Countdown to Zero Hour (2 page)

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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Rolan smiled, ticking his finger at her, and praised with a heavy Russian accent, “Very good.”

Art nodded agreement. “Best I’ve ever had.”

She soaked in his honesty. “Don’t tell your mother that.”

“She’d agree.” Again, Art curled his hands around the lapels of his jacket and balanced on his legs.

Rolan planned something quickly in Russian. Art replied to him, and their conversation ran for a moment.

“...good...nights...home cooking...”

She picked out words and phrases here and there, wishing her family had taught her more growing up. They’d spoken mostly English at home. She’d only heard the steely opera of her ancestors’ native tongue when her father and aunt would talk without wanting anyone to know what they were saying.

But her aunt had taught her to cook the family recipes, and those damn pelmeni had gotten Hayley into this situation. No, that wasn’t right. She tried to blame Burton for her position behind the steam cart but knew that wouldn’t fly either. A ton of circumstances had blended together to put her on that sidewalk. Ultimately, it had been her choice. And look where it got her.

New dimensions to Art unfolded in front of her. His mastery of Russian deepened his mystery. He wasn’t just common muscle. She bet that anything she threw at him, he’d handle: leap from rooftop to rooftop, land a space shuttle, make a feast out of her body.

A tingling awareness swept low in her belly, hungry for something other than food. She threw the thoughts of sex into a quick ice bath, setting their lurid color but keeping the heat from overcooking her.

“Rolan loves your food.” Art licked his lips. “And so do I.” The growl in his voice let her know just how much her cooking shook him. “He says that you’re doing a good job, keeping his customers from getting too restless while they’re waiting to get in.”

“Thank you.” She made a curt bow to Rolan.
“Spacibo.”

Her accent for her kitchen-table Russian was good enough to let people know her last name wasn’t just an ornament. Rolan appeared pleased and rattled off a string of sentences she couldn’t follow.

Art translated, “You’re a fighter.” He added an aside, “I saw it from the way you handled the line. And me.” Rolan cleared his throat, and Art resumed translating. “You can stay. But...”

Here was where the boss would name the price for letting her stay. Or he would lean on her for intimate compensation. She’d been subject to that kind of pressure before as a woman in a commercial kitchen. The answer was always an unwavering “no.” Was Art the enforcer for that kind of leverage? He didn’t seem like it, but nothing was certain outside the club.

He continued, “You have to include a salad next time. Something with tomatoes and cucumbers with fresh dill and sour cream. And beets.”

She knew better than to breathe too much relief. “That I can do.”

“And forty percent.” Art’s face was all business.

The hope of an easy deal crashed, taking her mood with it. Damn it, forty was a big chunk. And would make it harder for her to climb out of the hole. But how much leverage did she have? She pushed past the frustration and countered, “Ten.”

“Thirty-five.”

“Ten.”

He chuckled. “Forty.”

She stood up to him. “Your boss trusts you to negotiate for him?”

“I’m trustworthy.” He casually crossed his arms over his chest. “Thirty.”

“Fifteen.”

Art shook his head, scanning the area before coming back to her. “It’ll cost twenty percent of your nightly to stay and sell here. No less. Otherwise you’ll have to find another club to hang out in front of, and I can almost bet their ownership is a lot less accommodating. And I’m damn sure their hired help isn’t as friendly.” He gave her a secret wink. “You’re cash only, no receipts. Cook the food, not the books. We’ll go with a general twenty percent. Feel me?”

“Not literally.” The monetary terms would work, but anything else was a deal breaker. Her quick and raunchy sexual fantasies with Art were very separate from these negotiations.

He backed up. “Not what I meant, Chef. I was raised by my mother and sisters. I’ve heard the stories. We’re talking business right now.”

“Twenty percent it is.”

Rolan patted Art on the back, satisfied, then extended his hand to Hayley. Under the best circumstances, running a restaurant meant making deals the county tax board would never hear about. This arrangement put her running headfirst into very shady territory. But she had to. There was a career to salvage and a lot of generosity she had to pay back to her mother.

Hayley shook Rolan’s hand.

Art immediately broke the handshake with his hard forearm. He stepped between them, and she felt just how powerful his body was when he pushed past her. A shocked gasp cut off in her throat. Was he having second thoughts about Hayley making a deal with Rolan?

The boss exclaimed in Russian, but Art didn’t turn around or answer. His focus was on two men hurrying away from the club line and toward Hayley and Rolan. They were coming on fast, but she saw the hard lines of their faces, their cold dead eyes. And the wicked combat knives in their hands.

Her muscles locked, not knowing what to do.

Art rushed the men, placing himself between them and Hayley and Rolan.

