DANGER IS HER ALIAS
As a spy, Sabine Laduca works alone. But when she investigates her brother's murder, she's forced into an uneasy alliance with his Delta Force team leader. The CIA taught Sabine to trust no one, and Sergeant Major Doug Richardson is no exception. The handsome soldier hides his own secrets, but nothing will stop Sabine from finding out who killed her brother. Not even when the CIA declares her rogue. Now not only is the killer after her, so is the agency. For the first time, she needs someone—Doug. Because only he can help her find the truth…and only he can keep her safe….
Read my Harlequin interview HERE
What follows is a DELETED SCENE! The original first chapter.
It's Ben's funeral, so Doug and the team are at Sabine's house for the wake. It's full of fabulous things like backstory and telling, which is why it was deleted. But you get a feel for the angst, the secrets and the conflict. There are also some chunks that were inserted into the actual book later, so if you've read the book you might notice a couple of paragraphs that sound a little familiar. Enjoy!
None of them had smiled in weeks, not since Ben’s death. Army Sergeant Major Doug Richardson removed his beret, closing the front door behind him. The whole house smelled like flowers from the funeral arrangements. Full of rich wood floors and landscape paintings, framed photos stretched up the staircase wall. Images of Ben as a child playing at the beach, Ben on prom night.
Ben walking his big sister up the aisle to marry the wrong guy.
The fact that one in particular still hung was a surprise, since Doug heard the divorce was finalized three years ago.
Catching the eye of his team mate, Barker, Doug got a nod in the direction of the kitchen. He bypassed the living room, avoiding small talk with any of the guests and headed for the end of the hall.
In the time Ben had been part of the team, Doug had met the guy’s sister maybe twice at barbecues. Seeing her standing alone beside Ben’s grave, the wind whipping hair around her face, the weight of her grief had just about killed him. It made him almost miss the strain when she was handed the folded up flag. Had anyone touched her, it would have broken under the tight hold on her emotions.
Sabine hadn’t spoken to anyone, or made eye contact with any of the mourners gathered. That ‘don’t come near me’ attitude was something she came by naturally. Ben had been the same way—confident almost to a fault.
It didn’t surprise him she was some high-powered financial type at the bank where she worked. Travelling all over the world for her job, Ben had told anyone who would listen that his sister was a big deal.
Easing open the frosted glass door, he saw her in profile, between the center island and the counter. As she gripped the edges of the sink, Doug finally he got a look at her knee-length black dress. It flattered her figure in a way that wasn’t suggestive. She was pure class. Her only nod to color on this somber occasion was a pair of red heels that raised her to his height.
She took his breath away so much that he could barely get a word out. Despite his status as team leader, he mostly figured she thought he was a moron.
Her dark hair fell around her face, its strands reflecting everything from auburn to dark chocolate under the fluorescent light. The muscles in her torso heaved with each breath, her flower necklace swinging as she sucked in air.
He must have made a noise, because Sabine whipped around. When she saw who was standing there she took a deep breath and relaxed. That had to be a sign in his favor.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you.” His shoes clipped on the tile floor.
She turned away to wipe down the spotless granite counter with a shaky hand. He’d have believed she was fine had she not sucked in a breath that sounded suspiciously like a sob. Doug crossed to her, taking the dishcloth from her hand and tossing it back in the sink.
She lifted her eyes to his, almond pools that shimmered with tears. He knew if he hugged her she’d lose it, so he lightly touched her shoulder.
“I wasn’t going to…I can’t…” Her rich voice was hoarse.
Doug fought the need to hold her and never let go, but he held still. All that training had to count for something. Discipline he could handle. The feelings that threatened to overwhelm him every time he saw Sabine were more difficult to deal with. Especially now.
He pulled a tumbler from a glass-fronted cupboard and filled it at the fridge. She sipped slowly, avoiding his eyes.
Sabine gripped the glass like it was a line of defense. “Thank you.”
She thought he was offering her condolences. Doug would have done, if he thought he could get the words out.
There was so much to apologize for.
Again, he found himself fighting the urge to hold her. “Do you need anything?”
She looked relieved at the change in subject. “A group of little old ladies from Ben’s church filled the freezer with enough meals for a month.” She paused. “Everyone’s been really nice.”
Doug touched her elbow. It was slender, her skin smooth under his rough fingers, calloused from a war he never wanted to reach her shore.
