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Excerpt - Point Blank Protector by Stephanie Newton

Point Blank Protector
by
Stephanie Newton


With his cover blown, former DEA Agent Tyler Clark has nothing but time on his hands. Time—and orders—to see the police psychologist before taking a new case. Gracie VanDoren's cheerful determination to help him drives Tyler up the wall…right up until a threatening letter has Gracie's sunshiny demeanor giving way to fear. As the threats escalate, both realize someone has an unusually personal vendetta against Gracie. Now Tyler's cover is blown again. Because he's committed to being her point-blank protector—even if it means exposing his heart.

Excerpt of chapter one:

Tyler Clark hated seeing the shrink. Hated having his motives questioned, his mind probed. He pulled open the door to the Sea Breeze Police Department and showed his ID.

The watch officer took one brief look at Tyler's face and slid the visitor's pass across the desk. "Have a nice day."

Tyler resented jumping through hoops for bureaucratic nonsense, and he really couldn't stand being jerked out of the field until the crazy task had been completed. Crazy because any undercover agent worth his salt could fool a shrink.

But regular evals were part of his job as an undercover agent—at least, they had been part of his job until he'd been exposed by the press after his last case closed. As a bonus, his new job—interim job, he reminded himself—also required a visit to the shrink. Lucky him.

In his experience, shrinks came in two varieties, the cheerful and sympathetic wanna-be-your-friend type and the slice-and-dice, cut-out-the-cancer type. He didn't like either one, preferring to deal with things on his own time. Or not.

The utilitarian gray halls of the Sea Breeze, Florida, Police Department weren't complicated, and within minutes of entering the building he found Dr. VanDoren's second-floor office.

The doctor had a white message board on the outside of the door. Someone had drawn a smiley face on it. Great. VanDoren was one of those.

He pushed the cracked door all the way open, knocking on it with two knuckles.

The woman at the desk was on the phone. Lake-blue eyes widened as he entered the room. She pulled an appointment book from a teetering pile on her desk and ran a finger down it, still speaking softly into the phone.

When her finger reached his name, she looked up, giving him a bright smile. She motioned to a chair and raised a finger for him to wait.

He eyed the club chairs. In one she'd left her purse and computer bag. In the other a neat stack of papers and assorted files. He picked up the stack and laid it on the corner of her desk.

Tyler relaxed into the soft leather and watched her as she talked on the phone. She'd turned slightly away from him toward the window. As she spoke, her hands moved in animated gestures. Bright April sunlight streamed in, gilding the corkscrew blond curls.

"All right, then. Talk to you later." She placed the phone on its cradle. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm here to see the doctor."

"About?" She picked what looked like a random envelope from a stack of mail and sliced into it with a wicked letter opener sporting the police seal on its handle.

He stared unblinking, waiting while she glanced over the sheet of paper before tossing it into the trash can. When she lifted her eyes to meet his again, he said, "I think I'll just talk to the doctor—"

She raised one slim eyebrow, a private joke sparkling in her eyes.

Right. "You're Dr. VanDoren."

"Yep." The doc picked up another envelope and cut it open, giving the contents a cursory glance before it followed the last one into the trash can.

"I bet you're killer on the witness stand." He didn't stop to think that his words weren't exactly complimentary.

The psychologist tilted her head. "Defense attorneys do tend to underestimate me."

Another envelope lost its fight with the slick blade in her hand. This one she filed on top of a lopsided pile on her desk before she met his eyes again with a faintly perplexed look, as if surprised to find he was still sitting there. "So why are you here, Mr. Clark?"

"Tyler." He forced himself to sit still. He'd done the same thousands of times before when he'd been undercover and under the close scrutiny of everyone from drug lords to mafia kingpins.

The doc laid the letter opener on top of a stack of unopened envelopes and turned her full attention to him. "Tyler, then. What brings you to my office this morning?"

She surely had to have been briefed by Captain Conyers, but the rule with shrinks, if there was one, was to play along. With practiced ease, he relaxed into the moment, showing her the person she wanted to see.

