Mask of a Hunter

BUY

DESCRIPTION

THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK

Haunted by the demons of his past, hardened Seeker “Ace” Esteleone was the man least likely to mix business with pleasure. But the reckless behavior of the book-smart beauty he’d sworn to protect was threatening to ruin his investigation, and pretending to be her lover was the only way to keep them both safe.

Desperate to find her missing sister, Aurora Cates hadn’t counted on being dragged into the arms of the dark, unpredictable hunter. The passionate kisses meant for show soon shook them to the core—and led Ace to tell her his deepest secret. But when his cover was blown, Aurora was put right in the line of fire….

EXCERPT

Chapter One

“Where can I find a book on pioneers?” asked the girl standing in front of Aurora Cates’s station at the Maplewood Library reference desk. The girl’s face was a pincushion of hoops and small steel balls. Her tangerine T-shirt seemed two sizes too small—probably to show off the bellybutton jewel. A henna tattoo decorated the wrist of the hand that pulled at short brown hair. People let their kids out of the house dressed like this?

Then she thought of Felicia and knew exactly how it could happen.

“What do you need to know?” Rory typed in the subject title, pioneers, into the computer while the girl frowned at her blue assignment sheet.

“Uh. What they wore. How long they lived. Things like that.”

A selection of titles popped up on the screen. “Try the 978 section.”

“Okay.” The girl blinked at her. She didn’t have a clue where to go.

Rory walked her over to the section, selected three books and handed them to her. “That should get you started.”

“Thanks.”

“If that doesn’t do it, let me know and I’ll drag out the book of historical statistics.”

“Okay.”

As the girl slogged away, Rory basked in the ray of sunshine streaming through the arched window. Her favorite time of the day was morning when locks still barred out the public and she could enjoy the old building by herself. The contrast between the dark wood furniture and paneling and the pale walls and columns with their classic baroque effect, never failed to give her pleasure. And the books—well, they were her pride and joy, and coming to work was like having a daily reunion with old friends.

In the past hour she’d fielded enough questions about the lifespan of settlers in the West in the nineteenth century to deduce that a class was reading Shane and had a homework question that dealt with comparing and contrasting the lives of the fictional characters with their own. It wasn’t that she minded answering vague questions by clueless school kids, that was, after all, part of what she was paid to do. But lately her mind was focused on the 24/7 Reference System the library was installing. She resented anything that took her away from that new passion.

Once installed, the virtual reference desk would stay open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A patron could chat in real time with the library’s reference desk. If the library was closed, then the system would forward the patron’s request to a library that was still open—even if it was in another time zone. The possibilities dazzled her.

While helping the director test the system, Rory had come across a bug in the city’s computer system that made the program and the system act like feuding siblings. Half an hour more at the reference desk, then she could get back to her basement office and back to exterminating that bug. She loved how this new technology would allow access to just about any fact to anyone with only a click of the mouse. Any fact, any time, any place—as long as you were connected. All that knowledge. She shook her head and smiled a private smile.

Rory sat back in her chair at her station and watched as yet another student with a blue assignment sheet approached. If she were truthful, she’d have to admit she much preferred dealing with patrons online than face-to-face. Another reason to get the new program up and running as soon as possible. It would be her baby. Even the 260,000 books, magazines and tapes in the library’s collection, even the thousands of other books she could borrow from the network of libraries all over the country could not compare to the information she could unearth with this program in place. Need an answer from the Kansas Paint Contractors’ Handbook at 3:00 a.m.? Where the locals went to eat in Honolulu, Hawaii? What the people of Portland, Maine, considered the posh part of town? No problem. Just sign on and ask; someone will find the answer for you. She couldn’t wait.

Before the boy could ask his question, the phone in the pocket of her tweed suit jacket bleated. “Hang on a second.”

Carrying her cell phone on her was not proper library etiquette, but she was worried about her sister. Felicia had seemed to settle down after she got pregnant. She’d quit smoking and drinking and started talking about the future. There was joy in her voice when she spoke of Hannah’s milestones and sadness when she talked of leaving her with a sitter to go to work. Rory had urged her to leave New Hampshire and come live with her in D.C. Together they could make Hannah’s life comfortable and happy. A month ago, Rory had heard a new edge in Felicia’s voice. Felicia wouldn’t explain anything, but said she and Hannah would soon visit. Not a word from her since then. No answer at her apartment either. And in the past few days, even the answering machine was no longer picking up.

Rory pressed the talk button. “Felicia?”

“Is this Aurora Cates?” a harried voice asked.

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Candace Wilson. Felicia gave me your number.”

“Is Felicia all right?”

“No clue. She had me sit for Hannah yesterday and told me to call you if she wasn’t back by the time her shift started.”

