• Nancy C. Weeks

#FreeRead Friday! Time to Meet Jared and Jennie


My favorite, all-time wonderful couple, Jennie McKenzie and Jared McNeil from In the Shadow of Evil, Book 2 Shadows and Light series are back up on Amazon. You will also meet my large, noisy, but loving McNeil family. This story has it all, intrigue, suspense, action-packed plot, supernatural spirits, and an amazing friends to lovers romance.

But don't take my word for it. Here's what readers have been saying about In the Shadow of Evil.

  • "This is a story of loss, love and revenge, and will have you caught between wanting to know what happens, and not wanting this story to end. This is a series worth reading, and Nancy C Weeks is always one of my 'must read' authors."

  • "I absolutely loved In the Shadow of Evil. I read In the Shadow of Greed, but this is my absolute favorite book by Nancy C. Weeks. Everyone, please do yourself a favor and read this captivating, suspenseful book. Jennie and Jared are such wonderful characters and I can’t say enough good things about them."

Check it out for yourself. Buy links, just clink the image. Enjoy Chapter One -Prologue- and Chapter Two. Don't forget to come back next week for Chapter Three if you still need convincing.


In the Shadow of Evil

Book 2

Shadows and Light

By

Nancy C. Weeks


Chapter One

Anne Arundel County, Maryland

Prologue

Damn it, Nick. Stop ignoring me.

Jennie McKenzie loosened her grip on her cell phone and dialed her foster brother again from the passenger seat of the SUV. Pick up. Pick up. God, please pick up.

Nick didn’t know it yet, but they were getting the hell away from Mendoza—today. And if Nick tried to talk her out of it, she would drag him out by his ear.

When the call went directly to voice mail, a gut-wrenching dread cramped her stomach, forcing acid into her throat.

Why wasn’t he answering his damn phone?

Her tension spiked when the vehicle slowed and stopped on the shoulder of the two-lane country road. Jennie tore her eyes away from the silent cell phone and glanced over at the man in the driver’s seat.

Jared McNeil. Not one of Elías Mendoza’s thugs, but a cop, an undercover cop.

Her racing heart settled with a glance. The calming effect Jared had on her was crazy. Jennie didn’t trust anyone except Nick. But somehow, she trusted the man sitting next to her.

A low growl came from the back of Jared’s throat. “Jennie, I need your decision.” His hands fisted on the steering wheel and the tiny muscle in his jaw pulsed. “I have no grounds to remove you from Mendoza’s home. But since you’re a minor, and we arrested the two men with you at the testing center, I can at least place you in protective custody until we contact your caseworker.”

“What about Nick?”

A pair of robins flew in front of the passenger window from the tall oaks lining the road. They momentarily perched on the hood of the SUV then dashed off to the other side of the lane. That simple display of carefree abandonment cut deep into Jennie. As her fingers dug into her palm, she let out a shaky breath and asked, “I can’t leave without him.”

“I tried to talk to him. He blew me off. By placing you in protective custody…”

“No. I won’t go anywhere without Nick.”

Jared’s expression flipped from concern to frigid. It was like a curtain dropped down, cutting off his emotions.

Jennie lowered her head, her gaze on her lap. “Nick isn’t … he doesn’t warm up to people well. But Jared, he’s not Mendoza’s lackey.”

She was wasting her breath. His jaw was clenched and the muscles in his arms and shoulders grew taut. When his gaze met hers, she winced. He couldn’t hide how unhappy he was with her.

“Nick isn’t just my foster brother. He’s my best friend and has had my back since my parents died. I can’t leave him with Mendoza. He’ll turn Nick into a carbon copy of himself.”

“Any replies to your call?”

“It’s going right to voicemail.”

Last month, Nick turned eighteen, and Mendoza’s gift, a job with his organization. Nick was living a dream, and enjoying a glimpse into a lifestyle he would never belong. Her brother replayed Mendoza with his loyalty to the point he was copying his mannerisms, the way Mendoza walked, dressed and even his speech patterns. That fact set Jennie on edge like nothing else.

