Sometimes my SEALS face risky international missions against drug cartels and evil political dissidents. Sometimes the mission is saving one life. In Desperate Deception, Lainie is trying to escape an abusive relationship. Zane, a SEAL without a mission, accepts the challenge when Lainie puts her life in his hands.

Chapter One

She was in a soft, warm, comfortable place, cocooned. Happy. She wanted to stay there forever, but a distracting voice kept talking to her.

“Come on, Lainie. Can you open your eyes for me? I want to check your blood pressure again.”

The voice was familiar but the last thing Lainie Taggert wanted to do was open her eyes. The pain would come back, along with the feel of his fists and his voice raging at her. Here, in this darkness, she was safe.

“Please, Lainie?” the soothing voice begged again. “Come on. Open those baby blues. Just for a few minutes. I promise.”

The voice was both familiar and nonthreatening, so Lainie gritted her teeth and forced her lids open. Well, at least one. And found herself looking at the face of Drea Halstead. The woman who had once been her friend, eons ago, before he had taken over her life and cut her off from everyone.

“There you go.” Drea smiled at her. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

“Drea?” Lainie tried to blink and realized she could only see out of one eye. “Is that really you?”

“Sure is. I only started here last month. Got a job offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“Oh god.” A tear rolled out of her good eye. “I’m not dreaming, right?”

“Nope. When I got your chart and walked into this room, imagine my surprise to find my friend lying in this bed.” Her lips curved in a hint of a smile. “I know we haven’t seen each other in a good while, but, really, you didn’t have to go to such drastic lengths to make it happen.”

Lainie tried to move, but pain surged everywhere in her body, including her left hand. And her left arm seemed to be restrained in some fashion. She wanted to close her eyes again and fall back into the soft place where none of this existed.

”Nope. Uh-uh.” Drea’s voice was both coaxing and demanding. “You have to wake up so I can talk to you.” She paused. “What’s going on, Lainie? I pulled up your hospital records. This has become a really bad pattern.”

“I know.” Lainie tried to hide her embarrassment, but she hurt too much to do anything but lie there. She knew she needed help, but where could she go? Who could she turn to? This time was the worst. Next time he might kill her. “Drea, I—I don’t—I‘m sorry.”

“Stop. Please. You have nothing to apologize to me for. But that asshole you live with, the one whose goon told me to get lost or else, is going to have to answer some questions.”

“Oh lord.” Lainie closed her good eye. “Please tell me he’s not here.”

“He’s not here. But, Lainie, you can’t go back to that house. I’m afraid he’ll kill you.”

“You’re right, but I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. “I have no one to go to, no one to help me, and I have to get away from him. God, Drea.” She closed her eyes for a moment then opened them. “I don’t know how a smart woman like me got herself into a situation that looks as if there’s no way out.”

“I wish I’d insisted you leave him when you had the chance. I’ve gotten so I can spot the abusers.”

“But I didn’t see it then,” Lainie reminded her. “I still had blinders on.” She swallowed back tears that were a combination of pain and humiliation. “I can’t believe how stupid I was.”

“Not stupid. Men like Sonny Fitzgerald are great con artists.” Drea studied her.

“More than that,” she whispered. “They’re evil.”

Something she hadn’t discovered until too late.

Drea studied her for a long time, and Lainie wondered if she had bad news to tell her. She wasn’t sure she could take any more.

“What?” she asked at last.

“Listen,” Drea went on. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot while you were being treated and lying in here. Lainie, I have a way out for you, if you’re willing to take it.”

Lainie stared at her. A way out? Was it even possible? “Like what?”

“What if I could make you disappear? Not only from the hospital. I mean from the city. And without Sonny Fitzgerald knowing how or where you’d gone to?”

“I don’t know how you could do that.” Lainie swallowed, although her throat was so dry it hurt. “He’s going to find out where I am. He finds out everything. I had to use my cell phone to call for the ride here. I meant to get rid of it after that, but—” She caught her lower lip between her teeth.

“A cell phone I have in my possession, without a battery or sim card.” She grinned. “I watch a lot of television. I’m talking about making you disappear from here.”

