Autumn Shadows

Benjamin McGlade’s come to protect her, but can Gemma protect her vulnerable heart from him…

 

Prologue

 Auckland.

 This wasn’t how he planned to spend the last night before his deployment, sitting alone in the dark, in his mate’s flat, drinking beer. Feeling more than little desperate, he wanted these hours of waiting to be over. Oh-five-thirty couldn’t come soon enough.

Afghanistan looked more appealing by the moment.

His wife … Ben McGlade’s lip curled and his hand clenched on the beer can until it crumpled … his wife sure as hell wasn’t spending the night alone.

A thought guaranteed to curdle the beer in his gut.

He raised his eyes heavenward—and getting drunk won’t change a single damn thing.

How long had Nadine’s ex been waiting in the wings—I won’t go there.

The shrill ring of the phone broke the silence, cutting off his angst-ridden  thoughts. Ben jerked upright. Beer sloshed from the can onto his hand, and he swore. He almost didn’t answer the summons, but after one frowning glance at the illuminated dial of his watch, decided he would. “McGlade.”

“Derek? Thank God. Can you come and get me?”

The voice was young. Female. Scared.

His instincts shrieked—red alert.

“It’s not Halliday,” he growled. “Who’s this?”

“Where’s my brother?” Her voice rose, filled with panic and fear.

Shit! GemmaHalliday’s young sister?

In the background, he could hear raucous laughter, boozy noise and blaring music, all the hallmarks of a wild party in progress.

“The army called Halliday in.” He was already moving, yanking on his combat boots and heading out the door, the keys of Halliday’s ute clenched in his fist. “Where are you?”

A loud background crash and an even louder, discordant burst of music echoed in his ear, almost drowning out her frightened whimper. “Oh, God.”

“Gemma?” It was a command, pure and simple. “Where are you? I’m on my way.” He stabbed the keys in the ignition and fired the engine. “Give me the address.”

She recited a Ponsonby address, adding, “Please hurry.”

“Are you safe?” He didn’t like the sound of this.

“I’m in the bathroom.” It was a hurried, frightened whisper. “And I’ve locked the door.”

“Stay there.”

It took longer than Ben liked to reach the address. The once seedy Auckland district was now one of the swankier places to live in the inner city. The house was old and gracious, but it didn’t impress him, not when his mate’s scared, young sister felt the need to barricade herself somewhere inside.

He alighted, locked Halliday’s vehicle and scanned the area with military precision before he strode up the path to the front door. Blaring music emanating from the house made it obvious there was a party in progress. It surprised him noise control hadn’t beaten him here.

The door was locked.

He rapped smartly. No response. Without hesitation, he lifted a combat booted foot and kicked open the door, a skill he’d perfected in war-time.

Noise assaulted him.

The air reeked of pot and booze and sex. The dimly lit room was crammed full of bodies. Sitting. Reclining. Standing pressed together. His gaze swiftly scanned couples entangled in every conceivable position, and some damned unbelievable ones, too.

Gemma wasn’t among them.

Shit, this is an orgy in progress.

He surged through the bodies, found the stereo’s power cord, and yanked the plug from the wall socket.

The ensuing silence was startling.  

“Whatcha do that for?” A shaggy-haired man, eyes bloodshot and dilated, confronted him. “This is a private party.”

“Where’s Gemma Halliday?”

“Dunno. Haven’t seen her in a while.” He smiled sloppily, then giggled. “Can’t expect a man to keep track of everyone.”

Man? Ben’s lip curled and he pushed past him. “Where’s the bathroom?”

The man grabbed at his arm, and scowled. “You a pervert or something?”

Ben swatted him off as if he was of no more consequence than an annoying mosquito, and surged into the central hallway of the house. Another dude, this one a skin-head, was banging both palms on a closed door, yelling for someone inside to open up.

 In two strides, he closed the space, put a hand on skin-head’s shoulder and spun him around and, with one mighty shove, sent him staggering down the hallway.

“Who the shit—” The skin-head’s protest ended abruptly when he slammed into a wall and slid ignominiously downwards to sprawl on the floor. 

Ben ignored him and putting his face to the old-fashioned keyhole, said, “Gemma? It’s McGlade. Open up.”

Silence. The door opened a crack, and she peered at him, her face white and scared.

He shoved open the door and looped a protective arm around her shoulders. “You got everything?”

She nodded.

