He slowed down, let her pass, and got behind her. She thought he might ram her from behind and braced herself. The wind gusts were howling and making it difficult for her to keep the car steady. He stopped honking and slowed even more.
Peyton reached into her console to get her phone to call for help. How long would it take for someone to find her? If she were close to Minneapolis, there would be more cars on the highway, even in horrible conditions like these.
She glanced in her rearview mirror. No sign of him. Had he given up? His headlights were no longer visible. She laid the phone back down. She needed to concentrate and keep both hands on the wheel. The road curved sharply to the east up ahead. She saw the warning sign and remembered the curve. It was closer to Dalton than to Minneapolis. What did she expect? Going forty miles per hour, it would take forever to get to civilization. She was lamenting that fact when she saw headlights again behind her, getting closer and closer. He hadn’t given up after all.
The wind was howling again. She heard a noise that sounded like metal hitting metal. The car skidded. Had he hit her?
She was so angry she wanted to scream. And then she did. Certain he was going to hit her again as she was going into the curve, she hit the brakes. Before she could do anything about it, she was spinning out of control and flying toward his car head on. To get out of her path, he swerved, lost control, and flew through a barbed-wire fence into the field beyond.
God was merciful to her again. She didn’t know how it happened, but she stopped on the right side of the road. She pulled over and, shaking from head to toe, rolled down the window. She could see the wheels on the pickup truck spinning and hear his motor gunning. He was good and stuck and wasn’t going anywhere. Was he hurt? She had her answer a second later. She watched him climb out of the truck and pound his fist on the hood. She was too far away to see his face. His vehicle had landed in a gigantic pillow of snow. She’d let him call for a tow.
Resisting the urge to honk and wave, she pulled onto the highway again and never looked back.
Peyton was back at square one.
Now that she was in Texas again, she had time to think. She knew she would have to begin looking for another job right away, but she also would have to decide what she was going to do about Drew and Eileen. She couldn’t just go about her business and forget them. She had been lucky to get away from them and their lackey, Parsons, without any harm, but if she didn’t do something, the next person might not be so fortunate. She realized she didn’t have enough evidence to go to the police; however, she did believe she had enough to stop the Albertsons from endangering someone else.
What she needed was legal advice, but that required money. Attorneys wanted to be paid for their services, and she was flat broke. The trip to Dalton had been expensive and had eaten up all of her reserves.
She was also worried about Mimi. Her friend was in a no-win situation, trapped in a job she hated, working for a boss she abhorred. She was the only person at the company Peyton had sent the recording to, so that immediately put her in danger. Peyton knew what Drew was capable of and decided to check on her.
She was relieved when she heard Mimi’s voice on the phone.
“Are you all right?” Peyton asked. “I was worried that Drew might do something to you after he found out that you had the recording.”
“I’m fine,” Mimi assured her. “Drew didn’t say another word to me about it. I think he was afraid of what I might do with the information. In fact, Drew hasn’t talked to anyone. The day after you left, he and Eileen dragged her father off to Europe, obviously shielding him from the bad news. They talked him into taking his beloved wife’s ashes to Naples, the city she so loved because they were married there. I heard from Bridget—who, by the way, thinks it is all so touching and romantic—that they plan to take Randolph to all the places in Europe he and his wife had visited. God only knows when they’ll be back. I imagine the longer they go without hearing from the legal department, the more time Eileen will have to get on her father’s good side again, and she’ll be able to discredit you if he ever hears the recording.”
According to Mimi, the magazine was running just fine without them. It was a shame, she said, that Erik Swift wasn’t ready to take over the helm. “He’s the only normal one in the whole bunch,” she insisted. “Have you decided yet what you’re going to do with the recording?”
“Not yet,” Peyton answered. “I need some legal advice.”
“Whatever you do, be careful,” Mimi warned.
“I will,” Peyton promised.
Finn MacBain was standing outside the entrance to Saint Michael’s Catholic Church waiting for his brothers to arrive. He walked to the side of the building so that he wouldn’t have to greet all the guests pouring into the church. More than three hundred people had been invited. The bride’s father was a four-star general; the groom was an officer in the Navy JAG Corps; and the majority of guests were military.
