based on the chill in his gray eyes, she didn’t think so.

He didn’t acknowledge her words. Instead he turned and headed for the front of the building. “My car’s out back,” she called after him, then had to lean against the door frame to gather her strength. She needed to sleep. Unfortunately Maggie wasn’t going to go down for more than a couple of hours. Maybe that would be enough to get Ashley on her feet enough to get through the day. Or maybe—

“You’re too ill to drive,” Jeff said flatly. He’d paused at the turn in the corridor. “I’ll take you home. Your car will be returned to you later in the day.”

She was too weak to argue, which meant he was right about her being in no shape to drive. Slowly she staggered after him. Maggie held her hand.

“Snowball says she wants to sleep with you when we get home,” Maggie said sleepily as they walked through the building. “She’s magic and she’ll make you feel better.”

Ashley knew that her daughter wouldn’t give up her favorite toy lightly. Touched by the gesture, she smiled at her child. “I think you’re the magic one.”

Maggie giggled, her curls dancing. “I’m just little, Mommy. There’s no place for the magic to go. If I was bigger, there could be some.”

Ashley was too tired to point out that Snowball was smaller still. But then, favorite toys were always special in ways that grown-ups didn’t understand.

They stepped out into the misting morning to find Jeff holding open the rear door of an impressive black sedan. Ashley didn’t have to see the BMW emblem on the hood to know that the car was expensive. Very expensive. If she could make even close to what this car cost, all her troubles would be solved.

She hesitated before sliding across the soft, gray leather. It was cool and smooth and soft. Whatever you do, don’t throw up, she told herself firmly.

It took only a few seconds to secure her daughter and herself in safety belts. With her arm around Maggie, Ashley leaned back and closed her eyes. Just a few more minutes, she told herself. Fifteen at most. Then she would be home and crawling into her own bed.

“I need your address.”

The voice came out of the blackness. Ashley had to rouse herself to speak and even then it was difficult to form words. She started to give him directions, as well, but Jeff informed her he knew the area. She didn’t doubt him. He was the kind of man who knew just about everything.

The soft hum of the engine lulled her into that half-awake, half-asleep place. She could have stayed there forever. The early hour caught up with Maggie who snuggled against her and relaxed. Right up until the car came to a stop and she felt more than heard Jeff turn toward her.

“There seems to be a problem.”

Ashley forced her eyes open, then wished she hadn’t. So much for her day not getting worse. They were stopped close to her four-story apartment building. Normally there was plenty of room to park right in front of the building, but not this morning. Today, red fire trucks and police cars had pulled into the driveway. Flashing lights twinkled in the light rainfall. Stunned, Ashley stared in disbelief at the river of water flowing down the main steps. Her neighbors were huddled together on the sidewalk.

No, she thought, feeling herself tremble with shock and disbelief. This couldn’t be happening. Not today. She fumbled with Maggie’s seat belt, then her own. After opening the rear door, she stepped out, pulling her daughter with her. She was careful to hold Maggie in her arms. The girl’s slippers wouldn’t provide any protection against the water flowing everywhere.

“Mommy, what happened?” Maggie asked.

“I don’t know.”

Mrs. Gunther, the retired, blue-haired woman who managed the aging apartment building, spotted her and hurried over.

“Ashley, you’re not going to believe it. The main water pipe broke about an hour ago. It’s a mess. From what I’ve learned, it will take a week to repair the damage. They’ll escort you inside to get whatever you can carry out, then we have to make other arrangements until the pipe is repaired.”

Jeff watched the last trace of color drain from the woman’s face. Defeat clouded her eyes, making her tremble. Or maybe it was the fever.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” she whispered.

The old lady patted her arm. “I’m in the same situation, dear. Not to worry. They’re opening a shelter. We’ll be fine there.”

Maggie, the moppet with dark curls and a far-too-trusting smile, looked at her mother. “What’s a shelter, Mommy? Do they got kittens there? Real ones?”

“I—I don’t know.”

Ashley shifted her daughter’s weight, then stared at the gushing building. “I need to get my textbooks and notes. Clothes for us, some toys.”

