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Tall Dark DefenderTall Dark Defender

Following her divorce from her abusive husband, Annie Compton is struggling to make ends meet as a waitress at a diner. When she is attacked late one night while making a mysterious delivery for her boss, Jonah Devereaux comes to her rescue. Ex-cop Jonah has been working undercover to bust a gambling ring and money laundering operation for months, and Annie has stumbled unwittingly into the thugs line of fire. For Annie's safety, Jonah, a sparrer and hand-to-hand combat expert, offers to teach her self-defense, but as the stakes rise, he realizes the young mother needs his full-time protection. Jonah, with his fighting skills, is the last person Annie wants in her post-abuse life. But Jonah's gentle ways and warm touch make battling her attraction to her defender the most difficult fight of all.   


  

"This book was very enjoyable. While it could have been easy for it to become another book where the man protecting woman premise becomes predictable, this one was different.  This was an enjoyable, quick read which I highly recommend." -- Wendy, Once Upon a Romance

"Cornelison handles a tough subject in a sensitive manner and creates a touching story as two damaged souls find each other and feel fortunate to be able to make a fresh start." -- Sandra Garcia-Myers, RT Book Club


Chapter One

The lights weren't supposed to be off.

Annie Compton fumbled in the pre-dawn darkness to jab her key in the lock at Pop's Diner. Her boss, Peter Hardin, was supposed to have left the outside light on to deter burglars and to illuminate the front door for the employee who opened the diner in the morning. Today, Annie was said employee with the unenviable responsibility of showing up at five a.m.

She grumbled under her breath as she groped on the shadowed door to locate the lock's slot. The door moved unexpectedly, just a fraction of an inch, but enough to catch Annie's attention. A bolted door shouldn't have wiggled that much.

Annie pulled the handle, and the heavy glass door swung open. Her pulse spiked.

The diner had been unlocked all night. So... turning on the front light wasn't all her boss had neglected when he closed the restaurant last night.

Gritting her teeth, she entered the diner and flipped on the overhead lights. The cold bluish-white glow of the florescent bulbs flooded the dining room.

"Hello? Mr. Hardin?" She scanned the empty restaurant cautiously. Listened. Waited. "Is anyone here?"

When she heard nothing, saw no one, she released the breath she held and crossed the floor. Annie stashed her purse behind the lunch counter, wishing she could call grouchy Mr. Hardin on the carpet for his gaffs. Considering her boss had only picky criticism for her waitressing skills, she figured turnabout was fair play.

She huffed a humorless laugh as she plucked out a coffee filter and dropped it in the brewing basket. The man had left the diner unlocked, for crying out loud! Compared to exposing the restaurant to theft, her forgetting to refill the salt shakers was nothing.

Problem was, neglected the salt shakers wasn't her worst mistake. Her gut clenching, she poured a carafe of water into the coffee maker and bit her bottom lip. She'd made her most careless error just a few nights before– a screwup that Hardin claimed had cost him two hundred thousand dollars.

Annie's hands shook as she measured out the coffee grinds. She could never make up for losing Mr. Hardin so much money. She was lucky she still had her job, lucky he hadn't torn into her the way Walt would have.

Thoughts of her abusive ex-husband sent a shiver down her back. She chafed the goose bumps on her arms and squared her shoulders.  Never again.

If she had to work this dead end waitressing job the rest of her life, barely making ends meet for her and her two young children, the price was worth her freedom from her abusive marriage. No man would ever hurt her or her children again.

Annie jabbed the power switch, and with a hiss and the waft of rich aroma, the morning java began dripping into the pot.

A glance around the lunch counter revealed numerous other closing procedures that had been left unattended last night. The tables hadn't been wiped. The napkins hadn't been restocked. A pile of dirty dishes filled the tub behind the counter waiting to be washed. She pressed her lips in a taut line of irritation. Perhaps this was part of her boss's plan to punish her for her colossal and costly mistake three nights earlier. Perhaps she deserved as much.

Two hundred thousand dollars. Acid bit her gut. How did she ever make up for that mistake?

Sighing her resignation, she took a clean rag from the cabinet and headed to the kitchen for a bucket of soapy water to start cleaning tables.

She noticed the foul odor as soon as she stepped through the swinging door from the dining room.

Wrinkling her nose, she flipped the lights on and checked for some food item that might have been left out to spoil. But not even rotten milk smelled this bad.

Coupled with the unlocked front door, the putrid scent gave her pause. Too many things seemed off-kilter at the diner this morning.

A ripple of ill-ease shimmied through her. Annie hesitated by the main grill, which still sported in last night's grease.

"Mr. Hardin, are you there?"  She heard the quiver of fear in her tone and pressed a hand to her swirling stomach. "Hello?"

She took a few baby steps forward, scanning the dirty kitchen.

Rounded the industrial-sized freezer, she crept into the back hall.

On the floor, a pair of feet jutted through the open door to the manager's office.

Annie gasped. Dear heavens! Had he fallen? Had a heart attack?

"Mr. Hardin!" she cried, rushing forward.

When she reached the office door, Annie drew up short. Her breath froze in her lungs. Bile surged to her throat. Black spots danced at the edge of her vision.

Peter Hardin lay in a puddle of blood, his eyes fixed in a blank sightless stare. Two bullet holes pocked his chest and a third marred his forehead.

Annie stumbled backward, horror clogging her throat.

Numb, shaking, light-headed, she edged away from her grisly discovery.

Shock and denial finally yielded to terror.

A scream wrenched from her throat and echoed in the empty kitchen.

Her boss was dead. Murdered.

And though she hadn't pulled the trigger, Annie was certain Hardin's assassination was her fault.

June 2009
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
ISBN 978-0-373-27636-3

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