"I've worked undercover for the DEA for the past several years, mostly in Chicago. My cover was blown nationwide during that big bust the SBPD made a few weeks ago. Basically I had two choices. I could work a desk for the DEA or I could go out on my own."

She laced her fingers, leaning forward on her elbows. "So you decided to go out on your own. What brings you back to Sea Breeze?"

"The personal reason—my family is here. Professionally, I know how drug dealers think. I'm here to teach certain techniques to your police force so that they can spot an infiltration into your community before it gets out of control."

"Your consulting job isn't what brought you to my office." Doc VanDoren's wide blue eyes made him want to tell her everything. His life story. His past.

She had some kind of weapon in those eyes. They looked all innocent, making him want to believe she was easily led. She wasn't.

"I'm here because Conyers wants to make sure I haven't gone over the edge." The blunt words lay heavy in the air.

"And have you?" Her question was equally blunt, unsurprised.

Was the fact that he had to think about it bad?

The doc stood and rounded her desk, her navy-blue skirt swishing as she walked. She sat on the edge of the chair beside him, but didn't touch him. "Tyler, whatever you say here won't go any further. One of the reasons I have a job is to make sure that our law-enforcement personnel have a safe place to talk about the things that happen to them."

Tyler cleared his throat and made himself lift his eyes from where her skirt slid to show her knees. The words came with some difficulty. "I never crossed the line."

Something in his voice must've given him away. She narrowed her eyes. "Okay."

He fought the urge to elaborate. More words just meant more chances to get himself in trouble. He'd learned that early on in undercover work. The less said, the better. People either believed you or they didn't.

She smiled and a dimple winked just under the left corner of her lips. Cute, that was the word for her. He might've asked her out if things were different.

But, he reminded himself, things were different. And real life harder to slip back into every time he came out from under cover.

The doc rubbed one pink-tipped finger across her bottom lip. "I think I can clear you for work with the department."

Tyler took a deep breath. He could hear the hesitation in her voice. "But…"

"But if you'd like to come in again, the door is always open. Even with breaks, three years is a long time to be undercover."

He had to make a serious effort to calm the resentment that surged at her words and remind himself that he would do what it took because he needed the job.

He needed the time to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. His mother said God had plans for him.

Tyler could just imagine those plans. "I'm fine."

"I'm sure that's true. Let's just make a note to check in while you're readjusting to life on the outside."

He gritted his teeth into a smile. "Sure thing, Doc."

Gracie VanDoren stood. "I'll see you in a day or two?"

She held out a hand to the ex-special agent. He didn't think he'd crossed the line. Between her quick eval and the glowing letters of commendation from his superiors at the DEA, she had no reason to suspect he wouldn't be fine in the field. She just wondered what his definition of "the line" was.

He got to his feet. His hand swallowed hers as he held it. Dark eyes studied hers. "Why wait? Have dinner with me tonight."

She slid her hand from his grasp with a quick smile. "Thank you for the sweet offer, but I don't date."

He leaned a shoulder on the door frame, lady-killer smile spread across his face. "If you don't date cops, that's no problem. I'm not a cop."

"It's not that. I don't date, period." She rounded her desk, putting it between them. The more space the better. She smiled again and picked up the letter opener.

"You don't…really?"

The disbelief on his face would have made her laugh if she hadn't seen dozens of variations of the same look over the past ten years. She chose not to date. Period.

She had lots of reasons, but the biggest was that she wanted a real relationship, one built on friendship and trust. Mutual faith.

She ignored the little voice inside that whispered, "Yeah, how's that been working out for you?"

"Let me know if you'd like another appointment." Gracie reached for the stack of mail on her desk yet to be opened. She knew when he left because the room just felt empty. He was something.

He hadn't said anything inconsistent, exactly. No huge waving red flags. He seemed remarkably secure, but there was something in his eyes. It was instinct, really, more than anything concrete that made her think he might want to talk. Just something.

Gracie sighed and picked up another envelope from the precarious stack on her desk. She sliced into it and slid out a single sheet of paper.

