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Originally published as Sandra James · Harlequin 1988

First Time in e-book
Guardian Angel

Contemporary

 

Read an Excerpt

Outlaw Heart

Deep in the heart of northern Idaho, a single dirt track wound its way through dense, seemingly impenetrable forest. Tall, majestic cedars and huge firs lined the way like a natural canopy. In the chill, shaded world below, an outdated van the color of mud labored steadily uphill. Then suddenly the twisting, pot-holed road came to an abrupt end.

The van rolled to a halt. A man jumped out. For a moment, he stood silent and watchful.

His domain was surrounded by a proud stand of jack pines. Beyond the perimeter of trees, a mountain stream dashed through wooded gullies, bubbling and gurgling in the silence of the late afternoon. A small, sturdy cabin stood in the center of the clearing, the home he had crafted and built with his own hands.

There was nowhere like it on God's earth. Surrounded by the wilderness, the smell of damp, pine- scented earth, this was land that was pure, unspoiled and unsullied. This was life, as life was meant to be lived. A man could ask for nothing more.

Except someone to share it.

The cabin door creaked as he opened it. His booted feet trod across the rough, wooden planks, past waist- high knotty-pine cabinets. He tossed a chunk of wood into the pot-bellied stove in the corner.

The man's concessions to modern-day technology were few. There was no telephone, no television, not even a radio. There was a battery-powered generator, but he rarely made use of it.

No one knew of his secret hideaway, and that was as he wished. He could imagine what they'd have said. That he was a hermit, a recluse. They didn't understand that he was merely a simple man who wanted but one thing—to live out his life with the woman of his dreams.

How lonely it was without her. She'd been gone only a week, but already it seemed a lifetime. But soon, very soon she would be his. And then his dreams would become a reality.

 

 

Chapter One

A full moon hovered in the darkness, surrounded by an eerie halo of silver. Hazy gray clouds streaked across the sky, occasionally obscuring the moon's brilliance.

Far below, high on a hill at the end of a dead-end street, stood a house. It was large and homey-looking, flanked on three sides by a wide porch. Twin patches of light gleamed from a pair of narrow windows, dappling the shrouded landscape outside.

Inside, a lone figure stood, gazing reflectively into the night. Small in stature, the woman was simply dressed in dark slacks and a long-sleeved sweater. She appeared almost plain, her shoulder length hair the same monotonous brown of a washed-out photo. Had she moved but a single step, the light from the dining room chandelier would have turned the strands into a rich mass of honey, streaked with gold. There was an element of contrariness in her features. Her cheekbones were high and delicate, her mouth full and expressive. Her brows were surprisingly dark and winged, set above black-lashed hazel eyes.

Christine Michaels smiled slightly, still staring into the distance at the twinkling of bright, multi-colored lights that provided such a stark contrast to the cold and lonely night. Boise, Idaho, like the rest of the world, had welcomed the holiday season with open arms. Just one day after Thanksgiving, the streets downtown were already gaily decorated, the local storeowners prominently displaying the latest offerings.

Christmas. It was a time for mistletoe and magic, for joy and loving, for angels and miracles. It was also a time for fond and treasured memories. But where Chris was concerned, the remembrances evoked by the holiday season were among the most painful possible.

Guardian AngelOh, she had tried not to think of it. Yesterday, as the family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner, she had been as cheerful and talkative as her four- year-old niece Wendy. And throughout the week she had been home, she had managed not to burst into tears every time she looked at Josh, the other addition to Char's family.

Yet in all the years that Chris had lived in this house, her mother had never failed to begin her Christmas preparations the day after Thanksgiving. This year was the exception.

The boxes that held the treasured holiday mementos were still tucked away in the attic, dusty and unused since last Christmas. Chris had no doubt that if she hadn't been home for Thanksgiving this year, everyone would have been oohing and aahing as each precious item was removed. The miniature manger and stable, nestled in a snowy bed of angel hair, would have assumed its rightful place on the seat near the bay window. Proud toy soldiers would have marched their way across the mantel top.

Chris knew it was consideration for her that lay behind her mother's reasoning, but somehow that only made things worse. It also made her realize that it was too soon to spend Christmas with her family.

Too soon? Her thoughts mocked her. It had been two years. Two long, lonely years since ...

A gust of wind found its way through a tiny crack and stirred the lacy white curtains. Her hand finally fell away from the window, and she turned slightly.

Her eyes drifted to her father. He was sitting in the living room, peacefully dozing in his recliner, the evening news forgotten. A jumble of newspapers lay scattered at his feet. It was a familiar sight, one that kindled an odd twinge of nostalgia. For a moment, Chris wished it were possible to turn back the clock and relive the carefree years she'd spent beneath her parents' wing.

But the sight of her mother juggling her two grandchildren on her lap wasn't quite so comforting. Chris was helpless to prevent her eyes from veering in that direction. There should have been three, she couldn't help thinking. Wendy, Josh, and Scottie—

The sound of a high-pitched giggle reached her ears.

"That's Mommy?" a little voice shrieked. A stubby finger jabbed at the photograph album Elaine Jordan held in her lap.

"That's Mommy," the child's grandmother confirmed, her voice ripe with laughter and satisfaction.

Chris shook herself free of the pensive mood that had claimed her. She slid her hands into her pockets and glanced through the arched doorway that separated the dining room from the living room. Wendy was still giggling at the sight of her mother's second-grade school picture. In the photo, Char's dark hair was springing with tight banana curls. She was conspicuously missing her two front teeth, but nonetheless flashing an uninhibited grin at the camera. Six-month-old Josh leaned over curiously as well and showed his appreciation by dribbling onto the protective plastic covering.

As efficiently as her four-year-old hands would allow, Wendy promptly grabbed the bib tied around his neck. She lifted it to his face and began to scour his mouth with it. The baby let out a furious squeal that resulted in his grandmother playing referee to two pairs of small, opposing hands.

Once again, bedlam reigned supreme in the Jordan household.

Guardian AngelThe faint lines of strain on Christine's forehead were softened by her amusement. On hearing the ruckus, her father's eyes drifted open. He heaved a hearty sigh at being interrupted in the midst of his evening nap, but as Chris started across the room, she noticed his shoulders shook with a soundless chuckle.

She stopped next to his chair. "Starting early, aren't they?" Paul Jordan observed. He sent her a look from the corner of his eye. "Comes naturally, I suppose."

With her usual brisk proficiency, Elaine had already managed to placate the feuding siblings by turning their attention away from each other. Wendy was now sprawled at the foot of the chair, still inspecting the photo album, and Josh was busy investigating a small ball of bright red yarn his grandmother had dropped into his lap.

Chris glanced at her niece and nephew, then wrinkled her nose at her father. "We weren't that bad, were we?" she countered mildly. "After all, think of what life would have been like with three sons instead of three daughters."

"Infinitely quieter," he grumbled, but his daughter saw the twinkle in his eye.

"Hah! About as quiet as a basketball team," she retorted.

That was how Paul Jordan had always referred to his girls. The start of his basketball team, his girls always bobbing up and down. It had always been a joke between Paul and his fellow high school coaches. Paul was a big, husky man, and none of his daughters ever managed to surpass the height of five-foot-four. And the only sport his girls had enjoyed was a wild sled ride down the hill behind their house, something that involved far more fun than skill. Torn coats, scraped noses and six skinned knees had attested to that fact more than once.

