In Safe Hands (The Safe House Series Book 1)

BOOK: In Safe Hands (The Safe House Series Book 1)
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In Safe Hands

By Leslie North

 

The Safe House Series

Book One

 

Blurb

He didn’t understand loyalty until she stripped it away…

Damian Stone was a distinguished member of the NYPD, on the fast-track to an FBI career until a crime syndicate ambush cost him his partner and his ambitions. Recruited by an elite security agency that leverages his hyper-protective instincts to shield notorious trial witnesses, Damian never met a charge he couldn’t safeguard.

Until her.

Alexa Volkov lived a privileged life, far from the messy underbelly of her father’s Russian mafia. As a crime boss daughter, she is in a unique position to collapse the organization from the inside out. Her plan to testify against the mob patriarch puts a bounty on her head that would tempt even the most trustworthy cop—especially one hell-bent on punishing her for the sins of her father.

But the safe house part of Damian’s protection plan is anything but safe. In a place where alliances are not what they seem and the most dangerous heat bearing down on them is the forbidden burn of seduction, the only thing more at risk than life is a lethal hit to the heart.

 

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CHAPTER 1

This was the last time Damian Stone would ever let Rockwell assign him a woman.

He studied the two figures at the nearby gas station, slid his thermos from his console, and took a fortifying swig of espresso. Twenty minutes had passed since his first scalding sip, and the caffeine had yet to rouse him from his morning haze. But the sight of Alexa Volkov’s crisp, white blouse shrink-wrapped against her cleavage was enough to raise a corpse from the dead.

Pure triple shot.

Admittedly, there had been no precedent before her. Damian’s past clients included a sweaty Wall-Street type with an appetite for sex trade cash, an informant that had turned state’s evidence against a high-profile New York senator, and a retired real estate mogul whose trophy wife had hired half of Jersey’s parolees to make his death look like an accident. In every instance, the guys were foul-mouthed, ball-scratching, abysmal excuses for human life that Damian would have given his dying breath to protect.

This woman? Damian would have surrendered his dying breath
and
every damned other involuntary drive to extract himself from her protection detail.

Two red flags skewered his instincts.

First red flag: her dossier. The text was more than half obscured. Rockwell’s thick, black boxes would have made the State Department proud. And the grainy, paper-clipped photo of the blond may as well have been a police sketch from a drunk eye witness.

Damian had nothing to go on. Less than nothing.

Second red flag:
Goddamn
, but she was beautiful. Distractingly beautiful. Throw-a-top-security-agent-off-his-game beautiful.

Volkov's escort leaned against the company’s unmarked sedan, looking damn obvious—dressed all in black and wearing a pair of expensive shades. The man looked like he had been trained on a Hollywood set and released out into the wild in full wardrobe. He certainly didn't look like someone casually passing through Wyoming at dawn.

Damian made a mental note to have a word with Rockwell about some of the newer trainees.

Volkov wasn't doing much to improve her cover, either. Her stiletto heels peeked from beneath an expensive, wide-legged pantsuit; and despite a coat more inclined to fashion than function in the Rocky Mountains, a sleek belt at her waist amplified her shapely curves. But what most women aspired to, Volkov achieved effortlessly: long, lithe figure; wide-set, exotic eyes, straight blond hair pulled back into a high ponytail.

One glance at Alexa Volkov was like taking a blow to the head. The spark behind your eyes that kept you company when someone laid you out on the training floor at the police academy.

Damian allowed himself a moment to feel dizzy. Then he got out of his car.

The woman didn't shrink as Damian approached, though her slender arms fidgeted. He wondered what she was contemplating more—his nondescript outfit, or his towering, decidedly
descript
build. He didn't blame her for looking uncertainly to her escort for a confirmation of Damian's identity.

"Stone," said the man in black.

Damian took ownership of the name with a slight nod. He flashed the escort his credentials, but his focus never veered from Alexa’s stare. Eye contact was the first non-verbal to gaining her trust. Her Nordic-blue eyes, as breathtaking as the rest of her at close proximity, tightened to a glare.

Her escort took the hint and departed without further comment.

"You're a cop," she said. It wasn't a question.

"Retired," he acknowledged.

"You don't walk like you're retired."

She was observant, then, as well as being a knock-out. Damian wondered how her defenses would impact their shared situation. He had been on the receiving end of that mistrustful look a time or two before when he still wore the uniform.

"Why don't we get some coffee?" he redirected. "Have you eaten anything?"

"Shouldn't we be heading out? I mean, isn't it dangerous, now that I'm…?"

"You're with me."

Volkov’s perfectly-shaped eyebrows twisted in a not-so-perfect fashion, no doubt her brain working to process his meaning. He had used the statement to calm skittish clients before, but the words hadn’t struck him as odd until they left his lips in the presence of a beautiful woman.

