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PROLOGUE & CHAPTERS ONE & TWO

THE KISS OF LIFE

Romantic suspense, mystery, abduction, love after loss, political thriller, FBI, terrorists

Char Sharp, Author

Suanne Laqueur, Editor



Prologue


“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Navy Commander and Mrs. William Grey Foster.”


Will squeezed his wife’s gloved hand as they entered the gala hall. He smiled at the generous applause, feeling appreciative eyes slide over his full-dress uniform and then linger on his stunning wife. Elizabeth looked over the beautifully decorated ballroom with an unabashedly proud expression. The gala promised an evening of dinner, dancing, and auction, benefiting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She’d spent countless hours planning tonight’s fete with the event planners, down to the smallest details.


“It’s perfect,” he murmured at her ear and placed a hand on her lower back, moving them through the crowd.


Her smile was wistful. “Not quite. My handsome date has to leave early.”


“I’m sorry,” he said. An urgent mission required his presence tonight and he would have to leave in an hour. 


“I know,” she said. "And I understand. So let’s dance while I have you here.”


He grinned. “Wait, go back to the handsome thing?”


She brushed the lapel of his jacket, straightened a medal that didn’t need straightening. “Don’t let it go to your head, Doctor Foster.”


Elizabeth paused to hug a woman in passing. “Linda, this is my husband, William.”


“It’s so nice to meet you, Commander . . . or is it Doctor?” Linda said. 


“Either one,” Will said with a polite smile.


“You’re a medical doctor with the National Institutes of Health, right?” Linda asked.


“That was the last assignment,” Will said. “I’m now with the Centers for Disease Control . . . infectious diseases.”


“And he’s only here for an hour,” Elizabeth said. “So I’m dragging him to the dance floor. I’ll catch up with you later?”


A passing server offered them champagne. Will took a flute and gave it to Elizabeth. 


“Just what the doctor ordered,” she said and sighed as she took a sip. “I’m sorry you’re missing this.” She was well aware he wouldn’t drink while on duty.


“Me, too.” He leaned down and brushed a kiss against her forehead.


Every greeting along the way prevented them from reaching the dance floor. They moved in a rhythm of hellos and goodbyes, sprinkled with small talk and William’s repeated explanation for his limited appearance. “Urgent matter at the CDC.” A vague, sanitized excuse, which was how he preferred it. Not even Elizabeth knew more than that. And she knew better than to ask. Knowing less kept her safe.


Will checked his watch again. “My hour is almost up. I need to head out before they serve dinner.”


“Well come on, Commander. I want my dance.”


He led her to the dance floor and held her close, relishing the feel of her graceful body as they danced. “I’m sorry, Lizbeth, I truly am. I’ll make it up to you, promise.”


They slowed their dance as the song ended. The doctor led his wife off the dance floor, a hand lingering on her lower back. 


“The car service is on standby for your call when you’re ready to go home,” he said. “I’ll call you when I leave my office.” 


He kissed her one last time before he walked away.


Emerging from the elevator door of the hotel, the frigid night air bit harshly against the doctor’s face. His eyes watered, and his breath escaped as clouds in the cold, drizzling rain. Downtown Atlanta bustled below him and the upper parking deck exhaled the aroma of baked lasagna and pizza, wafting from a nearby Italian restaurant. Hunched in the collar of his overcoat, Will sniffed hungrily and played over the day’s events in his mind.


That afternoon, as Will prepared to leave the CDC campus, he pressed the brake pedal of his Tesla, ready to put it into gear, when CDC Biotech Lab Specialist Aaron Maloof tapped his knuckles on Will’s passenger window. 


Will powered down the window and Maloof said, “Sir, we have a problem.” A muscle twitched at the corner of the specialist’s right eye, his mouth formed 

a rigid grimace.


“Get in.” 


With a stiff nod, he got in and powered up the window. His hand trembled as he showed Will a single disposable syringe inside a plastic transport case. He explained a national security threat that made Will’s jaw hit the steering wheel.


“Who else knows about this?” Will asked.


“Me,” Maloof said. A glance around the secured CDC employee-only parking garage and then he added, “And my cousin.”


“Your cousin . . . Roger Lydell?”


Maloof nodded. “We think our phones are being tapped.”


“Jesus Christ.”


“Call your contact at the FBI,” Maloof said. “We need a meeting set up as soon as humanly possible. Tonight.”