“You can do that, even with my injuries?” Lainie was almost afraid to hear the answer.

“It’s not as bad as it could have been. Your right eye is swollen shut, your face looks like a painter’s palette fell on it, your left shoulder is sprained, which is why it’s in a sling, and two fingers of your left hand are broken. The doctor taped them together to stabilize them.” She paused. “And the rest of your body is sprouting brises like flowers in a garden, but all that will heal. We’ve got to get you out of here so this doesn’t happen again.”

“When Sonny comes to pick me up, which you know he will, if I’m not here he’ll pitch a fit.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Drea, I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know. That’s part of the reason he went berserk last night. Teaching me what would happen if I opened my mouth. He’ll be insane to find me. What will you tell him?”

“We’ll get to that in a minute. Look. We’ve been friends for a long time. We’re still friends, despite the fact that asshole has cut you off from everyone but him and his people.”

“I know, and I’m so sorry.” She felt like crying, but this was no time for tears. She had to be strong.

“Forget that. This is your fourth visit here this year,” Drea went on. “Honey, why didn’t you ever reach out to the medical staff? They would have called the police and taken you to safety.”

She wiped away a stupid tear with her good hand. This was no time for that. “He’d have found me, Drea. It wouldn’t have been pretty for me or the people shielding me.”

“But the police—”

“Can’t always do what you want them to.”

“He won’t find out anything. I promise you. But, according to Rick, the other times Sonny brought you, he insisted that you fell, or some other half-assed answer. It was obvious he got you to go along with it or the police would have been called.”

“You have no idea how angry that made him, that they wanted to report my injuries. If not for Geoff Miller, his driver/bodyguard, pointing out to him that if he made things worse, he’d be all over the news and possibly be arrested, he might have killed me when we got home.”

Lainie could still remember the rage.

“But this time,” Drea pointed out, “however you managed it, you got here by yourself. It’s the perfect time for you to do a disappearing act.”

“I know.” The nausea came roiling back, and she swallowed again. “Could I have some water, please?”

“Of course.” Drea held the paper cup with a straw up for her to sip. “Slowly, please.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s a damn good thing you aren’t married yet.” She stopped and looked at Lainie. “You aren’t, right?”

“No. I just—”

“Never mind. I’ve been thinking about this while you were getting patched up and drugged to make the pain a little easier to bear. I have a way out for you, and you need to take it if you want to stay alive.”

Lainie tried to shift in bed, only everything hurt even worse whenever she moved.

“But what? How? I’m desperate enough at this moment to do anything, but what? Where can I go? No one will take me in, knowing what Sonny would do if he found out. I don’t want to endanger them, anyway.”

“Got it taken care of. I have someone who won’t be afraid of Sonny and can get you out of here before that man even knows you’re gone.”

Lainie was almost afraid to hope. “Who would that be?”

“Remember I mentioned my brother, Zane, when we were still able to spend time together?”

“I do. The SEAL, right?”

Drea nodded. “Former SEAL. He’s been medically discharged because of injuries from his last mission, but he’s still in pretty good shape. Well, he’s going to Montana to some rural area to get his act together. I’m going to get him to take you with him.”

“What?” Lainie gasped. “But he doesn’t even know me. Why would he do that? And what happens when we get there. Is he just going to leave me on my own? I can’t—”

“Don’t panic.” Drea took her uninjured hand. “He’ll make sure you’re set up there, and he’ll protect you, at least until you can make some decisions for yourself.”

“He’s not going to want to take a basket case like me with him.” But god, on its own, a little hope wriggled through her.

“He will,” Drea assured her. “I promise you he will. SEALs are big into protecting people. US Navy SEALs are the most elite combat unit in the world, and they carry it into their personal lives.”

“And what about when Sonny comes looking for me here, like he always does?”

“Rick will handle it while I make myself scarce. As far as that asshole Sonny Fitzgerald is concerned, you merely walked out of the hospital and no one saw you leave. Rick and I have it all worked out.”

“You don’t know Sonny,” she protested. “He can turn on the charm one minute and cut your throat the next.” She grimaced. “Too bad I saw only the charm until it was too late.”

