Authors: Helenkay Dimon
A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY…
For Aaron McBain, it was just another routine job, protecting his client at an office Christmas party. Until commandos stormed the place and took a hostage. But they had the wrong woman…the very woman Aaron had started dating—under a different cover.
Risa Peters couldn’t convince the gunmen she was the wrong hostage, nor could she believe her so-called “tax attorney” boyfriend wrested her away. But as the threats against her escalated, Risa and Aaron found themselves trapped in the building in the midst of a deadly conspiracy. And only her sexy new protector—a man she hardly knew but already wanted—stood between her and a bullet.
“You’re leaving me.”
“Only for as long as it takes to end this thing.” He figured he had seconds only before he had to be ready for whatever came through that door. “I want you to know one thing.”
He didn’t touch her, because his control would break and right now he needed his mind in the game. But later everything would be different. “When this is over I’m going to kiss you. One of those long, sexy kisses that knock your shoes off and have you wondering why you ever bothered to kiss a man before me.”
“You’re awfully sure of yourself,” Risa said.
“It comes from the slow buildup of simple dates to a complex disaster. This has been brewing. It’s all wrapped up with adrenaline and excitement.” He leaned in. “And now it’s out of our control.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning author HelenKay Dimon spent twelve years in the most unromantic career ever—divorce lawyer. After dedicating all that effort to helping people terminate relationships, she is thrilled to deal in happy endings and write romance novels for a living. Now her days are filled with gardening, writing, reading and spending time with her family in and around San Diego. HelenKay loves hearing from readers, so stop by her website,www.helenkaydimon.com, and say hello.
Books by HelenKay Dimon
1196—UNDER THE GUN*1214—NIGHT MOVES1254—GUNS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR*1260—GUNNING FOR TROUBLE*1297—LOCKED AND LOADED*1303—THE BIG GUNS*1352—WHEN SHE WASN’T LOOKING1369—COPY THAT1387—SWITCHED
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Aaron McBain—His outside security firm provides extra protection for a businessman someone wants dead. Aaron thinks the office Christmas party is a relatively low-risk atmosphere, but he’s ready for anything. Then the bullets start flying and a woman he cares about but needs to forget wades right into the danger.
Risa Peters—Happy in her new job, Risa sets out to check a potential holiday party location and ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mistaken for a woman she doesn’t know, Risa is attacked and nearly kidnapped, only to be saved by the guy she once dated. And then things get scary….
Lowell Craft—The controversial businessman and owner of Craft Industries. Threats against his life turn a routine office Christmas party into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, but is he as unconcerned as he appears?
Brandon Lowell—It’s not easy being the son of a famous and wealthy man when your father treats you like an embarrassment.
Angie Troutman—She works at Craft Industries but is better known for the private time she spends with the boss after hours. She is at the center of the attack, the woman the kidnappers really want instead of Risa, but is everything what it seems?
Palmer Trask—The official security face of the company—his job is to keep Lowell safe. Palmer doesn’t trust Aaron or anyone else. When the shooting starts, his decisions have an impact on everything that happens thereafter.
Royal Jenkins—Aaron’s assistant and friend. He steps up when the danger begins, but could the threat be closer than any of them expect?
To all the readers who have bought my Harlequin Intrigue books and sent me such lovely notes and emails. Thank you!
Aaron McBain stood in the only doorway without mistletoe taped to the beam and checked his watch for the tenth time. The schedule ticked along with precision. No surprises. No problems.
He knew that was a bad sign.
No holiday party ever ran on time or as planned. Actually, no party, meeting or anything sponsored by Craft Industries sailed along without an issue. But a half hour before the official kickoff, a steady line of sullen office workers dressed in gray suits filed in and now hovered in groups around tables and near the Christmas tree set up on the small stage at the far end of the room.
Absent was the usual happy holiday chatter found at similar events for other companies, likely because the boss declared attendance mandatory for this after-hours, nowhere-near-the-office party. Amazing how requiring people to have fun guaranteed they didn’t.
Neither did the thirty-mile drive from their northern Virginia office building in McLean to the Elan Conference Center at the edge of the metro area’s wine country in Loudoun County. Lowell Craft, the company’s president and owner, lived out there and didn’t care what kind of traffic disaster the Washington, D.C., rush hour imposed on everyone else.
Aaron wasn’t exactly on fire for the party, either, and the drive was only one frustration. For the past three months, since he and his team had been hired by Lowell to provide him with extra security, he’d been handling everything from drunken rages in the office hallways by dismissed employees to outright threats against Lowell. And since Lowell spouted some controversial business theories, including one about how what motivated the staff was a series of unexpected firings on Fridays, it was amazing the guy wasn’t attacked in the office parking lot every afternoon.
But there was a viable threat today, had been for months since Lowell got the first note promising a painful death if he didn’t step down as head of the company by Christmas. Which was why Aaron stood three feet away from where Lowell inspected the buffet table, wearing his usual frown. He apparently didn’t approve of the festive atmosphere the center had provided. Not a surprise to Aaron since as far as he could tell Lowell didn’t like anything.
Aaron blew out a long breath as he listened to his assistant, Royal Jenkins, whistle an annoying tune into the open-ear mic. When the frustrated exhale didn’t drive the point home, Aaron tried an across-the-room scowl at the man who was younger, fitter and less disciplined but possessed sniper-level shooting skills thanks to his short army stint.
Finally Aaron went for the direct approach with Royal. “Any chance you could stop that?”
“You want to request a different song?” Royal smiled as he nodded a welcome to Angie Troutman, the woman who by day ran the Craft human resources department and by night serviced Lowell. Their evening activities were a constant source of office gossip.
“Let’s start with a moment of silence and then go from there,” Aaron said.
Royal walked across the room and two seconds later stood next to Aaron. “You notice something missing at this party?”
Aaron watched the employees crowd together at a point in the room farthest away from their boss. “People who actually want to be here?”
“There is that, but no.”
“Is it the lack of anything resembling holiday cheer or happiness?”
“Ah, yes. Lowell sent around a memo prohibiting music in the workplace.” Aaron eyed the business dictator in question as he moved around the serving platters the catering staff had just carefully arranged on the buffet. When the man snapped his fingers at one of the servers to get his attention, Aaron looked away. “Lowell said something about the Christmas carols distracting the employees from their work.”
“But we’re not at the office.”
“I’m not sure Lowell sees a distinction. All fun is bad.”
“With his lack of holiday spirit, why bother throwing the party at all? Unless he’s charging them to attend.” Royal’s gaze shot to Aaron. “Oh, man. He’s not, is he?”
“Worse, I heard the party is in place of year-end bonuses and cost-of-living adjustments for the next year.”
Despite his distaste for Lowell, Aaron had to watch over the guy. Aaron had enough troubles without blowing this assignment. Unlike Craft’s, Aaron’s staff got bonuses and had time off and were even allowed to get sick now and then. All of that required money. Lowell did pay his bills, which allowed Aaron to keep paying his. A timely check was just about the only positive aspect of Lowell’s personality Aaron could find.
Not that Lowell was making the current job easy. At the beginning of the assignment, he’d had a habit of disappearing during the middle of the day and then wandering back in with a stupid grin a few hours after lunch. He did that until Aaron started shadowing the older man’s every step.
Slim and tall with brown hair peppered with gray, Lowell had the kind of power and money many women found attractive, though Aaron had no idea why. The guy reeked of the same smarminess usually reserved for career politicians. He possessed all the people skills of a serial killer. He never offered his age, but people who knew him back when pegged it in the mid-fifties. He had a wife and a twenty-three-year-old son, and just like the people who worked for him, neither family member could stand him.
Then there was the other side of Lowell’s life. The man pretended to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type, but Aaron knew better. You couldn’t dig into every aspect of a man’s existence without having to brush off some dirt. And this Craft guy slid around in mud every single day.
Aaron glanced over at the thirty-something brunette with the long legs and short attention span sitting at the table all alone, sipping on a glass of something clear. “Rumor is Angie requested the party because morale is so low and even in a rough economy she’s worried about a mass employee exodus.”
“And Lowell sure listens to Angie.” Royal half laughed, half coughed. “Speaking of which, it’s nice of Lowell to invite the wife and the mistress to the same party.”
“Alleged mistress.” Aaron said the words as an afterthought as he scanned the room for Mrs. Craft and came up empty. He was just about to send Royal looking for her when the two men waiting by the elevator grabbed his attention.
They had matching military haircuts and dark suits, and neither spent a second checking out the party. They didn’t work at Craft. Aaron would put money on that. After the second death threat, he’d run a security check on all employees, past and present. He’d checked out the Elan staff, as well. Either these two slipped through the screening without Aaron noticing—and since one of the guys had shoulders wider than the elevator doors, Aaron doubted it—or they were uninvited. Neither option made Aaron happy.
He elbowed Royal. “Who are those two?”
Royal’s gaze followed Aaron’s nod. “Waitstaff?”
“Not anyone I checked in.”
“And not wearing the right uniform.” Royal’s gaze narrowed. “Why are they headed for the elevators when the food is in here?”
Royal’s shifting to attack mode was all the confirmation Aaron needed of impending trouble. The guy had pitch-perfect instincts thanks to years in and around the mountains of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province.
Aaron barked out orders to the rest of the team listening in on the earpieces. “We need help up here. Palmer?”
When Lowell’s head of security, Palmer Trask, didn’t check in, the emergency signal in Aaron’s brain flashed even brighter.
“The lack of a response can’t be good,” Royal said under his breath.
“We also need to find Craft’s wife.”
Royal whipped around, his gaze scanning the room. “She was just here.”
“Not now.” With her model-perfect figure and straight-out-of-a-magazine outfit, the woman stuck out in a crowd even while she hugged the corner of the room. But now Aaron had bigger problems. “I need two people in here. Report to Royal in the dining room. The rest hold the perimeter.”
“Do we need to shut the place down?”
Aaron turned to Royal. “Not yet. You stick to Lowell. He doesn’t breathe without falling over you.”
“I’ll take the stairs. Let me know where the elevator stops.” Aaron did one last visual sweep of the room, looking for other people who failed to trip his memory bank.
“Remember you have two guys to handle when you get up there,” Royal said.
Aaron sure as hell hoped the number was only two. “My worry is they are part of a bigger scheme.”
“If they are?”
Aaron patted his hip in a weapons check. “I’ll handle it.”
“Nothing new there.”
Risa Peters clutched her portfolio to her chest and leaned back against the elevator wall. This was the first time she’d chosen a holiday party venue based on a throwaway recommendation during a dinner date with the lawyer she’d seen exactly twice. The same dinner date who failed to call after their last meal together. Since it was already Thursday, she figured the man was on the run, which was a shame because the chocolate-brown hair, blue-green eyes, all-American handsome type appealed to her.
So did the Elan Conference Center. She was only able to book it for an afternoon during the busy season because the place wasn’t truly open to the public yet. The center was in the middle of something called a soft opening. The official ribbon cutting would come in mid-January, after the holiday rush subsided. For a discounted fee and an agreement to forgo some party extravagances, Elan agreed to host the party on very little notice.
Risa doubted the office budget at Buchanan Engineering would support the place next year when the amenities hit their stride, but she could enjoy it now. The miles of rolling hills and the long winding drive up to the place sparkled even more in real life than they did on the website. So did the sprawling five-story building with the stone facade and the huge double-door, double-height entry.
It would all work so long as the weather held out. One flake of snow and next week’s party would turn into a driving hazard.
Not that any of this—the late planning, the distance or the weather—qualified as being her fault. Oh, no. She’d been the office manager at the engineering firm all of three weeks when she realized the woman who used to have the job, and now held the title of firedformer office manager, failed to reserve a place for the annual holiday get-together. Since the engineers liked to party, the oversight bordered on catastrophic. So Risa was here today to scout the center out, see the party room on the fourth floor, then sign the agreement and hand over a check.
If she survived this mess-up, pulled the party off and got all the engineers home without a drunken episode, she’d still have a job next week. And she sure needed the job. Without it she’d never pull herself out of the economic tailspin Paul had thrown her into.
When the elevator doors opened, she almost stepped out of the car. A quick glance at the glowing green number on the panel told her she’d only made it to the third floor. One more to go.
She stepped back just as a beefy hand reached into the open space and jammed the doors before they could close. Two guys with black jackets and broad shoulders slid inside the car. They hugged the front of the elevator, but the walls still closed in on her.
She knew the lights didn’t dim at their entry, but everything seemed darker, felt colder, than it had a second before. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the car as they’d moved in.
They didn’t look at her. Didn’t speak. But the way their combined bodies blocked any chance she might need of a quick exit had her nerves jumping around in her stomach.
She counted the seconds until the car moved again and stopped on the fourth floor. In her head she reached a thousand, but she guessed that was some sort of sick mind trick. Still, when the bell dinged, she shot between them, her hands shoving them apart.
“Excuse me,” she said over their surprised grunts.
Then she walked as fast as she could without breaking into an all-out run. A few fast steps and she turned the corner. With her back pressed against the wall, she listened for the two hulks to make sure they didn’t follow.
When silence echoed back at her, she inhaled. The sharp smell of paint assailed her nose. A quick glance told her she was alone on a newly constructed floor. Protective paper and painter’s tape still covered some of the doors.
“Great.” She sucked in as much of the tainted air as she could take in an effort to slow her hammering heart.
Only then did she feel the tiny jabs against her skin. She opened her palms, peeling her fingers away from the tight clench on the leather binder between her shaking hands.
She wasn’t the spook-easy type, having learned long ago that some of the most dangerous men in the world didn’t lead with their hands or fit into the Neanderthal body type. But she wasn’t stupid. Any smart woman would experience a choke of vulnerable panic being trapped alone with those two bruisers on an enclosed elevator.
She walked toward the restroom sign but stopped when she saw the note on the door. Out of Order. Use 5th Floor.
Her residual panic skittered away. Frustration took its place, shaking through her with the force of a runaway truck. It was bad enough the conference manager got stuck on a call and sent her up ahead. Now she had to wander around looking for a restroom.
She glanced at the elevator, then at the emergency stairwell to the left of the bathroom. She’d take her chances on the stairs this time. With terror fueling her steps and wearing a pantsuit and low heels, she could run if she had to. In an elevator, she’d have nowhere to go.
She hit the stairwell and let her pumps click against the cement steps as she traveled up a floor. A quick peek through the small slit where she opened the door showed nothing but a carpeted hallway with an abandoned industrial carpet shampooer against the wall. Most of the doors weren’t even on their hinges yet on this floor.
She waited for any sign of life, any noise. When the floor remained quiet, she snuck into the ladies’ restroom and let the door softly shut behind her on a swish.
With her palms flat against the fancy quartz sink, she stood still and let her breathing and heart rate dip back into normal range. As she pivoted for the stalls, the main door flew open. A blur dressed in black raced toward her. Before she could scream, hands clamped down on her arms and the figure shoved her hard against a stall door and back into the enclosed area. She only stopped when the back of her legs hit the toilet.
When her brain kicked back into gear, her arms and legs started moving. Her attacker’s hand settled over her mouth even as she shook her head to avoid him.
“Stop. I’m here to help.” The harsh whisper bounced off the tiles as the man crowded around her, though his focus was centered on the restroom door.
One more step and her back hit the far stall wall and her head came up. If the guy wanted to hurt her, he’d have to watch her as he did it…and be on the receiving end of the battle of a lifetime.
The air gathered in her lungs and then rushed out in a raging scream as she decided to go for his face. When he turned back to her, her next breath stalled and her brain cells sputtered to a halt. “Aaron?”
“Risa?” His fingers clenched against her skin one last time then his arms dropped to his sides. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a ladies’ restroom.”
“No, I mean…the building. This area. Why are you here?”
“You told me about this place when I said I needed a party venue. Why are you here?”
“This is unbelievable.” His mouth stayed open even after he stopped talking.
His shock was nothing compared to hers. No matter how hard she tried to blink, she couldn’t. She took in the same sexy eyes. Same dark brown hair he liked to smooth his hand through. A dark suit and a firm jaw.
But not everything about him looked familiar. She focused on the gun tucked into the holster at his waist. “Since when does a tax attorney carry a gun?”
He held up his hands. “Keep your voice down.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not at all.” His voice barely carried over the soft hum from the heating vent above her head. “I can explain all of this.”
Fury blew over her with the force of a hurricane. “While you’re at it, maybe you can make up an excuse for why you didn’t call after our last date.”
“You know, the dinner we had. The call you never made.” Her head buzzed with red-hot rage at the memory.
He finally clamped his jaw shut. “This isn’t the right time.”
He winced the second before he glanced behind him again. “Look, I know this is awkward.”
“No kidding.” This time she did keep her voice down, but only because she was muttering.
“In my defense, I’ve been a little busy.” His mouth hovered over her ear as he spoke.