She’d seen fights before and had even been in a few. They’d been clumsy and drunken, or fueled with blinding anger that limited the combatants to shouting and grappling.

Art, though, moved with precise brutality. He engaged the closest attacker, who wore a leather blazer. Art used his forearm to knock a knife strike to one side. Before the second man dressed all in denim got too close with his blade, Art kicked him quickly in the shin.

That man stumbled, and Leather Blazer swung back with his knife. Art leaned away, balanced. He kept his hands high and ready. The man continued to push forward, slicing the air. Screams erupted from the line of people outside the club, and bodies scattered.

Art’s focus didn’t waver. When Leather Blazer overextended a strike, he countered with a quick jab to the man’s throat. Sputtering, the man lunged with a wild stab. Art jumped to the side and caught the man’s arm up under his. With a quick turn and a wicked elbow, Art broke Leather Blazer’s arm. She winced, gritting her teeth at the sickening sound. The knife fell from a limp hand and clattered to the ground.

The man howled. Art kneed him in the chest, then kicked him to the pavement. The denim attacker had gathered himself and sprang at Art. Instead of facing the man, Art dove to the side in a tight roll. When he stood, he had Leather Blazer’s knife.

To this part in the fight, Art had looked like a professional and trained combatant. A warrior. With the knife in his hand, he was feral. His face remained calm, his body coiled. He was a predator who understood life and death.

He and Denim Man circled each other, knives out, Art always shifting to keep himself blocking the path to where Rolan and Hayley stood by the steam cart. All she had was a slotted spoon to defend herself, and she hoped she wouldn’t have to use it against the determined attacker with the huge blade.

Art made no indication that he would let Denim Man through. He was cautious with the man’s knife but pressed his own attacks.

Tension bolted all her joints in place. She couldn’t breathe while the conflict played out, just a few feet from her.

Leather Blazer groaned on the ground, holding his arm tight to his chest. The line outside the club was gone, only a handful of people remaining on the far limit of the outside lights. Men streamed from the front door, hurrying toward the conflict.

Denim Man saw the oncoming bouncers and bodyguards and doubled his attack. He swung and sliced quickly with his blade, showing murderous skill. Art remained nimble and stable, avoiding the razor edge. If she could’ve drawn a breath she would’ve shouted some caution to Art.

Just when he looked to be on his heels, Art launched his own assault. The knife struck out like a snake in his hand. The first jab missed, but he swiped the edge to the side and cut through the man’s shirt and into his forearm. Denim Man winced, clenching his teeth. Art didn’t let up. His knife flashed out, again and again. The man’s arm was cut in long stripes.

Her heart thundered harder at the sight of blood in the violence. The blades were much more brutal than anything she worked with in the kitchen.

Denim Man tried to counter, but Art blocked him with a quick punch to the shoulder that knocked him back. Art stabbed out again and sliced across the back of the man’s hand, forcing him to drop his knife.

She winced and drew her arms tighter to her body, knowing the pain must’ve been intense.

The man’s terrified eyes stared wide at Art’s blade. Art made him flinch with a fake stab. Denim Man never saw Art’s other fist coming in. The blow landed square on his jaw. The attacker was unconscious before he hit the ground.

Art immediately picked up that man’s knife and patted him down for any other weapons. He found only a cell phone and tossed it to the side with the man’s wallet. He did the same for Leather Blazer, who was in too much pain to put up a struggle.

The other men from the club descended on the scene. Half surrounded the two downed attackers, while others whisked Rolan back into the building. For a moment, the only sounds were the low groaning of Leather Blazer and the quick, hard thumping of Hayley’s pulse in her ears.

Art emerged from the group of men and went to her, his face focused. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she replied. Was this the same man she’d been flirting with? He’d changed so fast, the fighter just beneath the surface. He seemed human again, but all that violence couldn’t go away that quickly. “You?”

Still holding both knives, he checked over his hands. “Couple of nicks, nothing bad.” One of the knives had the other man’s blood on it. Art’s amazingly calm gaze moved on to her face again. “Get out of here before the cops show up.”

She glanced down the hill to where her SUV was, trying to figure out how to switch gears between life-and-death struggles and the nuts-and-bolts details of hitching up her steam cart.

Art grounded her with his calm and even tone. “You’re not part of this business. You just sell pelmeni, right?”

She nodded.

He continued. “I’ll stay with your cart. Get your car.”

Usually taking orders prickled her, but having a clear directive helped sort out all the chaos. She jogged away from the side of the club, realizing she still held the slotted spoon like a weapon. She had clenched her fist so tight her fingers creaked when she opened them to get her keys out.