“We all do stupid things,” Drea assured her. “Sadly, yours turned out to have danger attached to it. But you don’t worry about Sonny Fitzgerald. Dr. Carvallo can more than handle him and give him plenty of misdirection. And he made sure my name doesn’t appear anywhere on your treatment chart, in case he remembers we’re friends.”


“Yes, Lainie?”

“Listen.” How could she phrase this? “You should be aware of this. Sonny did something really terrible. Worse than just hitting me because he feels like it. If he finds me, I know he’ll kill me.” She stopped to take a breath. “And he could easily kill anyone who helps me.”

“What did he do?”

Lainie squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t tell Drea. It would put her in jeopardy, too.

“I can’t tell you. But if it gets out—Anyway, I had a tiny window of opportunity, and I took it. But I have to get away. This is way more than his usual stuff.”

Drea’s mouth tightened, but then she squeezed Lainie’s hand.

“Then it’s a good thing I have a fearless SEAL for a brother to take care of my friends.”

“Are we?” she asked. “Still friends?”

“Honey, we will always be friends, no matter what. So. How about resting here for a few. I’m going to call Zane.”

“He won’t want to get involved with this,” she protested. “I’m a stranger.”

“Not to me. Now lie there and rest while I work things out.”

“I—I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Letting me get you out of here is thanks enough. When I come back from my phone call, we have to get your stuff together. Then I want to give you a pill for the pain so you can handle the shifting around and walking out of here.”

“I can pay him,” Lainie said quickly. “I’ve been hoarding money, and before I managed to get out of the house this morning, I stuffed all of it into the pocket of my jeans. Will you check—”

“Already got it.” Drea pulled an envelope thick with bills from her pocket. “And I can tell you he won’t take a dime. But Jesus, Lainie. How long have you been squirreling this away? And how did you do it?”

“Six months.” Lainie closed her good eye. “Pretty pathetic, right? Sonny didn’t stop me from going to the grocery store, and I always got cash back. Not enough to raise his eyebrows when he checked the account.”

“Lord, Lainie. Why didn’t you drive to a police station? Or come to me?”

Lainie sighed, the effort hurting her chest. “He always had someone following me. And do you think the cops in this city would go against the great Sonny Fitzgerald? He’s an icon. People fall all over themselves to curry favor with him. I still don’t know how you’re going to pull this off, even if your brother is stupid enough to agree to it.”

“My brother is far from stupid, and, like I said, he’s a former SEAL. Protecting people is their first order of business.” She let go of Lainie’s hand, placing it on the sheet. “Let me go make that call. Then I’ll be back to get things rolling.”

“W-What are you going to tell Sonny? I know he’ll show up here when he discovers I’m gone.”

“We’re going to tell him you walked out of here and we have no idea where you went. Period.” She handed Lainie a gel pack. “Meanwhile, hold this on your bad eye.”

Lainie lay back against the pillows, trying not to think about the pain and her dangerous situation. After his temper tantrum last night, Sonny had left her alone to crawl upstairs to their room. He hadn’t even bothered to ask how she was in the morning, just told her she’d better heal herself because no more hospital visits. Then he dressed and left for his office. Thank the lord she was able to call an Uber and get out of the house before he came back to check on her.

When she’d first gone to work as Sonny Fitzgerald’s paralegal, she couldn’t believe her luck. She’d spent ten years at two law firms making herself the best paralegal possible, looking for a big break. And the same amount of time looking for her dream man. She’d been drawn to Sonny like a magnet. He seemed to have it all, the things she’d been searching for all her life—big successful law firm, money, a place at the top of society, good looks. She basked in his attention, thrilled when he offered her a job working for him, and even more excited when he started asking her out.

Before she knew it, he’d asked her to marry him and insisted she move into his house. She was ecstatic, thinking she’d plucked the gold ring from the merry-go-round. But when her new role turned into a tool for him to woo clients and polish his image, she realized that once again her antenna had been off and she’d made a mistake. If only she’d known what was hiding behind that public mask and the hell she was descending into. By that time, however, she’d been trapped, desperate to find a way out.

