Holiday Defenders: Mission: Christmas Rescue\Special Ops Christmas\Homefront Holiday Hero (Love Inspired Suspense)

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9780373446261: Holiday Defenders: Mission: Christmas Rescue\Special Ops Christmas\Homefront Holiday Hero (Love Inspired Suspense)

This holiday season, three military men of honor must do everything they can to save Christmas 

Mission: Christmas Rescue by Debby Giusti 

On the run from a killer, Elizabeth Tate must accept U.S. Army captain Nick Fontaine's protection for the sake of her young niece and nephew. Now her life is in the hands of the very man who broke her heart years ago. 

Special Ops Christmas by Susan Sleeman 

Researcher Claire Reed's top secret project is stolen, putting her at risk of being kidnapped to unlock it. Her undercover bodyguard—her former love, Green Beret Travis Chapman—is on his most dangerous mission yet. 

Homefront Holiday Hero by Jodie Bailey 

When someone tries to kill the daughter of a military official, U.S. Army major Tyler Rainey must keep Kelly Walters from harm...while guarding his own heart against very unexpected feelings.

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About the Author :

 Debby Giusti is a medical technologist who loves working with test tubes and petri dishes almost as much as she loves to write. Growing up as an Army Brat, Debby met and married her husband--then a Captain in the Army--at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Together they traveled the world, raised three wonderful Army Brats of their own and have now settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where Debby spins tales of suspense that touch the heart and soul.

SUSAN SLEEMAN is a best-selling author of inspirational and clean read romantic suspense books. Awards include Thread of Suspicion-2013 Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Best Book, No Way Out-2014 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence finalist, and The Christmas Witness-2012 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence finalist. She has had the pleasure of living in nine states and currently lives in Oregon.

Jodie Bailey is an avid reader and a life-long writer. When not tapping at the keyboard, she teaches middle schoolers how to love the written word and follows her Army husband around the country. Jodie is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Middle Tennessee Christian Writers. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Elizabeth Tate pulled back the living-room curtain and stared into the night. All she saw in the windowpane was her own reflection and the twinkling lights from the Christmas tree.

Unable to shrug off her unease, she dropped the curtain into place and headed down the hallway to check on Joey and Mary Grace.

Ever since her sister-in-law had died thirteen months earlier, Liz frequently stayed overnight at her brother's house to babysit his four- and six-year-old children when he was on assignment for a story. His job as a newspaper investigative reporter often took him out of town. Tonight he was working on something closer to home, although he hadn't shared the details with Elizabeth. All she knew was that it involved the rather controversial "Z" Notes whistleblower blog he wrote on the side to bring public attention to unethical or illegal corporate practices. Normally, Liz treasured the time she could spend with Zack's little ones. Tonight she was anxious and worried.

Perhaps it was Zack's warning to remain vigilant that had her conjuring up all types of scenarios. None of them good.

Ever since he'd launched "Z"Notes, she'd been concerned about her brother's safety. Exposing corruption at any level wasn't for the faint of heart. Usually Elizabeth could overlook the downside of his work by reminding herself of the good he was doing. And besides, his dedication to his work meant that she had the joy of being deeply involved in her niece and nephew's lives. As an elementary school teacher, she loved all children, but Mary Grace and Joey held a special place in her heart.

Slipping into their bedrooms, she sighed with relief, feeling both comforted and reassured that they were nestled in their beds, fast asleep. From the looks of contentment on their sweet faces, they were probably dreaming of Christmas, only two days away. By then, her nervous unrest would be a memory and another reason for Zack to poke fun at her concern for his well-being.

Called back to the living room by the shrill trill of her cell, she reached for her BlackBerry and smiled at her brother's picture on the screen.

"Hey, bro. What's up?"

"Lizzie, listen to me carefully and do exactly what I tell you. Pack a bag for the children. A couple outfits each. Some underwear. Extra warm clothes. Don't forget Mary Grace's toy Nativity set and Joey's lamb."

"But—"

"You have to leave the house and go somewhere safe. Hide out until I contact you."

She pushed the cell closer to her ear. "Is this a joke?"

"I wish it were."

The urgency in her brother's voice brought a renewed volley of concern.

"What happened, Zack?"

"An ambush. The guy I was supposed to meet—" He hesitated. "The whistleblower's dead." Liz gasped. "Where are you?"

"On the run. There're four of them. They want information I've uncovered. Grab my laptop and take it with you. Be careful, Liz. Don't let them find you or the kids."

"Where can we meet up?"

"We can't. They're on my tail. You've got to hurry. Take the children and escape."

A roar filled her head. She tried to think. "But where should we go?"

Zack hesitated. "I... I'm not sure."

"The Lassiter police can help, Zack. I'll call them."

"No." His firm reply frightened her even more. "You can't trust them. You can't trust anyone, except—"

"You're scaring me, Zack."

"As much as you won't like it, sis, there is one person you can trust. Nick Fontaine's back from his military deployment. I'll call him. He's the only person I can depend on."