“Tonight?” Lizbeth would kill him if he missed the gala. His gaze fell on the syringe and he knew he had no choice. 


“All right.” 


He explained Lizbeth’s gala event to Maloof as he reached for his phone, but Maloof put a firm hand on Will’s wrist. 


“I gotta go,” Maloof said. “Do it after I leave. And don’t call me with the details. I’ll meet you on the top parking deck of the gala hotel tonight. All communication needs to be face to face.” His eyes circled the parking area meaningfully.


Will shivered in the cold now, checking his watch before fisting his hands in his overcoat pockets. He’d called in a favor and locked down the arrangements. FBI Special Agent Butch Eston from the Atlanta FBI field office would meet Will, Maloof, and Lydell at nine thirty in Will’s CDC office conference room. Butch took the meeting knowing only that he’d be interviewing two men and it was urgent. Will had alerted the CDC campus security to clear Eston and Lydell’s entry. 


After this quick face-to-face with Maloof, informing him of the meeting time and location, Will needed to make a detour home before heading to the CDC.


At eight fifteen, Specialist Maloof turned the corner and hurried toward Will. His wild dark eyes jerked over his shoulders and searched all around. When they finally settled on the doctor, his tense mouth stretched into a fearful grin.


“Take it easy now,” Will said, offering his hand to shake.


Maloof’s shoulders relaxed. A puff of frosty air as he sighed. “Sorry.”


He reached. Their palms made contact.


Two gunshots, muffled through silencers, cut through the air. A sharp, burning pain coursed through Will’s head.


I’m hit.


Chilly rain on his face. Cool concrete beneath his back. He couldn’t move or speak.


A forest of legs around him now. Men stripping him of his overcoat, dress uniform, shoes, watch—everything. 


A voice in broken English. “. . . must find the chip. Take it all.”


A surge of clarity in his dying brain.


The damn microchip.


They won’t find it.


Men shouting. In English. Then not in English.


Lizbeth, he thought.


Then he thought no more.

  

<><><><><>


Chapter One


Thirteen Months Later

Washington, D.C.



ELIZABETH


Freezing wind whirled the loose snow into a small funnel on the ground, lifting in the air on a rising wind. The sun flickered through clouds that dwindled and wrestled with the blue sky behind them. The day was crisp, clean, and beautiful. It was Valentine’s Day. My seventh wedding anniversary. And my husband was dead. 


I blinked slowly, picturing the face of the man who had been my everything.


Thirteen months since his murder and still the gnawing pain of loss constantly swirled, like that vortex of snow outside. Grief rose and dwindled and wrestled in the depths of my soul all day long—every long, sleepless night.


Only weeks ago, I embarrassed myself at the doctor’s office, all because of a check box on a form. Married. Single. Divorced. Widow. I checked widow and lost it. Tears dripped on the word now defining me. 


Widow. 


Me. Elizabeth Baron Foster, thirty years old and the widow of Will Foster.


I hated it.


Our marital home and the Atlanta area magnified my grief. Every place there either reminded me of Will or my parents. My mother died of cancer four months after my wedding. My father died in a private plane crash only ten months later. That left only my brother Cooper and me. He was Will’s best friend and just as strangled by the grief as I was. Perhaps more. We protected each other. We had each other’s back. But often Cooper took it to extreme levels, overprotective to the point of smothering.


When a job offer at the Kennedy Center came my way, I jumped at it. I sold the house, said goodbye to lifelong friends, and bade farewell to my career in public relations with the Atlanta Symphony. I packed up my cat and moved to Washington, D.C., to find the new normal of my life.


The phone rang and brought me out of my thoughts. I swiveled my desk chair around, away from the window, and took a deep, cleansing breath before answering. “Elizabeth Foster.”


“Hey, Lizbeth. Bryce. Are you good with nine o’clock rehearsal tomorrow night? Have to push it back because Mick has a conflict.”


“Nine is good for me.”


“Cool. Bring those lovely pipes and we’ll see you then. Bye.”


After moving to D.C., I met Bryce and members of his band, Four and Violet, here at the Kennedy Center. Four and Violet performed solely on Friday nights at The Boost, a private dinner and dance club. They needed a lead singer. I had experience, so I auditioned and got the job. Singing was an old hobby rekindled and something with little connection to Will, so it was one of the few things I looked forward to. Much more so than the clubbing invitations I kept dodging from friends.


“Hey, Lizbeth.” 