Someone had plugged the stereo back in and the noise quickly cranked back up to a deafening pitch.

“Let’s get out of here before the cops show up and we’re caught in a raid.”

And wouldn’t the army just love that!

 ***

Gemma cast a surreptitious glance at the man in the driver’s seat, and a soft sigh trembled from her.

Benjamin McGlade.

The man flat-out fascinated her, and had done so from the moment Derek had first brought him to visit with her family. He drew her with the same visceral pull that draws a moth to a naked candle flame.

The aura of danger surrounding him, tangible. As if he was aware of her perusal, he slanted a slashing glance her way. “Like to explain what you were doing back there?”

His voice was deep. Rich. And surprisingly melodious.

Embarrassment made her squirm. “A friend from Polytech invited me to go with him to a party.”

“The skin-head pounding on the bathroom door.”

She nodded, and one hand curled into a fist.

“You need to find a better class of friends.”

She made a disgusted sound and self-consciously straightened her fingers. “I didn’t know he was into drugs, or would act like that.”

“Let tonight be a lesson to you not to be so damn trusting.” He pulled up and parked outside the downstairs apartment she shared with two other girls, and slanted another of those enigmatic looks her way.

He alighted and came around and helped her down from the high vehicle. With a hand under her elbow, he escorted her to the door. She could get used to this consideration, and McGlade could sure teach her jerky date a thing or two.

“Does your brother know about the company you keep?”

“Look, it won’t happen again. I’m grateful for you coming to my rescue.” She hesitated a moment. “Do you want to come in?”

“Where are your flatmates?”

“Partying. They won’t stagger back until time for classes on Monday.” Her voice held a note of disdain she couldn’t disguise. 

This, after all, was the reason she’d accepted that jerk’s invitation to go to what he’d assured her was a respectable party. His idea of respectable and hers didn’t mesh and never would.

Ben turned to her; his eyes deep shadows, his features harshly drawn, light and shadow, and hawkish in the dim glow of the streetlights. “Are you sure you want me to come in? If I do, I won’t leave anytime soon.”

One hand twisted into a fist and nerves leap-frogged in her belly. “I’m mighty sick of staying in every night, alone.”

And being the only goody-two-shoes virgin among her peers in the Polytech crowd she studied with. This, after all, was why she’d accepted the jerk’s invitation. She’d had every intention of remedying that situation—until her date got stoned and abusive. And self-preservation kicked in.

If Derek were ever to learn she’d needed McGlade to come to her rescue, Gemma would never hear the end of it.

“Are you sure?” His voice deepened and held a tense, gravelly edge, a perfect match to his dangerous appearance. “If I step inside your door, Gemma, I guarantee you may be tired, but it won’t be from being alone.” 

Her heart did a fillip in her chest—dare I?

Ben McGlade wasn’t entirely a stranger.

He was her brother’s best friend and comrade-in-arms, and he attracted her like no other man ever had, an attraction she found impossible to resist.

“Yes.” Her voice was soft and clear. “I’m sure. And, Ben, I haven’t been drinking, or taking any illicit drugs.”

She needed him to know this, to know that she wasn’t under the influence, to know that her thinking processes were working perfectly fine.

“I know.” His palm curved it around her cheek. Warm and calloused, it sent a hot shock of sensation spiralling through her. “If I thought otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Something curled tightly inside her at this. His eyes narrowed and darkened as he stared into hers. Her knees were suddenly shaky, her stomach quivering with anticipation.

His lips tilted in a wry, crooked smile. He leaned toward her, and his lips brushed hers… gently… simply… and with devastating intent.

And every cell in her brain short-circuited.

She wanted his arms wrapped tightly around her, wanted him to hold her close against his broad chest, wanted those oh-so sexy lips hard against hers.

She wanted—period.

He gently nudged her inside and pushed the door closed, the click of the lock over-loud in the sudden stillness.

 

 

Chapter One

Akaroa – six years later

Gemma Halliday picked up her baby boy from his cot, checked her watch, and blew a noisy raspberry against his neck. Lucas squealed, kicking and squirming in her hold. It was a game they both loved playing.

She grabbed his bottle off the sink bench. “Is this what you want?”

Lucas squealed, his pudgy legs bouncing, tiny heels working like miniature piston hammers on either side of her hips, small hands reaching out. He squealed and squirmed when she slipped the bottle of milk into a side pouch of the diaper bag, and she tightened her grip.

