And last, but definitely not least, is the magnificent Marie-Louise Steyn and her submission ‘Midwife Under Cover’! To vote for Marie-Louise, see the instructions beneath her entry…
Meg Hamilton was not what Quinn had expected. Okay, understatement of the year. Finally meeting her, after weeks of investigation and background checks, was like getting a supercar after you’d ordered a trusty sedan. He’d pictured someone conservative. Old-fashioned. With a long braid and an even longer skirt. She hardly looked like a midwife, and he’d seen a few. His mom and her colleagues were, well, stereotypical crunchy-granola tree-huggers. The hottie behind the desk wore her light hair super-short. Bright purple highlights matched her scrubs. The colour shouted ‘rebel’, as did the swirls of ink peeking out from under one short sleeve.
“Can I help you?” Two impossibly blue eyes sparkled up at him and swept over his suit. “Conference venue’s further down the road.” She flicked her head to indicate which way. “You can’t miss it.”
“Actually, you’re the one I want.” Damn, that didn’t come out right. He swallowed through throat muscles suddenly gone lazy.
“Really?” She twirled her pen and let it clatter to the desk. Her impish grin brought a flash of heat to his face. A surprise dimple, pretty damn adorable, dipped into one cheek. Warmth travelled down his neck like sunburn. Blushing like a girl now, Travis? A jaded investigator like you? Slick, real slick.
“Well, then you’d better sit down so we can get acquainted.” She raised her eyebrows in mock suggestion. “Since I’m the one you want.”
This was not going the way he’d planned. Why was he fumbling like a rookie? He’d interrogated some of America’s most wanted. A harmless little midwife posed no challenge. To regain the upper hand, he pulled out his badge. Slid it across the desk towards her. “Special Agent Quinn Travis. FBI.”
“Wow.” Full, glossy lips formed a perfect circle. “Never thought I’d hear that line without popcorn and a Coke.”
She snatched up his identification and gazed at it in awestruck wonder. He gritted his teeth. Baffled by the badge, exactly like the rest of them. Hey, he wanted to say. Look at me. Under the suit and the sunglasses I’m just a regular guy. Since his first day on the job, he’d hated the attention it attracted. Weren’t men supposed to be the shallower sex? Yet flash a girl your badge and she was all over you. Throw a shoulder holster with a big, scary gun into the deal and she’d practically jump your bones. None of his buddies got his gripe. Female hero-worship is a career perk, they reckoned. So what if the novelty wears off sooner or later? Have fun while it lasts.
Quinn yanked off his sunglasses and stuffed them in his pocket. Not. Going. There. New assignment, fresh leaf. Lauren – what she’d done – has been living rent-free in his head too long. Time to give her the boot.
Meg tilted his badge so light reflected off the metal. “Is this for real?”
“So-oh.” She scooted forward. The wheels of her office chair scraped across the floor. She leaned across the desk to hand back his badge. Only a blind man would fail to notice the cleavage nestling in the V of her top. “You’re a long way from home, Special Agent.”
Back to business, Travis. You’re on the job and ogling the Very Important Midwife wasn’t in the brief.
“I’m on the Counterterrorism Fly Team,” he replied. “My bags are always packed.” He pried his gaze from her neckline and inspected the shoebox-sized office. Baby photos plastered every inch of wall space. Naked, newborn babies. Chubby, grinning babies. Dressed up, drooling babies. Weariness settled onto his shoulders, heavier than full SWAT gear. “We’re investigating a South African based group.”
Her throaty laugh stirred something in his gut. “That’s awfully flattering, but I’m afraid I’m not such a bad girl. I’m into babies, not bombs.”
Sexy and spunky. He liked a girl who made him laugh. “We know that.” He’d done his homework. Meg Hamilton was a law-abiding citizen if you ignored her impressive collection of speeding tickets. Which, to be fair, was probably an occupational hazard for midwives in private practice.