I turned from the window to see Stacie, my new friend from Marketing.


“You still heading out early today?” she asked, sinking into the visitor’s chair by my desk and beaming an inquisitive smile. 


“Few more things to finish up, then I’m calling it quits.”


“Wish I could spend the afternoon with you shopping, but I’ve got that marketing meeting in an hour. Buy something sexy for Saturday night.” 

She arched an eyebrow and pointed a finger at me. “You can’t back out at the last minute again. Alice and I have been begging you to go out with us for weeks. Promise you’ll go this time?”


My wedding ring tingled on my finger. Its mate, my engagement diamond, was home in my jewelry box. After the move to D.C., I agonized about my social status. I was a widow, but I still felt married. Was I allowed to wear both rings? Did I look pathetic still wearing them? Finally, I decided to just take the diamond off. I’d try that. New move. New job. New home. New look on my hand. New me. 


Me-ish. Widow-ish.


Twisting the diamond-studded, platinum wedding band around my finger, I swallowed hard. “I guess.”


Stacie sighed. “Oh, honey, I know it’s rough, but a night out will do you good. Come on. Promise.”


I took a deep breath, exhaled, and smiled. “Okay, I promise.” 


Her face broke into a huge grin. “Awesome. Bet you’d look sexy in red. Splurge, woman.” With a wave and a jingle of bracelets she left my cube.


Splurge, I thought, taking another deep breath. Saturday would be my first time going out since Will died. And my first shopping spree. 


My phone rang again. “Hi, Lizbeth,” Joan from reception said. “Your two o’clock appointment is here.” 


I blinked. “I have no appointments scheduled this afternoon.”


“Bob Smith and Don Jones?”


“No.” I scrolled through my calendar, shaking my head. “I’m not familiar with those names. In fact, I’m leaving for the day. What was this meeting for?”


She didn’t place me on hold so I heard a man tell Joan, “Tell her it’s regarding her husband’s case.”


I relented. “Okay, send them to the lobby lounge and tell them I’ll be down in a few minutes.” 


Related to her husband’s case.


Maybe this was about the video surveillance tape in the morgue.  It contained footage of an unauthorized individual making a weird examination of Will’s corpse. No one could identify who this person was. Maybe these detectives had some answers.


At the sight of two scowling men waiting for me in the deserted lounge, danger warnings rang in my head. One was tall and skinny, the other had a protruding lower jaw that made him look like a bulldog. Both were unkempt and reeked of cheap cologne and cigarettes. They both wore suits that didn’t fit and looked like wrinkled garage sale rejects. 


I stepped back, instantly knowing these two characters were not law enforcement or FBI. 


“You wanted to speak to me?” I asked. 


Their facial expressions told me I would not get an answer.


But before I could turn and run, the bulldog-ish guy shut the door and the skinny one grabbed my arms and jerked them hard behind my back. The pain made my eyes squeeze up. A scream rose in my throat, but a hand slapped over my mouth cut it off.


“Don’t even,” he said close to my ear. “Don’t make a sound. No crazy moves or you will die.” 


Bulldog pointed a gun to my side. “You’re leaving with us now.” 


“Hell no,” I said into the rough palm crushing my mouth.


The gun poked harder in my side. 


“Quiet. A member of our team is standing at the front desk with a gun. Make any sound or give any resistance, our friend will shoot your receptionist.”

He opened the blinds on the glass wall just enough for me to see a man standing at Joan’s desk talking to her. His stance was casual. Joan looked perfectly calm. I didn’t see a gun. The security guard stood at his usual post, talking to two visitors.


Were these guys bluffing me?


The blinds snapped closed.

The man with the hand over my mouth gave me a little shake. “You gonna be quiet now?”


Will and Cooper insisted I take self-defense classes. Not just once, but every six months to brush up. The number one priority was to stay calm. Stay alert and focused on escape. Look for an out and take it. Aim for the eyes, nose, ears, neck, groin, knees, or legs. 

I nodded, and the hand dropped from my face.


“Are you kidnapping me?” I asked. 


“Shut up,” they barked in unison.


“Are you sure you’ve got the right person?” I said, my voice quavering. “Why would anyone want to kidnap me? I’m nobody.”


“Shut the fuck up.” The skinny jackass pulled my arms tighter behind my back and forced me to walk toward the door.


Just as we stepped out of the lounge, two things happened in my favor: the men tucked their guns away, and a group of tourists came around the corner. We had to step aside to let them pass, and I took the opportunity. 