“Lying takes up a lot of your time, does it?” Now he had her whispering. And arguing in a bathroom stall on an empty floor of a not-yet-opened building.
The day just kept getting better and better.
“We can fight about this later, which I’m not looking forward to at all, by the way, but right now we have to—” He reached for her again.
“Since when are you so grabby?” She shrugged out of his grasp and then stopped when she spied the tiny lines of tension around his mouth. “What is it?”
“I need you to stay calm.”
“I’m not thirteen. I can take bad news.” She fought the urge to ruin her point by rolling her eyes.
“Then you won’t lose it when I tell you we have to hide.”
She tried to stop her eyes from blinking so fast. “I didn’t say that.”
* * *
ANGIETROUTMAN STOODup from the empty table without bothering to scan the room. People were staring and whispering because that’s what these losers did. So much jealousy packed into one small room. The room pulsed with it. She was almost sorry she’d talked Lowell into wasting money on them. Their lack of gratitude choked out any chance of enjoying the party.
She scanned the unhappy faces for Palmer, official Craft security, but instead spied a member of the outside team hired to back up Palmer. Not that the backup team viewed itself as anything other than being in charge. She’d warned Lowell about the potential turf war and he’d ignored her, citing the death threats.
Men never listened.
She tried for eye contact with the random security guard nearby. She couldn’t remember his name. It was something odd, one of those names parents chose when they wanted to be clever but ultimately ended up dooming their children to snickers.
But the name didn’t matter. She had a bigger issue. Aaron McBain had been trouble since he’d walked through the Craft lobby doors and taken over without saying a word. Something about his presence demanded attention. He issued orders and people jumped.
Worse, bringing him on board added to the Craft hierarchy, a pyramid she’d already given up so much to climb. After only a few days in the building, McBain had showed up everywhere, making it nearly impossible for her to speak privately with Lowell when needed. And now, when she needed him to stay in one place and in clear sight, McBain had disappeared off the floor. Hardly the keen skills of a crack security expert promised by the lucrative contract he’d signed with Craft.
Since his assistant—whatever his name was—was talking to someone rather than looking at her, she poked him in the arm to get his attention. “What’s your name?”
His head turned toward her, his gaze bouncing down to her hand and then back to her face, but his frown never wavering. “It’s still Royal Jenkins, ma’am. Just like it was when you asked yesterday.”
She’d insist on his company firing him from this assignment if she had the power to do so, and by Monday she’d convince Lowell to give it to her. She’d see if this man’s voice still dripped with disdain when he was standing in front of her desk, begging for his job. “Well, Roy. We have a—”
As if she had time for this holier-than-thou male nonsense. She let her fake smile fall. “Where is your boss?”
“McBain. His job is to watch Mr. Craft.” She glanced to where Lowell last stood and froze when she saw him across the room, handing his wife a drink. With a quick mental shake, Angie returned to the crisis at hand.
“He’s checking the rest of the building.”
She felt the blood drain from her head. “I don’t pay him to be hotel security.”
“Craft pays for his expertise. Right now he is ensuring the safety and integrity of the floors above us, which is protocol.”
That was the last place he could be at that moment. She couldn’t have him snooping around. “I need him here.”
Royal’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
She inhaled deeply, trying to calm the sudden swirl of rage and anxiety inside her. If she showed any outward sign of concern, this man would jump on it. He might be insubordinate, but he wasn’t stupid. She knew that from the way his gaze wandered around the room, taking in every movement, assessing and analyzing.
She folded her fingers together in front of her. “McBain has declared himself in charge of Mr. Craft’s personal safety. As such, your man should be in sight of Mr. Craft at all times.”
The stern line of Royal’s mouth eased. “I appreciate your…unique concern for Mr. Craft.”
“Excuse me?” Her voice turned to ice.
Royal didn’t even flinch. Certainly didn’t back off. “You are invested in your boss. I understand that.”
She had to clench her jaw to keep from screaming. All men were the same. They led with their pants, but she did not have the time to charm this one, so she let the fury bubbling inside her erupt into a heated whisper. “Call McBain now. I want him in front of me within the next two minutes.”
“I’ll let him know you requested to talk with him.” Royal nodded, then turned slightly, giving her his back as he motioned for one of his men to step forward.
Angie ignored the sharp dismissal. Roy or whatever his name was would learn the hard way not to cross her. She would make it her mission to put him in the unemployment office.
But not today. She was too busy staring past him to the elevator bank. The red light held on number five, exactly where it was supposed to be, yet she knew in her soul something was deeply wrong.
Aaron’s bad day tripped and fell right into nightmare territory. He stared at the woman he’d last seen across the table at an Italian restaurant. Same honey-brown hair. Pretty face, intelligent dark eyes. Only this time the smile had been replaced with flat-lined lips. Wariness and more than a touch of female indignation now played across her face.
Risa clearly thought their biggest problem was his late post-date call. Little did she know that was flowers and chocolates territory compared to what they were facing now.
He thought about reaching for her but decided to hold up his hands instead since she looked about two seconds away from hitting something, namely him. “Listen to me.”
She crossed her arms over her stomach until every muscle in her body practically dared him to make another mistake. “Go ahead.”
He waded in even though he knew the smartest thing was to knock her out with the gentlest tap possible, drag her out the door and rush her to safety. But if his dating etiquette ticked her off, he could only guess how she’d react to a physical solution to their current problem.
He’d already dumped a few sins at her feet. Lying to her had seemed like the safest bet at the time. Now not so much.
Then there was the problem of Royal listening in through their private communication circuit. He’d ride Aaron about the date-gone-wrong for years unless Aaron took the focus off the personal conversation and put it back on the mess swirling around them.
“Not a word.” He whispered the command and knew Royal understood when he chuckled over the comm, then mumbled something about Angie wanting him. Right, as if that woman was even on his radar at the moment. “Silence.”
Risa’s eyebrow shot up in a perfect angry teacher glare. “Did you just tell me to shut up?”
“Definitely not.” Hard to explain he was talking to the guy at the other end of a listening device. Better to look like a total jerk than expose every aspect of the operation at this tenuous stage. “I specifically did not use those words. I’m not a total idiot.”
It was time to calm the situation down before she went into ballistic mode. Aaron went with the simple truth. “It’s dangerous here.”
“In the bathroom?”
“You need to see the bigger picture here.”
She exhaled in that you-are-annoying way women telegraphed so well. “I have no idea what that means.”
“The danger is in every inch of this building.”
“This is the strangest excuse for a noncall ever. If you didn’t want to go out again, you could have just said—” Her words cut off at the sound of the sharp whack against the outside wall.
One of his hands went to her mouth, and the other cradled her head from behind. “Quiet.”
This time she followed his direction. Her big eyes popped open even wider as she nodded.
“Someone is out there.” He stalled by stating the obvious. It gave his mind a second to run through the memory of the building’s floor plans.
She held up two fingers.
“What?” He eased his hand away from her mouth.
Her bottom lip trembled. Other than that, her mouth barely moved as she whispered, “They’re huge.”
“What are we talking about?”
“On the elevator. Two men and they’re big. Like the size of a small shed. And pretty scary. Did I mention that?”
Tension rolled across his shoulders and cramped the nerve at the back of his neck. “Did they threaten you?”
“Didn’t say a word. Didn’t really have to. These guys are imposing. I’m thinking any woman alone and without a gun or a massive boyfriend would run.”
Aaron’s muscles unclenched but not much. He still had to hope the two she described were the same two guys he’d been following and not a second muscle team. “I need to get you out of here.”
“There’s a stairwell.”
Her skin had paled to the hue of crisp white sheets. Every few seconds a fine tremble moved through her body and vibrated under his hand. He knew she had to be terrified, but she didn’t curl into a ball or so much as whimper. He found that strength more attractive than her long legs and sexy smile, though those sure were impressive.
The twinge of guilt over not calling her back as promised, as he had intended to do before work kicked up and pounded him, turned into a crashing wave. Any man would be lucky to get another date with her and he’d blown the chance. The least he could do was get her out of the building while he figured out the threat level.
“Stay here.” He eased away from her and slipped across the floor in soundless steps. “Royal?”
When Aaron didn’t get a reply, he tapped on the earpiece. He’d just reached the door when it slammed open and into him. The force shoved him back against the wall. His gun jerked from his fingers and clanked against the tile floor by his feet.
The doorknob jabbed into his midsection as he bit back a curse. One of the men he’d seen from the elevator shoved his weight against the door, banging on his thick body until Aaron thought his chest would cave in. The move stole his breath, trapping his hands in front of him and pinning his back to the wall.
He shifted and shoved, trying to get traction and a better grip, but the metal door crushed his gut, and his strength proved useless. Blackness raged through his veins as his gaze bounced between the vulnerable woman frozen in place in the middle of the room and the muscle trying to knock him unconscious with a door.
The sudden roar of Royal’s voice echoed in Aaron’s ears, but he couldn’t make out the words. All Aaron heard was the rush of his own breath as it moved through him. His brain scrambled for a backup plan.
“Double up.” It was their code for assistance, but Aaron wasn’t even sure he said the words out loud. The doorknob connected with his gut once again and knocked the air right out of his lungs.
The attacker’s friend moved into the room, his shoes quiet against the floor but his shoulders knocking against the door frame. Risa hadn’t exaggerated. He had a thick neck and biceps that kept his arms from lying close to his side. From this distance, it was clear the guy engaged in some serious training. The type that included flipping tractor tires. This guy obviously was in charge.
The man didn’t even spare Aaron a glance. He aimed the gun directly at Risa’s head. “Enough.”
Aaron blinked, knowing he was the intended recipient of that message. “What do you want?”
“Me?” Risa squealed the question, her voice bouncing off the walls.
The attacker held out a beefy hand in Risa’s direction. “Time to go, Angie.”
Risa’s fingers tightened on the edge of the stall door until her knuckles turned white. “I don’t—”
Her gaze raced to Aaron’s face. He nodded, letting her know she could answer. The longer they dragged this out, the better chance Royal could burst in with reinforcements.
Risa swallowed hard enough for her throat to move. “Who’s Angie?”
The leader shook his head as he took a step in her direction. “We’re not doing this.”
“You have the wrong woman.”
“And you’ve wasted enough of my time.”
Risa shook her head, her bewilderment obvious in every part of her body and in her voice. “What is happening here?”
“You don’t get to ask questions.” The leader pointed at Risa before sparing Aaron a glance. “Who are you?”
“I work at Craft. The lady and I met at the party downstairs and came up here for some privacy.” Aaron went for a guy-to-guy moment but knew he’d misfired when a feral smile spread across the leader’s face.
The guy took his time on a visual tour of Risa’s body. “Nice.”
The attacker crowded against the door barked out a laugh as Risa’s face morphed from white to gray. These two made quite a team. The type that reinforced Aaron’s belief in women’s self-defense classes.
“Come here.” The leader reached for her as he made his demand.
Just as fast, Risa stepped back. Her heels clicked against the floor as she scooted her body deeper into the stall.
“Stop.” The leader lunged and grabbed her elbow. With one tug, he had her back in the middle of the room and within inches of the gun in his other hand.
“You have the wrong person.” Her words rushed out.
“Let’s all step back and relax for a second.” Aaron shifted his weight as he spoke. He eased one foot out from behind the door.
“Shut up,” the attacker who was crushing him shouted.
Risa shook her head. “We didn’t do anything.”
“You are on this floor, right where you’re supposed to be.” When the attacker pulled on her arm, she stumbled. “Move again without permission and I’ll put a bullet in your boyfriend.”
The man made the threat, but both men’s guns never wavered. Both pointed at Risa, which gave Aaron the advantage he needed.
With as little movement as possible, he slid his hand into his inside jacket pocket, fumbling with the fabric until his fingers connected with the metal from one of his extra weapons.
Using all his weight, he crashed his body against the door and knocked the backup attacker off balance. His head snapped back when the door connected with his face. Blood spurted from his nose, and his hands went to his face as his attention slipped from the attack.
“Risa, get down!” Aaron barely got the words out before the leader turned toward him.
She dropped to her knees as the room broke into chaos. Aaron got off two quick rounds that boomed through the shouting. One shot exploded through the door, catching the backup attacker in the side and sending him falling back into the hallway on a howl of pain.
Aaron’s second shot slammed into the leader’s shoulder and spun him around and straight into Risa. He stumbled over her, then fell to the floor over her back.
Despite Royal’s yelling in his ear and Risa’s screaming in the small room, Aaron kept moving. He pocketed the fallen attacker’s dropped weapon. With a quick glance at the man heaving and rolling in pain in the hall, Aaron raced toward Risa. He reached down and pulled her up beside him, then pivoted toward freedom.
They got two steps before her trim body turned to deadweight. It was as if her feet fell out from under her. Aaron assumed she tripped and bent down to lift her, only then seeing the death grip the leader had on her ankle.
“Drop the gun.” He issued the order through shallow breaths.
As he held the weapon pointed at them, the man’s hand shook. He blinked repeatedly as if trying to keep a cloud from settling over his mind.
Aaron didn’t waste any time. He kicked out, ramming his heel into the other man’s fist and sending the gun flying from his loose fingers. The second kick landed on the guy’s temple and pressed him into an unconscious heap.
Risa gasped as she lost her balance and Aaron grabbed her. Relief flooded through him when her hand tightened on his. With a tug, he drew her into his arms and held on with all his strength.
Feeling her body shake against his brought reality rushing back. She was a civilian in the wrong place at the very wrong time. She was innocent, as were the people downstairs. Someone was making a move on Lowell and somehow mistook Risa for Angie. The plan reeked of desperation and poor planning. That meant everyone was a target and no one in the building was safe.
Royal’s voice finally registered in Aaron’s ear. Instead of answering, he asked a question of his own. “Where are you?”
“Coming.” A one-word reply, and then silence filled the other end of the line.
Risa wrapped her fingers around Aaron’s arm. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure.” It was as if the world went quiet. No one even breathed on the other end of the comm.
Worry for his team warred with the fury racing through his body over the attack on Risa and how close he came to having her pulled out of his hands. But the groan in the hallway as the slumped man tried to sit up against the wall refocused Aaron’s attention on the disaster on this floor.
“Stay here.” He tried to move away from Risa, but she held on.
“No way are you walking away from me again.”
Since she left his shooting hand free, he didn’t argue. With her body plastered against his side, he walked toward the injured man.
“Who do you work for?”
The man on the floor snarled as he pressed his hand against his bloody side. His shoulders rose and fell on labored breaths, but he had enough energy left to pronounce his loyalty. “Go to hell.”
Aaron shoved his foot against the man’s open wound and the blood-soaked shirt underneath. The string of curses started a second later, but Aaron didn’t let up. He increased the pressure until the other man squirmed against the floor.
He winced and swore. “I don’t know.”
Aaron leaned in, letting menace flow through his voice as he aimed his gun at the attacker’s head. “Someone is paying you and you have two seconds to tell me.”
The guy slid flat against the floor, his voice shifting from talking to panting. “My orders were to grab the woman.”
Risa leaned over his shoulder. “You picked the wrong one.”
Confusion wrinkled the man’s brow.
Aaron didn’t let that part of the conversation go any further. “I want a name.”
“I don’t know.” The man shouted his answer this time.
Fearing the guy had an earpiece or a mic, Aaron ended the interrogation. With a sweep of his arm, he landed a sleeping blow to the side of the guy’s head, knocking him unconscious.
“He’s still bleeding,” she said.
“Right.” Part of him didn’t mind the idea of this guy bleeding out, not after what he’d tried to do to Risa, but Aaron figured he’d lost enough humanity in this job. He couldn’t afford much more.
Using the cloth towels on the sink top, he constructed a makeshift bandage and pressed it hard to the guy’s side, anchoring it there with his belt.
Risa leaned over Aaron’s shoulder. “Will that be enough?”
He didn’t pretend to be a medical expert, but he knew the guy needed real attention soon. “For now.”
After a quick check for more weapons and a phone, which proved futuile, Aaron turned back to Risa, expecting to see fear or disgust at the violence and bloodshed. Instead, she bit her lower lip, as if in deep thought.
“What is going on? I came to check out a party venue and walked into some sort of mistaken-identity nightmare.” Her voice slowly returned to normal as she spoke. Gone was the tremor of fear. In its place was a simple determination to get through the next few minutes.
Aaron appreciated the change, and the bluntness of her response startled him into an honest answer. “It looks like someone is planning an attack against the businessman downstairs and is using a woman to get to him.”
“This Angie person.”
“Yes, and I have no idea how anyone would confuse the two of you.” Aaron’s mind shifted to the Lowell’s mistress. They both had long brown hair and hovered around five foot six. But the similarities stopped there.
Angie was in her early thirties, a few years older than Risa, with a deep bourbon-soaked voice and a buxom Barbie Doll shape that had men discounting her brains. Aaron didn’t like the overly done look, but he never underestimated her. The woman ran the office with a quiet confidence and manipulated everyone in it, ignoring the affair whispers blowing around her.
