When computer program designer Zoraya “Zoe” Lombardo wakes up next to her business partner’s dead body with a gun in her hand and no memory of what happened, the first thing she does is run. Next, she calls the one person she trusts to help her—the man she walked away from two years ago. He’s not as bossy as she remembers, but he’s sexier than ever. She made a mistake not listening to his warnings, and she’s more than willing to kiss and make up…if she can just stay alive long enough.
Zak Delaney, partner in Guardian Security, never expected to hear from his ex-fiancée again. After Zoe left, it took him a long time to put himself back together. Now, he must cast aside his hurt and anger in order to protect her. He’ll have to rely on his resources at Guardian to clear her name and use every ounce of his self-control not to fall for her charms again. But as danger closes in, he will have to learn to trust Zoe as much as she trusts him or face losing her again…and this time for good.
READ CHAPTER ONE
Zoe Lombardo wanted to open her eyes, but her lids felt coated in cement. Immovable. She shifted her head only to discover a percussion orchestra had taken up residence inside her skull and a huge bubble of nausea was stuck in her throat. Exerting a superhuman effort, she tried lifting her eyelids again, but her vision blurred, everything swimming as if she looked at things from underwater. The only shape that distinguished itself was the outline of the tall window on the opposite wall with the blackness of the night shimmering like waves.
Oh, God. What’s wrong with me? And where the hell am I?
The room had a vaguely familiar feel to it, but her head was pounding so heavily she couldn’t properly focus. She blinked once. Twice. Slowly, the image of the room began to sharpen, and she looked around.
Okay. She was wearing a jeweled cocktail dress in the paneled den in Nate Dunning’s—her partner’s—very palatial home.
Cocktail dress? High heels? Had there been a party?
And where the hell were her shoes?
Aware that she was lying on a couch, she turned her head to the side carefully and with great difficulty, scanned the room. Familiar enough, considering the number of times she’d been here. Nothing unusual. Until shock sliced through her like a steel blade.
She nearly threw up at the sight of Nate’s tall, muscular body lying on the floor. Dressed in a tailored shirt, with an entwined ND on the breast pocket, and black boot-cut slacks, no jacket or tie, the pristine white of his shirt was covered with blood. And he wasn’t moving.
Zoe closed her eyes again, fighting back the nausea that surged forward again and waited for the dizziness to settle. Her skin felt clammy, and when she lifted a hand to wipe her forehead, she realized she was holding something.
She didn’t even own a gun, so where did this one come from? She stared at it stupidly.
Don’t panic. Just don’t panic.
Right. Easier said than done.
Gritting her teeth, she dragged herself upright and pushed to her feet. Still holding the gun, she walked unevenly across the room and forced herself to kneel beside the body. She pressed two fingers to the hollow at Nate’s throat to feel the carotid artery. No pulse. Nothing. Not even a faint thump.
Nate was definitely dead.
What had happened here tonight? And why was she here in the first place? As far as the evening was concerned, her mind was a total blank.
Another wave of dizziness hit her, and her eyes threatened to slam shut again. Biting her lip hard enough to shake off whatever was working in her system, she rose on shaky legs. How had she ended up in Nate’s den with his dead body? And this gun?
Walking unsteadily to the door and cracking it open, she listened for sounds of anyone else in the house. Any activity. No voices or sounds of movement, but in the distance, she heard a thin wailing sound. Even in her foggy state, she identified it as the sound of a police siren, no doubt headed for this house. Her stomach twisted itself into a huge knot.
Think, think, think, think, think.
A cold sense of dread settled into her stomach. She might not remember what happened, but she couldn’t forget how upside down her life had been since she’d confronted Nate about some strange accounting information. First, her house had been broken into and her den ransacked. Two nights later in a blinding rain, her car had nearly been run off the road, leaving her shaken and terrified.
The police had been absolutely no help. There was no evidence of another car, and they blamed it on poor driving conditions. There was no evidence of the break-in at her house, and she could tell they wondered if she’d somehow done it herself.
No, the police were not going to be her friends. Whoever had her in their sights had set her up. With Nate’s dead body.
Her brain, which had been on freeze frame, suddenly shouted at her to stop thinking and get moving. The sirens came closer, nudging her to move faster.
