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By Diana Gardin
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First of all, I'd like to thank God, who gave me the desire and skill to write.
Thank you to my family, who are always there for me when I put down my computer and unplug from all things writing. I'm so thankful they're along for this ride with me. Superman, Carrington, and Raleigh, everything I do is for you.
Thank you to my agent, Stacey Donaghy. You are more than an agent: You are my friend, and I'm so very thankful to have found you. I am even more thankful that you're always on my side.
To my fabulous editor, Lexi Smail: I adore working with you! You have such an understanding of where I want each character to go, and sometimes it's scary because I'm worried you might actually be reading my mind. You're the best.
To the team at Forever Romance: You are all such a well-oiled machine. From editing, to copyediting, to cover design and all the other inner workings I don't even get to see, you are all fabulous and I'm lucky to be a part of it all. Thank you for your efforts on my behalf!
To my favorite sounding board and the girl who's become one of my very best friends, Sybil Bartel: I don't know how it happened, but you're like the other half of my writing brain. You're there at all hours of the day and night, whether I need to get an idea out or I'm completely out of them. I only hope I help you as much as you help me! Love you, girl.
To the very best group of writers a girl could ever ask for, the NAC: Ara, Meredith, Kate, Bindu, Sophia, Laura, Missy, Jessica, Amanda, Jamie, Marie, and Marnee—you are my favorite source of sanity. Without you, this business would have ended me long ago! Love y'all!
To the authors I admire so very much and who are always willing to help me in any way they can, through promo, visibility for my books in their groups, or just an ear to listen when I need it: You'll never know how much you mean to me! Thank you so much to Rachel Van Dyken, Heidi McLaughlin, Susan Stoker, Willow Winters, K.A. Tucker, Jay Crownover, Jennifer L. Berg, J.B. Salsbury, Jo Raven, Lia Riley, Megan Erickson, and Brighton Walsh.
To an assistant I've learned I cannot live without, Jessica Shapnaka: You are willing to do so much for me, and all because you love my books. Thank you not only for being a fabulous assistant, but for being an amazing friend! I love you!
To my lovely review team: You are all so dedicated and I am awed by you! Thank you for reading my books ahead of time, and more than that, thank you for loving them! Your reviews drive my career, and without them I wouldn't be able to continue doing what I love. Thank you so much!
To the Dolls—the best fan group a girl could ask for: Talking to you guys every day, sharing my fictional world with you, receiving your feedback, it all keeps me going! You all recharge me and refuel me when I need it, and your support and positivity make this job so much more fun! Thank you all for being you!
To the bloggers who have supported me throughout this journey: There are too many of you to name, but you know who you are. You have read every single book, given me great reviews, and shared my work with as many people as you can. I couldn't do any of this without your help and your enthusiasm. A thousand thank-yous.
And last but never least, to the readers who find their way to Wilmington, North Carolina, to hang out with the sexy men of Night Eagle Security and the women who are strong enough to love them. I hope you fall in love with this world as much as I have, because without you, I'd be nothing. <3
One Year Ago
I hurry out of the double front doors, leaving them wide open behind me as I hop down the massive stone front steps in my bare feet. The deliveryman grins as he views what must look like crazed excitement on my face, my arms spread wide for my little package.
"It's here!" My voice rises in a squeal. "Thank you so much!"
My house is a frequent stop on the driver's route, thanks to Eli's strange desire for me to shop online rather than in stores. The deliveryman touches the side of his hat in an exaggerated gentleman's gesture. No more than a year or two older than I am, he's never seemed daunted by the enormous mansion standing behind me when I open the door for a delivery.
"I'm just dropping off, Mrs. Ward. You doin' all right today?"
Knowing what's inside my brown parcel makes my smile extra sunny. "Just fine, Dex. Thanks for asking! I hope you don't have too many deliveries to make today."
Dex's smile widens until his dimple shows. He's a handsome guy, but I've never had eyes for anyone but Eli. No matter that his jealous streak might say otherwise. In the past six months, Eli's been watching me extra closely, and every time I even make eye contact with a man, he nearly loses his mind. It's such a drastic change from the sweet, loving way he treated me when we first met.
The first time he hit me, I didn't see it coming. It was after a party last New Year's Eve, the first since we'd been married. I'd had two glasses of champagne, and my best friend's husband and I had jovially made a go of it on the dance floor to celebrate the New Year rolling in. Eli had cut our night short afterward, and we'd just made it to the car when he'd thrown me up against it and grabbed me by the throat. Hitting me full across the face, he'd accused me of wanting to sleep with my best friend's husband.
