Authors: Renee Rose
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Military, #Romantic Suspense, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
She went still, an idea occurring to her. Zac had come back into their lives when he believed they were in danger. Perhaps she could lure him out by making him believe they were in danger again. But what could she do? Fake an asthma attack? No, he might just send the paramedics. Ditto with setting a fire, not that she would actually risk their safety that way.
No, it needed to be something spy-like. Some kind of danger only he could save her from. Her mind ran back over the facts. A family member of hers had been a member of the organization but had gone missing. Her dad? But he’d died when she was fifteen. Unless his death was a lie. A cold prickle ran across her arms. That must be it. Who else would show up at her sister’s wedding?
Her lungs constricted and she rubbed her sternum.
Had he been there?
Had he been there and Zac just hadn’t seen him? Hot tears welled in her eyes, overcome suddenly with the grief of her fifteen-year-old self.
She faked a cough.
“Nothing. I need my inhaler, could you bring it to me?”
“Yeah, okay,” Parker said, clearly not believing her. He found the inhaler in her purse and brought it to her, watching as she administered a dose.
“Why are you sad?”
She shook her head. “I just missed my dad for a minute there,” she said in a wavering voice.
Parker’s cheeks sagged. “I miss my dad, too,” he said.
She pulled him against her in a rough embrace. “I know, baby. I know. I’m sorry.” She kissed the top of his head.
His arms wound tightly around her waist. Then he broke away and trotted off without a word. Sighing, she sank into a chair in the kitchen to think. She could pretend to meet him. That might drive Zac to follow, but it didn’t really put her into danger, so he wouldn’t reveal himself. So maybe she could pretend to meet someone else? A mystery person whom he might think was another hit man? Maybe in a bad part of town…at night. Like Lincoln Park, where the gangs and drug dealers hung out. Her lungs began to close at the thought, but she shoved away fear. Zac would be there. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
Unless he wasn’t still watching them and didn’t follow her. She could bring a gun. She had a pistol of her dad’s, and she might even remember how to use it, though the lessons he’d given her were long past.
It was a stupid, crazy idea, but the more she thought about it, the more stubbornly fixated she became, until she picked up her phone and arranged a sleepover that weekend for Parker.
* * *
Zac peeled back the skin on the knife wound across his ribs and soaked up the blood with a washcloth. Applying a thin layer of superglue to the edges, he pressed them back together, moving efficiently down the six-inch gash until it was completely closed. It went deep enough that he could see bone, but hadn’t found its way between the ribs to damage any organs. He peered in the mirror and did the same with the small gash over his left eye. His face was swollen, his lip split, and he had bruises across his ribs where bullets had impacted his Kevlar vest. The gash on his side had been made through the vest, a testament to sharpness of the hunting knife. All in all, he’d come out of the assignment in excellent shape. In a few hours, he’d be back on a plane to the States.
Not that he would contact Becca when he got there.
But he liked to be close to them.
He opened his laptop and pulled up the security feed from their apartment, his software highlighting the moments of action so he didn’t need to review hours of sleeping or an empty apartment. He watched a scene of Becca picking up her phone. In addition to the audio feed, words spoken were automatically transcribed and ran across the bottom of the screen.
“Who is this?” Becca demanded. The tension in her tone made him sit up straight, adjust the laptop and pay attention.
“What?” she asked sharply. She was quiet a long time, listening. “Ten o’clock on Saturday at the northwest corner of Lincoln Park. All right, I’ll be there,” she said tersely.
Lincoln Park? The gang-infested neighborhood? Who the hell would she be meeting there? He whipped open the records of her cell phone calls and tried to match the number to the time on the video. Nothing. No incoming calls that day at all. What the hell? He double-checked the date and time of the video, then returned to the cell phone log.
He replayed the video, listening to the amplitude of her voice, noting the way her eyes darted along the ceiling, as if she were looking for cameras.
It was a ruse. But what was she up to? And then he understood—she was luring him out. This was her way of making contact with him. But now she needed him to protect her, and he was not even in the same country.
He picked up his phone and dialed Marcus.
“I need your help.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s new?”
“It’s personal. Again.”
Marcus whistled. “Twice in one week. I’d say you have a problem, Ghost.”
“What is it?”
He sighed and rubbed the top of his closely shorn head.
“I need you to go to the northwest corner of Lincoln Park tonight and make sure nobody bothers El Demo’s daughter.”
“El Demo’s daughter, eh? If you’re asking for my help, you’d better own that she’s more than El Demo’s daughter to you.”
He blew his breath out through his teeth, but didn’t answer.
Marcus chuckled. “All right, I’m just giving you a hard time, Ghost. I’ll be there to keep an eye on your girl, but what’s the game?”
“No game. Well, that’s not true—it
a game. I think she’s hoping I’ll show up.”
“Ah. Smart girl. She’s got your number, hasn’t she?”
He didn’t answer.
“Mmm hmm,” Marcus said knowingly. “What happened with the stinging bee, is he onto it?”
“Yeah, he saw the kid and there’s no hiding the resemblance. He’s got my balls in a sling now. All the more reason not to be there tonight, I guess. I can count on you to handle it?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Thanks. Listen, did you get any more on who called the Angel? From the inside, I mean?”