Block letters shouted the message: I CAN'T WAIT UNTIL YOU DIE.

Her pulse thudded over the roar in her ears, her breathing short and shallow. Her fingers tightened unconsciously to grip the paper.

"What does it say?" The deep voice came from the door.

She dropped the thing on her desk. Looking up, she met Tyler Clark's too-shrewd brown eyes. She gave herself a second for her heart rate to return to something resembling normal and said, "Nothing. It's just a bill I forgot about. Already back for another appointment?"

He walked closer. "Whatever that is, it isn't 'nothing.'

Something in that note scared the daylights out of you.

What did it say?"

Gracie pushed the paper toward him. He didn't pick it up, but he scrutinized it. "Is this the first one you've gotten like this?"

She laughed—a quick, non-humorous burst. Without saying a word, she opened a file drawer, pulled out a file and tossed it on her desk. About an inch thick, it held the letters. The phone calls, those were just in her memory.

He flipped through the pages like a deck of cards.

"All these?"

"I've testified in the majority of felony cases in this county in the past four years. Most of the offenders think they wouldn't be serving time if it wasn't for me," She shrugged. "I'm a convenient scapegoat. And they send me love letters."

He dropped the stack on the desk. "Is that what they're calling them these days?"

Gracie pursed her lips, giving the file the stink eye. In one way, it was a testimony to the fact that she did her job. In another, it just showed that some people weren't willing to take responsibility for their own actions. Mostly she tended to file the letters and forget them. Yet something about this one sent a shiver of premonition up her spine.

"I need tea."

"What?" Tyler Clark's dark eyebrows drew together.

She hadn't realized that she'd said it out loud. What did that say about her mental health? "Don't you know that a good cup of tea cures everything?"

"Didn't know that, but duly noted. Are you going to give that letter to your CSI team, see if they can figure out where it came from?" He eased a hip onto the corner of her desk. He towered over her, but she was used to that, working in what was still generally a man's world.

"No. It's not necessary."

"You really think that's smart?"

She lifted one shoulder. "I almost always file the letters and never hear from them again. Writing the letter is the play for them. Most of them are in prison anyway."

"What about the ones that just got paroled?" Tyler crossed his arms, the fabric of his dress shirt taut against his biceps.

Gracie swallowed hard and leaned back in her chair. "In cases I testified in, I get a courtesy call from the warden before the inmates are released from custody."

He nodded. "Any calls recently?"

"One or two." Answering his questions, she felt a little like the patient instead of the doctor.

The former agent stood and tucked his hands into the pockets of his boot-cut jeans, his shirt tails hanging loose. Did he know what his attire said about him?

The dress shirt would be considered required, but the jeans and untucked shirt said he wasn't a rule follower. So, she would guess, yes. She smiled up at him.

His face held a toughness, his demeanor an edginess that came from years of living a dangerous double life. But his eyelashes were a black, sooty smudge as he blinked at her. Pretty.

She smiled wider.

"It looks like you have two options, Doc. You can report it to one of the very skilled detectives in the SBPD. Or you can put the paper in your file and forget about it."

Gracie opened her mouth to say she planned to forget it as he said, "I highly suggest option one."

She closed her mouth and scowled. For the first time, she saw a real hint of amusement in Tyler Clark's eyes.

He tilted his head and a dark curl fell across his forehead. "There could be one more option."

"What would that be?" She leaned back in her desk chair and crossed her legs.

"Consulting for the SBPD doesn't exactly fill my day planner. If you'd like to give me the note and the names, I can check it out for you. I have some investigative experience."

Tyler was being modest. The letters she'd read from his superiors at the DEA had been glowing with praise for Tyler's talent as an agent.

She didn't want to be the person who ignored the thing that could've saved her life. She also didn't want to give credence to something she knew from experience was most likely an empty threat. If they followed up on every letter she got, it would be a massive waste of manpower.

Tyler picked up one of Gracie's cards from the holder on her desk. "Gracie? As in 'Amazing'?"

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