I'd been in shock, unable to think straight, while he'd shoved me into the bushes and begun to choke me. It was only the sound of the front door opening at the house beside us that made him drag me into the car. His rage had been so great, so out of control, I'm not sure I would have survived that first attack had that person not opened their door.
Afterward, he'd cried. It was the first time I'd seen him shed a tear, and he'd been so ashamed, so devastated by his behavior that he'd sworn he'd never hurt me that way again.
I'd sworn to him I'd be more careful, that I'd never give him a reason to doubt me.
But now? Now I'm sure everything will change. I place a hand over my belly and stare with love down at the cardboard box clutched in my hands.
"I'll finish in no time." Dex's glance moves away from me to settle on the long driveway, where the sound of a car pulling in draws both of our attention.
Eli's Range Rover disappears into one of the four garages, and Dex gives me a wave. "Looks like your husband is home early today."
I nod, distracted. I wasn't expecting Eli until this evening. Dex climbs into his truck, which is sitting in the circular portion of the driveway in front of the house, and I turn to go inside.
Closing the front doors behind me, I hurry into the kitchen, opening the package in my hands as I walk. Pulling out a white onesie, I finger the soft cotton as I hold it up and read the golden lettering:
our precious gift
I purchased the onesie and had it monogrammed to use in baby announcement photos. It's how Eli and I are going to tell our family and friends that we're three months pregnant with our first child.
The door between the kitchen and the garage closes, and I glance up to see Eli standing there.
Holding up the onesie, I feel joy bubble up in my chest. "Look, babe! Look what just came! Now that I'm out of the first trimester, we can finally share our news with everyone we love."
Over the past year of marriage, I've shoved aside every warning bell that's been screaming at me to rethink my relationship with Eli. Our courtship was a whirlwind. His money and his power in our little Oklahoma city aren't what swept me off my feet. He was a businessman eight years older than my twenty-two years when we met, and I was amazed that he was showing me so much attention. He lavished me with gifts and trips, but that's not what blew me away. What got to me was how much he zeroed in on the fact that all I wanted was a family. Someone to come home to at night and cherish. Someone to love and call my own. My parents have always been self-absorbed, wrapped up in their own wants and materialistic desires. I've never felt like I'm the center of the world, and Eli understood that. When he came into my life, I finally had a partner, someone to share everything with. We were married within a year.
Even when he put his hands on me, I refused to give up that feeling of belonging.
But now that I'm carrying his baby? I know all that will be over. We're starting fresh. I'll finally see the man I fell in love with at his best, and his jealous streak will be over. He'll know that he and our child are the center of my life, and we'll be a happy, loving family.
We have to be.
Eli, still standing just inside the kitchen door, doesn't move. He stares at me, his eyes not even dropping to glance at the precious bundle of cotton in my hands. My stomach clenches at the stony expression on his face. My husband is handsome, his dark hair slicked back in a smooth style. But when he looks like this…all I feel is icy fear.
"I saw you flirting with him." Eli's voice is quiet, laced with a razor edge.
The first time I heard him talk like this, we were walking out of that New Year's Eve party. I hadn't recognized it as a sign of what was to come. But now, I know.
I take a step backward, my hand immediately going to my stomach. My other fist clutches the onesie a little bit tighter, holding it out as a peace offering. My voice pleads with my husband, and even as I beg, I hate myself for it.
This is wrong, Francesca. You should never have to beg someone not to hurt you.
I clear my throat. "I wasn't flirting with him, Eli. I was being polite." Despite the flurry of my heartbeat, my words are firm.
It's something I've never been able to be with Eli in the past, not when his face has looked like a thundercloud rolling across a prairie. But I have to be strong now, and not just for me.
For my baby.
Eli launches himself forward, advancing on me so quickly I don't have time to move out of the way. He pins me against the wall behind me with a hand to my sternum, knocking the wind out of me. My head slams against the wall so hard stars dance before my eyes. He doesn't remove his gaze from mine as he reaches down and yanks the onesie from my grip.
Holding it up, he finally looks at it. "You're carrying my baby, Francesca." Spit gathers at the corners of his mouth as his rage builds. "But you were looking at him like you wanted to fuck him on my front lawn!"