Where Angie reminded Aaron of smoke-filled back rooms and expensive jewelry tastes, Risa…glowed. With the soft skin and shiny hair, it was as if sunshine kept her in its sights. The skeptic in him wondered if he’d seen so much bad that goodness of any type got magnified to an unrealistic degree.
His luck with women usually made sure that didn’t happen. One broken engagement hadn’t ruined him for all women, but it did make him wary. But he’d been struck by Risa from the very first time he saw her fighting with her laptop in a coffee shop a few weeks ago. Wearing sweatpants and a slim T-shirt, she’d had that sexy, ruffled, just-out-of-bed look that had sent his temperature spiking.
She didn’t have to work very hard at being pretty. When you turned over on the mattress in the morning, you knew who you’d see on the pillow beside you. She wouldn’t have to put on her face first. At least that’s how it had worked in Aaron’s mind. He’d never gotten as far as the bed, or even the couch, let alone a kiss, with Risa.
Risa treated him to a half smile. “You know when I see this Angie person and do a comparison, you might get punched for that comment, right?”
“I’d prefer you anytime and anywhere.” He held a hand up as a pledge. “Couldn’t be more serious about that.”
Risa lifted an eyebrow but didn’t respond to that. “Why are these two up here? It’s supposed to be closed off.”
“Good question.” He put his hands on her upper arms and with as little pressure as possible, moved her until she stood near the opening to the room with her back against the wall. “Stay right there.”
“Where else would I go?”
She sounded almost exasperated with his suggestion. She did everything but snort. He had to smile at her spunk. She’d been manhandled and threatened, seen men shot and attacked. Still, she stood there and handled it all. Not bad for a woman who sat behind a desk all day.
Aaron dragged the attacker by his ankles from the hallway and dropped his body next to his partner by the stall. After a check of the leader’s pockets, Aaron unloaded the weapons, littering the floor, pocketing the all the ammunition and dumping the guns in the toilet. He kept the leader’s secondary gun in case he needed an extra.
He had one last problem as he glanced up at Risa. “Any chance you have any rope?”
She lifted her arms. “Not on me.”
“Thought it was worth a shot.”
“There are cables and those sorts of things around as part of the construction.”
That meant a trip around the building looking for supplies. He doubted they had that sort of time, not when Royal had gone silent. “We’ll block the door and trust they’ll be out long enough for us to get downstairs and out of the building.”
“And if not?”
He stood in front of her, his gaze locked on hers. “I can’t be that unlucky.”
“You’re saying that as a tax attorney, of course.”
He didn’t try to hide the wince. He’d hoped he’d have another few minutes before the need for an explanation caught up and smacked him in the face. “What makes you think I’m not a lawyer?”
She eyed his hand. “The gun.”
“I can explain.”
Her head dropped to the side. “Are you going to?”
“Not right now.”
“Normally I’d insist, but since I want to leave this place right now—ten minutes ago, actually—we can save the I-lied-to-you-about-everything conversation for later.”
Not exactly a bullet dodged. “I’m not really looking forward to that.”
“Imagine how I feel.”
Risa slipped into the hallway behind Aaron, never easing up on her double-fisted grip on his jacket. This close, pressed against his back, she felt a subtle minty scent tingle her senses and block out the smell of new paint. She leaned in, almost touching her nose to his rich brown hair, and drew in a hint of his shampoo. Fresh, clean and nonfussy.
Until he showed up waving a gun around, she’d viewed him as uncomplicated and easy. When he’d dropped into the seat across from her at the coffee shop that day they first met, she’d found him to be handsome and smart, with an open smile that lit up his face.
She loved his slightly crooked nose, which he explained got banged up in a college lacrosse game. During their dinner dates, he’d wait until dessert and then slip his hand into hers. Leaving the restaurant, he’d press his palm against the sensitive small of her back. But at every point she thought he’d move their relationship forward, he pulled back.
She’d started to wonder if the attraction only sparked one way. Now she knew something much bigger was going on. He had a secret life. Since she needed his protection and the gun he seemed to handle so well, she didn’t hold his other life against him at the moment. There would be time for that later…she hoped.
“Yes?” She matched her whisper to his as the bathroom door slipped shut behind her.
“I can’t breathe.”
He reached around and touched his fingers to hers. It wasn’t until that minute she realized she’d pulled his jacket and dress shirt so tightly that the collar was choking him. His skin turned red and puckered from the force of her grip.
She dropped her hands and stepped back. “I’m so sorry.”
He winked at her over his shoulder. “You are more than welcome to undress me later. For now, I need the clothes on and in place.”
Then he was off. He eased all six feet of his lean body to the edge of the hallway where it dumped into the larger open space. Bending down, he grabbed something on the floor of the other room and stood back up. When he faced her again, he had a broom in his hands.
Her mind was stuck on repeat. “You’ve never said anything like that before.”
His face went blank. “What are you talking about?”
“Undressing. Sex. Anything intimate.”
She thought she saw a smile cross his lips as he brushed past her. A clanking thud echoed down the hall as he jammed the broom in the door handle. Shoving the small phone table outside the bathroom against the door produced a squeak that broke the remaining silence.
The scene took two seconds and amounted to less than a few sounds and a rattle of drawers in the table, and she spent the entire time standing there, staring at his hands and wondering not for the first time what he could do with them. When she blinked, he was in front of her again.
“Did you really think I never had that on my mind? That I never wrestled with the best way to get you out of your clothes?”
“I thought you were a tax attorney.”
This time he didn’t hide the smile. “I’m pretty sure they appreciate pretty women just as much as other men do.”
Okay, not her brightest comment. She’d admit that. Or she would if she could. Something about this conversation made her mind turn to mush. “Well, yeah, I…”
“I’d bet attorneys like sex, too.”
She had no idea what to say to that. Luckily, she was spared coming up with something smooth or even coherent, when he held out his hand. She took it without thinking.
“We’re going to stand over here, away from this door, and check in with downstairs,” he said.
She hated just about every part of the plan. “I thought we were leaving.”
“We need to make sure it’s clear first. That we aren’t in some sort of lockdown.” His eyes swept over the sterile surroundings and kept moving as he talked. He checked all around them, as if attackers could come from any angle.
“This is ridiculous. I was just trying to book a party.” She rubbed her forehead as she muttered.
When his fingers brushed over hers and he brought her hand to his mouth, her breath caught in her chest. Just rumbled up and stuck there.
“It’s going to be okay.” He leaned in and touched his warm lips against her forehead.
She would have said something if she could have forced even a syllable out. Instead, the words lodged in her throat, right next to her last breath. Much more of this tug of emotions, this wobbling between fear and attraction, and she’d pass out.
With his gaze locked on hers, he let go of her hand and tapped his ear and began speaking. “Royal.”
“Is that code for something?” she whispered.
“It’s a name.” Aaron tried two more times, then frowned.
She didn’t need a law degree or a gun license to know the lack of a response was a very bad thing. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” His forced smile said the opposite.
With a hand on her stomach he pressed her back against the wall and lifted his gun as he approached the emergency door. The stance was sure, as if refined from years of law enforcement or security experience.
A flash of a memory hit her. The first time he held her hand, his strength surprised her. She now wondered if he’d ever spent a workday behind a desk.
As he reached for the doorknob, she felt a whoosh of air behind her. An elbow clamped around her throat, and the hard end of a gun pressed against her temple before she could cry out for help.
But she didn’t need to. Aaron had turned and now had his weapon trained on whoever held her.
The look of burning fury in his eyes turned them from green-blue to the deep, cold hue of the ocean. He didn’t look her in the eye. All his focus centered on the face hovering just out of her line of sight.
Her heart slammed hard enough inside her to hit the base of her throat. She would have fallen to the floor if the stranglehold on her hadn’t kept her upright. Between the roar of blood to her ears and the sudden buzzing in her head, she could barely hear.
“Let the lady go.” Aaron’s flat voice rang throughout the unfinished floor.
The man’s heavy breathing hit her cheek as he spoke. “This is not the time for you to be a hero.”
She totally disagreed and wanted to scream that fact, but she used all of her energy to stay still instead. Aaron had been playing the role of hero since he’d stormed into the bathroom to warn her. She would let him play it forever if he somehow got them out of this nightmare.
When she finally forced her body to breathe and her heart to pump in the nonstroke range, she picked up the sounds of the room. The uncovered lights hummed above her head, and the floor creaked beneath her feet as she shifted her weight.
“You know something?” Aaron slipped a second gun out of his jacket pocket and fixed that one on the attacker, too. “I’m getting tired of guys grabbing her.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“You’re number three and I’m about out of patience.”
The man’s hold tightened. “She’s coming with me.”
Risa grabbed on to the arm choking her, hoping to push him off, but the thick muscle didn’t give. The attacker tucked her body against his like a shield. She feared any bullet would travel through her before ever reaching him.
Even with Aaron’s skill and laserlike focus, he couldn’t make a bullet’s trajectory bend and sweep. This wasn’t a movie. This was real life, and the possibility of her bleeding out on the floor grew greater with each passing second.
Her attacker’s chest expanded against her back right before he spoke. “I have her, so you’re going to step back.”
“And I have a bullet just begging for you to move one inch closer to the edge of stupid.”
Fear had her teeth chattering and the blood pounding in her temples. “Aaron.”
“Yeah. Listen to the lady, Aaron.” The attacker gathered her even closer until his hair brushed against her cheek. “You’ve got her scared. I can feel her shaking, and it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Why do you want her?”
“I don’t care about her.”
Not the first time she’d heard those words. But she’d never faced dismissal at the end of a gun. Lied to, dumped? Yes. Threatened? Never in her life until the past few hours.
“So this is about money,” Aaron said, the disgust filling his voice.
“Isn’t everything?” The attacker motioned with his gun. “Move to the side.”
When Aaron obeyed, her heart dropped to her knees. They’d barely gone out, but she expected him to help…to do something before just handing her over. She tried to wrap her brain around what she thought she’d learned about him today and what was happening now. He’d rescued her in the bathroom. Abandoning her now without a fight made no sense.
“I need your gun on the floor. All of them. Even the ones I can’t see.” The attacker pivoted as he spoke, keeping her angled in front of him and between him and the potential exchange of fire.
Aaron’s knees bent and his hands started toward the floor. She wanted to shout and beg. She went for attack mode instead. A smart woman didn’t wait to be rescued.
She could kick out, maybe hit this guy at a vulnerable spot and give Aaron a minute to get off a shot. She’d just decided to launch when his furious gaze caught hers. With an almost imperceptible shake of his head, he had her mind spinning in confusion.
“That’s it.” Her attacker braced his legs apart as he spoke. “You do the right thing here, Aaron, and we all go home.”
“Except me.” She knew that truth as sure as she knew anything.
The man chuckled. “I’m afraid someone has plans for you.”
“Who?” Aaron asked.
“Put the weapons down.” All amusement was wiped clear of the man’s voice. He was back to waving the gun around and promising pain without ever saying it.
This time, Aaron didn’t stall his movements. One gun clicked against the floor. The second one almost touched and then Aaron whipped it back up and shot at the attacker’s legs. The weapon fired and the shot boomed through the room.
Risa closed her eyes waiting to feel the sting of a bullet or have the man drop behind her, but nothing happened. Her attacker didn’t even flinch.
He chose to break into a full-belly laugh. “You missed.”
Aaron fired again, but nothing happened after the initial crack of the weapon.
“Guess it’s my turn.” The attacker’s finger moved on the trigger.
She screamed for Aaron to duck as she shoved her elbow against her attacker’s midsection with all her strength. Every cell, every muscle. All of her weight centered on unbalancing the man before he could take them down.
Everything happened at the same time. Aaron dove for her legs as the door to the stairs slammed open. She could hear him telling her to drop on top of him as a man filled the doorway and came into the hallway firing.
One minute she stood locked against her attacker’s body even as she struggled to slip out of his grip. The next a huge weight fell from behind her, nearly taking her slamming to the floor with him.
Aaron tugged her down, then wrapped his arms around her waist and took her with him in a diving roll. Her body slid under his as the room passed by her in a blurry haze. Gunfire exploded and a light shattered somewhere behind her. By the time the room stopped spinning she’d heard a roar of fury and a thud.
When she opened her eyes again, the attacker lay a few feet ahead with blood trickling from his forehead. Shock rolled over her until all she could do was stare. Violence on television, where actors got hit, fell and the action cut to commercial, didn’t compare to the real-life version where people rolled around bleeding.
Seeing someone die right at her feet elicited horror, pain, anxiety. But as she sat there, the overwhelming reaction was shock. The tips of her fingers tingled as the last of the feelings left her body.
A man in a suit loomed above them. Twenty-something, blond and lethal. His gun stayed aimed and his frown locked on Aaron.
She was done being a victim. Done with rotten luck. Bad karma, or whatever had been kicking her around for the past year, could go find someone else to stalk. Starting now. She scrambled to sit up, reaching for one of the guns.
Aaron caught her in midlunge. “Whoa. This guy’s with us.”
The blond dropped his weapon to his side as the corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. “How the hell did you miss from that distance?”
“That’s just it. I didn’t.” The grumble in Aaron’s voice sounded huskier than usual.
“Okay, now I’m confused. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She knew that was the understatement of the century, but she said the words anyway.
Aaron sat up and studied the gun he’d used. “This is the one I picked up from the other attacker. It’s loaded with dummy cartridges.”
“What?” The blond reached down and grabbed it. “Why would that be?”
“I have no idea. It doesn’t make sense. Who tries to kidnap a woman using fake ammo?” Aaron stood up and with a light touch, brought her to her feet beside him. “Are you okay?”
She couldn’t believe her legs held her. The sudden softness in his voice did nothing to calm the nerves that began jumping around inside her. “Speaking as the almost-kidnapped victim, no.”
When she looked up, both men were staring at her.
The blond man’s attention soon shifted to Aaron. “Any idea why she’s the target?”
“That’s just as confusing. I’d think anyone who wanted Angie hurt is downstairs.” The blond turned back to Risa. “Were you hit?”
She inhaled several times, trying to ease the anxiety flowing through her. Much more unwanted excitement and she’d need a hospital and a vacation from a job she hadn’t had long enough to earn time off.
As oxygen returned to her lungs and blood fueled her brain, some of the more obvious pieces fell together. “I’m guessing you’re Royal?”
The big man smiled and held out his hand. “Yes, ma’am. Royal Jenkins.”
If he felt the tremors shaking through her, he was nice enough not to show it. “I’m Risa and thanks for arriving when you did.”
Royal nodded at Aaron. “He guided me in.”
“How?” She’d been in that room, heard everything and had no idea reinforcements hid on the stairs ready to pounce. She didn’t want to think about the years of life she’d lost thanks to unnecessary panic.
“I told him I was coming and then I waited and listened in.” Royal tapped on his ear. “He dropped clues.”
Aaron’s exhale was loud enough to drown out part of the conversation. His fingers slid under her elbow. “Risa, answer the question.”
The burst of anger surprised her. “Which one?”
His gaze roamed over her, not in a heated way. In a ready-to-tie-her-down-and-amputate-a-leg way if he had to. “Are you hurt?”
The answer for his sharp change in personality hit her hard enough to make her stumble. Concern. She’d doubted him for a second, but his determination to see her safe really had never wavered.
A trickle of guilt washed over her. “No, just stunned.”
“Getting yelled at probably isn’t helping,” Royal mumbled as he looked first to the left and then to the right, anywhere but at Aaron.
“At the moment, I’m more concerned with keeping her alive than sparing her feelings,” Aaron returned.
Male grumbling wasn’t making the tense situation any easier. She needed them both focused on finding an answer. “Can someone tell me why this keeps happening? Why does someone want Angie? Why do they think I’m her? I don’t get any of it.”
“I wish I knew an answer to even one of those questions.” Aaron shook his head as he turned to Royal. “What’s going on downstairs?”
“It was under control when I left, but then I saw your guy on the stairs and followed.”
Another lightbulb flickered to life in her brain. “Which is why you went silent when Aaron tried to reach you earlier. You didn’t want him to hear you.”
“Nice.” Royal drug out the word nice and long, using more syllables than there were letters in the word, as he nodded in obvious appreciation. “I like smart women.”
Aaron grabbed his gun off the floor. “Why do you think I’m dating her?”
Royal’s eyebrow kicked up. “You are?”
Risa struggled to hide her reaction. It took all of her concentration not to let her jaw drop. Ignoring the lightness dancing in her stomach at his words wasn’t easy, either. This wasn’t the place or the time, but…well, she wasn’t dead yet.
Rather than make some big declaration, Aaron shrugged.
Disappointment rolled through her. “That’s your answer to your friend’s question?”
“He’s my assistant,” Aaron corrected her. When she broke eye contact, he put a hand on her arm and drew her gaze back. “And admittedly this hasn’t been our best date, but the next one will be better.”