Taking another wild look around the room, she spotted her purse on the polished walnut surface of the desk and her high heeled sandals lying on the floor, peeping out from behind a chair. She thought about putting them on but realized for damn sure she wasn’t steady enough to wear them without breaking her neck. Okay, barefoot it was.
Grabbing her purse, she stuck the gun in it, snatched her shoes, and opened the French doors that led to a patio.
All the outside lights were on, so she crept along the thick shrubbery bordering the yard, staying in the shadows. Still dizzy, she nearly fell twice, catching herself against a chair with her hands. She wondered if the security sensors were still active along the perimeter, then decided it didn’t matter. She had to get the hell away from here.
The quiet, residential street that ran behind Nate’s house was wide and lined with old trees that formed a partial canopy over the road. The houses were set well back from the street, most of them surrounded by ornate, wrought iron fences. All but a few were made of natural Texas limestone, and every one of them flew the obligatory Lone Star flag. Texans were unlike any other breed-a nation unto themselves.
The only lights Zoe saw were from the fancy streetlights. No one seemed to be moving. Some of her clients lived in this neighborhood, old Texas money that loved working with a homegrown business. She had to make sure she avoided them.
She paused at one of the lights and squinted at her watch.
One o’clock on the morning? What happened to the rest of the night?
She backed away from the light and leaned against a tree. Whatever she’d taken—or been given—was still making her head pound, her vision blurry, and her balance questionable. She took a deep breath, trying to center herself.
Now what? She couldn’t just wander around dressed the way she was, barefoot. Certainly, the police who had arrived at Nate’s house would be canvassing the area for anyone. For her. Why had she been the only one left in the house? She’d bet a month’s profits an anonymous caller had given them her name, setting her up. Too many strange things had been happening lately, things to which Nate hadn’t wanted to give her answers.
Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to set this up, so going home wasn’t an option.
Not only didn’t she remember much of the evening, but other details eluded her, such as what she did with her car. Not that she could drive in her present foggy condition. Besides, the cops would be on it before she was.
Somehow enough of her brain was working that she managed to make her way through the quiet streets, not stopping until she had put four blocks between herself and Nate’s street. Walking barefoot wasn’t the most fun she’d ever had, but it beat falling on her nose. One more block and she reached the cutesy little upscale neighborhood shopping center. With its faux Texas architecture and manicured greenery, it blended discreetly into the very expensive neighborhood.
A slatted wooden bench with Texas stars embedded in it sat decoratively at one end of the little sidewalk, and Zoe gratefully collapsed onto it. Wiping her hands on her dress, she tried to force her thoughts into some semblance of reason.
She couldn’t just sit here all night, nor could she call a cab. Cabs could be traced.
The pain of the rough cement scraping the bottoms of her feet helped her shake off more of the fuzziness and force her brain into a more lucid condition. She needed someone to come and get her. Yes. She knew that. Someone who could help her figure out what had happened and how she was involved. Someone who probably wished her in hell but maybe, just maybe, might be decent enough to at least listen to her.
She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and hit speed dial for a number she’d never erased. She hadn’t called it in two years, but it flashed at her like a lifeline. The one person who, no matter what happened between them, she could always trust.
She prayed he wouldn’t hang up on her.
The ringing of the telephone cut into Zak Delaney’s sleep-fogged brain. At first, he thought he was dreaming it, but its shrill insistence wouldn’t stop.
“Damn.” He fought his way up through the mists of sleep, pushed a pillow aside, and reached for the offending instrument on his nightstand.
“This better be damn good,” he said to whoever was on the other end of the line. Clients seldom called him at home, especially well after midnight. That’s what he had assistants and agents for. He squinted at his watch. “Do you know what the hell time it is? It’s after one in the morning. Who is this, anyway?”
There was a slight pause, then a soft voice said, “Zak?”
His stomach clenched as if someone had punched it. This was one voice he hadn’t heard in two years, not since their last screaming argument, and hadn’t ever expected to hear again. He’d carefully avoided any and all places where they might run into each other. Now, here she was, out of the blue, calling him at this ungodly hour. It couldn’t mean anything but trouble.
“Zoe?” He asked it as if he couldn’t believe it was her. In truth, he wondered if someone was in fact playing a cruel joke on him.
“You have every right to hang up on me,” she said quickly, “but I’m begging you not to.”