“Maybe that’s your answer. He wants to stay with Mendoza. You can’t make Nick into something he’s not, Jennie. He’s been in the foster care program his whole life. That changes a person. He isn’t like you.”

“You’re wrong about Nick. And, that’s not what is going on here.” Something was off. If only she could talk to Nick … or Father Michael. Her godfather was on a mission for the Vatican in a remote area of South America, and Jennie hadn’t been able to reach him during the chaos and upheaval of the last four months.

Then a sudden thought struck her like an open-hand slap across the face. Her gaze darted to Jared. “Shit, you can’t . . . damn it, Jared. Not Nick! You can’t use him to get to Mendoza.”

“Jennie—”

“No. Leaving him behind—you would be turning him into what you believe he is.” And that would rip my heart in two.

Jared shook his head and started the SUV. The turn-off to Mendoza’s long driveway was less than a mile away. Once they pulled into the private road, Mendoza’s cameras would pick them up, which left very little time for Jennie to change Jared’s mind. The walls inside the cab closed in on her and she struggled to breathe. Don’t back down.

“You spoke to your caseworker?” His voice was controlled—almost calculated.

“She’s arranging a place for us to stay.”

Jared let out a noisy sigh, reached for the key in the ignition, and turned off the motor. “Mendoza’s obsessively protective of you. Why?”

It took a moment for Jennie’s mind to form an answer. “I saved his life.”

“It’s more than that.”

Jennie could only nod. She didn’t have an answer. All she knew for sure was that her soon-to-be guardian was soulless. He watched her, studied her like a bug under a magnifying glass; he made her skin crawl. It wasn’t sexual. There was something far more sinister than lust in Mendoza’s eyes. His very presence caused her spirit to shrivel.

She couldn’t face Jared. It was too hard to see the disappointment in his eyes. So instead, she faced the front window. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you. I know nothing about Mendoza, never met him before that day in downtown Little Italy.” She closed her eyes and inhaled a cleansing breath. When she opened them, she peeked at Jared who stared at the massive estate that could barely be seen through the trees. She cleared her throat and said, “He was choking and none of the men with him did anything to help. I think they wanted him dead. And I’m not sure I blame them.”

Jennie’s mind began to replay the crazed nightmare. That moment on the sidewalk when Elías Mendoza’s brooding, dark eyes had held hers, the universe shifted. There had been something familiar about him, and for some reason, his presence sucked the life right out of her. Paralyzed and breathless, she had been unable to move.

She watched Mendoza reach for his fork and swallow a bite of pasta. In a split second, his eyes widened and he darted from his chair, grabbing his throat. Nick had tugged at her arm, then jumped the concrete barrier separating the restaurant from the sidewalk and tried the Heimlich maneuver. But for all his efforts, Nick couldn’t dislodge the obstruction. His plea for her help had finally penetrated her dazed state and she joined Nick on the patio. She didn’t have the strength to lift Mendoza, but she did have first aid training. She repositioned Nick’s hands. After several abdominal thrusts, the large bite of shrimp broke free.

“Why didn’t Mendoza just hand us a twenty and have us removed from his sight? We were nothing to him.” Jennie let out a shaky breath. “He manipulated the foster care program so we could live with him. We were in his home that night. The system doesn’t work that fast. None of it makes any sense.”

“Last chance, Jennie,” he murmured. “I turn down Mendoza’s private drive…”

“I’ll never turn my back on Nick.”

She shifted toward the front window. Jared let out a string of obscenities that made Jennie cringe. He turned the key and drove the last quarter of a mile, turning left onto the narrow road. The vehicle’s wheels crunched on the gravel of the circular driveway near the front entrance. Beyond the house, manicured lawns covered three acres extending into woodland.

She gazed out at the helicopter sitting on the heliport behind the pool and tennis court. She faced the man next to her. Jared was working undercover to take down Mendoza and planned to use Nick to help him. If she couldn’t convince him to back off, he was going to get himself, and Nick, killed.

“I’ve known Elías Mendoza for four months. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

“I know who Mendoza is, Jennie.”

“I’m not some stupid kid. You’re only what? Five years older than me?”

“Seven. So?”