“The thing is, Sister Hamilton –”
“Oh, yuck.” She shuddered dramatically. “You make me sound like a Mother Superior. Please, call me Meg.” She twirled a string of feathery purple hair around one finger. “As long as I can still call you Special Agent?” That damn FBI mystique again. “I don’t meet many federal agents.”
There’s the gap he’d been waiting for. “Well, that could change. If I can persuade you to help with our investigation.”
“Now I’m intrigued.” Meg dropped her fidgety hands to her lap. Pinched herself under the table. Hard. An honest to goodness G-ma at her birth unit? All the way from the US of A? No wonder her heart was tap dancing. And not solely because of his title. The man himself was Big Screen Material. The way those wide shoulders strained to escape his jacket could all but liquidise a girl’s insides. The crisp, white shirt accentuated skin that saw its share of sunshine. And oh, that lopsided smile! It draped itself around her shoulders like a warm, well-fed cat.
A woman moaned, low and urgent. Oh hell! Surely she wasn’t horny enough to get that carried away? The special agent’s whiskey-coloured eyes widened. Another moan penetrated the thin office walls, and Meg’s grey matter kicked in.
“That would be a patient,” she explained, “singing what’s fondly known as the labour lullaby.” Meg swallowed a smile. Was it just her, or did this woman’s song sound remarkably like the grand finale of female ecstasy? Which definitely popped into her mind way too readily in the presence of Special Agent Yummy.
Who grunted and shifted in his seat. “I knew that.”
He did? “Then you must have kids,” she concluded, forcing a chirp into her voice. She snuck a glance at his ring finger. Bare, no tan line. Still, not all married men wore wedding rings. For all she knew they were against FBI dress code. Or he could be divorced. Separated. A jerk who left behind heartbroken lovers in every terrorist-infested country on the face of the earth.
His answer fell like the chop of an axe. Hm, testy topic. Perhaps he didn’t want kids. She got that, although it would be a waste keeping such excellent genetic material to himself.
“My mother was a midwife,” he explained. “Dragged me along to more births than I care to remember.”
Did that mean he was single? Could she ask without sounding… predatory? He jolted at the next primal bellow. Tugged on his tie, nervous as a first-time dad at a C-section. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Somewhere we can talk undisturbed?”
Damn, damn, damn! She’d love having coffee – having anything – with him. “Sorry, I need to hang around. The midwives in there are pretty green and the mom’s a grand multip. Having baby number six. ” Shut up, Meg. You’re rambling.
“I get it. Higher risk of postpartum haemorrhage.”
“I’m impressed. Sounds like some of your mom’s knowledge rubbed off.”
He shrugged like an arachnophobic shaking off a spider. Interesting. The subjects of midwifery and kids seemed to stuff a bug or two up his fine-looking ass.
“I can offer you a cup of coffee here, though?” she suggested, aiming for casual. “We can chat in the kitchen. I’m dying to know how you think I can help you.”
Quinn stepped into the passage and exhaled the breath he hadn’t even realised he was holding. Man, was he glad to get out of there! He needed to put some distance between himself and those damn baby photos. He looked around, eager for distraction. Noticed the gleam of oak floors at his feet, the pressed ceilings overhead. Someone had put a lot of TLC into this old house. The best sight, though, was at twelve o’clock, right in his direct line of vision. Baggy scrubs did little to disguise Meg’s shapely bottom, the sass of her walk. Huh, drawstring pants looked damn sexy with the right curves in them.
The kitchen wasn’t much bigger than the office. Quinn pressed his back against the wall to give Meg more space. She switched on a prehistoric coffee machine. Took two red mugs from a cupboard. En route to the refrigerator, she had to squeeze past him. Her chest brushed his. Soft. Yielding. Feminine.
They both muttered an apology. Quinn rubbed a hand over his jaw. Saved by the sputtering coffee machine. If the thing didn’t make such a racket, she’d probably hear the blood whooshing through his veins.
She passed him a cup of strong, black liquid. It smelled fantastic.