I spun around fast, taking Skinny by surprise and disengaging his hold. He stumbled back into his shorter partner, propelling both into the crowd. I slipped through the nearby stairwell door and ran down the stairs. I leapt the last step, my high heels hitting hard on the concrete floor, almost turning my ankle. 


Now in a lower level storage area, the cavernous room motion detector lights made me blink when they flashed on. Intuition sent me running toward a red glow—hidden behind a bank of tall free-standing shelves—which I hoped was the sign for the exit door. 


It was.


Thank God.


I burst through and slammed it shut behind me just as my assailants burst into the storage room. My heart going ninety miles an hour, I fumbled with my security badge. A wave over the electronic eye would lock or unlock the heavy glass door. But adrenaline was sending wonky signals to my arms, hands, and eyes, making them uncoordinated. Just in time, I heard the satisfying whir and click of the door locking, a mere second before the men threw themselves against the glass. 


I took off running down a long hallway, the sound of the two thugs banging on the door echoing behind me.


Moments later I heard a splintering crash, followed by pounding footsteps on my trail.


Christ, they must’ve thrown a filing cabinet through it.


My tight pencil skirt and heels were useless in a chase. Now the stench of cheap cologne and cigarettes crept up behind me. I took a risky glance over my shoulder to see how close they were and tripped over something. Probably my own damned feet in these four-inch heels.


Falling to the floor on all fours, I righted myself to get up. Too late. The two men stood over me, both sweating and breathing hard.


“Look what we have here,” huffed Bulldog. “Our pretty little escape artist thought she could get away from us.” Despite his wheezing, he held the gun steady to my head.


Skinny stuffed his own gun in his belt. “Let’s go.” He grabbed my wrist in a gorilla grip and jerked me up off the floor, twisting it in front of me.


“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I said, still trying to catch my breath and seething in anger and fear. Focus. Priority one is to get out of his wrist hold. Conserve energy—to inflict injury. Timing is everything. 


“Get—” Skinny’s other rough hand clamped over my mouth, smothering my next words. His grip tightened on my wrist.


Then he shoved me into the wall. My head banged the concrete, causing my vision to momentarily blur. The force scraped my back against the rough textured wall and my silk blouse ripped.


“You’re coming with us now,” he said in my face. “Quietly, bitch.” 


My stomach rolled at the stench of his tobacco and onion breath and he was damn lucky I didn’t throw up all over him. His hand slipped from my mouth, grabbed my breast, and squeezed.


Oh hell no. Energy conserved. It’s time to inflict injury and get the hell out of here. I stepped toward him with one foot, knees bent in a strong stance, leaned forward, bent my elbow all the way toward his forearm, and freed my wrist easily out of his gorilla hold. Then I grabbed his shocked face and pushed my thumbs into his eye sockets with all the strength I had.


He screamed, and I jerked my knee up, hard and fast, dead-on into his groin. He fell away from me onto the floor, holding his hands to his crotch and yelling, “My eyes. My eyes . . .”


Bulldog, his mouth agape, stared down at his fallen co-thug. His attention diverted, I hiked up my tight skirt, swung my body around, and kicked the gun out of his hand. My shoe went flying one way, the gun went spinning the other. I kicked off the other heel and ran like hell, bare feet slapping the cold floor.


Rounding a corner, two doors appeared before me. One exited to the street level at the rear of the theater, the other to a small utility room. Already footsteps were coming down the long hall. Bulldog, no doubt. Thinking fast, I opened the rear door of the theater. I let it slam with a loud bang as I slipped into the utility room, closing its door silently behind me. 


My frantic eyes scanned the room for a place to hide. Crates in neat stacks and shelves full of cleaning supplies. I took the former, threw myself down behind a stack in a corner.


Footsteps in the hall and the rear door opened and slammed closed. I breathed a cautious sigh, hoping the pursuer wouldn’t use my ruse against me.


The utility room door slammed open against the wall.


Shit.


Bulldog let out a sinister chuckle. “Little escape artist, come out,” he sang. “Come out, wherever you are.”


My heart in my throat, I peeked through the slats of a crate. He stood still with the gun in a raised hand. The door closed with a thud. I ducked back down on my knees, trying not to make a sound as I curled my body into the smallest position possible.


Glass, metal, and boxes crashed to the floor in his thorough search of the room.