Especially when she discovered his anger had a brutal side to it.

Of course, it wasn’t as if she had the best history when it came to picking men. She’d begun to think there was something wrong with her, that men who either cheated on her or left her hanging were the ones she seemed drawn to. Good looks, smooth personalities, a sense of power—those had been on her unconscious to-do list. At least the others hadn’t had anger issues.

Now here she was, lucky she wasn’t already dead, and wondering how Drea thought someone could sneak her out of the city without a trace. And then what? Sonny had a history of getting rid of people who could do damage to him. Could Drea’s brother protect her from that?

She was lying there trying to will the pain away and ignore the swelling in her left eye when Drea came back into the room with something folded under one arm and slid the glass door closed. She set a little pill cup on the nightstand, pulled the lone chair up to the bed, and leaned close.

“Okay, my friend, it’s all set. Zane will be here in fifteen minutes. In a second I’m going to give you this pill to help the pain. Rick won’t give you a shot because it would knock you out too much, but he’s getting enough meds to take with you for the next couple of days.”

Lainie tried not to get too excited. She might actually be getting out of here and away without Sonny’s knowledge?

“Your brother will do it?”

Drea nodded. “He’s a very good guy, and he’ll keep you safe. This is going to work, Lainie. I want you to listen to me. I cleared it with Rick and Maggie. As far as anyone will know, you said you were leaving and that was that. We can’t prevent you from doing that. The only way we could stop you is if you had psychiatric problems.”

Lainie sighed. “Some people might say that’s my problem. Otherwise ,why would I have stayed with Sonny all this time?” She looked up at Drea. “And thank you for not asking.”

“That’s because in my illustrious career as a nurse, I have too often seen how one person can exert control over another so insidiously the chance to leave is gone before the person realizes it.”

“So, you do understand. Thank god.”

nodded and held up a pair of scrubs. “This is your exit wardrobe. You’ll merely be another ED employee to anyone who sees you. We keep extras of these around here in case patients’ clothes get ruined or whatever. And I managed to snag a set. We’re so busy today no one’s going to give you a second look anyway.” She held up an employee badge and waved it in front of Lainie. “One of the idiot orderlies dropped this somewhere so, lucky me, I found it and can attach it to your clothing.”

Lainie looked at her friend. “I don’t know how to thank you. Even after I walked away from our friendship—”

“As far as anyone up here will know, you got up and walked out of here. You weren’t forced. Period. Sonny Fitzgerald won’t be able to prove any different. And speaking of walking, you’ll have to move semi-decently until we get out of here. Can you do that?”

“I’ll make myself do it,” Lainie answered, her voice fierce. She wasn’t going to blow this one chance.

“Good. Take this pill first. It usually starts to work at once and will dull the pain enough to help you move. Come on. Let’s get you into scrubs. Then we’re going to get you to a back entrance where my brother will pick you up. I know where all the security cameras are to avoid them. We only have to get to a rear door. Can you do it?”

Lainie nodded. “I can do anything to get me away from him.”

“All right, girlfriend. Let’s get it done. Here. Take this pill.”

Lainie swallowed the meds then let Drea help her into the scrubs. Was this really going to work?

When his cell phone rang, Zane Halstead was standing in the living room of his month-to-month apartment, checking to make sure he hadn’t left anything behind. The furniture was rented, so nothing to worry about there. This morning he’d packed up the truck with everything he owned, which wasn’t all that much, and he was in the middle of doing one last check.

Renting a place in Tampa near his sister hadn’t been a much better idea than going home to the horse farm his folks owned in Ocala. He’d been far from ready to leave the SEALs, and dealing with the injuries that forced him out wasn’t helping. He’d gone to the VA hospital here like the doctors at Walter Reed had ordered and tried to do what he was supposed to. After weeks of physical therapy, his arm and hip were as good as they were going to get, but that wasn’t enough to keep him with the Teams. When that last mission had gone to shit, and he’d been badly wounded, he’d known his days in the service were numbered. But knowing it and dealing with it were two different things.

