Authors: Renee Rose
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Military, #Romantic Suspense, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
Zac didn’t answer, but a muscle in his jaw twitched. The man’s focus turned deliberately to Becca, causing her heart rate to increase. “She knows nothing,” Zac said immediately.
She shook her inhaler and took another puff to stave off the collapsing feeling in her lungs.
The steepled fingers interlaced to rest on the table. “Report.”
“There’s been no contact since the initial assignment. Surveillance identified the presence of an independent hit man and I went in to ensure the safety of the civilians.”
“Did logic tell you the civilians’ safety was at risk?”
Zac’s lips pressed together.
“There’s a reason there’s a code against field agents having relationships.”
“Did you place the operative?”
The man raised his eyebrows, then frowned. “Why would I engage outside the organization?”
“You tell me.”
His eyes narrowed. “Evidence?”
“A call from the inside to her phone.”
The man sat silently for several beats, then shook his head. “She may have a contact on the inside, but she was working for herself. He reached in a briefcase and pulled out a manila folder, sliding a photo of a man with a gunshot wound in the middle of his forehead to Zac. “Her partner. Said to have been killed by El Demo. It looks like revenge.”
Zac examined the photo then passed it back, noncommittally.
“This case is closed. I need you on a plane by noon for a critical mission. I will debrief and reinstate the civilians.”
Zac stared at the man, who was clearly his superior, for a long time, then he gave a single nod and pushed back from the table.
“I don’t need to tell you—”
“You don’t need to tell me anything,” Zac interrupted, stalking toward the bedroom without a backward glance.
The man’s gaze swiveled to her. “Will you get your things together, ma’am?”
A cold prickle ran up her arms. She stood, trying to look as calm as possible. She met Zac in the hall, his face still stony, but his eyes searching hers like he wanted to tell her something. He raised them to look over her shoulder at his boss, and swallowed. “Stay safe,” he said softly and she recognized him again—the Zac from last night. “You won’t hear from me, but I’ll be watching.” He looked over his own shoulder at the door to the room where Parker was.
Her eyes filled with tears. “You tell him goodbye,” she hissed.
He hesitated a moment more, but then nodded and turned back, entering the room and crouching next to Parker, who was playing with a plastic dragon on the floor. She followed, but ignored them to give them privacy, picking up their things and stuffing them into the bags.
“Buddy, I’ve gotta go. It’s not safe for me to be around you—too many bad guys might want to hurt you to get to me.”
“No,” Parker whined.
“I’m sorry, kiddo.”
“When will I see you?”
“You won’t,” Zac said, his words sounding strangled. “I can’t be your dad, buddy, I’m just a ghost.”
“Will you still haunt me?”
Becca’s hairs stood on end.
“Yeah, buddy. I will always haunt you. Okay?” Zac cradled his head and kissed his forehead. “Be good. Listen to your mom. I’ll be watching.” He ruffled Parker’s hair and stood up, giving her one last shipwrecked look before leaving.
“Put your shoes on, Parker, we’re leaving too,” she said, trying to keep her voice normal.
“But not with my dad?”
“Right, not with your dad.”
“With that man?”
“Yeah,” she said, her belly tightening. She had that “out of the pot and into the fire” sort of feeling about going anywhere with him, but it seemed there was no choice and she didn’t think Zac would leave them with him if he didn’t believe they were safe. She followed him to a black Bronco parked out front and climbed in the back with Parker for a silent ride back to their apartment in Golden Hill. The man dropped them in the parking garage near the elevators, with a terse, “Here you are.”
“All right,” she mumbled. “Come on, Parker,” she said, speaking to her child to avoid having to speak to him. “Thank you,” she said, slamming the door shut and scanning the garage for Zac’s SUV, on the very off-chance he did, in fact, live in their building, as Parker had claimed. She didn’t see it.
Inside, her apartment felt so strange—as if she were a completely different person from the one who’d left it less than twenty-four hours earlier. She glanced around, looking for signs people had been in it. The broken window had been replaced and the mess of the struggle had been cleaned up, but otherwise there was no evidence showing how many had been in there, or what they had done. She looked around at the ceilings. There were cameras there, somewhere. She shivered.
* * *
“So this is it?” she asked, standing outside the hotel as Zac loaded her suitcase into the trunk of her car, which he had pulled around to the front like her own personal valet. She handed him the garment bag with her crumpled bridesmaid dress and he tossed it on top of the suitcase and closed the trunk.
He turned to her, pulling her against him. “Thank you for a great weekend.”
“Thank you. Good luck in Iraq. Should I email you, just in case you have access?”
He hesitated just long enough for her gut to clench with the realization that the “no access” claim might have been a line. “I’d like that,” he said and slanted his lips over hers for a Hollywood-worthy goodbye kiss.
She got in the car and left him at the curb, trying to ignore the sudden emptiness within.
* * *
Pacing around the apartment, she tried to disentangle her thoughts, but each thread only ended in new questions. Who was this family member they called El Demo? Was there really a Black Ops branch of the NSA or CIA or whatever he had said? Was any part of Zac’s story true? Was any part of
true? He’d hurt and frightened her that morning when he’d threatened her, but the way he’d handled her the night before had been fantasy fulfillment material. And the haunting in his eyes when he talked about them seemed real. Still, he was nothing more than a glorified stalker—a man who looked into their lives like a peeping Tom, who had made them into something significant to fill the emptiness of his own pale existence.
She spent a long, miserable day cooped up in the apartment with Parker, and was relieved to call it bedtime at 9 pm. Just as she plugged her cell phone into the charger, it buzzed with a text message.
I’m sorry. I will always love you. Do not reply.
Do not reply.
Hot tears burned her eyes. She hadn’t gone there. She’d made it through the entire day without pretending anything they’d had had been real. And now he’d sent her a stupid text saying he loved her. A sob escaped her lips.
