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In Protective CustodyIn Protective Custody

To give his widowed sister the will to live, firefighter Max Caldwell promised he'd protect her baby from her criminally-connected in-laws. But caring for his newborn nephew is a painful reminder of the children he and his ex-wife couldn't have...because of his infertility. When his rescue of the newborn goes awry, he finds himself sharing guard duty with a woman whose courage and compassion steal his heart. Max will do anything to protect his nephew, but can he hope fate will give him a second chance at love?

 Laura Dalton knows what it means to grow up with no place to call home, moved from one foster home to the next. To protect her heart from further rejection and loss, she isolates herself and keeps relationships at arms' length. But the helpless newborn chips away at her defenses, and she willingly puts her life on hold to make sure Max's nephew doesn't suffer the same fate that she did growing up. When she finds herself falling in love with Max, what is she willing to risk to have a family of her own?


"IN PROTECTIVE CUSTODY delivers page-turning suspense, poignant emotions and characters you won't soon forget." --Bestselling author Linda Castillo

4 1/2 Stars!! "This is an emotionally packed, fast-paced read with a satisfying ending." -- Kari Thomas, RT BookClub

"Awesome!  This is just the beginning of a thrilling read that doesn't let up even in the end. Laura can't begin to try to trust Max even though she is drawn to him. There was just enough suspense and just enough romance in this terrific book! I highly recommend this one!" -- Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews


Max needed a plan.

In this case, his goal was simply to get rid of this woman and get out of town before the Rialtos came knocking.

"Don't do that!" The blonde scowled and reached for the baby.

"Don't do what?" Feelings of futility sharpened his tone. He hated the sense of helplessness and ignorance that had swamped him the minute he stepped out of the hospital.

"Ever heard of shaken baby syndrome?" She plucked his nephew from his hands and cuddled the infant to her chest. "You can't bounce him around like that. He's too little and that much shaking can damage his brain."

Hell! Brain damage?

He noted with satisfaction that his nephew didn't calm down for her either. With a flash of envy, he watched the baby nuzzle his face into her breast. Lucky kid.

She shot him an accusing look. "Didn't they tell you at the hospital not to jostle or shake him?"

Obviously, he was way out of his element, and if someone didn't help him, he feared he'd hurt Emily's son due to plain ignorance regarding babies.

He ran a hand down his face, sighing his fatigue. "No, they didn't tell me anything about brain damage or soy or where to send him to college. Yeah, I'm new at this. No, I don't know what I'm doing. But I'm trying to get it right, so would you cut me some slack?"

Her expression softened, but her eyes still blazed with conviction. "If we were discussing your new iPod, that would wash. But this is a baby. A helpless, dependent little human being."

"I'm well aware of that!" He raised his voice to be heard over the volume of his nephew's cries. "For God's sake, can you please quiet him down!"

The pressure that had been building inside him since he received the call about Emily's injuries reached a boiling point. He felt ready to explode. Taking a step back from the woman, he raked both hands through his hair and bit out an expletive that would singe dirt. "Damn it, I don't have time to debate with you! They could be here any minute!"

"Would you stop yelling?" she fussed. "You're not helping matters..."

A movement on his driveway distracted him from the rest of her tirade. Through his front window, he watched two large sedans pull up to his house. Alarm streaked through him, tensing every muscle. He was too late.

A tall, linebacker-sized man climbed from the driver's side of the first car. Reaching under his windbreaker, the linebacker pulled a gun from his shoulder holster and checked the chamber.

Max's mouth went dry. Keeping a close watch out the window, he grabbed the woman's arm and pulled her behind him.

"Hey! Wh-"

"Do exactly what I say. No questions. Got it?" The gravity of his tone obviously told her something was wrong.

"Who's out there?"

"Remember the nice guy making threats on the answering machine?"

"What!" He heard the concern in her voice. His own disconcertion echoed hers with the thundering of his pulse. Fortunately, he did his best work under pressure. The guys at the station called him the Ice Man for his ability to keep his cool amid the smoke, flames and chaos of a fire call.

The station alarm was sounding. Time to get to work.

"Give me back your keys." He thrust his hand at her.

"Why?"

"I said no questions. You're gonna have to trust me."

"Trust you?" she shrieked.

A loud pounding on the front door blew the whistle on their huddle. Time for action.

Max crouched low behind the kitchen counter, yanking her down with him.

"Quiet!" he whispered harshly. "Go out the back. Take the baby, and get in your car. Don't close your car door until I get there. I don't want the noise to alert them."

"Like this screaming baby won't?"

Max gritted his teeth. She was right. They'd certainly hear the baby.

"Are they cops?" she whispered, the hope in her voice unmistakable.

"Afraid not, sweetheart. These men are dangerous, and they mean business."

Her eyes opened wide with trepidation. "But the baby-"

"Stop talking and go!"

He saw the shudder that shook her, and guilt for placing her in danger wrenched inside him.