“Mendoza is…I sense what’s inside him, and you’re crazy if you think you can fool someone like him.” Jennie ignored the shiver that wracked her body. “And you want to use Nick—” She gulped in a deep breath and exhaled. “My mom would’ve called Mendoza the Devil.”

“Then let me get you the hell away from here. Once you’re inside, I can’t protect you.” He forced the words through clenched teeth. “Look, Nick knows what he’s providing Mendoza. He’s not innocent, but he’s still a kid, a stupid kid.” Jared rubbed the back of his neck. “I wanted to turn him, have him work with us. With his hacking skills, he’s our best way into Mendoza’s organization. But I get it, bad idea.” He placed his hand over Jennie’s fisted hands. “We’ll find another avenue. I’ll go in for him. You stay here. Hide on the floorboard.”

“Nick won’t leave with you, but he’ll listen to me. He’ll come just because I ask him to. I have to do this.” Worried Jared would try to stop her, she opened the passenger door, grabbed her backpack at her feet, and raced up the steps of the red brick colonial. The soft fragrance from the begonias, lavender, and sweet peas blooming in the beds near the door assaulted her senses, causing her to slow.

How did such beauty thrive here?

Wrenching her mind away from the familiar scents, she burst through the front door, her heart pounding. The guard in the foyer stepped out of her path as she scurried passed him.

“Miss McKenzie, is there something wrong? Can I help you?” he asked, but Jennie ignored him and jogged up the curved staircase, her sneakers squeaking on the polished hardwood.

“Nick, where are you? Damn it, answer me.”

She hurried into her room and barely glanced at the thick, padded wall covering, lush carpet, or opulent furnishings. Like the rest of the house, it was a pretty shell, and it left her cold. She tugged her backpack off her shoulders. Opening the numerous drawers in the walk-in closet, she yanked out only the items she originally brought into the house. Everything Mendoza purchased was left untouched. She wanted nothing from him.

When she didn’t find Nick in his room, she opened his closet door, and reached into his hiding place for a small box of odds and ends he’d saved over the years. Pulling a couple of his favorite T-shirts and jeans off their hangers, she stuffed everything in her pack.

After a quick check of the second floor, she headed downstairs and ran into Mendoza’s personal assistant.

“Where’s Nick?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Talk to Mendoza.”

Elías Mendoza’s private study was in the wing at the back of the house, so she ran to it. She shoved passed the guard and reached for the doorknob. He yanked her hand away, placing his body in front of the door.

“You have certain privileges on the estate, Miss McKenzie, but no one gets through this door without this.” His hand held a black metal detector. Jennie raised her arms. After the guard ran the security wand along her body, he allowed her to enter.

She stormed into the private domain that few entered.

“Where’s Nick?”

The immaculately dressed man behind the mahogany desk didn’t bother glancing at her. His fingers toyed with a gold pen while he spoke on the phone.

“We will be landing in five hours. I want my orders carried out. No, nos entendemos? Bueno,” he said before laying the handset on the desk. When his dark eyes met Jennie’s, she stepped back. He wasn’t a tall man, but his intense, sadistic personality spewed power.

“Rudeness doesn’t become you, Jennifer Marie. You forget yourself.”

His glare bore into her, his facial features hard as stone. She had seen the look before, but never had it been aimed at her.

“I can’t find Nick.”

Mendoza leaned back in his chair, flipping the pen back and forth between his fingers. “So much concern for that mutt. As you can see, he isn’t here.”

Jennie’s fist tightened. If only Nick could see the contempt in his idol’s eyes right now. “My brother isn’t a mutt.”

“He’s no relation to you. Have you finished your packing? The plane to Mexico City leaves in an hour.”

Jennie cleared her throat and tried not to stutter. “It’s time for Nick and me to leave. I appreciate everything you have done for us, but we don’t belong here.”

“Is that so?”

She swallowed, keeping eye contact as her pulse beat between her ears. She was surprised the sound didn’t echo against the walls. “We appreciate that you want to reward us for helping you, but there’s no need.” She shrugged. “We would have done the same for anyone. You don’t need to saddle yourself with two teenagers when you’re moving back to Mexico.”