She stared at him for a second, not saying anything, just enjoying the idea of any future outside this room, away from this building. “Promise me it won’t happen at Elan and I’ll think about saying yes.”
Lowell followed his son, Brandon, into the small room down the hall from the holiday party. The internal space didn’t have a window or any witnesses, which Lowell assumed was the point. Brandon always did have a sense of the dramatic.
Since arriving, Brandon had stood in the corner of the party room huddled with his mother. Together they’d nearly blended into the Christmas tree. They certainly hadn’t mingled or helped with any of the necessary social niceties of this type of event. Hell, getting them to even show up to present a united family front had taken a threat from him.
Never mind the pressure he was under. Never mind the threats against his life.
Lowell blamed his wife for the untenable situation. Despite all his efforts, she’d raised a spoiled and oversensitive heir who frequently ran low on common sense. She’d had one task in her entire adult life—parenting a son—and she’d blown it as she did everything else.
Oh, Lowell had tried to step in, but attempts to toughen Brandon up had backfired. An overpriced therapist and a coddling mother undermined every tiny shuffle forward. Which was why Brandon failed at everything he tried.
Wanting this part of the evening over so that he could concentrate on some more interesting entertainment, Lowell agreed to listen. He walked to the small conference room table in the center of the room and leaned against it with his arms folded across his chest. The stance saidmake it quickand Brandon had better comply.
“What is so important?” Lowell’s disinterested exhale skipped across the room.
“How could you bring her here?” Brandon’s blue eyes flashed with fire as his hands clenched and unclenched beside him.
So dramatic.“First, lower your voice. I am your father and I will have your respect. We both know I’ve earned it.”
Ah, yes. Sonya, the original drama queen.“When?”
“Do you even care?”
“She promised she would be here.” Not that Lowell minded at this point. She’d come in, posed for a photo and hadn’t caused a scene. These days that was as good as he could expect from Sonya. Probably meant she was overmedicating again.
Besides, with her gone he was not obligated to play the role of dutiful husband. That game wore thin fast, as did her crying jags.
“She got in the car five minutes ago. You didn’t even see her leave the room.” Brandon’s chest rose and fell on heavy breaths.
Much more of this and the boy would whip himself into a full-fledged rage. Lowell was not in the mood for the useless burst of emotion.
“She was humiliated. You set her up to be a joke.” Brandon took a step forward, actually looked as if he might lunge.
Lowell’s scowl stopped the attempt, but he suspected stopping the nonsense would take a bit longer. “I have expended a great deal of money on private school, tutors and college to teach you manners. You’ve had a DUI disappear. Your college trouble with a forged paper went away without you ever stepping in front of a disciplinary board.”
“I didn’t ask for any of that.”
“Now would be a good time to show some gratitude for all this family has done for you.” The need to lecture never stopped. Brandon was determined to tarnish the family name, and Lowell had grown weary of the childish outbursts.
“I am twenty-three.”
“Then stop acting like a petulant child.” Lowell glanced at his watch. The five minutes he’d allotted for this sideshow was almost over.
Brandon either missed the not-so-subtle message or ignored it. “You put your wife and your mistress in the same room.”
Heat raced through Lowell’s veins. “That’s enough.”
“She was fidgeting and couldn’t hold her head up.” Brandon took to the topic now. His face flushed and his hands flew through the air as he talked. “What did you think would happen? Everyone was whispering. It’s bad enough you do that behind Mom’s back, while you’re sleeping around at the office, but to have it thrown in her face—”
“I said enough.” The boy just kept pushing. All that festering disappointment at who Brandon had become rushed up, threatening to explode.
But Lowell refused to give Brandon that satisfaction. As a boy he’d tried to goad and inflame. Everything would settle down in Lowell’s life with Sonya, and then Brandon would create some new problem, cause some new conflict that had to be solved and send the family spinning again. Lowell was done feeding that particular monster.
“This is not your business, Brandon.”
“She’s my mother.”
“And my wife. I will deal with her. I am sure this was nothing more than the onset of one of her usual headaches.” Only his wife would view living with every luxury in a three-story museum of a house she decorated herself as some sort of prison.
“I told her to go home.”
The boy never stopped. “What is your game here, Brandon? Still running to Mommy when Daddy won’t let you get your way? I didn’t say yes to you last week, so you are using your mother and her weaknesses to your advantage.”
“I asked you for a simple job.” Brandon’s breathing had kicked up until every part of his body vibrated as he talked.
“And I told you no. I don’t engage in nepotism. I earned my way and you can, too. Frankly, it’s long past time you grew up.” Lowell was not going to relive this conversation. He’d made his decision. He took two steps toward the door in a silent declaration that the conversation had ended.
“That is why I asked for the job.”
He stopped and glanced at the young man he’d once hoped would followed him into the family business, and realized that dream had died long ago. “No, you asked because you’ve burned every other bridge. You lost your first job out of college because you were ignorant. I told you never to use your real name on the internet. You should have listened to me, but you didn’t. Well, Brandon, lesson learned.”
“I know the only one you like to help around here is Angie—”
“You will refer to her as Ms. Troutman and you will be respectful. She is a trusted member of my team.”
Brandon laughed. “Is that what we’re calling it these days?”
Behind the tough talk Lowell saw his son’s wariness. Realizing this was all false bravado stopped Lowell from kicking the kid out. “If you are trying to convince me you’re growing up, you are failing miserably.”
After a light knock, the door opened. Security chief Palmer Trask slipped inside, his eyes going between the two men. “Excuse me, sir.”
“Come in.” Lowell waved him in, more than happy to end the family discussion. “Brandon and I are done talking.”
Palmer nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Where have you been? And while you’re at it, explain why all the so-called security professionals to whom I pay huge fees can’t seem to be bothered to actually protect anything or anyone.”
“Sir, we have a problem.”
“I believe that was my point.”
Palmer cleared his voice. “There may be an issue that requires some delicacy.”
Since Brandon just stood there, Lowell decided the best recourse was to talk around him. “Pretend he’s not here and be more specific.”
Palmer linked his fingers behind his back and rocked back on his heels. “I haven’t seen McBain or his second-in-command in quite some time. They went upstairs to check on an issue and I’ve lost radio communication. He has a cell, but I can’t get through.”
From his dealings with McBain, Lowell knew the man took his job seriously. He wouldn’t leave his post without cause. “We need to check the conference center while the party continues.”
“Is that safe?” Brandon asked.
“This is all precaution. I’m sure everything is fine.” Lowell spared Brandon a glance before returning his attention to Palmer. “As quietly as possible, get Ms. Troutman and my finance man, Mark Fineman, and bring them in here. I’d like you to return and post two of your best men outside for extra protection.”
“Yes, sir.” Palmer threw a quick frown in Brandon’s direction, then left the room.
Realizing Brandon was in the mood to cause trouble and Angie was about to be in his line of fire, Lowell issued a new warning. “I expect you to be quiet and respectful as soon as our guests arrive.”
“I didn’t hear my name on the list of approved people who get to stay.”
“One more comment like that and you can fend for yourself outside like everyone else.”
* * *
AARON STARED AT THE SMALLscreen of his cell. If willing the phone back into service worked, the lights would flash. Something. “I can’t get through. Since we’ve lost the comm network, we’re on our own up here.”
Royal blew out a long breath. “This is just getting better and better.”
They’d moved farther into the open room, over by the windows and away from the body on the floor. Risa had seen enough violence for a lifetime. And he was ready to go a few minutes without someone tackling him or trying to kill him.
“We can try using mine.” Risa patted her pockets. “Wait, I left my purse downstairs in the manager’s office. Well, of course it is. Why should anything go right today?”
“It wouldn’t work anyway,” Royal said. “Someone is jamming the signal. Nothing would get through.”
The “why” behind that action was the piece Aaron kept missing. The recent threats centered on Lowell. Angie had a bedroom connection to Lowell, but not a linear one. Grabbing a related woman when the true target stood just downstairs was the type of logic Aaron had trouble reasoning through.
But he had to figure out a workaround. He wasn’t one to sit and wait, working on the defensive. An offensive strike was the answer. “Here’s the bad news—”
Risa’s eyes grew huge. “We haven’t had the bad part yet?”
“Without the schematics, we depend on my memory of the layout of this place. I looked at a lot of paperwork and retained a great deal of it.” At least he hoped that was true.
Royal glanced at the ceiling. “If you say so.”
“I have to agree with Royal on this one.” Risa leaned back with her head balancing against the window and let her eyes slip shut. “Except for the part where you know how to throw that weapon around—”
“I wish you actually were a lawyer. They have to memorize a lot of stuff in school. That skill set could help us here.”
Time for another shot of truth. Aaron wondered if he’d spent the next month unraveling the lies he’d told her. “I am.”
Her eyes popped open. “What?”
“A lawyer.” He scowled at Royal, trying to get him to at least pretend he wasn’t listening in. Some things should be private.
She looked at Aaron, at Royal and back again. “But that was a lie.”
Aaron slid next to her with his hands balanced behind him on the edge of the windowsill. The space between them contracted and his fingers touched hers. “Just the tax part. Lawyer, navy JAG, to be exact, and now security expert. But, since I pay my bar dues, still a lawyer.”
The words hung in the quiet until Royal snapped his fingers. “Uh, shouldn’t you know that?” he asked Risa. “I thought you two were dating.”
Her eyes sparkled when she answered, “Right now I feel lucky I even know his name. It is Aaron, right?”
The byplay had Royal grinning like an idiot. Aaron understood the goofy reaction. Something about the way she lost herself in a moment made that hard shell he’d fought so hard to build around him crumble. He’d seen it as she smiled over an email or described the perfect latte.
It was the reason he switched from talking with her over coffee to asking her out for dinner. Picking up random women over scones was not his usual style. He made an exception for her.
She leaned toward Royal and he met her halfway, as if sharing a big secret. “Your coworker—”
Aaron broke in. “Technically, I’m his boss.”
“—has a problem with dating honesty.”
“Now is not the time for this conversation.” There was a dead guy on the floor and two injured down the hall. All of this amusing talk could wait. Aaron turned to Royal. “To be clear, there will never be a time for you to join in the conversation about my dating life.”
Her fingers slid through his as her smile faded. “You’re right. We’re not going to talk about anything if we don’t get off this floor alive.”
He hated killing the lighter mood, but this was not the time to get lazy. Anyone could be waiting around the next corner. In fact, he would bet there was at least one more guy close by because he doubted these guys worked solo and they had an odd number down.
“Normally I would suggest we not exaggerate, but since three men have come after you in the span of a half hour, we need to assume you’re a potential victim here,” Aaron said.
“Gee, do you think?”
Royal held up a hand. “Except for the empty cartridges. That throws the whole scenario off.”
“Not all of them are empty.” Aaron hated to break the physical connection with Risa and regretted it the minute he lifted his hand. He slipped out one of the cartridges he’d emptied in the bathroom and chucked it to Royal. “These went with the first attacker’s other gun, the one he pointed at us. They sure seem real.”
Royal studied the bullet. “None of this makes sense.”
“Shouldn’t we warn Angie?” Risa bit her bottom lip. “I mean, these guys want her, not me. She could be in real danger.”
He didn’t want to scare her, not when they’d spent the past few minutes coming down from the adrenaline rush, but she had to be ready for the next guy who shoved a gun in her face, and Aaron feared there would be at least one more. “So long as they think you’re the one they want, Angie should be safe.”
“Then I guess I drew the short straw on this one.”
Royal nodded. “Unfortunately, yes.”
“We need to split up.” Until Aaron knew what was happening throughout the building, just hopping on the elevator and taking a chance that no one would be there ready to fire was not an option. Not a feasible one anyway.
“For the record, I’m sticking with you.” She eyed him as if daring them to disagree. “You ran into the bathroom and now you’re stuck with me.”
“Agreed. You’re not leaving my side.” How he’d gone from forgetting to call her to not wanting to leave her, he wasn’t sure, but this went beyond offering protection.
Her shoulders relaxed. “What are we going to do?”
Aaron started with Royal. “Try the roof. See if you can get the phone or the comm to work. We’ll check the floor to make sure it’s clear.”
She made a face. “Really? Because at this point I vote for hiding.”
Though it was not his style and not his job, she needed reassurance and he’d give it to her. “It just might come to that.”
Angie paced around the small conference table. Five people in a twelve-by-twelve space and one of them a twenty-something with an attitude and a staring problem. Not her idea of fun.
Being locked in a room with Lowell was one thing. They’d spent hours in hotels and even a few nights in his big house behind the high fence while Sonya was away. Right in her king-size bed, on those thousand-dollar sheets Angie knew the other woman had scoured the stores picking out.
The memory of walking around naked in Lowell’s country estate made her smile. Hunting through the other woman’s closet, touching her clothes and trying on her jewelry had given her satisfaction. All those hours of exploring almost made putting up with Lowell’s mood swings worthwhile.
It had been so tempting to take the rubies with her. Just slip them into her overnight bag and sneak them home. Heaven knew she’d earned them. Listening to Lowell. Being with Lowell. As far as Angie was concerned, her job was far harder and more taxing than that of wife.
If only sleeping with the boss carried the same financial benefit. But she intended to rectify the deficiency as soon as she figured out what was happening right now.
Mark Fineman stepped in front of her and handed her a glass of something she assumed was eggnog. “You seem pretty happy for someone being held in a room at a lame holiday party.”
“I’ve had worse.”
That went for the situation and the finance guy. He had just inched into his forties, but thanks to the marathon running he talked about incessantly and the countless hours in the gym, he possessed an enviable trim waist. And brown hair that appeared to be all his, and a handsome face that likely once hooked women in college bars across the country.
He had potential, but he also had an ex-wife, and if the rumor was correct, a hefty alimony payment. Apparently his wandering eye and skillful hands had cost him big the first time around. He’d lost the house, part of his income and now depended on his fancy new sports car to start a conversation with a lady.
“You okay?” he asked.
She doubted the concern was real. More likely he decided it was time to make a run at a woman with more power in the office than his usual targets. He’d already worked his way through two interns and an assistant. Angie admired his goal in aiming higher this time around, but he needed to point his radar in a different direction. One nowhere near her.
“Why wouldn’t I be fine?” she asked him over the rim of her glass as she took a sip.
Mark glanced at Brandon. “This is a tense situation.”
Angie wondered if Mark expected some expression of guilt or evidence of shame. If so, he was looking at the wrong woman. She’d built a life and did it using the assets her mother had passed to her. If that meant not being the office favorite, so be it. Those nitwit women bugged her anyway. They were just jealous she had the thought to start climbing the office ladder first.
If her life’s choices meant upsetting an overgrown kid who didn’t understand the realities of his parents’ messed-up marriage, fine. She did what she had to do to survive and she refused to apologize for her drive. Brandon had everything handed to him. She didn’t. As far as she was concerned, she was evening the odds.
“Are you standing here because you think I need protection from something?” she asked Mark. The idea was laughable, but she knew men often bought into those foolish thoughts.
“My guess is you have a guardian angel with more power than I have around here.”
Mark grew less interesting by the minute. “I also have nothing to hide.”
Lowell glared at her from across the room. Then his attention turned to Mark. With a flick of his wrist Lowell had his subordinate scurrying around the desk to his side.
No way was she running when Lowell snapped his fingers. She wasn’t even supposed to be in this room. She should be on a higher floor, working through the steps she’d memorized. It all fell apart when Aaron McBain went hunting where he didn’t belong.
When she regrouped and adjusted her plan, she’d be sure to take care of McBain first. She wouldn’t give the man a second chance to ruin everything.
* * *
RISA VOWED NEVERtoATTENDanother holiday party. She might skip Christmas this year all together. She hadn’t planned to go anywhere anyway. With her parents gone, what little family she had scattered all over the U.S. and out of contact, and her personal life in repair mode, she didn’t have a lot of options.
When Paul had emptied their joint bank account and moved out, sticking her with a rent payment she couldn’t afford, he’d made her life miserable. Then there were the credit cards he’d opened in her name and then didn’t pay. He’d ruined her credit, which led to her losing her bank job and many friends. Amazing how they assumed she was the problem rather than the victim, which made her wonder about the stories Paul had told her friends while she was out of the room.
The engineers at Buchanan had given her a chance to start over. She appreciated it, coveted it, but she wasn’t willing to die for it.
“You’re doing great.”
When she glanced up from staring at her hands, Aaron was looking at her. Those eyes gave away his concern. He acted tough and in charge, and he was, but she spied a layer of worry underneath. That bit of humanity made her heart turn over.
“I feel like I’m ten seconds away from imploding.”
He brushed the back of his hand against her cheek. “That’s normal for the situation.”
She leaned into his hand and missed the touch the second after he pulled back. “I have no idea how you can use that word.”
A smile broke across his face. “Ah, that one.”