In that moment he was struck by the contrast between his chocolate colored skin and the olive, almost Mediterranean hue of hers. Ben had been much lighter. Doug had wondered before why the siblings hadn’t looked anything alike. The one day he dared to ask, he’d been given a ‘back-off’ look. He hadn’t asked Ben again.
“They just want to help. They know how bad you’re hurting because they feel the same way. Ben was dear to all of us. From the first day I met him I considered him my brother. My annoyingly over-smart little brother.”
Sabine exhaled. Any other time it would have been a laugh. “That sounds familiar.”
“He was a pain, but he won us all over. You couldn’t help loving him.”
Her full pink lips thinned. “And now he’s gone.”
“It won’t always feel like this. It’ll ease.”
She shook her head, her hair waving back and forth. “I don’t want it to ease. If the pain goes away it means I’m forgetting him.”
“It’s okay to heal, Sabine.”
“Sounds like you know.”
“I’ve lost brothers before. It doesn’t get easier, but you learn how to deal with it. Some of the guys drink too much. Some blow off the steam of their grief in other ways. You have to, or you’ll bottle it up until one day you explode.”
Her eyes lifted. To his surprise there was a distinct lack of vulnerability there. This lady had an iron core. “What do you do?”
“I run. And I pray while I run.”
Sabine pulled away from him for the second time. He didn’t know where she stood on the whole faith thing, but Ben had been a new Christian before his death. Time and again he’d caught the younger man eyeing him over something he said or did. One night, alone on a mission Ben asked him why he was different than the other team members.
Two days later Ben told Doug he’d made a commitment to follow Jesus.
Two weeks after that Doug was holding his body when Ben took his last breath.
Sabine looked at the door that led to the living room. There was a look on her face he couldn’t decipher. “I should go out there.”
Ah, so she didn’t want to face everyone. She was probably scared to be around people who were grieving when she was close to losing it herself. Ben never liked people to know what he felt.
“You don’t have to go out there. I’ll run interference for you. Just tell me what to do.”
“Thanks.” She hesitated a moment. “It’s Doug, right?”
His heart sank. She hadn’t even known his name. “Yeah, it’s Doug.”
“I might still call you MacArthur, though. The way the guys do.”
He gave her a small smile. She probably thought of him as MacArthur, since the nickname was thrown around frequently. “It’s actually my middle name.”
He nodded. “Douglas MacArthur Richardson.”
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t get me started. It’s an old family tradition, and with generations of soldiers we’re pretty big on traditions.”
“That’s right. Your dad is some kind of big-time General. I remember Ben saying.”
“He was pretty big in his day. Now he mostly smokes cigars in his library and complains about the cost of prescriptions.”
The corners of Sabine’s mouth curled up, like she was fighting a smile. He wished she’d let it out. He’d seen her smile. It was incredible. Bested only when she tipped her head back and full-on laughed.
She turned away, pulling a silver platter of tiny sandwiches from the fridge. Doug took it from her. “Living room?”
She nodded. “Please.”
Turning back, he saw the wide-eyes. The hurt little girl left bereft by the death of her brother.
He smiled, wondering what she would say when she found out Ben’s death was his fault.
Sabine watched him leave, wondering why her heart felt like it had just woken up for the first time. That had never happened any of the other times she’d met MacArthur—Doug. The simple name suited his steady and uncomplicated nature. For the first time, Sabine saw him as more than her brother’s team leader. He’d been a friend to her.
When you had few true friends it was hard to recognize one, or to trust the offer of friendship when it was given to you. She was thankful Doug had sought to comfort her. That was something severely lacking in her life, but it still made her feel weak. And guilty.
Starting another pot of military-strength coffee, Sabine glanced at the clock. Ever since the phone call that morning, she’d been on edge. She had to figure out how to make sure everyone was out of her house by seven that evening. It was four-thirty already, and she still had preparations to make for tomorrow.
It didn’t matter that it was the day of her brother’s funeral; there was a score to settle. When it was all over and her brother’s killer was brought to justice, then she would take time off. Until then she had to push away the tide of grief threatening to drown her. Despite the urgency of what she had to do tomorrow and the time-sensitive aspect of it, the work itself would be a much needed distraction. She had to focus on something that would take everything she had. It would push her to draw deep of her strengths in order to succeed.