Time was slipping away and Tristan was going to miss his own wedding if he didn’t get moving. Finn adjusted the collar of his tux and rebuttoned his jacket to make sure his gun and badge were hidden from view. He hadn’t intended to wear his weapon to his brother’s wedding, but it wasn’t his choice. Although the general had his own security detail, Finn’s superior in the FBI, Special Agent Corben Henderson, suggested rather strongly that Finn carry his weapon. Henderson felt there should be an FBI presence just in case of trouble, which was why Finn’s new partner, Ronan Conrad, was also attending and was also armed. Henderson claimed he didn’t care how many military officers were there to protect the general, it would be up to the FBI to save the day.
Finn liked being prepared for just about anything, and he had been trained to be cautious to a fault. Though he was relaxed, he still watched every man and woman who got out of a car and walked up the brick path. He was always looking for trouble. He’d learned to be watchful when he started at the Bureau, and he’d been an agent long enough now that the habit had become second nature to him.
Ronan had volunteered to go to the MacBain house to find out what was taking so long. The family home was only five blocks from the church, and it wouldn’t take him any time at all to get there.
Finn’s cell phone rang.
“We have a little problem,” Ronan began.
“What is it?”
“He’s doing the math.” Ronan had a thick Boston accent, but Finn heard the amusement in his tone.
“Doing the math. That’s what he keeps telling Beck and me. Counting the reasons he isn’t good enough for her. He’s not being real rational,” he added in a whisper.
Finn thought that, if anyone could get through to Tristan, his twin brother could. “What’s Beck doing?”
“Eating a sub and watching Tristan pace. He looks like he’s gonna pass out. No color at all in his face.”
“Beck or Tristan?”
“Tristan,” he answered, clearly exasperated. “The groom, for God’s sake. Why would Beck pass out?”
The conversation was getting away from him. “The wedding’s supposed to start in twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, I know,” Ronan said. “But he’s still doing the math.”
“That’s about right.”
“Put him on the phone.”
Tristan must have paced his way over to Ronan because he answered a scant second later.
“Finn, I’m just not sure I’m right for her. She deserves—”
“Tristan,” he interrupted. “Does Brooke love you?”
“Yes, she does, but—”
“Do you love her?”
“Of course I do. It’s just that—”
“Do you trust her?”
“What kind of question is that? Yes, I trust her . . . with my life . . . but I—”
“Put Ronan back on the phone.”
“Yes?” Ronan said.
“You’re gonna have to knock him out and toss him in the car. Clip his jaw . . . you know how . . . but stay away from his nose. You don’t want to get blood all over his dress whites. And don’t let him see it coming. He’s got a mean right hook.”
Ronan wasn’t sure if Finn was serious or not. “You really want me to slug him?” he asked in a whisper.
“Do you know how many people are waiting in the church, including a frickin’ four-star general? Do whatever it takes to get him here, and tell Beck to put the damn sandwich down and help you.”
Finn ended the call and put the phone back in his pocket. He began to laugh. Tristan was doing the math. How like his brother with his overly analytical mind. If left on his own, he’d figure it all out, but it would probably take him a couple of days to come around to the realization that he was good enough for his bride. The guests weren’t going to wait that long, though.
Finn was sure that Beck, with his warped sense of humor, probably helped get Tristan all worked up. The twins were so much alike and yet so different. Beck was the action guy, and Tristan was the thinker. Like his brother, Beck was in the Navy, but while Tristan had chosen to enlist in the JAG Corps after attending law school, Beck had taken the more direct route through Annapolis and was now with the SEALs. Finn knew that Beck had seen terrible things while on active duty, and he was glad that he had been able to retain his sense of humor. He hadn’t become nearly as jaded or as cynical as Finn.
Less than five minutes later, with plenty of time to spare, the groom arrived. He was rubbing his jaw and frowning at Ronan as he stepped out of the car. Then he saw Finn and, with revenge in his eyes, started toward him, but Beck grabbed his arm and pulled him into the sacristy entrance.
Ronan walked up the hill from the parking lot to where Finn waited.