God, how am I going to fight him off when he finds m—


The metal door exploded open again, crashing against the concrete wall hard enough to make the whole room tremble. I clenched my jaw tight, positive Skinny had just arrived and now I was trapped.


Damn, why didn’t I pick the cleaning supplies? Something to throw at them. I could spray bleach in their faces. Shit shit shit . . .


I risked another peek through the slats and felt my eyes bulge. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a tailored business suit had Bulldog in a rear choke hold. The gun clattered to the floor as he jerked Bulldog off his feet, leaving them dangling in the air.


Bulldog made a choking sound, grappling and twisting until the man in the suit put his own gun to Bulldog’s temple. 


“You dumb shit,” the man said in a deep voice. “You should’ve run in the opposite direction after she took down your buddy.”


Bulldog gave a last grunt, then crumpled to the floor like a towel.


The man in the suit was still as a statue, expression murderous and the gun expertly trained on Bulldog’s unmoving body. I counted five beats of silence, then he slowly lowered the gun and looked around. Astonished and confused, I remained still and silent. 

Unlike the two thugs, this man was impeccably dressed and exuded power and confidence. But he could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or worse, the thugs’ boss.


“It’s all right, Elizabeth,” he said.


I jumped in my skin, my heart kicking against my ribs.


How the hell does he know my name?


“Elizabeth,” he said again, his voice gentle. “You can come out now.”


I shrunk back and jostled a crate. At the sound, he turned around sharply and looked right at me through the slats of the crate. Like an idiot, I squeezed my eyes shut.

If I can’t see you, you can’t see me . . .


I forced my lids open and looked at him again. Sunlight streamed through the window set high on the wall, spotlighting him with dancing dust motes. It hit his thick blond hair like a halo. He looked like an avenging angel. Handsome and menacing. 


Could I trust him?


The dubious angel adjusted his stance, feet planted far apart. He was incredibly tall. Six four? Six five? His shadow filled the room. He wore a white shirt beneath the dark gray suit and a loosely knotted silver tie with diagonal stripes.


He narrowed his eyes on me, then relaxed his expression.


“Elizabeth, I’m here to rescue you. Come out, I won’t hurt you.” 


With little choice, I slowly got to my feet and stood tall, head high, trying to appear fearless. His eyes went wide a moment, then an indistinguishable emotion flashed across his face and his gaze softened. He smiled. Which transformed him from angel to . . .


Oh my God. 


I pulled my shoulders back even more. 


“So who are you?”


“My name is John.” His voice was calm but urgent.


“John who?”


“John Cole.” His eyes darted down as Bulldog’s body twitched. “Come with me. We need to leave now.”


“How do you know me?”


“Elizabeth, you’re in danger. I promise to tell you more as soon as we’re safe.”


A door banged closed somewhere outside the room. John Cole didn’t flinch. 


I moved closer to him. “What the hell is going on here? How did you even get—”


“Your brother sent me.”


“Cooper?”


“We’re short on time for further explanations, Elizabeth. You either come with me now or I’ll throw you over my shoulder and haul your pretty ass out of here.”


“You wouldn’t dare,” I snapped, taking a step back.


John stepped after me. “Cooper mentioned you were stubborn.”


“If he told you that, then he must’ve told you the secret code word. What is it?”


He rolled his eyes and said, “Butterbeans.” 


My jaw fell open. Cooper sent him.


“Now, for God’s sake, let’s go.” Holding his gun down in his right hand, he held the other out, fingers beckoning. My insides dissolving in relief, I eased out from behind the stack of crates and moved toward him. Our eyes locked together—violet to blue.


And then I recognized him.


“John Cole,” I said. “Senator John Prescott Cole?”


His head inclined a little. “I see my reputation precedes me.”


He smiled then, this former Navy SEAL, this warrior with movie star looks who made his billions before getting into politics. The infamous forty-two-year-old Georgia lawmaker who made countless TV appearances and magazine photo shoots. He had never married, showing up at D.C. and national events with a different woman on his arm. His moniker known all over the world as The Rich Playboy Senator. Now towering over me with one eyebrow quirked and a sexy grin playing around his lips. 


“Close your mouth, Elizabeth.”


Blushing, I snapped my mouth shut. 


“Let’s get out of here.”  Get it together, I thought. Women gape at him wherever he goes. Don’t be another open jaw in the crowd. Even if he is jaw-droppingly handsome.