At home, the senior Jordans had adopted other nicknames for their offspring. Chris, the eldest, had been dubbed "the thinker," but she possessed the same motherly instincts as Elaine. "Doctor" Char had every child in the neighborhood running to her with their bumps and scrapes. The baby, "glamour girl" Diane, had often found herself in hot water for raiding her mother's closet and makeup vanity without permission, and then using both herself and her sisters as guinea pigs.

Somehow it came as no surprise to anyone when the eldest daughter set her sights on psychology, and so it was Chris who eventually became the doctor in the family. Char wasn't untrue to herself, though, and was now a registered nurse, though her family was her number one priority. Jet-setting Diane was a cosmetic consultant for a major department store chain throughout the western states, and she loved every minute of it.

"You love having Wendy and Josh around and you know it," Chris said softly to her father. Wendy chose that moment to screech a hearty protest when Josh latched onto the end of a dark braid and pulled it toward his mouth. "Even though I think they're giving you a preview of what's ahead," she teased.

"I'm not about to argue with you on either count," Paul declared.

Chris laughed. "I didn't think you would."

Guardian AngelHer father snorted. "Think you've got me all figured out, don't you, Doc?"

"Not me!" Chris feigned shock, then lowered her voice to a whisper as she nodded at her mother. "But I think I know a woman who does."

Paul's gaze traveled to his wife. An odd pang struck Chris as she watched the brief flare of emotion on her father's face. With thirty-five years of marriage behind them, the bond between her parents was stronger than ever. They'd had their ups and downs, good times and bad, but Chris knew that their devotion to each other had remained constant and unwavering. She wouldn't have had it any other way, yet for an instant, Chris was faintly envious. Her parents had the kind of marriage she'd always wanted for herself, the kind she'd been so certain she would have when she'd married Bill almost ten years earlier. But that was before the divorce.

And before Scottie.

Chris wasn't aware of the bleakness that had crept into her expression, but the man beside her was. Getting over Scottie had been quite a struggle; as a psychologist, Chris knew better than anyone what a slow, arduous climb it had been. For a long time she had believed that the faint hurt and the nagging feeling of emptiness would never disappear. But that had changed, and now she could go for weeks at a time without thinking sad thoughts of her son.

Yet always—always when she and her parents were together, Scottie was never far from their minds, and all of them were almost painfully aware of that. Paul, like his wife, knew what lay behind Christine's determination to maintain her careful facade of well-being, but he wasn't sure how to approach Christine, or if he should even try. It was as if they were all afraid to say what was really on their minds.

After a moment, her father reached out and caught her hand. "You don't know how much it means to your mother and me to have the three of you home again." He hesitated. "Especially you, Christine."

Oh, but she did. Even without the betraying rustiness in her father's voice, Chris would have known. Up until two years ago, she had managed to spend nearly every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter at home with her parents and sisters. Holidays had always been such special occasions for them. Even Diane, hectic as her schedule often was, always managed to head back to Boise at least twice a year.

But that had changed two years ago.

Chris's parents had made the long drive to Coeur d'Alene to visit her on several occasions, and there had been the usual monthly phone calls exchanged as well. It wasn't that she was afraid everyone would shower her with pity, or smother her with comfort. She knew better. But Chris simply hadn't been able to bring herself back to the home she had known for the first twenty- four years of her life, a home that represented all she held dear ... and reminded her far too keenly of all she had lost.

Returning to Boise had been as hard as she had always known it would be. Chris felt she had coped as well as she could, but the strain of the past ten days had taxed her greatly.

But it would break her father's heart if he knew how difficult it was and so she felt her way carefully. "It's good to be back," she told him, squeezing his fingers slightly.

"Then maybe you'll change your mind about Christmas."

Guardian AngelChris bit her lip. She had known this was coming, ever-since she'd informed her mother earlier that afternoon of her decision to spend the holiday alone again this year. The timing hadn't been the best. Not when she was leaving for Coeur d'Alene tomorrow morning. But she didn't want her parents to harbor any false hopes again.

She shook her head, evading his gaze. "It's not that simple," she said in a low voice. "And I've been here a week and a half already." She didn't offer any further excuse; any she might have come up with would have sounded feeble and weak.

"When you get to be my age, every minute counts." There was a brief pause. "I hate to see you leave, not knowing when you'll be back again."

The sounds of Wendy and Josh playing faded into the background. Chris stared at her father, and for a brief moment, there was just the two of them.

He was aging, she realized suddenly, then wondered if she hadn't blinded herself to it. His movements weren't quite as brisk as they'd been the last time she'd seen him; the ribbon of iron gray that streaked his temples was longer, wider. But she took comfort in the knowledge that for a man in his early sixties, he was in excellent health. Her mother saw to that.

Chris had always prided herself on being a strong woman, but that wasn't the case right now. She knew what would happen if she stayed any longer. But just as strong was the fear that she could end up hurting both her parents, and that was something she would never do intentionally.

"Pop, please don't misunderstand," she began. "I- I'm really glad I'm here, but to come back for Christmas  ..." She hesitated, then lifted her shoulders helplessly. "I just don't think I can," she said, her voice very low.

The resigned expression in her father's eyes cut into her far more deeply than his disapproval would have.

Paul was silent for a moment, but then he nodded. "I know, Chris. You're a woman who has places to go, things to do and patients to see." If only it were that simple, he thought silently. But he smiled at his quip, released her hand and rose from his recliner. Chris opened her mouth, an unfamiliar lump in her throat, but he clapped a hand to her shoulder before she could say anything. "Your mother's been raving all week about that spiced cider you brought along with you. How about a sample?"

Her father understood her as no one else ever had, and Chris knew his attempt to lighten the suddenly intense atmosphere was deliberate. A hot ache filled her throat, and she found herself unable to speak. She could only nod as she and her father began to move toward the kitchen. Chris remained silent as she lifted a jug of cider from the refrigerator and poured it into a saucepan. While the cider heated on the stove, filling her nostrils with the spicy aroma of cinnamon, she listened with half an ear as her father talked about the garden her mother had planned for the spring, the load of firewood they were having delivered on Monday.

Chris forced a smile when her father took a long, hearty pull from the cup she placed in front of him. "It's good, isn't it?"

"Even better than your mother said." He set the cup on the table and lifted his eyebrows quizzically. "Apples from your orchard?"

Guardian AngelChris nodded. "I even used an old apple press I found in the cellar." Her smile was valiant, if a little wobbly. "Looks like something out of a mail-order catalog from 1880.1 think it even outdates the house."

Chris had bought an aging house, complete with a small acreage, just after her divorce from Bill a year earlier. It had been built at the turn of the century, and in Chris's mind, what it lacked in modern conveniences, it made up for in sheer, old-fashioned charm. There was even a roomy guest cottage, but Chris had been far too busy with the main house to turn her attention to it. Rejuvenating the house had served to take her mind off the divorce and ... other things, as well.

Eyes downcast, she poured herself a cup of cider. She turned away from the stove just in time to glimpse a grave expression on her father's face. It was a look that nearly pulled her up short, but she completed the few steps to the table in spite of it.

Aware that her father's thoughtful gaze hadn't left her, she finally glanced up at him.

"What time is Diane due back?" she asked. Diane had spent the afternoon and evening with several friends from her college days.

"Knowing Diane," her father said dryly, "we'll know when we see her, and that may well be tomorrow morning."

Chris pretended to be shocked. "Are you the same man who wouldn't let me out of the house until I'd told you what, where, who, when and why?"

"Only until your twenty-first birthday," he put in mildly. "After all, you had to set an example for your sisters."

"An example? Come on, Pop, Diane's the youngest. And it's practically a fact of life that the baby of the family always ends up being spoiled."