No. You cannot love a man you do not know. You cannot love a man you do not trust, who is not even a real man. You cannot love a man you can never see again.
Wiping her tears, she sniffed and quoted the Bard out loud,
“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever, One foot in sea and one on shore, To one thing constant never.”
* * *
“Anything to drink, sir?” the flight attendant asked, smiling and moving along when he shook his head.
First class to Paris under the alias Zack Moore, a business development manager for a tech company, he read all the background material for his mission. He was headed to Helsinki to investigate the disappearance of a key alternative power scientist. The chat box launched on his screen with a message from Beatty.
Stinger: Civilians deposited safely. You’re off their surveillance, permanently.
He popped his cursor in his chat box.
Ghost: Negative. Sir.
As if adding the “sir” would soften his insubordination. Beatty would probably read it as sarcastic, anyway.
Stinger: You are already skating on thin ice with me.
Ghost: They are my responsibility. Taking me off detail will not stop my watch. Don’t force me underground.
He could almost feel Beatty’s beady stare as his boss considered the complexities of the situation. He was 60% sure Beatty would throw him a pass on this. Zac was a top performer, with clean, successful missions. He had overthrown regimes, rescued hostages, eliminated undesirables, and transported the most sensitive data. He knew enough of his country’s secrets to make him extremely dangerous if his loyalties were ever bought or swayed. If Beatty forced him to break with the organization, Zac would go on their hit list. Agents in his position generally only left the organization as an unnamed body in a box.
Stinger: I want your mind on your mission.
He’d conceded. He didn’t think Beatty would be ready to cut him loose over this.
Ghost: It will be, sir.
The chat screen disappeared and Zac sat back, exhaling a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
He hit an icon and the security cams in Becca’s apartment came up. She and Parker were both where they should be—Parker sleeping in his bed, Becca sitting on hers with her laptop. He relaxed at the sight of them, though he’d been 99% sure Beatty wouldn’t harm them, he never trusted anyone completely. He hit a different icon to see what Becca was reading. Domestic discipline blogs, her nightly routine. She only lurked, never commented, so he couldn’t tell what she really thought about them. Did she want a domestic discipline relationship? Or was she just turned on because they described spankings? This was the missing piece of the puzzle he’d made out of analyzing Becca’s life. He knew his obsessive surveillance of her bordered on unhealthy, not to mention immoral, although working for Black Ops had taught him moral flexibility. Still, she and Parker were an anchor to him, helping him remember what it is to be human.
He opened his browser and pulled up the banking information from one of his off-shore accounts. Punching in the numbers, he set up a series of transfers to cloak a trail to Becca’s account and hit “complete action.”
One hundred thousand dollars should take care of any financial strain. There was a solid comfort in having the ability to support her now that she knew he existed. It had been tricky before, although he’d enjoyed the game of it—leaving twenties on the floor of the elevator for Parker to discover, and arranging for them to occupy the best apartment in the building for only $750 a month.
But he enjoyed Becca knowing the support came from him even more, though it was wrong to add kindling to the flame that never should have been reignited in the first place. But it had. To put a cherry on it, he ordered a bike to be delivered to Parker. His chest tightened thinking about the boy—his son, though he never allowed himself to think of him that way. But, God, their connection was undeniable.
The kid had heard the music he played in his head.
He closed the browser and stared at the security images again. Becca’s hand was between her legs and her eyes were closed, her legs jerking. His cock went rock hard, the pent-up frustration from their interaction the night before rocketing his desire. He rubbed his face, holding his breath, waiting for her orgasm as if it were his own.
* * *
Becca took a breath and knocked on the superintendent’s door. She heard his classic rock station blaring inside and the door swung.
“Hi, Becca. I know, I know, you told me about that leak a week ago. I’ll be up tomorrow to fix it—”
“No, no,” she cut in. “I mean, tomorrow’s fine. But what I was wondering if you could tell me which apartment the owner lives in?”
Nick’s lip curled. “The owner? He don’t live here. Not that I know of, anyway. What makes you think he does?”
“Oh, I thought maybe he had the place upstairs? Is it a penthouse?”
“Penthouse? Are you nuts? There’s no penthouse here. Upstairs is more apartments just like yours. And no owner lives in them. The owner’s an out-of-state guy—that’s why the management company runs everything.”
“Yeah, why are you asking?” he peered at her.
“Oh, I, uh, just wanted to meet him, that’s all. You know, to tell him how much I like the place. Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there some time in the morning.”
Becca got back in the elevator and sighed. It had been worth a try. She’d already tried calling the management company, without any luck. Discovering a mysterious deposit of one hundred grand in her bank account that morning had galvanized her into action. As angry as she was at Zac for lying to her and spying like a peeping Tom, there was something appealing about his secret attention, knowing he’d been looking out for them all these years. And now he’d followed through on his promise of financial support.
Her brain had been in a blender all week, and now she’d decided she needed to find Zac. Meeting him all those years ago had been a game-changer, and that was before she found out she was pregnant. Seeing him again wrecked the mockery of a life she pretended to be leading. She needed Zac Casper, or whatever his real name might be. She needed to play out whatever it was between them.
She knew it was beyond complicated and she understood it was dangerous, but she didn’t care.
She unlocked the apartment door and went in. “I’m back!” she called out to Parker.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, skidding on his socked feet like a cross-country skier.
For the eight hundredth time, her head popped up to scan the ceilings for cameras. Knowing they were under surveillance had made her self-conscious in her own home, and she’d developed a sense of performance anxiety, as if her mothering skills or home-making skills were on constant display for some kind of reality TV show. She hadn’t found any evidence of the equipment, not that she knew what to look for. And who monitored it? Just Zac? Or his boss?