"What I mean to say is that you're safe, Miss Volkov. You can trust me to make decisions. Patronizing the diner will make our visit to the premises less suspicious."

Her steady, contemplative blinks seemed to indicate a shift, a consent to delay judgment until more information presented itself. Lines at her forehead eased then disappeared.

Damian guided her to the diner’s entrance and held the door for her.

Volkov stalled in the doorway and looked up at him with a wan smile. "Tell me again how you're retired? Even your words are blue." She ducked beneath the pillar of his arm to enter.

In her wake, her fragrance wafted to his nose—something blossoms and vanilla and rain, rolled into one.

The scent soothed his jacked nerves. Always first-meet nerves.

The Sizzling Griddle diner was cramped, built like a long railcar with red vinyl booths lining the outer wall. Volkov took direction from him beautifully and didn't stop until they had sequestered themselves in a secluded corner. A cursory glance satisfied Damian that they were a good distance from the windows. He took a seat on the stool beside her, trying to assess how much he was allowed to study a woman under his protection while still retaining his professionalism.

Seeing her in poor lighting only made things worse. She might be anyone.
He
might be anyone. Their first meeting might be a thing of chance, rather than a life-preserving necessity.

"How was your escort?" he asked. If they were strangers in a diner, he certainly wouldn’t have opened with
that
line.

"Strong. Silent. He looked a little ridiculous. You, on the other hand…" She paused when Damian removed his baseball cap and place it on the table beside his wallet, seemingly changing her mind about what she planned to say at the last moment. "Your name is Stone?"

He didn't correct her. An adherence to last names was a good boundary to encourage. Instead, he nodded to a passing waitress, who obliged him by overturning his mug and pouring him a cup of coffee. Alexa declined a cup.

"How did you get into this line of work?" she asked after their waitress left.

Damian raised the mug to his lips.

"Were you discharged?"

"No."

"No offense, but you look too young to have retired by choice. And if you were injured in the line of duty, I doubt
this
would be your logical next assignment. You have to be able to protect me, right?"

Damian lowered his coffee without having taken a sip. Answers about his past could make or break her trust in him.

"Am I right?" she pressed.

"Miss Volkov, if the question is whether or not I am
capable
of protecting you, then I assure you that you are in safe hands."

She sat back from the bar and crossed her arms. Damian wondered if she was going to order anything to eat, or if this had been a wasted effort to appear unsuspicious. When the waitress returned, he took the liberty of ordering two stacks of pancakes. A possible overstep, but their first meeting couldn't derail much faster.

Volkov ate her meal dutifully, speaking little. Damian accepted a refill on his coffee. It was a long drive back to the safe house, and he couldn't afford to let last night's fitful sleep show. He paid in cash, and they quietly exited the diner.

A man watched them from a sidewalk, half a block away, half-concealed by a parked Jeep.

Damian’s hand seized her elbow. He kept the movement casual, overfamiliar for the benefit of anyone who might be looking, but the pressure his hand exerted left little question as to his intention.

Volkov stopped walking. "What is it?"

Damian leaned toward her, his body as close as a lover, his answer a whisper. “Trouble.”

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Alexa Volkov froze like a doe in a hunter’s crosshairs.

He shouldn’t be this close to a female client, but pretending to be intimate seemed the only acceptable cover for a man and a woman out alone in the early morning. His eyes drank in the kaleidoscope of watery hues in her pupils before he shifted his attention to a practiced sweep of their surroundings.

The man was gone.

Damian summoned a mental snapshot: tall, maybe six feet; hollowed-out cheekbones; baseball cap not unlike his own; facial hair—not much, just a shadow. And the ordinary superpower to disappear in seconds.

"It's bad," she insisted. "Isn't it?"

"Instincts are never bad." Damian assessed the distance back to the diner. They were positioned equidistant to the car. Both locations would be expected end points with little room to maneuver once the decision was made.

Damian aimed for a forested slope of cottonwoods behind an adjacent smoke shop.

His hand slipped from her elbow the small of her back. He guided her down the narrow country road, his open palm hovering but never quite touching. His pulse quickened as much from his hand’s proximity to her heart-shaped ass than from their swift pace.

Volkov had given him more than a passing impression that she didn't trust cops. Damian couldn't remember the last time a witness under his protection had grilled him about his past. Whatever her opinion, she appeared to trust his instincts now. After their initial meeting, he expected resistance on every front. Her compliance, even cooperation, revealed a side he hadn't anticipated.

"We'll walk a few minutes into these woods,” he narrated for her benefit. “Then I'll radio for another car to be dropped off for us."

"How far are we going?" Alexa's face tightened.

Despite his plan, Damian slowed to a stop. Honesty bred trust. The kind of trust that would keep them both alive. His hand that hovered near her back alighted gently.