“They’ll escort you in,” the old woman said. “I’ll watch Maggie while you’re there.”

Suddenly Ashley seemed to remember him. She turned and blinked. “Oh, Mr. Ritter. Thanks for the ride. I, um, guess I need to get my things out of your trunk.”

She moved to the rear of the vehicle and waited until he’d popped open the trunk. When she swung the tote bag onto her shoulder, she had to take a quick step to steady herself.

“Are you going to be all right?”

The question surprised them both. Jeff hadn’t planned to ask it. He told himself that her situation wasn’t his problem. The woman would be fine in a shelter. His gaze drifted to the little girl all in pink. He was less sure about her doing well under those circumstances.

“We’ll be great.” Ashley gave him a false smile. “You’ve been too kind already.”

It was his cue to leave. Normally he would have melted into the crowd and been gone before anyone knew he was even there. Instead he lingered.

“You can’t take her there,” he said, his voice low and urgent. “It’s not right.”

“She’ll be fine,” Ashley assured him. “We’ll be fine together.”

He told himself to step back, to not get involved. He told himself— “I’ll pay for a hotel room if you’d like.”

Her eyes were an odd hazel color. Neither blue nor green. Not brown. Some swirling combination of all the colors.

“You’ve been very kind already. Goodbye, Mr. Ritter.”

She dismissed him. He accepted her decision, but before she took a step away, he slipped one of his business cards into her jacket pocket. It was an impulsive act, so unlike him. Later he would try to figure out why he’d bothered. Then he did what he was good at. He blended in, moving toward his car. In a matter of seconds, he was gone.

*

“You plan on joining the conversation anytime soon?”

Jeff looked at his friend and partner, Zane Rankin, and shrugged. “I’m here.”

“Physically. But you keep drifting off. Not like you at all.”

Jeff returned his attention to the plans on the table without acknowledging the truth of Zane’s words. Jeff was having trouble concentrating on the work at hand. He knew the cause—he couldn’t get the woman and her child out of his head and he didn’t know why.

Was it their circumstances? Yet he’d seen hundreds in worse trouble. Compared to a war-torn village with its winter food stores destroyed, Ashley Churchill’s plight was insignificant. Was it the child? The girl? Maggie’s bright smile, her foolish trust, her pink pajamas and stuffed, white cat were so far from his world as to belong to a distant universe.

Did it matter why they haunted him? Better the living than the dead who were his usual companions. There were no answers to any of the questions, so he dismissed them and returned his attention to the diagram of a luxury villa overlooking the Mediterranean. The private residence was to host a secret gathering of several international business executives who were responsible for the manufacture of some of the world’s most deadly weapons. The threat of industrial espionage, terrorist attack or kidnapping would be high. He and Zane were to provide the security. Step one: learn the weaknesses of the location.

Jeff pointed with his pen. “All this has to go,” he said, indicating a lush tropical garden creeping down a hill.

“Agreed. We’ll use the latest class-ten sensors, hiding them on what’s left.”

The new high-tech sensors could be programmed to ignore the movement of the security team, yet pick up the wanderings of a field mouse at fifty yards.

“What about—”

The buzz of his intercom interrupted him. Jeff frowned. His assistant, Brenda, knew better than to bother him and Zane while they were involved in tactical planning. She would only do so if there was an emergency.

“Yes,” he said, as he tapped a button on his phone.

“Jeff, I know you’re busy but you have a call from a downtown shelter. About a Ms. Churchill and her daughter. I didn’t know

” His normally take-charge assistant sounded fairly flustered. “Is she a friend of yours? Or should I take a message?”

All of his senses went on alert. “Put the call through,” he instructed.

There was a moment of silence, followed by Brenda’s voice politely saying, “Mr. Ritter is on the phone now.”

“This is Jeff Ritter. How can I help you?”