She shook her head, vehemently opposed to her brother's suggestion. "I don't want Nick's help."

"There's no one else."

"Then I'll handle this myself."

"You'll need Nick. Hurry. You don't have much time."

"Zack—"

"Stay safe, and take care of my babies." The connection ended.

Her hands trembled. She stared down at the now-blank screen and tried to comprehend what her brother had just said.

A man murdered? Zack on the run?

She needed to notify the authorities, except he'd been adamant about not telling the very people she wanted to call.

Her stomach churned. Tears stung her eyes. Blinking them back, she glanced at her watch: 10:00 p.m.

How long had she been standing there, stalled, unable to grasp the reality of the moment?

"Oh, God, help me," she moaned. "Help Zack."

Knowing she didn't have a minute to spare, Elizabeth ran into Mary Grace's bedroom and started packing things into a canvas bag. The Nativity set—a gift Zack's wife had stitched for their baby girl's first Christmas—sat on the nightstand. Liz shoved the plump, hand-sewn figures of Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus and a donkey and camel into the quilted carrier designed as a stable, complete with a Star of Bethlehem appliqué. Closing the Velcro fasteners, she dropped the entire set into the larger, canvas tote before she raced to Joey's room. The lamb he slept with—another bit of her sister-in-law's handiwork—was still clenched in his arms.

The serene calm on the child's face contrasted sharply with the surge of adrenaline that made Liz light-headed. Raking a hand through her hair, she pulled in a lungful of air. Surely she was dreaming.

The memory of Zack's fear-laced voice echoed in her head. "Hurry," he had warned.

Glancing again at her watch, she groaned. Twenty minutes had passed. Why was she moving so slowly when time was passing so quickly?

She shoved Joey's outfits in the bag and added his favorite storybook. It was sitting on top of a craft box filled with crayons and paper, so she threw that in, too. Zipping the bag shut en route, she raced back to the kitchen and grabbed Zack's laptop, along with the small tote she had packed for herself in case she decided to spend the night at her brother's house. Her hands shook, and she struggled to unlatch the back door, then stumbled into the adjoining rear garage where she'd parked her SUV.

A December storm had dumped four inches of snow earlier today. The weatherman promised a white Christmas for this part of Tennessee, but right now survival was her only concern. Keep the children safe.

If only she knew where to take them.

She plopped the totes and computer in the rear between the kids' car seats, grateful Zack had loaded them in her car earlier. Just in case, he'd mentioned. Had he known there might be trouble?

Why, Zack?

Why tonight?

Why this close to Christmas?

Why, when the children have already lost their mother, would you do anything this dangerously foolish?

Anger swelled within her and mixed with frustration and fear that left her gasping for air.

She shook her head. She needed to focus on getting away. From whom, she wasn't even sure.

Racing back into the house, she yanked heavy winter coats from the closet, along with fleece hats, mittens and boots that could be pulled on over the children's flannel, footy pajamas.

What else?

Lights from the tree twinkled in the living room.

She unplugged the cord and shivered in the darkness. The only illumination was a small band of light, spilling from the hallway.

Footsteps sounded on the front porch. Her blood chilled.

She stared at the door, paralyzed with fear. Why had she delayed so long? Two knocks. "Lizzie?"

A voice she knew. Her inner resolve to be independent crumbled, and relief flooded over her.

She pulled open the door. Nick Fontaine stood before her, tall, muscular and even more handsome than she remembered.

In spite of her best intentions, her knees went weak, and her heart skidded to a stop.

Ten years. She hadn't seen him in all that time, yet she'd never forgotten him. How could she forget her first and only teenage love—not to mention the first boy to break her heart?

"Zack called." He pushed past her into the house, the scent of his aftershave and the cold outdoors coming with him. He closed the door, locked the dead bolt and turned to stare at her with unfairly beautiful dark eyes.

Overpowered by the bulk of him, she took a step back.

"My truck's parked on the next block," he said matter-of-factly. They weren't exactly the first words she'd expected to hear from him after ten years with no contact. But then, she should have known better than to expect anything from him ever since he'd walked out of her life the night of her high school prom.

Even after all these years, she couldn't cast off the feeling of betrayal. Going to prom with Nick had been a dream come true, and when he'd stood on her front porch and said he loved her, her heart had soared with joy. It had broken the next day, when she learned that he'd left town without even saying goodbye, never to return again.

"I don't need your help, Nick."

"Zack thinks you do."

"What do brothers know about kid sisters?"

"You're in danger, Lizzie."

She bristled, hearing the name he'd whispered between kisses the night he'd left her.

"It's Elizabeth, and I think you should go."

"Not until you and the children are in your car, headed for safety."

Why was he so determined?

She reached for the door. He didn't need her ten years ago, and she didn't need him now. End of discussion.

A car engine sounded outside. Nick stepped to the window and tugged back the curtain ever so slightly. She peered past him, and her heart froze as four men crawled from a utility van parked in front of the house.

