Protected deadly secrets.., p.7
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       Protected (Deadly Secrets Book 3), p.7


  “Yes,” she said into the phone with a roll of her eyes. “Yes, of course I want to talk to them.” Her voice softened. “Hey, Dad. No, I’m fine. We’re at the hospital. Hunt had a cut on his leg he needed stitched. Yeah, he’s okay too.”

  Hunt couldn’t hear what Kelsey’s father was saying on the other end of the line, but he did see the way Kelsey’s eyes grew damp, and he heard the sudden waver in her voice that told him the people that mattered most in her life were on the other end of that phone.

  A quick shot of guilt hit him in the chest as he watched her reassure her father, mother, then Rusty, Thomas, and finally Ethan that she was safe. He should have called her family sooner. Should have called them the moment she’d been freed from the rubble instead of spending all that time kissing her. The McClanes weren’t just friends to him, they were family. They’d trusted him to watch over Kelsey, and he didn’t want to do anything to let them down. And that meant he needed to cool it with any romantic thoughts where Kelsey was concerned and get back to what they’d asked him to do. Which was to make sure nothing happened to their girl.

  “Yes, okay,” Kelsey said once more, any previous sign of being choked up long gone. She glanced Hunt’s way. “He’s right here.” Pulling the phone away from her mouth, she whispered, “It’s Alec again. He wants to talk to you before he hangs up.”

  Hunt’s fingertips grazed hers as he took the phone, and warmth shot up his arm at the casual touch. And even though he told himself Alec couldn’t see and had no idea about their kiss, he tensed just the same. “Yeah,” he said into the phone. “I’m here.”

  Callahan pointed toward two men in suits and mouthed for Hunt to join him in the hall when he was done. Hunt nodded, but his stomach dropped when he spotted the two Feds. He’d been hoping to get home and take a shower before they got ahold of him, but it looked like that was a pipe dream now.

  “Listen, man,” Alec said in his ear. “None of us can get flights back into Portland for several days. Even Seattle’s a mess. Flights are packed solid. I don’t want her staying alone after all this.”

  Hunt wasn’t about to let Kelsey stay anywhere alone. Especially not after that scene with Benedict. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll stay with her until you get back.”

  At his side, Kelsey’s eyes widened in an oh really? way that made her whole face light up and her lips curl in a gentle smile. Her—dammit—soft, plump, seriously tempting lips that he was already thinking about kissing again.

  “Good,” Alec said. “And make sure you take her to your place, not hers. This is just the kind of situation Benedict will try to take advantage of. He’ll act all concerned for her safety when we all know in reality he’s pissed she had the nerve to go through with the divorce.”

  “I’ll take care of her. Don’t worry.” And he would. Without any more kissing. Definitely without more kissing.

  He said goodbye without giving himself away, hit “End” on the phone, and lowered it to his side. But his anxiety didn’t lessen any because the woman he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about kissing was currently standing in front of him, looking sweet and vulnerable and staring up at him as if he were her hero. Which, damn, he suddenly wanted to be. Not just today but every day.

  “Thank you,” she said softly. “I know he’s a pain in the ass right now. He’s just worried.”

  “I’m used to him. I think Rusty’s more stressed. If he knew how to fly a plane, I’m pretty sure he’d steal one just so he could get back and see for himself you’re in one piece.”

  One corner of her lips curled in a sad smile. “I know. He’s overprotective of me. It has very little to do with me and mostly to do with what happened to his biological sister.”

  Hunt knew all about Rusty’s sister’s death. Alec had told him about it years ago when Hunt had asked how Rusty had gotten all those scars. “Maybe a little. But his overprotectiveness is ninety-nine percent about you. He loves you. They all do.”

  “I know they do.”

  The sad way she glanced down at her ruined flats made him ache to wrap his arms around her. Clearing his throat, he turned away so he wouldn’t give in to the urge and moved toward the ER’s doors. “Callahan said you already talked to the Feds.”