My eyes wide, I shake my head. My voice goes hoarse. "That's crazy, Eli—"
His fist lands against my jaw, sending a white-hot lance of pain screaming through my face. He releases me, and I crumple to the floor.
"You're a goddamned slut!" Eli screams.
When he screams, I know he's lost every ounce of control he has.
Tears cloud my vision.
"The baby," I sob. "Eli, please."
Please, no. No.
I turn my head just in time to see the toe of Eli's boot pull back, and I try to turn onto my other side. I only make it onto my back, and he kicks me in the soft flesh between my ribs and hip.
I scream. Hoping it'll save my baby's life, even though I know our house is located on five acres of property and the neighbors won't hear me, I let out a bloodcurdling scream loud enough to wake the dead.
Eli squats down beside me and yanks my waist-length blond ponytail so hard I feel some pieces separate from my head by the roots.
His face looms over mine. "I don't know why I bother with you. But you're my wife, and you're going to learn how to present yourself. You're going to regret making me angry enough to hurt you this way."
His face blurs as my eyes begin to close, and I know I'm losing consciousness. I just want to know if the baby I'm carrying is okay, and I think about my cell phone sitting on top of the kitchen island just a few feet away. I bite the inside of my cheek until I taste blood.
"I'm leaving now. When you're feeling better, get yourself cleaned up. I don't ever want to come home and see my wife making eyes at the fucking UPS man again."
Without looking at me again, he releases my hair and lets my head crack against the marble floor.
I listen to the sound of his footsteps walking away, and it seems like it takes forever for them to cross the kitchen and disappear out the garage door. As soon as the noise of his big SUV engine is gone, I raise my voice to trigger the voice-activated dialing on my phone.
"Nine-One-One, what's your emergency?"
A strangled sob escapes me. Am I really about to do this?
A sharp pain in my belly causes me to double over, and the woman on the line repeats her question.
"Help me," I scream. "My husband beat me. I'm lying on my kitchen floor, and I'm three months pregnant. Send an ambulance!"
"I want to help her. I really do, Boss Man. But I don't want to be a babysitter." When I glance toward the door, the heat from the warm, sexy little body on the other side floats toward me.
You're losing your shit already, Ryder. Body heat can't travel through solid wood doors.
"Wolf." Jacob Owen, my boss at Night Eagle Security, leans forward on the table and holds me in one of his notoriously scrutinizing stares. The other guys, my Delta Squad team, remain silent as they watch the exchange. Jacob continues, "How many times have I asked you to run point on a mission?"
My shoulders sink under the weight of his question. Jacob Owen has been everything to me since I left the SEALs. Father figure, superior, confidant. Along with the men I call my brothers, this company and Jacob have been my entire life since I left the Navy behind. Giving me purpose. Giving me a place to breathe and call my own.
"This is the first, sir."
Jacob stares, gray eyes not giving away a damn thing. "Are you really going to turn that down?"
I open my mouth to tell him of course I'm not, but he lifts a hand, not done with me yet. "And since when has NES been in the business of 'babysitting'? The company that I built from the ground up, the one that started with personal security and has now grown into a company that the government calls for private black-ops contracts, isn't good enough for you to run point on a mission I deem necessary?"
It's worse than being screamed at by your commanding officer during SEAL training. It's worse than being told how much you've disappointed your dad. This is Jacob, the Boss Man. And I'll be damned if I'll be the one to let him down.
"I'm sorry, sir. That's not what I mean. I just—"
Jacob isn't ready for me to talk. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of my best friends and teammates wince as Boss Man's voice lifts. "And do you realize how important this assignment is? It's partly our fault that Ms. Phillips is in this predicament to begin with."
I glance up at that one, fire lighting inside my gut. "Actually—"
Jacob cuts me off with a glance that could slice a block of ice. "She didn't know we were investigating her husband, because they were estranged. Because he beat the shit out of her."
I swallow, my insides going numb at the thought of Frannie, the woman in question, being beaten to a pulp by that piece of shit.
I don't know Frannie very well, or at all, really. But the second I met her a couple of weeks ago—while Lawson Snyder and his now-fiancée, Indigo Stone, were undercover in a case that involved Frannie's estranged husband—there was something about her I couldn't shake.
And apparently, now I'm going to be forced to face it head-on.
"I understand, Boss Man. I'll run point on her protection, and I'll make sure nothing happens to her while the feds continue to hunt Eli Ward."
Jacob nods, finally looking satisfied. "You're damn right you will. I expect nothing less, Wolf."