She laid too much gas on, and the tires screeched up the hill toward the club. The group of men surrounding the downed attackers paid little attention when she double-parked. Art didn’t hold the knives anymore, and pushed the cart over to her trailer hitch. Hayley helped him hook it up, but lost most of her dexterity to jumping nerves.

Selling her family recipe pelmeni outside a Russian nightclub had seemed like a perfect way of digging her way out of debt and turmoil. But in one night, she’d shaken hands with a mob boss and witnessed an attempted killing. The man who’d taken on and neutralized the attackers appeared way too calm. The same physicality that had flared vivid sexual fantasies had erupted into quick, devastating violence.

Art placed his warm palm over her trembling hand. “Chef. You’ve got this.”

Part of her believed him. He’d stood between her and the attacker’s blades, even if he was protecting Rolan, too. She was amazed that he could make her feel at all safe amid the violence.

“Thank you,” she breathed.

He was dangerous. The depth in his eyes resonated through Hayley, making her think she understood a piece of him. But,
no
, she told herself. He was too different, too far away from anything she’d known.

“You’re welcome.” He walked her to her car door and opened it for her. Once she was inside, he tapped reassuringly on the roof. “I’ve got to keep you cooking. Besides, you had my back. If they’d gotten through me, you’d have taken them out with the spoon.”

It rested on her passenger seat.

He smiled, slightly crooked, slightly honest. “See you next weekend.”

Fear and a hidden thrill tumbled through her. She’d found a good place to start her life back up but had to make a deal with a bad guy to do it and had entered into a world of knife attacks and violent men. Art was one of them. And he seemed like something else. She’d see him again. She’d be back in the danger. Would he protect her? Or tempt her deeper into the shadows?

Chapter Two

Art showered in the dark and left the lights out as he toweled off. Soap had stung the hairline cuts on his knuckles and the backs of his hands. He’d had worse growing up with his sister’s cats. He’d had worse fighting in the hills of Afghanistan.

Long ago, he’d memorized the layout of his simple apartment and now moved silently through the darkness without bumping into anything. Leftover warmth from the shower dragged at his tired muscles. After pulling on a pair of boxers, he used an app on his phone to deactivate the motion sensing area light in the living room. The glow of the floodlight would’ve warned him if anyone had come through, even if he couldn’t hear the footsteps. A .38 special in a zip-top bag in the shower was always close at hand.

His feet creaked the floorboards as he walked to the kitchen and poured himself a tall shot of aged tequila. There was another revolver within reach, taped to the underside of the counter. The cooking knives were kept sharp, even though he didn’t cook much.

He’d never make a grilled cheese sandwich or improvise a burrito from leftovers again if he could eat whatever was coming out of Chef Hayley’s kitchen every day. The pelmeni continued to warm him. Perfect dough. Rich meat. He remembered it almost as vividly as he did turning to see Hayley after the fight, standing with the metal spoon in her hand, ready to defend herself. She earned a whole other level of respect when he’d taken in how she’d tried to control her fear and stand her ground.

The tequila burned a slow path down his throat. He hissed a breath through his teeth, erasing any thoughts of what would’ve happened if the sharpened danger of the two hit men had gotten to her.

“Fuck that,” he said out loud, then downed the other half of the glass and refilled it. There was no chance he’d have let them touch her. The only way they’d have gotten close was if Art was dead. Which was more dedication than he’d give his supposed boss, Rolan.

Art had just met her that night, but if he had to pick between them, he’d save her. As far as Rolan and the rest of his mob organization, the Orel Group, was concerned, Art’s job was to protect the boss at all costs. But they didn’t know he had another job. He’d taken it to protect innocent people like Hayley.

And, man, if he’d just been a normal guy chilling outside a club and eating an order of dumplings, he would’ve been happy to spend a few minutes in her company. Chef Hayley was as sharp as razor wire. Quick wits and agile without being mean. Easy to look at, too. A few inches shorter than him, with a cropped blond bob and blue eyes that collected the light. And the body? He sipped the tequila. The chef’s coat wasn’t formfitting, but he saw she was strong and curvy. Would she go for a guy like him? It didn’t matter. She didn’t know what kind of man he was. To her, he was a goon, working for the mob, and he couldn’t tell her anything different.

He hadn’t been a normal guy for a long time. Things were too complicated for anything other than a casual hookup that was quickly dismissed. Hayley wouldn’t play that. Nothing was casual about her. Just eating her simple food was like a weekend in bed.

Luckily it hadn’t come down to making the choice between her and Rolan. The two assassins were skilled, but rough around the edges and too confident. They weren’t coordinated as a team. He’d picked them apart and only had small cuts like he’d been repairing the screens in the crawl spaces under his mom’s house.