“Oh, Mr. Ritter. Hi. I’m Julie, a volunteer at the shelter. Ashley and Maggie Churchill are here. The problem is Ashley is very sick. Too sick to stay, but she’s refusing to go to a hospital. As she only seems to have the flu, I can’t blame her. But we don’t have the facilities to take care of her. We found your card in her jacket pocket and I was wondering if you’re a friend of the family.”

Jeff knew what she was asking. Would he take responsibility? He reminded himself that Ashley Churchill had already refused his offer to pay for a hotel. Then he remembered the defeat in her eyes when she’d seen the ruin that was her home. She was sick, she had a child and nowhere to go.

It wasn’t his problem, he reminded himself. He didn’t get involved. Not ever. According to his ex-wife he had the compassion of the devil himself and a heart made of stone. Telling the shelter volunteer he wasn’t anything to the Churchill females was the only thing that made sense.

“Yes, I’m a friend of the family,” he said instead. “I’ll be right there to pick them both up. They can stay with me.”

Chapter 2

Ť^ť

Ashley tried to remember when she last felt this horrible. It wasn’t just her unsettled stomach, the pounding in her head or even the weakness that invaded her body. She’d reached the absolute low point of her life. In one morning she’d lost her job and her home, and now she and her daughter were being thrown out of the temporary shelter. In her head she knew that it was wrong of her to stay and expose everyone to the flu. There were several elderly residents, along with mothers with babies. But in her heart she felt incredibly alone. Where were she and Maggie supposed to go? She didn’t have the money for a hotel, and even if she did, Ashley knew she was close to physical collapse. If—or rather when—that happened, who was going to watch over her daughter?

Involuntarily her eyelids closed. She desperately wanted to sleep. She wanted this horrible nightmare to end. And just once in her life, she wanted someone else to take charge and make everything better. She wanted to be rescued, just like in those fairy tales she read to her daughter. However, it seemed unlikely a handsome prince would show up to take her away from all her troubles and

A shadow fell across the cot. Even with her eyes closed Ashley noted the sudden darkening. She forced herself to gather her last bit of strength and look at her visitor. Probably the shelter volunteer, Julie something, who had gently explained she couldn’t stay.

But the person looming over her wasn’t a too-perky student from the nearby college. Rather he was tall, silent and frighteningly familiar. Not a handsome prince, but the evil wizard—a creature both powerful and deadly.

She knew she was hallucinating, because there was no way her soon-to-be ex-boss was really gathering her up in his arms. She was still lying on the cot, imagining it, she told herself even as powerful male strength surrounded her. The illusion was surprisingly real and in it, he carried her as easily as she carried Maggie.

“You’re staying with me until you’re better,” Jeff Ritter said.

She blinked. The voice sounded genuine and she felt the soft whisper of his breath across her cheek as he spoke. Now that she made herself think about it, she could feel the smooth wool of his suit where her hand rested just below his collar at the back of his neck. She blinked, not sure what was real and what was fever induced.

“Are you carrying me?”

Gray eyes stared into her face. “You’re sicker than I thought.”

True or not, it wasn’t much of an answer.

“We can’t—” She pressed her lips together. What couldn’t they do? She couldn’t remember.

“You’ll be safe at my house,” he told her.

Safe? Not likely. Suddenly she was being lowered into nothing. She clutched at Jeff, then sighed in relief when he settled her onto a chair.

“Collect her things,” he said to someone just out of Ashley’s field of vision.

“I’ll get her shoes.”

The last statement, spoken in her daughter’s bright, cheerful voice, brought Ashley back to the land of the living faster than any drug.

“Maggie?”

“She’ll be fine.”

She shook her head slightly and ignored the subsequent wooziness. With a couple of deep breaths, she managed to clear her head enough to focus on the man crouched in front of her. She hadn’t been mistaken—it was Jeff Ritter, all right. Still dressed in his well-tailored suit, still looking distant and the tiniest bit scary.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

“Because you’re too sick to stay at the shelter. I’m taking you home until you’re on your feet.”

She wiggled her sock-clad toes and wondered if he had any idea that she felt as if she was going to be sick forever.

BOOK: Shelter in a Soldier's Arms
4.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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