The use of my nickname for the second time doesn't escape me. In NES, we all have them, depending on what special skills we bring to the table. Some of our nicknames have to do with our Special Ops pasts. Mine, White Wolf, has to do with my predatory skills. I can hunt down an enemy in any situation, and I'm ruthless when I've got a scent.
The conference room door opens and Indigo walks in, followed closely by the woman in question, Frannie Phillips.
The two women couldn't be any more different upon first glance. Indigo's long black hair swishes across her back, her tank top showing off miles and miles of inked skin. Studs pierce up both earlobes, and her face—gorgeous and exotic-looking with her dark olive complexion and Latina features—is accentuated by heavy, dramatic makeup.
Frannie, on the other hand, is take-a-second-look beautiful. And it isn't because of any extra ink or metal she's added to her body, although the ends of her shoulder-length blond hair are tinged pink. She's got these big blue eyes that make me imagine what they'd look like hooded with lust, and a curvy little body that calls out for my hands to touch her, make her feel good, and mess up her Southern-belle perfection just a little bit.
There's nothing clean about me. The only thing that Frannie and I have in common is the blond hair and blue eyes. The likenesses stop right there. I glance down at the ink swirling up and down my arms, tattoos I had done during my years in the Navy, and then back at her flawless golden-tan skin. The pink hair is new on her, probably something she's trying, but I can't stop staring at her because the woman is the very definition of distraction.
She's not like anyone I've ever dated—not that I've really dated. She's not like anyone I've ever fucked. Too done up and doll-faced pretty. But right now, I can imagine those perky little lips wrapped right around my cock, and that's a major fucking problem if my focus is supposed to be on keeping her safe.
"I found Frannie sitting on the bench downstairs." Indigo's casual tone belies her curiosity, and I note that she can't keep her eyes from flitting to Lawson the second she walks into the room. He, in turn, sits up straighter in response to her presence.
"We were just about to call you in, Frannie." Jacob's eyes soften when he speaks, something we've all noticed. He used to be a lot tougher, but in the past couple of years he's rekindled a fire with his ex-wife and mother to his three daughters, and something about him is different. Less edge, unless he's in the field.
Frannie blows out a breath. "Whew. That's good, because I was getting tired of sitting out there swinging my legs while you big strong men decided what was going to happen with my life from here on out."
Sweetness mixed with Southern sass: This woman is going to fucking kill me.
Jacob's eyebrows lift, and he gestures toward one of the empty seats at the table. This meeting involves only the Delta Squad, and Indigo is here purely as a consultant, since she no longer works for the Wilmington Police Department as a detective. After she and Lawson worked on the task force assigned to take down Eli Ward's luxury car theft ring, Indigo left the police force and became a consultant for NES. She likes the flexibility the position offers, and the ability to continue working closely with her fiancé.
"We're not deciding anything about your future. That's up to you. Right now, we're just trying to figure out the best way to keep you safe."
"Keep you alive." Bain Foxx speaks up, something he doesn't often do unless he's spoken to directly. Out of the four of us on the team, Bain's the quietest, least predictable, and probably the deadliest. He also carries more secrets than the rest of us can even imagine. He hasn't said as much, but working with a man day in and day out, sometimes overnight and in dangerous places, makes you get to know him.
His eyes, a lighter shade of blue than mine, carry an intensity that makes most people flinch.
But Frannie stares right back at him.
"Yeah. I get that. I'd just like to be a part of the conversation is all."
Jacob leans back in his chair, fingers pressed together, assessing her. "The moment we decided to protect you, you became our client. Now, as it stands, the FBI is conducting a manhunt for Eli Ward. The feds are trusting us instead of sending you into witness protection like they wanted to. But that could change at any time. We don't want it to, and I'm guessing you don't either. Am I correct?"
Frannie nods, her hair brushing against bare shoulders. The turquoise top she wears wraps around her neck in a classy style, and I don't miss the way her white jeans accentuate shapely legs and rounded hips before she sits down. Ben McBride, the fourth member of our team, sits on her other side.
"I won't go into Witness Protection." There's an underlying ferociousness in her tone that I've never heard before. I've known her only a few weeks, but apparently this woman is half "honey" and "y'all" drawl, and half pure grit.
I've been staring at her since she came into the room, and when her gaze finally meets mine, I swallow hard and fight not to look away.