They both laughed, but the spark faded from her father's eyes much too quickly for Chris's peace of mind. The next moment, she knew why.

"How are you, Chris?" he asked very quietly. "How are you, really? I mean, with Christmas coming and all ..."

In the second before Chris dropped her eyes, she saw the concern on his face. There was a tight little silence, and Chris found it impossible to speak.

If only she could turn back the clock to happier times, she thought wistfully. Back to the days when life had been simple and uncomplicated, when the worst thing on her mind was how to struggle through the next semester in geometry. Or to the time an eager, radiant mother had so proudly introduced her newborn son to his father.

How was she? No longer bitter, no longer angry, no longer frightened.

But before Chris had a chance to say a word, a little whirlwind burst through the swinging door into the kitchen.

"Look, Aunt Chris! Gran said this is you when you were in kindergarten. And you've got just as many freckles as me!" Wendy sounded absolutely delighted as she ran toward the table waving a small wallet-sized picture before her.

Guardian AngelIn that special way only a child possessed, the little girl's entrance managed to lift the melancholy mood that had prevailed the second before.

"Practically born with 'em, she was," Paul provided cheerfully. "Just like you."

Chris eyed her father's ruddy complexion, the reddish-brown hair streaked with silver. "And we both know who to thank for that, don't we?" She lifted her eyebrows meaningfully.

Wendy had clambered into her aunt's lap, but the look she leveled at Chris's nose was one of puzzlement.

"What happened to all your freckles?" she asked doubtfully. "You don't have so many now."

Chris chuckled and hugged her niece. She glanced sideways at her father, then lowered her head. "There's this neat little trick I learned from Aunt Diane," she began in a conspiratorial whisper. "They disappear just like magic with a little bit of makeup."

The youngster's eyes gleamed. "Mommy has makeup. If I use it, will they go away?"

Chris bit her lip, struggling to keep from laughing. Wendy had inherited not only her aunt's freckles, but apparently her dislike for them as well.

"Char won't thank you for this," Paul put in wryly.

"But I'm the last person she'll point a finger at." Chris chuckled, thinking of unsuspecting Diane.

"I'm not sure how Char will take her four-year-old turning into a sixteen-year-old overnight, and someone may have a tale or two to tell." His eyes dropped to Wendy, who sat absorbing every word.

As if on cue, there was a pounding thump of footsteps on the back porch. The screen slammed and the door opened. A snatch of chill, fragrant air whipped into the kitchen, preceding Char and her husband Rick.

"Whew! Is it ever freezing out there!" Rick, a tall, slender man with hair and eyes as dark as his wife's, laid his hands on Wendy's cheeks. Wendy giggled, burrowing closer into Chris's arms.

Chris wrinkled her nose at her brother-in-law. "Pick on somebody your own size."

A decided gleam entered his eyes. "Great idea," he murmured. Spinning around, he reached for Char, who was on her way into the dining room. Chris caught a glimpse of the surprised pleasure on her sister's face as Rick slid his arms around her waist and pulled her toward him.

Chris looked away when his head ducked down. Her smile faded. Brief as the kiss was, she couldn't deny that it bothered her.

She and Bill had been like that once. In those days, Chris had felt on top of the world. She was strong. Successful. Sure of her husband's love and just as confident of herself. She was the wonian who had it all. Career, home, husband and child.

It seemed a lifetime had passed since then.

She certainly didn't begrudge Char her happiness, though. Rick had just been made a junior partner in the accounting firm he was with, and she knew he worked very long, hard, demanding hours. He and Char didn't always get to spend much time together.

Guardian AngelBut deep inside Chris, there was a gnawing emptiness. She swallowed her sigh, one hand idly stroking Wendy's braids.

The door into the kitchen swung open and Elaine walked in, holding Josh on her hip. "So this is where everyone's run off to," she started to say. She stopped when her gaze lit on the two cups that sat on the table. "Aha! That's what smells so good. Why don't you heat some for all of us, dear?" She addressed herself to Char.

Moments later, the seven of them were gathered around the kitchen table, Wendy with a glass of chocolate milk in front of her instead of hot cider.

Josh, now settled on his father's lap, made a disgruntled sound, apparently not at all happy with the situation. He frowned at the soda cracker he'd been given, pushed it aside and reached for Rick's cup.

"You might have a hard time with this, young man." Rick tipped the mug up to Josh's mouth. The baby wasn't used to drinking from a cup, but he made a de

termined effort. When the warm liquid reached his lips, he pulled a horrible face.

"Uh-oh." Char glanced at Chris. "A traitor in the ranks. Josh doesn't like your cider." Everyone laughed, and Char propped her elbows on the table. "You know," she commented, "this reminds me of all the other Friday nights we have spent together just like this. Diane's even off with her friends again. If we dragged out the Monopoly game, it'd be just like old times."

Wendy chose that moment to tip her glass. The milk took a rapid and unerring path toward Rick and the baby. Josh burst into tears as the cold liquid drenched the front of his crawler.

Elaine had already thrust a towel at a startled Rick, and was busy mopping up the table before he even had time to react. Chris eyed her sister. "Maybe you'd like to rephrase that?" she teased.

"Please do," Paul said solemnly.

"It's almost like old times." Char laughed and reached for the baby. "Let's get you cleaned up and ready for bed, little man."

This time it was Rick who pleaded solemnly, "Please do."

Josh's unhappy whimpers could be heard from the living room while Char changed him into his sleeper. Elaine had just finished warming his bottle when Char returned to the kitchen. Josh's wail ceased the second he spotted the bottle. He gazed at it the way Wendy would have eyed cotton candy.

"That's what you wanted all along, isn't it?" his mother crooned. She would have taken the bottle from Elaine and gone back into the living room, but suddenly Chris stood next to her, a multitude of conflicting emotions sweeping through her.

She spoke before she lost her nerve. "Wait, Char," she said quickly. She glanced from the bottle to Josh, then finally to her sister's face. "Do you mind if I ...?"

Guardian AngelThe baby was in her arms almost before she knew it. A hundred different sensations squeezed into her heart. Though she had teased and played with Josh during her stay, bounced him on her knee, she had never really held him, cuddled him close to her breast as a mother might do. She was painfully aware of the knowing looks exchanged between her mother and Char, and she felt a brief spasm of guilt. Then even that was gone as she nudged the swinging door aside.

No one followed her, and for that she was grateful. She carried Josh into the living room. The room was lit by a dim glow from the lamp in the far corner, and she sat down in the rocker near the fireplace. The bright blue bunny rabbit on the baby's sleeper winked up at her. Josh was staring at her intently, but his expression held no fear. Chris smiled shakily and brought the bottle up so he could see it. He gave an impatient grunt, his mouth already open.

He drifted off to sleep less than halfway through the bottle. Chris eased the nipple out of his mouth and set it aside. Josh blew out a bubbly sigh, his hand curled possessively against her breast.

Chris felt her heart splinter into a thousand tiny pieces. But along with the pain was a curious sense of pleasure. Josh looked contented and peaceful. She gazed at the dark crescents of his lashes, the tiny mouth that so resembled his mother's ... and her own. The weight of his body, cradled lightly against hers, felt perfect, as perfect as she remembered. Sheer willpower alone prevented her from breaking down, and then instinct took over. Lulled by the gentle creak of the rocker, she let her mind and body relax.

A few minutes later, a small sound caught her attention. Chris turned her head to find Char standing in the dining room. When she saw that she'd been discovered, Char moved quietly across the room.

"You're leaving?" Chris asked softly.