Ben had reacted…badly, when she told him what she really did for a living. Granted, he’d been thrown after finally admitting to her what his position was in the Army. Delta Force. After he told her he was Special Ops, Sabine couldn’t let the opportunity pass to open up about her own occupation. Who knew he would hit the roof when he found out her job was just as dangerous as his—maybe more so since she didn’t have a team to back her up.
Sabine realized then what it was that made her feel weak accepting Doug’s comfort. It meant she couldn’t handle things on her own. After saying ‘thank you’ fifty-seven million times that day, accepting well-meant condolences, offers of help and containers of casserole, Sabine needed to feel capable.
She needed a win tomorrow.
Doug came back into the kitchen. He rounded the center island, far too at ease with his size. He was big—not only in height, but across the shoulders too. It was a wonder he fit through doorways. Ben had been skinny and baby-faced his whole life. Even at thirty-one his uniform made him look more like a kid playing dress up than an actual soldier. Doug, on the other hand, made the dark green dress uniform look good. Mouthwateringly good.
He took the pot of coffee. “I’ll see who wants a refill.”
She nodded, distracted by his voice. It was deep and almost melodic in tone. She liked listening to him shout instructions when the guys played their extremely intense version of touch-football. Now she knew that when he spoke in that low voice, it chased away the shivers.
Too bad nothing could come of it.
Ben’s reaction to her job had been tempered by what he knew of her capabilities. Doug was different. She’d done all the observing she could over the years, without being obvious. A man like Doug would never accept a strong woman who was inclined to take care of herself.
He’d want to be the hero.
If Sabine had to define what she wanted, it’d be a man who would be her partner in life. Someone who would stand beside her instead of in front of her trying to protect her from things she had plenty of experience with. If she hadn’t learned how to take care of herself by now, she wouldn’t have the job she loved so much. Still, considering her abysmal history, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to go that far.
Alone was a whole lot simpler.
Doug would want a woman who was the stay at home type. His wife would be pregnant and homeschooling their other kids while he went all over the world on missions. Missions he couldn’t tell her about. The thought of it made her shudder, not that she had anything against kids. Other peoples were fine…when they weren’t screaming, tearing around the place and making a mess.
It might be nice to have someone around the house though, or to experience more of the comfort Doug had shown her. A tempting thought, if only to see how different it would be to Maxwell’s coldness.
The memory of Sabine’s ex-husband crested over her like a wave of ice water. It wasn’t worth going there, even in comparison. That time in her life was over. He had a new wife now, one he was free to ignore unless he was in the mood to criticize everything about her.
When tomorrow’s mission was over she should look into getting a pet. Cats were friendly, right?
Doug came back in, a beam of sunlight breaking through rain clouds. He frowned, probably seeing that she hadn’t moved and replaced the now-empty coffee pot. “I know it’s a stupid question but are you okay?”
“The water just made me cold is all.” Sabine rubbed goose bumps from her arms. “You know what? I do need your help with something.”
He nodded. “Anything. You only have to ask.”
She tried to smile. “If you could get people to start thinking about leaving, that would really help me. I could use some time alone right now.”
He looked surprised, but recovered fast. “Of course.”
She felt bad knowing she was kicking everyone out so she could get ready for work. They were all reminiscing over Ben. She couldn’t do that until his killer was caught.
She sucked in a breath. Soon.
“I appreciate it, Doug.”
People filed through the kitchen, tall men in uniforms whose faces blurred through the sheen of tears. Sabine accepted yet more condolences and helped get coats from the hall closet. Their pitying looks made her stand straight, determined not to give in to the lump in her throat.
When the door closed behind the last person, Doug stepped into the hall, his eyes seeing far too much. “No one expects you to be fine.”
“Good.” She sniffed. “Because I’m not.”
His face softened.
As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t let it tempt her. “Good night, Doug.”
“Kicking me out?”
Her eyes widened.
“I was planning on helping you clean up.”
She sighed, more for show than anything else. “I’m really tired. I’ll straighten up in the morning.”
It bothered her that she was forced to do this to Doug just to get him to leave. She couldn’t tell him the real reason she needed everyone gone. Today was not the day for that conversation. With any luck they would lose touch and she’d never have to brace herself for his reaction.
He nodded, clearly disheartened. “I’ll leave you to it then.”
When the door closed behind him, Sabine kicked off those torturous heels and took the stairs two at a time.
She had a plane to catch.