Authors: Adrienne Bell
The Sinner Saints
Copyright 2015 by Adrienne Bell
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written consent from the author/publisher.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons living or dead, or places, events, or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are products of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.
Table of Contents
About the Author
This one’s for Lisa.
“Thank you again for taking this assignment on such short notice.”
“Of course,” Carter Macmillan said as he shook the hand of the grey-templed man before him. “I was honored to get your call this afternoon, Congressman.”
“Well,” four-term Congressman Buck Fuller said, “my Communications Director, Lucas, tells me that Macmillan Security is the best executive protection team in Sacramento.”
Carter inclined his head. He wasn’t one to brag, but he wasn’t about to limit that distinction to their small metropolitan area. The skill and training of his team was nothing short of world-class. And he should know.
Carter had been their commanding officer for years before entering the private sector.
“I’m only sorry that we’re here under such tragic circumstances. Please know that you have the deepest condolences of everyone at Macmillan Security.”
Carter had been watching the reports over the internet about the congressman’s Chief of Staff being killed by a car bomb when the call from the congressman’s office had come in. He understood the man’s fear. There was no way that Carter was about to allow Fuller, his staff, or any of his donors to be put at risk just because the request had come in with short notice.
“That is appreciated,” Congressman Fuller said, giving Carter a practiced smile. “To tell you the truth, I wasn’t certain that we should proceed with tonight’s fundraiser after the events of the day. But Lucas was adamant that to change the schedule would allow the people who killed poor Harvey to win.”
“I understand, sir,” Carter said with a nod. “And I assure you that my team will do everything in our power to make sure that the event runs smoothly.”
“Though you do understand that your team’s position here tonight is purely supplemental?” Lucas Addams asked. “Congressman Fuller’s private security team will be taking the lead. You’re only here tonight as an extra set of eyes.”
Carter turned to face Fuller’s aide. There was something about the sharp-nosed man he didn’t trust. Something that went beyond the usual duplicitous nature Carter expected from a man who’d made his career in politics.
“I understand that you hired us to keep the people at this fundraiser safe tonight,” Carter said, meeting Lucas’ direct gaze. “And, I assure you, it’s a job my team and I take very seriously.”
Lucas’ eyes narrowed slightly. It was obvious that he didn’t like Carter’s answer.
Too damned bad. He’d been hired to do a job and he intended to do it. Besides, Carter knew none of his men would ever tolerate being second string.
Congressman Fuller clapped him on the shoulder and gave him another wide, camera-worthy smile, seemingly oblivious to the tension between Carter and his aide. “Then for all our sakes, let’s hope that it turns out to be an uneventful night.”
“Of course, sir,” Carter said with a nod as the congressman started to walk away.
It was a nice enough sentiment but, in Carter’s experience, people rarely hired his security firm because they truly believed that life would run smoothly.
Carter watched Lucas Addams follow a step behind his boss as the congressman started to make his way through the room. He tried not to read too much into the cold feeling of wariness for the man that had taken root in his gut.
As soon as they disappeared into the fashionable crowd Carter eased his stance, attempting to blend into his surroundings. He leaned his hip against the wall at his side, casually blocking the door behind him. Between Rhys and Jake at the front door, and him at the door that led to the back stairwell, they had all the major entrances and exits covered.
No one was getting in or out of this building without Carter knowing about it.
He was just starting to relax when he felt a tickle of awareness along the back of his neck. His gaze snapped to the center of the crowd and, sure enough, he found someone staring at him.
A very interesting someone.
Carter tilted his head to the side, studying the lovely stranger standing a good thirty feet in front of him. Her black dress was elegant and understated, the shimmery material cascading all the way down to the floor. Her reddish-brown hair was swept up and back from her face, showing off her full red lips and the cute little dimple in her chin. At first glance, anyone could be forgiven for mistaking her for any of the other high society donors.
But Carter Macmillan wasn’t just anyone.
After another second of assessing him, she started walking straight toward him. And with every step she took, Carter became more certain that she wasn’t on the guest list.
Judging by the angle of her hips and the relaxed motion of her stride, Carter could tell she wasn’t wearing heels. In fact, he was betting if the hem of her dress swung out far enough he’d catch a glimpse of running shoes on her feet.
Whoever this woman was, she was ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
And it wasn’t just her choice of footwear that gave her away. Her gown might fit her well, but it was most certainly purchased off the rack, and some time ago if the slight fraying along the shoulder strap was any indication.
Then there was her hair. As she closed the distance between them, a dozen or so bobby pins pushed haphazardly into her crown gleamed in the overhead lights. It was obviously a rushed job.
Carter was just squaring his shoulders, getting ready to demand that she reveal what she was doing there, but the woman beat him to the punch.
“I will give you fifty dollars to have a drink with me,” she said, tucking herself into the small space between him and the wall.
Carter blinked. Out of everything in the world, that was the last thing that he expected to come out of her mouth.
“Excuse me?” he said, cocking his head to the side.
“Fifty bucks,” she repeated. She glanced nervously over her shoulder and into the crowd. “Just to stand by me for the next couple of minutes and sip on some champagne.”
“That’s what I thought you said.”
“So do we have a deal?” she asked, turning her attention back to him.
Carter found himself staring down into a pair of desperate blue eyes. Desperate, and frightened. He’d looked into the eyes of a lot of killers in his life, enough to be pretty damned sure that he wasn’t staring down at the face of a car bomber right now.
Not that that changed anything. This woman might not be a threat, but she still wasn’t supposed to be here.
But Carter didn’t think he was going to find out what was going on by tossing her back out on the street. She was definitely scared of something, and right now he figured the best way of finding out what, was by playing along.
“As much as I’d love to take you up on that offer, the drinks are complimentary,” he said, playing dumb.
“Yeah, I know.” She flashed him a tight smile before tilting her chin down, hiding her face from the rest of the crowd. “It’s the company I’m interested in.”
Carter propped his shoulder against the wall. The move had the dual purpose of granting her more cover as well as keeping her within arm’s reach.
“And why’s that?” he asked.
She didn’t lift her head, only her eyes moved to meet his gaze. “Because I’ve got two of the scariest-looking security guards you’ve ever seen on my tail. One is massive and the other one looks like he could freeze water just by looking at it.”
Carter fought back the smile that pulled at his lips. He recognized those descriptions well. His two men at the front door, Jake Thorne and Rhys Vaughn. Her assessment of the pair was dead on.
What was hard to believe was that she’d managed to slip past the pair. It wasn’t an easy feat.
“All right,” Carter said, nodding slowly. “There’s only one problem. We don’t have any drinks.”
As if on cue, she pivoted on her heel and snatched a couple of glasses from a passing waiter.
“Easily solved,” she said, handing him his glass.
Carter spun the stem of the champagne flute between his fingers, but didn’t take a sip. “So, I take it you aren’t supposed to be here.”
“Nope,” she said before taking a giant swig of the bubbly. Whatever it was she was planning, it appeared her courage needed a boost. Her eyes widened in surprise, as though she wasn’t used to tasting the good stuff. “I wasn’t exactly on the guest list.”
“So why come to me for help?”
“Lots of reasons,” she said, looking him up and down in open assessment. “You’re alone, but you don’t look like you’re waiting for someone. You aren’t already drinking, so chances are you would be sober and wouldn’t immediately get all handsy when I propositioned you.”
“Thank you…I think.”
“But most of all, you have a look about you.”
“A look?” Carter cocked a brow.
“You know,” she said, tracing his silhouette with a wave of her hand. “Authority. The way you’re dressed, the way you hold yourself, you obviously have a lot of power, but you don’t need to flaunt it. You don’t seem like the kind of man people mess with.”
“People like security guards?”
“Exactly,” she said, with a tip of her glass.
“But it appears I’m not totally unapproachable,” he said, leaning in a little closer. “Especially not by party crashers.”
A slight blush rose on her cheeks as she gave him a self-conscious half smile. “I promise, I won’t keep you for long. Five minutes, tops.”
“What a shame,” he said.
For a brief moment, a twinkle of amusement sparkled in her eyes. A second later she shook it off, and the look of apprehension rushed right back.
“Think of it this way,” she said. “You’ll have one hell of a story to tell in the boardroom come Monday morning.”
A smile curled the corner of Carter’s lip. So, that was how she read him—a high-powered CEO. Well, she wasn’t technically wrong. Not that he was about to fill in the details for her. Not yet, anyway.
“And you?” he asked. “Is this just another day at the office?”
For the first time, she hesitated. Her face paled, as if his words had shaken her out of the pleasant flirting they’d been engaged in and back to the real reason she was here. “I know it’s hard to believe, but this isn’t how I usually spend my Friday nights.”
“I see,” Carter said, even though he didn’t. When he’d seen her making a beeline for him across the room he’d expected a stream of lies to come pouring from her lips, maybe a sob story, anything but the bald truth. But it seemed like there were limits to how much his intriguing companion was willing to share. Maybe the time had come to test those limits. “Do I get to know your name?”
“Probably not a good idea.” She took a small sip of her champagne.
“I’m guessing that I don’t get to know the story of why you’re running from the security guards either.”
Her gaze flashed up at him. The look in her eyes was easy to read.
What do you think?
“Maybe just a little clue,” he teased.
“Trust me, the less you know, the better off you are,” she said cryptically. “But I swear, I have a really good reason.”
Turned out,good reasons, weren’t good enough for him.
“Are you planning on hurting someone?” Carter asked, trying to keep his voice light.
“What?” Her face shot up. Her eyes went wide. “No. Of course not.”
Carter studied her. She was shocked, appalled at the very idea that he would ask such a thing.
So if she wasn’t here because of the threats to Congressman Fuller’s life, then whywasshe here?
Carter could think of half a dozen ways he could make her talk, just off the top of his head. The most efficient, of course, would be handing her over to Rhys and letting him go to work on her. Five minutes alone with the best interrogator to come out of Army Special Forces, and Carter had no doubt his mysterious little bird would sing to the rafters.
Rhys might be damned effective in getting information out of hostiles, but his methods could be…harsh. And somehow, the image of the charming woman in front of him forced down in a chair, trembling in front of Carter’s stony-faced man, wasn’t sitting well in his gut. It was obvious that she was scared enough as it was. He had a feeling that heaping even more fear on top wasn’t going to help.
No, Carter could figure out what she was up to on his own, without threats or intimidation. He was pretty sure that he knew another set of tactics that would prove far more effective.
He wasn’t above using her attraction to him to his advantage.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend,” he said, slowly offering her his hand. “I’m Carter.”
“It’s a pleasure,” she said, taking it. A rush of pink lit up her cheeks at the deliberate way he curled his fingers around her palm. Her touch was warm and surprisingly soft. He didn’t pull away and neither did she.
Maybe this was going to work better than he thought.
“Are you sure you don’t want to tell me your name?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
Her eyes locked with his. Her tongue flicked out to wet her full bottom lip.
Her bright blue eyes darted away from his, focusing sharply on something just behind him and shattering the moment. All the color drained from her face as she ducked her head.
“There’s another twenty in it for you if you put your arm around me right now,” she blurted out.
He swiveled around to see what had spooked her, just in time to see his man, Jake, breaking through the crowd. Rhys wasn’t far behind.
Carter couldn’t blame the woman for her reaction. There probably wasn’t a more intimidating pair on the planet. Of course, that was only half the reason he kept them on the payroll. They might be damned useful, but, after everything they’d been through together, these men were his family.
“Are those the guys that are after you?” he said, tilting his head in their direction.
“Yeah.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“I thought you said they were scary.” Carter turned toward Jake and Rhys. “Is there a problem, gentlemen?”
Jake stopped short at Carter’s impersonal greeting and high-handed tone. His brows pulled down into a deep V above his eyes.
“Yeah, there is,” Jake said slowly. “That woman is—”
“Is not a problem,” Carter finished for him.
Rhys gave him a long look, his ice blue eyes narrowing. “You sure about that, because she—”
“Isn’t on the list? I know. The lady is with me, boys.”
“Boys?” Jake said. His jaw tightened as he took a step forward. Carter knew Jake wasn’t used to being talked down to and, by the looks of it, he didn’t like it one bit. Not by his boss. Maybe,especially, by his boss.
Rhys put his hand on Jake’s shoulder, stilling him. Jake turned his head. He caught Rhys’ pointed look and his stance relaxed a little…a very little.
“Sorry about the misunderstanding, sir,” Rhys said. “It looks like you have this situation under control.”
“I do,” Carter said.
“Yeah, ourdeepestapologies,” Jake said, giving Carter a belligerent smile as Rhys slowly pulled him back into the crowd. “Sir.”
Carter turned around to find his mystery woman staring at him with narrowed eyes. The left side of her mouth was quirked up at an angle that said that she didn’t quite believe what had just happened…and not in the good way.
“You chased them off?” she asked, her voice dripping with skepticism.
“I guess I did.”
“Just by telling them that I was with you?”
“Like you said, I’m not the kind of person people want to mess with.”
“Yeah,” she said, drawing out the word. She swept him up and down with a critical gaze, as if she was completely re-examining him.
So, maybe he’d laid it on a little too thick. But that was all right. He could recover. It couldn’t be too hard to regain her trust.
“Where were we?” Carter cocked his shoulder against the wall and gave her his best bedroom smile, the one that had slipped more than a couple of secrets from the lips of beautiful women around the globe. He lazily raised his hand to tuck a stray hair that had come loose behind her ear. “That’s right. You were about to tell me your name.”
She handed him her empty glass. “I really should be going.”
Okay. Maybe it was going to take a little more damage control than he first thought.
“Why would you want to do that?” he whispered.
She looked over his shoulder again. Her eyes went wide. “Because your friends are coming back.”
Carter spun around. He scanned the crowd for Jake and Rhys, but they weren’t there.
His shoulders fell as he heard the soft sound of the metal door that led to the back stairwell clicking closed behind him.
He turned around and looked at the empty space by the wall.
She was gone.
Correction—she’d played him and then she’d bolted. Just like she’d done to Rhys and Jake. Not a good night for Macmillan Security.
Though somehow, Carter felt a wave of admiration toward the woman who’d given him the slip. It was a rare creature that could elude one ex-Special Forces operative, let alone three. Of course, that only made him more determined to find her and figure out exactly who she was and what she was up to.
Ally Weaver hiked up the long skirt of her dress and took the stairs two at a time. The metal steps rattled with each fall of her sneakers, but there was no way around it. She just hoped that the noise from the party drowned out the clatter.
She didn’t have any more time to waste. Her plan had been to be in and out of Fuller’s office building in less than ten minutes, but she’d blown that timeline just trying to get her foot in the door. Fuller’s private security guys hadn’t batted an eye as she’d tucked herself into a cluster of Sacramento’s elite entering the private event together.
But the other two guys, they were a whole other story. They’d spotted her right away, and proved a lot harder to slip away from than Fuller’s usual corporate thugs. If it wasn’t for her little interlude with Mr. Sexy Pants, Ally had no doubt her butt would be landing on the pavement this very moment.
Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d managed to get rid of her pursuers a little too easily.
Not that it mattered what excuse she came up with for ditching him. She just needed to get moving. She couldn’t afford to waste any more time, especially not admiring strong stubble-lined jaws and chiseled cheekbones. Too bad. Under any other set of circumstances, Ally had a feeling she wouldn’t mind lingering by his side all night.