"Rick's going out in a minute to start the car." Char held up a hand when Chris made to lift the sleeping infant. "He'll be back in when it's warm."

Chris's gaze followed Char as she sank to the floor in front of her, her legs tucked beneath her. "Josh wasn't as starved as you thought," Chris told her sister. She indicated that half-full bottle on the end table.

Char smiled slightly. "Just greedy."

The silence that followed was an awkward one. It was Char who finally broke it. "Mom says you're not coming home again for Christmas."

Chris stiffened, then nodded.

"You know how she stands on tradition." Char hesitated. "Last year just wasn't the same without you, Chris."

With her free hand, Chris gently traced the baby's chubby cheek. "I know," she said, her voice nearly inaudible. "But I can't, Char. I just—can't."

Her voice broke helplessly. Her eyes stung, and she blinked to fight back the tears. The shadows of the past had drifted back, and she was powerless to fight them. A babyish squeal, a gurgly laugh, a fist stuffed into an avid and eager mouth. Not much to someone else, perhaps, but it was enough to send Chris running. The act of a coward? Maybe. But at this time of year, Chris wasn't feeling very brave. Her arm unconsciously tightened around the sleeping infant she still held, as if she could somehow protect him.

Guardian AngelWhen she was finally able to look at Char, she wasn't surprised to find her sister's soft brown eyes glistening

with moisture. This wasn't any easier for Char than it was for her, Chris realized sadly.

In the kitchen, they heard Rick calling for Char, and both women rose to their feet. Chris couldn't help but feel a little relieved when Wendy ran in and Char began to bundle the two little ones into their coats. Josh never even roused.

As they neared the front door, Char somehow managed to pull her aside. "Chris?"

A tremulous smile was all Chris could manage. She didn't know when she would see her sister and her family again. "Don't tell me it's your turn to dish out a little sisterly advice," she tried to joke.

Char merely shook her head. "Will you do something for me?"

Chris wasn't sure she liked the sound of that, but she agreed.

"I want you to at least think about coming back for Christmas." Char took a step closer and kissed her sister's cheek. "Promise?"

The room grew suddenly quiet. A flurry of dread hit her, and Chris was agonizingly aware that all eyes were on her. She had to resist the urge to flee that very moment. She heard a dry, scratchy voice that sounded as if it belonged to a stranger. "I will," she promised.

And she knew, even as she spoke the words, that it was a promise she would never be able to keep.

 

 

Chapter Two

"Christmas just won't be the same without Christine."

Elaine looked up from the book she'd been reading, or trying to read. Paul had just voiced the very thought that had been running through her mind the entire evening.

The book closed with a dull thud. She dropped it on the nightstand next to the bed. "I know," she murmured.

From his place near the window, Paul sent her a sharp, questioning glance.

"Ever since she phoned to say she'd be here for Thanksgiving, I've had the feeling this was coming," she explained. "But I had hoped that once she was here, she would change her mind."

Paul turned, leveling a thoughtful gaze on his wife. "She's done so well this past year." He paused. The room was steeped in silence. "But tonight—" he shook his head, adding quietly "—I don't know, Elaine. I couldn't help but think she still hasn't gotten over Scottie after all."

Guardian AngelElaine's voice was just as quiet. "I think seeing Wendy and Josh brought everything back again. Coupled with the fact that Christmas is coming ..."

"Sort of a double blow." Paul grimaced and sat on the bed next to his wife.

Elaine bit her lip, her expression deeply troubled. "I wish there was something we could do," she murmured. "I hate the thought of her being alone again during Christmas."

Paul's hand reached out to cover his wife's where it lay on the bedspread. "It's her choice, though." He sighed. "We could move things to Coeur d'Alene this year, but I don't think Christine would thank us."

"That's not the solution either." Her eyes met Paul's. "We both know Christmas is no longer a happy time for her, and we both know why. I wish she would let someone help her along, now that Christmas is so close. And I wish she didn't live so far away. I'd feel better if I knew someone were there to keep an eye on her."

At first Paul looked surprised, but then he smiled slightly. "She's thirty-four years old," he reminded his wife. "She's been on her own for a good many of those years. So what would you do? Send her a guardian angel instead?"

The expression on Elaine's face was both anxious and wistful. "If I could," she said slowly, "that's exactly what I'd do."

Saturday morning dawned in a pale, watery sunrise. The sky was a cold, threatening gray that shrouded the earth and mocked the sun's arrival. The silhouette of a tall concrete structure rose against the dismal skyline, one of Coeur d'Alene's latest additions to urban development.

Inside the building, a neatly folded newspaper in one hand, his morning cup of coffee in the other, a man left the kitchen and walked into the dining room of his condominium. Though it was Saturday, it was business as usual. He was dressed in a dark, severely cut suit that might have belonged to a Wall Street banker or a Washington, D.C., politician, and he possessed the same polished exterior. This was a man who was the very picture of success and sophistication, something borne out by the elegant furnishings of his home. Everything was neat, fastidiously and correctly placed, from the towels in the bathroom to the salt and pepper shakers carefully concealed behind cupboard doors.

But Logan Garrison was neither a Wall Street banker nor a Washington, D.C., politician. And he had purposely made his home on the opposite seaboard.

His appearance was also deceptive in more ways than one. In spite of his six-foot height, his build was far from heavy. Trim and wiry, his shoulders tapered to hips that were as narrow as they'd been in his college days. His features were an intriguing symmetry of planes and angles. Set beneath eyebrows as dark and thick as his hair, his eyes were a pale, crystalline blue.

He dropped the newspaper onto the table. Several swift purposeful steps carried him to the window, where he opened the drapes. His face wore the absorbed, intent expression of a man who knew exactly what he wanted, but it was little more than a mask. The past few years had held nothing but a series of question marks.

Guardian AngelThose extraordinary eyes scanned the horizon. The sky was the color of pewter. Steep, pine-covered slopes rose misty and green, surrounding the lake that was the town's namesake. The day promised to be as lonely and dismal as he sometimes felt, but when the weather was clear, the view was impressive. On such a day, the colors of the lake and sky were so vivid and deep they were almost blinding. It seemed he had only to stretch out a hand to be able to touch them.

He'd wanted a place with a view, but there were times he'd thought it was a mistake. Because then, the lush panorama only served to remind him of a nightmare he had yet to forget. So close, close enough to touch ...but hopelessly out of reach.

Once he'd made the decision to abandon his career, Coeur d'Alene had seemed as good a place as any to settle. He really hadn't cared, as long as he was far, far away from Florida—or New York. He hoped to hell he never saw another palm tree again in his life. As for his parents, they'd tried to lure him back to the place he'd left for good nearly twenty years earlier. He had no desire to see them, and he didn't doubt that the feeling was mutual. Nor did he doubt that they had made the offer simply because it was the "proper" thing to do. But for them to even suggest it, particularly his father, was something that made him see red.

The phone rang at that moment, and Logan picked it up to find Ned Gibson on the other end.

"Hi, ya. Look at this morning's paper yet?" Ned asked.

Ned was a sergeant with the city's police department. The two men had met six months ago while Logan was in the process of obtaining a license to start his security business. Initially Logan had suspected Ned's efforts to strike up a friendship weren't entirely what they seemed. He'd thought that Ned was perhaps a little in awe of a man who'd spent nearly fifteen years with the F.B.I. But as a stranger in a strange town, he'd been pleased to discover that wasn't the case at all.

"Not yet." Logan pulled the cord around and took a seat at the dining room table. "What's up?"

"Had another robbery last night."

By now he'd flipped the newspaper open to the city section. The headline glared up at him: Robber Strikes Again.