Mendoza’s eyes traveled the length of her. “I’m your guardian, Jennifer Marie. Where I go, you go.”

“Not yet. The official papers haven’t been signed.” Jennie glanced everywhere except at him.

“And how do you think you are going to accomplish your dreams of college living on the streets of Baltimore?” He clenched his hands together and rested them on the desk. The silence that followed was deafening. “My people are still trying to locate your godfather. What will he say when he finds out I allowed you to go back to living in an abandoned building like a city rat?”

Heat rose in Jennie’s cheeks. “The building wasn’t abandoned, just old.” She wasn’t a runaway. People loved her, cared for her. Her godfather would move heaven and earth for her. But the man in front of her saw only what he wanted to see.

“We’re not going back to Baltimore. I contacted Mrs. Arnold, my foster care caseworker this morning during one of the SAT breaks.” Jennie fussed with her cotton skirt. “There was a big misunderstanding. Mr. Stephenson is fine. Nick only knocked him out. We thought…well he’s alive and well.”

She forced down the lump in her throat and shuddered at the memory of the last family she had been placed with. She could still feel Mr. Stephenson’s hands on her body, pinching her breast, trying to force his tongue down her throat. The memory made her want to heave her breakfast muffin and coffee. And the way his body dropped to the floor, the horrid sight of blood staining the carpet after Nick slammed the base of a lamp over his head, still gave her nightmares.

“And your plan is to turn your back on all I can offer you for what? To live under the roof of a child molester?”

“No, of course not. Mrs. Arnold will find us another family until we finish high school next year.”

She couldn’t pull her gaze away from his. Contempt and scorn radiated from his pores. Jennie held her breath and stiffened her leg muscles to keep from fidgeting. When Mendoza finally spoke, his voice was laced with something Jennie had never heard before.

Hatred.

“Jennifer Marie, who else did you speak to during your break?” He broke eye contact, his concentration fixed on the computer monitor on his desk.

My God, he hates me. Why am I here?

“No one.”

“I don’t believe you, mi querida.”

Jennie couldn’t breathe. His eyes turned black, cold. The stench of revulsion filled the air.

He knows. God, he knows about Jared.

Mendoza eased back in his chair. “We haven’t spent much time together during your stay. That’s my fault. I thought you understood.” He faced her. “No one betrays me.” He reached for the monitor on his desk and turned it toward Jennie. When she didn’t break eye contact, he nodded to the monitor.

“Your actions have consequences.” His voice was so calm, it chilled her to the bone.

Oh, Nick. Where are you?

Mendoza rose and moved beside her. His hands grabbed the sides of her head and forced her to face the monitor. The security camera overlooked a patch of lawn off the rear patio by the pool. Several of Mendoza’s men circled a man with dark hair grown down below his shoulders. His t-shirt clung to his athletic body. It took only seconds for the horror to slam home.

“Nick? No, make them stop!”

Each man took a turn striking Nick, his face beaten almost beyond recognition. Blood streamed from his eyes, nose, and mouth. His knees buckled and he dropped to the ground. One of the men kicked him in the ribs.

Jennie began to tremble. She yanked out of Mendoza’s hold and dashed to the French doors. Mendoza grabbed a fistful of her hair and heaved her up against him.

“This is what happens when you betray me, mi querida.” He clamped hold of her elbow and dragged her through the French doors. Her feet stumbled on the stone slab of the patio, but he didn’t slow his pace.

When he reached his men, Mendoza yanked her arms behind her and held her against him. Nick’s bloodshot eyes bore into hers. He screamed when another foot landed on his kidney.

“Make them stop. They’ll kill him. God, please make them stop.”

Mendoza took her face in his hands. “It’s time for you to make a choice.”

“What choice?” Jennie sobbed.

Mendoza twisted her in the direction of the pool. “Which man lives?”

Four men dragged another man toward them. It took every man to hold him. He fought like a caged animal. Jared. “What have you done?”

The right side of Jared’s face was turning a dark, blackish-blue color, and blood pooled at the corners of his mouth where his lip had been split open. His left forearm jutted out from his elbow with an unnatural tilt.

