Heart of a Hunter

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The Seekers, Book 1
Harlequin Intrigue #712
April 2004
ISBN: 0-373-22767-1

THE HUNTER BECOMES PREY…

U.S. Marshal Sebastian Falconer was a workaholic, dedicated to catching dangerous fugitives. But when his wife became the victim of a vengeful escaped felon who had vowed to destroy Sebastian, he knew he could no longer protect his beloved Olivia from the dark side of his job.

Olivia’s amnesia made her wary of the raven-haired man who called himself her husband. Was she attracted to the handsome stranger because of a need for security or a true calling of her heart? She joined in the search for her attacker, proving she wasn’t as fragile as Sebastian had once thought. But could they find a way to rekindle their lost love in the face of danger?

EXCERPT

Chapter One

The hunter had returned. Decompressing, he called the time he needed alone after coming home from an assignment. But Olivia knew it went deeper. He was trying to shake off the mind-set of the man he’d hunted for the past month. He’d told her once it was like spending time in a sewer and he didn’t want to poison her with the stench.

Was it wrong of her to want him to share his world?

She descended the stone stairs that led to the basement of their mountaintop home and the room she referred to as Sebastian’s ‘cave.’ She’d called it so affectionately at first. Now there was a trace of resentment that left a bitter taste at the back of her throat. At the door she hesitated.

Bent over his paperwork, he was surrounded by all sorts of electronic gadgets that could have come from a science fiction movie set. His mind was focused, laser-sharp, on his task. The lean muscles of his tracker’s body were controlled. She’d seen this stance often enough to recognize he was detaching himself from one world and trying to reconnect with another. Why did that passage make her so sad?

She’d lived with him for ten years. She knew everything about him. The way he brushed his teeth. The way he peppered his corn. The way he checked the oil in her car before he left on assignment. But she didn’t know his heart. After all these years, he still kept it to himself, its contents as secret as his operations.

He loved her. She had no doubt about that. But she wanted it all—the bad and the good. Not just the castle in the air he’d provided for her. To keep her safe, he’d said. But here in the rarified air she didn’t know what she was capable of. And the longing for flight—for something more—grew every day. Especially when he was gone, and she was left alone with her thoughts.

Her heart—always so open—had lately closed a little. She found herself keeping things from him—thoughts she knew would upset him, musings he would take the wrong way, feelings he wouldn’t understand. She didn’t like that extra barrier between them, didn’t like the way they were growing apart. Her fault. Sebastian hadn’t changed. He was the same driven man she’d met at one of her father’s business functions eleven years ago. She was the one with the curl of anxiety gnawing at her.

She loved him. She always would. Just watching him and all his intense self-assurance made her soul sing like nothing else could. But where was the answering melody? She’d signed on for a duet and lately had become aware she was singing a solo.

He looked up from his work and smiled. The brightness of it caught her breath just as it had the first time. One touch. That was all it would take to evaporate her resolve. She slid her gaze from his. If she looked into his eyes, she would stay and she needed to go.

“I’m almost done,” he said, turning back to his work.

She hugged herself and leaned against the door frame. “Take your time. I just wanted to say good-night.”

He glanced at his watch and frowned. “So early?”

“I’m leaving, Sebastian.” The hard thud of her heart nearly drowned out her words.

“Leaving? I don’t understand.”

No, he wouldn’t. He could see through the eyes of evil, but the working of his own wife’s mind was alien. “I’m going to my sister’s for a while.” As much as Paula wanted her to leave Sebastian, she would not approve of her plan either.

“I just got home.”

“I know. I waited for you.” And that, she realized, had been a mistake. She should have taken the coward’s way out and left while he was gone. “I didn’t want you coming home to a note.”

After all the years they’d shared, she’d owed him that much. She’d thought hearing of her departure from her would hurt less than words scribbled on paper. She hadn’t counted on seeing the ridges of fatigue drooping the corners of his eyes and bracketing his mouth. She hadn’t known the pain in his eyes would arrow straight to her gut. And in the past month, she’d talked herself out of the power of his magnetism.