  “Yeah, I did.” She fell into step beside him. “They want to speak with you, though.”

  Hunt moved out into the hallway. Callahan and the other officer were standing in a circle with the two Feds halfway down the corridor, waiting for him. His back tightened reflexively. He really hated dealing with law enforcement of any kind, Callahan being the exception only because they’d become more like friends over the years rather than adversaries. But in his line of work, being questioned by cops—especially Feds—wasn’t something he looked forward to. Most tended to look down on private security contractors as bugs worthy only of being squashed beneath their feet. And after the day he’d had, he really wasn’t in the mood for a face-off with some uppity agent who’d probably never drawn his gun and likely knew nothing about real-life tragedy.

  “Better get this over with then.” He drew a deep breath and stepped toward the group.

  The discharge papers he held rolled up in his left hand slipped from his grip. Before he could look down to see where he’d dropped them, warmth encircled his palm, followed by a zing of electricity that felt way too damn good.

  Kelsey’s small fingers wrapped around his much bigger ones and squeezed. And then her lips grazed his cheek, causing his footsteps to falter and his whole body to light up like a Roman candle.

  “For luck,” she whispered when his eyes met hers. She squeezed his hand again and winked. “And for speed. Make it fast, O’Donnell, because I’m more than ready to go home with you.”


  Kelsey eyed Hunt warily in the entryway of the rundown brick building he’d brought her to in the Goose Hollow neighborhood. He’d been acting strange since his meeting with those federal agents. Not worried, exactly, but standoffish, quiet, almost a little cold.

  She wasn’t sure what to make of that. She waited while Hunt slid a key into the panel outside the elevator and pushed a button. Had his meeting with the Feds not gone well? Had her brother said something on the phone that had upset him? Or did his demeanor have something to do with the fact she’d kissed him outside the ER?

  The elevator doors whooshed open, and Hunt held out a hand for her to enter the small car first. Stepping in, she turned to watch him, hoping for any sign he was stressed over something other than that kiss.

  The elevator jolted as if it were a hundred years old, then hummed as it began to move. She didn’t want to think he could be upset over that; after all, he was the one who’d kissed her earlier in the day. Kissed her so thoroughly she could still feel that kiss smoldering in her toes. But the truth was . . . she couldn’t be entirely sure. Before today, she hadn’t spent a whole lot of time with Hunt one-on-one. And even though they’d both been through a pretty traumatic experience and they’d each pretty much bared their souls to each other in that rubble, the reality was . . . she didn’t know him that well. Definitely didn’t know his moods or how to read him.

  Her mind skipped back to stumbling out of that rubble and seeing him. She’d been so relieved he was all right that she’d all but thrown herself at him. And when he’d grabbed her and looked down, she’d instantly lifted her mouth to his. But what if he hadn’t been trying to kiss her then? What if he hadn’t even planned to hug her? He was a protective guy—heck, he protected people for a living. What if he hadn’t been reaching for her at that moment for no other reason than to steady her because he’d seen her wobbling toward him?

  A hiss sounded, but she barely noticed. Had she totally misread him? Was she the one who’d forced that kiss? If that were the case, then yeah, her kissing his cheek at the hospital would totally make a guy like him standoffish.

  “Kels? You okay?”

  Startled by Hunt’s voice, she swallowed and fought back the nausea. “Yes. Why

  “Because we’re here, and you haven’t moved.”

  Blinking, she realized he was holding the elevator door open for her. Feeling like an idiot, she stepped forward on shaky legs. Then faltered when she noticed the twinkling Portland skyline in the wall of dark windows across the vast room and realized the elevator opened right into his apartment—his huge, loft-style apartment—not a hallway like she’d expected.