The edge of fear in her voice was very clear, even across the telephone connection. Zak took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly. In another moment, his pulse had almost kicked back to normal. After two years, what reason could Zoe Lombardo possibly have for calling him? In the middle of the night?
“Zak?” Her voice was thready. “Are you still there?”
“I’m here. What’s going on?”
A sob caught in her throat. A sob? His heart pinched. Zoe Lombardo hardly ever cried. This must be some serious shit.
“I have no right to ask this,” she went on, “but I don’t have any place else to turn. Something terrible’s happened.” A pause. “I need your help. Can you please come and get me? Right now?”
His first inclination was to say no way in hell and slam the phone down. But that sob had been like a knife in his heart. Zoe never, ever shed tears. Something had to be terribly wrong. And there was something about the way she spoke… Real panic laced her voice, a terror that jumped at him and blocked the bitterness he’d been carrying around all this time.
I am such a sucker. I am so going to be screwed.
“Where are you?”
“In the little center where The Edibles Boutique is. Do you know where it is? Can you come?”
“What’s wrong?” God, he didn’t want to do this. But every protective instinct stood at attention at the thought of Zoe in some very bad trouble.
“I’ll tell you when you get here. Can you just please come right now?”
Yes, that was definitely panic in her voice, but more than that, dread and shock. Very unlike Zoe. If nothing else, curiosity would have piqued his interest. What could traumatize the coolest person he’d ever met?
Damn, damn, damn. He was letting himself get sucked in.
“All right. I’m on my way.”
“Th—thank you. And Zak?”
“Turn off your lights when you get close and just pull into the center. I’ll be watching for you.”
Turn off my lights? What the hell was this?
“All right. But you’d better have a damn good reason for this.”
“I do. And thank you. Again.”
He disconnected the call and began to pull on his clothes.
Hell’s bells. What am I doing, anyway? My partners would tell me I’m crazy, and they’d probably be right.
He had met Zoe four years ago at a party, and he’d been very impressed with the extremely bright software programmer who left corporate security to start her own business. They’d had their first date a week later and, in less than a month, were living together.
But the last time he and Zoe had been together, they’d thrown bitter, hurtful words at each other. Words meant to wound, and they’d done just that. Two years of love and passion, of plans for the future, disappeared in a firestorm of anger. The ashes continued to smolder in the secret place where he kept them tucked away. He’d loved her almost to distraction, and she’d turned away from him to chase a dream he’d tried to tell her was tainted.
Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut. But hell. It had been her future. Their future. He’d seen nothing but disaster ahead in her decision, and she’d simply thrown his words back in his face.
Now, she was reaching out to him after this long silence. Whatever trouble she was in, it had to be pretty bad for her to call him. That was uppermost in his mind as he drove to where she told him she’d be.
Zak turned the corner from Main Street onto the side street where the little upscale center was, cutting his lights and coasting into the parking lot. Riding the brake, he scanned the area carefully, trying to distinguish a person in the darkness. When a sharp rap sounded on his passenger window, his foot slipped and the car lurched forward. Slamming on the brake, he jerked his head around.
Zoe’s face looked like an apparition in the darkness, ghostly white against the blackness of the night.
“Unlock the door,” she mouthed.
The minute he hit the unlock switch, she yanked the door open and tumbled into the seat.
“Go,” she ordered, breathing as if she’d run a mile. “Now. Please. Get out of here fast.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“Now, Zak!” Her voice rode the narrow edge of hysteria. “And make sure no one’s following us.”
That was an exercise second nature to him. With his lights still off, he glided back to the corner and rolled through the stop sign. When he turned back onto Main Street, he checked his rearview mirror. No one behind him.
He gave fervent thanks there wasn’t much traffic at this time of night. In a moment, he turned the headlights back on and picked up speed. He spared a quick glance at Zoe, and an unexpected wave of heat and desire swept through him. Her long, smooth blonde hair was swept up into some complicated arrangement, but half the curls had come loose and were hanging haphazardly around her face.
God, that face with the porcelain skin, the wide blue eyes and the dark lashes that had been permanently burned into his brain. She was thinner than the last time he’d seen her, and she hadn’t had much to spare then, but it was hard to really tell in the dark and with her sitting down.