“I’ve missed you,” he said. “Can’t this wait?”

“No, I…” She knitted her fingers and breathed in courage. “I need to get away for a bit.” She needed to prove to him she could fit in his world, and she thought the course in criminal justice at the community college in Nashua would give her a start—a point from which to connect. But if she told him, he would talk her out of it. Where would that leave them? Right where they were, and she couldn’t go on like this.

He closed his eyes and blew out a huff of frustration. “Olivia, I’m tired. Can’t we talk this over in the morning?”

By morning, she’d have melted into him and it would be too late. “No, I need to do this.”

He went predator-still. Never a good sign. “This isn’t just a vacation.” His dark gaze bored into her, making her feel caught in a trap. Was that how his prey felt when he closed in on them? “You’re leaving me.”

She shifted to the outside of the door frame. “I’m not leaving you.” How could she explain? How could she make him understand? “I’m going to myself, not away from you.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” He gave her a puzzled look and rose from his black ergonomic office chair. He took one slow step. She had to hurry while she still could.

Looking down at her hands so primly knotted in front of her, she licked her dry lips and focused on her goal. Everything else she’d tried to dissolve the barrier between them had failed. “You’re a contained man, Sebastian, and I need to spill over. For a little while. Until I figure out where you end and where I start.”

“I don’t understand.” The pain slashing his features twisted inside her. He took another step forward. Though she wanted to flee, she held her ground.

“I’ve known you since I was seventeen. We were married when I was eighteen. You have five years on me. You knew what you wanted out of life. This.” She arched her arm to encompass not only the room, but all of the house. “You. It’s all I’ve known for the past ten years.”

“I thought you loved the house.” Another step. She stiffened.

“I do.” She’d helped design it herself. The way the light played with the shadows, the way it fit snugly into the rocky New Hampshire landscape as if it belonged, the way each room was a restful den, made it a home, not merely a house. “It’s not the house.”

“The village then.” His gun hand flexed. He wouldn’t let her go. “You feel isolated.”

“No, it’s not Wintergreen.” How could she resent a place where everyone knew her and treated her like a friend? If she wanted a taste of the city, Keene, Nashua, Manchester weren’t that far. Even Boston was only a few hours away. She straightened against the stone wall and hugged herself tighter.

He stopped, let his head drop to his chest, then blazed her with a look of such sadness she nearly closed the distance between them to comfort him. “I’m sorry I can’t give you the baby you want.”

That was a tiny bit closer to the truth. Without that common goal, the wall between them seemed to get thicker. But a baby wouldn’t fix the hollowness growing inside her. Until Sebastian trusted her with all of himself, a baby would only complicate the situation. “It’s not the baby.”

He took another step. They stood close enough for breath to mix with breath. He knew her weakness and was going to use it against her. “Then what is it, Olivia?” The reverberation of his voice was cat smooth and cougar dangerous. “Help me out here. I don’t understand.”

Then she made her second mistake. She touched him. Just a whisper of finger against the roughness of his beard. The heat of it shivered through her. The want, the need. His. Hers. “It’s the waiting and the worrying. It’s killing me.”

“It’s my job.”

“I know.” And she did. She understood how his parents’ murder at the hands of an escaped convict had driven him into the U.S. Marshals Service. She understood his need to hunt criminals and put them back in jail where they couldn’t hurt anyone but themselves. She understood his need to leave her for long periods of time to do his work. He was the best manhunter in the Service, and his duty to the Service always came first.

And that simple little jealousy made her feel petty. How could she ask him to stay when what he did was so important? Why did he insist on shutting her out of the most important part of his life?

“But I want to share it.”

He frowned. “We’ve been through this before.”