“You really hit him?” Finn asked.
“Yes, I hit him. That’s what you told me to do.”
“Yeah, I did, but I didn’t think you’d do it.”
While Finn was having a good laugh, Ronan explained, “Tristan had gone beyond panic, and he wasn’t making a lot of sense. Beck kept trying to reason with him, but it wasn’t helping. He was just getting him more worked up.”
“So you coldcocked him?”
“No,” he said. “I swear I hit him hard, and he should have gone right down. Beck was behind him, and I figured he’d catch him. Tristan took the blow and just . . . flinched. Yeah, he flinched,” he said, nodding. “Then he looked at me like he thought I’d lost my mind. I know how to put someone down,” he added. “You’ve seen me do it, right?” He sounded bewildered.
Finn nodded. “Yes, I’ve seen you.” He remembered the crazed football player high on PCP. He would have ripped Finn from limb to limb if Ronan hadn’t come up behind him and knocked him out. He’d saved Finn’s ass that day. A couple of days later, Finn returned the favor.
“Maybe your heart wasn’t in it. Maybe you really didn’t want to knock Tristan out.”
“So how did you get him here?”
“I must have jarred something loose in his head when I hit him because all of a sudden he didn’t want to do any more math. He just wanted to get to the church to punch you. Oh, wait . . . did I mention I blamed it all on you?”
“Hey, you got him here. That’s all that counts.”
“I think I’ll go on inside,” Ronan said. “I found a great spot where I can watch both the entrance and the side door during the wedding. Some of the general’s soldiers are there now. I’ll push a couple of them out of my way and take over. I know we don’t expect trouble, but better to be prepared. I’ll see you after.”
Finn wasn’t ready to go inside yet. Beck would come and get him when it was time. It was warm today. The sun was shining, and it was at least seventy degrees, he guessed, maybe seventy-five. He and Ronan had spent a week working in Chicago where it had been around ten degrees every single day with crazy below-zero wind chills. The heat felt good on his face. He liked being outside, cold or hot, and he liked being home, too. It had been such a long time.
His cell phone rang, reminding him that he needed to turn it off before the ceremony. He saw who was calling and felt a wave of exhaustion. On-again off-again Danielle was trying to reconnect with him. He wasn’t about to get into that drama. He’d had enough, and he simply didn’t have the stamina for any more of her games. He declined the call and turned off the phone. He should go in, he decided, and was about to do just that when he saw her. The vision in blue. He watched her cross the parking lot and start up the walkway, her high heels clicking against the brick. He noticed her body first, of course. It was damn near perfect. The short, fitted dress showed off her curves and her long, gorgeous legs. Her stride was every bit as sexy as her body. The way she moved was sensual and seductive. She was absolutely beautiful. Her long dark hair, the color of midnight, fell in soft curls just below her slender shoulders.
She must have felt him watching her, for she suddenly turned and looked up the hill. When she saw him, she stepped off the path and started walking toward him. He wanted to swallow, but he couldn’t seem to remember how. He had never reacted to any woman this fiercely, this quickly. What had happened to his self-control? He excused his bizarre behavior by reasoning that she was no ordinary woman. He didn’t want to stare, but the closer she came, the better she looked. Beneath her thick dark eyelashes were the most beautiful, crystalline blue eyes he had ever seen, and her rosy lips were full and inviting.
She stepped directly in front of him and gave him a heart-stopping smile. The dimple in her cheek was sexy as hell. So was her scent, which was light and feminine.
Her eyes sparkled with laughter when she stretched up, kissed him on his cheek, and said, “Hello, Hotshot.”
He was speechless. Peyton Lockhart? He couldn’t believe it. She was all grown-up. She had gone from a skinny little girl to this beautiful woman with a devastating smile. When did this happen? The transformation seemed to have taken place overnight, but then Finn realized he hadn’t been around while she was growing up. He’d gone to California to do his undergraduate work at Stanford and had stayed there for law school. During that time his parents had downsized to a smaller, more energy-efficient home about a mile from their old house in Brentwood. Whenever Finn was home on break, he never had enough time to go back to the old neighborhood.