Peter Ranger has settled into a life that’s about half of what he once envisioned. He runs the business he’d always dreamed of having while raising his 3-year-old daughter. That he’s doing it alone since Kiena’s mother died two years ago is something he’s adjusted to. Kiena’s ability to communicate with animals just makes her one more extraordinary person in his life. And if there’s a gaping hole left by the women he’s loved, well, he’s not eager to try filling it. He’s happy with what he has.
And then someone comes along and threatens to take it all away.
Brooklyne Harte’s work for the Agency for the Registration and Protection of Extraordinary People doesn’t take her out in the field anymore, but her professional relationship with Peter’s sister obligates her to take on Kiena’s case when someone starts harassing and threatening her father. Kiena’s younger than the usual ARPEP registrant, and it’s too early to tell if her abilities will make her a target or asset. But given little choice, Brook takes on what she expects to be a straightforward, albeit undercover job.
As complications mount and her investigation drags on, it doesn’t take long for both Peter and Kiena to burrow deep into her heart. When Kiena’s abilities turn out to be far more than anyone realized, she becomes an immediate target. Peter has to trust Brook to save his daughter, but since she’s lied to him from the moment they met, can he trust her with his soul?
Peter stood in the quiet warehouse and watched his daughter struggle to reach the next bar on the preschool climber that dominated the space. She stretched her little arm high, her baby fingers spread, her tongue poking between her lips. He stood behind her, hands ready to lift her the extra inch, but she bounced once and managed to grab the bar. After that, it was a scramble to the top.
Shaking his head, Peter made a notation on the clipboard hanging from his belt. The design needed some adjustment in this section. Not all three-year-olds were as determined and capable as his. But aside from that, the project was complete. A few tweaks and they’d be ready for installation.
“Ena, sweetie, time to go.”
Kiena trotted across the bridge to the far side of the unit. The framework held steady, with no movement or flexing where there shouldn’t be. She flopped onto her butt and zoomed down the slide before running back around the climber to him.
His heart clenched, the way it always did when she grinned at him, dimples sinking into her rounded cheeks, her big eyes sparkling, dark blonde hair flying. She was his whole life, and he’d do anything to protect her.
“Daddy, can we go see Auntie Ethel and Grampa Paul?” She jumped, confident he’d catch her, and he hefted her to his shoulder.
“Not now, sweetie.” He shut off the lights in the warehouse and locked the door behind them. “We need to go to the grocery store.”
Her lip pushed out and her eyes got even bigger.
Sucker. “All right. But just for a minute.”
“’Kay.” She rested her elbow on his shoulder and looked around. “Where the truck?”
“In the back.” When she struggled to get down, he tightened his grip around her hips. The elastic waist of her jeans dragged down her butt. “Stay up here, Kiena. We’re in a parking lot.”
“Kosher! I wanna see Kosher!”
Peter sighed. Kosher was a dog guarding the property next door. Kiena’s adoration of the Doberman would have terrified him if she hadn’t befriended a pit bull, a Chihuahua, and three golden retrievers before that. And that was just the dogs. Still, though he doubted Kosher presented a threat to his daughter, he hated to let her near him. “Not today,” he was about to say, but she turned her begging eyes on him. “Just for a second,” he conceded. Big-time sucker.
When they got to the side of the building, Kiena struggled to get down again. He set her on her feet, adjusted her pants, and let her run to the fence where Kosher already waited, panting. Peter could have sworn the dog grinned back at her. He nuzzled the hand she poked through the fence before standing with head cocked, panting as Kiena babbled at him. Then he closed his mouth and stared at her. She nodded, then scampered back to her father.
“Kosher say thank you, Daddy.” She slipped her hand into his and bounced along beside him. “He say he get lonely. His boss never play with him or talk to him.” She looked up thoughtfully. “Next time, can we bring him a ball?”
“Sure, sweetie.” He doubted Kosher’s “boss” would appreciate it, but Peter obviously had no backbone when it came to his daughter. By the end of the week, Kosher would have a ball.
He strapped her into her car seat in the back of his double-cab pickup and drove the few blocks to the house his father and aunt shared. He parked behind his sister’s SUV, noting his father’s Buick and Aunt Ethel’s Toyota were in the driveway instead of the garage.