Ned spoke again while Logan quickly scanned the article. "It was that stereo shop on Market Street. Somebody jimmied the back door. Just about cleaned out the storeroom."

"So I see." His eyes still on the newspaper, Logan lifted his brows. "Still feel like bragging about the crime stats here?"

Ned's voice was a little sheepish. "There's certainly been a rash of robberies the past few weeks. One of the office buildings near the square has been hit twice. Folks aren't likely to be quite so trusting. I'm beginning to think maybe you're the one who's behind all this," he joked. "Trying to beef up business."

Logan smiled slightly. The city was the largest in northern Idaho, but it was the kind of place where people thought nothing of leaving their back door unlocked. It was also true that with person or persons unknown on a crime spree, many of the local businessmen were getting a little edgy. Logan's office had received double its usual number of calls this past week, and he had an appointment early this afternoon to see about setting up night patrols at the mall downtown.

Guardian Angel"You might be interested in knowing we're due to put a security system in that office building near the square," he told Ned. "The owner of the one right across from it got smart. We just finished installing a system in that one yesterday." He reached for his coffee and took a sip before asking, "Any increase in home burglaries?"

"Not so far. But with Christmas only a month away, it's bound to happen. That reminds me, how was your holiday?"

Just like every other holiday, Logan reflected silently. He'd spent Thanksgiving alone, exactly the way he'd spent countless other holidays. It was really no different from any other day. He was surprised to find himself a little bitter. It wasn't like him to be mawkish or sentimental. At least, it hadn't been until Denise had died in Miami.

The thought was far from comforting. Logan had no desire to spend the rest of his days feeling sorry for himself with every holiday that rolled around.

"I holed up in front of the TV with a beer and a bowl full of pretzels to watch the Seahawks. Great game, Ned. Did you see the play that sent it into overtime?"

Ned groaned. "Are you kidding? Why the hell didn't you call me? Linda wouldn't let anyone lay a hand on the television, so I was stuck with a houseful of kids and in-laws."

Logan knew Ned well enough to realize he really wasn't complaining. With four kids, Ned was very much a family man.

"By the way, while I'm thinking of it, Linda said to mention that the invitation stillstands. Since you didn't come Thursday, you're invited for Christmas dinner."

Logan was silent for a moment. He really did appreciate the offer, just as he had when he'd been invited for Thanksgiving. He'd have felt like an outsider, though, and he really had no wish to intrude on Ned's family.

"Thanks anyway," he said finally. "But I may have other plans by then."

He wouldn't, and he had the feeling Ned knew it, too. When he hung up the phone a few minutes later, he tried to tell himself it didn't really matter.

But something inside told him it did.

Chris tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Her eyes were narrowed in concentration, although the traffic heading north was light. Her gaze flitted from the ribbon of highway stretched out before her to the ominous clouds overhead. It didn't take a meteorologist to realize that those clouds were full of moisture. And with the temperature flirting with the freezing mark ...

A sigh escaped without her being aware of it. One gloved hand crept around to knead the knotted muscles in the back of her neck. She felt exhausted, yet tense.

The day hadn't started out well, and the threatening weather only made a bad day even worse. She tried not to think about this morning's tearful goodbye, but she couldn't help it. Chris hated goodbyes; they only served as an unwelcome reminder that she'd never even had a chance to say goodbye to Scottie.

Guardian AngelChar and the kids hadn't dropped by to see her off, and for that Chris was grateful. But she didn't thank her sister for planting the seed in her mother's mind. Her mother hadn't insisted that she come home to Boise for Christmas, but what she had asked of Chris was just as impossible.

Her mind carried her back to the conversation that had taken place in her room that morning.

First her mother had asked when she would be home again.

"Soon," Chris had tried to reassure her. "Soon." But not at Christmas.

The thought must have shown in her face, because Elaine had squeezed her hands. "You know I've never asked much of you."

"No." Chris made the admission almost reluctantly.

"Much as you know we want you here with your family, I won't say another word about having you back at Christmas."

Chris said nothing.

"But before you go, there's something I want you to tell me."

She had no choice but to listen.

"I need to know you won't spend the day alone."

Christine's eyes clouded. She shook her head, but her mother had been adamant. Chris was left with the impression that if she hadn't agreed, she wouldn't have gotten any farther than the front door.

Yet another promise she couldn't keep. First Char, now her mother. She was, she decided ironically, well on the way to becoming a pathological liar.

Losing a child was never easy, and the first year was always the hardest. Yet she'd gotten through it, and she'd thought she'd been doing so well—in all but this one thing. She couldn't even think of Christmas without thinking of Scottie.

She had stayed away from home too long. From Boise, and her family. Chris was well aware of that, and yet her emotions had won the war against logic. If such a situation had arisen with one of her patients, Chris had no doubt about her advice. Deal with it openly and honestly. You'll do far more harm than good if you keep everything bottled up inside you. There are times you need to go back, before you can go forward.

It was hard. As difficult as she expected. But going home to Boise for the first time in more than two years had been a test of sorts, a final exam. It was a test Chris wasn't convinced she had passed.

She would be lying to herself if she didn't admit that part of the reason she had avoided her family was Char's two dark-haired innocents. Chris was stung by a pang of guilt, but she couldn't deny what was in her heart.

Guardian AngelAs for Christmas, she knew she couldn't spend it with the people who loved her the most. Why? she agonized silently. Was she afraid of what someone might say? Nothing that hadn't been said before. We all know how you feel, Christine ... But they didn't. Not her mother, or her father. Not Char, and not Diane. How could they? she reflected with a rare bitter twist. None of them had ever lost a child.

She wanted nothing more than to retreat and lick her wounds in private. Cowardly, perhaps. But at least it was the truth.

The glare of headlights Suddenly flashed into her line of vision. Chris focused her full attention on the road. She glanced at her watch. Five-fifteen. With any luck, she'd be home in an hour.

Darkness was complete and total by the time she reached the eastern extremity of the lake. It had rained earlier, and when she finally reached the city limits, the streets were still wet and slippery. She drove slowly, struggling to see the dividing line between the lanes.

She was home. Home She should have been glad—relieved, if nothing else, that she'd made the long trip safely. But all she could feel was a cold hollowness in the region of her heart.

The night seemed to grow darker, the clouds more threatening. Even as she cast a worried glance through the windshield, a fine gray drizzle began to fall from the sky.

Scottie had died on a night like this. A night exactly like this.

Numbly she stopped the car for a traffic signal. Her eyes squeezed shut as she struggled against a feeling of failure. She shouldn't have held Josh last night. Dammit, she shouldn't have! Then she wouldn't be suffering this awful yearning inside.

She couldn't go home like this, she realized. Her house was too big, too dark, too.. .empty. What she needed was work. A horn blared behind her, and she seized on the thought. She would stop by her office, sort through the mail that had piled up in her absence.

Maybe take a few case files home with her. Therapy for the therapist, she decided sourly. It seemed ironic that she could help others when she couldn't seem to help herself, but Chris was also aware that in the past two years, her work had been her only salvation.

Her expression was grim but determined when she pulled into the parking lot a few minutes later. Trailing tendrils of ivy crept up one side of the two-story, stately brick building that housed Chris's office. Two other buildings exactly like it flanked the large, flagstoned courtyard that was known as the square. It was complete with benches, daintily tended flower beds and a small gurgling fountain in the center. In spring, summer and fall, it wasn't unusual for the workers in nearby shops and offices to head for the square on their lunch break.