Dr. Andrew Ryan, the shrink they’d sent him to, wasn’t half bad. He’d recently transferred to the VA hospital in Tampa from another posting and seemed to know more than most what Zane was going through.

“You need a new purpose,” he kept telling him. “There are plenty out there.”

Yeah, right. The problem was finding one that was the right fit.

He really had no idea what he was going to do next. He’d never developed a serious relationship, so he had no woman waiting to help him rebuild his life. His most marketable skill was identifying and killing bad guys. He knew some former SEALs had gone to work for security agencies but, for whatever reason, that hadn’t appealed to him. So, he’d hung around doing not much of anything, driving himself nuts and wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life and how he’d fit into society. And then he got The Email, from Alex Rossi, sheriff of a small county at the foothills of the Crazy Mountains.

The only thing he knew about that area was that another former SEAL, Hank Patterson, had built a security agency out there called Brotherhood Protectors. All the agents were former military, mostly SEAL. Despite the fact that a friend had highly recommended them, he still had no interest in that kind of situation. So, what did the local sheriff want with him?

He clicked on the link to open the email.

Don’t delete this before you read it. I’m a former SEAL myself, and rebuilding the sheriff’s office here. Long story. Like you, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself after the Teams, and I was lucky to land this job, even though the place is a mess. I’m hoping I can talk you into at least a trip out here to look the area over. You might find a new purpose, even if it’s nothing more than raising horses, which are in high demand. I hear you’re very good with horseflesh. There’s a house on six acres you can use rent-free while you look the place over. It comes with two horses that need a caretaker soon. If you’re interested, my phone number’s beneath my signature. Give me a call. It’s my cell, so I answer all the time.

Alex Rossi.

Zane thought it was the craziest thing he’d ever seen or heard. This guy contacting him out of the blue like this? But the more he looked at the email, the more he thought, why the fuck not? He wasn’t doing himself or anyone else much good hanging around in his own private pity party. Maybe a change of scenery would do him some good. If he didn’t like it, he didn’t have to stay. Right? And maybe, away from his family who tiptoed around him, and his friends who treated him as damaged goods, he might actually find a life again. Maybe.

The first thing he did was an Internet search for the man, stunned at what he saw. Alex Rossi had been appointed sheriff by the county commissions when the previous sheriff had been sent to prison, and for a horrendous reason. A group of uberwealthy men for twenty years had made a game of raping young teenage girls, always approaching from behind so their identity was concealed. Threatening death if they reported it, on the chance that a victim might have some clue as to who they were.

Apparently the former sheriff had been paid off to overlook things. Worse than that, to let the men know when a girl had enough courage to report it. It seemed Sheriff Alex Rossi had cleaned up the mess and made sure the men were punished. But what really stuck out was the fact that Bill Schroeder, Rossi’s father-in-law, was a member of the wealthy elite participating over the years in the rapes. A situation in which Micki, unbeknownst to her father, had been a victim when she was fifteen. And that her father had been killed to shut him up. It had been Alex’s big case right after he came on the job.

The information that made his head spin was the fact that after the killer was arrested and half the sheriff’s deputies fired, Alex turned around and married Micki Schroeder. Knowing all of this, he couldn’t wait to meet this woman who had survived a rape, the knowledge that her father belonged to the group, was murdered by them, and survived it all to marry the sheriff. Apparently she’d also supported him in the restructuring of his office and setting a new tone for it. A man certainly couldn’t ask for a better leader.

The thirty-minute phone call gave him a good feeling about the man and, an hour, later he had agreed to the crazy idea—crazy like the mountains?— said he’d stay in the house, and set about informing his family. It was a testament to how concerned they were about him that neither his parents nor his sister tried to talk him out of it. Well, maybe he’d figure out the rest of his life in Montana and everyone, including himself, could breathe again.

He was getting ready to walk out for the last time when his phone rang. The readout had his sister’s name on it.

“Drea? What’s up? Aren’t you at work?”

“I am, but, Zane? I really, really need your help. And please don’t say no until you hear it all. Okay?”

“Jesus, girl. What have you gotten yourself into now?”