But not even a gorgeous pair of honey-brown eyes would save her if Fuller’s team discovered her in the building.
Ally reached the second floor and peeked through the window cut into the stairwell door, but she couldn’t make out much of anything through the narrow reinforced strip of glass.
She drew in a deep breath before she risked cracking the door. No sirens blared as it inched open. No security lights flashed.
So far, so good. She swung the door open another couple of inches and poked her head out into the hallway.
It was clear. Just rows and rows of office doors, each with a handy brass nameplate square in the center.
Good. Because other than the second floor of Fuller’s office building, Ally had no idea where she was going. She only had a name.
She rushed down the line of doors looking at the names as she went. She was all the way down at the end before she found the one she wanted.
Harvey Price. Chief of Staff.
A chill ran up Ally’s spine as she looked at the nameplate. She repeated the same vow that had been running on a constant loop in her mind all day.
You didn’t die in vain, Harvey. I’ll see this through. I swear it.
Ally tried the doorknob. It didn’t budge. She hadn’t really expected it to.
From inside her shoe she pulled a half-melted pass card. She wiped some of the excess ash away on the side of her dress and lifted it up to the reader, but not before mouthing a silent prayer.
She’d pulled in every favor she could to get the charred card, and now she was afraid to use it. Craig, her friend at the medical examiner’s office said he’d tested it and the RFID tag was still functioning. It was hard to believe that anything had survived the fire that had engulfed Harvey Price’s car.
Harvey certainly hadn’t.
One moment, he’d been talking to her on the phone, and the next he was gone. Just like that.
At first, Ally had just thought that they’d been cut off. But a few minutes later, she’d caught sight of the breaking news story on the television. A fireball on the Capital City Freeway. A burned out car. One fatality.
Ally didn’t need to hear confirmation of the victim’s identity. Deep in her gut she already knew.
She passed the remains of the card in front of the scanner, and let out a long breath as the red light turned green. A soft click sounded as the lock on the door slid back. She quickly turned the knob and stepped inside. The door automatically closed behind her.
Ally’s mouth flattened into a hard line as her gaze swept over Harvey Price’s office. Of course, the man had to have the biggest damned corner office in the damned building, other than Fuller’s, that was. There were books and papers everywhere. She spotted three computers, one large one on the desk and two closed laptops on the bookshelves behind it. This was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack.
But standing slack-jawed wasn’t getting her any closer to finding it. The information that had gotten Harvey killed was somewhere in this room. And Ally was determined to find it.
And then she was going to show it to the world.
It was the least she could do.
She couldn’t ditch the guilt that gnawed at the pit of her stomach. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t been the one to reach out to Harvey. He’d contacted her.With very important information, he’d said.Fuller’s gone too far this time. Can’t let this one go. Can’t sleep at night.
Well, now neither could she.
Ally strode over to the desk and started rummaging through the piles of documents.
She didn’t find anything. It probably would have helped if she knew what she was looking for, but Harvey hadn’t trusted her with that vital piece of information yet. He hadn’t trusted anyone.
Rightfully so, it turned out.
Still, there were no files labeledTop SecretorConfidential. No red flags that she could see. She spun around to try her luck on the bookcase. She’d made it down to the second shelf when she heard the knock on the door behind her.
Ally spun around, her heart in her throat.
But she didn’t find a line of Buck Fuller’s armed thugs waiting for her. Of course, not. They wouldn’t have alerted her to their presence. They would have just shot her in the back.
Instead, Mr. Sexy Pants was leaning in the open doorway—the one she was certain that she’d closed tight behind her.
She narrowed her eyes as she straightened her spine. Just because he was damned handsome didn’t mean that she didn’t have to worry about him.
Don’t trust anyone.
How many times had Harvey told her that? And unless she wanted to end up the same way he did, she would do well to heed his advice.
“You?” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Funny,” he said, leaning his shoulder against the jamb. Even though his body language was easy, his eyes were steady on her. “I was about to ask you the same question.”
“What does it look like? I’m ransacking an office.” She turned around and got back to work. Her time was limited. If this was the man Fuller had sent to get rid of her, there would be no talking him out of it. And if he wasn’t…well, then whatever his agenda was, he could just as well get on with it while she continued to look for Harvey’s information. “Your turn to answer the question.”
Ally heard his footsteps travel deeper into the room, followed by the door clicking closed behind him. “Following you. You disappeared down there in a hurry.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a busy woman,” she said, thumbing through a stack of manila folders.
Nothing. Ally turned around to find that Carter had stopped directly behind her.
“You want to tell me what you’re looking for?”
He was so close that Ally had to tilt her chin up to look him in the eye.
“Nope.” Ally stepped around him and toward the file cabinets on the far wall. He didn’t try to stop her, but Ally could feel the intensity of his gaze following her.
“Maybe I could help.”
“No, you couldn’t.” She threw open a drawer. “In fact, if you knew what was best for you, you’d hightail it back down the stairs.”
“That’s the problem.” His voice was close again. His breath caressed the top of her ear. “I rarely do what’s best for me.”
Ally spun around and, this time, smacked right into his chest. She put her hands out to steady herself. She could feel right through the thin material of his shirt to the brick wall underneath. Was the man a solid mass of muscle? There was no give to him. None.
Especially not with his incessant questioning.
“All right,” she said, finally getting around to pulling her hands away from his body. Better late than never. “Who are you?”
“I told you, Car—”
“Carter, right. I don’t care about your name.” It looked like if she wanted specific answers, she was going to have to ask specific questions. “Do you work for Fuller?”
He hesitated for a fraction of a second before he answered, long enough for Ally’s heart to jump into her throat.
“Not usually,” he said.
She took another step back…like that extra eight inches was going to save her.
“What the hell does that mean?”
He reached into his inner jacket pocket. Ally instinctually stumbled back toward Harvey’s desk at the move.
“It’s okay,” he said, shooting her a smile. He slowly pulled out his hand. Pinched between two fingers was a business card. He held it out toward her.
Ally stared at the card stock rectangle for a long moment before lifting her gaze to Carter’s soft brown eyes. “What’s that?” she asked.
He raised his brows. Thewhat the hell does it look likewas implied. He kept it held out in front of him, his arm never wavering, as she made up her mind. Slowly, she closed the gap between them. The second she was in reach, she snatched the card out of his hand and held it up.
Carter Macmillan. Macmillan Security.
She knew the card was supposed to calm her down. Carter didn’t really work for Congressman Fuller. Not really. But her heart didn’t slow down. If anything it started pounding harder.
“You’re private security?” A shake crept into her voice as she asked. “Hired just for the party tonight?”
Carter nodded. “That’s right.”
“And those men that I slipped past were yours?”
“Two of the most highly trained men in the field. Which makes you very impressive, Miss…”
Ally waved her hand, both to brush off his praise and his weak attempt to ascertain her identity. There were more important things she needed to know.
“Fuller didn’t happen to call you about this job on short notice, did he?”
Carter nodded. Slower this time. His gaze became curious. “Just this afternoon. Why do you ask?”
“Because, I hate to be the one to break it to you Mr. Macmillan, but you’re being set up. Both of us are.”
His body went stiff, his shoulders squaring. Now he even looked like a brick wall.
“What are you talking about?” His voice was all business now. Not a lick of that sexy drawl remained.
Unfortunately, Ally didn’t have time for soothing his injured pride. If Fuller was running the same game he had back in Rome that meant he was desperate to get rid of her. She had mere minutes to find where Harvey had hidden his secrets. Maybe not even that long. She started pulling files off the shelves, praying that something would literally jump out at her.
“Three years ago, Fuller was with a delegation of congressmen in Rome when an investigative reporter started asking some very direct questions about secret dealings between Russian oil companies and Fuller’s old company, Allied Dynamics. Fuller said the claims were baseless, and that he’d quit the board years ago, but the reporter insisted he had proof that Fuller had profited directly from the transaction,” Ally explained as she dug into another pile. “That night, Fuller went to a gala thrown in the delegation’s honor. He insisted on extra security, which his aide hired that morning. Two hours later the reporter was shot dead in the upper level of the palace.”
A second of silence ticked by as Ally moved on to the next pile.
“What does that have to do with us?” Carter asked.
“Everything,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “Fuller claimed the reporter had snuck into the palace and the over-eager security force had been the ones to take him down. But there was no sign of forced entry, and everyone who worked for the security firm swore they never saw the man, let alone shot him.”
Ally glanced up to see Carter leaning against the wall. His arms were crossed in front of his chest and he had a far away look in his eye, like the pieces were falling into place in his mind.
“Fuller used the supplemental security team as a scapegoat,” he said.
“The perfect scapegoat.” Now that he was up to speed, Ally turned back to the job in front of her. “He even made sure to match the firearms and bullets that the security firm used.”
Carter pushed off the wall and walked toward her. “That doesn’t explain who you are or what you broke in here to look for.”
“I’m this year’s model of pesky reporter,” she said. “I am looking for evidence of how much of a monster Fuller really is.”
“Russian oil dealings?”
Ally shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Don’t think?” Carter propped his arms on Harvey’s desk. “You’re in here risking your life, and you don’t even know what you’re looking for?”
Ally straightened her spine. Two could play at this indignant game.
“Two days ago, I received a call from Harvey Price, Fuller’s Chief of Staff. He said he had some very big information to spill. He said it was terrible, worse than anything that Fuller had ever tried to get away with before. Harvey told me that if anyone found out he was the leak, he was a dead man.”
“The same Harvey Price whose car exploded on the freeway this afternoon?”
“I was on the phone with him when it happened.”
Some of the hardness seeped out of Carter’s expression. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” Ally said, and got back to rummaging. “I can’t help him now, but for his sake, I can keep looking. I can try to make it so the poor man didn’t die for nothing.”
“Did he say anything about what kind of information he was going to hand over?”
“No,” Ally said, shaking her head. “Just that it was huge. He said that once the story broke, Fuller would be going to jail for a very long time.”
To her surprise, Carter pulled a few files his way and started flipping through them.
“What are you doing?” Ally stared at him with wide eyes. “I told you, you and your whole team are in danger. You need to round them all up, and get out of here fast before Fuller tries to pin anything on you.”
Carter didn’t look up, but cocked a single brow. “And I told you, I’m no good at doing what I’m told.”
Ally threw her hands up. What the hell? He was an adult. He could make his own decisions. And if they ended up being idiotic, that was none of her business. After all, it wasn’t like she was capable of physically pushing him out of the room.
“Your funeral,” she muttered under her breath.
“Did Harvey say anything strange before the bomb went off?” he asked, as if he hadn’t heard her…or didn’t care. “Anything that could have been a clue?”
Ally thought back. There were the usual warnings not to trust anyone, the pleading that no one could know, that his life was in danger even talking to her. And…
“There was one weird thing,” she said. “When I asked him if the information was in a safe place, he said it was, that he’d hidden it well.”
“That doesn’t sound too strange.”
“It was the way he said it.” Ally shook her head as she tried to recall Harvey’s exact words. “He said, ‘People see only what’s in front of them. They don’t look low enough.’Low enough. Notdeep. That’s an awkward phrase.”
“Yeah, that’s weird,” Carter agreed.
“Maybe, I’ve been looking in all the wrong places. Harvey would never put the evidence on a shelf for just anyone to find.” Ally stepped back and bent at the waist to look under the desk. “Maybe he hid it somewhere down—”
The second her fingers hit the ground there was a loud crack, then the ringing of a thousand pieces of shattered glass falling to the floor. Instinctually, Ally lifted her head to see what the hell was going on. And immediately, she wished she hadn’t.
The large window that ran along the length of Harvey’s interior wall was gone. The long vertical blinds that had covered them swung violently to and fro, far enough that Ally was able to catch a glimpse of a few people scrambling in the hallway. All of them dressed in black. All of them armed.
She was out of time.
“Shi—” She didn’t even have time to get the full curse out before a long, solid mass slammed into her back, knocking her down onto the carpet.
Carter. He’d tackled her and now he was holding her down.
Well, not holding her down so much as just lying on top of her. The man happened to be so big that the effect was the same.
“What are you doing?” she asked, struggling to draw breath under his heavy frame.
“Trying to keep you alive,” he said.
Ally tried to swallow down the lump that was suddenly blocking her throat. She’d come into this party with her eyes wide open tonight, aware of the risks. But it turned out that there was a hell of a difference between agreeing with something intellectually and dodging actual bullets.
Ally twisted around as best she could underneath Carter’s massive frame. “So if they’re trying to kill me, why aren’t they shooting anymore?”
Carter rolled to the side. He kept his arm wrapped around her and dragged her deeper into the shelter of the hollow beneath the solid oak desk.
“From the sound of your story, they need to make this look like a case of one of my guys getting a little trigger happy.” He sat up as best he could in the confined space and reached inside. This time he didn’t retrieve a business card, but a matte black handgun. Ally leaned back at the sight of the deadly weapon, pressing against the side of the desk.
“That means two or three bullets at most, all tightly grouped,” he continued explaining. “The last thing they want is to spray the room with bullets. Fire fights are notoriously hard to explain away.”
It sounded like he was speaking from experience. “So what do we do?”
“We give them exactly what they’re trying to avoid.” Before she could ask exactly what that entailed, he tapped something in his right ear—a nearly invisible piece of plastic that she’d somehow missed before—and brought his wrist near his mouth. “Rhys. Jake. We have a situation on the second floor. Shots fired. Suspect Fuller’s security detail. I need cover.”
He rattled off the words quickly, efficiently. This obviously wasn’t this guy’s first rodeo.
“Your guys from downstairs?” she asked, when he lowered his arm.
“You sure you want to get them involved in this?” Ally asked.
He shot her a wicked smile.
“They’d be pissed if I left them out.” He put a hand on the bend of her knee. “Don’t worry, this is the sort of thing we’re trained for.”
She guessed that was supposed to reassure her. The truth was, Ally didn’t think she could handle any more blood on her hands. Not his. Not his friends’. Not even the guys’ out in the hall.
Apparently, Fuller’s men didn’t suffer from her guilty conscience. A second later, Ally jolted at the chime of more glass fragments falling to the floor, followed by the sound of the blinds rustling. They were going for the inside door handle. They were coming in.
Which meant she and Carter had to find a way out. All other thoughts fled Ally’s head.
She sucked in a lungful of air and held it, somehow afraid that her breath would be the sound that gave them away.
Carter gripped his gun with both hands. He leaned forward on his haunches. He waited until they heard the unmistakable creak of the door opening. Then he sprung up from under the desk. Ally covered her ears as three deafening bangs in a row echoed off the walls. Then, just as fast, Carter was back down by her side.
She stared at him with wide eyes. She tried to talk but her brain hadn’t recovered enough from the shock to form words. “D-did you k-k—”
“Kill them?” Carter shook his head once. “Just gave them some incentive to stay outside.”
“We need to find a way out of here.” Ally’s chest suddenly felt tight. She was certain her throat was closing up. She tried to breathe but her lungs seized, only allowing her tiny, quick gulps of air.
She was pretty sure Carter said something but she didn’t catch it. She was too busy hyperventilating and scanning the room for any possible escape route. It was useless. There was just the one door and the bank of shattered windows that led to the hallway. Even if they managed to get past Fuller’s thugs, there would only be more downstairs waiting for them. No matter what they did, they were doomed.