Various businesses occupied the buildings. One was a regional headquarters for an insurance group. The other had been taken over by the school district's administration. Several other doctors and psychologists besides Chris occupied the second floor of her building, while downstairs there was a pharmacy, a florist and a medical supply house.

It was still drizzling as she stepped from the car. She didn't bother to pull up her hood, but ran quickly toward the door. Chris had worked too many solitary evenings alone here to be frightened by either the silence or the darkness. Yet as she switched on the light and started up the stairs, she had the vague sensation that something was different.

Guardian AngelBut things looked exactly the same. She let herself through the door marked "Christine Michaels, Ph.D., Counseling Psychologist." Jean's desk was just as cluttered as it had been last Friday, but Chris wouldn't have traded Jean for the most efficient receptionist in the world. She had a knack for putting patients at ease beyond anything Chris had ever seen.

While flipping through her mail, Chris thought of the meager contents of her refrigerator. She was still a little on edge from the drive, and not really hungry. But when she was through here, she would need to stop by a grocery store for a few staples. Hurrying a little, she collected several patient folders. She tucked them beneath her coat to shield them against the rain; then left her office and headed downstairs.

She had no sooner stepped outside than an earsplitting wail shattered the air. A siren, some distant part of her mind acknowledged. But the sound was so loud and overpowering it seemed to surround her, hold her captive.

She saw lights coming at her from a distance. They belonged to some kind of emergency vehicle. It raced straight at her, closer and closer; then another and another, their overhead lights glowing ominously in the darkness.

Chris's heart began to pound. It was just like the night Scottie died. First the ambulance, then the police. Her breath came jerkily; her muscles tensed. She couldn't take it. It was like reliving a nightmare. Something inside her snapped. Her only thought was to get away.

She wasn't more than ten feet from her car when she heard the screech of brakes. Doors slammed. The glaring circle of a white-hot spotlight blinded her. Chris threw up a hand against it and stumbled to a halt. Then a voice like a foghorn penetrated her consciousness.

"Police! Hold it right there!"

 

 

Chapter Three

The panic inside Chris climbed higher. She realized dimly that some sort of alarm must have sounded since the piercing wail wasn't coming from any of the police vehicles. Strange, she thought vaguely. The building hadn't had an alarm system when she'd left last week.

Her arm was seized in a grip that wasn't exactly painful, but it was far from gentle. A man loomed before her.

"What were you doing in that building, lady? And where do you think you're going?" The harsh voice belonged to a burly sergeant who was quickly joined by two other policemen.

Chris opened her mouth in a vain attempt to explain, but to her horror, the sound refused to pass the tightness in her throat. She was shaking, she thought disbelievingly. Literally shaking. All she could do was stare back at him dumbly.

A movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention. Chris saw that a man dressed in a suit had stepped up behind the uniformed officers. He was dark, some distant part of her brain registered. Dark hair, bronzed skin, but there was a flash of brightness in his face. Still struggling to find her voice, her eyes met his, the only pair in the entire swarm of faces surrounding her that wasn't entirely hostile.

Guardian AngelThose eyes seemed totally at odds in such a dark, hard-featured man; the irises were so pale they were almost transparent. China blue, some faraway segment of her mind telegraphed. For a split second, they seemed to hold her pinned, caught by some nameless, fleeting emotion.

But the shrill whine continued to slice through the night, piercing and relentless. It echoed in her ears, over and over and over until she wanted to scream.

Chris swallowed sickly. She had to fight to keep from covering her ears with her hands, but she knew she didn't dare make a move. "Please," she finally managed faintly. "The siren ..."

The man in the suit moved away. The silence, when it finally came, was almost deafening.

"All right, lady. Start talking." The burly sergeant swept her with a disdainful glance and repeated his demand. "What were you doing inside that building? And what are you hiding under your coat?"

Chris resisted the impulse to close her eyes. If only someone would switch off those dreaded lights. But they continued to whirl and flash a nightmarish red pattern all around her.

She looked away for a fraction of a second, forcing herself to speak. "I—I work here. I didn't know about the alarm, you see ..." Her weak voice sounded anything but convincing, she realized.

The sergeant's gaze continued to drill into her. "If you work here, why didn't you know?"

A logical question, and one she hoped she could answer to his satisfaction. Moving very slowly, she displayed the patient file folders she'd tucked under her coat. "My name is Christine Michaels, Dr. Christine Michaels. My office is in this building. I've been on vacation the past ten days, and there was no alarm here when I left, I swear. My office is on the second floor, and I stopped by on my way home." She bit her lip.

They were all staring at her so suspiciously. This was just what she needed, she despaired silently. All she needed was to be dragged off to jail; a fitting ending for a far-from-perfect day.

She dropped her purse on the ground before her. Her legs felt like jelly. How she remained standing was a mystery. Yet somehow she managed to inject a note of soft-spoken authority into her voice. "If you'll just open my wallet, you'll find my driver's license." She nodded at her purse. "There's also a certification card from the State Board. If you need to check further," Chris added, "you could always call the building superintendent. Norm Henderson is his name."

One of the officers bent down to retrieve her purse. At the same time, the suited man edged over to the sergeant and whispered something in his ear. Who was he? And why was he here? Chris couldn't help but wonder about his air of quiet authority.

The purse was pressed back into her hands, still unopened. At a nod from the sergeant, the group began to disperse. Chris had the distinct sensation it wasn't because of her declaration; whatever the man in the suit had whispered to the sergeant appeared to carry far more weight. It irritated her a little, since she had the feeling he wasn't a cop.

The sergeant turned to her. "You can go now." His voice was still a little gruff, but there was a hint of both apology and respect in the way he tipped his hat. "Sorry about coming down on you so hard, but we do need to check these things out."

Guardian AngelChris's nod was jerky. It was an understandable mistake, so she wasn't really angry. Nevertheless, her in- sides were still churning.

"In the meantime," he continued, "if I were you, I'd wait until Monday before going back to your office."

The sergeant turned away, but when she realized he intended to leave, she took an involuntary step toward him. "Wait!" she cried breathlessly.

He half turned, a polite but detached expression in his eyes. Chris suddenly felt rather foolish. The other man still hadn't moved, she noticed. "I still don't understand what happened. Why didn't the alarm go off when I went inside?" She floundered uncertainly. "And I've never even heard any of the other tenants in the building mention that an alarm was being put in."

The sergeant lifted his eyebrows and inclined his head toward the dark stranger. "That's the man you ought to be talking to. Knows a lot more about it than I do." With that, he tipped his hat once more and disappeared into the darkness.

Chris was left alone with the stranger. She could feel his gaze boring into her. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She was shoring up her defenses, she realized subconsciously, but she didn't quite know why.

Perhaps it was because of those china-blue eyes, a point of beauty in such ruggedly configured features. China blue? There was nothing fine or delicate about this man, and she decided it wouldn't be wise to make an enemy of him. There was something very keen, a little too penetrating in his glance. Chris had the strangest sensation that he looked not only at her, but through her. She shivered, but whether it was from the cold or the fine gray drizzle that persisted in falling, Chris wasn't certain.

"Welcome back, Dr. Michaels."

Her eyes flashed upward. Finding no hint of mockery in the soft-spoken voice, she half expected to see it on his face. Instead, she caught a glimpse of wry humor, reflected in the slight tilt of his mouth as he added, "Not quite the homecoming you expected, was it?"

She shook her head. "No," she murmured, narrowing her eyes against the glare of the streetlight. "No, it certainly wasn't, Mr.—"

"Logan Garrison." He held out his hand.