All the old feelings came back just as if the last two years hadn’t happened. She was in trouble, she needed him, and whatever resentment he’d hung onto began to dissipate.
But what had she gotten herself into? Before he tossed his heart into the shredder again, he needed to know what the hell was going on and how much danger she—and he—could be in.
She sat stiff as a board in the passenger seat, hands clenched in her lap. In the lights from oncoming cars, her face looked chalk white.
“Where’s your car? Hot date leave you high and dry, princess?”
“My car?” Her teeth chattering, she repeated the words as if he spoke a foreign language. “You want to know where my car is?”
“Yes, your car. Damn it, Zoe.”
No. Calm down, Zak. Anger solves nothing. And there’s definitely something very, very wrong here.
He hauled in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. We’ll worry about your car later. How about telling me what this is all about? I have to say, you surprised the hell out of me with your call.”
“I—I have a problem.” She sounded as if she was dragging the words out of her throat one syllable at a time. “Is…Is anyone following us?”
Zak checked again in both the front and rearview mirrors. He had enough experience in spotting a tail, and he was pretty sure they didn’t have one.
“No unwanted company,” he assured her, hanging onto his patience. “A problem. Okay. What kind of problem? It’s got to be pretty bad for you to call me, of all people. After two years, by the way.”
“I… That is… I mean…” She unclenched her hands and rubbed them over her face as if wiping cobwebs away. “I keep hoping this whole thing is just a bad dream. That I’m really home, I’ll wake up, and it will all be gone.”
“What will be gone? Damn it, Zoe. Spit it out.”
“All right, all right, all right.” She rubbed her hands over her face again, then twisted her fingers together. “I’ve had…some problems lately.”
Zak cocked an eyebrow. “Problems? What kind of problems?”
She fisted her hands so tightly her knuckles looked white. “My—My house was broken into and my den torn apart. Then two nights later, someone tried to run me off the road.”
“I would think you’d call the police,” he pointed out in a flat voice.
She snorted. “Yeah, right. They couldn’t find where anyone had broken in, so they told me I probably just forgot what a mess I’d left in the den.”
“And the other thing?” he prompted.
“There was a heavy rain that night. They chalked it up to highway hazard and careless driving.” She reached over and gripped his arm so tightly he could feel her fingernails digging into him. Whatever was happening, she was about to lose it. “But I know what happened, Zak. I swear it.”
“Okay, okay.” He waited a moment to see if she’d say more, wishing he could get inside her head. “But that’s not what prompted the call tonight, is it?”
“No.” She shook her head, took a deep breath, and said, “Nate Dunning is dead. Murdered. In his den.”
Zak’s neck always itched when real trouble was about to visit him. Right now, he felt as if a million insects were dancing on it.
“Dead.” He glanced sideways at her again. Her body was so rigid he thought it would shatter. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she snapped. “He was covered in blood and not breathing.” She drew in a shuddering breath.
“That’s usually a pretty good indication someone’s dead, I’ll grant you that.” His hands tightened on the wheel. Dead. Serious shit indeed. “Exactly how did you happen to be with his dead body?”
“I—I don’t know.”
Shit. Double shit.
“Okay. Let’s try something else. Do you know how he was murdered?”
He heard a click as she opened her small purse.
When he saw the gun in her hand, he almost drove up onto the sidewalk, straightening the car at the last minute.
“Put that back in your purse,” he ordered. “Do the police know?”
“Yes. I heard sirens coming down the street. After the last two episodes, I didn’t figure I had much chance to explain my way out of this, especially since I had the gun and can’t remember a thing.”
“All right.” He sighed. “Obviously, this isn’t something we’re going to solve over a cup of coffee.”
“W—Where are we going?”
“My house. Where you’re going to tell me the entire story, and don’t leave out one single detail. Am I clear?”
“Will you help me?” She sounded fuzzy now, and he wondered if she’d been drinking.
“Did you kill him, Zoe?”
“I…I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure.”
“You don’t know.” The invisible insects scratching at his neck had now invited an army of their friends to join them. Trouble in capital letters. “Well, that’s interesting. You’ve lost your car, and you aren’t sure if you did or did not kill your business partner. And you don’t remember a thing about the evening.”
He could hear the panic rising in her voice again. “All right. First, I want to hear everything you have to tell me. And I mean everything, Zoe. Then we’ll go from there.”