Hard to Hold ONLY
by Incy Black
Anna Key Marshall is about to get what she’s always wanted: a baby. Granted, it’s through a sperm donor instead of her ex-husband, but you can’t have everything. She has no idea why someone wants her dead, but she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her unborn child—even if it means turning to her ex, the Black Ops specialist who broke her heart.
Five years ago, British Intelligence agent Nick Marshall slammed the door on the woman who betrayed him. But now Anna’s back in his life with a vengeance, pregnant and full of attitude. He’d like nothing better than to walk away, but with her life on the line, he has no choice but to do what he does best—protect her at all costs.
As old wounds resurface, Nick begins to doubt his version of what went down with Anna so long ago. And he begins to believe they might have a second chance together. But with Anna’s would-be killer on the loose—it will take the full force and fury of his protective instincts, fueled by a powerful love he can’t leave behind, to hold on to the woman he still loves.
Title: Hard to Hold
Author: Incy Black
Length: 278 pages
Release Date: April 2014
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62266-535-8
Hard to Hold
by Incy Black
Copyright © 2014 by Incy Black. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Anna Key Marshall choked out a defiant laugh—because it sure beat the hell out of crying. She’d done it again. Successfully hurdled yet another of the obstacles that the Fates seemed to delight on tossing in her path. But it was getting harder. Example—tonight. When she’d had to drop and body-roll into the street gutter to avoid being flattened by the screeching approach of monstrous black tires. Thankfully, the truck had missed her. But only just.
She’d suffered a mild concussion. The abrasions skinning her limbs stung as if on fire, but all her bones were intact. She’d been lucky. But if her heart didn’t stop pounding like a jackhammer and her hands didn’t quit vibrating fit to register 7.5 on the Richter scale, the hospital wouldn’t release her, and she’d be stuck here on Hell Ward for the night. Could life suck any harder?
“Where is she?”
Anna froze. Apparently, life could. That snarl from the past, all frigid and tight, was unmistakable—and despite the fact that it had been five years since she’d last heard it, her impulse to escape and hide was immediate. She drew up her knees and settled for hunkering beneath the pale blue blanket embossed with “Property of St. Stephen’s Hospital” covering her instead.
Nick Marshall could have any number of reasons for visiting the ER late at night. In his line of business—policing the murkier depths of the British Intelligence Service—it went with the territory. His presence had to be an unhappy coincidence.
Anna’s lungs flattened. Wife? Nick hadn’t remarried. Oh, God. What if by some hideous mistake, he was here for her? Had she failed to correct some record of their former marital status? Christ, there had been so many documents to sign, and she hadn’t exactly been thinking straight in the months after the divorce.
The lingering smell of disinfectant, steamed fish, and other things she really didn’t want to think about broke through the barrier she’d studiously erected to keep the ever-present threat of nausea at bay.
“She’s not my wife.”
“You’re listed in her passport as both her husband and her next of kin.”
Passport! Anna swallowed a groan. She’d forgotten to score out Nick’s details and insert “None” in the personal section of that stupid document.
“Something she’ll regret. You’d have done her a kindness to call someone else.”
She screwed her eyelids shut and rubbed her midriff to ease the sudden clench of muscles. Oh, yeah, who? Having someone care, really care, hadn’t exactly featured big in her life.
The curtain of her cubicle zipped back with sufficient force to create a small tornado.
Anna damn near fell off the high, narrow bed. God, Nick looked furious. In that cold, remote, tightly constrained way of his that iced blood in the warmest of veins. And she should know—he’d sent her to the freezer often enough, the last time for good.
“What the hell have you been up to this time?”
She swallowed, just to see if she could. The past five years had sharpened the contours of his face. Gone was the ever-present tease of a smile, the twinkle of rebellion that had deepened the blue of his eyes, the compassion that had softened the glorious angles of to-die-for bone structure. Hard and chiseled now, Nick had grown up, and she wasn’t sure she liked the change.
She wondered when he had last laughed. Suspected it had been a while, and very nearly caved to the temptation to see what it would take to put that right.
From his condemning expression, it was clear Nick had yet to forgive her. It didn’t matter that she was battered and bruised, scared and, damn it, feeling vulnerable. He’d judged and found her guilty. No change there then.
Her disappointment tasted bitter. Like unwittingly biting into a rotten walnut.
It also ignited a need to strike back.
Avoiding his question, she looked beyond the glowering mass of muscle and forced a smile at the young, helplessly embarrassed nurse. “Ignore him,” she recommended. “He’s an expert when it comes to causing offense.” Insulting Nick should get rid of him. He’d be relieved. So would she.
The poor nurse graduated from pink to puce.
Anna sighed. Maybe a little humor would help. “Seriously, beneath all that icy disdain lies an honest-to-God human being—I think. Quick, take his temperature, see if it registers above zero, or better still, cup him and ask him to cough. That should warm him up.”
The nurse exploded a belt of laughter.
She shifted into a more comfortable position and smoothed the blanket flat across her legs. “Niiiick,” she mimicked to remind him she was immune to intimidation.