He took another drink, sorting the night’s events and letting the tequila mingle with his slow, tired blood. Another mob had made a play on Rolan. The territory was in flux. It would ramp up the boss’s plans to pull in the other Orel Group heads for the big meeting. There was strength in numbers, and Rolan needed their help to squash out the competition in the southwestern region.

Art would be there, undercover, running point for the operation to bust that meeting. He had a rendezvous with his strike team the next day and would relate the escalation to them. A lot of moving pieces needed to be in place before they could take Rolan and the Orel Group down. But Art and the other operators worked like the components of a machine gun. Maybe that was why the shady black ops soldiers who’d first formed the team had named it Automatik.

Sipping his tequila, he walked back through the dark living room. The sun would be up soon. How much sleep would he get before the day burned him awake? Living a double life took all his energy.

He sat on the bed, surrounded by the solid silence of his blackout curtains. Tonight’s threat had been neutralized. A broken bone and non-life-threatening knife wounds were easy to explain to the cops. The men had been taken away and would be released on bail as soon as their crime family came through. Art’s cover hadn’t been blown. A new civilian had arrived in the mix, and she hadn’t been hurt in the attack.

From the way Hayley had held the spoon, she could’ve given anyone hell. He was sure she had at some point. Anyone willing to stand out alone and sell food in foreign territory had to have a huge set of radishes. And a reason. Her ferocity in the negotiations had proved that. She was fighting not to lose.

She didn’t know it, but he was fighting for her, too. He’d seen that she knew what she was doing when she’d shaken Rolan’s hand, but there was no way she understood how spiked and twisted the web was. Would he be able to end all this before she got hurt? He’d joined Automatik to keep people safe. The undercover job with Rolan and the Orel Group had a personal meaning, too.

Revenge.

He was in deep and wanted to be in deeper, twisting the knife.

* * *

Hayley peered at normal life from a distance. Four days had passed since the incident at the Sea Weed. She’d gone over the events again and again and couldn’t find anything she’d done wrong. Still, she felt like a criminal. And something as ordinary as a farmer’s market was distorted and alien for her now.

It was the same set of stalls in the same parking lot in the same old part of town, near brick business buildings, but anything familiar appeared too distant to touch. She walked through the rows, examined the fresh food and interacted with the farmers and sellers, yet it all rang false. Or tenuous, like she was about to slip up any second and reveal a terrible secret. The sky would go dark, and the people would turn on her like she was a monster in the village.

But she couldn’t figure out what the secret was. She’d witnessed a real knife fight, with a violence she’d never seen. Art had been brutal and precise. Men had been broken and hurt. She’d run before the cops had arrived, and there’d been no contact since. There had been one mention on a local website about trouble outside a club, and three or four of the people who’d been standing outside had mentioned the fight on social media, but there weren’t a lot of details. Everyone seemed to know it wasn’t their business, and to say anything about it would draw them into the danger.

She was in it. That was her secret. Since that night, she’d worn her denim jacket like armor, even though the days were warm. She was fully aware of a perilous criminal world and she was planning on going back to turn a profit, instead of running as far away as possible. Which made her a crook, too. Like Art, who was always at the center of her thoughts. Coiled, a knife in both hands, smiling.

“The daikons are fresh.” Carol, the Chinese woman who ran one of the better food stalls, picked up one of the glowing white radishes and shaved off a slice with a pocket knife. “Sharp, but a little sweet.”

Hayley took it, and the quick burn of the daikon’s spice brought her a few miles closer to the rest of the world. But could she look Carol in the eye without the other woman knowing she’d waded into deep criminal water?

She selected a couple of daikons and handed them to Carol to be weighed. “You have dill?”

“With the herbs.” Carol pointed to the piles of green bundles. “Planning something?”

“Experimenting.” Hayley picked through the dill stalks, finding the freshest and firmest. This was how it was supposed to be. Collecting what was in season, finding a way to use it and presenting it to the diners in her restaurant. “The daikon will go great in a simple cucumber salad. Sour cream, dill, lemon juice.”

But she didn’t have a restaurant. Just a steam cart and a handshake with a mob boss.

“Sounds excellent.” The woman bagged the radishes and the dill Hayley gave her. “Still waiting for you to open your own place.”

Hayley took a long breath. “It’s going to be a while longer.” The first night of sales from the cart had been decent. How many more of those would it take to pay her mom back? And how long after that until she got into the black?

Carol looked on with sympathy. News of Hayley and Burton’s breakup had made the rounds through the restaurant and food service community months ago.