Mendoza gripped Jennie’s jaw and forced her to meet his gaze. “Jennifer Marie, which man do you choose?”

“I don’t understand. Let them both go. I’ll do anything.”

A loud crack echoed across the lawn. The eerie sound bounced off the trees and vibrated back at them. The next instant, a bullet pierced Jared in the right upper thigh. A wet stain of blood seeped through his trousers. His leg collapsed from under him and he stumbled. One of the men grabbed hold of his broken arm and heaved him back up. A roar full of pain escaped his lips.

Jennie’s eyes darted toward the location of the shooter. All she saw were trees. She wrenched herself free of Mendoza’s hold and dove in front of Jared, blocking his body with hers.

“You made your choice.” Mendoza headed toward the helicopter.

Men in police uniforms and FBI jackets charged the lawn, guns drawn. Mendoza’s men froze before all hell broke out. A couple of men lifted their guns but were hit in the chest before they got off one shot. The rest dove for cover.

Jennie heard none of it. Her heartbeat drowned out all sound. Everything around her grew silent, still. All her focus was on Elías Mendoza as he stepped into the helicopter. He turned and their gazes held. He was a good thirty yards away, but every word hit her, loud and clear, as if he stood right next to her.

Mi querida, they live because I allow it. You live because I allow it. Usted pretence a mí. You belong to me. Only me.”

Jennie couldn’t move. For an instant, her nightmares collided with her reality.

You live because I allow it.

Six words—night after night, year after year. The dreams had begun right after the death of her parents six years ago. A faceless man hovered over her and those words echoed in her head until she jolted awake.

Oh God. How is Mendoza connected to her parents?

Jennie’s hands went to her throat. She couldn’t catch her breath. Stop him, don’t let him get away screamed inside her head, but she couldn’t move. The doors slammed shut and the helicopter lifted into the air. The next instant, a bullet grazed her arm. Jared slammed her body to the ground as another shot sliced through the air inches from her head.

She searched for Nick. His eyes met hers. He struggled to his knees and stood.

“Nick, drop,” Jennie screamed, but her warning was too late.

Time slowed.

The third bullet whizzed over Jennie’s head and sliced into Nick’s cotton shirt. In her mind’s eye, she saw the slug tear through his skin, and then bone, until it perforated his heart.

“No!”

A sharp stabbing pain erupted from deep inside her. On her hands and knees, she crawled across the grass to Nick. She lifted his head in her arms and slammed her hand down hard on the hole in his chest. Warm blood pulsed against her palm and seeped through her fingers.

“God, don’t leave me. Nick?” she cried, but nothing came from the eighteen-year-old boy in her arms. His lifeless eyes stared up at her. She dragged his shoulders into her arms and rocked him back and forth as she wiped the sweat, blood, and tears from his face.

“Jennie, he’s gone. Get down. There’s a sniper in the woods,” Jared yelled, shielding her body with his.

“No. He can’t…” The words clogged her throat. “He can’t leave me.”

The childhood pact they had made to each other flashed into her mind. His silly handshakes, his laughter, the warmth in his dark brown eyes when a nightmare tore her out of a deep sleep—it was all gone. Nick was gone.

Jared placed his hand over hers. “Jennie, there’s nothing you can do for him.”

Her eyes met his before she broke contact and cradled Nick’s head in her arms. “Mendoza killed Nick. He may not have pulled the trigger, but he ordered it. Why?”

“I don’t know, but he won’t get away with it.” Jared gaze followed the helicopter as it flew out of sight. “I’ll find him, and he will pay.”

Jennie heard the words but didn’t respond. Nick was gone. For the first time in her life, she was completely alone.

Chapter Two

Pikesville, Maryland

March, Eight years later

Pull it together.

Jennie banged her fist on the steering wheel. This date had been marked in her calendar for months. The debt that had haunted her for eight long years would be paid, and she could move forward with the next chapter of her life. But instead of feeling liberated, her nerves were raw.

Maybe she should’ve put this off a day. A sleepless night of horrific dreams and spending hours in a classroom with twenty-five ten-year-old students drained her.

