“Come on, you can do better than that!” taunted the silky female voice, laced with a cultured British accent. “Looks like you've gotten soft lounging around on this side of the pond.”
Samuel Mackenzie grit his teeth and hammered the punching bag with two quick left jabs and a hard right upper cut. His friend and employee Renee Thomas chuckled at his obvious annoyance.
“What are you doing here, Thomas?” Sam demanded in a deep, rich Scottish accent while his focus remained on his boxing workout. He wore long, loose workout shorts low on his lean hips, but his thickly muscled upper body was naked and slick with sweat.
“I work here,” replied Renee as she walked across the expansive gym inside the Fortis headquarters near Alexandria, Virginia. At almost six-thirty on a Friday evening, the building had only a handful of employees still working. The gym was empty except for the two of them.
“Not right now you don't,” he retorted, still pounding at the heavy-duty, leather-bound apparatus. “You were shot less than two weeks ago, little lass. You're not approved to be back for at least another week.”
The tall, lean woman stopped next to him, with a teasing smile on her milk chocolate face, and not the least bit put off by his gruff reprimand.
“Yes, I know. But I'm not an invalid. It's just a flesh wound,” she insisted. “I was just in today to help with some research in the U.K. Nothing the least bit strenuous. So don't worry, you still have a little more time to train before I knock you on your arse.”
Sam snorted, and gave her a quick glance. Renee was five feet, eight inches tall, but at six feet, four inches and a solid two-hundred and forty pounds, he towered over her.
“Not in this lifetime, sweetheart,” he said, working through another combination of boxing moves.
“Any problems in Toronto?” she asked, watching him with a mix of respect and amazement. For a big guy, Sam was surprisingly fast and almost graceful in his moves.
“Nope. Smooth as silk,” he stated, throwing a powerful uppercut before finally stepping back and gripping the punching bag to still its swinging movement.
Sam owned and managed Fortis with his two best friends, Lucas Johnson and Evan DaCosta. It was a full solution security and asset protection firm of twenty-three specialized field agents, technicians, and operations analysts with elite government experience and training. He had been in Toronto for three weeks on his last assignment, implementing a cutting-edge, virtually impenetrable security solution for one of their current clients, Magnus Motorsports. He had flown back to Virginia that morning, heading straight to the Fortis compound to finish up some paperwork.
Renee handed him a clean towel from the stack on the supply cart nearby. Sam used it to wipe off the moisture dripping from his face and head, leaving his dark blond mop of damp hair in a tousled mess. He draped the towel across the back of his neck, soaking up even more sweat as he picked up his discarded T-shirt from a bench nearby.
“Lucas says you're off for the next two weeks?” she said as they walked toward the gym entrance doors that led outside near the parking lot of the building.
“Yeah,” Sam confirmed, sounding less than thrilled about it. “My mum was supposed to come for a visit, but she had to cancel at the last minute.”
“Wow! Stood up by your own mum. That definitely explains your relationship issues.”
“I wasn't stood up. She closed a big deal with a new corporate client for the inn and spa she runs near Inverness, and they needed some immediate accommodations,” he explained, tossing the used towel into a laundry basket nearby. “And I don't have any relationship issues.”
“You mean, you don't have any relationships,” Renee shot back, shaking her head. “Probably also due to your generally sour disposition.”
Sam pulled on his cotton T-shirt, effectively hiding a smirk. He and Renee had worked together for several years as security advisors within MI5, the U.K. security services, before he moved to the U.S. five years ago to join Fortis. They had stayed in touch since then, until Sam successfully recruited her that spring to join the team. It was good to have her around, even if she was one of the few people who could easily see beneath his bad-ass exterior and took every opportunity to tease him.
“So, what are you going to do with all that time off?” she asked.
“Not sure yet,” he admitted, grabbing his car keys and cell phone from the counter along the wall. “There's some work needed on the house that I haven't had a chance to do for months now.”
“Well, try not to do anything interesting. You might actually have fun,” Renee shot back, rolling her eyes with exasperation.
“Not likely,” declared Sam, grinning broadly with his bright blue eyes sparkling in amusement. “Are you leaving now? Do you need a lift home?”
“I just have a couple of things to finish off at my desk, but I'm fine to drive. It's only a twenty-minute drive to my place.”
“You sure? I can wait for you and drop you off.”
“I'm fine, Sam,” she insisted. “Almost as good as new.”
Sam looked at her hard, clearly skeptical that she was telling the whole truth.
“Okay, but send me a note when you get home,” he insisted.
“Sure, old man,” teased Renee. She punched him hard in the shoulder, but he didn't even flinch.
He watched her turn and walk across the gym toward the entrance to the Fortis offices; then he pushed through the heavy exterior door and stepped outside. It was a warm evening in late June, with a cool breeze that carried the smell of a brewing rain storm. Sam strode smoothly to his car in the small parking lot, unconsciously noting the other cars. One was unfamiliar and stood out as a luxury rental with darkly tinted windows. Seconds later, as he was about to pass it, the driver's door opened, causing the muscles in his stomach to tingle with caution. It was like a sixth sense telling him he wasn't going to like what came next.