  “Oh my.” Wide eyed, she took in her surroundings. The old building in the southwest hills had nearly a complete view of downtown Portland. The walls were brick, with old steel beams that looked as rugged as Hunt littered throughout the space. An enormous kitchen decked out in more stainless steel opened to her left. To her right an entire home gym was set up, complete with free weights, bench press, chin-up bar, speed bag, and a treadmill. Ahead, the main portion of the room housed the living space—a gigantic flat-screen TV over a modern fireplace; an enormous U-shaped sectional and a few leather chairs; a variety of dark wood tables; a tall ficus tree that was clearly well cared for; and two vast paintings on the walls—one of a gorgeous beach house set on a cliff overlooking an ocean, the other of what she thought might be the Tuscan countryside.

  The apartment was modern, masculine, and not at all what she’d expected. And even though the outside looked rundown and shabby, the inside was top-of-the-line everything.

  “This is amazing.” She stepped farther into the room, still unable to believe he lived here. On the top floor. “And big. You live here all alone?”

  “Yeah. This is the only apartment in the building. I guess you could say I like my privacy.” He stepped past her, moved through the massive living space, and headed for a door off to the right, not far from the wall of windows. “This is the guest room.” He pushed the door open and reached inside to flip on a light. “I’m sure you’re dying to take a shower. There are fresh towels in the guest bath. I’ll get a clean pair of sweats and a T-shirt and leave them on the bed for you to change into. If you need something else, just holler.”

  He headed for another door on the far side of the room that seemed to match the one he’d left open for her.

  “Wait.” She looked after him. “The only apartment? You mean, no one else lives anywhere in this building?”

  “Nope. Just me.”


  “Because I own the building. Take a shower, and we’ll talk later if you still want to.”

  He disappeared into the master bedroom, and she moved into the guest room, more confused than she’d been before. She knew he owned his own company, but Alec had never said anything about his owning an entire building.

  The guest room was just as nice as the main room, with a plush queen bed, two end tables, a dresser, a club chair in the corner, and another vast view of the twinkling city. Moving into the guest bath, she flipped on the shower and peeled out of her filthy clothes, hoping she wasn’t leaving too much grime behind on his spotless floor. As she stepped under the warm spray, she closed her eyes and tipped her head back so the water could wash away her worries. But it didn’t. It only made her think about Hunt again. About this place. About the fact she knew virtually nothing about the man who’d saved her life today. And that meant it was absolutely possible she’d completely misread his intentions when she’d stumbled out of that rubble and forced that kiss that had rocked her world.

  By the time she finished her shower, her skin was pink and wrinkly, but her brain was still completely scrambled. Wrapping herself in a plush taupe towel, she moved into the cushy bedroom with its dark wood furnishings and looked down at the sweats and T-shirt Hunt had left for her on the bed.

  The sweats were nothing fancy, just the traditional heather-gray men’s variety she knew would be too big. But the T-shirt brought a smile to her face. Printed in white letters across the front of the blue shirt, it said, “Make Portland Weirder.”

  She fingered the soft cotton, knowing Julian would have died before he’d own a T-shirt like this. And he definitely wouldn’t have suggested she wear something so silly. But instinctively she knew Hunt had picked this of all his shirts for her because it would make her smile.

  She glanced toward the closed bedroom door, her belly warming at the simple act of kindness. Did she know him? She thought back over everything they’d shared today. She wanted to know him. She didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Knew she was second-guessing herself. Knew she was awful at relationships and completely out of practice with what was normal and healthy and rational when it came to the way men acted. And she could think of only one way to find out the truth.

  Dropping her towel on the bed, she pulled the T-shirt over her head and tugged the sweats up her legs. As she’d expected, both were too big, but she was able to roll the waistband down on the sweats several times to make them stay up. One look in the mirror told her today was not the day to worry about her looks. Her cheek was scraped, and a nice purple bruise was forming across her jaw. She didn’t remember getting hit in either spot, but things had happened so fast in the dark, she’d barely been paying attention.