As Jennie waited for the traffic light to change, her gaze fell on the imposing red brick building in front of her. The light dusting of snow and sleet that covered the sidewalk and grounds contributed to the austerity of the structure. Just reading the sign, Maryland Department of State Police Headquarters, made her palms sweat.

What if he’s not there? God, what if he is? This was the first time in two years she would come face to face with Jared McNeil.

A cashier’s check made out to him for $30,000 was in a white envelope in her purse on the seat next to her. She had scrimped and saved until she could pay back every dime—restitution for a mistake for which she would never forgive herself. The money was her way of releasing Jared, breaking the cord that bound them.

Jared McNeil. Out of my life.

The idea terrified her. She was nothing but a clueless teenager in his eyes when they first met, but hell, his dark brown, wavy hair, cobalt blue eyes, and smoking-hot body did something to her sixteen-year-old heart. That hadn’t changed. In fact, when those amazing eyes smiled at her, warmth pulsed from the tip of her head to her toes—and everywhere in between. But nothing could ever become of those feelings. It was long past time for her to yank the adhesive bandage off a festering wound. It didn’t matter she wanted him in her life as much as she needed air.

Elías Mendoza would never leave Jared alone.

She could still see Jared beaten, his arm hanging to his side all those years ago. The scene never went away, nor did Jared’s words asking her to go into protective custody.

If only I had listened to him.

Mendoza hadn’t stopped there. He waited for Jared to come after him, his sick plan in place. Jennie tried to shake the horrific image of three years ago, but the memories haunted her even during her waking hours—never allowing her any peace.

Jared handcuffed to a chair in one of Mendoza’s hellholes, his body covered in blackish-blue bruises and his chest carved up like a turkey, bleeding to death. He’d gone after Mendoza so she would be free of the sick bastard’s obsession.

The madness stops today. She would pay her debt and take the bastard on. If he wants her so bad, he can have her, but he will never hurt anyone she cares about again.

As soon as the light changed, Jennie drove across the intersection and eased into the parking lot. She zoomed in on the entrance as her heart pounded in her head. You can do this, you have to do this. Sucking in a deep breath, she left the sanctuary of her car.

She stepped inside the entrance and glanced around the glass-enclosed lobby. Everything was exactly as it had been eight years ago: the same blaring florescent lights, the same sterile industrial furnishing, and the same hard plastic chair she sat in waiting to be questioned.

“How can I help you, miss?” a male uniformed officer asked from behind the counter.

Clenching her fists, she stiffened her back and approached him. “Yes, I would like to see Detective McNeil, please.”

“Which one?”

Damn…Of course…walk out the door. Now!

“Miss, I don’t have all day.”

“Ja . . . Jared McNeil,” she stuttered.

“Do you have an appointment with the lieutenant?”

“I didn’t know I would need one.”

“Miss, he’s a busy man. Usually people don’t just walk in off the street to gab with him.”

“Of course not.” Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach. Clutching the strap of her handbag, her gaze darted around the room as she tried to come up with a plan B.

“Miss?”

She handed the envelope to the officer. “May I leave this with you?”

He turned it around in his hand. “What is it? There’s no name or anything,” the officer said and handed it back to her.

“Oh, sorry.” She reached in her purse and removed a pen. With clean, precise letters, she wrote out Jared’s full name and title. “Is there anyone I can leave it with?”

“I think Doria is working this shift. She may be able to get it to him. Give me just a minute.” He picked up the desk phone, never taking his eyes off her.

“Doria said you can bring it on up. Just take the stairs to the third floor.”

Nodding her thanks, she headed toward the stairs. Her heart ached. It would be easier if she didn’t see him. But that meant she would walk away without one last smile or the feel of his arms around her…without one final embrace.

Mistakes came with consequences and it was time she faced hers. Elías Mendoza was alive, free to destroy everything he touched. The moment she said good-bye to Jared, one way or another, she was going to stop Mendoza.

On the third floor, Jennie approached the front desk right inside the doorway. A woman who looked to be in her sixties greeted her with a generous smile. “Jackson downstairs said you had something you wanted me to give to the lieutenant.”