“Why did you lie?” She hadn’t meant to ask the question. Not now, not here. It popped out and she had no idea how to stuff it back in.
But since it was out there, all she wanted in the world, in that moment, other than to live from one minute to the next, was to understand his choices. When he went back to scanning the room in his stiff stance and with his flat mouth, she thought he was going to let the question hang there without an answer.
She sighed. “How long do we wait for Royal to come back?”
“You seemed content.” Aaron had turned his back to her, acting like a human shield, and pitched his voice low.
She heard him. Understanding the words took more effort. “What does that mean?”
He shifted until his body lined up next to hers. He didn’t face her. He stared ahead while his arm kissed her shoulder. “I live this bizarre life that sometimes comes with danger, and you sat in a coffeehouse humming some strange tune I’d never heard before and working on papers. I didn’t even intend to approach you that first time.”
“Why did you?”
He laughed. “I have no idea.”
“So the tax thing isn’t a line you use on all the ladies?”
He glanced at her then. One eyebrow lifted along with the corners of his mouth. “If I was making a play I would have said something sexier.”
“Real estate attorney?”
“Pilot. Firefighter. You seemed too smart for this one, but astronaut.”
“Oh, that’s kind of sexy.” Though she had to say, any guy with a gun and the whole ability-to-rescue thing was now number one on her hot-male-occupations list.
His body stiffened. It was as if every muscle clicked to alert status. “Problem.”
The change in him had her snapping to attention. “Another one?”
“Do you know how to shoot?”
“Forget the long lesson. Take this.” He slipped a small gun out of an ankle holster and handed it to her.
The metal felt odd in her hands. She’d never handled a gun but expected something different. Something light and sleek that filled her with power.
She suspected the churning in her chest was more like dread. “I don’t think I can kill anyone.”
“Even if they’re coming at you?”
Forget being girlie. She wanted to live. “I just squeeze the trigger, right?”
He pointed out the safety and angled her so her back was flush against the solid corner of the room with nothing behind her and an unobstructed view in front, “Don’t shoot me or Royal, but don’t give anyone else even a second to talk. No hesitation.”
“You make it sound easy.” She turned the gun over in her hands, knowing holding it and shooting it were two very different things.
He kissed her forehead. “I’ll be right back.”
“You heard something.”
“Sensed something.” He took a few steps, this time heading toward the left, down the part of the hallway they hadn’t explored.
When Royal slipped around the corner and back into the open area in front of Aaron, both men froze in shooting position. All movement slowed, then cut off, as if someone had hit a giant stop button.
When their shoulders fell, her breathing started again. “False alarm.”
“I almost shot you.” Aaron lowered the gun to his side.
“Never would have gotten off the shot in time. I’m an expert at this sort of thing, remember?”
“What did you find on the roof?”
“Nothing. The door at the top of the stairwell has a lock on it.”
She wasn’t a security expert, but she knew about fire code. “That doesn’t sound safe. Maybe it’s part of the center’s soft opening. One of the glitches.”
Royal’s lips twisted in a frown. “It looked out of place.”
“I’m guessing we just figured out what these guns were doing up here.” When she frowned, Aaron continued explaining. “Blocking possible exits.”
Hope shriveled inside her. “There’s no way to misinterpret that. They trapped us inside.”
Something in her expression had Aaron turning back to Royal. “You sure there’s no way through?”
“This isn’t my first day on the job. I can shoot the lock off, but there’s a soldering iron on the floor and a tight seal around the door. Unless you’re carrying explosives, we’re out of luck on this one.”
While they argued gun size and trigger speed, she rested her cheek against the cool glass. She hadn’t realized her skin was on fire until she felt the relief.
In the time they’d been stuck in there, the sun had gone down and the sky had turned a soft gray. Flurries blew around under the streetlights, giving the trees Christmas-card softness.
Movement caught her attention. She saw people in the parking lot and walking around the grounds. There was enough light to see Elan staff huddled in groups and several partygoers heading to cars but being rounded up by men in suits.
Since Craft was the only group in the building except for a few strays like her, there were limited explanations. “Aaron? Everyone is outside.”
“What?” Both men rushed to her position at the window, but he got there first.
As far as she could see, the outside gathering was just one more incomprehensible event in a sequence of confusion. “Is the party over? And who are the guys in suits?”
Aaron put his hand against the glass. “They’re mine and they’re keeping people from leaving, which means they know something is wrong and they’re protecting evidence and witnesses.”
Royal lowered his weapon. “Good training will do that.”
“I don’t see Craft.”
“Or Palmer,” Royal said.
She’d never even heard the second name. At least, she couldn’t remember hearing it. So much had happened in such a short time. She could no longer keep track of everything. “Who is that?”
“The head of Craft’s security.”
The new information had her head spinning. “I thought that was your job.”
“I’m outside security. I own a company that provides backup in situations like these and takes the lead on others.”
Just when she figured out a definition for him, he changed the rules again. “A lawyer and a businessman.”
A small squeak of hinges had them all turning in the general direction of the stairway to the right, the same one Risa had used to get to this floor.
Aaron put a finger against his lips as he pushed her behind him. When she looked up, she stared at two wide backs. In the span of two seconds, they had closed in around her in a protective wall of male.
“Stevens.” The whisper of a male voice carried down the silent hall and bounced off the open beams of the construction zone. Footsteps echoed against the new floorboards. “What the hell?”
She guessed he’d found the barricaded bathroom door. This would be the start of the next wave of attacks. The danger kept ratcheting up and taking her heartbeat with it.
She’d give anything to be one of the lucky ones standing outside in the cold night air.
“We take this one alive.” Aaron spoke so low she would have thought he mouthed the words except she heard them.
She wanted to grab on to both her protectors and run screaming in the opposite direction. More shooting. The chance for more violence. The thought of Aaron being hurt…or worse. It all sent her stomach flopping.
Aaron pointed to the closest corner. “Stand there. Do not come out unless I tell you.”
She grabbed his sleeve before he could run away. “Aaron?”
“What is it?”
She wanted to say the words that would mean something in the moment. The right phrase to thank him for risking his life—again—but it didn’t come to her. So she leaned in and kissed him quick on the cheek. She wanted to say or do more, but the timing was wrong.
“Please be careful.”
He winked at her.
With soundless steps, Royal and Aaron crept across the room. They shifted in tandem, sweeping their guns and using hand signals to coordinate their movements. Not that they needed to go in covert. From the grunting and clanking, the newest attacker wasn’t exactly trying to be quiet.
They slipped around the corner one at a time. She had no idea how they kept from making noise, how the guy at the bathroom didn’t feel them coming. They weren’t exactly small.
When they moved out of sight, her full-fledged panic returned. Knowing they were tough and in charge was one thing. Seeing them control the situation would be better.
Just when she was about to race across the room, she heard a loud click.
“Don’t move!” Aaron’s shout thundered through the building.
She couldn’t stand there one more second. He’d yell, but she had to know what was happening.
“We need to get out of here.”
Even at his son’s outburst, Lowell didn’t look away from the information Palmer had spread out across the table. He stared at the set of floor plans and list of potential attack and rescue scenarios as he and the others sat around in chairs in relative quiet.
All but his difficult son.
Brandon walked around the room until he stood at the opposite end of the table, huffing and sighing and generally making sure everyone was watching him. The boy just did not know when to stop.
When no one talked to him or asked for his opinion, Brandon started the whole procedure again. If this went on for a few hours, he’d wear a track in the carpet.
“Not now, Brandon.”
The order didn’t work. The kid slapped a hand against the table. “Listen, this is not that hard. We can walk out the front door and call the police.”
Lowell was not impressed with the outburst. From the way Mark and Angie stared at Brandon, they weren’t, either. “We are cut off from everything and everyone.”
“We don’t have to be. There’s a roomful of people just down the hall. This is a hotel. People work here. I’m sure the town has a police force. We are the ones causing the separation, and that is more dangerous than being in a group.”
“You’re forgetting one very important piece of the puzzle. We also have missing security personnel. Until I know where they are and what, if anything, has happened to them, Palmer believes the company’s integral personnel should remain in here, in a contained environment.” Lowell leaned back in his chair.
If Brandon wanted a semipublic scene, Lowell had no trouble giving him one. He needed an outlet for the fury burning through his gut at having been targeted at his office Christmas party. He’d taken the precautions, hired the personnel and still someone got through. Someone who was wasting his time with nonsense.
“You see, Brandon, this is a grown-up situation. One where we have to weigh the pros and cons and not just rush in and do what feels right. There are consequences. That’s the lesson I cannot seem to get through to you. It’s not one of your video games.”
“I haven’t played those in years, not that you know anything about my life. Not that any of that is even relevant to the discussion.”
“Everyone knows about your life. It’s been in the news and the subject of gossip all over town.”
Brandon’s jaw clenched. “This is not about me. We are sitting here, waiting to get attacked, when we should be moving.”
Lowell hated to admit it and would never say it out loud, but the kid had a point. Lowell questioned the current strategy. He also wondered if the man he hired for protection was really working against him. The idea of Aaron being taken out was hard to imagine. That left few options.
For more than a half hour, Lowell had been mentally running through the people who benefitted from him being removed from the company. There were so few, but that’s exactly what the threats demanded. Aaron’sinitial insight might have been correct—this wasn’t about money. This felt personal, as if someone wanted him destroyed.
When the silence dragged on, Angie cleared her throat. “Your father knows what he’s doing.”
“No one is talking to you.”
“Since I am part of this company and you’re not, you should watch how you talk to me.”
Brandon leaned across the table, his fury alive and flailing. “I do not have to listen to you.”
“Your father is right about you. You’re a spoiled brat.”
Angie looked at Lowell, but he wasn’t inclined to step in just yet. Not when Brandon finally showed some toughness in front of others instead of cowering behind his family name.
Her chin rose in a sign of defiance he’d seen before. She aimed whatever anger streamed through her at Brandon. “How dare you talk to me that way?”
“You are nothing more than my father’s—”
Lowell snapped out of his wait-and-see stance. “Brandon, that’s enough.”
“You’re right.” He pushed off the table and stood up. “I’m leaving. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t need to wait for permission.”
Palmer stepped in front of the room’s only door, blocking any exit. “No one is going anywhere until I figure out who started all of this.”
“What are you saying?”
“Exactly what you think.”
“You believe it was me.” Brandon said it as a statement instead of a question.
“I think everyone is suspect at the moment.” Palmer pointed at a chair. “So sit.”
* * *
RISA DIDN’T WAIT FOR ANinvitation. She jogged to the corner of the room where it emptied into the hallway and peeked around. In the precious few seconds it took for her to get across the room, Aaron and Royal had taken over and subdued the newest attacker. Royal stood holding his gun while Aaron had the man on the floor and a knee in his back.
“Here.” Royal slipped a zip tie out of his back pocket.
Aaron looked impressed with the preparedness but didn’t comment. He was too busy tying the guy’s hands and dragging him to his feet. And he wasn’t exactly gentle. The guy had his head knocked into the floor twice before he stood up.
While Royal reengineered the makeshift lock on the bathroom door, Aaron pulled the attacker toward the main room. Risa tried to duck into the shadows, but Aaron’s gaze zeroed in on her before she could get back into position.
“Too late,” he said.
“I heard it was under control,” she replied. Not that there was any real reason to hide. There was nowhere to go in the open room, and she was not about to go off on her own.
Aaron brought the guy into the room and slammed him to his knees, earning a grunt from the attacker. “It’s time to talk.”
The guy looked around, his gaze freezing on the body a few feet away. “Who is that?”
“One of yours.”
“Real bullets.” Royal gave his report after checking the new attacker’s weapons.
The anxiety twisting in Risa’s gut eased when she saw the guy’s face. She knew violence came in all sorts of packages, even when the guys were young and attractive like this one. He couldn’t have been more than early twenties with huge eyes and a baby face. There was nothing hardening or scary about this one, except the weapon. He didn’t seem to fit in with the others at all.
“What are you doing?” the guy asked when Aaron paced around him without saying a word.
“Figuring out the best place to shoot you that will cause pain but not kill you. Well, not right away.”
Her gaze zoomed in on Aaron. From everything she knew about him, this was a con, but then it turned out she didn’t know much about him, did she? Still, she knew in every part of her soul that he was rock solid.
“Maybe we should—” She was ready to fight for the kid’s life, but Royal waved her off.
“I didn’t do anything.” The kid rocked back and forth as his voice tripped higher.
Aaron stopped pacing and stood right behind the guy. He pushed the gun into the back of his head. “You have two seconds to tell me who hired you.”
The kids fumbled to get the words out. “I don’t know.”
Aaron pushed harder. “I’m getting tired of that answer.”
The kid winced but stayed quiet.
Risa clenched her fists to keep from reaching out and breaking this up. Instinctively she knew this was the right way to get the information, but she hated the threats and posturing. Desperation clawed at her. She wanted this over. All of it and now.
“This is ridiculous and you are wasting time. Answer him,” she blurted it out, earning a fresh scowl from Aaron.
When Royal motioned for her to join him, she complied. The new angle gave her a clearer view of the kid’s face. Seeing him head-on ramped up the energy buzzing around inside her.
Aaron leaned in until his mouth hovered near the kid’s ear and his foot clamped down on the kid’s calf. “Listen to the lady. She is trying to help you live to see tomorrow.”
The kid’s mouth dropped open several times before any words came out. “I was hired by my uncle. He’s up here somewhere.”
Royal walked over to the dead attacker and shifted him so his face was visible. “Is this him?”
Risa turned away but not before seeing the skin around the kid’s mouth turn green. He heaved and she didn’t blame him.
When the coughing fit subsided, the kid started talking. The words came out in a long, breathless stream. “No, I don’t know that guy. There were three teams of two. My uncle came up first. I was in the second wave, but when the first failed to check in, we came looking.”
The uncle was the blond in the bathroom. She’d bet on it. They had the same eyes.
“What was your assignment?” Aaron asked.
Aaron tramped down harder with his foot. “Kid, I am out of patience. You have five seconds and I start shooting.”
The kid squirmed under the assault. His voice turned breathy as panic radiated off him. “I don’t know.”
Her insides kept jumping. She was desperate for the kid to answer before something terrible happened. Not that Aaron would hurt him just to hurt him, but she didn’t think he’d bluff.
The kid shook his head hard enough to knock something loose. “You have to listen to me.”
“I’m not even supposed to be here.” He focused on her as if silently begging her to step in and end the torment. “I was a late addition to the team.”
“Please answer him.” She whispered the plea as tension choked the room.
The kid’s eyes followed her until she stopped looking at him and focused on a spot on the floor instead. Her heart ripped in two. Part of her wanted to tackle Aaron and the other wanted to grab the gun and hurry this up.
The kid said, “Please, don’t—”
She looked to see the kid flinching away from the gun. He swallowed hard enough for her to see his throat move.
Royal exhaled next to her. “Now, kid, or I’ll take a turn on you.”
“We were supposed to be on this floor at a certain time to grab this woman.” He peeked up at Risa. “We weren’t going to hurt you.”
The words didn’t amount to an apology or an explanation. They didn’t make much sense, either. “You have the wrong woman,” she said. “Not that having the right one would make this plan any better.”
“That…” The kid looked around at all of them. “What?”
“Why do you think I’m the woman?”
The kid snorted as though they’d all missed an obvious point. “There was only supposed to be one person, this brunette woman, on the floor at the set time. We got the place and time. It seemed so simple.”
“How about now?” Aaron asked, the disgust evident in his voice.
“You didn’t have a photo?” Royal asked.
“No. One woman in a specific location. We pick her up, hold her and then let her go when the word comes. It’s all part of some plan to get money.”
Aaron lifted his foot off the kid’s calf. “So then she was supposed to be a hostage for ransom? Gotta tell you, that’s not sounding as no-big-deal as you’re pretending this is.”
“I just know she wasn’t really supposed to be touched, but…” The kid looked at the ceiling and floor, everywhere but at a person. If he had some big secret, it was taking a long time spitting it out. “Something went wrong.”
Her sympathy fizzled. Probably had something to do with being on the receiving end of an ongoing attack.
She shot him her best you’re-an-idiot frown. “No kidding.”
“No, you don’t understand.” The kid tried to move closer to Risa, but Aaron pulled him back. “This wasn’t a real kidnapping.”
“What was it?” Aaron asked.
“A joke, I guess. I don’t really know. It’s just that it was clear there was nothing illegal about what we were doing.”
“A nonillegal kidnapping? I’m not sure what law books you guys are looking at, but that doesn’t make much sense.” Royal looked ready to explode. If he shifted one more time, his weapon might accidentally go off. “And why do you have guns and bullets?”
Fear cleared from the kid’s eyes. “In case something went wrong.”
Aaron finally looked at her. “I guess it’s good to be prepared.”
“I’m starting to hate the holidays,” she mumbled under her breath.