“Aunt Lexa’s here!” Kiena squirmed in her seat until Peter got out and unbuckled her harness. In seconds she was out of the car and running across the lawn. “Why can’t you be that fast when I’m in a hurry?” he grumbled, grabbing his pack and following her. She was banging on the front door with the flat of her hand when he caught up to her.
Alexa opened the door, all smiles for her niece, but Peter saw the shadow beneath it. “Where’s Ryc?” he asked, kissing her on the cheek.
“On a job.”
The way she said it explained the look in her eyes. Peter waited until Kiena ran off to look for her grandfather. “Is he late reporting in?”
Alexa shook her head. “No, but it’s a rough job. And his cover’s shaky.”
Peter knew not to ask any more. Alexa and Ryc had been running a high-level security agency for the last eight years. They worked mostly for the government, and Peter was used to being out of the loop. But Alexa, a former spy, loved her job and lived for the thrill. Rarely did she display any fear.
Peter hugged her. “It’ll work out,” he said lamely. But Alexa nodded against his shoulder, and when she pulled back, the shadow had retreated.
“Let’s go find your kid before she talks Dad out of half a dozen lollipops.”
She’d only conned three when they found them in the kitchen. Paul listened intently as his granddaughter told him about her morning, then sent her off to play in the family room where they kept her toys.
“So, the women’s shelter playground equipment is finished.” Paul pulled himself to his feet and went to the cupboard, setting three mugs on the counter.
“Nearly.” Peter retrieved the coffee carafe and poured. “I have a few adjustments to make before I bring the board in to approve it.” He sipped the coffee. Smooth. “Aunt Ethel made this, huh?” he teased his father.
Paul snorted as he added sugar to his. “Ethel’s coffee is strong enough to float a dinosaur. I made it.”
“So what’s going on?” Peter leaned against the counter as his father and Alexa sat at the kitchen table. “Why are the cars in the driveway?”
Paul’s natural scowl deepened and Alexa winced.
“Uh, oh.” Peter leaned against the counter. “What did she do now?”
Paul sighed. “It’s not that big a deal. She became the collection point for the Christmas drive for the church. She’s storing the stuff in the garage.”
Peter raised his eyebrows. “It’s only August.”
“Try telling her that. You know how she is.” He grunted, his mug halfway to his mouth. “Too damned efficient,” he grumbled, and Alexa laughed.
“She’s already collected enough clothing and toys for the entire town,” she explained. “Now she’s working on small appliances and furniture.”
“And there’s no room for woodworking,” Peter guessed.
“Hit the nail on the head. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Paul motioned for Peter to sit. “Tell us what you’re doing with Kiena next week.”
Peter topped off his coffee before he joined them. Next week he’d be on site, supervising the final assembly of the women’s shelter play center. It wasn’t safe for Kiena there. Usually he found a neighbor or his family to watch her, but Ethel was going on a trip with friends and his father had started working again, tired of being bored out of his mind.
“I’m putting her in daycare.” He braced for the reaction. Paul had never believed in “stranger care,” which was why Peter and Alexa had been raised by Aunt Ethel. But not everyone had an old maid aunt willing to take over a household after tragedy struck.
Peter rubbed his chest, the familiar pain taking a few jabs. His mother had died when he was eight, Alexa twelve. And Kiena’s mother had died when Ena was only a year old. She didn’t remember Margo at all and didn’t seem to be suffering right now for not having her around, but Peter suffered for her.
To his surprise, Paul nodded. “The new one on Dupont Street?” he asked. “Supposed to be a good place. Two of the guys at work use it. They rave about the curriculum.”
Peter frowned. “When did you change your tune?”
“I’m not an old dog, son.” He shrugged. “Things change. I know you can’t afford a nanny, and it’s more stable for her than being shuttled between friends and relatives all the time. Plus, there’s the whole socialization aspect.” He raised his mug to Peter before sipping.
“Uh, yeah.” Enjoying hearing his words coming back at him, Peter grinned. “Anyway, that’s the center, but the director just left. I don’t know anything about the new one yet. Hopefully she won’t change too much.”
