Eye of a Hunter

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The Seekers, Book 3
Harlequin Intrigue #866
August 2005
ISBN: 0-373-22866-X

PROTECTING HER WAS HIS JOB

In the click of a shutter, heiress Abrielle Holbrook’s life was changed forever when she captured her father’s murder on film. But trying to stay alive long enough to testify against his ruthless partner only brought her face-to-face with the past.

LOVING HER WAS HIS LIFE’S MISSION

Special agent Gray Reed—Abbie’s childhood pal from Echo Falls—looked as brave and handsome as she remembered. Except for the knowing look in his eyes that betrayed what they once shared. Now, with an assassin licking at their heels, dodging bullets almost seemed safer than facing the feelings stirred up by seeing each other again….

EXCERPT

Falconer aimed the remote at the screen and a face popped onto it.  “We’ve been tasked with finding Abrielle Holbrook, daughter of Elliot Holbrook of Holbrook Mills in Echo Falls, Mass.”

Everything in Gray stilled.  Though the mirrored lenses of his glasses shielded his eyes from everyone, the gray tint was light enough for him to see every detail clearly.  Abbie’s picture filled the screen, and the past he’d worked so hard to leave behind slapped him between the eyes.  There in front of him was the image of everything he’d ever wanted.  Everything he’d been told he could never have.

Abrielle Helena Holbrook.  A.H.H.  Not just her initials but also the sound people usually made when they saw her.

Abbie was golden—from her honey hair to her honey eyes to her achingly sweet personality.  You wanted to hate her for all she had, but you simply couldn’t.  He had never met a single person who didn’t like her.  Seeing her face on the screen knocked him off center.  She was the absolute last person he’d have thought would ever need WITSEC.  How could the girl every guy had been in love with and every girl wanted as a friend now be running for her life—not only from the scum who’d forced her into WITSEC but from the program itself?  The girl was allergic to conflict.

“Isn’t Holbrook Mills involved with the Steeltex project?” Skyralov asked.

“They are,” Falconer said.

Harper frowned so deeply, his eyebrows met in the center of his forehead.  “What’s Steeltex?”

Falconer clicked the remote, and a picture of a soldier dressed in camouflage came onto the screen.  In the next slide, only a mirage-like shimmer distinguished the soldier from the brick wall behind him.  “It’s a new fabric the U.S. Army is working on.  It transmits visual information about color, light and patterns through the fiber to make whoever wears it nearly invisible against any background.  Microdots are woven in to locate a downed soldier.  The latest model contains conductive fibers in the chest area that can monitor vital functions of an injured soldier.  This information can be relayed by wireless signal to a remote location such as a field hospital.”

The V between Falconer’s eyes deepened.  “That project and the safety of our troops out in the field are compromised if Abrielle Holbrook isn’t found in time to testify at her father’s murder trial.  Because of the Steeltex project, the trial’s high threat.”

“Her father was murdered?”  Gray’s nerves were running a marathon, but he spoke as casually as if he were relaxing beachside.

Falconer clicked the next slide forward, flashing a picture of Elliot Holbrook on the screen.  Gray-haired, blue-eyed, fair and generous.  The man had kept the small mill town of Echo Falls alive when everyone else had given it up for dead.  No one was good enough for his daughter.  But, then, when you had a daughter like Abbie, how could they?

The next photo was of a younger man who’d tried his best to present a Pierce Brosnan 007 image, but couldn’t quite cut the right attitude.  He wore the better-than-you sneer of the typical bully.  “Elliot Holbrook was murdered by his business partner, Raphael Vanderveer.”

The next slide turned Gray’s stomach.  In color that was so vivid it almost looked fake, the James Bond wannabe held a pistol at Holbrook’s head.  Smoke puffed out of the muzzle.  Red mist sprayed out from Holbrook’s head.  Gray recognized the place—Holbrook’s office in the back of the mansion on the hill.

Mercer’s voice floated from the shadows of the wall.  “Where’d that photo come from?”

“The subject took it.”

Abbie had photographed her own father’s murder?  The fast-food egg bagel sandwich he’d wolfed down on his way here turned to brick.  He hoped to heaven someone was there for her.  She adored her father.  Her whole world revolved around pleasing him.  Losing him, witnessing his murder, would’ve torn her apart.

“Over the last month,” Falconer said, “information on her whereabouts was compromised three times.  Three deputies are dead.  After the last attack she disappeared and hasn’t been seen since.  The Service is worried about her safety.”