“Tell us what’s happening downstairs.” Aaron walked around to face the kid.
Whatever he saw in Aaron’s face had the kid answering without trying to stall. “Most of the people have been evacuated. There’s a group in a small conference room near the party.”
Royal threw up his hands. “And?”
The kid didn’t handle Royal’s anger any better than he did Aaron’s. When either man spoke, the kid seemed to shrink. Much more and he’d be in a ball on the floor.
She was just about to step in when the kid answered again. “We’re awaiting further instructions.”
“From?” The chill in Aaron’s voice washed over the room.
“I don’t know.”
Silence pounded in on her from every angle. No one said a word and neither man moved. The kid had turned a strange shade of yellow-green, as if he was on the verge of throwing up.
Finally Aaron broke the quiet. “You know what that means?”
Royal nodded. “Yes.”
When they didn’t say anything else, she gave up on being subtle. “Anyone want to fill me in?”
“Inside job.” Aaron’s words resonated, and then no one said anything at all. They were too busy wincing and covering their ears as the building’s alarm system rang out.
Emergency blue lights flickered to life and flashed from the small boxes in the upper corners of the room. The alarm wound up and then blared in a high-pitched beeping sound before repeating the process again. A computer-generated voice told them to leave the building.
“What’s happening now?” She shouted the question over the noise.
“It looks like someone has moved on to plan B.”
Lowell watched Palmer rattle the door handles before turning back to the rest of the room. The small area had broken into chaos at the first flashing emergency light. For only six people, they made a lot of noise. Everyone but Palmer’s security man shouted questions and insisted they get out.
“The building could be on fire,” Mark pointed out as he argued that they should run.
Brandon stood up. “I told you we needed to leave. Staying here puts us in more danger.”
“In light of what’s going on now, I have to agree with Brandon on this,” Angie said.
Palmer held up his hand. “Everyone calm down. There is no need for concern. We are safest in this room.”
Brandon tried to push toward the door. “How can you say that? Something is happening out there. Anything from fire to an attack on my father and we’re here, vulnerable and just waiting to be picked off.”
“I need everyone to sit down. Chaos is our enemy here.” Palmer grabbed Brandon’s arm and shoved him in a chair. “Mr. Craft, can I talk with you a second?”
Lowell met Palmer at the door. In a room the size of a small bedroom, it wasn’t easy to find privacy and no one was making it easy. They leaned in and fired questions. When Lowell didn’t respond, they turned on each other, throwing out suggestions about what to do next while sirens roared around them.
He put a hand to his ear to block out the alarm and all the talking and concentrate on his trusted adviser. “What’s happening?”
“I wish I knew.”
“That answer doesn’t fill me with confidence. Also makes me question your credibility since it smacks of the exact opposite feeling of what you’ve been selling to the room.”
Lowell had known Palmer for years. They’d thrown in together soon after Craft took a lucrative business running secured storage space facilities and grew it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He moved it from servicing small-time residential customers to being the place commercial businesses looked to for long-term privacy and storage solutions. They were the leader in the field, and the cash kept rolling in.
But creating an empire also created enemies. Family members raged at his refusal to cut them in or be their bank. Former employees who believed loyalty was enough to secure their jobs learned that he demanded results when he fired them and sent them packing from the building minutes later.
He insisted on greatness and eliminated those who didn’t give it to him. His system ensured that he surrounded himself with the best but had also led to many threats over the years. The latest, which demanded he step down, was less about evening a score than about pushing him out.
He was not going anywhere.
Along the way while transitioning from one type of company to another, Palmer lost a wife who preferred shorter work hours to a bigger paycheck. After that, their son died and Palmer ended up alone. Through it all, he never lost his commitment to the job. So when Palmer’s voice wavered with worry now, Lowell knew to listen.
Lowell went with his gut. “Call the police.”
“We still can’t phone out.”
“Find a satellite phone if you have to.”
The siren continued to wail in the background. Lowell strained to hear the low rumble of Angie and Mark’s conversation over the buzzing and squealing, but he couldn’t make out more than a few useless words. The alarm blocked out everything unless you were standing right on top of someone else.
And Angie and Mark did appear to be rather close all of a sudden. Lowell couldn’t remember ever seeing them talk outside of an executive meeting before now. This was her new ploy. She’d flirted with a business associate from another office the week before. Suddenly she’d turned on the charm to some of the executive staff, or attempted to, when she’d always found them beneath her in the past. It was as if she was trying to ingratiate herself, but he had no idea why.
She’d used a few days together over Thanksgiving when his family was out of town to insist he buy her a condo. When he said no, she’d smashed the favorite decanter in his library and made a scene. Threatening to remove her from the property had calmed things down.
Now he wondered if it was time to move on. After all, women like Angie were not hard to find. Beautiful women gravitated to power. He possessed it, which meant he could possess them.
But dropping her would be difficult. She had skills and she listened. She handled the unpleasant items at work and eased his stress during the day. She gave him something he needed, and she knew that.
Maybe he should just buy her the condo.
Lowell dragged his attention back to Palmer, but the disgust over Angie’s newest and not-so-veiled attempts at making him jealous still boiled his blood. “Well, we can’t sit here and wait for someone to attack me.”
Forget the woman. Forget the inconvenience. Lowell swore under his breath as the reality of the situation hit home. This attack wasn’t a test run. Whatever was happening was for real.
“We can’t go out there and invite someone to take a shot at you, either.”
“This is exactly why I brought on McBain. He was supposed to prevent this sort of thing. The minute the party started, he disappeared. Have we heard anything?”
“He’d better be subduing this attack.”
Palmer wiped a hand through his hair. “I think we need to explore the possibility McBain is the mastermind behind this. The pieces fit. The escalation started after he came on your property.”
The idea had floated through Lowell’s mind earlier and he’d immediately discounted it. He refused to believe his instincts had wandered that far off track. He’d trusted Aaron and didn’t want to believe that his trust was misplaced or that he had invited his attacker in close.
Having Palmer voice the concerns made Lowell’s defenses rise. “I believe there is another possibility, one we’ve been avoiding. That Aaron and his men were our first casualties today. What are you going to do to ensure that there aren’t more?”
Palmer stood up straight again. “The situation is under control.”
“How can you say that?”
Palmer glanced at his assistant and then back to Lowell. “We are in lockdown in here. Whatever is happening outside that door isn’t coming in here.”
“That has been the scenario for almost an hour and we are not one ounce safer, as far as I can tell.”
The other security man, Max something, if Lowell remembered right, came over. When Palmer nodded, Max delivered his report. “This is different from a voluntary situation. I’m saying the doors are locked.”
“What are you talking about?” Lowell asked.
“We are stuck in this interior room.” Palmer slowly twisted the knob and nothing happened. He shook it harder and the door rattled but didn’t move. “The door appears to be bolted from the outside. I can take it off at the hinges, or try, but I don’t know what’s on the other side.”
“They trapped us in here, sir.” Max delivered the information in a quick burst. Then he turned to Lowell. “If I may say so, sir, clearly someone who works for you and is integral to your operation, close enough to know your schedule, wants you out. That’s the only explanation behind the threats.”
“Not the only.” Palmer glanced at Brandon, who was staring right back.
Lowell heard the edge to the man’s voice. “Meaning?”
“There is someone in here who would benefit if his father was out of the picture.”
Lowell shot Brandon a look. He sat slumped in his chair, tapping his fingers against the table as Angie and Mark’s conversation went on without him.
Aaron had ventured down this line of questioning, as well. Lowell discounted the argument as easily this time as he had the last. “He doesn’t get controlling interesting in the business and what money he would get is tied up in a trust. There’s no benefit here.”
Max cleared his throat. “There are other reasons to kill a parent.”
Brandon’s lack of respect was not a secret. But that was different from being a killer. “And easier ways.”
Then there was the problem of weakness. Brandon didn’t have the guts to take charge of something like this. He’d barely gotten through college and couldn’t hold down the one job he managed to obtain, he’d lost it within a month. The idea of him acting the role of mastermind for something like this was out of the question.
Not that his hatred wasn’t strong enough. Even now Brandon sat there, the rage radiating off him and showing in every line of his taut muscles and locked jaw. Typical of his useless generation, he wanted everything handed to him. The sense of entitlement never wavered.
Lowell hoped that Brandon would one day turn all his misplaced anger into actual energy. “What does your gut tell you, Palmer?”
“Someone close to you wants you dead, and the person has chosen today to make that happen.”
Lowell had already figured out that part. “Then you better do your job.”
* * *
AARON LED THEM DOWN THEmetal stairwell. Three sets of feet tapped against the steps as they moved. The close quarters emphasized the sounds of their breathing and the rustling of their clothing.
The kid was tied up and gagged on the floor above them. Aaron had wanted to knock him out, but Risa had insisted they leave him awake. She’d argued about how helpful he’d been and how he was in enough trouble with being hurt. He’d come to take her, and she’d begged for his safety.
Aaron chalked it up to a difference between men and women. Once he found out the kid wanted Risa, Aaron didn’t care what happened to him so long as he never touched her.
But the mix of softness and toughness inside her intrigued him. She didn’t slip into panic mode, though she had every reason and all right to do so. She stood up, carried on and functioned as a good ad hoc team member.
She also liked to argue a point to death. Much more of this argument and his head would explode. “Absolutely not.”
“I can help. I can get places you guys can’t because I’m smaller.”
He refused to give into her on this. “No.”
She held on to the back of his suit jacket as they shuffled down the steps. Aaron stood in front of her like a shield, prepared to throw his body on top of hers if needed. Royal stood at the back with his gun and gaze scanning for danger.
The theory was any attacker would have to get through both of them to get to her. If they managed that, she had a weapon and promised she’d use it right before she raced down the stairs and out of the building into the cold but safer night.
“What choice do we have?” She asked the same question for the fourth time.
He’d used the same reasoning to take the risk and get off the upper floor. They were trapped up there. He needed to know what was happening with Lowell and get them all on the ground.
Then he would question every person inside and outside the building until someone broke.
“We can try anything else.” Anything that didn’t include her entering into more danger.
“There is another team roaming the halls. And that assumes the kid’s information is right and there aren’t more out there,” Royal said.
Aaron thought about firing Royal on the spot. “Whose side are you on here?”
“Just pointing out the obvious.”
Aaron fell back on the same argument. The same plan. “We cover the floors until we get to the conference room the kid mentioned. Risa hangs back and we blow in.”
“We could be dead by then.” Her fingers clenched his jacket as she said the words.
“Not to mention the problem with going in blind. There are other potential victims here and we could launch a firefight without figuring out who is behind this,” Royal said.
They hit the floor above the party and the conference room and Aaron hesitated. “It looks like most of the people are out of the building.”
“They could have been escorted out to highlight the true targets.”
Before he could reassess or pick apart Royal’s argument, Aaron slipped the door open and peeked out into the empty hall. No construction gear here. The floor was done and ready for use. Better news came from the quiet.
They walked out and onto the main floor. Neither of his coconspirators said anything as he led them toward the maintenance room. Without making a sound, they slid inside. There were closets and cleaning supplies, an electric box, vents and plumbing pipes. This was a maintenance pathway to the heart of the building. The vent system led from floor to floor, then to the basement.
He knew from the plans that someone could travel across the top of the rooms and use the lighting squares to peek in the spaces below. He’d made the mistake of mentioning that upstairs and Risa had morphed into commando mode.
He’d put an end to that right now. “I’ll go in, get above the conference room and see what’s happening there. We’ll figure out our next move once we have that intel.”
Risa ran her hand over the vent and peeked into the grate they’d need to use to get in. “Unless you plan on cutting off both arms, neither one of you is going to fit in the heating vents.”
“Big shoulders. Will the metal even hold your weight? And even if everything else works and you actually manage to get in there, I doubt that you’ll be able to maneuver enough to get back out. Someone will hear you in a second. I am your only choice.”
“It’s either this or take our chances on walking onto that floor blind.”
Now she sounded like Royal. He worried enough about getting her out of there without having to come up with a plan to rescue her from inside the equivalent of a toothpaste tube when this went wrong.
And it would go wrong.
“What if they hear you or you fall?” he asked her. “So many things can go wrong. The chances of you getting caught are too high.”
Royal exhaled loud enough to be heard above the alarm system. “That argument is never going to work. He is not willing to risk your life.”
She frowned. “Why not?”
The throwaway question combined with her clueless expression snapped Aaron’s control. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Excuse me?” she said in a tone that sounded more like a lecturing schoolteacher than a questioning victim.
Royal moved an inch, putting his body slightly between Risa and Aaron. “Uh, Aaron.”
Aaron talked right over him, half around and partially through him. The point was to get Risa’s attention. “You know why. We’re dating.”
A sharp silence followed his shout. Except for the ticking of air through the vent, nothing made a sound.
After a few heated seconds, Royal broke the quiet. “Let her try. She knows the risk, and this is the least risky of all options.”
“I said no.” But the arguments and her determination were wearing him down.
“It’s possible the alarm will bring police and emergency personnel, but I’m not counting on it,” Royal said. “We’re not exactly on top of other buildings out here, and Elan is not up and running.”
It would be nice if Royal were a bit less convincing, but Aaron was not that lucky. “We have to assume we’re on our own.”
Aaron felt his command over the situation slip. “Whose side are you on?”
“The one that gets us out of here and identifies the conspiracy before anyone else gets killed. I know there are empty cartridges and the kid says it’s a prank, or whatever, but we have one dead and two more possible by now. We can’t depend on the hope that this is nothing but some odd sort of drill.”
“Which tells us it’s time to act.” He turned to Risa and knew she was their best course of action. “Fine.”
A smile broke across her face. “Thank you.”
“For what?” He grumbled because that’s how he felt on the inside. All raw and dug out and anxious for what was to come.
“For letting me do this. I know you’re against it and it’s killing you to give in.”
“I’m an idiot to listen to you on this.”
She shrugged out of her pantsuit jacket, leaving only a whisper-thin silky white shirt, and slipped her heels off. “And thanks for not hurting the kid upstairs.”
“I refrained because you wouldn’t let me kill him.” He slipped his fingers through the screen to the opening of the vents and twisted it until he heard a snap. With a tug, he pulled the screen off.
Looking at the space and peering deep into the darkness inside, he wondered how she would fit. She had a slim build, but the space was tight. He hated to admit it, but Risa was right. If he managed to get in there and shifted the wrong way, his shoulders would wedge and they’d need the Jaws of Life to get him out.
“You don’t kill kids except in self-defense.” She shook her head. “Boy, does that sound weird when I say it. I’m hoping I never need to use that sentence again. Or even think about what it means.”
She insisted on seeing the kid upstairs as a victim. That touched off a fire in Aaron’s brain that he didn’t want to analyze. “He’s older than you think he is.”
“And younger than you want him to be.”
Aaron gave up. “You win this round.”
“I plan to win the next one, too, so we may as well get started.”
She put his hands on her hips and turned her back to him. He scooted up close, then stopped. The point was to lift her up, but he hesitated. Feeling her body under his fingers, having the heat of her skin burn through his dress shirt, smelling the coconut scent in her hair, all brought it home.
“Please be careful.” He whispered the plea against her soft hair.
She glanced at him over her shoulder as if knowing how hard it was for him to ask anything of anyone. She squeezed his hand as her gaze searched his face. “You’ll make sure I’m safe.”
“Here.” Royal slipped a rope around her waist and tied a knot.
“What is this for?”
“If we have to, we can pull on this rope to get you back fast. If that happens, don’t fight it.”
Aaron wanted to kick his own butt for not thinking of the precaution. She had him spinning in circles. He looked at her and his common sense fled. Putting her straight into danger was eating a hole in his stomach and slowly rotting his brain.
She stared at the thick piece of corded rope and weighed it in her fingers. “Pulling on that thing would hurt. Like, rip off my skin.”
“Hey. It likely won’t be necessary, so let’s concentrate on the bigger issue.” Aaron put a hand under her chin and lifted her face so he could see directly into those dark eyes. “You go quiet but fast.”
“Got it.” Her voice came back as a soft whisper.
“I won’t let anything happen to you.”
She smiled. “I know.”
Before he could lose control or do something stupid like waste their first kiss on a quick moment, he picked her up and lifted her to the grate. She went up and in without any noise. Her bare feet disappeared a second later.
Royal waited until the opening was clear. “You’ve got it bad for her.”
Aaron didn’t dispute it because he knew Royal wasn’t wrong.
“Your lack of denial says it all.”
Angie rubbed her forehead in an attempt to drown out the siren. Just when it cycled down and gifted them with a minute of silence, it wound up again. She hadn’t counted on the never-ending noise. She hadn’t counted on a lot of things.
The plan had been so simple. Force Lowell to make a move. See if he valued her life and how much he would pay for it. Push the controlled man and test his precious rules. If his resolve could be shaken, all while under his false umbrella of protection, it would prove she got to him.