“Okay, boyo, I have to open the shop door in fifteen minutes.” She sucked in a breath and wrinkled her nose. “Phew-ee, you stink.”

Moving quickly, she dealt with the stinky diaper. Once finished, she smoothed down his luxurious mop of dark curls—God, he’s the image of his father—a thought she pushed into the dark recesses of her mind.

She refused to go there.

Wrestling with Lucas, she hoisted the diaper bag onto one shoulder, picked up the tote-bag she took to work, and retrieved her lunch from the refrigerator in quick, practised movements.

The clock chimed as she headed out the door.

Across the yard, it took two jabs to insert the key in the lock and open the back door of her little shop. All the while, Lucas bounced against her side and squealed in her ear. “Steady on, boyo, let me disable the alarm.”

Once it was disabled, she breathed easier.

Her little boy sure didn’t like the alarm shrieking. And their day went so much easier if it didn’t start with Lucas scared out of his baby mind.

“Okay, baby-cakes.” She laid him in the portable cot inside the play area she’d created in the corner near her desk and held out his bottle. “You enjoy snackkies while I open up.”

Lucas grabbed the bottle, immediately chugging on it.

Taking advantage of his absorption, she opened her little shop for trading. She unlocked the front door of THE GIFT BOX and hooked it back. The late autumn sun bounced off the panes of coloured lead-light glass, creating a rainbow—surely a great omen to start my day.

On the window beside the door, the half-moon shaped embellished gold-leaf lettering on the glass read: THE GIFT BOX, and below that in a straight line, CURIOS & COLLECTABLES.

A thrill of pride rippled through Gemma.

Glancing towards the harbour, she could see the upper decks of the huge cruise liner lying at anchor at the end of the pier, the last one scheduled for the summer/autumn cruising season. It had docked overnight and was now ready to disgorge the tourists who would turn Akaroa into a bustling metropolis for the day—and with the visitors came the promise of a solid day’s trading, a welcome cushion for the slower trading days of winter the loomed on the horizon.

She hauled out her “Open” flag, set a pair of Edwardian dining chairs to one side of the door, a box of books on an antique tea-trolley on the other, and surveyed her efforts with a satisfied smile.

She looked up and down the street—Rue Jolie, two streets back from Rue Lavaud, the main shopping precinct of Akaroa village, on New Zealand’s Banks Peninsular.

Pedestrians already ambled along the footpaths, taking advantage of the sunny morning. The air held a crisp edge. The light dusting of snow that yesterday had mantled the Port Hills was gone now, but it left behind a chill warning that winter was surely on its way. The trees lining the streets were resplendent in brilliantly coloured autumn finery.

Gemma took a few moments to savour the scene.

It was days like these her mother called a blue wine day—clear skies, crisp, bracing air and beauty all around.

Walking back through the shop, she inhaled a deep appreciative breath, savouring the wonderful mix of smells filled her senses—beeswax candles, orange-scented pot-pourri, sweet-scented furniture wax, and mingling with these, the older, more pungent scent of oiled wood flooring. The old pit-sawn planks that formed the floor squeaked when customers walked on them, and added real character to the building.

Running a hand over a vintage wood and glass display case, Gemma appreciated the smooth texture of the polished wood, the sparkle of clean glass, and the sparkly bling of the antique costume jewellery resting on the white satin lining.

The next case held a pretty selection of vintage and depression glass, always highly sought after. Glass never went out of fashion. It suited almost any decor from ultramodern to antique and everything in between.

When she took over the business from Miss Hetty, Gemma retained all the vintage shop fittings and she’d fossicked online and at auctions to source similar ones to create the old world charm her customers loved. She found delight in dealing with and talking antiques and collectables with customers.

Under Miss Hetty’s patient tuition, both she and the business thrived.

The constant stream and diversity of people who walked through her shop door sure kept her busy, and involved with in the community—not to mention keeping her abreast of the latest scuttlebutt. Gemma grinned. The old lady was the kindest soul, but Miss Hetty was an inveterate gossip.

The Gift Box was the culmination of dreams and desperation.

Fossicking in second-hand shops, upmarket antique stores, and barns dealing in junk had long been an absorbing hobby for Gemma, but never once did she imagine she’d end up owning her own store.

The memory of her dad sitting her down and asking how she intended to support herself and her baby remained clear, his words gruff, but kind—I don’t want you living on welfare. It’s not good for you, or for your baby.

