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Tiger's Heart

Chapter One

Jan stood shaking on the front porch, staring at the house before her, and feeling like a fool. She had no business bringing her problems to Caitlyn's doorstep. Guilt assailed her at her selfishness-and her weakness.

She took a step back, but before she could pivot, the door opened, spilling light across the porch. Caitlyn's husband, Damien, appeared wearing the trademark snarl he gave everyone, but his wife.

While she'd never disputed he was the sexiest man alive, she'd been more than vocal in protesting his marriage to her former roommate. The CIA could take lessons from the man on secretiveness.

And no one should get married after only knowing someone a month.

Of course, knowing a man eight months before getting engaged hadn't done her any good.

Anger melted from Damien's features to be replaced with shock and then concern. "Jan?"

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come." She shuffled backwards so quickly, she tripped over a groove between two planks and would have landed hard on her ass if Damien hadn't caught her. Unfortunately, his large hand closed around an even larger bruise. She swallowed a scream, but it came out a strangled squawk.

He dropped her arm, alarm in his eyes. "Jan-"

She held her hands up as if she could block his concern. "Never mind. Don't tell Caitlyn I was here."

"I can't let you leave," he told her gently. "You know I can't. That's why you're here. Come in and tell me who did this. We'll protect you."

Something told her the "we" wasn't he and Caitlyn. She shook her head, ignoring the pain and vertigo it caused. "I shouldn't have come. Don't tell Caitlyn."

God, she hated hearing the plea in her voice.

"Damien, what are you-oh my God! Jan?" Caitlyn emerged behind her husband, their two-month-old daughter, Patrice, in her arms.

Breathtakingly beautiful, Caitlyn would make a supermodel feel homely-and Jan was no supermodel. Worse, Caitlyn had a big heart and a soul as beautiful as her face.

All but shoving Patrice into her husband's arms, Caitlyn enveloped Jan in a gentle hug. "Who did this to you? Is he in jail? If not, I'll kill him. Come inside this minute. Don't you worry about a thing."

In moments, Jan found herself ensconced on a soft, gray couch, wrapped in an old quilt, and warming beside a crackling fire. Caitlyn banished Damien to the kitchen for something hot and "Irish" for Jan to drink. Once he'd left with Patrice tucked into the bend of one arm, Caitlyn sank gracefully to her knees, a fluid move Jan imagined had made the former stripper a great deal of money. Caitlyn took Jan's icy hands into her warm ones. Tears brimming, she asked, "Who did this to you?"

Jan caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror on the far wall. A gray bandage splayed across her forehead and down a nose swollen to three times its normal size. Lovely cotton rolls stuffed into her nostrils were a stark color contrast to her two black eyes. Other bruises blossomed on her cheeks and chin.

Shame curled in her stomach. "I fell-"

"Don't. Don't lie to me." Caitlyn's voice cut her off sharply.

"I'm not-"

Two gentle fingers traced the mottled bruise on Jan's throat. The bruise she'd forgotten. The one that held the distinctive shape of a man's hand.

Jan pulled her neck away from Caitlyn's probing touch.

"Talk to me," her old friend pleaded on a whisper.

She gave a negligent shrug. "Met a guy, seemed great, things went south."

Caitlyn's eyes searched her face. "I'm so sorry. Is he in jail?"

"No. I pressed charges, got a restraining order. He made bail and … a piece of paper won't stop a fist."

"They didn't re-arrest him?"

"The hospital called the cops, but he was long gone by the time they went looking for him."

"Well, you'll just stay here until they put that bastard away."

Jan let out a bitter laugh. The hospital had called in a social worker. A no-nonsense woman who'd explained the system to her. "He doesn't have a record. In fact, he's Mr. All-American. It's my word against his, and even if he were convicted, he'd never spend a night in jail."

"You don't know that."

"First offense."

Caitlyn's eyes searched her face, but she didn't argue. "You'll stay here. We'll protect you."

Jan shook her head. "I can't do that. I don't know what I was thinking. I can't dump my problems on your shoulders. Especially with a baby in the house."

Her eyes swept the windows along one wall. Beyond them lay miles of forest, a perfect vista for someone to sneak up and attack the small family. The thought of the baby being hurt, or worse, because of her had Jan's stomach churning with dangerous signs of upheaval

"If I thought for a minute your being here would put my daughter in danger, I'd never have let you in the door. I'm asking you to trust me."

Jan closed her eyes and wanted to drift away on the cloud of nothingness behind them. Her mind tried to pull her under, away from the exhaustion and pain. She forced her lids apart. "I'll stay the night."

"You'll stay until it's safe." Damien strode into the room sans child.

"Patrice-?" Jan began.

"-is asleep in her crib," he informed her, extending a steaming mug with melting marshmallows.

She accepted the offering automatically, even murmured her thanks, but eyed the "Irish" hot chocolate with suspicion.

"Drink it," Damien ordered, and she had a moment to wonder if he ever didn't give orders. His expression softened. "It's not spiked."

"Damien, she needs something," Caitlyn protested.

"Lucas is on his way over. He's bringing his bag."

"Lucas?" Jan asked.

"He's the local vet."

Damien gave his wife an exasperated look. "Lucas went to vet school before he went to med school. He's a doctor."

"I've already seen a doctor." Her hand touched the bandage on her face of its own accord.

"And you're going to see another one."

"Why?"

"Because you are resisting the help you sought from us. I want to make certain you aren't taking unnecessary chances with your health. And I can smell your pain. Lucas can give you something for it."

He could smell her pain? She almost laughed. Who knew Damien could be so melodramatic? "I'm fine. I don't need anything."

"Humor me." Damien's words brooked no argument.

Normally, she would have argued just for the satisfaction of tweaking him. People tended to jump when Damien said jump. She'd always taken a perverse pleasure in the frustration she caused him by refusing to do so. For the moment, she lacked the energy to annoy him. Not that it would have done any good. There was something … immovable about his demeanor. Something harder than she'd ever seen.

For the first time, she understood Caitlyn's inexplicable trust in the man.