McBain ruined it. This unplanned lockdown ruined it. The faulty cell phones ruined it. The list kept getting longer, just as her wariness intensified.
She hadn’t planned for the other events unfolding around them. That could only mean one thing. Someone was taking over her blueprint and imposing one of their own. The new game proved much more dangerous than the game she had envisioned.
Maybe one of her men went rogue, but she couldn’t see an end game there. She’d paid them. They owed her.
She regretted not stealing the rubies and getting out while she could. There were other men. Other sources of money. Next time she’d find one who wasn’t married and didn’t carry a chill with him wherever he went.
“It would appear someone wants me dead this evening.” Lowell delivered his comment from right behind her. His breath blew across her neck.
Normally she’d find the heat of his mouth sexy, but something else was at play. Something dark and threatening. She didn’t turn around because she didn’t want to see his face. Not now.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. Maybe McBain’s twisted idea of a drill. I could see him using a party to prove how much we need him.” But she knew there was more to this than a misguided security test.
“How can you be so sure?” Lowell leaned against the credenza so his long legs stretched out on either side of her. The intimate gesture trapped her in one more way.
“No one has actually attacked.” She ignored the fissure of dread that threatened to crack her composure. “We have an alarm and a locked room. McBain easily could have done that for your safety.”
“A second ago you thought he was the problem. Now you think he’s saving me.” She could hear the misplaced amusement in his voice. She turned to see what he could possibly find funny about this situation.
“I, uh, am giving you options. This could be some sort of protocol we don’t know about.”
“You don’t believe this is fake. You know it’s very real.”
The words zinged across her senses, striking far closer to the truth than she could comfortably tolerate. “If you are truly in danger, why be so calm?”
“Nothing is going to happen to me.”
She didn’t understand the turn in the conversation but didn’t let the confusion show. Lowell despised weakness. It was why he cast his wife aside and found his son so lacking.
Angie had remained in his life this long because she never cried or acted the role of the damsel in distress. She gave him strength and certainty and followed all of his rules without complaint. Even though keeping up with those rules was exhausting.
Now she summoned all her acting skills to give him what he paid for. “You’re human, Lowell. If someone gets to you, you could die.”
His gaze scanned the room, hesitating briefly on Brandon before returning to her. “That’s not how this night will end.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, this nonsense will finally end. I’ve tolerated it long enough. Frankly, I only brought McBain in because Palmer was so against it. I thought he needed the shake-up.”
Only Lowell would see a death threat as an annoying nit to be batted away. She thought he’d taken the second letter seriously, but now she wondered if he’d just been toying with them all.
“You never called the police.” At the time she’d been grateful because she didn’t want people poking around in her life. More than one former boss might be willing to say a little too much.
“Threats are not the kind of business publicity I want. They suggest I can’t control my family or the people closest to me.” His mouth danced over the words.
“You can’t believe someone in this room is involved.” It took all her strength to keep her voice steady.
“Before I go home tonight, I’ll know who sent the threats and who set all of this up. I can promise you that.” He used the same sexy voice from the bedroom to issue his warning.
Her chest caved in on her. She opened her mouth to try to draw in enough breath, but she couldn’t grab the air she needed. “I wish I had your confidence.”
“I’ve never found you to be lacking in that department.”
Her breath came in pants now. “Who do you think is behind this?”
His feral smile was like that of a predator pouncing on its prey. “I’m working that out.”
Somehow he knew. She didn’t understand who had tipped him off or why, but the evidence stared her in the face. “You keep talking in riddles.”
Brandon stepped up to them, interrupting the conversation. Normally that sort of behavior would tick her off. This time she welcomed it.
He never looked at her. He was too busy growling and scowling at his father. “I volunteer to go out there.”
Lowell all but rolled his eyes. “The door is locked from the outside.”
“We have five men here. Surely we can break it down. We ram it. We use the table. There is plenty of muscle in here to get this done.”
Angie felt a kick of reluctant admiration for the kid. He showed more gumption and courage than she’d ever seen before. More than Palmer and his armed sidekick.
But that didn’t mean she wanted to watch him die. She wasn’t controlling this game or the outcome. She had no idea where it was heading, but she sure couldn’t have any piece of it tracing back to her. Who knew how loyal her paid muscle would be under policequestioning?
“What if there’s a gunman on the other side?” she asked, hoping to bring some common sense to the topic.
His gaze never left his father. “I’m willing to take that chance.”
Palmer stepped up with his hands up for quiet. “Does anyone else hear a strange noise? It’s like a scratching or something.”
“From outside?” Brandon asked.
Palmer looked up. “From above.”
* * *
RISA CRAWLED ON HER HANDSand knees through the blue-lit tunnels. She didn’t have to go far because Aaron’s strategy and planning started her off close to the conference room. She could hear the rumbling of conversation coming from somewhere beneath her whenever the alarm rested between cycles.
The bigger problem was crawling on her belly without letting her knees and elbows thump against the inside of the vent. Every wiggly step took longer than planned because of the need for silence, but up ahead she saw a shaft of brighter light.
Hiding behind the alarm’s screaming siren, she double-timed her movements. The metal clunked when she lifted her knee. She froze, waiting for shouts or gunfire or something. Instead, she heard the same raised voices beneath her.
They were fighting about leaving the room and a locked door. Someone was holding them in and she couldn’t get a sense of who.
She peeked through the crisscross of the ceiling vent. The light cover blurred the images below, but she saw six people, two holding weapons and one female. That had to be the infamous Angie and the only reason Risa was even in this mess.
If she could crawl across the light, she might be able to get to the space above the outside hall and see what was happening out there and blocking an easy exit.
She shifted her hips, and the metal beneath her knee thumped just as the siren came to a rest. The thud echoed all around her, drowning out the heartbeat pounding in her ear. Faces looked up, guns aimed in her direction.
“Who’s there?” A male asked the question over and over, his voice growing more agitated each time. “Look up. You can see a shadow.”
She scooted back, not caring about the noise she made now. She tugged on the rope to let Aaron know she needed help. The increase in shouting started a second later. Crawling backward, she moved too fast and accidentally wedged her butt into an angled piece, a corner turn she forgot about. Shifting her legs back, she scrambled to get out. Tried to turn around.
A bang shattered what was left of her calm. She wrapped her arms around her head and lay as flat as possible. The ping of metal on metal whipped around her. She wanted to move, but fear kept her locked in place.
Aaron had other ideas.
The pull of the rope against her stomach choked out a cough, and a second volley of shots boomed around her. She tried to get her balance back and center her weight over her legs, but they went flying out again when the rope yanked against her.
The rub burned through her shirt and straight to her skin. Her breath caught and her side lit on fire as her body slid with a squeak through the vent. Her fingers trailed along the metal, trying to catch an edge and slow the race down before her body got ripped in half.
The world kept rushing by her. When her mind caught up with her body, the haze cleared. The yelling in front of her had faded and she heard Aaron shouting her name. The panic in his voice soothed hers. She stopped trying to slow her movements and let her body be pulled across the metal panels.
Air breezed up her pants legs as her bare feet left the vent. Rough hands wrapped around her ankles and yanked her down. Her toes had barely hit the floor when hands started roaming all over her.
“We heard the gunfire. Were you hit?” Aaron’s usually steady voice wavered, but his hands kept moving.
“Aaron, let her have a second before you crush the remaining breath out of her.” She registered Royal’s voice.
When Aaron fell to his knees and pressed his palms up her legs, she rested her hands on his shoulders. Without him being there, her knees would have buckled and her body crunched on the floor. Touching him, running her hands over him, brought her mind racing back to reality.
The trembling in her muscles stopped when her fingers slipped into his hair. Even his scent calmed her.
“I’m okay.” She swayed as she said the words. The spike of adrenaline crashed, and exhaustion stole over her body. She wasn’t sure she could lift her arms if she had to. If armed attackers made another run, she’d be a puddle on the floor.
Then he stood again, looming over her with a severe frown that before today might have sent her scurrying. “Looks like the bullets missed you. Any injuries? Even if you weren’t shot, anything we need to check and take care of?”
“I don’t think so. Honestly, I can’t feel anything right now.” She slipped her hand over his cheek, loving the brush of his stubble on her skin. The violent shaking in her fingers made her pull back sooner than she wanted.
He grabbed her wrist and placed a rough kiss on her palm. His lips shook as hard as her insides as his eyes met hers. “I’m sorry I agreed to let you do that. So sorry. That never should have happened.”
“For a minute there, I second-guessed myself, too. I really thought one of the bullets would clip me. They bounced all around.”
“Right. It was a one-time thing. It’s over.” She soothed him because his drawn face and pale lips made her think he needed the reassurance.
Royal cleared his throat. “I know the timing is bad, but can you sum up what you saw?”
She sensed Royal was stepping in and giving Aaron time to regain control. Since she needed a few minutes to regain her composure and talking gave her the chance to think about something other than the horror of the past few hours, she focused on giving an answer. “Six people trapped in a room.”
“Where did the shooting come from?”
“Inside the room. Definitely. No one else was up there with me and all shots originated from the same general point.” She rubbed her stomach and hissed when the fabric touched her raw skin.
“Didn’t expect that answer. Sounds like one shooter and not a group of rogue attackers like we’ve been picking off.” Royal turned to Aaron. “Palmer, maybe?”
Aaron ignored the question and frowned at her as his gaze traveled to her hand. “What’s wrong?”
“I won’t let it drop, so you may as well tell me now.” His gaze kept returning to her stomach. Another few minutes and he might rip her shirt off, and not in a good way.
She waved off the concern even as she secretly hoped for burn cream. “Nothing serious. A case of rope burn.”
He dropped his jacket behind him and rolled up his sleeves. “Let me see.”
The man had lost his mind. She gave him a bug-eyed stare. “Are you kidding?”
Aaron reached for her. “Married.”
Royal smiled. “But not dead.”
She had trouble digesting the information. Her gaze flashed to his bare ring finger. “You’re married?”
He held up his hand. “Don’t wear one for safety reasons. They tend to get caught in things, which makes accurate shooting tougher.”
She thought about slapping Aaron’s hands away. It wasn’t as if he’d so much as seen her bra strap before now. Stripping down was out of the question. Then there was the problem of the looming danger that never seemed to be far away.
“Unbutton your shirt and slip it off.” Aaron tugged on the bottom of her shirt, loosening it from her pants.
The friction inflamed her already-bruised skin. She tried to catch the sharp intake of breath before he noticed.
“That’s what I thought. Nothing casual about this. It could get infected without treatment, and clothes are going to be unbearable for a while.” He went back to work but slowed down, gentled his movements. He opened the bottom few buttons and with a soft touch and careful hands pulled the edges of the shirt away from her body.
Royal’s mouth dropped open.
Aaron was more vocal. “Damn.”
If their reaction was any indication, she was afraid to look down. “How bad is it?”
“How much does it hurt?” Royal asked.
Aaron’s finger traced the skin above and below the injury. Even that kiss of skin against skin had her squirming. “A lot.”
“We have to get you to a doctor. At the very least, you need first aid. We don’t even have a kit. It’s downstairs.”
His pained expression—eyes filled with sadness and cheeks flushed red with an anger she believed spoke of a need for vengeance—was for her. She loved that he cared. She couldn’t believe they’d gone from a missed chance of a date to a moment where the rest of the world fell away when she touched his face.
She also knew whatever they had and whatever first aid she needed had to wait. “After we get in that room, rescue all those people and make sure no one else dies, then we can find a Band-Aid.”
The tension around Aaron’s eyes eased. “All in a day’s work.”
When the riot of noise ended, the occupants of the small conference room slowly came out from their hiding places under the table and behind chairs. One at a time, they stood up and returned to their positions around the table.
A squeak of a shoe against the floor sent them all diving for a second round. That time lacked the gunfire and shadows on the ceiling.
By the time they’d filed back into place, tiles hung loose from the ceiling next to exposed wires. Broken glass crunched under their feet as the room croaked and groaned from the aftermath of the shoot-out.
Angie cleared her throat three times before she could force the words out. “What was that? An attack? If so, why were we the only ones shooting?”
“Who was that?” Mark asked before he dropped into the nearest chair.
“Now do you believe me when I say we have to get out of here?” Brandon headed for the door, only to be stopped be a shake of Max’s head. “Enough waiting. The next wave could be a real attack and not just someone doing recon. If we ram the door—”
Palmer took up the position at the head of the table. “We don’t know who or what is out there.”
Angie watched theLord of the Fliestype of breakdown of leadership in the room. Arguments that worked just minutes ago weren’t succeeding at convincing anyone, including her. Between the screaming fear bouncing around inside her and the very real pressure that came from having opened the door to this mess, she could not take any more.
She’d made a mistake. A terrible mistake. She’d refocus and move on, but she had to get out of there first, and she didn’t see where she was one inch closer to making that happen.
She bit down on her lip as her gaze moved around the room. So much despair and worry. She saw it in the harsh lines on their faces and caved-in looks of their eyes.
Until Lowell moved into her line of sight. There was not a hair out of place on him. He’d taken a seat at the middle of the table, not his usual position. He watched the room erupt in chaos around him, wearing a smirk of satisfaction.
For the span of a blink she wondered if he was the mastermind behind today’s activities. The cool demeanor and lack of panic made him stand out. He’d say those were the characteristics that made him successful. The ones that let him rise above the petty concerns that stopped lesser men.
She’d heard the speech a million times. She’d never believed it…until now. He possessed that certain something that let the world collapse while he stood on the sidelines working on how to profit from the destruction.
“It’s time.” His voice boomed through the room with the force of a megaphone.
“Exactly.” Relief washed over Brandon’s features. “Let’s get out of here and take our chances in the hall. If we stay in a group, it’s harder for anyone to cause trouble.”
Lowell folded his hands in front of him on the table as if he were holding his weekly executive meeting. Forget that he had just survived a gunfire battle. “I meant, it’s time for the person who has been hosting this little party to step forward. We aren’t leaving until we figure out who’s behind this.”
Her mouth went dry. “What?”
“What are you saying?” Mark asked.
“Someone in this room started us on this course.” Lowell looked around the room, his gaze stopping on each one of them as he spoke. “It’s time to admit the plan so we can all go home.”
Mark frowned. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I assure you I am.” He leaned back in his chair and brushed the tile dust off his dark pants. “I’ve reasoned this through. It is the only explanation.”
Palmer leaned forward, his gun nowhere in sight. “And what have you decided?”
“Brandon crowded me in this room. Palmer kept us here.” Lowell pointed to one, then the other.
Palmer didn’t take being implicated very well. His usual stern frown slipped to a look of disbelief. “Me?”
“Mark has not shown one second of worry.” Lowell spun his chair until he faced her head-on. “And Angie. Seems to me you have the most to gain here.”
Her mind scrambled as she searched for a way out of this situation. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“My patience has expired.” He glanced at the ripped ceiling. “Whoever it is, admit your role and I will only fire you. Make me wait through another five minutes of this and I will vow to do much worse.”
Mark scoffed. “It wasn’t me.”
Brandon held out his arms. “It wasn’t any of us. He’s doing some sort of power play.”
“Mr. Craft, if you’ll pardon the brief show of insubordination, this isn’t the time for this sort of shakedown.” Palmer’s voice grew calmer the longer he spoke. “There is real danger out there.”
“From the gunfire, I’d say there’s real danger in here, too,” Lowell replied.
He glanced at his watch. “Four minutes.”
* * *
ROYAL KEPT WATCH AT THEdoor while Aaron shucked his shirt. He’d have to jury-rig a bandage for Risa’s wound. Besides, the plan gave his hands something to do other than pull her into his arms. Hearing those shots and not being with her had taken at least a decade off his life. His head still pounded at the thought of her in so much danger.
Then he glanced at the red skin around her waist and his mind went wild. His fiancée had walked out two years ago over the dangers in his job. She’d said she couldn’t sit at home and wait for a call telling her something had happened to him. She wanted him to get a nine-to-five job at a desk and with a retirement plan.
Something safe and boring. No more guns and certainly not car chases and investigations.
She’d wanted to take everything he was and change it. When he refused to give in to her demands, she’d walked out. He could still see the empty apartment, feel the rumbling hole inside him, when he’d opened the door that night. The note that said she’d rather walk away than bury him.
He’d learned about distance that day. And he’d vowed never again to be in the position of choosing the life he loved or the woman in his bed.
Which was why he never should have sat down across from Risa in that coffee shop. She was a woman you came home to every night. She wouldn’t put up with stakeouts or gunshot wounds. Her life was calm and normal, except for the hours she spent with him.
Lost in thought, he lifted his T-shirt over his head.
Her voice broke through his mental wandering. “What are you doing?”
“I want to wrap my T-shirt around you for extra support. You’re thin, which is already to your disadvantage in this circumstance. You need the padding to keep from irritating the injury further.”