The sound of his teeth grinding kicked the corners of her mouth into a less-than- innocent smile.
The nurse spluttered another cough, then hastily stepped back when Nick turned in her direction and tilted his head. “I’ll…um…I’ll just get a doctor to sign Mrs. Marshall’s release.”
“Not into my care you won’t. Find someone else. I don’t want her.”
The nurse’s jaw dropped.
Anna forced a tight laugh and promised privately that if her face dared betray her and flush at his strike, she’d reach for the gun he most likely had hidden at the base of his spine and shoot herself with it.
“Good to see you haven’t lost your honesty, Nick. Though it’s obvious you were last in line when tact was handed out. But you’re off the hook. I’ve changed my mind. Given the option, I’d really rather stay here the night after all. I was just being—”
“Flippant, contrary, irresponsible, stubborn, not to mention careless given how you managed to fall headfirst into the traffic…”
God, he was actually counting off her sins on his fingers and still had a full hand to go. “Okay, okay,” she interrupted, holding up a palm. Stupid passport. Why was it the little details always slipped her mind? “I didn’t ask for you to be called. Why would I? You’re the last person I’d want taking charge. Point of fact—”
“Point of fact,” an intern interrupted as he crowded into her cubicle. “If you do have somewhere to go, and someone who will stay with you, we could do with the bed.” His toe caught a metal cabinet on wheels, his harassment obvious as he damn near doused her with a full jug of water.
Nick caught it at the same time as she, their fingers crossing.
She pulling back sharply as if bitten. He shot her a frigid smile, secured the jug, and scathed the intern with a look that saw the poor man’s skin mottle.
“Excellent. I’ll go home,” she responded with as much forced chirpiness as she could muster. She was in no hurry to have Nick-bloody-Marshall reject her again. She’d rather face down the recent violence she’d attracted on her own. She turned and swung her legs around in readiness to dismount the ridiculously high bed.
“Not alone,” the intern insisted. “Your head injury isn’t serious but—”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, make up your mind.” She squeezed the bridge of her nose and strove for a lighter, more reasonable tone. Damn, now Nick would know that his unexpected reappearance in her life had unnerved her. “I can assure you I won’t be on my own,” she said throwing down her last card, an ace. “I know any number of hunky men who’d be delighted to play ‘Doctors and Nurses’ overnight.” She smiled sweetly. “Don’t I, Nick?”
Just as she’d anticipated, her ex-husband spun on his heel, raked back the curtain, and left without a word.
Anna turned to the nurse. “Please, if you would just get me my cell phone and my shoes”—thank God, they hadn’t gotten around to insisting she discard her own torn clothes for a hospital-issue gown—“I’ll make sure I’m picked up and out of your hair ASAP. Okay?”
She grimaced, the bitter aftertaste of forced saccharine sour on her tongue. Getting rid of Nick had been an absolute necessity, but she wasn’t proud of how she’d had to go about doing so. She’d used his fierce possessiveness, his jealousy, to draw him to her often enough in the past. This time, beyond desperate, she’d called it into play to force him away.
As soon as the nurse returned with her things, she darted through the curtain and linked her arm through that of a startled, middle-aged man who happened to be heading for the exit, calling with forced jocularity, “One responsible adult willing to take charge of me, so I’ll be off now. Thank you for all your help.”
She hustled the stranger forward before he could protest and only released him when they’d cleared the ward. “Sorry about that. I thought you were someone else. Silly me.”
She stepped into the waiting elevator and shot a breezy smile at the bewildered man, who shook his head in alarm when she arched her eyebrows in an unspoken query as to whether he’d be joining her.
She waited for the doors to close before losing the smile.
Then, palms flat against the unforgiving metal wall, she tucked her chin to her chest. God, she needed to get a grip. And fast. If Nick’s unexpected appearance had disrupted her confidence, his savage withdrawal had sent it into a dizzying spin. And right now, with every sign pointing to the idea that someone wanted her dead, she needed every one of her brain cells upright and perky.
The elevator jolted to an abrupt halt at the ground floor, and the doors groaned apart as if in pain.
She straightened and looked up at the shadow looming just outside. Oh, God, not him. Desperate to avoid another showdown, she stabbed wildly at the “close” button.
Faster than forked lightning, a big, leather-booted foot flashed forward to keep the doors from closing.
Privately conceding defeat but determined not to show it, she locked her spine. “Nick—my, but don’t you turn up in the most unexpected of places.”
“I knew you’d pull something. You’re so bloody predictable.”
She considered the chiseled hardness of his unfairly attractive face, which could woo or intimidate depending on his mood. “And so are you. You always did enjoy an ambush, and you do realize if the wind changes, your face will be permanently stuck in that scowl.” She tossed her head. “Oh, my mistake. It already is.”
She spotted the hospital exit, the dark street that lay beyond, and skirted around him into the empty corridor, determined to stalk the twenty paces to freedom before he guessed—correctly—at how close to the edge she teetered. She cursed softly when, after a bare six steps, her sore muscles slowed her to a limp.