He listened while she laid out her story for him, especially Lainie Taggert’s condition and why her fear of Sonny Fitzgerald was so intense. As she outlined the plan, his stomach knotted, and his fingers tightened their hold on the phone.

“You’re kidding me, right? This is a joke to yank my chain.”

“No, it isn’t.” Her voice was low. “I’m dead serious. Dead, by the way, being what this woman will be if we don’t pull this deception off and sneak her out of Tampa. Please, Zane. She has no place else to turn.”

He wanted more than anything to say no, but it wasn’t who he was. He knew this last-minute call from Drea might screw up his plans. He also knew she wouldn’t ask unless she was desperate. Take a strange woman to Montana with him to a situation he wasn’t even sure would work? What the hell?

What was he supposed to do with her when he got there? If she was as banged up as Drea said, she’d need medical care, and he had no idea what kind was available in the sparsely populated area where he was headed.

And what about her? If she was running from an abusive relationship, she was probably terrified of men. He’d seen that before. It always made his blood boil, wondering how a man could treat a woman that way. But she had to be scared shitless, and what would make her trust him? Did she know Drea well enough for that?

Plus, he’d have to find a way to take care of her on the trip. Then, when they got to Montana, he’d have to figure out what to do with her. Hopefully, Drea would have some kind of update for him by then. He needed to know things like how long he was expected to hide Lainie away. Where she would go from there. How she’d get her life together.

Fuck. This wasn’t what he needed. He could hardly keep himself together, just taking things one day at a time. But he knew in his heart he’d do that. He was a protector by nature.

“Anything else I should know?”

“Yes. This guy is one mean bastard, and Lainie says she knows something he’d kill her to keep secret.”

Fucking great.

He swallowed a sigh.

“You know I can’t turn you down, but I’m leaving in five minutes. Can you get her to that exit by the time I get there?”

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Oh, and you’d better bring plenty of cash. If he somehow finds out she’s with you, he can track your credit cards.”

Jesus! What next?

“Okay. No sweat.”

“And, Zane? Thank you so much.”

He carried the last of his bags down to the truck and stowed them in the back seat. Then he placed his Glock .9mm in the console along with a box of ammo. Finally, he made sure the knife he always carried was securely strapped to his ankle. He didn’t know if this asshole would suddenly show up or what, but, like every other SEAL, he wanted to always be prepared. Then he climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled out of his parking space.

What the fuck have I gotten myself into?

He talked to himself all the way to the bank where he pulled out a wad of cash, and then all the way to the hospital, calling himself ten kinds of fool for getting mixed up in this. He could barely take care of himself, let alone someone else who probably needed constant attention.

Fifteen minutes later, Zane pulled up to the delivery door at the hospital, hopped out of his truck, and opened the passenger door. In a moment, a back door to the hospital opened and Drea stepped out, looking both ways before motioning to someone. A guy in scrubs and a white coat, probably the doctor she’d told him about, exited carrying a woman in his arms. As he placed her gently in the passenger seat and buckled her in, Zane took a good look at her, and acid washed in his throat at what he saw.

“We managed to get her dressed and got her out of there without anyone asking questions,” Drea told him, “and I also gave her a pain pill, so she’s a little out of it.”

“What’s with the scrubs?”

“So we could walk her through the department and down here without anyone asking questions. I think, though, she’s done for. The meds will pretty much knock her out for a while.”

Drea had been right about the bruises, the black eye, everything, only she hadn’t been quite descriptive enough. Sonny Fitzgerald had most definitely used this woman as a punching bag. Her auburn hair hung limp, and her delicate features were pinched with pain, but even beneath all that he saw a delicate beauty. He wanted to find the man and show him what SEALs did to abusers.

He was sure without the damage she was a knockout. Not that it mattered right now. She was in desperate need, and he hadn’t been with a woman in nearly a year. Wasn’t even sure he’d know how to deal with one under normal circumstances.

“Jesus, Drea. She’s a mess. Can she even do anything for herself? I don’t—”

“It will be fine,” Drea insisted. “She’s stronger than she looks. I trust you to do whatever is necessary. Figure it out, or she’s a dead woman.”

