Innocent Target by Maddie Wade

Chapter One

James Valentine lovedthe time of night when most everyone had gone home, and he was alone in the building with his thoughts. Shane had talked about them maybe getting a chopper in the future, and he was doing some research on that.

As an Airforce pilot, he could fly anything—from planes to Chinooks and everything in between. Being in the air was his happy place, and while he loved his job here at Alliance and what they did, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t miss it. The freedom, the peace, the exhilaration of being free.

His thoughts turned to the other pilot in the agency. Mercy Broussard was his own personal enigma; beautiful, brave, and hiding secrets he wanted to solve. That they were colleagues made his attraction to her tricky. That she didn’t seem to want anything serious had him keeping his distance, even though he wanted to take things further between them.

Her background was a little different from his; she flew planes as an acrobatic pilot, did stunts that turned him green knowing how dangerous they were and how much skill it took to execute them. James didn’t know exactly how she’d gotten into that, but her more recent job had been with the NOPD SWAT Team. She was deadly and beautiful, a combination that was hard to ignore. But he couldn’t throw his career here away for a woman who showed little interest in him except as a friend.

His job was everything to him, and he was reluctant to do anything that would jeopardize the place he’d made for himself here. Leaving the Airforce had been the single biggest regret he had, and only signing on with Shane and Emme and becoming part of Alliance had filled that void in his soul.

The door to the tech room where he was doing his research opened, and it was as if his thoughts had conjured her up. Mercy strolled toward him, her petite frame hiding the lethal weapon that she was. Today she wore her shoulder-length blonde hair in a sensible ponytail, making her face appear younger. Her pale blue eyes roamed over him, giving him the impression she may be attracted to him too, but in a split second the desire he thought he’d glimpsed was gone.

“Deciding which chopper we should get?”

“Yeah, I want to make sure Shane and Emme don’t waste their money.”

“Let’s see what you have.”

Mercy pulled up a chair beside him and sat down, bringing it close so they could share one screen. Her strawberry scent that always made him think of her was strong, and he fought the desire to sniff the air like some horn dog.

Instead, he brought up the choppers he was looking at on the screen. He was about to show her when the security system pinged an alert, telling him someone was outside the door.

Wheeling sideways, he looked at the monitor and frowned, blinked, and looked again. The black and white image made it difficult to see clearly, but if he didn’t know better, he’d swear that his sister was standing at the door and she had something in her arms.

“What the hell?”

“What is it?” Mercy was beside him, her voice holding an edge of concern.

James didn’t answer. Instead, he moved to the door to see for himself. He hadn’t seen Bethany in over a year, hadn’t spoken to her in six months, and now she was here on his office’s doorstep at eleven at night.

“James!”

He turned as he hit the lobby and saw Mercy looking at him, her eyebrow raised in question.

“It’s my sister. She’s outside.” He deactivated the alarm as he saw surprise move across Mercy’s face.

Ignoring it, he pulled open the door and sure enough, there stood Bethany, looking nothing like the sister he’d last seen. Her face was pale and drawn and she looked too thin, her hair long and greasy, lying lank across her face. Then she looked up, and he saw despair and fear, as well as evidence of exhaustion in the circles around her eyes. None of those things were what held him rooted to the spot; no, that was the tiny newborn cradled in her arms.

“Hi, Jamie.”

Her voice broke as she spoke his name, then he was pulling her inside from the cold, wrapping her in his arms. He felt her shudder against him as she burst into tears. James had lots of experience with his sister’s tears.

He’d learned early on that most women just needed to be held and allowed to cry it out. Men without sisters didn’t understand that, and always tried to fix everything, when sometimes all women wanted was another person to be strong for them while they couldn’t.

This time was different. He took her sobs, her shudders of fear into his own body and held on tight, worry a knot in his belly as he looked at Mercy over his sister’s head, silently asking for her help.

“Why don’t we get you somewhere more comfortable.” Mercy laid a gentle hand on Beth’s back, and James was shocked to feel her shudder at the touch.

Mercy lifted her hand and backed away as Beth lifted her head, looking at Mercy with caution and wariness in her once trusting eyes. She looked up at him, and he smiled reassuringly, so many questions running through his head. James wasn’t a fool, though; he knew if he bombarded her, she’d flee. He could see it in her eyes.

“Who is this?” He nodded to the tiny baby who looked no more than a couple of weeks old. A cute button nose was peeking out from the thin blanket, long dark lashes lay against rosy cheeks.

James saw the look of love flitter over his sister’s face, and he knew at that moment he was looking at his niece or nephew. Hiding the shock, he gazed at the innocent child of his blood.

“This is Abbie, your niece.”

It was clear to anyone with a brain the love in her voice was real, and James couldn’t help the rush of instant love he felt for this little bundle. With his arm around Beth, he could feel a shiver run through her body.