Carter wrapped his hand around the nape of her neck, and tilted her head back, forcing her eyes to meet his.
“I know you’re scared, but I need you to calm down and focus. Everything is going to be fine,” he said. His voice seemed unusually calm given their dire circumstances. “I have a plan. But we have to wait for backup. Okay?”
He pulled her face an inch closer. His eye contact intensified, and Ally managed to pull in a long, deep breath.
“Okay?” he repeated.
Carter looked into her eyes for a second longer before nodding and letting her go. “It won’t be long.”
A second later, she heard the far away sound of a door crashing against a wall. There was some shouting and then a few rounds of gunfire. Ally flinched with every shot.
“That’s our cue,” Carter said, jumping out from under the shelter of the desk. He stayed low as he moved across the room toward the window.
Ally pivoted to follow him, but as she turned her head a glint of reflected light caught her eye. It was coming right from where Carter had been, at the very bottom of the desk near the leg. She had to lay flat on the ground to get a better look at it.
There was something wedged in the gap by the desk leg.
Nobody looks low enough.
“Harvey, you crafty bastard,” Ally said.
She scraped at the object with her thumb. It didn’t budge. Whatever it was, it was wedged in there good.
“Come on,” Carter shouted from across the office.
Ally was aware that the chaos was still swirling around her—the occasional pop of gunfire, the yelling, the urgent need to escape. But she was pretty sure she’d found what she’d come for. The reason a man had died, and Ally would be damned if she was going to leave this office without it.
She clawed at the metal sliver. Slowly, it started to come loose.
“Now!” Carter called out behind her.
“One sec,” she whispered, more to herself than to him.
Ally pinched the hidden device between two fingers, tight enough to crack a nail clear down to the bed, and yanked as hard as she could. She got a little extra help as Carter’s hand wrapped around her ankle and he dragged her out from under Harvey’s desk.
The object popped free, and Ally wrapped her fingers around it tight.
“We’re all out of seconds,” Carter said, lifting her to her feet.
“Fortunately, I don’t need any more.” She opened her fingers and looked down at her hand. A small silver flash drive lay in the center of her palm.
“Is that what you came for?” he asked.
A smile spread across Ally’s face. “I think so.”
“Good. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
Carter pivoted and picked up Harvey’s desk chair. He went over to the window that already had a single round bullet hole in the center, and hit it hard. A spider web of cracks spread out across the glass. He leaned back and smacked it again. The window splintered, raining glass down to the sidewalk below.
Ally poked her head out the window. Her knees went weak at just how far away the sidewalk was.
“That’s your plan?” She pulled her head back in and stared at him like he was a madman. “Break our legs on the fall? It has to be thirty feet to the street.”
“We’re on the second floor,” he said. “It’s more like twelve. And I’m not planning on jumping.”
“Then what are you planning?”
He gave a pointed look at the light post. “Sliding.”
Ally sucked in a deep breath as she stared at the black square metal post that stood about five feet away from the remains of the window. It wasn’t her first choice, but she had to admit it was a hell of a lot better than jumping or going out the way she came in.
One minute of suck and you’re out of this mess. Oh, but what a sucky minute it was going to be. Still, there was nothing to do but be done with it.
Ally gathered her long skirt and tucked the hem into her neckline, exposing her thighs. She had a feeling she was going to need as much grip on that post as she could get.
Carter held her hand as she stepped onto the window ledge. His hands circled her waist, steadying her as she leaned out to grasp the pole. Ally drew in a steadying breath as she wrapped one hand, then the other, around the pole. Her body was committed now, but her brain still needed a little push.
She got it a half second later when she heard another couple of shots pinging off the hallway walls behind her. She held tight and propelled her legs forward, wrapping them around the awkwardly shaped pole. She didn’t slide as much as she inched her way down, clinging for dear life with every move. She muttered a grateful prayer the moment her feet hit solid earth.
Two seconds later, Carter was by her side. Obviously, he didn’t have the same trouble with heights. She was beginning to think that he didn’t have trouble with anything.
“Do you have a car?” Carter didn’t wait for his mystery woman to answer before linking his arm with hers and steering her toward the parking lot.
There usually weren’t too many people out on the streets of downtown Sacramento this far past five o’clock, but Carter still spied a couple of stragglers staring at them as they hurried down the sidewalk and away from the pile of broken glass. It didn’t matter that they’d had a small audience for their descent from the second story. Carter had a feeling that someone had already called the police. Which meant he had only minutes to get this woman to safety.
“Yeah,” she said, as they rounded the corner of the office building and stepped into the parking lot. She pointed him in the direction of a battered white Toyota Camry. She went over to the driver’s side door and pulled the key out of her running shoe.
“You shouldn’t go home tonight,” he said.
She opened the door but didn’t get inside. She looked at him as her face fell. “Crap. I guess that wouldn’t be a very good idea, would it?”
Carter slowly shook his head. He didn’t like being the one to shatter her illusion that her troubles were somehow over. The truth was, they were probably just beginning. By the looks of it, she was totally unprepared for the storm that was headed her way.
And it would be totally irresponsible for him to throw her headlong into it unprotected, especially now that he knew what Buck Fuller was capable of.
“Do you have someplace to go?” he asked.
She thought for a second then nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. Give me a minute, I’m going to get one of my men to keep watch over you tonight.”
Carter wished that he could be the one to look after her, but he needed to stay and face the police. That didn’t mean she’d be leaving alone.
He knew she’d fight him on going anywhere with Rhys or Jake, but he could always call in another one of his men. Mason Wright would work just fine. The ladies loved Mason.
Then again, maybe Mason wouldn’t be so perfect after all. But he’d have to do. Carter would just give him strict instructions about how important—and professional—this protection detail was.
“Looks like we don’t need a minute,” she said, her eyes focusing on a spot behind Carter. “Here comes one now.”
Carter turned around. This time she wasn’t lying. Jake strode across the parking lot. He took a few steps closer to meet him, and heard a car door slam shut behind him, then an engine sputtering to life. He turned around just in time to see the old Toyota lurching forward, the tires spinning faster and faster as she headed for the street.
Carter watched her go, committing her license plate to memory as she peeled around the corner and into traffic.
“Let me guess, that was our mystery girl,” Jake asked, coming to a stop at Carter’s side.
“The one you said wasn’t a problem?” There was a note of laughter in Jake’s voice. He always did enjoy pressing his luck.
Carter cocked his head to the side. He knew her face, had her license plate number, and knew her profession. She wouldn’t be difficult to track down.
And that’s what had him worried. If he could track her down then so could Fuller.
“How are we inside?” Carter changed the subject.
“Not as bad as you might imagine. No casualties. No injuries,” Jake reported. “We fired several warning shots. The targets returned fire but, the second you two were out of the room, they stopped. Right now they’re insisting it was all just a big misunderstanding.”
“Is that right?” Carter finally turned around and started walking back toward Fuller’s building. “Have we had contact with the congressman?”
“Negative. Rhys is concentrating on the two men from the hallway.”
Carter nodded. Rhys was the best damn interrogator he’d ever seen in his life. The man could convince an angel to rat out God, but there would be limits to the methods he could use on the men that had shot at them, not to mention a serious lack of time. Even now, the faint wail of sirens sounded in the distance.
Carter was interested to see how the rest of the evening’s drama played out. It seemed the first act hadn’t gone the way Fuller had hoped, and Carter couldn’t wait to see how he tried to talk his way out of it. He had a feeling he was in for a long night.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t multi-task. He pulled out his phone and went through the contacts until he came to Charlie Keswick.
She answered on the third ring. Carter could barely make out her voice over the blare of music. At least that meant she wasn’t spending another night burning the midnight oil back at the office.
“Hey,Captain.” Her voice sounded cheery. Carter felt a momentary stab of guilt that he was going to shatter all that good will in a heartbeat. “What’cha need?”
All of his employees worked hard for him, but nobody put their heart into it quite like Charlie. She deserved a fun night out. And he was about to wrench that away from her.
“I need you to dig into someone for me.”
There was a long pause on the other end. Only the constant, pulsing beat in the background let Carter know that the call hadn’t been dropped.
“Of course, you do,” she finally said.
“Is it going to be a problem?”
“No problem at all.” Her voice had dropped an octave, but the music behind her was getting fainter. She was already leaving the club.
Carter rattled off everything he knew about the disappearing reporter. “You got all that?”
“Yep,” Charlie said.
“Thanks,” Carter said, pushing open the front door of the office building as half a dozen cop cars—lights flashing and sirens blazing—pulled up to the front curb. “I owe you one.”
“Yeah, you do.”
“I think I’m going to need an extra shot in that latte today, Peter,” Ally said, as she leaned against the counter at her local coffee shop, CafeNation. “Better make it two extra.”
Peter’s pierced brows arched as a smile pulled at his lips. “Long night?”
“You could say that.” Ally pushed herself away from the counter long enough to pull her wallet out of her purse. The place was always packed this time of morning, and there was quite a line forming behind her.
“Is that a good or a bad thing?”
It’s a ‘worst night of my life’ thing.
Ally shrugged noncommittally. “It’s a quad latte kind of thing.”
“Gotcha.” Peter winked behind his thick-rimmed hipster glasses. “Do you want anything to eat with that?”
Ally shot a glance over at the pastry case. She should say yes. She hadn’t eaten anything since lunch yesterday. But the truth was, her stomach was still roiling with acid from the night before, and the thought of stuffing anything down there only made the bile rise further up into her throat.
“I’ll have a blueberry muffin,” a voice sounded by her side. Ally turned to find Carter Macmillan standing next to her. “And that Danish looks tasty.”
Peter raised his brows. “Is he with you?”
Ally’s stomach churned anew.
“He is now,” she settled on. It was easier than causing a scene.
She’d just have to get rid of him later…again.
“Let me guess,” Peter said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “This is Mr. Long Night.”
Ally flashed him a tight smile. “The pastries, Peter.”
“Sure thing,” he said with a wink, before grabbing the tongs and heading off.
“Mr. Long Night?” Carter didn’t bother hiding the amused grin that spread across his face.
“What are you doing here, Mr.Macmillan?”
“Getting some breakfast,” he said.
Ally pursed her lips and shot him a hard look. She was too damned tired for his attempts at humor.
“Well, in that case, the line starts back there,” she said, tilting her head toward the front door.
He gave a lazy shrug of his broad shoulders. “I figured that after last night the least you owed me was a muffin.”
Ally let out a long sigh. “Why do I get the feeling that’s not the only thing you think I owe you?”
The corners of his eyes lifted with his lips. “Well, I wasn’t going to bring up the seventy dollars you promised me, but—”
“Fifty,” Ally corrected him.
“That’s not how I remember it,” he said, slipping his hands into his pockets and rocking back slightly on his heels.
As much as she hated to admit it, he looked good. He was dressed very much like last night. The only real change was he’d swapped out one perfectly pressed black suit for a dark grey one. But other than that he was virtually the same. His short brown hair was still perfect. There were no dark circles under his eyes, no droop to his lids. He looked awake and alert, and more amazingly, in a good mood.
The man wasn’t human. That was the only explanation she could come up with.
“The extra twenty was for putting your arm around me…which you never did,” she said.
“Come on, I got rid of the men who were following you.”
“Still, it’s got to count for something.”
“Yeah,” she said, as Peter walked back and put down two small brown bags in front of them. “It counts for a muffin and Danish apparently.”
She started to hand Peter her bankcard, but Carter was faster. He pulled a bill out of his pocket and slid it across the counter.
“Keep the change,” he said to a very impressed Peter, who had just earned the biggest tip of the day.
Ally headed over to the crowd that surrounded the drink handoff platform as Carter swooped up the bags. A moment later, he joined her, standing maddeningly close to her side.
Ally thought for a moment about how badly she needed that quad latte this morning as she joined the jumbled throng waiting for their drinks. On any other day, she probably would have just left it behind and walked out the door, hopefully losing Mr. Macmillan in the process. But not today. Today she needed that coffee almost as badly as she needed oxygen.
Ally instinctively took a defensive stance, crossing her arms over her chest as she settled in to wait. There were lots of things to love about this little independent coffee shop in the heart of downtown Sacramento—good coffee, eclectic staff, a decidedly non-corporate ambiance—but their speed wasn’t one of them. Today, she would have appreciated a little less artisan foam art and a little more hustle.
“I take it you didn’t have a good rest of your night, Miss Weaver.”
Ally stiffened instantly. The sound of her name on his lips did more to wake her up than a dozen shots of espresso ever could.
“How do you know my name?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
Carter didn’t look over at her. He kept his eyes straight ahead. “Same way I found out that you work for the Sacramento Gazette, but you’ve been doing more and more freelance work to online journals. That you live off of 5thStreet in West Sac. That every morning around eight-thirty, you have a charge on your debit card at CafeNation.”
Ally’s heart sped in her chest with every word that came out of his mouth. Cold tendrils of panic started to creep through her veins. Screw the coffee. She had to get out of here.
She spun on her heel and started for the door, but Carter put a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t grab her. His fingers didn’t twist into her sweatshirt. There was nothing about his touch that was physically restraining her, but she stopped all the same.
He bent down to whisper in her ear.
“You don’t want to run away from me again, Ally.” It didn’t sound like a threat. It sounded like friendly advice. “I’m not your enemy.”
She twisted around to look at him.
“Why don’t we go sit down while we wait for your coffee,” he suggested.
Ally nodded. It was a good idea. They hadn’t caused a scene, not exactly. But a few gazes were starting to turn their way, and the last thing that Ally wanted was any more attention.
She walked over to the closest empty table. She took in a shaky breath, trying to calm her racing heart. When that didn’t work, she turned her attention out the window, and away from the turmoil inside herself.
Pull yourself together, Weaver.
She repeated the mantra with every passing car. After half a dozen, she started coming back to herself.
“Let’s try this again,” Carter said as he sat down. “You didn’t sleep last night, did you?”
Ally shook her head. She was too tired to be offended. Besides, it was obvious. If her tired eyes didn’t give her away, then the massive dark circles under them sure did. It didn’t help that, since she’d stayed at her parent’s empty house last night, she didn’t have any of her makeup to try to cover it up.
It also explained her wardrobe for the day—an old UC Davis sweatshirt and a pair of jeans she hadn’t worn since her sophomore year of college.
“Work or fear?” he asked.
“Did you find out what was on the drive?”
Ally snapped her head away from the window. She narrowed her eyes. “Why do you care about what’s on Harvey’s drive?”
He relaxed into his chair and draped one bent arm over the rest. “I told you, Ally, I’m not your enemy.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” she said, holding firm.
Carter met her stare for a long second before answering. “Because you were right. Fuller lied. His security detail said we shot first, and he backed them up. They said we were the ones that wouldn’t stand down, and, because the good congressman has a hell of a lot of pull in this town, the cops believed him.”
“I’m sorry,” Ally said, and she meant it. She’d tried to warn him how ruthless Buck Fuller could be. “So why aren’t you in jail right now?”
“I’m guessing Fuller’s team didn’t have enough time to manufacture proof before the police showed up last night, but it’s just a matter of time until they do. Fuller’s coming after my company. He’s trying to pin this on me personally,” Carter said, his voice falling as he leaned forward. He jabbed his finger into the tabletop as he spoke. “I’m not going to let that happen. And the only way I can do that is to discredit him, to expose him for what he really is.”