At the time, she’d had no idea how she would support herself, let alone a baby. Now, she understood her dad’s reasoning, and despite a hectic schedule, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

She would never be rich, but her little shop enabled her to support herself and her baby, something that bolstered her self-esteem and allowed her a wonderful sense of freedom. She would hate being forced to live with the restrictions imposed on welfare beneficiaries. But best of all, buying out Miss Hetty enabled Gemma to put down roots. And after a semi-nomadic childhood, she craved permanence. 

It was her parents’ decision to sell Jamie and Kayla Barron their holiday home, Skye High Lodge, and split the proceeds of the sale equally between themselves, Gemma and Derek, her brother, that enabled her to buy out Miss Hetty’s business and the building.

Her own savings from her well-paid position as Carl Houston’s PA, the CEO of Classon Industries, enabled her to put down a substantial deposit on the historic cottage next door. In one stroke, Gemma found herself in possession of a home and income.

And living closer to her friend Kayla, Gemma regarded as a stupendous bonus. Unbidden, she heard her Gram’s frail, old voice—out of every crisis, child, comes an opportunity.

It seemed her gram was right.

“I hope you’re enjoying your holiday, Mum and Dad,” she whispered, suddenly missing them with shocking fierceness.

They were her rock, her solid support for the past fifteen months,  and were now enjoying a South Pacific cruise—Tahiti, Vanuatu, New Caledonia—a whole gamut of island nations were on their itinerary.

Smiling at the thought, Gemma removed the empty bottle from her sleeping baby’s slack grasp, and smoothed a dark curl off his forehead. He made little grunting noises, his eyelids half-opened, then too heavy, closed once more. Watching him, her heart clutched with love.

Paul and Mary Halliday flat-out adored their baby grandson.

While they never pressed her about his father’s identity, Lucas’s birth had the unexpected effect of stalling their desire to sell up and move on, a lifestyle that had dogged Gemma’s childhood. Her parents were living in the house they’d renovated in Fendalton, a Christchurch suburb, staying longer than any house they’d owned in Gemma’s memory.

Humming along to a catchy tune playing on the radio, she began to cataloguing and shelving a consignment of antique and out of print books. One book caught her eye: Life in a Foxhole.

She inhaled a trembling breath and smoothed a shaky hand over the dustcover, a full-face picture of a handsome marine in sand-coloured fatigues, an image that bombarded her with memories,.

Memories of that one fantastic night she’d spent with her soldier cascaded through her mind. In a moment of weakness, she closed her eyes and allowed the memories  to come calling—the delicious friction of his calloused hands against my skin; the harsh rasp of his breath as he whispered endearments against my throat; the safety I felt in arms strong enough to snap me in two. 

The tinkle of the shop entry bell jerked Gemma back to the present.

Gone was the dim lamplight, the hard body, the wicked sensations, and she crashed back to earth with a jarring thud—I have customers in need of my full attention.

But the insidious thoughts continued to intrude.

Does he ever think of me? Remember that one delicious stolen night we shared? 

Muttering under her breath, she pushed aside the thought. Then in a sneaky move, she slipped the book beneath the counter instead of putting it out for sale.

Which was stupid.

That’s me. Stupid. Jonesing over a man who’s probably never given me a second thought.  

The memory of pumping her brother for more details about the man who answered his phone that night remained as clear as the autumn sky outside.

Derek gave her a brotherly version of stink-eye, his gruff response heavy with warning. “It was Ben McGlade. His wife kicked him out, and I offered a fellow soldier a place to stay. The man’s got some heavy duty family issues, Gem, a guy to steer clear of.”     

The same shock she’d felt then, rippled through her again now.

Married? She glanced at her boy sleeping in the corner, and grimaced. The soldier and I played Russian roulette with birth-control that night. We struck it lucky. I could well be raising a schoolboy son, alongside my baby.

The entry bell tinkled again and Gemma looked up, her welcoming smile fading. Lane Embry walked directly to the vintage bar she’d salvaged from a hotel demolition and used as a counter.

“Good morning, Gemma.” The local police constable rubbed his hands. “It’s brisk out there this morning.”

“It sure is, but it’s will be a beautiful day. How can I help you?”

“I don’t know that you can.” His smile widened. “I’m just giving you a heads-up. There’s been a house burglary over at Pigeon Bay and a haul of antiques and vintage jewellery were stolen from Maisie de Malmanche. The old lady’s pretty cut up about it.”