In a blur of motion, Nick hurried her out of the living area. She pointed him to her nephew's room. "Joey's a sound sleeper. He won't wake up and be frightened seeing you like his sister might be. Make sure you bring his lamb."

Hurrying into the other room, she scooped Mary Grace from her bed and met Nick in the hallway, with Joey in his arms. Leading the way into the kitchen, Nick grabbed the pile of coats and pointed to the back door. "Garage?"

She nodded.

Leaving the warmth of the kitchen, Mary Grace blinked open sleepy eyes.

"We're going for a ride," Elizabeth reassured the child as she woke Joey and helped both of them into their coats. Once bundled up, Liz placed them in their car seats and climbed into the rear between them.

"Keys are in the ignition," she told Nick as he slipped behind the wheel.

He started the engine and glanced back at her before he hit the garage remote control. The panel door lumbered open. Shouts sounded from the side of the house.

"Dear God, protect us," Liz prayed as she covered the children's heads with her arms and pulled them close.

Nick backed the SUV out of the garage and turned onto the rear access road before he shifted into Drive and floored the accelerator. Four men with drawn weapons ran toward the car.

Elizabeth wanted to scream. Instead, she whispered words of comfort to the children and tried to shield them with her body.

A shot rang out.

"Keep the kids down," Nick warned.

The SUV screeched onto the main road. The force of acceleration threw her head against the seat. Hot tears stung her eyes, and she struggled to keep the nervousness from her voice as she soothed the children.

Nick's hands gripped the wheel so tightly his knuckles had gone white. A muscle twitched on the side of his neck. She saw him glance at her reflection in the rearview mirror and then turn his focus back to the road.

The SUV tore through the neighborhood of white lights and evergreen wreaths. An inflatable Santa Claus and Jolly Snowman nodded in passing. After a series of sharp turns, they left the subdivision and sped away into the night.

Everything had changed seemingly in the blink of an eye. An informant was dead. Zack was in danger, and she had to depend on Nick Fontaine—a man she'd never wanted to see again—in order to save her niece and nephew and herself. Elizabeth hadn't been able to trust Nick ten years ago. Why should she think she could trust him now?

* * *

Nick could barely take his eyes off Lizzie's reflection in the rearview mirror. She'd grown even more beautiful over the years, but it hadn't been her pretty face that took him by surprise earlier.

Rather it had been the look in her blue eyes that cut him to the core when she'd opened the door at Zack's house. Betrayal and abandonment flashed across her face for an instant before she'd raised her chin and glared at him with accusation.

As much as he wanted to explain what had happened ten years ago, he had to focus on the children's and Lizzie's safety first. They could delve into past issues after the danger was over.

When Zack called, he'd been on the run and worried about his family. Without a moment's hesitation, Nick had raced down the mountain to his old friend's house.

The two guys had reconnected a number of times over the years when Nick came back to Tennessee on leave, always meeting at Nick's mountain cabin, on Nick's turf. He'd never gone back to Lassiter. Never would have, if not for Zack's plea for help.

Nick couldn't say no to his old friend, especially when he'd learned Lizzie was in danger along with two adorable kids. The promise Nick had made to Lizzie's father, Judge Tate, years earlier, that he would never step foot in Lassiter again—a promise that Lizzie never knew about, made under duress—wasn't as important as keeping the three of them safe.

"Where are you taking us?" she asked from the rear.

He glanced again at her reflection. Long honey-brown hair, arched brows, full lips and crystalline eyes he'd seen too many times in his dreams.

"We're going someplace safe."

"I need to know where," she insisted, her voice raised ever so slightly.

He lowered his gaze to the little guy strapped in beside her who still clutched the stuffed lamb in his arms. Long, thick lashes drooped over his full cheeks.

Nick raised a finger to his lips. "Shhh. Someone's falling asleep."

Lizzie glanced at the boy. The strain that furrowed her brow eased, and a hint of a smile teased her lips.

"His name's Joey," she said, her voice thick with emotion.

"I seem to recall Nick telling me that big sister is named Mary."

Turning to her niece, Lizzie stroked her fingers through the child's curly hair and gave her a reassuring smile.

The little one smiled back. With her bow-shaped mouth, upturned nose, golden hair and blue eyes, she'd steal many a boy's heart when she grew up.

"My name's Mary Grace," she informed him without hesitation. "Aunt Lizzie calls me Sunshine 'cause I brighten her day. I'm six years old."

Nick inwardly chuckled. Little Miss Sunshine was cute as a button. "You're so grown up. I'm sure you help your dad around the house."

"Daddy says I need to help take care of Joey, too."

"Because he's younger or because he's your brother?" Nick played along and paired his seriousness to hers.

"No." She shook her head emphatically. "'Cause he doesn't talk."

Nick threw a questioning glance at Lizzie, who remained silent.

"Joey hasn't talked since Mama died," Mary Grace explained.

Nick felt a sta...

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Giusti, Debby; Sleeman, Susan; Bailey, Jodie
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