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She perched a hand on her hip. “Excuse me, but Nola’s already awake and very much pissed off over being excluded.”

Chapter 15

Nola hobbled on her heel toward the cluster of males. She hated how her aching foot put her at a disadvantage. She wanted to stride, act confident, be in control, but doggone it, the scorpion sting hurt.

Her brain stumbled over the notion that Rick must feel this way all the time—at a disadvantage as he limped through life, robbed of the physical edge he’d worked so hard to achieve in his chosen profession.

“I’m very curious about these ‘plans’ of yours.” Nola swatted Rick on the back of the shoulder. “And very curious about why you felt the need to keep this a secret from me.”

What was up with their testosterone dance? These three flyboys were supposed to be on her side.

“Thanks for the big brother act, guys, but it’s not needed. I’m feeling much better now.” A bit of an overstatement, but at least she was on her feet again. “Rick’s not here to do anything but scare off the bogeyman.”

Crusty hooked an arm around her shoulders. “Doesn’t he know you’re quite capable of fighting bogeymen on your own?”

Rick slid his arm around her shoulders and inched her away from the man. “Yes, he does, but there’s strength in numbers.”

His words took her by surprise, this different style of thinking from Rick than she’d heard since they reconnected that week. Was he starting to see possibilities for himself after recovery? A way back to really living again? Something wonderful to consider.

Nola elbowed him in the side. “You’re not going to ditch me in the hotel room while you ‘boys’ make your plans.”

His three cohorts pretended a sudden interest in a televised church service on the waiting room TV.

Rick tucked her closer. “You almost died last night. If you’d been alone, you very well could have died before help arrived and transported you to the hospital.”

She heard the concern in his voice and it touched her heart in places that had been cold for far too long. Except she couldn’t let him take over her life. She could accept his help—all of their help—but she had to be a part of the process. “I’m a lot stronger than I look, and this is my life we’re talking about. Maybe I don’t want you putting your life in danger for me any longer.”

“Too bad.”

She stepped away from his protective hold. “I’m not backing down.”

“Well, neither am I.” Rick’s smile faded.

Bronco grinned and slung an arm over Mako’s and Crusty’s shoulders. “Ah man, this is gonna get good. I wish they served popcorn with the show.”

Nola silenced them with her best glare, then continued. “I appreciate the help, but here’s how I predict this is going to shake down. Since Lauren’s no longer in the picture here, now that she’s on the plane to her mother’s, we’re going back to my place.”

Rick started to step forward, paused, sighed. Put his hands on his h*ps and hung his head. “Damn it, you have to realize this bastard is ready to make his move. The police aren’t going to offer any more protection than before.”

“I realize that.” And of course it scared her. Only a fool wouldn’t be frightened. “But I believe this maniac will find me no matter where I go. Why prolong the torture of waiting and wondering?”

Rick put both his hands on her arms and pulled her to his chest. “To give the cops more time to figure out who this guy is. You’re safer at a hotel. We’re going to arm ourselves and be ready. It’s all we can do.”

His chest felt so good and broad and a perfect resting place after weeks of being on her own facing this fear. Her foot hurt. Her heart hurt. But she wouldn’t be shoved aside.

She pushed back. “You’re not cutting me out, Rick.”

His jaw jutted. “You’re a wounded trooper.”

“Damn it, I’m wounded, not incapacitated. Don’t you remember how it feels not to be able to get into the action? Don’t do this to me. If we’re back at my house, at least we have the familiarity of the terrain on our side and you gain the advantage of having an extra warrior. Me.”

She stared him down and she could see that he would agree, but only because she’d given him no choice.

“Okay,” Rick said. “You can have a role—within reason. But one sign of wavering on your feet and I’m tossing your butt in bed.”

Her heart throbbed even more than her wounded foot—and that was pretty damn bad. What kind of future would she have with this man if he always insisted on pushing her aside? Would he be able to open up to his daughter? And what if the day came when the adoption issue arose…

Ohmigod, she was thinking marriage and he wasn’t even able to allow her anything more than a begrudging role because she’d left him no choice. Still something about this man called to her. His inner strength, a depth of character that Peter hadn’t come close to possessing. It had nothing to do with muscles and everything to do with Rick’s great big heart. He simply couldn’t hide behind that gruff exterior.

None of which she could afford to think about now. They had plans to make, her lover and her friends who were putting their lives on the line for her. They needed to come up with a strategy to trap her stalker before he could make his move. And after they made their plan?

They would wait.

Rick had been prepared for the bastard to strike fast, but he hadn’t expected the guy would make his move on the first night Nola got out of the hospital. Her home phone rang with an “unknown number.” His gut told him right away it wasn’t a telemarketer.

Their guy was on the move.

He nodded for her to pick up while he made quick calls on the cell phone to their buddies out in the woods to alert them.

“Hello,” Nola answered, then shook her head at him to signify…it wasn’t their guy after all? Damn. “Yes, this is Nola Seabrook. Rick’s right here.”

