Under Lock and Key

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Harlequin Intrigue #712
May 2003
ISBN: 0-373-22712-4

SHACKLED HEART

On a stormy Texas night, Tyler Blackwell awoke from a car crash to find himself in a castle dungeon, bound under lock and key by an ephemeral jailer with haunting eyes and virginal flesh that begged for a man’s touch. Mysterious Melissa Carnes—the woman Tyler had been sent undercover to defend from a deadly enemy intent on destroying her life—was more tempting to Tyler than any assignment. And being her “prisoner” had its advantages. But could Tyler penetrate the cold stone wall Melissa had built around her heart before the past emerged like the grim reaper to sentence them both to life terms…?

EXCERPT

Chapter One

“I thought you were my friend.” Tyler Blackwell loomed above the seated Freddy Gold, owner and editor-in-chief of Texas Gold. How could Freddy ask something like this from him knowing where he was coming from? Wasn’t it hard enough for him to start again? But to start like this? Tyler blasted his friend with every expletive he knew.

Freddy calmly leaned back in his cordovan-leather chair and stared at him.

“Tyler, it’s precisely because you’re my friend that I’m giving you this assignment.” Freddy turned away from him in his swivel chair and went back to work. “I owe her, Tyler. It’s the least I can do. And you owe me. So I’m calling in my chip. Make sure nothing happens to Melissa Carnes.”

What did Freddy have to do with her? She was nothing but a crazy artist who never came out of her self-imposed isolation. Freddy had a dozen journalists on staff who’d kill for an opportunity to ingratiate themselves to the boss. “Why me?”

“I trust you. I don’t dare trust anyone else when it comes my niece.”

“Your niece? Freddy—”

“She needs a champion. For once, she needs someone on her side.”

Tyler sneered. The last time he’d tried to be a champion, his wife had died. “If it’s a champion you’re looking for, you’re looking in the wrong place.”

“I know that if you give me your word, you won’t bail out on me until the job’s done. You’ll keep her safe.”

“After Lindsey, you can still say that?”

“Because of Lindsey, yes.”

That vote of confidence silenced him for a while. Since Lindsey’s death, even he didn’t trust himself.

“I know you,” Freddy said. “I’ve taught you everything you know.”

Tyler had come a long way since he and Freddy had been beat journalists together ten years ago. Tyler was just starting then, and Freddy was getting ready to move on to bigger and better things. Freddy had indeed taught him everything he knew. But some things you couldn’t prepare for, and no amount of training could get you ready for some blows. Still, Freddy was always there for him—even when everyone else had given up—and that loyalty had to count for something.

“So who’s this big bad wolf who’s after your little lamb?” Tyler asked, sinking into one of Freddy’s well-appointed leather chairs. He’d hear what Freddy had to say. Then he’d lay out a rational argument as to why he couldn’t take on the responsibility of looking out for someone else. Freddy would have to listen to logic.

“I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?”

“It’s a feeling…” He shrugged.

Tyler stared incredulously at his friend. “Freddy Gold’s calling in a chip on a feeling?”

“Yeah.”

Seeing Freddy so unsure of himself was strange. Tyler contemplated the man in front of him, noticed through his haze of frustration that Freddy had aged seemingly overnight. His jowls, usually so easy to jiggle with laughter, sagged. Puffed smudges traced purple half moons beneath his eyes. Lines spidered the corners of his mouth.

“So what exactly is it you want me to do?” Tyler asked.

“I want you to protect her. Keep her safe.”

“From what?”

Freddy marched his pen across his knuckles. The muffled noise of telephones and voices on the other side of the office wall filled the uncomfortable silence. Slowly he pulled open the middle drawer of the desk and drew out an envelope. “This came two days ago.”

He pushed the envelope across the desk.

Tyler started to reach for it, then sprang up from the chair, backing away, hands held in front of him. “I can’t.”

“It’s an article about Thornwylde Castle where Melissa lives,” Freddy said as he unfolded the newsprint. “And a bishop.” From his hand, a black chess piece rolled out onto the desk. “It’s a warning, Tyler. Someone’s playing a game, and I don’t like it. I need you there.”

“It’s just an article.” Tyler ran a hand over his face, not liking the sinking feeling weighing him down. “How do you get a warning out of a chess piece?”

“Chess is a game of war. Bishops can move in any direction, but must keep on a diagonal. They’re valuable because they can make long, narrow moves.”

In spite of his best intentions, Tyler couldn’t quite bite off the questions that sprang up. “Who sent the package?”

“I’m working on that.” Freddy hid the bishop in the envelope and returned the whole to the drawer. “Melissa’s had a hard life, but in some ways, she’s very innocent. She won’t know how to defend herself.”

Who? What? Where? When? How? Instinct kicked in. It felt like old times when the mere hint of questions had sent him sniffing for answers. His limbs became jittery. He tried not to think of the Tennessee bourbon and oblivion he’d only recently given up, but it was like trying not to think of a blue elephant. The bottle with the black label was all he could see. The fire of the dark liquid was all he could taste. The sweet blackness of nothing was all he desired. He shook his head.Stay here. Stay focused. “You already suspect someone.”