Alexa, who had been looking a little lost in thought, perked up. “Want me to run a check on her?”
“No.” He laughed. “We don’t need to run a check on every person who comes into our lives, Alexa.”
“Why not do it, if we can?”
Something about the way she said it made Peter pause with his mug in the air. “What does that mean?” She looked guilty and glanced away. “Alexa, who have you checked out without permission?”
“I don’t need permission,” she scoffed. “It’s my job.”
Peter narrowed his eyes at her defensive undertone and ran through a list of people he was in contact with that Alexa might have checked out. He couldn’t think of anyone. He always had her do an employment check on new hires anyway. He hadn’t dated anyone since Margo…
Shock chilled his muscles. He glared at her. “Margo? You had the nerve to run a check on my wife?”
Despite how long it had been since his wedding, he knew he was right when Alexa flushed. “Come on, Pete.” She put her hand on his arm. “After Victoria, I worried about you. I—”
“Didn’t trust my judgment. Thanks a lot.” He jerked his arm away. “What good does it do to tell me this now?”
“I didn’t tell you. Not intentionally.” When he continued to drill her with his stare, she sighed. “I was moving files today and came across hers. It was on my mind.”
He jerked to his feet and shoved his mug under the faucet. When he slammed on the water it splashed out of the mug and all over the counter. “And your guilty conscience forced it out of you.” She’d kept the file all these years. That could have been standard operating procedure, or there could be something in there she wanted him to see someday. He struggled to draw a breath and slapped the water off again. He hated her interference, so of course she did it behind his back and never told him. “God damn it, Alexa!”
“I didn’t find out anything bad,” she said softly, watching him prowl the little kitchen. “She was as good as she seemed to be.”
He stopped and hung his head, ashamed that she’d accurately understood his reaction. “I know. I didn’t need an investigation to tell me that.”
Wisely, Alexa kept her mouth shut. There was no denying he’d made a bad choice in Victoria Chambers, who’d tried to steal his inheritance and could have killed a whole bunch of people in the process. But a background check wouldn’t have done any good. It wouldn’t have revealed Victoria’s saccharine shell, the hostility and greed she buried beneath false compassion and helpfulness.
Margo had been different. Peter had “fallen” for Victoria fast and hard, but with Margo it had been slower, deeper, truer. He’d been half-afraid that meant she’d been hiding something even worse. After she died it didn’t matter, but he didn’t hate putting the fear to rest now. Even knowing Alexa didn’t trust him or his choices.
He looked up and managed a small smile. “It’s all right. You meant well. Just stop doing it, okay?”
She looked doubtful, but nodded. “I can’t stop worrying about you guys.”
“I know.” He tugged her ponytail. “But we do fine on our own.”
That was all the family interaction he could take for today. He called down the hall for Kiena. “Time to go, sweetie!” Her little footsteps pounded down the hall, and he turned back into the kitchen. “I’ll see you guys for Sunday dinner?”
They traded hugs all around, Aunt Ethel scolding Peter for not coming back to the family room to say hi. As Peter followed Kiena out the door, he heard his father ask Alexa, “You really didn’t find anything?”
Peter shut the door before he could hear her answer.
* * *
A week later, he stood in the foyer of the daycare center, watching Kiena through the glass and feeling as if someone had smashed it, picked up a shard, and shoved it into his heart.
It wasn’t the leaving her that hurt. He’d been a working dad all her life. Waving goodbye had never been easy, but it didn’t tear at him. Today, though… Today, Kiena had yanked her hand from his and run across the room to hug one of the kids she’d met on their preliminary visit last week. Then she’d plopped herself down to help build a block tower, jabbering away about something he couldn’t hear, laughing and not looking over her shoulder even once.
She didn’t need him anymore.
Jesus Christ, Ranger, get a grip. Of course she needs you. He waited a few more fruitless seconds for his baby to realize he’d left, and when he couldn’t take it anymore, he spun and shoved through the outer door onto the sidewalk. A mother herding two kids gave him a sympathetic smile, but he didn’t have time to return it. Or to deny the freaking tears hanging from his eyelashes.