Then Carol’s face lit up. “Just a whim, try bitter melon in the salad.” The woman comped Hayley one in the bag. “Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be there opening night.”

Opening night. She’d worked so hard for that moment, to see her mother and family there, sitting at a table, sharing her food and clinking generous glasses of wine over low candles. What had been so close now tasted impossible.

And the main reason was probably sauntering through the same farmer’s market searching for just the right ingredient. Hayley fought the welling of hot tears.

“Thanks, Carol.” She took the offered bag of produce from the woman. “Don’t need a restaurant. As soon as I have a decent dining table, I’ll have you over for dinner.”

The woman’s eyes glinted, mischievous. “I’ll bring the wild card ingredients.” Then she glared over Hayley’s shoulder. “He’s here. Just up the aisle to your left.”

The muscles between her shoulder blades knotted. But she wasn’t about to run and hide from Burton. He was a son of a bitch with cold feet and a cold heart. She had kept cooking.

She turned, a small sneer on her lips. Burton saw her and stared back, about three stalls away. The harsh sun beat down. Everything glowed in a haze except Burton. His shaggy blond hair was deliberately tousled around his clean-cut and handsome face. Lanky and muscular, he was at least a head taller than most of the people around him. He held a couple of bags of produce and wore his usual shorts and a T-shirt. His customary easygoing surfer-guy chill seemed frozen.

They’d run into each other a few times since the breakup but hadn’t spoken more than a cupful of words. This felt different. Charged. Did he see that she was part criminal now? She tried to deny how much she embraced that darkness, when confronted with someone she wanted to intimidate. It was too intoxicating.

“Trouble?” A man’s voice at her shoulder startled Hayley. She twisted to face Art, whose focus remained down the aisle at Burton. That ready violence lurked dangerously close to the surface.

It was a shock to see him there, so out of context, in her world. “No trouble,” she reassured him. But she had to wonder what he was doing there.

Art loosened his shoulders and relaxed. “Looked like a standoff.”

She glared at Burton again. “That battle’s over.”

Her ex glanced from her to Art and back again. Slowly, Burton stepped up the aisle until he disappeared beyond a stall selling roasted nuts.

Was this how it would work from now on—she’d think felonious thoughts, and Art would show up out of nowhere, bringing his menace? Her head spun a bit from the criminal cocktail. So much potential. If they were outside the rules, they could do anything together.

She pulled her wallet from her purse and peeled out a few bills. “Tell me this is a coincidence and you’re out here looking for the perfect basil for your pesto recipe.” The money went over to Carol, who made change and deliberately eyed Art quizzically.

He was out of place at the farmer’s market. Rough around the edges, wearing his light jacket in the warm day. Dark sunglasses obscured his expression, making his intent more mysterious. Her skin prickled, aware of how close he was. And how close she was to touching all that potential motion and energy.

Hayley managed to answer Carol with a quick shrug. Whatever information she did have about Art wasn’t something she’d give willingly without implicating herself. Carol waggled her eyebrows before Hayley and Art moved away from the stall.

Yeah, Art was sexy. She was sure Carol and everyone else at the market saw it. Even Burton must’ve recognized Art’s potency. But none of them knew about his job the way she did. And they hadn’t seen his efficient violence the way she had.

He walked beside her while she continued on her rounds. Daytime Art was much looser than she’d seen him by the club. His shoulders swung slightly and his lower body turned like he had his own theme song, thumping with a heavy beat. It would be easy to match that rhythm. Her body wanted to, rocking her own hips.

She tried to examine his expression, but the sunglasses were too dark.

“Do I have any secrets anymore?” she asked. “Did you use your...contacts to find me?”

He stopped walking and took off his sunglasses so she could see his serious eyes. “I don’t want your secrets. You don’t want mine. I found you all by myself. Where better to find a great chef than near great food, right?”

“You’re a smart guy, Art.” And sensual. And rough. And brutal.

He held up a warning finger. “You can’t know that about me. I said you didn’t want any of my secrets.” A wry smile twinkled his eyes.

“I won’t tell a soul.”

“Bueno.”
His accent was authentic.

“But how are people not supposed to catch on that you have a brain when you speak Russian and Spanish?”

His fist was held low. “They usually only hear this.”

She went silent. But she saw hints of sadness and distance in his eyes. Part of her wanted to cover that territory and find out more about the man behind the scarred knuckles.

He put his sunglasses back on, started walking again then paused for her to catch up. It didn’t feel like she had a choice. They were in the same world together now. She walked at his side. He chewed on thoughts.

Eventually he spared a few words. “My father was
hecho en Mexico
. Mother from Mother Russia. She’s the one who raised me.”

BOOK: Countdown to Zero Hour
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