Six slides clipped by, showing a photo of each of the three men as it appeared on their badges and a crime-scene photo of each of their corpses.  Gray’s skin grew cold.  His mind couldn’t wrap itself around Abbie having to witness such violence.  That was his world, not hers.  Hers was all softness and light.  She could capture magic with her camera, render a child’s face into a work of art, a family portrait into an intimate revelation of cohesion.  The photograph she’d taken of him and his sister at Brynna’s sixteenth birthday party was the only thing he’d taken with him when he’d left Echo Falls.  Had she shut down like she had when her mother died?  Without her tight-knit group of friends who would have shaken her out of her mental fog?  Where had she run?

“Here’s our subject’s profile.”  Dry statistics that couldn’t even begin to describe the life that buzzed around Abbie glared at him from the screen.

Skyralov sipped green tea.  “What was her last location?”

Kingsley popped a suspender.  “Ed Kushner was killed in Providence, Rhode Island.  After that, Inspector Auclair took her to a small motel outside of Hartford, Connecticut.  She escaped through a bathroom window.”  Pictures of the motel, the window and the surroundings clicked across the screen.  A lone imprint of a bare foot on the shoulder of a road.  That more than anything made it real.  Abbie’s foot in the sand.  How often had he seen that image?

Gray shook his head.  Don’t go there.  “Where’s the trial?”

“Boston,” Falconer said.  “Eight days from today.  We have to find her.  Without her, Vanderveer has no reason to reveal the extent of his treason.  We have cause to believe he’s behind the attempted murder of Abrielle Holbrook.”

Falconer’s chair whispered as he turned to face Mercer.  “Mercer, I want you to track the witness and bring her back.  Reed, since you’ve worked WITSEC, you’ll go in posing as a deputy to find the inside—”

“I’ll track.”  Gray sat as still as an art-class model.  He could not let Falconer know how much he wanted to lead the retrieval team.

Falconer frowned at him.  “This isn’t multiple choice.”

“I’ll track.”  Be firm.  Keep it cool.  “I know how to find her.”

Falconer contemplated him with his hard eyes and sharp face.  Without breaking eye contact, he said, “Harper, you’ll go undercover.  Mercer you’ll help Reed track.”

“I can track alone.  No sweat.”

“That’s all, gentlemen,” Falconer announced.  “Check your PDAs for updates.  Reed, stay behind.”

Four sets of curious eyes appraised him as they filed out.

After Kingsley closed the door, Falconer sat on the corner of the conference table.       “How much sleep have you had?”

Gray flashed him a smile.  “You know me.  I can sleep anywhere.  I got some shut-eye on the plane.”

“It cuts close to home.”

“I know.”

“Can you handle going back?”

The strange thing about Falconer was that he asked for everything and somehow you felt compelled to give it to him.  He knew the deep, dark secrets of each of his team’s men.  But the courtesy didn’t extend both ways.  He was still a mystery to them.  But there was trust.  And that said a lot.  Falconer knew about Echo Falls, knew about the strained relationship between him and his sister, Brynna, knew the hard time he’d had surviving the unforgiving label of coward branded onto him by small-town narrow-mindedness.

But he didn’t know about Abbie.  Gray had never told a soul about Abbie.

Gray leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head, arms splayed wide—the image of relaxation.  “Yeah, I can handle going back.  That’s why I took your job offer in the first place.”  Sort of.

Falconer turned the remote in his hand.  “You’ve been here over a year and you haven’t set foot in Massachusetts.”

If he had, he’d have known about Abbie’s father and could have helped her.  Gray popped a careless shrug.  “Guess I just needed a push.”

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”

“I know her.  I know Echo Falls.  I can find her faster than anyone here.”

Someone within the program wanted to harm his golden girl.  He might have had nothing to offer her thirteen years ago, but now he could keep her safe from the bullies who wanted to hurt her.  “I understand her.  I understand where she’s coming from.  I understand the program that betrayed her.”  He was her only chance.

“It’s not just Abrielle, Reed.  There’s WITSEC’s reputation and the lives of soldiers at stake.”

“I get that.”

A long silence loaded the room with tension, high-strung and expectant.  Never let them see you sweat.

Falconer reached forward and with a finger flicked Gray’s glasses so they rested on top of his head.  “Tell me about Abrielle.”

Gray willed his naked gaze to meet Falconer’s straight on.  Never let them see your pain.  He grinned and made a joke out of the feelings that had nearly eaten him alive.  “She was the princess in the mansion and I was the guy from the wrong side of the tracks.”

“I see.”

Gray feared maybe Falconer was seeing too much.  “I never stood a chance.”

“A schoolboy’s first crush can make him blind to boundaries.”

“But he still understands their restrictions.”  Especially when they were pounded into him.

“Make sure you do.”  Falconer rose and gathered his files.  “You find her and you bring her in.  Is that understood?”

“Crystal clear.”

“Mercer’s my best tracker.  He’s going with you.  This is too important.”
Just what Gray needed—a shadow to witness his weakness.