Once on the sidewalk, she scoured the dark for a vacant taxi and grimaced as long fingers fastened around her elbow.
“You know better than to fool about with head injuries, Anna.”
“It’s little more than a bump.” She wrapped her free arm across her stomach to keep her involuntary shudder deep inside. She knew her injuries could have been so much worse. Fatal, and not just to her.
“Torn clothes. Skin the color of alabaster. Barely able to stand… You look terrible.”
“Just honest.” She glanced upward, a long way upward, into the deep, frozen depths of his glacial-blue eyes. “Then learn to lie or, better still, keep your thoughts to yourself. After all, it’s what you’re good at.”
“Ouch.” He grimaced but kept his hold on her—why, she didn’t know. It wasn’t like she was in any shape to run.
She held his stare. “Don’t pretend that hurt, Nick. You’re untouchable, remember.”
“True.” The grin he cracked was like a fissure splitting a glacier. Sudden and dangerous to the unwary. Just like the one he’d flashed her before slamming the door in her face when he’d chucked her out five years ago.
She shuddered at the memory of that god-awful night when life as she knew it had imploded.
He misread the cause. “Damn it, Anna, you’re in shock.”
She laughed, hating that it sounded as if she had a mouthful of glass. “Nice of you to notice, but you’re about five years too late with that observation.”
A stupid, careless slip of emotion. One which, had she not been so distracted, she would have caught and swallowed before it escaped. “Do you mind easing some of that pressure on my arm, Nick? I’ve got enough bruises as it is.”
“Sorry.” He dropped his hold immediately, cursed eloquently, and buried his fists deep into the pockets of his navy suit trousers. Despite the lateness of the hour, he’d obviously still been at work when the hospital had called.
She rubbed idly at her elbow and searched his eyes to see if his remorse was genuine. She’d sit that one out on the fence, she decided.
“The doctor said you weren’t supposed to be on your own,” he said.
“I won’t be. I called Will Berwick. He’s meeting me at home.” Will was Nick’s über-sexy second-in-command of the Service’s Internal Affairs unit. He was also the only one of her ex-husband’s friends with whom she’d remained in touch. And not just because his relaxed disposition—the polar opposite of Nick’s—appealed to her. Will alone had refused to judge her after the chaotic breakdown of her marriage.
A short pause was the only emotion Nick betrayed at her revelation. And then, “Will’s a friend, Anna. He doesn’t need a woman like you messing with his head…or his career.”
Her heart pinched. In spite of all she’d achieved, Nick still thought of her as an embarrassment. Impetuous, flighty, a liability. She saw little point in correcting his view. “Life’s a bitch, Nick,” she quipped, “but she can be tamed with a little fun. Will gets that and—”
“And I never did?”
God, she wished he’d just go. Maintaining this front of flippant bravado was draining her badly depleted defenses. “Okay, just to clarify, Will’s fun to be around. You never were. Will’s a friend. You’re not. Succinct enough for you?”
“We were friends once.”
She stared at the solid terrace of Georgian houses across the street. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, but they seemed united in faceless judgment, none of it good. “No. We were comrades-in-arms against the system that didn’t much care, then on-off-on-again lovers. I’m not sure friendship ever really came into it. You were too bloody unavailable for a start—in every sense of the word.”
“So why marry me?”
“Great sex.” The retort slipped free before she could stop it, and for the briefest moment she fancied she heard the houses opposite gasp their censure. Not that she cared. She was used to disapproval.
“That’s a hell of a reason.”
“Better than yours.” Swinging round to face him, she swiped at the unhelpful bangs obscuring her glare. “You told me yourself that for appearance’s sake you needed a wife quick, to secure a promotion.”
“Or maybe I had a ‘Will moment’ and thought it would be fun.”
Though his voice dripped cold sarcasm, she still caught the unspoken protest beneath his scorn. Nick hadn’t liked her comparing him to another man. Strange. Why would he care? Crossing her arms, she turned away. Maybe if she pretended hard enough that he wasn’t standing inches from her back, the heat of his body reaching for her, she’d make his disappearance true.
“Is that what you were doing tonight when you fell in front of the truck, Anna? Having fun?”
Her eyelids fluttered, and she choked on the urge to retaliate. She’d wasted more than half her life trying to blunt his scathing sarcasm, determined to scratch below its surface to get to the man beneath. It was a battle she had lost, time and again.
A rescuing beacon of yellow cut the darkness. Shooting out her arm, she waved frantically. The approaching cab flashed its lights, swerved, and drew to a halt beside her.
“Have a nice life, Nick.” She scrambled in and yanked the door firmly shut against him.
Maybe it was the hurt, maybe just the unfairness, but the vehicle had traveled less than thirty yards when the temptation to jolt his too-ready assumption got the better of her. Unclipping her seat belt, she thrust the top half of her body out the open window and yelled like a shrew, “And I didn’t fall, you sanctimonious bastard. I was pushed!”