She passed him the phone and before it even reached his ear he could hear Lindsay’s hysterical voice sobbing on the other end. Holy crap. He forced the knot in his throat down with a heavy swallow.

“Lindsay, what’s wrong?”

“Lauren,” she gasped between sobs, “didn’t get off the plane. They said she never got on in Atlanta. That means she’s been missing for over six hours with the layover, Rick. Oh my God, where is our baby?”

The bottom dropped out of his gut, his whole world sinking, sliding out from under him faster than the ground had given way beneath his feet the day his legs had gone to hell.

He knew. Nola’s stalker had made his move after all. He had outthought them in a way they should have foreseen. Rick never should have let Lauren fly alone. Damn it. Why hadn’t the attendants stayed with her as they were supposed to? He’d paid the extra fee to have her watched over and hand escorted to her next flight.

All a moot point now.

“We’ll find her,” he insisted to Lindsay, even as he feared all sorts of nightmares.

Nola’s eyes met his while he continued to talk, her hand closing over his with comfort.

“She could be anywhere.” Lindsay’s thoughts echoed his own, the first time they’d agreed on anything in years.

“I realize that. But is there anything else you can tell me?”

“No,” she wailed. “The police are investigating. The cops here will be contacting the authorities there and I didn’t want you to be surprised by that visit.”

“Thank you.” And please, Lord, they still wouldn’t have a visit from cops with far worse news. He refused to accept that could happen.

Nola swayed on her feet. Rick reached for her but she collapsed into a chair. Already he could see the guilt building to irrational proportions in her eyes.

“Lindsay, is Ben with you?”

“Of course.”

“Okay. Hang tough and I’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

“Us, too.”

They disconnected. He met Nola’s gaze and held, injecting as much steadiness as he could under the circumstances. “It’s not your fault.”

“We don’t have time to waste discussing this. Let’s get the search moving.”

Odd how she knew as well as he did Lauren wouldn’t be in Atlanta long. The bastard who had been stalking Nola would bring Lauren back here to taunt them.

He reached for his cell phone again to recall Bronco, Crusty and Mako from their posts in the woods and up the road.

Within seconds they were in Nola’s living room, too, pacing, while Rick hung up from calling the police. He dropped into a chair, his brain racing.

Crusty plowed his hand through his mess of hair. “I’ll head over to check in with the OSI. We’ve already got things rolling with David Reis so here’s a good place to start. He got a lead on the Internet crimes and traced the server to a local hotel. We’ll see if there’s more to follow up on that.”

Bronco’s eyes lit with a parental concern, obviously a father himself. “Mako and I will make an end run to the airport. It’s a long shot that we can catch him there, but you never know.”

Rick clenched his cell phone. “We’ll stay here and wait for the police. I don’t want to leave in case she shows up here again. Let’s hope she’s just run off.”

As her squadron comrades drove out onto the street, Nola slid her arm around Rick’s waist in comfort. She sat on the arm of the chair beside him. “I am so sorry. I can only imagine what kind of hell you’re going through right now.”

Hell didn’t even come close to describing this. Hoping at best Lauren was alone on the run. Fearing at the worst she was in the hands of a maniac who blew up cars and planted scorpions. He lost track of how long they sat there letting everything sink in, but they both needed a moment to gather their thoughts before…doing what?

“Rick! The window.” She nudged him. “Your gun. Get your gun.”

He looked up from the rug and saw…hell come to life in front of his eyes. An older man stood in the middle of her front yard, framed by the curtains—

Holding a gun to Lauren’s head.

Chapter 16

Nola blinked, hard. And still the unbelievable nightmare stayed in front of her eyes.

The man outside the window was supposed to be long dead, smothered in a collapsed tunnel in South America. But her vision didn’t lie. Ramon Chavez, the drug lord who’d taken her hostage a year ago, had somehow survived and now had a gun to Lauren’s head.

The teen appeared dazed, as if she’d been drugged with a mild sedative. Apparently the bastard wasn’t underestimating women this time. Suddenly the scorpion sting made sense, too. He’d taken time to import the deadly critters from his part of the world, a message she hadn’t understood, damn it.

Guilt sliced deeper than any poisonous sting. How could she have brought this hell to Rick’s daughter? Every tear streak down the girl’s face made Nola’s heart squeeze tighter. And a coat. The child needed a coat to cover her in those little tank tops she favored.

What a silly thought as the teen shivered in fear with a gun pressed to her head, but the maternal instinct flowered to life so fiercely, it was all Nola could do to keep from launching across the lawn to rip out Chavez’s throat.

Nola couldn’t imagine why in hell the man would come here for her, but then he hadn’t been sane in those days she’d spent with him before. Time for musing would come later. Only Lauren counted now.

“Rick,” she whispered under her breath, trying not to move her mouth in case it upset the man outside. Slowly, she moved toward the door with him. “His name is Ramon Chavez. It’s the South American drug lord who held me captive a year ago. We all thought he died. He’s wily and he’s strong. Don’t underestimate him because of his age.”