Barefoot With a Stranger ~ Chapter 1

Chapter One

Chessie squinted at the departures screen and adjusted her glasses, certain she had to be reading the numbers wrong. Her connection was delayed for three hours?

Sheesh. This was not in Francesca Rossi’s carefully laid-out plan for tonight.

She turned away, spinning through her options like they were hypothetical computer bugs she needed to identify and eliminate. But this was not a tech issue she could solve with a few smart keystrokes. This was Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, full of grumbling travelers trapped by the stormy night skies and widespread delays for many flights, not just her commuter hop to southwest Florida where her brother waited.

The jammed gate area practically vibrated with frustration and inconvenience. Behind her, the concourse bustled with impatient people rolling their bags, and the airport restaurant teemed with captive customers. Leaning against a sliver of space on the wall, Chessie pulled out her phone and texted her brother Gabe to deliver news she knew would elicit enough cursing to stroke out a nun.

Gabe had been breathing fire down her neck for weeks, desperate to get Chessie to Barefoot Bay to help accomplish what he called “the plan.”

The plan. Chessie loved a plan as much—probably more—than the next person and appreciated a clever and succinct title to sit on top of a well-ordered list. But this plan?

There were no fancy covert names, like Operation BabyLift or Mission: Munchkin for this project. Locating a child that could be Gabe’s son was too serious and too major for cutesy code words.

Weeks earlier, Gabe had flown Chessie down to Florida and enlisted her help in hacking an encrypted website to search for a woman supposedly living in Cuba. She

didn’t know who Isadora Winter was or why Gabe wanted to find her, but when Chessie discovered the woman was dead, Gabe’s response told Chessie plenty. Isadora mattered to him. A lot. So Chessie had dug deeper into the layers of code to discover that Isadora had a child…named Gabriel.

And that news had stunned them both.

Her phone buzzed with Gabe’s reply. WTF? Get your ass on another flight!

She looked at the board again, which flashed with even more cancellations. She still didn’t know why she couldn’t do her computer research from Boston, where she worked as a tech specialist for the Guardian Angelinos, their family’s security firm. But Gabe had insisted she return to the Gulf Coast island where he was running his own security-type of business, and he also insisted she tell no one about the child or their plans to find him.

That last bit wasn’t a surprise. Like the rest of her siblings and cousins, ex-spook Gabe was always up to something adventurous and dangerous and secretive, saving lives and taking names.

But not Chessie. The youngest in a long line of bodyguards, investigators, cops, agents, and spies, she was convinced that the Rossi and Angelino gene pool must have run out of the Badass DNA by the time she emerged. She was happiest in front of a computer monitor. Her idea of a brush with danger was refuctoring a line of code to make it irreversible. And maybe, when she felt wild, kicking her Mustang into fourth gear and doing doughnuts in an empty parking lot.

Her phone flashed with another text from her brother.

Fly to Orlando or Tampa, rent a car and drive. Or rent one in Atlanta and drive all night. You can be here in time for Nino’s peppers and eggs.

There weren’t going to be flights to

Orlando or Tampa, and while the idea of her grandfather’s signature breakfast sounded heavenly, Gabe was smoking something if he thought she was going to drive eight or nine hours at night in this weather.

Not in the plan, bro.

She texted back a sisterly “shut your pie hole” and peered over the gate crowd again, catching sight of a woman getting up to free a seat near the back. Shouldering the oversized handbag that carried her laptop and grateful she’d checked her suitcase, Chessie headed straight to the vacancy. She was two feet away when a middle-age man with a shiny dome and mustache beat her, practically throwing his backside into the chair to make sure he got it before she did.

Chessie slammed on her brakes with a soft grunt, a little taken aback at his audacity. The man whipped out an iPad and ignored her, leaving Chessie feeling awkward as a few people stared at her. She glanced around on the off chance there was another open seat.

Not happening. Her gaze landed on the man in the chair directly across from the one she’d almost snagged, meeting dark eyes that glinted with a mix of dismay and humor. Instantly, he stood.

“Here, take mine.”

“Oh, no, I…” Damn, he was big. Not just tall, but solid and broad. “That’s not necessary.”

“I insist.”

She started to reply but got a little lost while looking at his face, which was pretty much a straight-up dime. A rugged blend of chiseled and rough, a strong nose, soft lips, and a shadow of whiskers that didn’t quite hide a cleft in his chin that was downright lickable.


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