He waited until he was in the truck before he ground the heels of his hands across his eyes, erasing the evidence of his patheticness. He punched the keyless ignition, annoyed that it deprived him of the satisfaction of cranking the engine hard.
“Suck it up,” he muttered. He was hardly the first parent to go through this. It would have been harder if Kiena had clung to him and cried. In the next classroom, one toddler had actually pulled out a hunk of his mother’s hair. So Peter was really lucky his daughter couldn’t care less where he was or who was watching over her.
He sighed and made the turn onto the street where the shelter was. In a few minutes he could concentrate on work, the hours would flow past, and before he knew it he’d be back at the daycare, prying her away from her new friends and toys. God, he hoped she didn’t fight leaving at the end of the day, too. That would suck as much as this did.
And he didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. For the first time in over a year, Margo’s absence felt like a hole in his life. They hadn’t had a chance to discuss daycares and separation anxiety. After several years of intense service in the Mossad, she’d looked forward to being a stay-at-home mom, dabbling in art whenever she had a chance. Quiet, personal work that didn’t put the fate of the world on her shoulders. But the fast-growing cancer had taken all of that away from them.
He wondered if Margo’s work was what Alexa had been trying not to talk about the other day. He’d never told her about his wife’s early career, but if his sister had done background checks on her, no doubt she’d uncovered all that. Margo had been an analyst, not a field agent, and they’d met in Egypt when she was on vacation and Peter was playing at learning how to be a hero. Over the following year, they’d both shifted their priorities as their relationship grew, focusing on traditional roles neither had ever realized they wanted.
What would Margo think about Kiena’s ability? Would she have been afraid to leave her daughter in the company of strangers? Not that the daycare had any pets, not even caged birds or gerbils. Peter had made sure of that. No sense taking a risk that someone would see something more than a child’s imagination in Kiena’s communication relays. He hoped Margo would have agreed with his decisions. Maybe she’d have insisted on sheltering her more until she was old enough to be discreet.
But hell, what other choice did he have? He swallowed and flexed his stiff fingers around the steering wheel. This was ridiculous. He didn’t second-guess his decisions, and he didn’t fret over what Margo would think. He was just…
A familiar house flashed by, and he cursed. He was just so lost in his stupid head he’d driven a mile past the shelter. He checked the empty road and spun the wheel, doing a three-point turn, and a minute later pulled into the parking lot. The crew was already unloading parts next to the old office building that housed the shelter. He climbed out of the truck and crossed to the foreman, forcing himself to concentrate.
“Hey, Mike.” He squinted up at the sky full of heavy clouds. The light was dim, and things didn’t look like they’d clear up soon. The rain was supposed to hold off until later this afternoon, but it wasn’t looking good.
The older man nodded back without looking away from the crew. “Pete.”
Mike kept his watchful eye on the people lowering a panel out of the back of the truck. “Half unloaded. These guys are slow.”
Peter shrugged. “They’re volunteers. It’s a charity project.”
Mike spared him a glance. “I thought it wasn’t politically correct to call it ‘charity.’ ”
“Okay, a community project.” Peter didn’t care what anyone called it, he was just glad for a chance to do something good. Everyone needed a safe place to play. The kids at this shelter more than anyone.
He directed the placement of the pieces for maximum efficiency when they put it together, then thanked the volunteers and greeted his regular crew, who needed little instruction. Though Peter gave each set a unique design, he maintained certain protocols that allowed the team to install with minimal guidance.
“I want to show you the modifications I made,” he told Mike, motioning to a nearby picnic table. They walked over in silence, and Peter spread the plans on the splintered wood, holding down the curling sides. “These steps were a little far apart, so I—”
He stopped when shouts sounded from across the grass. He and Mike looked up to see the crew running or scrambling backward away from one of the panels. There was a muffled pop, and they all hit the deck and covered their heads. The pop was followed by a flash of light, bright because of the gloomy day, and a loud boom that echoed around them.
Peter could only stare, stunned. The explosion had been small, with no shockwave and no apparent injuries. But plastic had flown everywhere, and one thing was clear.
Someone had just blown up his playground.