  Every limb was stiff, and she was sore in places she didn’t know a person could be sore. She knew she’d likely find other bruises all over her body, but she didn’t want to waste time looking. After finger-combing her hair, she headed for the door, intent on facing Hunt and figuring out just what was going on between them once and for all.

  The enormous TV was tuned to a national station as she entered the living room, the volume on low, but she didn’t need to hear the anchor’s words to know what he was reporting. Images of the destruction in Portland flashed across the screen, followed by numerous filthy and bloodied bodies being pulled from the rubble.

  Her stomach pitched all over again, but she was unable to look away from the carnage. Slowly, she lowered herself to the edge of the ottoman across from the TV as she stared at the screen. Memories of being trapped in that pitch-black rubble bombarded her from every side and sent a shiver down her spine. But seeing it from the outside . . . A surreal feeling floated around her, knowing she’d been underneath all that broken concrete and twisted metal.

  “No, same number.” Hunt’s voice echoed from his open bedroom door, but Kelsey didn’t turn to look. “I already switched everything online to the new phone. Yeah, convenience of having a closet full of phones for just this kind of situation.” He hesitated, then said, “Yeah, I’ll talk to her when she finishes showering.”

  He’d moved into the living room and was staring at her. She could see him from the corner of her eye with a phone to his ear, but she still couldn’t turn to look at him. Didn’t even catch whatever else he said into his phone when he lowered his voice because all she could suddenly hear was the newscaster’s words echoing in her ears.

  “So far two are confirmed dead, but officials expect that number to rise as the night goes on.”

  Her stomach twisted tighter, and she swallowed the bile rising in her throat.

  Hunt leaned down to pick up the remote from the coffee table in front of her. “You shouldn’t be watching thi—”

  “No, don’t.” She lifted her hand to block him from pointing it at the screen. “Leave it on. Please.”

  He frowned. But she still didn’t look at him.

  “Authorities as of yet have no confirmed suspects in custody, and no known terrorist groups have taken responsibility for what most officials think was a bomb.”

  “You don’t need to listen to the spin on this,” Hunt muttered, still holding the remote. But he didn’t make any move to flip the TV off. And seconds later the ottoman cushion dipped as he sat beside her and looked toward the horror unfolding on the screen.

  They watched in silence for at least twenty minutes, and only when the station went to a commercial did Hunt finally flip the television off.

  Even with the screen black, Kelsey could still see the destruction. Could still hear the sirens. Could still feel the bitter cold deep in her bones in that darkness. Two confir
med dead . . . She blinked rapidly, trying like hell not to envision the blood that had been all over Hunt’s pants when she’d realized he was injured. It could have been him. It could have been them. She’d spent all this time worrying about kisses that meant nothing when people were hurt. Suffering. When they were dead.

  “Hey.” Hunt’s arm slid around her shoulder, tugging her against the warmth of his chest. “You have to focus on the positive, Kels, not all the bad shit they’re reporting. Every hour, rescue workers are pulling people alive from that rubble. They’ll find everyone. They’ll catch whoever did this, I promise. Terrorists want you to be scared. That’s the definition of terrorism. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t let them win.”

  She knew that but . . . Knowing and believing were two very different things.

  She closed her eyes and leaned against him, just for a moment. Let him be the strength she needed as he lightly ran his hand up and down her arm. Told herself to be tough but . . . really liked the way this felt. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually such a mess.”

  “I know you’re not. And you have nothing to apologize for.”

  “I don’t like being an emotional mess.”

  “I know that too,” he said with a smile in his voice. “But cut yourself some slack, okay? You had a really shitty day.”

  She wasn’t sure how he knew just what to say to make her feel better, but that one comment eased the tension inside her. “So you think this was a terrorist attack?”

  His fingers stilled against her biceps. “It could have been. That’s the logical assumption. That was Callahan on the phone, calling to give me an update. They found evidence that points to a bomb, not a ruptured gas main. Similar to bombs terrorists have set in Europe recently.”

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