“How awful.” Gemma frowned. “Do you have any photos or descriptions of the missing items?”

“Yes, she’s recently had an insurance assessment done for estate purposes and we have photos of the items stolen.”

“Can you email me a copy?” She handed him a business card. “It’s unlikely the thieves will try offloading any of the items locally, but I’ll keep an eye and ear out.”

He handed her a business card. “If you hear anything I’d appreciate you giving me a call.”

“For sure. And Lane?”

He looked at her eyebrows raised in question.

“I keep an accurate register of all jewellery and ID details of the sellers of any items I buy in. If I hear or see anything suspicious, I’ll be in touch.”

“That’s great. I’ll email you that list.” The radio on his belt squawked diverting his attention. “I’ve got to go.”

She bent his card between her fingers as a customer walked up to the counter. “He’s a handsome hunk. I do love a guy in uniform.”

Gemma chuckled. “I’m sure his wife thinks so.”

“What did he want?”

“Police business.” Gemma smiled to soften her evasive response. “How can I help you?”

“May I have a closer look at those toothpick holders? I have a great collection and am always on the lookout for more.”

Gemma unlocked the cabinet and brought the items out onto the counter, and they spent several minutes discussing the merits of each one.The woman picked out a pricey, brilliantly coloured, hand-painted one. “I’ll take this one.” 

“Good choice. Anything done by Clarice Cliff will only ever appreciate in value,” Gemma said, and carefully wrapped the toothpick holder.

A shadow darkened the doorway a moment before the entry bell tinkled. She looked up, and her welcoming smile faded.

Two men in full army dress uniform walked through the door.

Her heart jolted and her mouth went dry. Fear snaked through her, knotting her belly—what do they want?

The sudden appearance of army personnel rarely spelled good news for relatives of servicemen, the sight of dress uniforms and sombre expressions enough to break a heart before they even spoke.

“Good morning.” Her greeting was an automatic reflex.

They inclined their heads in acknowledgement and stood to one side, waiting politely while she finished serving her customer. Gemma rang up the purchase on the antique till and handed the securely wrapped package to the woman, all the time dread sat heavy in her gut, her heart thudding at a frenetic pace.

“I’m sure it will look great among your collection.” Gemma tried for a breezy tone, but her voice came out in a squeaky rasp.

The customer stared at the two officers. “What do they want?”

The taller of the two men cleared his throat, stepped forward, and spoke to Gemma. “You finished here?”

Unable to get a single word past her parched throat, she settled for a nod.

“Ma’am, if you don’t mind.” He took the customer’s arm and ushered her out the door, all the while the woman was looking back at Gemma, her expression one of avid curiosity.

Without asking, the serviceman brought in the display merchandise and the “Open” sign and closed the shop doors, assuring them of privacy.

Gemma saw the customer’s face pressed against the glass, but dismissed her as unimportant, all her attention on the two officers. The man touched her elbow and urged her to a chair near her desk. “Ms Halliday? Ms Gemma Halliday?”

“That’s me.” Gemma pressed a shaky hand to her breast.

“Sergeant Theo Beltram, Chaplain in the NZ Army, and this is Major Alby White, Casualty Liaison Officer.” 

Her already panicky heartbeat went into overdrive. “Derek? My brother?”

“We regret to inform you that your brother, Captain Derek Halliday, is missing.” White crossed to her side and rested a supportive hand on her shoulder. “He was with a routine protection patrol with UN Forces in South Sudan, when the vehicle they were travelling in broke down. A following patrol found their vehicle, but no sign of the men.”

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head in immediate denial. “He can’t be missing. We were talking on Skype just last night.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” The hand on her arm tightened. The CLO’s eyes softened with compassion. “From what we’ve found out, the men in that patrol were abducted, and as no bodies have been found their current status is listed as missing.”

“Mum and Dad?” The question scratched past her bone dry throat. “Do they know?”

“They do. We patched a call through to their cruise ship, and they asked us to notify you.” 

We regret to inform you…

The surreal words echoed and re-echoed through Gemma’s fractured thoughts. Five brief words. Their impact, life-changing. The horror they implied, the implications, too shocking to contemplate.

Derek, where are you? What’s happening to you?

Hysteria bubbled up inside her like an energetic fountain. Fear threatened to overwhelm her.