Ally leaned back in her chair. She believed him when he said he wasn’t going to let Fuller take him down. Suddenly, she was grateful for all of his assurances that he wasn’t her enemy. She’d seen what he could do, but she had a feeling it was just a fraction of what he was capable of.
“I understand,” Ally said, relaxing a bit. “But unfortunately, I’m not going to be much help to you yet. Whatever information is on that flash drive, it’s encrypted.”
“I can help you break it.”
“That’s okay,” she said, waving off the offer. “I know a guy. He’s good.”
“Not as good as my staff, I promise you,” he said with a twinkle of pride in his eye. “And definitely not half as fast.”
“I don’t know…” Ally said. She’d fought too hard for that flash drive to just hand it over to anyone. She’d jumped out a broken window and shimmied down a lamppost. She’d spent the night in her childhood bedroom, for God’s sake.
“What don’t you know?”
Ally drew in a deep breath. Honesty was the best policy. At least that was what her grandmother had always told her.
“I don’t know if I can trust you.”
“I don’t know if you can afford not to,” he shot back.
Carter leaned across the table. His honey-colored eyes locked with hers. And suddenly, it was as though everyone else in the crowded cafe disappeared. It was just him and her.
Ally felt her heart start to pound again. This time it had nothing to do with fear. It looked like, even though her brain wasn’t quite ready to trust Carter Macmillan, the rest of her body was far from complacent about him.
“I found you, Ally. With very little information, I knew exactly where you’d be and when,” he said. There was no malice in his voice, but his words still chilled her down to the bone. “If I can do it, so can Fuller. I understand your hesitation, but you have to realize that you are a thousand times safer with me than on your own, and stop running away.”
Ally swallowed hard. Dammit if that didn’t sound like the truth.
She was saved from having to respond when her name was called out at the bar. Carter jumped up and grabbed her cup. He cocked a brow as he returned to the table.
“You ready to go?” he asked.
Ally drew in a deep breath. It didn’t look like she had much of a choice.
Besides, the man was currently holding her coffee hostage.
Ally nodded, and stood up. She grabbed her cup from Carter’s hand as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. She took a long sip of the coffee and let the fresh air clear her head.
Carter waited patiently by her side. He didn’t try to rush her. Apparently, he could be quite the gentleman when there wasn’t someone shooting at them.
“I don’t have the drive on me,” she said finally. “We’ll have to go and get it.”
“I take it you’ve hidden it?” he asked, pushing away from the wall of the building.
“Somewhere very safe.”
“Good.” He started off down the street opposite from her car.
“Hey, I’m parked over here,” she said, pointing behind her.
“I know,” he said, not breaking his stride. “We’ll be taking my car from now on.”
Ally hurried to catch up with him. “Because it’s safer?”
“That’s one reason. The other is I don’t trust you not to speed off and leave me behind.”
Now it was her turn to flash him a mischievous smile. “Come on. It’s a twelve-year-old Toyota. It doesn’tspeed offanywhere.”
“Fair enough,” he conceded. “But still, I insist we take mine.”
Ally couldn’t contain the chuckle that rose up in her throat as he stepped over to the driver’s side of a new sports car, one far too fancy for Ally to know the name of. He pulled the keys from his pocket.
“Yeah, I can see why,” she said, looking down at the sleek, red machine in front of her. “Thisis your car?”
“You were expecting something else?” he asked.
She shouldn’t have been. It had just been so long since she’d ridden in a car that wasn’t held together with duct tape and prayers, she’d kind of forgotten there were other ways of getting around.
Ally opened the door and slid into the passenger side. The inside of the car was every bit as stylish and modern as the outside. She’d just settled into her seat when she heard the lock click into place.
She snapped her head toward Carter. He gave her an apologetic shrug of his shoulders.
“Just a precaution,” he explained. “For your own safety.”
Ally’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t actually believe that I’d jump out of a moving car, do you?”
He started up the car. Ally was startled as the engine roared to life. Damn. The thing wasn’t even moving yet and she could still feel it humming with power.
“After last night, I don’t plan on ever underestimating you again,” he said.
Ally smiled as she pulled the seatbelt across her body. “I’m guessing not many people have managed to slip past you before.”
“No they haven’t,” he admitted with a shake of his head.
“Probably, nobody has done it twice,” she said, with a laugh.
“You’re the first to achieve that feat,” he said, turning to look her in the eye. There was humor in his warm brown eyes, but something else as well, something deeper that Ally couldn’t guess at. “I guess that makes you special.”
The giggles slowly faded, replaced by a blush that she couldn’t explain. Just another emotional swing to blame on the exhaustion, she reasoned.
Carter tossed her the pastries before putting the car in gear.
“I thought these were for you,” she said.
“I already had breakfast,” he said. “They’re for you. You’ll feel better if you eat.”
He glanced into his mirror before pulling into traffic. Ally was pushed back into her seat by the sudden show of horsepower.
Forget the discomfort of her churning stomach, she would never forgive herself if she puked all over the inside of his fancy—and no doubt crazy expensive—sports car.
Not that she was about to share that with him.
“I’m afraid I’ll get crumbs all over the place,” she said.
“Just eat the damned muffin, Ally.”
“Okay.” She shrugged and dug into the bag. “It’s your leather interior to detail, after all.”
“It’s right in here,” Ally said, pointing to the right and up her parent’s driveway. She let out a long sigh as Carter pulled in and set the brake. She stared out the windshield, but didn’t reach for the door handle at her side.
“Are you ready?” Carter prompted her after another moment passed.
The truth was, she wasn’t. She wasn’t ready for any of this. Not taking this stranger into her parent’s house. Not handing over Harvey’s flash drive. Not being targeted by Fuller. None of it.
But it didn’t look like she could stop any of it.
She’d set this wheel in motion the second she’d taken Harvey’s phone call. There was no going back now.
Not that she hadn’t thought about it. She’d spent the entire half hour drive out to her parent’s suburban home running through every option she could think of. Ways she could ditch Carter Macmillan again. What in the world she would do once she got away from him. How she would defend herself from Fuller if he came after her again.
Carter was right. She had a target on her back, and nothing short of bringing Fuller to justice was going to take it off.
She should be thanking her lucky stars that she had any ally at all. But Harvey’s warning kept ringing in her ears.
Don’t trust anyone.
No matter how hard his chest was, or how his gaze made her breath catch in her throat.
Then again, the man had already saved her life once. And Ally couldn’t shake the feeling that she would survive a whole lot longer with this guy by her side than alone.
In the end, that’s why she hadn’t tried to bolt from his car at the first red light. Trusting him might be a risk, but it was one she was willing to take.
Within reason, of course.
“Yeah,” Ally said with a nod. “I’m ready.”
She looked up and down the street as she walked around the back of the car. Already, she caught sight of a few of the curtains being pulled back an inch on front windows along the street. She hadn’t expected anything less.
There was no way that a flashy car like this was going to go unnoticed in her parent’s working class neighborhood. Ally didn’t doubt that the gossip would start flying fast and furious the moment she walked into the house with Carter.
Hell, Mrs. Carlson across the street was likely to try and call Ally’s mom on the cruise ship just to tell her what her younger daughter was up to.
Ally watched Carter out of the corner of her eye as he walked up the drive. His outward appearance was easy enough but she saw his gaze sweeping over everything, taking it all in, from the bank of flowers that lined the front yard to the painted wood plaque that readThe Weavershanging from the knocker on the door.
“See,” she said, fitting her key into the lock. “No need to handcuff me to your side.”
“Don’t sound disappointed,” he said with a wry smile.
She ignored the jibe, and held the door open for him.
“After you,” he said, motioning with his hand. Apparently he still wasn’t willing to turn his back on her.
Ally shrugged. She couldn’t blame him. She stepped inside and heard his step follow close behind.
“Your parent’s place?”
“Yep,” she answered, though it really wasn’t necessary. Every wall from the hallway to the living room was covered with family photos. About a quarter of them featured her at various ages from preschool to college graduation.
“Is this where you stayed last night?”
“It’s the only place I could think of.”
“Are they here?” he asked.
“No,” she said, stopping in the middle of the family room. “They’re on a cruise. Mexico, this time, I think.”
Carter was still in the hallway perusing the photos, slowly making his way toward her. “How about brothers and sisters?”
She twisted around, and pointed to the large, decade-old family portrait hanging behind her in the dining room. “Two sisters. One brother. Nobody left at home.”
His gaze drifted over to the picture, and he slowly nodded.
“Cute family,” he said.
Ally didn’t know about that, but there was certainly no doubting that they were a family. The distinctive Weaver auburn hair and blue eyes gave them away every time.
Carter kept moving, seemingly taking in everything in the house. Ally couldn’t guess why. Her family wasn’tthatinteresting.
Ally shifted on her feet as he stepped over to the mantle. She might not know why he was taking his sweet time, but she certainly didn’t want to spend the whole day moseying down memory lane. Not while Fuller was still out there looking for her, at any rate.
By the time Carter had sauntered to the end of the fireplace, Ally was starting to get more than a little nervous.
“I know my mom’s tastes run to the tacky side,” Ally said, turning around and gesturing toward the case by her side that was covered in ceramic figurines. “She loves tchotchkes. She picks a new one up on every trip. Sometimes I think they’re her most prized possessions.”
Carter turned toward her, an open smile on his face. He walked over to the shelves and picked one up. He slowly spun it in the light.
“They’re silly, I know,” she said.
“I think they’re charming,” he said, continuing to grin as he put the piece back.
His voice was low and easy. So easy, that Ally almost found her stiff shoulders relaxing a notch. She let her gaze linger over his profile for a moment.
Damn, the man was attractive.
Carter turned toward her, almost as if he could sense her stare, his warm caramel gaze melting away even more of her stress.
It seemed that with every passing second she was becoming more and more comfortable with Carter Macmillan and she wasn’t entirely sure that was such a good idea.
Ally shook her head, trying to clear it. It didn’t matter if Carter looked like heaven on a stick. She had more pressing concerns. Like keeping herself alive.
The sooner they found out what was on that drive, the sooner she could expose Fuller. Then he would go to jail, and she would write her piece. Everything would go back to normal.
“I need to grab the drive,” Ally said, when the silence in the room had stretched on for another few seconds.
Ally pursed her lips before trying again. “Do you mind leaving the room?”
Carter didn’t face her. He just kept looking at her mother’s wall of silly figurines. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want you to know where I’ve hidden it.”
“Don’t worry about that.” He finally turned toward her, and Ally spotted an amused gleam twinkling in his eye. “I already know where you’ve stowed the flash drive.”
Ally arched a brow. “Oh, really?”
Her parent’s house was clutter central. Her mother had never passed by an antique store or a tourist trap in her life. There was no way he knew for certain where she’d hidden the thing. It would be like finding a needle in a hay—
“It’s in the vase at the end of the mantle,” he said.
Ally’s mouth dropped open.
“H-how could you possibly know that?”
“Easy. You flinched when I walked over to the fireplace,” he said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “Then you tried to deflect my attention when I got to the vase.”
Damn. So much for keeping secrets.
Ally crossed her arms in front of her chest. The worst thing was she was more impressed by his trick than she was annoyed by it.
“What, did you used to be in a carnival act before getting into the security business?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” he said, his lips quirking up in a devilish smile. “Army Special Forces.”
“That actually explains a lot,” she said.
But at least his little stunt meant she didn’t have to wait anymore. Ally uncrossed her arms, strode over to the mantle and stuck her hand down the rustic pottery vase. Her fingers wrapped around the metal flash drive.
She turned around to find Carter staring at her. His expression had changed. There wasn’t a trace of humor in him now. His body was stiff, on alert.
“Hit the ground, Ally.” He said the words so low that at first she wasn’t certain that she’d heard him right.
But then she glanced down and saw the bright red dot in the center of her chest.
A laser dot.
Ally didn’t have to think any more after that. Her knees knew what to do.
They gave way underneath her, and she crumpled to the floor. Just in time. There was a loud crack and the pottery vase broke above her.
Dear God. Someone had followed them to her parent’s house and was shooting at her.
This couldn’t be happening. There was no way she was going to die in front of her mother’s tchotchke shrine.
Carter dove across the room the moment that first shot sounded. He landed next to Ally, wrapped his arms around her and started to roll out of the room.
He’d never felt so bad about being right in his life. Fullerwasjust a few steps behind Ally. He’d underestimated just how few.
Five more shots sprayed into the Weaver’s house in quick succession before Carter managed to get Ally to the relative safety of the hallway.
He lifted his head and glanced up at the shattered window by the dining room table, but he didn’t see any sign of the shooter. There was no way of telling if the man was still in the backyard, or if he was alone. There could be someone at the front door right now, just waiting to come in.
Well, if they were stupid enough to make that move, Carter would be ready for them.
Carter tucked Ally up against the wall, and then sprung to his feet. He un-holstered his pistol and held it at the ready.
He waited, but there wasn’t a sound. Not inside the house or out. Carter still didn’t move.
“Are they gone?” Ally asked, after another minute had passed.
“I can’t be sure,” he said. He also couldn’t risk staying holed up. Even if the shooter had fled after his mistake, there was no sense staying in a place where Fuller knew to find them. He had to get Ally out of here, and fast.
Carter inched toward the door. Leading with his weapon, he cracked it open and peered outside.
And saw nothing. Just a regular suburban street. No suspicious looking cars. No glints of sniper scopes in the bushes. No scouts on rooftops.
Carter craned his head back toward Ally. “Do you still have Price’s drive?”
She nodded. She held out her hand in front of her, her fingers clenched tight.
“You’d better put it somewhere safe.” Carter watched as she dropped it inside her purse, and then held his hand out toward her. “Good. Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Ally wrapped her fingers around his palm and lifted herself up on shaky legs. Then she turned and froze.
“What is it?” Carter asked, looking her over, wondering if he’d missed some injury she’d sustained.
“They shot my parent’s house,” she said.
“It’s going to be okay.” Carter put his hand on her shoulder, and tried pulling her toward the door. She dug in her heels.
“No, it’s not.” Her voice was louder now, stronger. “They shot my parent’s house. What the hell am I going to tell my mother?”
“The truth probably,” Carter admitted. “You don’t seem to have any problems telling it to anyone else.”
“Shot your parent’s house,” he repeated. “Got it. Now we have to go before they come back and shoot us.”
That broke her out of her trance. “Y-yeah. Of course.”
Carter glanced around the neighborhood as he hauled Ally out the door. There were more faces in windows now. More doors starting to open and gawkers coming out into the street. Most of them with their phones held up to their ears.
So much for a clean getaway.
Fuller may not have succeeded in silencing Ally for good, but he certainly had dropped Carter in the middle of one very sticky situation.
He opened the passenger door for her and made sure she was safely inside. There was no point in hiding his face as he walked over to the driver’s side. Not anymore. Half the residents of Granite Hills Court would already be able to describe him perfectly when the police arrived.
He would just have to be ready when they came for him back at the offices of Macmillan Security.
Because they would be coming, and coming soon.
Ally had no idea how long it took Carter to drive back to downtown Sacramento. Time had become fuzzy the moment that he’d pressed down on the accelerator and sped down the street where she’d grown up. She could vaguely remember him roaring past her old elementary school before getting onto the freeway. After that everything was a hazy blur.