“She’s a rich woman who’ll be even richer in a month. Money makes people do unspeakable things.” Freddy frowned, his pen etching deep grooves into the pad on his desk.

Tyler licked his dry lips, tried not to taste the phantom whiskey, and rested his backside against the edge of the credenza. “Why don’t you just tell her to be careful and be done with it? Why do I need to go there?”

“Because … we’re estranged. She would dismiss anything I told her.” The admission seemed painful to swallow. But then mistakes always were. Tyler should know. He had a Texas-size one stuck in his craw. “She can’t know I sent you. She’ll just send you away.”

Tyler leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. He couldn’t do this. Not even for Freddy. “Just how do you propose I accomplish this feat?”

“Find the story. Like you’ve done a hundred times.”

But this time it would be different. “There are ways for her to protect her money from poachers. What story is there?”

“Start with the money, work up to her family. Her stepmother has high social ambitions and that doesn’t come cheap. Her sister lives for pleasure—also an expensive hobby.”

Tyler sprang from his chair, leaned his fists on the desk’s top, and glared at his friend. “Are you insane? You want to send me into the middle of a family feud?”

“No, I’m dead serious.” Freddy kept scribbling, as if the action could keep him anchored while Tyler blustered. “Twenty-two years ago, my sister told me she didn’t feel safe at the castle. A week later she was dead. I dismissed her fears. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”

Mistakes. Tyler had made so many already. And here was Freddy, desperate to send him right into the middle of another. “I can’t. Not after—”

“When you fall off a horse, you have to climb back on the sucker before he can kick you while you’re down.”

Too late. He’s already kicked. Tyler dropped to the chair like a stone. This wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t work. “How am I supposed to get in there to talk to her? You think a recluse is going to open her home to a stranger? Let him peek in her books and play knight to her damsel?”

“You’ll pretend to be writing an article on her stallion. Eclipse is a champion. She won’t turn down press for him.”

That made sense. An article in the most respected news magazine in the state was publicity no one could afford to turn down. “That’ll work for an hour, maybe two. After that, what?”

“You’ll think of something.”

Tyler knew himself well enough after the ravages of the past year to understand that his decisiveness had grown rusted, his vision blurred, his drive stalled. But most of all, he knew he didn’t want to be the Tyler Blackwell of a year ago. And that was what Freddy was asking him to do. He’d spent his life becoming Tyler Blackwell, ace reporter, the dog who wouldn’t let go of the bone until he could drop it, meat and all, into the reader’s lap on the morning paper’s front page. Truth had once been all-important. But his drive for truth—and his ego—had also cost him the woman he loved, and in less than a year, his career. If he was to start over, he wanted something different.

“I’ll have my secretary call Deanna and let her know you’re coming,” Freddy said, jotting down a note to himself.

“Who’s Deanna?”

“Deanna Ziegler is Melissa’s friend. To get to Melissa you have to get through Dee.”

“Have this Deanna person warn her.”

“It’s not that simple.”

Nothing about this situation was simple. “You said you weren’t on speaking terms. Why would this Deanna allow a reporter you send to write about the stallion?”

“An article in Texas Gold with horse show season in full bloom is good business, and Melissa is a good businesswoman. She doesn’t trust me, but she trusts what I’ve done with the magazine.”

A headache was starting to drum at Tyler’s temples. “Why are you doing this?”

Freddy put his pen down, wove the fingers of his hands together and closed his eyes. A moment later, he lifted his gaze. In Freddy’s dark eyes, Tyler saw a despair close to his own, and knew he had no choice. Freddy needed to protect Melissa from this possible foe as much as Tyler needed to find some logic for Lindsey’s death.

“After her mother died,” Freddy said, “Melissa needed me, and I let her down because I was too busy building my career. I thought she was safe with her family. She wasn’t. I owe her.”

The jangle of the phone interrupted their conversation.

“Rena?” Freddy said, a frown creasing his forehead. Rena was Freddy’s stunning wife, fifteen years younger than the old bear and the center of Freddy’s universe since he’d met her two years ago. Rena was also seven and a half months into a difficult pregnancy. “I’ll be right there, sweetheart.”

“Rena all right?” Tyler asked. Freddy didn’t need the worry about his wife on top of the worry about his niece.

“The doctors think they might not be able to stop the baby from coming this time. I’m off to the hospital.”

Freddy hustled his bulk out of his office. “I let Melissa down, Tyler. I need some redemption—especially now.” Freddy raised his hands in a helpless gesture, and Tyler realized Freddy was trying to make the world right for Rena and their soon-to-be-born child by rectifying past mistakes and maybe even appeasing the gods of fate. For whatever reason, he still didn’t feel worthy of Rena’s love. Couldn’t he tell just by looking into his wife’s eyes that she adored him, soft middle, thinning hair and all?

“I can count on you?” Freddy asked, hesitating at the door.

Trust Freddy to know exactly what to say to make him feel like a heel. Who else had given him a million and a half chances? Who else had never given up on him—even when he’d given up on himself? Guilt was as good a motivator as any, and Tyler felt guilty enough for letting Freddy down after Freddy had done so much for him.

He grabbed the file with Melissa Carnes’s name off Freddy’s desk and strode out of the office behind Freddy. Just get it over and done with.

Fast.