“I know.” And gotten nowhere. She wanted him in her life, of that she was sure. But she needed the balance to shift. She didn’t want to simply be his haven. She wanted to be his partner. This course was the first concrete step to that partnership. “You’re so strong. And I’m…” She shook her head. “I need to find my strength.”

“You are my strength, Olivia. Don’t leave. Not tonight.”

He reached for her, eyes bright with that potent mixture of desire and danger that never failed to arouse her, and a small helpless cry escaped her. No, don’t touch me. I’ll give in. She could feel her body responding to his before he’d even finished wrapping his arms around her. He held her tight. She tried to push him back, but when it came to Sebastian, she was weak.

He was passionate about everything he did. And that passion, she was loathe to admit, was part of her attraction to him. The aura of intensity around him acted as an aphrodisiac for someone unsure of her place in the world. The bad-boy looks on a man who hunted for justice had made her believe that, at his side, she could find herself. And each time he touched her, she believed it again—until he left.

His chin snuggled against the top of her head. The strong beat of his heart drummed beneath her hands. His heat seemed to fuse her to him. She could start a day late. She could leave tomorrow—after this storm of return. Maybe he’d understand then. Maybe she could tell him that her need to leave was like his need to decompress before he came to her when he returned from a hunt. Something that was temporary, but necessary.

“I love you, Olivia.”

“I know.” And the slow melting started. It shimmered from her heart towards her limbs and left her limp. She twined her arms around his neck to hold herself up and accepted the brand of his kiss. The searing heat of it, the desperate need in it, erased the boundaries between them. The savage taste of him filled her. The scent of him, so primal, so Sebastian, dissolved her will. She could feel herself slipping away, and her desire suddenly tasted salty with tears. “Let me go, Sebastian. For a little while.”

“Stay. I’ll take some time off. We’ll go away somewhere together. No beeper. No phone. No computer. I promise.”

“Until the next prisoner escapes.”

He opened his mouth to answer. She covered his lips with a finger. He took the offending digit into his mouth and gently sucked.

“It’s not you.” As his hands slid up her sides, she tried to catch her breath and put some space between them and found her hands mirroring his, seeking the firm skin beneath his shirt. “It’s me. I need…”

“What?” His thumb skimmed a nipple, drawing a gasp from her.

“Sebastian…”

As he continued his exquisite torture of her flesh with his hands, his mouth found the tender spot behind her ear, clouding her mind. “What do you need?”

“More. I need more.” She crushed herself against him to gain focus, only to lose it again when his fingers rounded her waist and stroked the sensitive hollow at the base of her spine. “Let me go, Sebastian.”

The sudden stillness in him was more frightening than the seduction she couldn’t resist. But before he could say anything, the beeper on his desk shrilled.

“Answer it,” she said, as the invisible web making them one separated strand by strand. “You know you have to.” When they stood apart, an aching cold made her shiver. Why had she done this? Why had she hurt him? Why was she risking the love of the one person who made her feel secure?

Because the next time that phone rang, she wanted him to talk to her about the coming hunt and not shut her out. She wanted him to know she truly understood his job, him.

He stalked to the phone and ripped the receiver off the cradle. Punching in numbers, he stared pointedly at her. She memorized the lines of his face—the sharp jaw, the thin nose, the full lower lip, the cleft in his chin, the upside-down V his work had creased between his eyes, the dark shadow of beard that he could never quite seem to get rid of no matter how often he shaved, the clean cut of his straight black hair. She closed her eyes and breathed in his scent. She licked her lips and imprinted his taste.

“Falconer,” he barked into the phone.

She opened her eyes, blinked as if taking a last picture, then turned toward the steps. She wanted to stay. She had to go. Her heart suddenly weighed heavily with the contradiction of her needs.

“Olivia! Wait.”

But she couldn’t. She was leaving because she’d nearly lost herself in him again. When she was stronger, when she was his equal, when she could stand solidly beside him without forgetting herself … then she’d return.