“Who is this guy, anyway?”

“Rich and powerful. Do a search on him when you stop for the night.” She leaned into the truck and shook the woman gently. “Lainie? Lainie, this is my brother, Zane. He’s going to take good care of you, like I said. He’s getting you out of here before you can get hurt again.”

Lainie’s eyes had a wild, frightened look in them as she scanned the area, taking everything in. “S-Sonny?”

“Not here,” Drea assured her. “But we want to get you out of here before he decides to show up. This is my brother, Zane. Remember? He’s going to take good care of you. He’s the best protection you can get. I promise.”

Zane thought he could only hope that would be the truth. He stood close to Lainie but didn’t touch her, noticing how she shrank away from him. All he wanted was for her to become familiar with his presence.

Lainie wet her lips and stared a moment, as if trying to absorb it all. “Drea’s brother?”

He nodded. “And I’ll be doing my best to keep you safe.”

She swallowed. “And thank you.”

“We’re gonna get going in a second here, Lainie.” He pitched his voice low, hoping it sounded reassuring. “I want to make sure you’re comfortable in the seat and that your seat belt is fastened.”

She nodded, not saying a word, but he saw pain etched on her face.

He had to bite down on the pain in his arm when he moved her at a bad angle and did his best not to groan as he settled her. Maybe he should double up on his exercises if he was going to be carting this woman around. She didn’t need some gimp for a protector. He swallowed the bitterness, closed the door, and turned to Drea.

“I’m fine,” he assured his sister when he saw the look of concern on her face. “It’s the truth. I can take good care of her.”

“I know you can. I—” She shook her head. “Yes, you’re fine. And thank you again for doing this.”

“You’re welcome.”

Drea handed him a plastic bag with some meds in it plus a plain envelope.

“What’s this?” He frowned as he looked at them.

“Her medications for a couple of days plus instructions on how to care for her injuries. There’s money in the envelope. She had it with her when she got to the hospital. Apparently, she’s been hiding it away for a while. She asked me to give it to you to help pay for the trip.”

Zane tried to give it back. “I don’t want or need her money.”

Drea nodded. “I told her that, but she’s going to need some clothing and personal items, since she has nothing with her. You can use some of it for that. I put a note in to let you know what. You can grit your teeth and do it,” she insisted when he frowned. “She’s in no condition to shop.”

“Jesus, Drea.” He put the meds inside the truck console and stuffed the envelope into his pocket. “Anything else?”

“One more thing.” Drea took a cell phone from her pocket and handed it to him along with the sim card. “It’s Lainie’s. I turned it off and pulled the sim card and the battery, but you need to get rid of it. I didn’t want to do it here at the hospital. You know, just in case. I never know how these things can be traced.”

“Will do.” He nodded. “I’ll text you from the road and let you know how it’s going.”

“Thank you again, Zane.” She gave him a tight hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re the best brother in the world.”

“Yeah, thanks for being a lifesaver,” the doctor added.

Zane nodded once, climbed into the truck, and pulled away from the building. Evasion was one of the many things he’d learned as a SEAL, and he didn’t trust that this Sonny Fitzgerald asshole wasn’t already lurking someplace with his henchmen waiting to see if this woman made a break for it. She certainly couldn’t do it without help, so he might be scoping out the area already, despite what Drea said.

He didn’t hit Interstate 75 right away, on the off chance someone was on their tail, although he didn’t see how that was possible. Drea had accomplished the whole process slick as grease. He drove a few miles on Interstate 4, doubled back, and drove through a couple of busy neighborhoods before he actually headed out of town. When he was satisfied there was no one on his tail, he drove to a street with many warehouses, some of them vacant. Behind one of them, he got out of the car, dropped her cell to the ground, and crushed it beneath his heel. Next was the battery. The remnants went into a trash barrel. Then he headed out of the city, north on Interstate 75 toward Chattanooga. From there he’d head west.

He glanced over at Lainie, bundled into a hospital blanket and scrunched against the door. Somehow, he’d have to find a way for her to trust him, even for a little while.

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