Her mind felt numb. She stared out the window, but her eyes didn’t take in the scene whizzing by. The only images that floated through her brain were of shards of broken pottery and glass. A million pieces of ceramic littering her mother’s floor.
What had happened last night in Harvey Price’s office was jarring. It was frightening and adrenaline-filled. But this—strangers sneaking around her childhood home and riddling it with bullets—felt so much more personal. This was an attack, not just on her, but on those she held dear.
Slowly, the skyline changed, shifting from wide-open sky to soaring towers of metal and glass. Ally registered that they were back in the heart of the city, but she didn’t turn away from the window until Carter made a sharp right turn and everything went black.
Ally sat back in her seat as Carter took them down into an underground parking lot.
“You back with me?” he asked.
“Yeah. I think so,” she said, rubbing at her eyes with the heel of her palms. “Where are we?”
“My office.” He pulled into an empty spot. “But don’t worry. We won’t be here long.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Ally said as Carter stepped out of the car. She followed him as quickly as she could. “Should I be?”
He didn’t answer her, but disappeared through a door markedStairs.
Great. That was very reassuring.
Ally didn’t even think about turning heel and running for the hills the moment he was out of sight this time. If anything, she hurried her step to catch up with him.
Oh, how things had changed.
She still wasn’t sure that she trusted him, not completely, at any rate.
She wasn’t always this suspicious. Of course, she’d never been one to buy into conspiracy theories either, but watching a politically-connected confidential informant blow up on television had her re-examining some of her beliefs. She guessed a couple of assassination attempts could do that to a girl.
Right now she couldn’t see any other option than sticking with Carter.
That didn’t mean she didn’t have questions for him. Now that her mind was recovering from the shock of being hunted like a wild animal, she had plenty of them.
Starting with why he had stubbornly refused to turn his back on her for even a second at her parent’s house, but was now bounding up the fire stairs three at a time and leaving her in the dust.
Ally dug inside her purse. Her hand frantically skimmed over the bottom of the bag searching for that slim, cold piece of metal. Deep down, she knew she wouldn’t find it.
He’d taken the flash drive. Probably slipped it from her bag while she was still in shock.
See. She wasn’t paranoid. The son-of-a-bitch wasn’t trustworthy.
And now he had the drive that she had risked her life for…twice.
Ally took off up the stairs. She might not be ex-Special Forces, but she was damned motivated. She caught up to him before he hit the second floor.
“Y…you…you.” Ally sucked in a huge lungful of air. She might have been angry and indignant, but she was also terribly out of breath. Fury, it seemed, could get you up three flights of stairs in a hurry, but it didn’t do a damned thing to change how out of shape you were.
“Me,” Carter said, pushing open the door and stepping into the hallway. Directly across was a set of massive wooden double doors with the words Macmillan Security etched across in gold.
Ally rested her hands on her hips and bent over desperate to catch her breath before chasing after him again.
He, of course, strode on without her.
It looked like breathing would have to wait. She wasn’t about to lose sight of him or Harvey’s flash drive.
“You took the drive out of my purse,” she accused loudly as he entered the office.
The receptionist behind the desk shot her a strange look before looking to Carter. He nodded in greeting, but kept going. The woman went back to work without giving Ally a second glance.
Apparently, this kind of thing was just another day in the office around here.
“I did,” he said, striding down the hall.
They passed a few partitioned office spaces. More than a couple heads turned as they walked by. Ally recognized one of them from the night before--the blonde guy with the ice blue eyes. The look he gave her now wasn’t any warmer.
Ally turned her attention back to Carter and sped up.
“So you admit that you stole it?”
He glanced back at her. “I never said I stole it. We agreed to bring it here.”
“No,” she shook her head vigorously, refusing to let him off of the hook. “We agreed thatIwould bring it here and let your people work their strange magic on it. I never agreed to you rummaging through my purse, and cutting me out.”
Carter stopped suddenly, and Ally had to act quickly not to run straight into him. She managed, but just barely.
Now she was just awkwardly close, her body just inches away from his. She craned her head back as he spun around.
Heat that had nothing to do with outrage began to burn her face. Yeah, she was way too close.
Ally stumbled back.
“I’m not cutting you out, Ally,” he said.
“And why should I trust anything you say?” she asked.
Carter arched a brow. “Maybe because twice now I’ve thrown my body on top of yours to shield you from bullets.”
The heat of her blush intensified. And it wasn’t helping her pride any that he had a point.
“T-that’s not the most terrible reason I’ve ever heard,” Ally said, her voice sounding squeaky and small, even to her own ears.
“Oh, honey, do not let him sweet talk you,” a cheerful feminine voice said from nearby. “He uses that line onallthe girls.”
Ally turned her head to the right, and saw that they had stopped directly in front of an open office door. A cute young woman with bright copper hair was seated on a swivel chair in front of a row of computer monitors. But she wasn’t looking at any of them. The stranger’s eyes were shamelessly fixed on her and Carter like they were the day’s entertainment.
Ally turned back to Carter. “Who is that?”
“Thatis our residentmagician.”
The woman stood up and waved. “Charlie Keswick.”
Ally found herself waving back. “Ally Weaver.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” Charlie said with a smile. “I like you already. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone with the guts to go toe to toe with theCaptainhere.”
Guts, eh? Ally’s chin lifted a notch as she felt a little of her pride slip back into place. “Thanks.”
The bit about knowing her was a little odd, but Ally figured that Carter had to get his information from somewhere. That somewhere was apparently Charlie.
“No problem.” Charlie shifted her gaze over to Carter. “Speaking of you,Captain, what magic do you need today?”
Carter dug into his pocket and pulled out the flash drive. He tossed it Charlie’s way. Ally watched as the woman snatched it out of the air. She bit into her lip, desperately trying to resist the urge to go and wrench it from Charlie’s fingers.
Charlie flipped it over in her hands. “What’s on it?”
“That’s what we need you to find out.”
“Ooh, a mystery.” Charlie spun around in her chair, wasting no time plugging the drive into one of her computers.
“I need the results ASAP,” Carter said before turning and continuing his walk down the hall.
“You always need everything ASAP,” Charlie shouted after him.
Ally lingered by Charlie’s open door.
“Promise me you’ll be careful with that,” Ally couldn’t help saying.
Charlie swiveled her chair around. Fortunately, she didn’t look the least bit offended. She met Ally’s gaze with nothing but compassion in her eyes.
“You went through a lot to get this little thing, didn’t you?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah,” Ally said, even though she had a feeling that Charlie already knew the answer. “And I wasn’t the only one.”
“Then I promise you. I’ll treat it with the care and respect it deserves,” Charlie said without a trace of humor in her voice.
Ally gave a slow nod. She believed her. More importantly, she felt a hell of a lot more comfortable about leaving the flash drive behind.
She finally turned to try to catch up to Carter, but found her way blocked by a giant.
Okay, he wasn’t really a giant, but he might as well have been. The scowl that he wore dissipated any of the warm fuzzies she’d just received from Charlie. He reminded Ally of an ancient Polynesian warrior, the kind that would gut you for showing the slightest sign of fear.
“E-excuse me,” she said, trying to step past him.
He pinned her in place with his narrowing gaze. “Who are you?”
Hell, even his voice was terrifying.
“She’s Ally Weaver, Bowie, and she’s here with Carter,” Charlie called out without bothering to turn around. “So mind your manners, and let her pass.”
The giant named Bowie gave her one more glower before stepping to the side.
“Thanks,” Ally muttered as she hustled down the hall. She could feel the man’s gaze following her the whole way, but she didn’t dare turn around.
At the end of the hallway she found a door with Carter’s name on it. She cracked it open and found him standing behind his desk, staring at a computer. He didn’t look up as she slid inside. She rested her back against the door as it closed.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad I found you,” she said.
“It’s not the best idea to get lost in this office.”
“About that,” Ally said. “Time to ‘fess up. What is it that you guys actually do around here?”
“I told you. Security.”
“Well, yeah…” She kept her hands flat on the door as she leaned into the room. “But there’s security, and then there’ssecurity.”
The hint of a smile lifted the corners of Carter’s lips. “And which one do you think it is?”
“Well, since I had the pleasure of meeting Iceman and Bruiser last night, and I just had a terrifying run in with a wall of muscle who’s named after a kind of knife, I’m guessing it’s the latter.”
His amused smirk grew, even as he stood up to his full height and crossed his arms in front of his wide chest. “And does that make you trust me more or less.”
She was saved from having to answer by a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Carter called out.
Ally stepped to the side, and watched as the smile fell instantly from Carter’s face. The door swung open and a tall handsome man with light brown hair and sapphire eyes stepped inside.
The stranger looked her way and cocked his head to the side giving her an honest smile.
“You must be Miss Weaver,” he said. His voice was pleasant, masculine, but not so threatening that her first instinct was to run and hide. He offered her his hand. “I’m Mason Wright.”
“Please call me Ally,” she said, taking it.
“It’s a pleasure, Ally.” He held on to her hand a second too long. His eyes lingered on hers as well, and Ally found herself smiling back in a way that bordered on flirtatious.
“Do you work here?” She couldn’t help but ask. This guy, Mason, was polite and likable, pretty much the exact opposite of every other male Macmillan employee she’d met so far.
“I do,” he said.
“I would caution against falling for his charm, if I were you,” Carter said from across the room. “Mason here could put a bullet in the dead center of your forehead from two hundred yards away.”
Mason flashed her anaw shuckssmile. “But not without good reason,” he added.
“Good to know,” Ally said.
She looked over at Carter. His easy posture from a moment ago had turned defensive.
For a second, she wanted to believe that it was because of the attention Mason was giving her, but that was silly. It couldn’t be.
“Did you need something, Mason?” Carter asked.
Mason’s spine straightened. In an instant, both men were all business. He nodded at Carter. “Just came to tell you that the cops are at the door.”
“That was faster than I expected.” Carter swore under his breath as he quickly shut down his computer. “Who is dealing with them?”
“Jake’s at the door. I’m guessing he can tie them up there for a couple more minutes at most.”
“Jake?” Ally asked.
“Bruiser,” Carter clarified.
Mason chuckled. “Bruiser…I like that.”
“I’m going to have to get Ally somewhere safe. I don’t trust Fuller not to have a mole or two in the department. If the police take her down to the station, she’s as good as dead.”
Ally swallowed hard. That sounded bad. Really bad. What did somebody do when they couldn’t trust the police? And why hadn’t Carter told her any of this until now?
“Where are you going to take her?” Mason asked.
Carter shook his head. “Not sure yet. But I’ll let you know as soon as I do. Keep communication to secure channels only.”
Carter grabbed his keys off the desk and came over to Ally’s side. He made a show of linking his hand in hers.
“You’re in charge while I’m out,” Carter said.
“The boys are going to love that.”
“They’ll get over it,” Carter said, leading her out of the office. “Just don’t let the place burn down while I’m gone.”
“No promises,” Mason replied.
“So we’re running from the police?” Ally asked as they hit the emergency stairwell at the back of the office.
“Looks that way,” Carter said, pushing their pace. He could trust Jake to talk circles around the officers in the lobby for a few minutes, but Carter knew he couldn’t hold them off forever.
But he didn’t need forever. He needed another sixty seconds to get Ally into a vehicle and out of the garage.
That was all.
The good news was it appeared that she’d given up fighting him. He didn’t have to drag her down the stairs. She was doing just fine keeping up and staying by his side. He could probably even let go of her hand.
But he didn’t want to.
He told himself it had nothing to do with the flash of jealousy that had briefly flared when he’d watched Mason lay his most flirtatious smile on her…and Ally smile back.
Nope. Had nothing to do with that momentary break in his emotions.
He just figured that Ally had to be scared right now. This was all new territory for her. She could probably use a little reassurance. And there must have been something to his reasoning. She wasn’t pulling away from his touch.
“Is running our only option?” Ally asked as they went through the door to the second level of underground parking.
“You didn’t seem to have a problem with it last night.” He pushed open the door, and spotted the silver Lotus.
Perfect. That one would do just fine.
“I mean do you really think that—”
“Fuller has spies in the department? Most probably.” Carter pulled the key out of his pocket and hit the button. The rear lights flashed. “Do I think that he’d seize the opportunity of having you in a known and confined location to finish the job? Absolutely.”
He let go of Ally’s hand as they reached the bumper, then she paused by the passenger side door.
“You know because it’s what you would do.” Her voice was soft, far away, like she’d just come to some horrible realization.
“In another life, yes.” Carter rested his hands on the top of the car. They didn’t have time for this, but he had the feeling she wasn’t getting in the vehicle without hearing the truth. Lies and spin just weren’t going to cut it. “I know how these guys think, but that makes me the best person to keep you safe. And I will keep you safe, Ally, I promise.”
She stared at him for half a second before nodding and getting in the car. Only once she was inside did she look around in confusion.
“This is a different car,” she said.
Carter chuckled. For someone so perceptive, she could miss a lot when she got lost in her mind.
“I think it’s best not to drive the same one twice for a while. Fuller’s already shown his fondness for car bombs. It’ll be harder for him to plant one on us if he doesn’t know which car we’ll be getting into next.”
Her brows pulled together. “How many cars do you have?”
Carter put the Lotus in reverse and pulled out. “Plenty.”
“Plenty is not a number,” she said.
“Sure it is.” He kept his speed low as he drove through the narrow corridors of the parking garage. There was no sense in attracting any unwanted attention.
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s not.”
He smiled at her insistence. Funny, he found himself smiling at a lot of things that she said, even in the most serious of situations. Maybe especially then.
“I wouldn’t have gotten very far in this field if I didn’t have plans for every possible contingency.”
“You have contingency cars?” Her voice shot up an octave.
Carter glanced over to her before driving up the ramp and pulling into traffic. “You don’t?”
Ally was pretty sure Carter wasn’t lying when he said that he didn’t know where he was going to take her. At least, that was the conclusion she’d come to after their second loop around the Capital City Freeway.
The quips and the banter had faded the instant that they’d hit the freeway on-ramp. His face was a serious mask of concentration, one that she’d only caught glimpses of before.
Ally didn’t bother him. He needed to think. She probably should as well. The problem was her brain refused to work when she was this damn tired.
She glanced at the clock. By her count, she was quickly coming up on thirty-six hours without sleep.
Now, being driven around in a constantly moving car with only the hum of the engine to keep her company, she found her eyelids drooping more and more.
Adrenaline, it seemed, would only take her so far.
Her chin had just touched down on her chest when the car came to a stop. Her head snapped up as a startled sound escaped her mouth.
“I’m awake,” she said before she could stop the words.
Ally ignored Carter’s chuckle. “I can tell,” he said.
She rubbed at her eyes and did a quick check of her sweatshirt for drool spots before deciding it was too old and raggedy to tell. Instead, she turned her attention out her window.
They were stopped in front of a familiar-looking building. Tall and stately, Ally knew that she’d seen this place before. A uniformed valet walked toward the car. Behind him was a revolving glass door, and Ally could just make out the crystal chandeliers hanging in the lobby.
Shedidknow this place.
She quickly swiveled around in her seat to look out Carter’s side of the car.
Just like she knew this skyline.
Ally felt all her blood rush to her face. “You brought us to The Grand Capital Hotel?”
Carter raised his brows in answer.
But just as she was opening her mouth to demand he tell her what the hell he was thinking driving them around for hours only to bring them right back into the center of downtown Sacramento, the valet opened her door. Ally had two choices, throw a fit or get out of the car.