An electric current coursed down my arm when he wrapped his large warm hand around it. He turned us to go, just as the door opened again. 


“Get back.” The senator swiftly pushed me behind him, simultaneously aiming his gun at the well-built man standing in the doorway. 


One hand rested on the gun holstered beneath the man’s suit jacket, the other touched his ear where a curled wire dangled. His eyes were an intelligent green. The kind of luminous emerald green that knew all the answers and demanded attention when they entered a room. “All clear, sir,” he said.


The senator dropped his gun hand to his side and nodded. “Thank you, Steele.”


“We can exit through the back, sir. Ma’am, please follow me.”


The senator shoved his gun under his own suit jacket, took my elbow, and led me into the hallway. He towered over my five-foot-two frame. We followed Steele outside through the rear entrance, into the blustery, cold, sunny day. Two Kennedy Center security guards trailed behind us. Two sleek BMW SUVs, their rear windows blacked-out, parked with their engines idling. Another suited man with an earpiece and gun held one of the back doors open for us. White smoke from the vehicles’ exhausts supplemented the surreal feeling.


“Wait.” I looked up at the senator. 


“Where are we going?”


He stilled himself, his blue gaze steady, watching me with an intensity that should have frightened me. Then an emotion I couldn’t read flashed through his eyes. “Somewhere safe.”


I scowled. “Somewhere safe?”


“Yes.” The look on his face said he would not tell me more. 


This hellacious day, along with frustration, fear, anger, all at once burned through me and lit the fuse to my temper.


“Look,” I snapped. “I’ve been chased, man-handled, groped, and threatened with guns. I don’t know what the hell is going on. I don’t know how my brother works into all this. You won’t give me any answers. The cloak-and-dagger secrecy is pissing me off and . . .”


The senator raised a cool eyebrow. Which pissed me off even more.

I folded my arms over my chest. “I’d kick your ass . . . er . . . shin, except I lost my favorite shoes.”


Embarrassed, my eyes shot to Steele and the other security guys. They stood military straight and showed no expression on their faces in reaction to my loose-lip threat to their boss.


“I know,” the senator said, taking a tiny step back. “You’ve got a good roundhouse kick . . . and a temper.” His lips twitched into a half-suppressed grin.


He saw me take down Skinny and kick the gun out of Bulldog’s hand? A flickering of smug pride was quickly snuffed out when I remembered I had hiked my skirt up around my waist.


“I’ll answer all your questions and explain everything when we get you to a safe place. Now, please . . .” He gestured to the open SUV door. “Trust me.”


The thing was, I did trust him. And I was exhausted, probably adrenaline fatigue. Barefoot. Freezing. No coat. He knew the password. Plus, he was a member of the U.S. Senate, and I was still registered to vote in Georgia. 


“Anything happens to me, Senator, and you’ve lost my vote.”

  

<><><><><>


Chapter Two


Elizabeth


The mouth is for eating, my yoga instructor always said. And the nose is for breathing.


As the SUV hummed down the city streets, I inhaled and exhaled slowly, trying to calm myself and breathing in John’s scent. A mix of cologne and skin, along with his proximity, messed with my head. 


My attraction to this man is wrong on so many levels.


He looked up from his phone, catching my eyes. Again, that cool rise of one single brow as he scanned my face from chin to forehead. His blue eyes darkened, a spark of lust in their depths.


I looked away and gestured toward the men in the front seats. “So, who are your friends?”


John chuckled as he slipped his phone inside his coat. “They both work for me. Pete, the driver, is second in command on my security team.”

Pete met my eyes in the rearview mirror and raised a hand off the steering wheel.


“Riding shotgun is Steele Mann,” John said. “Chief Security Officer of J-Cole Industries.”


I couldn’t stop my inward laugh at the name Steele Mann. Superman, man of steel.


Steele turned a little in his seat and gave a brief nod. I smiled and dipped my head, but he quickly turned back and didn’t see me.


A shiver spiraled down my spine and into my limbs.


“Cold?” John asked and wiggled out of his suit jacket without waiting for an answer.


“Adrenaline let-down,” I said through wobbling teeth as I worked my arms into the sleeves.


Or else it’s you, I thought, relaxing into his compassionate expression. He rolled up the jacket cuffs around my wrists, then lifted my hair out from beneath the collar. Solicitous as a spouse.


Or a lover.


The jacket was warm from John’s body. I put my nose to the lapel and inhaled cologne, clean wool, soap, and man. 