Gemma stared around the sitting room of her little cottage with no clear recollection of how she came to be there. Her last clear memory was opening her shop for the day’s trading.

The CLO and chaplain wore identical concerned expressions.

Gemma stared at them. The chaplain’s lips moved. She could hear his voice, but the struggle to process whatever he was saying was beyond her, she needed every ounce of energy to keep breathing.

Memories of Derek—their closeness—replayed on a continuous tape through her mind. He couldn’t be MIA, or God forbid, dead.

Lucas stirred and started crying.

Jerked into awareness of her responsibilities, Gemma started to rise, needing to go to her son. The chaplain put a staying hand on her shoulder. “Let me get him.”

“Do you have anyone you can call?” the CLO asked. “A friend who can come and stay with you? You don’t need to be alone right now.”

“She won’t be alone. I’m here and I’ll be staying here with her.”

The cold, hard and eerily familiar voice jolted Gemma from her state of inertia. Her stunned gaze locked on the newcomer’s. She gasped and her stomach lurched.

Benjamin McGlade.

The years since she’d seen him last had been more than kind. He was leaner and more muscular than she remembered, but his eyes were still piercing, and unbelievably blue.

“What are you doing here?” Her voice was a shocked, whispery rasp.

“Honouring a promise.” His tone was as inflexible as the pure, intense dark blue of his eyes.

“What promise?”

She tried to stand, but shock robbed her of strength, and she sank back into the chair, staring at him.

Benjamin McGlade, Derek’s SAS crony—my first lover—and quite possibly the last man she expected to walk through her door. Hysteria threatened to overwhelm her.

Calm and composed, his demeanour uncompromising, he looked from her to the two military officers, the silence charged with memories and unasked questions. 

“I promised Halliday if he wasn’t around to do so, I would take care of his sister.” McGlade’s voice was as deep as she remembered, and calm. “And I’m here to do just that.”

The officers stiffened, looking first at McGlade, then at Gemma. “Are you okay with this? With McGlade being here?”

She caught the emphasis, and knew these men knew each other. Before she could answer, before the reality of McGlade’s presence had time to really sink in, Lucas started crying in earnest.

Ben shouldered off his rucksack, strode across to the cot, picked Lucas up and held him against one broad shoulder, and gently patted his back. “It’s okay little buddy, I have your back.”

The contrast between the baby boy and the man couldn’t be more marked. Lucas was chubby and baby-soft, his young bones still malleable with few hints of his potential looks or growth. McGlade, tall, lean and muscular, his black hair shorter than his beard. His face all sharp angles and blades, his jaw hadn’t seen a razor for some considerable time. While not conventionally handsome, he possessed strength and charisma that coupled with his size, made her weak at the knees.

This time, she couldn’t afford to go soft in the head.

Memories flickered through her mind in a series of still-life freeze frames.

Bone-melting passion… the scrape of his whiskers on her tender jaw… the way his big hand tenderly curled around her head…strong, blunt-tipped fingers threading through her hair… the heady excitement as his mouth settled on hers.

She was aware of the two officers’ restive movements, but it was the soft voiced chaplain who asked, “Are you okay with McGlade being here?”

Hell, no!

She caught the quirk of McGlade’s lips, and knew he’d divined her thoughts, but one lightning glance at him and her protests, and the impulse to ask them to make him leave, withered and died.

In two strides, he brought Lucas to her and deposited him in her lap. His gaze met hers, his challenge emotionless and direct. “You don’t have the luxury of going to pieces, Gemma. Your son needs you.”

Her arms tightened around her baby boy, the movement reflexive and defensive.

Chapter Two

A shocked quiet settled in the room, and Ben fought back a grin, which was saying something. It had never crossed his mind that he would find anything to smile about if he was ever to meet Gemma Halliday again, face to face.

Her baby sucked lustily on his fist, the only sound in the shocked stillness.

Ben suppressed a grin; he felt a little too much like a fox that had sneaked into a henhouse, leaving the occupants too stunned to squawk.

And he couldn’t blame them.

He knew he looked like hell. His jaw was rough with two weeks’ growth of whiskers, his eyes bloodshot, and he was still wearing the threadbare fatigues he’d worn into the bush for his hunting trip. Bone weary from travelling through the night to reach Gemma before anyone else did, he sure as hell needed sleep, a luxury that would have to wait.

But the officers wouldn’t leave unless if she gave them the word.

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