“Want to sit in our reception area?”
“Wherever we can be alone.” Damn, he’d done it again! Doctor Freud would laugh his ass off. “I mean, wherever we can talk privately. This investigation is sensitive.”
“Ooh, top secret? Let’s stay here, then.” She bounced to the door and pulled it shut. The flashing lights in her sneakers made him smile. Man, he hated bursting all this bubbly. He loved his job, but today it sucked.
Meg scooted her bum onto a kitchen cabinet. She took a few sips of coffee, just to be polite. What she really wanted to do was pull the words from mouth. What did he want?
He ran a hand over the back of his neck. Grimaced. Meg stifled a sigh. Wouldn’t she love kneading her fingers into those corded muscles. Feeling him relax, melt, beneath her touch. She had good hands, with healing in them. Many, many labouring moms had told her so.
“Right,” he called back her runaway thoughts, all business now. “First things first. This conversation stays between us. You can’t tell anyone – even if you decide not to help.”
“My lips are sealed.” Not that she’d mind unsealing them over his. Kissing had been invented for a mouth like his. The stubble shadowing his jaw alerted every nerve ending in lips.
“Good.” His gaze dipped from hers. “I’m afraid it might… reopen some old wounds, though.”
Comprehension hit her insides like a shot of tequila. Anti-terrorism task force? What else could they want? “Crap. It’s a cult, isn’t it?”
He had the decency to look uncomfortable. “Afraid so. A splinter-group. In the US they’re known as the Lions of Judah. Here they call themselves the Defenders.”
“Oh, they’re fighting a holy war.” His index fingers crooked around the last two words. “Using religion to justify their violent acts.”
Meg gulped a breath into her tight chest. “Why here?”
“South Africa is terrorist heaven. Access to weapons. Affordable mercenary and survivalist training. Remote, unpopulated areas where they can go about their business unnoticed.” Frown lines deepened across his brow. “Then there’s the symbolic significance. Your country’s history.”
“Ugh, Apartheid rearing its ugly head again?”
“The Defenders are white supremacists, yes. They consider Armageddon a racial war.”
She made a face. He pulled a photo from his pocket, handed it to her. Meg had to force herself to look. But it was merely an aerial shot of a military-style compound. Fenced in, surrounded by barren earth.
“They’re in the Karoo?” The coffee churned in her stomach.
He nodded. “And they’re planning something big.”
Meg tasted dust, the dirt roads of her childhood. Her mouth had gone dry. “How big?”
“Big enough to spark Armageddon. They’ve grown tired of waiting for it.”
Cold sweat pricked her forehead, her arms. She hugged them to her chest. “So what the hell do you want me to do about it?”
Nothing, Quinn wanted to say as panic stretched her huge eyes even wider. Absolutely nothing. He wanted to walk out of her kitchen. Out of her life. Hadn’t she been through enough? She’d spent the last two decades trying to forget. How could he expect her to step back into the nightmare?
Surely he could fabricate some excuse. Tell the rest of the team she wasn’t undercover material. Wasn’t strong enough. That would be a lie, though. She was ideal. Fuelled by anger, she’d do anything to get those kids out. She might not know it yet, but he did.
As a man, he wanted to cut her loose. Tell her to forget about the Defenders. Perhaps even take her out for a few drinks. See where this inconvenient attraction led.
But his team has been hunting the Defenders for years. He needed to think like an agent.
“You can get us inside the group. With your background –”
Her fingers curled around the edges of the counter. “So I grew up in a damn cult. That hardly makes me an expert.”
Careful, Travis. Reel her in nice and slow. “You’re forgetting the important part. You got out.”
She aimed a swift kick at the trash bin. Sent it skidding across the kitchen floor and into the opposite wall. “Rub it in, why don’t you! Sure, I survived. And not a day goes by that I’m not eaten alive by my choice.”
“Hey, you did a brave thing. Now we’re asking you to do another.”