Ally pressed her lips together tightly as she stepped onto the sidewalk. It looked like the fit would have to wait.
Carter handed the keys over to the valet and came to her side. Ally stiffened as he slid his arm into hers. He leaned in close as he walked her into the lobby.
“I’ll explain everything soon enough,” he whispered.
“You better,” she hissed right back. “Youdoknow that every cop in this city is searching for us right now.”
“I need you to trust me,” he said, not showing any reaction to her words. “And stay by my side.”
Ally ground her teeth. What other choice did she have?
Carter strode up to the reception desk, smiling at the gentleman behind the counter.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the man whose golden nametag read Richard said.
“Good afternoon. I’d like to get a room for the weekend,” Carter said.
“Do you have a reservation?” Richard asked, sliding his gaze over Ally, who suddenly felt more than a little self-conscious in her tattered grey sweatshirt and rat’s nest hair. “This is a very busy weekend for us.”
Carter slipped his arm from hers and took out his wallet from inside his jacket.
“No,” he said, laying down a black American Express card with the name Sean Ward on it. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Ally’s eyes widened, but she didn’t open her mouth.
Richard, the receptionist, took one look at the card and all his suspicions melted away.
“No problem at all, sir,” he said.
Carter pulled a matching ID out of the wallet, and, a few minutes later, they were all set up with a room.
“Do you have any bags, sir,” Richard asked after the receipt had been signed.
“Not this time,” Carter said, shaking his head. “Impromptu trip.”
Ally’s lips twisted up in a wry grin. That was one way of putting it.
But their lack of luggage didn’t seem to bother Richard. He smiled and swept his arm in the direction of the elevators.
Ally kept her mouth shut the whole ride up to the twelfth floor. She even bit into her lower lip to make sure that her mouth stayed that way. But the moment that Carter slid the keycard into the reader and opened the door, she couldn’t hold her aggravation back any longer.
The only problem was Ally couldn’t decide where to start. There were so many places to choose from. The false identity? The credit card fraud? Bringing them right back to the belly of the beast?
Yep. That was definitely the best launching point.
Ally pushed past Carter and stormed into the room. She balled her hands at her side as she spun around to face him.
But he was ready for her, his back propped up against the closed door, his arms crossed in front of his chest, as though he was anticipating her tantrum. But it was his raised brows and quirked lips that really irritated the hell out of her.
Did he think this was funny?
If so, the man was certifiable.
“Why the hell are we here?” she asked through tight lips.
He shrugged. “Because we needed a place to stay.”
Ally’s shoulders stiffened as red-hot fury surged through her. She was dangerously close to her breaking point. She felt hot pricks behind her eyes.
Tears? Great. That wasexactlywhat she needed right now.
“Do youwantme to throw a lamp at your head?” she asked, her voice starting to shake.
Carter’s expression turned serious. He took a step away from the door. “There are a few reasons I brought us to this hotel, but the most important is that it’s the last place that anyone is going to look for us.”
Ally tilted her head. She wasn’t sure she agreed with his opinion. She could think of half a dozen places—the dead center of Nevada sounded particularly good—that no one would ever find them. But at least his earnest answer made her more willing to hear him out.
“How can you be so sure?” she asked.
“Because Fuller and the police are going to focus on our families and known associates. They are going to stake out our workplaces and usual hangouts. They’ll be looking for hits on our bank and credit cards. They won’t concern themselves with what’s going on across the street. They won’t find us here.”
“Not unless they’re looking for Mr. Sean Ward,” she said.
“Exactly.” He walked past her to the window and opened the drapes.
Ally turned with him. For the first time she really noticed their hotel room. The place was ridiculous. They weren’t even in The Grand Capital’s best room and the suite was bigger than her apartment…by a lot.
It was a hell of a lot nicer too. The bed, the carpet, the couch—everything screamed high class. And the view…
Ally joined Carter at the window and looked across the glistening buildings and rooftops that surrounded them. The sun was starting to dip toward the horizon, setting off golden sparkles on the gentle waves of the Sacramento River.
After a minute spent staring off into the distance, Carter turned toward her. “Feeling better?”
If she was, she wasn’t about to admit it.
“I feel…exhausted,” she said.
It was the truth. Ally couldn’t remember a time that she’d ever felt so tired in her life. And it wasn’t just lack of sleep. Her brain was fried. She felt as if the last drops of fight had been drained out of her. She was tired of running. Tired of fighting. Hell, she was even tired of standing.
Carter put his hands on her shoulders and spun her around so that she faced the bed. “So sleep,” he said.
“Maybe just a little nap,” she said as he guided her over to the oversized mattress. The thing looked like a heavenly cloud, all thick and white and fluffy. It was almost impossible to resist its call.
The frame was set so high off the ground, Ally almost had to get a running start to lift herself on top. But it was worth the effort. The moment her back hit the soft down comforter, she sank into its depths. She reached up and grabbed a pillow, dragging it to her head.
“Just for a few minutes,” she muttered as she curled up. She still wasn’t convinced that this was the safest place they could be, but she figured the chances of Fuller and his men knocking down their door in the next twenty minutes was pretty low.
“Whatever you say,” Carter said, not doing a very good job of stifling his laughter as he pulled a fuzzy throw from the end of the bed and draped it over her. He must have sensed her lingering unease, because he traced his fingers down her cheek after pulling the blanket over her shoulders. “Everything is going to be all right, Ally. I promise.”
Ally tried not to read too much into the comforting gesture. It wasn’t too hard, since a moment later her eyes closed on their own, and a moment after that she drifted off.
It was a promise he had no right to make. Carter knew that. They were in a hell of a mess.
But telling Ally that wasn’t going to help her sleep, and she desperately needed to rest. He tried telling himself that was the real reason he’d wanted to reassure her, that she was no good to him running on fumes, that exhaustion only made her a liability.
But those were just more lies. Ones that were meant to makehimfeel better.
The truth was, he felt a strange ache in the center of his chest seeing her struggle to stay upright, to keep her eyes open for a few more minutes just because she was scared and confused. He didn’t like watching Ally suffer. He didn’t like it at all.
Some of his own discomfort faded now that she was peaceful and calm. The gentle rise and fall of her chest told him she was asleep. It hadn’t taken long. No surprise.
He brushed back a few stray strands of hair from her cheek, and she unconsciously shifted toward his touch. Carter let his hand linger for a moment on her warm skin, before forcing himself to turn away.
Little white lies might help Ally fall asleep, but they weren’t going to save her life when the bullets started flying again. To truly keep her safe, he would have to stop Fuller, but before he could do that, he needed to know what the son of a bitch was up to.
He grabbed his phone and went to the window. He looked out across the city as he dialed the office’s secure line.
Mason picked up on the first ring.
“I was wondering when you were going to get around to calling,” Mason said in lieu of a greeting.
“Is the office clear?” Carter asked.
“Affirmative,” Mason said. “The police left a few minutes after determining you weren’t hiding somewhere in the office. They didn’t leave happy though. Looks like you’re officially wanted for questioning in two shootings now.”
“So, no witnesses saw the other shooter at the Weaver’s?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Mason said. “From the sound of it Fuller wasn’t just trying to get rid of Ally. He was also looking to pin it on you.”
“Again,” Carter added. “He won’t get away with it. Fuller can’t keep coming at us this aggressively and not leave a trail of evidence behind.”
There was a beat of silence from Mason. Apparently, his friend didn’t share his optimism.
“You disagree?” Carter asked.
“I don’t know,” Mason said. Carter could almost imagine his old friend shaking his head slowly as he spoke, just the way he used to back when they’d debated tactics at West Point. “Fuller is powerful, well-connected. He’s not known for making mistakes, just like he’s not known for forgiving them. I don’t think we’ll be able to get anyone to turn on him. Right now, everyone is more afraid of him than they are of us.”
Carter laid his palm against the windowpane. “We’ve dealt with men like him before.”
“Yeah,” Mason said. “But this one you can’t take out with a sniper bullet.”
Now, it was Carter’s turn for silence.
“Wait,” Mason said with more than a hint of anxiety in his voice. “Please tell me that’s not your plan.”
“It’s not my plan,” Carter said.
“Thank God.” Mason said, letting out a long breath. “Besides, you’d have a hell of a time getting at him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Congressman Fuller boarded a flight back to DC this morning.”
“Before the attempt on Ally’s life?” Carter asked.
“Exactly,” Mason said. “My guess is he’s betting it’s harder to pin attempted murder on a man that’s nearly three thousand miles away.”
Carter propped his fist up against the windowpane. “That just means someone else in his organization is running the operation. Any theories?”
“Well, Fuller’s Communications Director did get a promotion today for ‘his years of loyal service’. He’s now Chief of Staff.”
“Lucas Addams?” The worm from the party. Carter remembered him well. “That was quick. I take it he didn’t leave with the congressman this morning.”
“No. It appears he’ll be staying in town to oversee the investigation of last night’s shooting,” Mason said.
“How convenient,” Carter mused.
“My thoughts exactly,” Mason agreed. “So, I did a little digging on Mr. Addams, and found out this isn’t his first job with Buck Fuller. He also worked closely with Fuller as a Threat Analyst with the Security Department at Allied Dynamics years ago.”
Lucas Addams’ job title might have changed, but Carter was willing to bet that his position wasn’t all that different. So, he was the reason that Fuller had remained bulletproof all these years. At least Carter finally understood why he’d disliked the man almost instantly.
“How close is Charlie on the flash drive?” Carter asked.
“She’s working on it. Seems Harvey Price was seriously paranoid. She’s having a hell of a time trying to crack the encryption.”
Was it still paranoia if the man’s fears were justified?
“Let me know the second she finds anything,” Carter, said.
“Sure thing,” Mason said. “How’s Miss Weaver doing?”
Carter slowly turned around to face Ally. A warm feeling spread through him at the sight of her curled up on the bed.
“She’s holding up.” The truth was, she was doing a hell of a lot better than that. She was tired and she was stressed, but she was far from broken. Not that he would have blamed her had she fallen to pieces. Carter had known lots of strong people who would have cracked under the strain of two attempts on their lives in as many days.
“She seems like a fighter,” Mason said.
Carter smiled. His friend didn’t know the half of it.
He must have stared at her for a second too long, because the next thing, Mason was saying his name. “You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“I was just wondering what the plan was,” Mason said.
“Yeah, of course,” Carter said, shaking his head to clear it. “Basic recon on Fuller’s office. We need to know what Addams is up to next, and that means we need eyes and ears on the place.”
Carter turned back toward the window as he laid the rest of the plan out for Mason.
Ally was used to the harsh beep of an alarm clock shocking her out of sleep, so the experience of slowly rising out of the depths of slumber felt almost decadent.
She rolled her shoulders as her eyelids flickered open. She licked at her lips and wiggled her toes. They brushed against the satiny softness of the comforter beneath her.
Someone had slipped her shoes off while she was asleep.
Ally reached her arms above her head as she sat up, stretching out her back. There was still daylight pouring in from the large window that ran across the front of the room, but she was incredibly well rested. She must have had one heck of a power nap.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and glanced around the room for Carter. She found him just where she’d left him, right by the window.
He was sitting in a chair, reading a newspaper. There was a tray in front of him with what looked like a carafe of coffee. A tower of covered plates was on the table.
The bedclothes rustled as she kicked off the blanket, and he turned his head her way.
“Hey there, sleepyhead,” he said, with a devastatingly handsome smile. Ally turned her head before he could see her blush.
She knew nothing had happened between them, but still, there was something so intimate about waking up in the same room. Under any other circumstances, she would have been upset that he’d only taken off her shoes.
“Hey,” she said, pulling her feet in to sit cross-legged on the mattress. She combed her fingers through her hair. At this point, she was scared to look in the mirror. “How long was I out?”
Carter looked down at his wrist. “About fifteen hours.”
“What?” Ally’s spine straightened instantly. She twisted around to look at the clock on the side table.
Sure enough, it read 9:03 a.m.
She hadn’t taken a nap. She’d slept clear through to the next morning.
And Carter had let her.
She threw her feet down on the floor. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“Because you needed to sleep.” He shrugged as he turned the newspaper page.
Dear God. She had to make a phone call. Her editor had to be wondering what had happened to her.
After that she needed to call her parents. Ally would bet a thousand dollars that her mother had already heard the story of her house being involved in a shootout from half the neighbors on the street.
She might have forgotten about all her responsibilities in the blur of yesterday’s chaos, but this morning, she was going to have to take care of business.
Ally ran over to her purse and dug inside. When she didn’t feel the familiar shape of her phone, she upended the bag on the entryway table and the contents poured out. Her phone wasn’t one of them.
“My phone is gone,” she called out.
Ally spun around.
“How do you know?” she asked slowly.
“Because I took it.”
What the hell was it about this man? One second he had her blushing over his devilish smiles, and in the next instant, she wanted to kick him in the kneecaps. Maybe if he didn’t take such perverse pleasure in making her pry every last answer out of him, she would be able to keep her blood pressure under control. But as it was, she was quickly reaching her boiling point.
Still, she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of another screaming fit—he always ended up laughing at her anyway—so she tiptoed behind his chair and pantomimed wrapping her hands around his neck and throttling the life out of him. It was strangely satisfying.
“I can see your reflection in the window, you know,” he said, folding the newspaper and putting it down by his side.
“I’ll stop if you tell me why you took my phone,” she said.
“I tossed it out the window near your parent’s house yesterday, but I should have done it earlier,” he said, leaning forward and filling an empty cup with coffee. “The GPS on cell phones are easy to track. I’m guessing it’s how Fuller’s men were able to follow us.”
Ally dropped her arms.
“Oh,” she said, feeling instantly deflated. “You should have told me.”
Ally walked around to the chair opposite Carter, and sat down.
He looked at her for a long moment before he slid over the mug of coffee. “You’re right,” he conceded. “I’m sorry. I had other things on my mind.”
Ally’s eyes widened. She had the feeling that an apology from Carter Macmillan was a rare and precious thing. And this one came with a cup of coffee. Even better.
“I’m used to giving orders, not explaining them.”
Ally’s lips curled up in a smile. “I’ve never been any good at taking orders.”
His brow arched in mock surprise. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“The second someone tells me Ihaveto do something, it instantly makes me want to do the exact opposite.”
“You’d make a terrible soldier,” he said, putting one of the plates down in front of her.
“Yeah, but it’s made me a pretty good journalist,” she said. “Might even make me a great one if I can survive to get this story published.”
“Something tells me you’ll be kicking around for a while, if for no other reason than Fuller doesn’t want you to,” Carter said. His warm brown eyes were locked on hers as he spoke, and she saw all kinds of emotions flash through them—amusement, pride, something that looked a hell of a lot like desire.
But it couldn’t be. She’d just woken up from nearly a full day of sleep. She hadn’t showered in almost two. And she was wearing a sweatshirt with holes in the neckline. There was no way the ex-Special Forces guy with his finely tailored suit and rock hard body was into her. No way in hell.
“That’s the hope,” Ally said, looking down at the plate in front of her. He pulled off the metal cover and revealed eggs and potatoes and toast. “Wow. You ordered breakfast.”
“I figured you’d be hungry. You didn’t have a chance to eat anything other than a muffin yesterday. I plan on making up for that today.”