This wasn’t good. Not at all. Why would Felicia leave Hannah with this sour-sounding woman and not return as fast as she could to her precious baby? “Where is she?”

“Look, I don’t know. All I know is that Felicia didn’t show up for work, and I can’t afford to miss another one of my shifts. You’ve got to come up and get Hannah or I’ll have to call DCYF.”

“DCYF?”

“Division of Child, Youth and Family.”

“No, don’t do that.” Felicia would never get Hannah back, not with her background, and losing Hannah could be the final cut that would send her reeling back to the wild life she was trying to tame for her daughter’s sake.

“Today’s my day off,” Candace said, “but tomorrow I’ve got to go in.”

“I’ll pay you. Or I’ll pay for a sitter. Please, just give me a chance to drive up.”

Candace agreed she could wait one more day for Rory’s arrival.

“I’m on my way,” Rory said, chewing on a thumbnail. “Just tell me where you are.”

Candace gave her directions.

“It’ll take me a day to get to New Hampshire,” Rory said. If she drove all night and stopped only for gas. Map. She would need a map. www.mapquest.com.

“A day’s all I can give you.”

Before she’d even hung up, Rory was drawing mental lists and letting the immensity of the task overwhelm her. Both hands on her desk, she closed her eyes and forced herself to draw in a calming breath. When she opened her eyes, the boy was still standing there, waiting mouth gaping open like a fish’s.

“Christine?” Rory shifted to her friend at the next station. “Would you mind helping this gentleman? I have an emergency.”

“Oh, sure.” Curiosity flickered in Christine’s eyes. The boy shuffled over to her station, and Rory hurried away to the library director’s office.

After arranging for an emergency leave, she collected her tapestry tote bag from the break room and left. As she wound her way through the stop-and-go traffic of Maplewood, she dialed the number she’d hoped she’d never have to use.

“Seekers, Inc., Liv Falconer speaking.”

“Is Sebastian in? This is Aurora Cates.”

“Rory! Nice to hear your voice again. Here’s right here. Hang on.”

Liv Falconer had sustained a brain injury over a year ago. Her recovery since then was extraordinary. She couldn’t remember anything from her life before her accident, but she’d created an exciting new life for herself as she’d helped her husband start Seekers, Inc. They specialized in finding people. Sebastian had once been the best manhunter in the U.S. Marshals Service. Rory hoped he hadn’t lost any of his edge.

“Rory, how are you?” Sebastian’s voice sounded more relaxed than she’d ever heard it when he worked for the USMS. Being in charge of his own fate agreed with him.

“I need a favor.” She winced.

“I owe you one.”

She’d helped Sebastian find the information he needed to help Liv after her accident, but this would take a whole lot more than perusing a few databases for articles dealing with coma, brain injuries and amnesia.

“It’s my sister. Felicia’s missing.” Rory changed lanes to give herself time to make sense of the mess Felicia had dumped in her lap. “Ordinarily I wouldn’t worry.”

Sebastian laughed.

“Okay, I’d worry, but I wouldn’t call you. Since the baby she’d settled down, you know. She loves Hannah. She would never just leave her like that. She told me she was on her way here. And now she’s gone.”

“Okay, Rory, take a breath and start at the beginning.”

A red light registered on her unfocused mind and she pressed the brake. She gave Sebastian all the information she had. “I’m heading to Summersfield as soon as I can pack a bag. Can you check on the situation for me?”

“No problem.”

A horn honked and she realized the light had turned green. She shifted gears and turned left.

Her fault. She shouldn’t have given Felicia a chance to say no. Not after their parents had died and Rory had escaped to a job in Washington, D.C. Not when Felicia had called to tell Rory she was pregnant. Not last month when fear had crept into her voice. But handling Felicia had always made Rory feel incompetent. Even though she could locate the epitaph on Max Planck’s gravestone or the fashion fads of the 1950s or the rules of Bunko without breaking a sweat, she could never find the right book or article or piece of information that would let her understand her sister. Giving Felicia a loose rein was easier than fighting against the sheer muscle of so much unbridled anger.

“I have a man in Summersfield,” Sebastian said. “I’ll have him ask around.”

Rory groaned as traffic seemed to grind to a halt for no reason. In her low-slung Beetle, she couldn’t see past the UPS truck in front of her and was boxed in on three sides by SUVs. It was only three o’clock, for heaven’s sake. Didn’t these people have jobs? “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Take it easy. You go home and pack, and I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up and a plane to fly you here.”

She wanted to balk at the generosity, but she couldn’t. She’d let her wild-child sister down too many times. She had to hope that this time she hadn’t waited too long to rein her in.