The woman didn't flinch at the contact. If anything, she turned into him.

Damian quickly withdrew his hand.

"Quarter mile,” he said. “Take off your coat.”

Alexa's eyebrow shot up. The attitude from the diner immediately returned. "You want me to take off my clothes?"

Damian didn't bite. Instead, he pulled off his hat and stuffed it into his pocket then whipped his own coat off his shoulders and inverted it. "If anyone's tailing us, they already know what we look like. Any alteration will give us a few seconds before recognition sets in. Sometimes, a few seconds is all we need."

Volkov yanked the elastic tie from her hair, releasing her ponytail into a blond curtain past her shoulders. She combed her fingers through the shimmering strands, set out in stark relief against her dark clothes.

An image of his fingers doing the same flashed in his mind—deliberate instead of absent-minded, skin instead of clothes. His groin tightened a split second before his rational brain clobbered his libido.

"Not good enough." His voice emerged clipped, brisk. He’d take brisk. Brisk would keep them alive. Brisk would keep him from wanting to bed his ward. He handed her his hat.

She twisted the golden locks around her finger and tucked the thick length beneath his cap, out of sight.

"Now the coat."

Volkov unzipped and removed her coat. Another idle tuck of her hair, and Damian noticed a flash of something on her pale wrist—a tattooed crest: one skull, two guns, barrels crossed beneath the grinning visage like bones joined in brotherhood.

Damian’s blood ran liquid-nitrogen cold.

He knew that crest better than anyone—maybe even better than the girl who wore it. The ink was no larger than a pendant on a bracelet, easily dismissible. It vanished in the next instant when Volkov pulled her coat back on, this time with the lining facing out.

The brand on her wrist was like the entrance to a long, horrifying tunnel—one that Damian now found himself hurtling past. His mind abducted him away from the forest clearing, away from Alexa Volkov, away to the single most violent shootout of his life.

Bodies convulsed and dropped around him in the crossfire—most, but not all of them, wearing the insignia, like their own fortune sewn onto their skins. Gun barrels blazed, bullets flew and ricocheted, Paulson dropped…

Damian snapped back to the present with a grimace. His vision sharpened. Alexa looked at him as if she was caught halfway between making a wisecrack and feeling genuinely worried.

This time when Damian seized her arm, his grip was anything but gentle.

"Come on. We need to get further in. Then I'll make the call."

 

***

 

Damian wanted to tear Rockwell a new one. He wanted to curse the old man then leave the blonde temptation alone in the woods to find her own way out of whatever mess she had gotten herself into. He didn't put his life on the line for
mob members,
especially not a member of the mob that had murdered his partner right in front of him.

He paced as he called for the backup car, his backtracked steps the only measure of tension he dared release. Alexa gazed off into the woods, her ridiculous heels dangling from her grasp. She clearly sensed something was wrong, despite his composed exterior. He ended the call and returned to her side. Her proximity triggered every black feeling he had going on inside him.

"Stick close to me," he instructed. "It doesn't matter if I make a phone call or take a leak. Don't mistakenly think that whoever is after you is going to holster his weapon just because you felt like being polite."

"At least one of us has the inclination toward politeness," said Volkov.

Damian heard a trace of the Russian accent he knew shouldn't have been there. She had been sent to school in the States at an early age, or so her file said.

Then again, her file had omitted a hell of a lot of important details.

They navigated the trees in silence, eventually coming to a drop-off at the perimeter of a secluded neighborhood. Damian withdrew the universal key used for all the company vehicles and unlocked the passenger side first, ushering Volkov inside in a pantomime of good manners. He wasn't halfway into his own seat when the woman unleashed the third degree.

"Do we have a problem?" She crossed her arms, pressing her breasts to exaggerated prominence.

Damian averted his glare out at the road. He didn't know who sparked his anger more: Volkov, Rockwell, or himself. He shoved the car into gear, and they started down the road.

"Is it because I call you out on being a dirty, no-good cop?" Alexa asked bluntly. "I just wanted you to know how things are.”

"Yeah?" Damian didn't like the rise in his voice. He swallowed deliberately and tried again. "Is that how things are?"

"Yes. I don't trust cops."

"And I don't trust mob members."

The cabin was silent. Damian thought he would welcome the quiet, but it only electrified the air between them. He kept his eyes on the snaking, mountain road as Volkov, after a moment's deliberation, pushed the sleeve of her coat back from her slender wrist. In his peripheral, he saw the black mark on her arm, grinning at him like he was the biggest fool on earth.

"I'm not in the mob," she said. "Nico Volkov makes everyone in his circle get this tattoo. Even members of his own family."

BOOK: In Safe Hands (The Safe House Series Book 1)
3.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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