“Thank you,” she said, nervously tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. The mood had changed. Even though the room was large and airy, the space between them felt small and intimate. “I can’t remember the last time someone bought me breakfast,” she said, hoping a little small talk would distract her.
Carter’s brows arched as he leaned forward an inch in his seat. “What a shame.”
Ally put down the coffee cup. “That’s not what I meant.”
“I get it,” he said, picking up his own fork and taking a bite. “There are plenty of guys, just no one sticks around until morning.”
“I never said—”
“I’ve never had that problem myself.” His head was ducked down, but Ally still caught the teasing curve to his smile. “I’ve always had trouble getting them to leave.”
“Yeah, sounds like a real problem to me,” she shot back.
“I’m just glad I can finally talk to someone who understands,” he said. “It drives me crazy.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“Except for this one girl, she runs from me all the time,” he said between bites. “Try to make my move at a party, and—poof—she’s gone. Turn my back on her for one second while walking her to her car, and she just disappears.”
Ally leaned back in her chair, giving him a triumphant smile. “That must have been rough on your ego.”
“I don’t know. I think it ended up okay.” He glanced at her, his honey-colored eyes locking with hers. “I managed to get her to spend the night in my hotel room, after all.”
Heat was pouring into her cheeks now, and the harder she tried to stop it, the harder it burned. It was absurd. A bubble of laughter escaped her lips. Then another. And another.
What the hell was going on? A minute ago, she wanted to strangle the man, but now…now, she was picturing something entirely different that she’d like to do with him.
It was just the stress. It had to be. The stress, and the pressure…and the almost irresistible sight of a day’s worth of stubble lining his jaw. How would it feel grazing across her cheek? Her neck? Her—
Ally tried to shake the images from her head.
“I like it when you laugh,” he said after a long moment had passed.
Ally shrugged easily, even though the casual confession affected her more than she wanted to admit. “You’re pretty funny when you want to be.”
“There are those who would disagree with you,” he said cryptically.
She was about to ask who when a text alarm chirped. Ally started a little at the unexpected sound. Her brows pulled together as Carter pulled a phone from his pocket. He checked the screen, typed something back and slid it back into his jacket.
Ally realized she must have been glaring at him, because he widened his eyes as he looked back up at her.
“What?” he asked.
“Why do you get a phone?”
“Because it’s not an ordinary phone.” Carter held up the phone pinched between his finger and thumb. “The signal is run through a private satellite. It can’t be tracked through regular cell towers.”
Fresh hope rushed through Ally. She scooted forward in the chair. “So, I can call my work with it?”
Carter shook his head. “That’s not a good idea.”
“Because while this line is secure, the Gazette’s are not. We have to assume that Fuller’s men are monitoring every call that goes in and out of that building to look for you.”
Ally’s face fell, as the brief flash of hope left her. “I guess that means I can’t call my parents either.”
Carter gave her a long sympathetic look. “I know it’s hard, Ally, but the fewer people you have contact with, the safer everyone will be.” He stretched his hand out across the table. “This will all be over soon.”
Ally didn’t think too hard about sliding her hand into his before she did it. He was offering comfort, and she needed some. It was as simple as that.
His fingers curled around her palm. He slid his other hand over the top. His skin felt warm on hers. Ally almost believed that she could feel some of his strength infusing into her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding sincere.
Ally shook her head. No matter how tempting it was to lay the blame for her predicament on someone else, it wouldn’t be honest.
“Don’t be,” she said. “I knew what I was getting myself into by taking on Fuller.”
“But you did it anyway.” There was a note of admiration in his voice. For some reason she wasn’t expecting that. Admonishment, maybe. Confusion, certainly.
That’s what she was used to getting from people like her parents, her siblings, and her friends. She understood their reasons. They wanted her to be safe. It was what most people wanted for their loved ones. That was why Ally never resented their concerns.
But she could never agree with them.
“Once Harvey called me there was no other choice,” she said. “Whatever Fuller is doing, someone has to expose him.”
Carter slowly sat back. His fingers caressed the top of her hand as they slid away. Suddenly Ally wanted them back. The room was warm, but her hands felt strangely cold without his touch.
“Why did he come to you?” Carter asked.
“He read a piece I did on city corruption out in Prospect Canyon. All the other journalists gave up after the mayor lawyered up, but I thought there might be something there, so I kept digging.”
“And there was something,” Carter said, folding his hands in his lap.
“There was,” she said, meeting his gaze. “I followed the money trail, and it led right back to the mayor. I was the only one that didn’t back down.”
“So you think that whatever we find on Harvey Price’s drive will come back to money?” he asked.
Ally shrugged. “It almost always does. It’s why most people do anything.”
“Not you,” he said with a wry smile. “You’re out here risking your neck while driving around the world’s oldest Toyota Camry.”
“Well, I’m a freak,” she said. She finished off the last bite of her breakfast and then pulled her legs up on to the chair. It was a comfy position—not one she’d take in front of just anyone, but she was quickly coming to understand that Carter was hardly just anyone. “I’ve always valued the truth over fancy things.”
“Most of the time it’s just foolish,” she said honestly. “Especially when it’s the first of the month and the rent is due.”
“I’m guessing that’s not a problem that you’ve ever had,” she said, leaning forward and grabbed her coffee cup. She wrapped both of her hands around it. The coffee was hot, but it was nothing like the warmth that she felt in Carter’s hands.
“You might be surprised,” he said.
“Really, Mr. Black AMEX?”
“That’s not me,” he said, bringing his arms up and lacing his fingers behind his neck. It appeared that she wasn’t the only one that was getting comfortable. “That’s Sean Ward.”
“I don’t know. Mr. Ward looks a lot like you.”
“I suppose he does.” Carter smiled openly. The lack of guard made him even more attractive, if such a thing was possible. “It wasn’t always this way, though. I didn’t have much when I got out of the service. I built Macmillan Security from nothing.”
“And the guys that work for you?”
“We were all in the same unit.” His eyes focused somewhere just beyond Ally’s shoulder.
“You were in charge back then too, weren’t you?” Technically, it was a question, but there wasn’t a doubt in Ally’s mind.
The corners of his eyes tilted up as he looked back at her. “That obvious?”
“You don’t strike me as a second fiddle kind of guy,” she said with a smile.
“None of my men were,” he said. “That’s why we were so good at what we did.”
“What exactly did you do?”
“We protected the good guys. Got rid of the bad ones.” Carter’s smile tilted, and Ally got the feeling that there was far more he couldn’t tell her than he could. “Someone gave us the nickname The Sinner Saints because it seemed like we always did the right thing the wrong way.”
A smile spread across Ally’s face.
The Sinner Saints.
“An angel’s heart and the devil’s smile,” she said. “The name suits you.”
Ally tried not to squirm in her seat as something in Carter’s gaze changed, intensity pushing out the humor.
“That means a lot coming from you,” he said, his voice low.
Ally cleared her throat. She needed to get this conversation back on track before he made her blush all the way down to her toes.
“So, why did you start Macmillan Security?”
“I did it for my men. I knew we would need to do something once we got out of the service. A security company seemed like a perfect fit. We had the training. We had the skills. But most importantly, we needed to feel like we were doing something that was worth a damn.”
“And this lets you feel like you’re helping people?”
“We’ve saved a lot of lives,” he said.
Ally swallowed down past the lump in her throat. “Like mine.”
“That wasn’t business,” Carter said, leaning toward her. “It’s still not. I made a personal promise to protect you. And I never go back on my promises.”
“So the money doesn’t mean anything to you?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Let’s just say it’s a nice perk.”
“I imagine it is,” she said with a wink. She went to take another sip of coffee but found her mug dry. She made a show of turning it upside down. “Well, that’s my cue. I’m thinking I better go take a shower.”
She stood up from the chair and stretched, lifting her arms over her head. Carter was watching her with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“How would you like to go down to the spa after that?”
“Excuse me?” she asked, blinking a few times.
“It’s been a stressful couple of days. I thought you might like some time to relax.”
Yeah, right. Breakfast was one thing, but a day at the spa—especially one as fancy as the Grand Capital’s—was a whole other ballgame. The man had to have another motive.
Ally cocked her head to the side. “And you need to get rid of me for a couple of hours?”
Carter glanced at the floor. He couldn’t seem to fight the smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “What gave me away?”
“No one is that altruistic.” Ally cocked out her hip. “What are you going to do while I’m gone?”
“I just need to plan some things with my team.”
“Things you don’t want me to hear,” she shot back.
“Not you personally,” he said. “But the less you know the better off you are.”
“Ah,” she said, a sudden wave of understanding coming over her. She’d heard this line before. “So, just things you don’t want a journalist around to hear.”
“Is that a no on the spa day?”
Ally tilted her head to the side. She was well aware that he had sidestepped her concerns, but that was no reason to turn down one hell of an offer.
“I never said that.” She turned and headed for the bathroom. “The real question is, how can you be sure that I won’t rabbit on you again once I’m down there?”
“Because we need each other,” he said. “Whatever happens, we’re in it together.”
Ally stopped in her tracks. She’d been all prepared for another quip, another smart remark, and another round of laughter. The only thing she hadn’t been ready for was the truth, and certainly not so simply stated.
She didn’t turn around, but gave a simple nod before continuing on to the shower.
He was dead right, she thought as she shut and locked the bathroom door. She turned on the shower, and steam filled the room, but she stayed leaning against the door for another minute thinking about what he’d said.
Their futures were tied together. For better or for worse. She couldn’t break the story without his help, and he couldn’t save his company without hers.
At least she assumed that was what he had meant. It had to be.
Ally peeled off her clothes and stepped into the comforting spray of warm water. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the stream cascade through her hair.
Sure, she and Carter were strange bedfellows, but at least they’d sowed the seeds of friendship out there. At the very least, she didn’t actively distrust the man anymore. That had to count for something, didn’t it?
Of course, she didn’t usually find herself staring at her friend’s lips, or losing herself in the tender warmth of their eyes. She also didn’t spend a whole lot of time fantasizing about what it would be like to unbutton their shirt and run her hands over their muscles.
Would he feel like she imagined—a tantalizing mixture of hard muscle and soft skin?
Ally closed her eyes, under the showerhead. The water sluiced over her, caressing her skin. The heat seeped through her, warming her.
What would it feel like to press her body against his? To wrap her arms around him? To straddle his—
Ally’s eyes popped open.
Dear God, what the hell was she thinking? Since when did she lose control of herself over a couple of strong arms and a chiseled jawline?
She reached down and cranked up the cold water.
Maybe, Carter was right. Maybe she could use a little stress relief. ‘Cause right now, she felt like she was losing her damn mind.
“It’s time for your mani/pedi, Mrs. Ward,” the spa attendant said, poking her head into the eucalyptus-scented lounge where Ally was waiting.
Ally’s lips pulled down into a frown. She knew she had no right to be unhappy. Carter may have sent her down there for all the wrong reasons, but at least he hadn’t been stingy.
On one hand, her body had never felt so relaxed in her life. She’d had a massage and a facial. Add to that the time that she’d spent in the sauna and the spa and Ally was pretty sure someone was going to have to roll her back up to her room.
But on the other, her mind refused to slow down. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d already wasted too much time. It wasn’t like she could spend the rest of the day sipping herbal tea and wearing an oversized bathrobe. She had things to do.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t exactly true. She’d accepted Carter’s explanation as to why she shouldn’t reach out to anyone in her life, but that didn’t stop her from being haunted by the feeling that sheshouldbe doing something. She should be up there helping, putting together the plans to put Fuller away…anything besides being rubbed and rolled out and pampered.
“You know what,” Ally said, standing up from the overstuffed chair. “I think I’m going to skip it.”
The woman’s brows arched up. “Are you sure, Mrs. Ward? Your husband has already paid for the service.”
Her husband. All day, Ally had struggled to get used to people calling her a name that wasn’t hers. It wasn’t Carter’s either. And he certainly wasn’t her husband.
“I’ll just have to get a rain check then,” Ally said.
The woman sputtered for a moment, before starting to follow Ally toward the locker room. “W-we don’t really do that,” she said.
Ally shrugged her shoulders and kept going, passing through the door before the woman could catch up with her. She figured that the attendant must have taken the hint because she didn’t follow her.
Ally switched out of her robe and into her own clothes as quick as she could. The idea of what secret plans he might be making up there without her was starting to make her brain itch. She needed to be upstairs.
As she walked out of the locker room and past the front counter, Ally spotted the attendant on the phone. The moment their eyes met, the woman cupped her hand over the receiver and turned away.
Maybe it was her clothes. It was one thing fitting in when everyone in the spa were all sitting around in the same fluffy bathrobes sipping tea. It was another when she was walking around the hotel in a ten-year-old sweatshirt with holes in the neckline.
Yeah, she was either going to have to hide out in the hotel room for the rest of her stay here or pick up a T-shirt from the hotel gift shop the next time she poked her head out. But right now, all she wanted to do was get back to the hotel room.
Ally blinked a couple of times when she caught sight of the clock near the bank of elevators. She’d been in the spa for over three hours.
Carter certainly had her number. All he’d had to do was dangle the carrot of relaxation in front of her and she had disappeared for the whole afternoon. Just like he’d wanted her to.
So much for journalistic integrity.
Ally took in a deep breath as she stepped inside the elevator. She was being too hard on herself. Carter wasn’t the focus of her investigation. He was the only thing keeping her alive during it.
It was only natural that her feelings toward him would be complicated.
Except they didn’t feel all that complicated. If anything, they were painfully simple. She was drawn to him. There was no denying it. It was as if there was some invisible force pulling her toward him.
And the name of that force was hormones.
Of course, it didn’t matter how she felt. She was running for her life. She didn’t have the time to worry about jumping a man’s bones.
No matter how hot those bones might be.
Ally had almost convinced herself of that when the elevator doors opened and she stepped into the hallway. Her stride slowed halfway down.
The door of their room was open. It was just a crack, but it was enough to sound every alarm bell in Ally’s head. There was no housekeeping cart outside, no room service trolley, nothing that would account for hotel staff in the room.
Carter had said that he needed to plan with members of his team, but what if something had gone wrong? What if Fuller had discovered their location, or Carter had a mole in his company that had sold them out. Her mind spun with terrible possibilities.
Ally’s heart kicked up. She inched forward, keeping close to the wall, and strained to listen for any sounds coming from inside the room—the faint sound of footsteps or the squeak of metal wheels.
She leaned in closer, but she didn’t hear a sound.
The door flew open before Ally could right herself. She stumbled forward in her shock… right into Carter’s hard chest.
His arms wrapped around her body, steadying her. Red-faced, she looked up.
“If you wanted to cuddle, you just had to say so,” he said.
Ally instantly straightened up. “I saw the door was open. I was…concerned.”
“Understandable.” Carter smiled, slow to release her. “But all is well. I was just coming out to see where you were. The spa said you’d left a few minutes ago.”
Ally’s brows pulled together. “They were reporting my movements to you?”
“That surprises you?”
“So much for trusting me,” she said.
He shook his head. “You, I trust. Others, not so much.”
A metallic clink sounded from inside the hotel room, and Ally’s head snapped to it. “Who’s inside?” she asked. “Is it your team?”
“You could say that.” Carter put his arm around her shoulder. “We were just waiting on you. You’re the missing piece.”