She scurried for the back door, clasping the baby close to her chest.

"Stay low!" he called.

Without waiting to make sure she'd followed his orders, Max hustled, crouched low, toward his gun cabinet. Like most native Louisiana men, he'd been raised on hunting. He'd learned to fire a gun before he had his driver's license. Now he was the hunted, and he needed his rifles for self-defense.

The men on his porch must have seen him through the tall, narrow window by the door. He heard a shout from one of the goons informing the others of his position.

"Caldwell, open up! That baby belongs to us!"

Anthony Rialto. So, the patriarch of the drug clan had made a personal appearance.

Max searched the top drawer of the gun cabinet for the key to unlock the display case. Moving with deft, sure speed, he grabbed out his best hunting rifle. Next he removed the 9mm Glock he kept for home protection and shoved it in the waistband of his jeans.

His front door rattled and shook as Rialto's men tried to break it down. Gambling precious time, Max crawled across his living room floor to the front window and raised the rifle. With one swift motion, he broke a hole in the glass and aimed at the tires of the lead car.

His fire drew an answering assault from Rialto's men. The rest of the front window shattered under the barrage of bullets. Glass littered the carpet around him. The jagged shards bit his hands as he scrambled away from the window, leaving a trail of blood. He'd reached his kitchen when the front door burst open.

Bullets whizzed over his head and peppered his cabinets. Over the cracking gunfire, he heard the woman scream. His heart leaped to his throat.

Damning the consequences, he rose to his full height to beat a quicker retreat. A sharp sting pinched his shoulder telling him he'd been hit.

Spinning, as he taught the kids on his Pee Wee team to dodge a tackle, he ran for the backyard. When he plowed through the back door, he found Anthony Rialto stalking the blond woman. Rialto backed her away from her car with a gun aimed at her head. She held the baby clutched to her chest in a protective grasp that won Max's admiration. She could easily have handed the baby over to Rialto to save her own skin. The woman had guts.

In three long strides, Max covered the distance between him and Emily's father-in-law. He tackled the man from behind, knocking him to the ground. Rialto fired, sending the bullet into an oak tree at the line of the woods.

"Get in the car!" Max yelled.

The blonde jumped to follow his order.

The gunshot and shouts brought reinforcements around the side of the house. Max landed a hard blow to Anthony's temple with his elbow. The abrupt movement caused pain to streak like lightning through his shoulder and arm.

He left the older man clutching his head and staggering.

Shifting his focus to the men at the side of his house, Max held the thugs at bay with a couple of blasts from his rifle. As soon as the woman reached her car, Max made a dash for the driver's door. His feet slipped as he scrambled through the cypress needles littering his yard.

Bullets pocked the side of the Accord. As he climbed in the Honda, he heard Rialto shouting.

"Damn it, hold your fire! My grandson's in that car! What if you hit the gas tank?"

Max wasted no time cranking the engine and shifting into Reverse. Rialto's men tried to stop the escaping car with their bodies, but Max refused to slow down for any reason. The men jumped out of his path at the last second. When the thugs tried shooting at the Honda's tires, Max swerved left then right, making their target more difficult to hit.

"I said hold your fire!" Rialto screamed. "Follow them!"

Max peeled across his front yard, around the sedans blocking his driveway. He'd managed to take out the front tire of the lead car, he noticed as they sped past. Good. That meant only one car could pursue them.

He stole a glance at the woman as he wheeled onto the narrow, two-lane road. Tears streaked her pale face, and a mask of sheer terror molded her delicate features.

His gut knotted as he mashed the accelerator and sped away from the nightmare scene. "Did he hurt you?"

She didn't respond.

"Did he hurt you?" he barked.

She jumped. "No."

Max nodded. "Hang on. We're taking the short cut."

Squeezing her eyes shut, she hugged the baby closer and slumped down in the seat.

Bouncing across the ditch at the side of the road, he headed down a narrow dirt road. "ATV trail. Kids in the area use it to go four-wheeling."

She didn't acknowledge his explanation, and he worried about her slipping into shock. "Stay with me, darlin'. The worst is over. We're gonna be okay now."

Skeptical turquoise eyes rose to meet his glance. Her look asked, Why should I believe you?

Good question. He'd gotten her involved in this mess, lied to her, nearly gotten her killed. He knew he didn't deserve her faith. But he also knew he'd move mountains to see that she got out of this disaster safe and sound.

One more person he couldn't let down.

The stakes in this fiasco kept growing. But he'd never been one to let an obstacle keep him from accomplishing a goal. Results were what mattered. He lived by that mantra as a firefighter and taught it to the kids on his football team. No excuses and no quitters.

Especially since, in this game, they were playing for their lives.
 

June 2006
Silhouette Intimate Moments #1422
ISBN 0-373-27492-0

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Winner of the RWA Golden Heart for Romantic Suspense!

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.  Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited.  All rights reserved.  and are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.

 

 

 

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