“Hi. My name is Jennie McKenzie.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. McKenzie. Everyone around here calls me Doria. I’m sorry, but Lieutenant McNeil is in with his team and can’t be disturbed.”

“I should’ve thought of that. It was rude of me to just drop in like this.” She retrieved the envelope from her purse and handed it to Doria. “Can you give this to Jared when you see him?”

“What do you have there? Can’t be too careful these days,” Doria replied, as she turned the envelope over in her hands.

“It’s personal, but if you need to see it, I can open it for you.”

“I see,” Doria said, studying Jennie. “Have we ever met, Ms. McKenzie? I’ve seen you somewhere before, but I just can’t seem to place you. I never forget a face.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever met.”

Doria snapped her fingers and pointed at Jennie. “I know,” she said with a wide smile. “Aren’t you that young teacher in the Baltimore Sun this morning? I saw a picture of you with all your students. I have it right here.” Doria began to flip through the sections of the Sun lying on top of her desk and pulled out the style section.

“Finalist for Teacher of the Year! What an honor for someone so young.”

Heat rose in Jennie’s cheeks. “Yes, that’s my fifth-grade class. I still don’t know how I was selected.”

“You were chosen because you deserve it. I’m a very good judge of character, Ms. McKenzie, and you’re what I call good people.” Holding the letter out to Jennie, she said, “I think you’re safe enough. Just set it on his desk. It’s the open door on your left.”

A little overwhelmed, Jennie thanked Doria and walked the short distance to the back corner of the large squad room. Squaring her shoulders, she entered Jared’s office and stood still, taking it all in.

The scent of leather and Jared’s musky cologne lingered in the air. No plants or family pictures crowded the bookcase or desk, but his overpowering presence filled the space.

Since the day Jared McNeil had entered her life, she had developed a strange talent of being able to feel him. It was like a sixth sense that let her know he was close, and she was safe. There was no explanation that explain her reaction, especially since she was so incredibly nervous around him.

She eased to the edge of his sofa and took a moment to compose a note.

For once, I’m glad I live halfway across the state from you. I can see your expression: Tight jaw, eyes almost black—you’re not very happy with me. I discovered your secret. There never was a special tuition endowment. You were the endowment. I know you never wanted me to discover what you did, nor did you expect me to pay you back, but I need to, for me.

Tell Noah I didn’t rob a bank. I saved every penny and have the books to prove it. Your brother will never trust me while you seem to have an infallible trust in me, something I’ve never earned or understood. If you tear up the check, I’ll just have another one issued. Besides, you can use it on the next stupid, harebrained teen who finds herself in your path.

What Jennie couldn’t bring herself to write in the note screamed inside her head. You are the first person I think of when I wake up every morning and the last person I pray for before I go to sleep. I will do anything necessary to keep you safe. He will never hurt you again because of me.

She swiped a tear from her cheek, signed the note, and stapled it to the envelope. Taking one last look around, Jennie left the office.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

The cold, deep baritone voice, so much like Jared’s, came from behind. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stood stiff as a statue.

Jennie faced Jared’s identical twin. Of course, it would be Noah, the universe’s cruel joke. Just when she thought she was free—wham! She was sucked right back in.

“I asked you a question, Jennifer McKenzie, and you damn well better answer me.”

“Noah McNeil, I swear if you don’t stop hollering at this young lady, you’re going to have to deal with me,” Doria said, placing herself in between Jennie and Noah. “I gave her permission to put something on Jared’s desk, which is none of your business.”

“It damn well is my business when it concerns my brother and this bitc…”

“Don’t you dare use that kind of language in my presence, young man,” Doria commanded. “I washed your mouth out with soap plenty of times in your life. Don’t think I won’t do it again.”

Jennie stepped back and bumped into a desk. Noah’s hatred was nothing new, but it tore her heart to pieces.

Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and stared. Jennie wanted to sink into the crack of the linoleum floor. The scene would be hilarious if she weren’t in the middle of it. Doria had to be at least a foot and half shorter than Noah, but she could hold her own. She was one scary lady. Maybe she gave lessons.