"We have a plan of action formed. Thorn Ryder here will take point on your assignment."
Her eyes flicker with something—recognition, maybe—and then she turns her gaze back on Jacob.
"You'll move into a secure condominium building owned by NES, a place that I've recently acquired for situations like this one, that can be surveilled twenty-four/seven. Thorn will be moving in with you, serving as your guard. He'll be charged with keeping you safe for the duration of your time as our client. From here, you'll go home to pack some bags, and you won't be needing your car. We'll park it in a secure location. To any outsider looking in, it'll look like you've left town."
Frannie smooths her hands over her lap. "I work three twelve-hour shifts at the hospital every week. Mr. Ryder here will accompany me and do what, exactly…chill?"
I clear my throat. "Um, no. You'll have to take a leave of absence from work until Ward is brought in. Don't know how long it'll be, but we can make the hospital understand."
Frannie turns to face me full-on, not even bothering to hide the fact that she's seething. "I. Will. Not. Quit. My. Job."
I lean forward, elbows digging into the table, jaw clenched tight. "No one said anything about quitting—"
Her words barrel forward as if I hadn't even spoken. This woman is all force and bluster when she's worked up—a tornado just getting started. "But you're telling me I can't go to work. I'm sorry, that's just not an option. I need my paycheck, and more than that I need my sanity. Work is my sanity. Can you understand that, Mr. Ryder?"
I'm silent. Because, yeah, without NES I'd be a fucking shell of myself. I was able to put all the turmoil inside me, the emotions churning me up for the past ten years, away in a box because I had a mission in life.
Always a mission.
First I kicked my way through boot camp. Then I rose through the naval ranks as quickly as anyone possibly could in my position. Then I went out for SEALs and became one of the elite. There was no looking back for me. The more intense the job, the better it was for my sanity. And I know a lot of guys who felt the same.
Maybe it's like that for Frannie. Maybe, in order to overcome whatever she went through in her past, she needs to nurse others back to health.
Who are we to take that shit away from her?
"If you work…" My voice is grudging, gruffer than I intend it to be. "I'm there with you. For every shift. Tailing you. Shadowing you. Get used to it, Frannie, because I'm not going anywhere. It's my job to keep you safe, and the rest of the team will be weighing in as needed."
She meets my gaze, her baby blues steady and wide and full of determination. In them, I see her agreement before she gives it to me like a gift.
"Fine. If that's how it has to be, I'm in."
Hell has come to live right here on earth with me. And not in the form of Eli Ward, but in the form of Thorn freaking Ryder.
"Your face is saying a lot of things right now, Frannie, but I don't know exactly what's going through that head of yours. Talk to me."
Concern flashes in Indigo's cinnamon-colored eyes. She's pulled me into the staff lounge following the meeting, the two of us the only people in the cushy break room.
Pressing both hands against the counter, I drop my chin against my chest as I take a shaking breath. "I can't do this, Indigo. Not after what I went through with Eli."
Her voice is gentle behind me. "You're scared."
- "Fast-paced with plenty of action and romance, readers will be kept entertained to the very end."—Harlequin Junkie on Lawson
- "A sensual, action-filled page-turner that evokes waves of emotion....The sexual tension is thick enough to stop bullets....Gardin will add to her fan base with this winning, fast-paced novel."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review on Sworn to Protect
- "No one does Romantic Suspense like Diana Gardin...I was rooting for Ronin and Olive from the very first page."—Susan Stoker, New York Times bestselling author on Promise to Defend
- "Gardin has a gift for intrigue and suspense with a mix of unbridled passion and romance, Sworn to Protect sizzles."—Heidi McLaughlin, New York Times bestselling author
- "With her usual charm and engaging storytelling Diana Gardin has once again proved why she's my new go-to author."—Rachel Van Dyken, #1 New York Times bestselling author on Last True Hero
- "A sexy, brooding hero and a feisty, fierce heroine make for undeniable chemistry and scorching heat between the sheets. You'll be rooting for the characters to get together and to get it together from the very first page."—--Jay Crownover, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author on Man of Honor
- "A heart wrenching story of the healing power of love. Gardin handles tough issues with sensitivity and poignant storytelling."—--Marie Meyer, author of The Turning Point, on Man of Honor
- "A fast-paced, intriguing story that will keep you glued to your kindle. An absolute must-read!"—Tina, Bookalicious Babes on Sworn to Protect
- On Sale
- Feb 12, 2019
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Forever Yours