“So you’re going to guilt trip me into… what?” She glared at him, eyes blue as the Arctic. Every bit as icy, too. “What is it you want?”
He weighed his options. Should he backtrack? Try to re-establish some rapport? Or go straight for the jugular? Oh, hell, might as well get it over with. “We’re hoping you’d be willing to go undercover. Join the group. Move into the compound. That way we can find out what they’re planning.”
She launched herself at him like a bullet from a chamber. Slammed into his chest with a force that all but knocked the breath out of him. “Are you crazy? You expect me to join a bunch of terrorists?”
For a moment, Quinn was too gobsmacked to answer. Then she lifted her fists and he snapped out of it. Fast. Those small hands were powered by adrenalin. They’d pack a punch. He cuffed his fingers around her wrists. Tightened his grip when she struggled. He felt her pulse flutter under his fingertips, the warmth of her jagged breaths on his chest. “You won’t be alone,” he promised. Her body stilled against his. “I’ll be right there. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
She shook free from his touch. “I can’t. I don’t have the guts.”
“You have plenty. Didn’t you just assault a federal agent?”
That earned him a wisp of a smile. He betrayed it with his final blow. “There are kids in that compound, Meg. Help me get them out, before they become collateral damage?”
“That’s low, Special Agent Scumbag.” A tear rolled down her cheek and she swiped at it.
Ouch. He been called worse, yet the insult stung. Had made other women cry without this twist in his gut. “Yes, it’s low. But that doesn’t make it any less true.”
She walked to the sink, doubled over it. Oh, hell, was she going to be sick? No, she opened the tap and splashed water on her face. When she turned around, the tears were gone, her voice strong.
“Find someone else.”
They both froze when a roar sounded from the birth room.
“Patient’s pushing,” she said. “The next cry we’ll hear will be the baby’s.”
“See? That’s why it has to be you. You’re a midwife. Defenders have lots of babies, they don’t use birth control. But here’s the thing, they don’t get medical help, either. They don’t trust outsiders. Babies have died there.”
“Damn.” She tilted her head back and gazed at the ceiling. Quinn’s eyes traced the curve of her neck, found a spot where he could see her pulse beating. He wanted to touch his lips to it. Wanted to bring back the brightness he’d snuffed out.
“I need time to think.”
“Of course.” He could use some, too. To get his mind back on the assignment and off Meg Hamilton. This was a risky operation. He couldn’t afford distractions.
“Just so I understand.” She nibbled her bottom lip. “I’m not saying I’ll do this, but if I do… How would it work?”
“You’ll meet the rest of the team. The SAC – that’s Special Agent in Charge – and the surveillance guys. Who’ll keep an eye on the compound, twenty-four seven. They’ll pull us out if they so much as smell danger.”
“If you’re trying to reassure me, it’s not working.”
“We’re good at this. I’m good at it. And I never make promises I can’t keep.” Hell, he never made promises, period. Life was too unpredictable for guarantees. So why had he broken his own rule and pledged to keep her safe?
“You might know what you’re doing, but what about me?” She ran her fingers through her colourful hair. Hitched up her sleeve to reveal more tattoo. Quinn squinted at it, but still couldn’t make out the whole design. “I don’t blend well, in case you haven’t noticed.”
He grinned at her. “I’m afraid the purple hair will have to go.”
She scrunched her nose. “I like it. Besides, it cost a fortune.”
“The Bureau will reimburse you. They’ll cover you loss of income too.” His snuck another glance at her arm. “You can keep the tattoo. We’ll get you dresses with long sleeves.”
“I don’t do dresses.”
“Skirts, then. Defender women aren’t allowed to wear pants. Or makeup.”
“It won’t be forever.”
She gulped down the rest of her coffee, which had to be stone cold by now. “Okay, I get that they need a midwife. But what about you? What’s your in?”
“I’m a medic, so I won’t be a complete waste of space. Plus I’ll be posing as…” For some reason his voice snagged. He had to clear his throat. “As your lawfully wedded husband.”
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