I missed this, I thought. I miss having a man . . .


John’s finger slid under my chin then and lifted my face. I looked up into his eyes, bewildered. Was this attraction? A primitive, hard-wired reaction to being rescued? Or both? My eyes couldn’t look away from it. My body hummed from the sheer force of it.


He took a deep, lingering breath of his own. “Do you prefer Elizabeth, or do you have a nickname?”


“Most people call me Elizabeth,” I said. “Family and close friends call me Lizbeth.”


He leaned a little closer. “Were you named after Elizabeth Taylor?”


“I was,” I said, chuckling. “How ever did you guess?”


“Your beautiful, lavender eyes.”


“They’re violet, not lavender.”


“May I call you Liz?”


I hated being called Liz.


“Sure,” I heard myself answer.


As our gazes held, my heart vibrated like a nest of bees. It took a second for me to realize it was John’s phone buzzing in the jacket’s inside pocket.


“Excuse me,” he murmured, reaching inside to retrieve it. His fingers just whispered past my breast. We both drew in a breath, then John moved back against his seat and I turned to the window.


Good lord . . .


The downtown D.C. streets blurred by. Office buildings and storefronts. Pharmacies and boutiques decorated for Valentine’s Day. Which made my heart sink, thinking of Will and our anniversary.


I sank into John’s jacket. It was warm before, now it felt cold and judgmental on my shoulders. The scent repelled instead of attracted me. I missed having a man and it should be Will’s jacket on my shoulders, Will’s fingers beneath my chin, Will swashbuckling in to rescue me from . . . whatever the hell this was.


Tears trickled down my cheeks as my hands went to fists.


“What’s the matter?” John said softly.


I sniffed hard. “I . . .” The truth was poised on my tongue but instead it came out as, “I lost my favorite shoes.”


John stared, neutral and attentive, as if he guessed it wasn’t the entire story.


“They were Manolo Blahniks.”


His chin rose and fell. “I see.”


“They were a gift from my husband and today is our wedding anniversary. Was. I mean, we would’ve been married seven years today.”


Still nodding, John sighed. “I’m sorry. About your husband, I mean. Shoes can be replaced.”


I swiped at my wet face with the cuffs of his jacket. “Thanks.”


“Here. Let me . . .” He reached down, wrapped his hands around my ankles.


“What are you doing?”


“Your feet are ice cold,” he said, pulling them into his lap and turning me sideways in my seat.


Shocked, I yanked at my twisting skirt to keep my legs covered, shooting a look at Pete and Steele. They stared straight ahead, impassive to their boss acting like he was on a date.


The day was going from surreal to insane.


John rubbed my feet with his large warm hands. My eyes closed, and I couldn’t stop a soft moan. Not only did I love shoes, but I was a woman who could achieve orgasm via a foot massage. And the playboy senator, damn him, had some wicked skills. His fingers were both strong and gentle. I leaned back, putty in those amazing hands. This was ridiculously inappropriate and intimate. Too intimate. I tried to draw my feet away, but John held tight. His knuckles ran down the arch and his thumbs dug into the curves of my heels. I wanted to purr.


“My feet are filthy,” I murmured.


“Hmm?”


“I said, I’m getting you all dirty.”


He grinned and crooked his finger at me.


I leaned forward and met him halfway, his mouth next to my ear.


“I like dirty,” he said in his deep, sexy voice.


I shivered and didn’t dare open my eyes until the blood drained back out of my face. When I did, I saw we’d crossed the Potomac into Arlington. The SUV slowed down in front of a sleek high-rise shaped like a scalene triangle. Its magnificent entrance boasted large, gleaming metallic columns, water fountains, and beautiful landscaping. Gold letters on the building façade spelled out Cole Tower.


“Do you own this building?” I asked. “Or live here?”


“Both,” he answered, finally let me pull my feet from his lap. “I’ll carry you inside since you have no shoes.”


I laughed. “I’ll walk, thanks.”


The SUV came to a stop in a gorgeous porte-cochere with black marble walls. Hundreds of small penlights sparkled down from the ceiling. Steele opened the passenger door. John got out and leaned back in to give me his hand. I took it and slid across the backseat, and before I could object, he hooked an arm under my legs and lifted me up in his arms as if I weighed nothing.


“What the hell, Commander?” a tall man called out. He strode over to us from the lobby doors, and my heart leapt with joy.

 

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