Taking note of Doria’s example, Jennie squared her shoulders. Noah was almost the mirror image of Jared: same height, same dark brown hair that in a certain light appeared black, deep cobalt blue eyes that sparkled with laughter, but darkened to black when angered.

But the similarities ended there. Jared appeared hard on the surface, underneath the persona he presented to the world was one of the kindest men Jennie had ever known. And while Noah appeared approachable, even fun-loving, he was as hard and unforgiving as they come.

“I’m here to leave something for Jared. If you would move your gargantuan, pigheaded self, I’ll leave.” Jennie shifted around him, but he blocked her move.

With his voice barely above a whisper, Noah asked one more time, “What are you doing here? I distinctly remember you gave me your word that you would stay away from him. Does your word mean nothing?”

Nick’s famous saying rang in her head: Never show pain to the enemy. Sadly, that was how she viewed Noah. He would destroy her without a backward glance, but he was the person in Jared’s life who meant the most to him.

“My word is everything. I’ve stayed away since Jared returned from Mexico. No contact.” She swallowed and took in a shaky breath. “I’m not here to make any trouble. Please, just get out of my way so I can leave.”

“You’ve been trouble from the second he laid eyes on you. Haven’t you caused him enough pain?”

“I hate what happened to him, and I know it’s my fault, but I never meant…”

“You’ve done nothing but cause him pain. Do I need to remind you of the scars that bastard carved into my brother, or the condition he was in when we got him back home?” Noah reached over and grasped hold of Jennie’s upper arm.

“Let go.” Jennie instinctively jerked her arm free. Her elbow shot up and whacked Noah’s nose, drawing blood.

“Son of a bitch.” Noah’s hand covered his nose. Blood began to drip down the back of his fingers.

Jennie broke free and stepped back. She met Doria’s gaze. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” She rushed past the older woman and headed toward the stairwell.

She didn’t get far. Noah grabbed her arm and pinned it behind her back. Jennie tried to pull free, but his hold tightened.

“Now, Noah, you don’t want to do that,” Doria said, placing a hand on his arm.

“Yeah, I do.” He removed the handcuffs hooked to the back of his belt loop and began to cuff her.

“Let. Her. Go.”

Jennie faced Jared as he closed in on them. The steel cuff dug into her skin and Noah’s fingers bruised her arm, but she felt nothing. Jared’s presence usually calmed her, but not today. Waves of shame and embarrassment washed over her.

“Like hell I will.” Noah swiped the blood draining from his nose with the corner of his sleeve.

Jared grabbed his twin’s wrist just as he placed the second cuff on Jennie.

“I won’t ask again.”

The brothers’ stormy eyes held each other for a moment before Noah released her arm.

Jared lifted Jennie’s chin so their eyes met. “Are you okay?”

“What the hell, Jared?” Noah interrupted, blood streaming from his nose.

Jared grabbed a box of tissues off Doria’s desk and tossed it at Noah. He removed the cuff, flung it across the desk and wrapped his arm around her shoulder, drawing her close. Addressing the squad room, he said, “The show’s over. Find something to do or I’ll find you something.” Everyone flinched and hurried to look busy.

He faced Jennie, his voice low. “Please, come back to my office.”

“No.” Jennie shrugged his arm from her shoulder. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

Jared moved toward her.

“Please let me go,” she whispered. Her eyes filled with tears and she choked down humiliation as she backed further away from both men.

Without another word, she raced down the stairs.

*

Doria stood quiet during the whole exchange. “I’ll see that she makes it to her car, Jared.” He nodded then his gaze fell on his brother.

“Are you a complete ass?” Jared stiffened his arms to his side. He wanted nothing more than to jab a fist into his twin’s face.

“No, bro, but you sure the hell are.”

Both men moved within inches of each other, eyes narrowed, bodies tense. The room was dead quiet as several members of their team stood by prepared to pull them off each other.

Jared broke the silence. “You’re wrong about Jennie. She’s not one of Mendoza’s moles.”

A low grumble came from Noah’s throat as he glared at his brother. “I have nightmares too, damn it, and Jennie is right in the middle of all of them. The next time you go against Mendoza to protect her, none of us will survive it.”


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