“Let’s get you into the conference room, and you can catch me up. Clearly, I missed the memo about your pregnancy.”

Beth walked slowly, and James slowed his gait as Mercy held the door open for them, a question in her eyes as she looked at him. He wished he could answer, but he had no clue what was going on either.

He settled his sister, and she hunched over on the seat as she held her baby tight to her body. “She gets fussy at this time of night,” Beth said as she rocked Abbie, gently soothing her. “Would you like to hold her?” Beth asked, and James nodded.

Unlike a lot of men, he was used to babies. His older sister Mel had two, although he didn’t see them as much as he’d like now that they lived in New York. Beth rose and, with the utmost care, laid her daughter in his arms. James looked down at the small bundle, his finger larger than her hand. Her eyes opened sleepily before she blinked up at him. His world settled as he knew another female had entered his life that he’d die to protect. Abbie clutched at his finger, turning her head and looking for food.

“She’s beautiful, Beth.” His sister looked on with a smile on her face that was radiant. “When did you have her?

“On Mom’s birthday two weeks ago.” Instinctively she touched her finger to her daughter’s sweet cheek, brushing it gently.

“Do Mom and Dad know?”

“No. I couldn’t tell them, James. You know how things got after I left. They’ll hate me if I go back with a kid in tow.”

James shook his head and reached for her hand, noticing the brief flicker of hope before she doused it and closed down on him, pulling her hand away.

“Would you like some cocoa or anything to eat?” Mercy asked.

James almost sighed in relief as Mercy stepped in to break the ice. Something was going on. Beth had always been the wild child, the one most likely to get in trouble but she was also the brightest of the three siblings. But now though, he detected a broken quality in his little sister that had never been there before.

“Is there somewhere I can wash up or take a shower?” Beth asked, focusing on Mercy, and showing none of the fear from before.

“Yes, of course. Let me go get you some spare clothes.”

Mercy disappeared, and Beth tilted her head at him, a light of mischief in her eyes he was relieved to see.

“Girlfriend?”

“Nah, colleague,” James answered, but he should have known his sister would call him out, she’d never missed a thing growing up and now was no different.

“But you want her to be more.”

James shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what I want. She doesn’t.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that if I were you.”

James didn’t have a chance to say more because Mercy came back in with a bundle of clothes and toiletries.

Mercy held her hand out for Beth to follow. “Let me show you where to go.”

Beth dropped a bag he hadn’t realized she’d been carrying onto the floor. “That’s Abbie’s stuff, everything you need is in there. Will you be okay with her?”

James smirked at his sister as she stroked her daughter’s fingers and gazed at her with so much love in her eyes. “I’ve taken care of a baby before, you know. I can cope.”

Beth smiled, although James noticed it didn’t reach her eyes that were misty until she blinked, and the sadness was hidden again. He knew his older sister had been the same after her kids were born. Tired, emotional, overwhelmed, and she had a husband. James had yet to broach the subject of Abbie’s father, wanting Beth to settle a little first.

“I know but I wanted to check.”

“Go. Take a shower and relax. Abbie and I are going to get acquainted.”

James watched his sister and Mercy leave, listening to their hushed voices as they moved further away. He watched his niece, wondering at the mystery behind her arrival and knowing there was so much more going on than he could fathom. But now they were here, he could take the time and find out how he could help his sister.

Mercy walked back in, her eyebrows raised as she moved closer, looking down at the baby in his arms. “She is so cute, and I have to say, Romeo, it totally suits you.”

James looked up with a smirk on his face. “You think?”

“Total babe magnet.”

James laughed. “What about you, Merc? Does this get your motor running?”

“Haha! Not sure this is in my future.”

James saw pain cross her eyes and a longing she couldn’t hide as she watched them. So many women in his life were hiding shit from him. “Well, little miss, let me show you some beautiful big airplanes.”

Mercy grinned. “Not sure that’s going to impress her much at this stage.”

“I know, but it stops my mind from going in a hundred different directions as to what’s going on right now.”

Mercy sat beside him and turned the chair to face him. “I take it you didn’t know about Abbie.”

“No fucking clue about her birth or that my baby sister was pregnant. We haven’t exactly seen eye to eye since she shacked up with some biker gang up north.”

Mercy rubbed her lips with her thumb, and James bit back the desire it evoked as he imagined her soft lips against his. “Wonder if the father is a biker?”

“No clue, but I’m going to find out. Talking of which, where the hell has Beth got to?”

James stood with Abbie in his arms, a sudden urgency flowing through him as a terrible thought pinged into his brain, making him fear the worst. Mercy must have thought it too because she stood and rushed toward the door with him.

He hit the ladies’ room just after her, but he knew. The silence was deafening as Mercy searched the stalls. The only thing they found was a note with one word on it. “SORRY.”

His sister had run, leaving him holding her two-week-old baby in his arms.