He swung open the door, but instead of finding a welcoming committee comprised of the terrifying men from his office, Ally found herself face to face with a rolling rack of clothes. Dresses, more specifically. The expensive looking kind.
A proud-looking woman was standing next to them. Her eyes widened the moment she caught sight of Ally.
Ally tried giving her a smile, but the woman’s gaze only narrowed as her lips pulled together tighter. So much for first impressions. Maybe she should have stopped in for that T-shirt after all.
She turned to Carter.
“Um…what’s all this?”
He looked down at her. “This is where you get ready for dinner.”
“It’s not even four in the afternoon.”
He shrugged. “I’m told this takes some time.”
Now it was Ally’s turn to be confused. “I’m sorry. What does?”
“Being fitted for a dress,” he said. “Then someone is going to come up and do your hair and makeup.”
Ally’s brows pulled together. “Really?”
“I’m guessing that we’re not ordering room service then?”
A slow smile spread across Carter’s face. “No. We’re not.”
Ally leaned in closer, and dropped her voice down to a whisper. “Is that a good idea?”
“It’ll be fine,” Carter said, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
If he only knew that his touch wasn’t doing anything to calm all those pesky hormones.
Ally turned back to the rack of dresses. They certainly looked nice. And pricey. She was starting to become uncomfortable with how much Carter was spending on her—even if it was under an assumed name. It was far more than Ally could ever hope to pay back.
“Are you sure?” she asked one more time.
“Absolutely,” he said, coming up close behind her. “Don’t you like nice dinners?”
Ally shrugged. The truth was, she did…not that she could remember the last time she’d been in a fancy restaurant. Lately, most of her dinners had been delivered by a guy in an Alfonzo’s Pizza truck.
It wouldn’t hurt to mix it up a little, especially if Carter thought it was safe.
Ally started to flick through the hangers. They were pretty dresses. She looked over at the woman who was standing sentinel next to the rack.
“Who knew you could order a dress from your hotel room?” Ally joked.
The woman let out a small huff as she rolled her eyes.
Everyone but her, apparently.
“You realize those people thought I was a prostitute,” Ally said the moment Carter had closed the door on the gaggle of people leaving their hotel room.
“Really?” he said as he turned around. He’d hardly paid any attention to the people in the room with them. His eyes had only been on Ally.
“Oh yeah,” Ally said with an exaggerated nod. “All of them. A hooker getting the full Pretty Woman treatment.”
“Does that bother you?” he asked as he leaned his back against the door, taking in the sight of her.
They’d draped her in shimmery fabrics, fluffed her hair, blackened her lashes, but nothing fundamental had changed about her. She was still Ally, just like the first night he’d met her. The set dressing might change—this time a little finer than the last—but the fire burning underneath was the same.
And that fire…
“Not really.” She shrugged her shoulders, trying to play it cool, but Carter could see the real answer in the burn of her cheeks.
“Don’t worry about any of them,” he said, pushing off the door and walking toward her. “You’re beautiful.”
“I’d better be after how much you’ve spent on all this,” Ally said, sweeping her hand from the top of her head down the length of her dress.
He reached down and enveloped her hand between his own. He relished the feel of her warm skin against his.
“I didn’t say they made you beautiful.”
He looked down into her clear blue eyes and the glow in her cheeks intensified.
He’d been thinking about her all day. He’d called down to the spa several times to check in on her. He’d told Mason that it was because he was concerned about her safety, and while that was technically true, it wasn’t the whole truth.
He didn’t like her out of his sight for reasons that had nothing to do with security.
“So, are you finally going to tell me where you’re taking me?” she asked.
“To the restaurant on the second floor.”
“Chef Marcel’s?” Her brows shot up. “You weren’t kidding about wanting to go someplace nice.”
“Have you eaten there before?” he asked.
Ally cocked her chin to the side. “What do you think?”
“I think you’ll enjoy it,” Carter said. “The chef’s filet mignon is the best I’ve ever had.”
Her lips quirked up. “You’ve got expensive taste.”
“It’s not about price,” Carter said, shaking his head. He inched closer, not letting go of her hand. “It’s about appreciating all the exquisite pleasures life has to offer.”
The glow was spreading from Ally’s cheeks, down the long column of her neck, over the slope of her shoulders, disappearing underneath the elegant neckline of her dress.
He wondered just how far her blush had traveled. If he slid the straps of her gown down her arms, let the fabric fall to the floor, what would he discover?
Carter pressed his lips together and swallowed hard.
Damn, it was a tempting thought…but one he couldn’t follow. Not right now, at any rate.
He’d spent the afternoon fine-tuning a plan with Mason and now it was time to see it through. His men needed him in position exactly at six forty-five.
Carter glanced over at the clock.
They had thirty-two minutes. He supposed they could get a drink at the bar. It would be safer down there. Suddenly, Carter wasn’t sure how much more time he could spend alone with Ally without needing to know if her lips were as soft as he imagined.
“We should probably make our way down to the restaurant,” he said.
“O-okay,” Ally said. Her mouth stayed slightly parted, the tip of her tongue flicking out to wet the swell of her lower lip. Carter’s eyes snapped to the sight.
He turned and tucked her hand into the bend of his elbow.
Yeah. It was much safer downstairs.
“So are you going to tell me the real reason you’ve brought me here tonight?” Ally asked the moment they stepped off the elevator and started walking down the long hallway that led to Chef Marcel’s.
Carter kept his head straight ahead, and Ally’s jaw tightened. She was quickly learning that he didn’t like to look at her when he lied.
“I thought you might be hungry,” he said. “Isn’t that reason enough?”
She narrowed her eyes as she stared at him. Yeah, she hadn’t bought it back up in the hotel room, and she wasn’t buying it now.
Of course, she’d been too swept up by his compliments and proximity when they’d been upstairs to say anything. There was something about the way his warm caramel gaze fell over her, like he might want to skip dinner altogether and get right to dessert. And then there was the touch…oh Lord, his touch. Even now Ally could feel the tingles radiating out from where his fingers had caressed the back of her palm.
No wonder she’d lost the ability to speak.
But now that she’d had a few moments to take a breath and calm down, she could finally get around to calling him out.
“I’ve had plenty of dinners in jeans before,” she said.
“But tonight you don’t have to,” Carter said, tucking her closer to his side as they crossed through the open archway into the restaurant.
Ally opened her mouth to ask again, but closed it the moment she started to look around. Chef Marcel’s had to be the nicest restaurant she’d ever been in.
Crystal chandeliers hung from the carved paneled ceiling. Leather chairs and bar stools were tastefully arranged in the mood lit lounge. Just beyond the bar area she could see the dining room and its sophisticated modern, but not trendy, design. Walls of windows looked out across a panoramic view of the city.
Yeah, this was a hell of a lot nicer than scraping the last bits of cheese off the top of a cardboard pizza box.
Maybe she was digging a little deeper than she had to. It was just dinner after all. How much trouble could Carter really get into while seated in a crowded, upscale place like this?
He led her over to an empty pair of dark plush chairs tucked in a tight V in the corner closest to the dining room. A small table was nestled between them. Carter let go of her hand, allowing her to sit.
Ally swept her hand along the back of her skirt as she sat, making sure she kept her back as straight as possible. She’d never been so worried about wrinkling a dress in her life. She’d never worn anything this nice. And it wasn’t like the thing was hers. Not really.
She had the feeling that Carter would try to give it to her as a gift, but there was no way she could accept something so expensive. Once she took it off for the night, she’d be handing it right back to him.
Of course, how it ended up coming off of her was really anybody’s guess. She might not have believed his reasons for bringing her here tonight, but the hungry looks he’d been giving her, those had seemed real enough.
Either that or the man was a better liar than she was giving him credit for.
The waitress appeared a moment later.
“I’ll have an old fashioned,” Carter ordered, and then gestured toward Ally.
“And a soda water, please.”
The waitress nodded before turning and heading back to the backlit antique bar.
“A soda water?” The corners of Carter’s eyes lifted as he asked.
“One of us has to keep our head on straight.”
“Good thinking,” he said with a wink.
Ally resisted the urge to reach out and smack him. Instead, she looked down and smoothed out the wrinkles on her lap.
“You all right?” Carter asked.
“Yeah,” Ally said, looking up and giving him a tight smile.
“Really?” he pressed. “Because you seem a little uncomfortable.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just a little out of my element.”
Carter leaned in closer. “So let me get this straight. You’re totally fine sneaking into a black tie affair, but not to a restaurant where you have a legitimate reservation.”
Ally smiled despite herself. Sure, it sounded silly when he put it like that.
“I might feel a little better if you’d tell me what we’re really doing here,” she tried.
“Why can’t it be enough that I wanted to take you out to dinner?” he said, looking her in the eye. “You’re a beautiful woman, Ally.”
“Now, sure,” she said, rolling her eyes. “After a team of experts works on me for three hours. They could have done the same thing with a chimpanzee.”
“No, they couldn’t have,” Carter shook his head. “Chimps can’t pull off the heels.”
Ally laughed. “I stand corrected.”
“Besides, they absolutely refuse to laugh at my jokes,” he said, giving her a long look.
Ally tried to push her hair back over her ear out of instinct. Except it wasn’t there. It was all pulled back and piled high. There was nothing to hide her blush, and she was forced to meet his gaze.
“That sounds like the voice of experience,” she shot back.
He shrugged. “You do what you have to do in service to your country.”
Finally, a topic that wasn’t likely to make her blush. “How long were you in the Army?”
“Long enough,” he said.
“And what made you choose to go into Special Forces?”
He raised a brow. “Are you interviewing me?”
“Completely off the record, I promise.” Ally leaned in closer. Her thigh pressed against his knee. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, getting this cozy, but somehow it felt right.
The waitress came back and put their drinks down in front of them. Carter waited until she had turned away before answering.
“I didn’t choose. I was chosen,” he said.
Ally smiled. “Is that the diplomatic way of saying you were too badass for the regular rank and file?”
“Your words, not mine.” Carter picked up his drink, but his eyes never left Ally’s. “Both Mason and I were approached while at West Point. It seems our skills were better suited for unconventional warfare.”
Ally had no problem believing him. There was nothing conventional about Carter Macmillan.
“And the rest of your men?” she asked.
“They were similarly recruited from the Rangers for their unique talents. That’s how it usually happens.”
Carter shifted in his seat. It was a small move, almost innocent, but it pressed the side of his leg flush against hers, intensifying their contact.
“Ah,” Ally said and took a sip of her water. She was glad that she hadn’t ordered anything stronger. Her head was already swimming. The last thing she needed to do was throw alcohol into the mix.
“Ah, what?” he asked, looking genuinely intrigued.
“I can’t help but think thattheir unique talentsis code forthe scariest bunch of bastards that you’ll ever meet.”
“That’s unfair,” Carter said, shooting her a mock scowl. “I’ve met Bowie’s parents personally, and they were both wearing wedding rings.”
Ally glanced at the floor as she laughed, and when she looked up, his eyes were still on her.
Warmth built inside her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d connected with someone like this. Sure, she’d been on dates, even had a couple of relationships that had stretched into weeks, but Ally had never felt this comfortable with any of those men.
And it wasn’t just attraction—though Heaven knew, she was feeling plenty of that. She felt like she could be herself around him. That he didn’t want her to be anyonebutherself. Carter had shown time and time again that he could meet her on her own terms, that he wasn’t intimidated by her or her ambitions, that he was strong enough to take her as she was. And while rock hard abs and a stubble-lined jaw could turn a girl’s head, those were the qualities that really turned a woman on.
“Thanks for making me laugh.” Ally reached out and laid her hand on his knee. “I’m feeling a lot better.”
Carter glanced down at her hand. He opened his mouth, but before he could say a word, a soft ding sounded from his jacket pocket. Carter pulled out his phone and looked down at the screen.
For a second she thought she saw a moment of disappointment flash over his face, but it was gone before she could be certain. He tucked the device away. When he looked up, all traces of warmth were gone from his expression.
“It’s time,” he said, his voice all business.
Ally was taken aback by the sudden change in his demeanor. “Our reservation is right now?”
“Now.” He stood and put his hand out to her.
“Okay,” Ally said, taking it.
She tried not to read too much into Carter’s actions as he led her over to the maître d’.
“Mr. Ward. The table you requested is ready,” the man said before leading them over to a small table tucked into the furthest corner of the dining room.
It was an odd choice for a table, but Ally figured Carter must have wanted the seclusion. All the way back here they were shielded from half the patrons. They still had a magnificent view of the city.
Well, she did, at least. From her seat, Ally could see past the glistening lights of downtown all the way down to the Sacramento River. Carter’s angle wasn’t as nice. He was stuck looking at the office building that was kitty corner from them.
The maître d’ put down the menus then passed Carter a wine list, but he waved it off.
“Whatever you recommend will be just fine,” he said.
The maître d’ raised his brows but nodded. “Very good, sir.”
Ally turned to Carter as the man walked away. Her lips pulled together.
His attitude had changed instantly. It couldn’t have been because of something that she said. Could it? Or something that she’d done?
The hand on his knee.
Oh, God. Had she read the situation all wrong? Had she acted too forward? Too needy?
Heaven knew it wouldn’t have been the first time. She’d been through more than her fair share of awkward first dates, but it seemed like she and Carter were getting on well. Better than well.
He’d been leaning into her and winking.Winking. If that wasn’t flirting she didn’t know what was. How the hell could she be blamed for misreading that sign?
One of the staff came over and filled their water glasses. Ally thanked him when Carter couldn’t be bothered with looking away from the window.
She picked up her glass and took a sip.
Had she said something that had upset him? Even as her mind spun back through the conversation they’d just had, she seriously doubted it. Hell, she’d pantomimed choking him just this morning and he hadn’t even batted an eye. Carter Macmillan wasn’t exactly a delicate flower.
Maybe the best thing was to just plow right on through the awkwardness.
“So, tell me more about the guys on your team,” she said.
He didn’t look away from the window. “They’re…good guys.”
Ally put down the water glass as the wine arrived. The waiter poured and Carter pulled his attention away from outside just long enough to taste it.
“It’s fine,” he said.
For a second there, Ally thought she might have had him back, but then his eyes focused off in the distance again.
Ally tried the wine. Just a sip wouldn’t hurt.
Finewas one hell of an understatement. That had to be the best glass of wine she’d ever tasted in her life.Wonderfulwould have been a better word.Amazingwould have nailed it.
Ally looked over the rim of her glass at Carter. The candlelight played off his face. He didn’t look angry or upset. He was still every bit as handsome as he ever was. There was just something distant about him. Something wrong that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
They’d been so close just a moment ago. Not just physically, but there had been a connection between them, something that went beyond the playful banter that they’d shared before. Something far more real. She couldn’t have been imagining it.
But now he was more like the man she’d seen back in his office.The Captain. That’s what everyone had called him. There hadn’t been any jokes or smiles then, just business.
Well, he wasn’t herCaptain.
She decided to try and get the charming man she’d been talking to a moment ago, back.
“How aboutIceman?” she said, trying a playful smile. “Tell me about him.”
“Who?” Carter’s eyes never wavered from the window.
“Tall guy,” Ally reminded him. “Blonde hair, hard eyes, soul like a glacier.”
“Oh, Rhys,” he said. “He’s….”
Carter’s words trailed off.
“Let me guess,” Ally whispered to herself as she picked up her wine glass again. “A good guy?”