Her gaze dropped. Chris stared at his hand for a second, feeling curiously reluctant to touch him. Her reaction puzzled and confused her, but common courtesy preempted an analysis. In any case, Chris wasn't sure she'd have wanted to make one.

"You're not with the police?" Chris inquired as she extended her hand.

The handshake was brief but firm, not the least bit too familiar. Logan Garrison, she decided, probably wasn't half as dangerous as he looked.

He shook his head. "I own the company that installed the security system. You've been away ...how long?"

Chris slipped a hand into her pocket. The drizzle had ceased falling, but the air was very chill and damp. "About ten days."

Guardian Angel"There's been quite a number of burglaries in town since then. Someone broke into that building—" he pointed over her shoulder toward the school district offices "—twice now."

She frowned. "Anything taken?"

"Enough." Logan lifted his brows. "Computer equipment, mostly. At any rate, Norm Henderson didn't want to be next on the list. We just finished installing the system yesterday."

"Are you sure it's operating the way it should?" She certainly didn't want to tell him his business, but on the other hand ... "I was outside when it went off."

"When you went in, you triggered a silent alarm that's relayed to a central monitoring station at the office. There's a five-minute delay before the audible sounds. Hopefully the police will have arrived by then. If not, the idea is that the audible will frighten off the intruder."

Five minutes. She didn't think she'd been inside any longer than that. "Guess it works like a charm," she muttered.

"We usually just call the police when an alarm sounds and let them handle it. I happened to be at the office when this one went off, and it's the first time I've used equipment from this particular manufacturer. I thought I'd better check to make sure it wasn't an equipment failure."

"It obviously wasn't," she said flatly.

He merely smiled, seemingly amused by her faint disgruntlement.

Chris tried to smile back, but she was still a little too shaken up to manage anything more than a slight twisting of her lips.

And she sensed he was looking right through her again. She shifted uneasily, unaware that she did so. "Well." She cleared her throat, hoping she sounded far more confident than she felt. "It was nice meeting you, Mr. Garrison, but you're probably as anxious as I am to leave—"

"You said you were on your way home."

His voice checked her abrupt movement as she turned toward her car. Chris glanced back over her shoulder. There was a note in his voice that made her hesitate. "Yes."

"Do you mind if I follow you?"

Chris chewed her lower lip uncertainly, then fought an almost hysterical impulse to laugh. Had it been so long since she'd fielded a pass from a man that she couldn't even recognize one?

She turned back then, her eyes wide. "Why?"

Her directness didn't appear to put him off. "Because I'd like to make sure you get home safely."

Guardian AngelThere it was, that edge of authority she had suspected all along. Was he making a pass? Perhaps she was mistaken, the way the police had mistaken her presence here tonight. Chris stared at him a second longer, a little puzzled by the low intensity in his voice. She didn't understand why it seemed to matter to him, or why she would have felt guilty if she had refused. But she knew she would have, just as she was suddenly very certain that whatever type of man Logan Garrison was, dangerous or otherwise, he was not a man on the prowl.

"Please," he added very quietly.

"It's a long way." She hesitated briefly. "I live about five miles out of town." She had relented before she even realized it. But if Chris had been hoping her words might change his mind, she was in for a disappointment. He simply smiled once more and opened the car door for her.

Dr. Christine Michaels was nervous, Logan decided, watching as she exited her Audi sedan. Her gaze immediately flitted to where he had pulled up behind her on the gravel drive. Nervous and just a little apprehensive, he amended silently.

He was both puzzled and curious by what had happened back at the square. He couldn't forget the expression on her face. There was more to her reaction than simply being surprised or startled by the police on a cold, rainy night. Her frozen features, the anxious distress in her eyes ... Logan was well acquainted with the look of sheer, blind panic. He'd seen it far too many times not to recognize it.

He had also been seized by another sensation, one that he almost hated to acknowledge. He wished he could have been indifferent to Christine Michaels's plight, but he couldn't. Dear God, he couldn't.

She reminded him of Denise. Lord, but it hurt to admit it. As if that weren't enough, she reminded him of Denise the last time he had ever seen her. She had been so close then, close enough to touch.

But this woman's eyes weren't the deep blue of a wintry sea. Still, there had been something in the way she had looked at him, something pleading. Just like Denise, he realized silently.

A dull, familiar ache unfolded in his chest. He suppressed the urge to slam the door of his BMW, inwardly cursing this woman who had roused sleeping demons with merely a look.

Logan met her midway between the two cars. "You live alone?"

Chris hesitated, watching as he made a slow, sweeping survey in all directions. The spotlight above the garage centered the two of them in a hazy pool of light. To her right, her house was a rambling jumble of points and angles. Beyond the perimeter of light, the world was dark.

A prickly unease trickled down her spine. Again, she had the sensation that this man was all seeing, all knowing. When his eyes finally returned to her, she nodded slowly.

"Maybe I should come in with you then."

Presumptuous? Or just cautious? It occurred to Chris that she hadn't acted very wisely in telling a perfect stranger that she lived alone, especially when the nearest house was over a mile away. As if he could read her mind, he glanced toward the road, giving Chris the opportunity to study him. His profile was stark and unyielding, the contours of his mouth rather grim. Despite his air of calm detachment, she fleetingly entertained the notion that his generosity wasn't entirely on her behalf.

"You've been gone ten days." There was just a hint of reproach in his gentle reminder. "And with so many burglaries lately ..."

Guardian AngelThere was no need for him to go on. Only then did Chris realize he had turned back to her, and she'd been staring. Stop being so silly, she chided herself. He'd hardly been ogling her—not that there was much to ogle at the moment. She probably looked as tired, damp and disheveled as she felt.

"You're right," she finally agreed. With an inward chuckle, she pushed a limp strand of hair from her eyes and started toward the back porch.

He was directly behind her as she ascended the narrow wooden steps. Opening the door, she switched on the light and stood aside, waiting for him to precede her. Chris was surprised to see one corner of his mouth tilt upward when he brushed past her. For the first time that day, she felt some of her tension ease.

"You're sure you're not a cop?" She posed the question after he poked his head into her living room.

His gaze found hers briefly, then slid beyond into the dining room. "I used to be," he admitted. "Sort of."

"Sort of?" Chris raised her eyebrows.

"I spent quite a few years as an FBI agent." The admission seemed to come reluctantly.

"No wonder you're so suspicious." She wrinkled her nose and sent him a curious glance as they began to retrace their steps down the hallway. "I'd have thought that Coeur d'Alene would be a little tame for an ex-FBI agent."

That was exactly the point, Logan agreed rather grimly. But he didn't say so to Christine Michaels. She'd finally lost that woefully stricken look that tugged so painfully on his heart.

Chris stopped near the kitchen doorway, suddenly wishing she'd taken the time to brush her hair while he'd looked through the house. Her gaze met his briefly. In the small silence that followed, she guessed that Logan Garrison was a very private, solitary man. Yet in spite of that, he seemed almost lonely.

"Would you like to stay for a few minutes?" The invitation was issued before Chris could recall it, and then she decided she didn't want to. Perhaps she was the one who was in need of a little company. When he said nothing, she added rather uncertainly, "I could make some coffee if you like."

She wished he would stop staring at her. His gaze was direct and unwavering, a little too piercing for her to be entirely comfortable with.

"Coffee would be fine," he said with a smile that transformed his whole face. It made him appear less harsh, more approachable somehow. At the same moment, his eyes softened to a subtle blue. "You sure you're okay now?" he asked very softly.

The question caught her off guard. For an instant, Chris could only stare back at him. He knew, she thought numbly. He knew of the sudden, irrational panic that had flooded through her at the sight and sound of the police sirens. She could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. She sucked in a harsh breath, silently wishing the earth would swallow her whole.