Two shapely legs swung out from inside, smooth as melted caramel and wearing very sexy, very high, black stilettos. And Sam knew exactly who they belonged to, even before the rest of the woman emerged from the car interior. Draped in a body-hugging black dress and oversized dark sunglasses, her thick, shiny, chestnut-brown hair brushed over the top of her shoulders.
For a brief moment, Sam thought about ignoring her. He could just walk a few more steps to his car and drive away as though she didn't exist. It was what he had been trying hard to do since the last time he saw her four years ago, but it had never actually worked. So he strode right up to where she stood, stopping just out of arm's reach.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded bluntly.
Her full pouty lips parted, but no words came out. Sam could feel her nervousness and apprehension but refused to care.
“Well?” he growled, leaning forward.
She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin.
“I need to hire a security consultant.”
Whatever he had expected her to say, it wasn't that.
“Then you've made a wasted trip. Evan is out of town until Monday,” he told her, then made a move to walk past her.
“I know. I want you,” she added in a soft voice.
Sam stopped and clenched his fists tight until his keys were cutting into his flesh. “And why the hell is that?”
“My boss needs protection. He's in the middle of a big real estate bid, and he's been getting threats from one of our competitors.”
“Your boss,” Sam repeated, turning back to face her. “Who is he?”
“Terry Antonoli. He's a developer with a North American head office in New York and project bids in several cities in the Northeast.”
“Does your father know you're here?” he asked.
“This has nothing to do with him,” she replied, evasively.
He looked down into her face, still a good six inches from his, despite her heels. Though her dark brown eyes were covered by the shades, Sam knew exactly what they looked likeâsparkling bright and rimmed with long, silky lashes.
“Tell your boss that we don't do babysitting,” he finally stated with a dismissive sneer. “Call Evan on Monday and I'm sure he'll refer you to several good bodyguard services based in New York.”
“Sam, wait. I need your help,” she insisted as he turned his back to her and started walking away. “I think Terry is in real danger.”
“Call Evan,” he snapped without pausing or looking back.
Mikayla Stone-Clement was still standing beside her rental car as he drove out of the Fortis parking lot.
Sam was on autopilot for the drive to his house, which was just a few minutes south of the office, his thoughts fixed on this complication he would prefer to forget. His mind wandered between the memories from the past and her pretty pleas for help now. Both made his blood boil with anger.
He had met Mikayla over four years ago while on a mission in Maryland for her father, George Clement, and his newspaper and magazine empire, Clement Media. It had been a random encounter, and seemingly innocent at first. While completing an investigation into suspected corruption at one of the smaller Clement newspapers, Sam had found a very pretty and slightly injured woman falling in the alley outside the offices of the
. She had introduced herself as Kaylee Stone, a staff writer who had sprained her ankle on uneven concrete while rushing to do an errand. Of course, Sam helped her with immediate medical care. Then one thing led to another, and he found himself at her place over the next few days as they got to know each other better.
By the time he discovered her real identity, an unforgivable line had been crossed. Not only was she his client's daughter, she was his friend, Evan DaCosta's, fiancÃ©e.
Mikayla Stone-Clement was the worst kind of trouble then and, judging by how damn hot she was looking tonight, she was even more trouble now.
Sam parked his car in front of his house and entered the cozy, secluded cottage situated on a large wooded lot along the banks of the Potomac River. Once inside, he headed straight into the bathroom for a long, hot shower. After towelling off, he walked naked back into his bedroom to get dressed in jeans and a gray shirt. It was only shortly after seven o'clock, and he felt a nervous energy to do something or go someplace where he was less likely to spend the next few hours thinking about a woman he could never have.
He picked up his cell phone, intending to call Lucas, but paused when the phone vibrated with a new email message. It was from Mikayla.
Please listen to this message left for Terry this afternoon. I hope you'll reconsider. I'm staying at the Hilton Crystal City hotel until tomorrow morning, room 815.
Her phone number was listed beside her name at the end of the note. Sam paused for several seconds before he clicked on the audio file she had attached.
“We've warned you to keep your foreign money out of our business interests. But you don't seem to be listening. So we'll just have to make it real clear for you. Pull out now or your bitch will pay the price. And she won't be so pretty when we're done with her.”
Sam listened to the deep, distorted voice on the recording three times, trying to assess the validity and seriousness of the threat to the woman indicated. Who in Terry Antonoli's life was the intended target? His wife? Girlfriend? Mikayla?
Sam quickly called Renee.
“Are you checking up on me?” she asked as soon as she answered the call.
“I need your help,” Sam stated bluntly. “Are you near your computer?”
“I can be in about ten minutes. Why?”
“I need you to pull up any information you can find about Terry Antonoli, real estate developer.”
“Okay. What's going on?” Renee asked.
“I'm not sure yet, but we might have a new client.”
“I thought you were on vacation?”
“Yeah, supposed to be. But looks like I might have to postpone it,” Sam explained. “Send me whatever you find on the developer.”
“You got it,” Renee confirmed before she hung up.
Then Sam called Mikayla at the number she provided. After three rings, it went to voicemail. He didn't leave a message. Instead, he went into the walk-in closet of his bedroom and opened a concealed cabinet at the back of the space. From it, he took out a Beretta nine-millimeter pistol, checked the magazine, and then tucked it into the back of his pants. He called her number two more times as he strode out of the house and got into his car. She still did not answer, and the tingling in Sam's stomach was now an incessant cramp.