Her already big eyes rounded until they took over her entire face. She gave him an unblinking stare, but every now and then her gaze would slip to his bare stomach. Not that he was complaining.
He folded the shirt and brought it around her middle, careful not to pull too tight. As bandages went, this one was weak, but it would give her a bit of extra padding. One good hit and she’d see stars.
He picked up her shoes and handed them to her. “We’re heading downstairs. My men are outside and we’re going to get you to them and then storm the conference room.”
The rapid eyeblink signaled her return from wherever her thoughts had taken her. “It’s too dangerous.”
He slipped the shirt and jacket back on. “We’re out of options. At least I know, thanks to the intel you gathered, that it’s a confined space with limited bodies.”
“But what about the people outside?”
Royal poked his head back in the room. “Our men are watching them. They’ll be questioned and let go.”
She looked cornered. “I still—”
“It’s all clear.” Royal motioned for her to follow.
With a hand on her elbow, Aaron guided her to the door. He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “We’re headed for the bottom floor. If we get there, you go straight outside. Do not look back.”
“That makes it sound like you don’t intend to come with me.”
He didn’t bother to respond to that because she wouldn’t like the answer. Instead, he focused on the hall. They walked with her sandwiched between them, their steps in tandem and their bodies close. No one was getting close to her again.
They stopped in front of the elevator.
She stared up at the lights above the doors. “Is this going to work?”
Royal continued his surveillance of the hallway. The sweep of his gun and gaze never stopped. “With new construction, the elevators work with the emergency system. You stay out in case of fire. That’s the only problem we haven’t had yet.”
She made a face. “Did you have to mention it?”
Aaron jumped in. Time to put the new plan into action. “You take the stairs.”
Royal nodded. “Right. See you down there.”
Risa caught Royal’s arm when he pivoted toward the emergency stairwell door. “You’re not coming with us?”
“He’s the backup.” Aaron nodded for him to go before she could dissect each step and get them arguing rather than moving.
Aaron saw the floor numbers above the door change. He pulled Risa to the side and tucked her behind him. Ready to shoot, he pressed his side against the wall and out of the direct line of fire should anyone come out shooting.
The bell dinged and the doors opened. Risa jumped, but Aaron didn’t move. He listened for any sound or sign of movement. When the doors started to shut again, he slid his foot in the opening. With his hand in hers, he pulled her into the car and let the doors slide shut this time.
He stabbed the lobby button before putting his body in front of hers again.
She shoved against his shoulder until he faced her. “What about the conference room and the people in there?”
He found smart woman so sexy, but this was the downside. “We’re going to the lobby. I hand you to my men and we go back upstairs to see what’s happening there. I have some concern the room is wired with explosives, but someone on my crew can help with that. Someone else can take you to safety and bring the police back with them.”
Her face fell. “You’re leaving me.”
“Only for as long as it takes to end this thing.” He glanced at the numbers and figured he only had seconds before he had to be ready for whatever came through that door. “I want you to know one thing.”
He didn’t touch her because he couldn’t. One brush against her and his control would break, and right now he needed his mind in the game and his hands off her.
But later everything would be different. “When this is over I’m going to kiss you.”
“Not just okay. It will be one of those long sexy ones, all heat and passion.”
She smiled as she shifted her weight around. The moves looked like dancing but likely had more to do with nerves. “I’m not arguing.”
“But you’re not understanding me.” When her eyebrows lifted and her legs stopped moving, he knew he had her attention and kept talking. “This is going to be a hell of a kiss. The kind that knocks your shoes off and has you wondering why you ever bothered to kiss a man before me.”
She leaned in so close that all he had to do was meet her halfway. He pulled out of kissing range.
Her head dropped to the side, sending her hair falling over her shoulder. “You’re awfully sure of yourself.”
“It comes from the slow buildup from simple dates to a complex disaster. This has been brewing. It’s all wrapped up with adrenaline and excitement and now it’s spinning out of our control.”
She balanced her hand against his chest. “Aren’t you worried?”
“Losing the excitement of it all.” She closed her eyes for a second and pressed in closer until her breath blew across his lips. When she opened them again they were cloudy with an emotion he hoped telegraphed desire. “It’s the perfect moment when all you have is the intake of air and a wealth of anticipation.”
“Yes.” His mouth slanted to line up with hers.
“When you lose it, it’s gone forever. You can’t get that prekiss part back, and that’s a shame because it’s the best part. Sometimes I think it’s better than the actual kiss.”
“If you truly believe that, I’m not sure you’ve been kissing right.”
“But you’ll teach me.”
The whisper of words shot straight to his lower body. She was so sexy, so right and yet so wrong for him.
When the lights blinked out, he almost didn’t notice because his eyes had shut as his mouth lowered. But he didn’t mistake the sharp slam of the elevator or the grind as all electricity inside shut off for a second.
His center of gravity shifted as his body went airborne. With his arms wrapped around her, he twisted and flew. The hard knock threw them sideways into the wall. His back took the brunt of the slam, but he didn’t miss her groan as he crushed her close.
Remembering her injuries, he put out a hand to keep them from bouncing and hitting a second time. He didn’t know how much she could take.
By the time the lights snapped back on, they were pressed against the wall, but the car had stopped moving. Risa’s face turned into him and burrowed into his chest. The crack against the wall had his vision blurring. He blinked several times to bring the small space back into focus.
She lifted her head and sent him a frown. “I hate this conference center.”
She let out an exaggerated breath, blowing her hair out of her eyes. “What happens now?”
Aaron glanced at the trapdoor at the top of the elevator and waited for it to burst open. “Nothing good.”
Aaron had barely said the words when the ceiling tile popped open. In that same instant he pulled his weapon. Risa didn’t have time to even breathe before a man dropped down in the middle of the elevator car. He never lost his balance as his feet hit the floor. His gun stayed steady, too.
Identification proved easy. He was dressed like his friends, head to toe in black, and wearing a grim face that promised pain. It was as if the bad guys had an endless supply of these thugs. Except for the kid upstairs, they all looked as if someone had bought them out of some sort of mercenary, gun-for-hire magazine.
Refusing to get caught off guard again or put Aaron in the position of having to fight for her life, she pressed her body back against the corner of the elevator. No one was going to grab her from behind and use her as a bargaining chip. Not this time.
She ran her fingers over the buttons and jabbed the Door Open one, then winced when she heard the click.
The attacker shook his head. “Don’t bother. I control the elevator.”
Of course he did, she thought. It was that kind of night.
With their guns aimed at each other, the two men faced off. As Risa watched, the attacker’s barrel slid until it drew a line straight to Aaron’s heart. Depending on how fast he shot, Aaron could hit the floor without ever firing.
The thought turned her blood ice cold.
Her fingers wrapped around the small weapon he’d given her. She’d shoot if she had to. Those were words she never thought she’d vow, but a woman could be driven to act. She’d reached that turning point.
“Let me guess.” Aaron almost sounded bored with the newest assault. “You came for the woman.”
“I came to stop you.”
“Sounds like the plan changed. I’ll consider that progress.”
Aaron’s jacket covered his back, but Risa knew he had a second weapon there. Between them, they were well armed and had to outgun this guy. Still, the attacker looked confident.
And that scared the crap out of Risa. Except for the kid who got separated upstairs, these guys came in pairs and attacked in waves. Seeing one of them in the middle of the room didn’t mean there wasn’t a second one roaming around. Where one existed, another hovered in the background, though she hoped this one was the second to the kid upstairs. Her only comfort was that if she’d figured it out, so had Aaron. He’d be looking, anticipating a potential secondary attacker.
But there was a limit to his line of attack. The space couldn’t be more than five by five.
She glanced up, calculating the chance someone could stay hidden on top of the car but still shoot through the ceiling. If that happened, Aaron would be the likely target. He was the dangerous one. Risa wondered ifshe was now the add-on. That couldn’t be a safe position to be in.
“What’s the plan here? We shoot each other at close range and just hope the angle lets us crawl out of here before we bleed to death?”
She hated the sound of Aaron’s plan. “You could let us go,” she said.
The attacker made that annoying tsk-tsk sound. “That is no longer an option.”
“Because we messed up your plan A,” Aaron said.
“I don’t know what that means. I just know my pay went up when I agreed to take care of you.”
Sounded as if Aaron and Royal were right. This was an inside job and the person running it was here, watching and adjusting as things fell apart. Knowing they could see all the angles and didn’t think twice about adding her to the attack list made her shiver. Her, a complete innocent stuck in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
The cold raced up her spine and exploded at the base of her neck. She wondered if she’d ever feel warm again.
“Put the gun down or I shoot the girl.”
“No.” Aaron didn’t bother with negotiating or issuing a warning. He let that one word sit out there.
She almost wished he’d expanded a bit. To increase her odds, she pressed back harder into the elevator corner. Buttons bit into her back, and the raw skin of her wound burned, but she ignored it all to stare at the men in front of her.
“You’re saying you don’t care what happens to her.”
“I’m saying if one more person threatens her, or even looks at her funny, I’m taking him out. You might want to think about that before you pick your next move.”
The attacker shook his head. “I think you should—”
Aaron kicked out. His heel caught the guy’s chin and sent his head reeling back. Instead of falling, the guy bounced back. The gun didn’t so much as bobble.
Aaron pounced. With a roar he barreled into the other man’s midsection and knocked the guy back and into the wall. The hand with the gun whacked against the inside of the car. When the guy held on to his weapon, Aaron grabbed his wrist and crashed it against the wall repeatedly.
With his lower body pinning the guy to the wall, Aaron kept attacking. He kneed the man in the stomach and threw an elbow to his jaw.
Risa thought Aaron had the battle won without taking much of a beating on his end until the attacker shoved back. He groaned out a new threat as the punches flew. A fist connected with Aaron’s stomach, doubling him over.
Then they both went down. Arms and legs flew through the air as each struggled for the upper hand. Bones crunched and feet and hands pounded against the floor. A gun skidded out from the human pile.
She trapped the weapon under her foot and felt a surge of satisfaction. She tried to figure which man it belonged to, but she didn’t know guns. Add to that the multiple opportunities each had to hide a gun, and the chances for bloodshed tripled.
With a hard flip, Aaron landed on his back, pinned to the floor by the attacker. She looked around for anything to slam into his head and came up empty. She wanted to hit him with the gun, but he kept moving and she feared missing.
The hidden gun in her possession, thanks to the guy’s complete cluelessness in not checking her for weapons, gave her another chance at saving Aaron. So did the one crunching under her foot. She refused to play either card too early.
But she no longer had a choice. The attacker straddled Aaron’s thighs as he landed a punch on his cheek. She winced at the contact and the dull thud it produced.
The gun appeared out of nowhere. One second the attacker was using his fists and the next he had a weapon aimed at Aaron’s head. He bucked his hips and tried to shrug the guy off, but he didn’t budge. After expending so much energy, he fell lax and his shoulders eased.
Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth as his head lolled against the floor. He hadn’t passed out, but she feared that was the next terrible step in this battle.
If she didn’t act, she would watch Aaron die in front of her. The mental image almost folded her in half, made her drop to the ground like some broken spring toy. The thought, so horrible, refused to leave her head. Trembling with a mix of rage and terror, she drew her weapon and stepped closer to the men on the floor.
With her hand shaking and her heart thundering through every pore, she stepped up prepared to fire into the back of the head of a perfect stranger. All thoughts of the sanctity of life fled. This was a kill-or-be-killed situation. Worse, it was an unwinnable game where her choices consisted of watching someone she cared about lose everything or sacrificing a bit of her soul.
She needed her head to stop spinning and the bile to leave her throat. The gun was in position with her finger on the trigger when Aaron went from what looked like a near unconscious state to a blur. He whipped a second gun out of his pocket and pressed it into the other man’s chest. Without warning, he fired.
The shot vibrated through the small space as the large man dropped on top of Aaron. He exhaled on a whoosh of unspent breath as the man sprawled over him. Aaron lay there for a second before shoving the guy to the side.
She was on her knees beside him a second later. “Are you okay?”
He struggled to sit up. His hand went to his side as the color left his face. “That’s going to hurt in the morning.”
Blood stained the floor and the crisp white of his shirt. Following his earlier example, she padded her hands over him. As far as she could tell, none of the blood came from him.
With a hand under his arm, she helped Aaron to his feet. They both groaned and more than one bone creaked. She wondered if the bruises would ever heal and how many showers she’d need to feel clean again.
He leaned down, swearing as he went, and grabbed two guns. With his foot, he rolled the attacker over. Blood flowed from his chest as his dead eyes stared up at them.
Feeling leeched from her body. Once minute she stood there aching and hoping for an end. The next, numbness raced through her. It was as if her body stopped functioning. But her mind wouldn’t shut off.
Death hung all around them. She closed her eyes and saw the bodies pile up. When she opened them again, her mind played tricks on her, adding Aaron’s broken and bloody body to the stack.
She swallowed back a scream. No sound came out, but Aaron appeared at her side. “What is it?”
“How do you live like this?”
His spine stiffened, making him grow a good two inches. “This isn’t a normal day.”
“I hope not.”
But something set him off. Amazing a phrase made him tense like that but a fight to the almost death barely phased him. There was so much about him and his life she didn’t understand.
His gaze traveled over her face, but he stayed quiet for a second. Just when the silence threatened to strangle her, he moved. He didn’t bother pushing the call button on the elevator panel; he went right for the phone.
When he didn’t answer any questions or say anything other than hello, she assumed the emergency system wasn’t working. Not a surprise. Nothing functioned the way she expected it to.
Before she could ask why, he slammed his elbow into the small panel above the phone. The first shot produced a crack, but everything stayed in place. The second hit knocked a chunk out of the wall.
Ripping off the cracked piece of metal exposed a mass of wires. “Know anything about electricity?”
“I was hoping you did.”
“Let’s try this.” He yanked two wires. Bending the protective coating, he exposed the ends. “Ready?”
“Me, neither.” He started to touch the ends together.
The casual playing-with-potential-fire thing had her eyes popping. She knew without looking in a mirror,her face registered shock. “Wait, are you sure?”
He touched the wires together and a crackle broke through the room. A second later the electricity whirred to life around them. Blue emergency lights popped on and a steady hum vibrated from above them.
She half waited for another man to drop on top of them. Aaron must have been wary, too, because he stayed away from the middle of the car and had her hug the door.
For the second time he punched the button for the lobby floor, and the car began to descend. “Let’s see if we can get there this time.”
“Royal must be going nuts.”
“Unless he ran into trouble, I’m guessing he’s jogging up and down the steps, trying to figure out how to get the car to move.”
She could imagine him doing that. Aaron might be joking, but she could see either of them flying into a rage at the idea of the other being in danger. They werethoseguys. They rushed in when others dove under a table. Rescuers by nature and by heart.
“Very dependable of him.”
Aaron double-checked his gun. “I know how to hire an assistant.”
“After this assignment you should make him a partner.”
“I like to be in charge.” The car stopped as he finished the sentence. He shifted their bodies so his blocked hers.
She didn’t bother to nudge him to the side or point out that she didn’t want him to die for her. He acted on instinct and nothing she said would ever change that.
When the door opened, Royal stood there with his gun up and aimed. He didn’t shoot, but she guessed another man would have. Something in his training had taught him to make that split-second decision, and she wondered how often he got it wrong, if at all.
“Whoa. It’s us.” Aaron issued the warning, but Royal’sgun was already down.
“Glad you finally got here.” Royal leaned over and looked at the body behind them. His expression barely changed. “Rough ride?”
Aaron shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
She’d bet that was the truth. Bloodshed and a barroom brawl in a malfunctioning elevator seemed like a regular Thursday for Aaron.
Royal continued to look into the car. “Who’s that?”
Aaron glanced down at the newest victim of today’s strange activities. “I didn’t ask, but I’m betting he has a friend around here somewhere. You see anyone?”
“Our guys are outside. Looks like they loaded everyone into an outbuilding. In bigger news, when the emergency system clicked on, the external doors locked. Probably some sort of end-of-world protection, but it means we’re locked in this stupid resort and they’re locked out.”
“This conference center has everything.” Risa let the sarcasm fly because she didn’t have much else left in the way of conversation. The snotty comment matched her prickly mood.
“Except a viable way to get out.” Aaron stared out the huge windows to the darkened shadows outside. “These are tinted, right?”
“We’ll figure out a way to get their attention. Someone can go to get help, if they haven’t already.”
As far as she was concerned, her partners in crime-fighting were missing the bigger point. While she cared about the people outside and was sure they were pretty grumpy about being out in the cold, she was more concerned with the warm bodies inside.
Especially the ones with guns and a grudge. Now that they’d moved from what the kid had described as some sort of harmless kidnapping to hunt-them-down actual murder, her priorities had changed. “Any chance we’re running out of bad guys here?”
Aaron blew out a long, hard breath. “I’ve found that rarely happens. The world seems to be filled with bad guys.”