This man seemed so utterly in control. And she had practically fallen apart in front of him, and in front of the police as well. Chris felt embarrassed and foolish, yet oddly touched by his concern.

Guardian AngelQuickly she glanced away. "I'm fine," she murmured. She didn't sound as convincing as she'd hoped, however. The week spent with her parents, fighting back the bitter memories, had taken its toll. And tonight, with the sirens screeching in the darkness, had added but one more bruise to an already battered heart.

Several seconds went by. The silence was anything but comfortable. "I should probably explain," she muttered finally.

"You don't have to," Logan said softly. "Unless you want to, of course."

She didn't, and that was the whole problem. It was difficult to talk about Scottie at the best of times; she couldn't even think of doing so with a complete stranger.

But was he a stranger? a tiny voice inside prodded. From the moment he'd set eyes on her, he had known of the turmoil in her mind and heart. And perhaps because of that, he had ceased to be a stranger. His presence here in her home was somehow reassuring.

Chris's silence was beginning to make Logan feel like an intruder. If she wanted to be alone, all she had to do was say so. His eyes fell to her fingers, clasped together before her. The pads of her thumbs swiped against each other, over and over. It was a nervous gesture, and again he wondered about her. Such a scared little girl ...

The thought brought him up short. This was no young girl he was facing, in spite of the fact she was so small and gentle. Back at the square, she'd given him a glimpse of the cool, competent woman he suspected she really was. And no matter how she tried to hide it, he also had the feeling that Christine Michaels was a woman who'd had her share of ups and downs.

But he wasn't going to stay where he wasn't wanted. "Look," he said in a low voice. "We can skip the coffee if you'd rather—"

"No!" She didn't want to be alone, not just yet. Thoughts of Scottie were still so close. "Please don't leave," she said breathlessly. "I ... a cup of hot coffee on a night like this is the least I can do after the trouble I've put you to."

"You haven't." His tone was very quiet. "But I don't want to put you to any trouble." He paused, his gaze never wavering from hers. "Especially if you're not up to it."

Chris was aware of the silent question in his eyes, and the oddest thought went through her mind. It would be easy to trust this man, almost too easy. Again, Chris didn't quite understand her feelings, but she was a woman used to following her instincts. Working in a field where there were hardly any clear-cut answers, they were often all she had to rely upon.

"I'm fine," she said again, and this time she knew it was the truth. As if to emphasize the words, she blessed him with the first genuine smile of the evening.

Logan caught his breath. Lord, she was pretty. The smile sparked tiny gold lights in her eyes, showing him a hint of impishness he found wholly unexpected. So why did he have the feeling she didn't smile like that nearly enough?

He followed when she led the way into the kitchen, a large rectangular room with white painted cupboards on one wall. The entire outside wall was composed of a brick-to-ceiling fireplace. The wide window above the pine-plank table was covered with gauzy red gingham curtains, tied back with starched white ribbons.

Guardian Angel"Are you cold?" Stupid question, Chris chided herself. The house had been closed up for over a week, and the temperature outside was very chilly. She still had her coat on, and a hasty glance over her shoulder revealed that Logan had slipped his hands into his pockets. His shoulders were hunched up ever so slightly.

But at her question, he shook his head. "I'm fine." He must have caught her look, though, because the corners of his mouth edged up in a sheepish half smile. "Fine," he repeated. "It seems to be the standard reply tonight, doesn't it?"

It certainly did. Chris smiled weakly and hurried into the living room to turn up the thermostat.

When she reappeared in the doorway, Logan thought of asking if she needed any help. But in spite of what had happened earlier, he suspected Christine Michaels was far from being a helpless female. So he sat down at the table and asked the question that had been running through his mind the last few minutes.

"What kind of medicine do you practice?"

"Oh, I'm not an M.D. I'm a psychologist." She chuckled at the look of surprise that flitted over his features, then moved toward the cupboard. "You know, as in Ph.D. I handle a general caseload, a little bit of everything actually."

What, then, was he supposed to call her? Dr. Michaels? That sounded so formal. They hadn't met on a professional basis, nor had it been a friendly social occasion. But he had the feeling she could use a friend. For that matter, so could he.

As if she were aware of his dilemma, she glanced at him over her shoulder. "Everyone calls me Chris, except for my patients. And my dad," she added, pulling two cups from the cupboard. "When he calls me Christine, I know he means business."

The warm fondness in her voice was unmistakable. Logan thought of his own father. He was glad Chris wasn't facing him. Psychologist or not, he knew it wouldn't have taken a great deal of insight to recognize the coldness that had entered his face.

"Your father lives in Coeur d'Alene?" He spoke out of courtesy more than anything else. He hadn't forgotten the polite rules of civility after all, and he couldn't help thinking his mother would have been elated.

Chris shook her head. "My parents live in Boise," she announced without turning around. "I've got another sister there, too, and the youngest lives in Seattle."

"Boise," he repeated. "Is that where you've been?"

"I was there for Thanksgiving." Chris moved to the cupboard on the other side of the sink. Logan absently watched as she rummaged through the contents of the bottom shelf, but his mind was elsewhere.

So Dr. Christine Michaels had two sisters. Logan would have bet she came from a close-knit family. At the thought, an odd pang went through him.

Chris finally turned around. "You're not going to believe this, but I can't seem to find the coffee." Suddenly she stopped. Then, marching across the room, she snatched a piece of paper from beneath the Coca-Cola magnet on the refrigerator. There it was, right at the top of her grocery list: coffee.

Guardian Angel"Wouldn't you know it," she muttered. "I can't find the coffee because there is no coffee. I meant to stop in town tonight, but ..." She sighed and looked across at Logan. "I don't suppose you like tea?"

Her expression was so forlorn that Logan felt a rare laugh rising in his chest. "Tea would be fi—"

Her eyes widened.

"Great," he finished, then was unable to hold back a deep chuckle.

As it turned out, Chris ended up adding tea to her list as well. She was full of apologies as Logan got to his feet.

"Tell you what." Logan halted just before they reached the door that led onto her back porch. "I'll supply the coffee if you'll have breakfast with me tomorrow."

Chris laughed. "You must be a glutton for punishment. I am not what's commonly known as a 'morning person,' especially on weekends."

"It doesn't have to be early." His quick reply surprised him a little. "If you want, we could stop by your office afterward and I'll show you how the security system works. Minus the lights and sound effects," he added when a faint look of distress crept into her eyes.

Chris felt herself relax. "Next you'll be throwing in a side trip for my groceries, too."

"What better way to spend a Sunday?" His smile faded when she seemed to consider. "Unless you have other plans, of course."

Time seemed to drag, though he knew only a few seconds had passed. He didn't want her to refuse, he realized. He really didn't—

"No," she murmured at last. "No other plans." She smiled up at him with that same breathtaking smile she'd given him earlier. "In fact, I think I'd like it," she added softly.

"How's ten o'clock sound?"

"Sounds fi—" This time she was the one who couldn't hold back a laugh. "Sounds just about right."

"Great." He opened the screen and headed down the porch steps.

Chris peered into the darkness. "See you tomorrow," she called after him.

He acknowledged with a small nod just before he got into his car. Chris closed the door and locked it. She was still smiling, but she wasn't quite sure why.

When she was halfway up the stairs, the reason suddenly struck her. Breakfast with Logan Garrison ... She was actually looking forward to it. Quite a lot, if she were honest with herself.

The day hadn't turned out so badly after all.

 


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