There was a silence on the other end that made his senses sharpen, a sense of foreboding creeping over him.
“I can’t be sure.”
“Who?” he demanded, raising his voice, his adrenals popping into gear and sending his body into hyper-drive.
When Marcus didn’t answer, he snapped, “Tell me, Marcus!”
“It might have been Beatty. But I can’t verify.”
Goosebumps stood up on his arms as a kind of white heat flooded his veins. “Mother fucker,” he swore softly. “Why would he put out a kill on El Demo from the outside, when he already has one on the inside?”
“I don’t know,” Marcus said. “Because he has something to hide? Something he wouldn’t want El Demo to tell another agent?”
He stood up and paced his hotel room. “Maybe. Or could it be he already knew about me and he doesn’t think I’d do it?”
“Would you?” Marcus asked.
Zac didn’t know the answer to that. Becca thought her father was dead already. And the man had sold state secrets, although they hadn’t caused much harm. It wasn’t like he leaked the identities of his fellow agents—he had turned over plans for an operation that had already been called off, which could mean he had been trying to minimize damage. But that could also mean he had some reason for doing it that he might want to tell another agent about…
“I don’t know, Marcus. A week ago I would have said yes. But now it’s more personal.” He blew out his breath with a hiss, still pacing the room. “I’m in deep, aren’t I?”
Marcus was silent. “Family comes first,” he said with uncharacteristic gruffness.
He remembered the reason Marcus worked an analyst job rather than in the field was because he had a wife and two girls. It had been the reason he’d trusted Marcus with the secret of his son. It was Marcus who’d known how to plant Zac Casper into the marine pension system and it was Marcus who had dressed in a uniform and delivered the fake death notice to Becca. In exchange, he’d made sure Marcus had become rich along with him, as field agents often received the benefit of seized currency or goods that couldn’t be traced. It was unofficially considered part of their compensation for being non-existent and risking their lives on a daily basis for their country.
He looked at his watch. “It’s 9 p.m. your time. Get there early, okay?”
Marcus snorted. “I think I can handle it.”
“I know. Thanks.”
Becca drove around Lincoln Park in her car, the windows and doors locked tight, her heart slamming in her chest. Not unlike her peaceful Golden Hill neighborhood, people were out on the street, lounging on porches and steps, walking the sidewalks. Except here, she could feel a menacing energy from them. No, maybe she was just making that up. Poor didn’t translate to mean. But they were all watching her because she was out of place. She probably looked suspicious driving so slowly, looking out her windows like a nervous old lady. She pulled her inhaler out of her purse and took a puff, fortification against the closing walls of her lungs.
She pulled over, finding a spot to parallel park on the street and inched the car back and forth until it fit, feeling a dozen eyes watching her progress. She got out and slammed the door too loudly, trying not to make a show of setting the alarm. Crossing the street, she walked quickly up the block toward the park.
Was she being followed? But wait, it could be Zac. Except no, two men were walking a half a block behind her, appearing to be looking for trouble. Quickening her pace, she walked to the northwest corner of the park, looking around for a bench to sit and wait. There was nothing, and as she stood there, she realized she probably looked like she was waiting to make a drug deal or something. Jesus, what had she been thinking? This had been a stupid idea. There was no guarantee Zac even heard her faked phone conversation, much less that he would show up. She looked around, scanning all the people for the right height and general appearance. No match.
The two men who had been behind her arrived and stood in her personal space, giving her a bold once-over. “What’s a pretty lady like you doing on a night like this?” one of them drawled. The other snickered, and picked the strap of her purse off her shoulder, sliding it down her arm.
“Hey,” she protested, but her voice was barely a squeak, her breath leaving her as her lungs constricted. She looked around wildly—for Zac—for anyone who might help her. Nobody even seemed to notice. She couldn’t let them have her purse; they’d get everything—her wallet, her phone, her keys, and her car—and then she’d be completely screwed. She yanked back on the purse and the man backhanded her across the mouth. She lost the purse, stumbling back. She expected them to run, now that they had what they wanted, but they didn’t. Instead, the one who didn’t have her purse lunged forward and grabbed her arm, yanking her up against him. “Where you going so fast?” he demanded, running the backs of his fingers down her cheek, then snatching her around the neck.
She was seeing stars, not so much from being choked, but because her own traitorous lungs had closed long before the fingers tightened around her neck. Another man appeared, a ball cap pulled sideways on his head, silver chains around his neck. He pulled a gun and the vision left her eyes completely for a moment, but a deep voice said, “Let her go and give me the bag, or I blow both your brains out.”
The fingers crushing her throat released and she stumbled to keep her footing.
“Don’t turn around. Just walk away and don’t look back.
look motherfucking back, I said!”
As her vision cleared, she saw the two would-be attackers walking away, their swagger no less pronounced despite the gun trained on their backs. She blinked at her rescuer, trying to somehow make him into Zac, but he wasn’t. He was too short and older than Zac. He shoved her purse at her without looking away from the men. “Get back in your car and drive away. You don’t belong here,” he said and started walking away, following her attackers.
He had a belly, but he held his back military-straight and the way he handled the gun was professional. The image of him in a marine uniform, holding his hat and informing her of Zac’s death flashed before her eyes. She jogged forward. “Wait!” she gasped. She wanted to grab his arm, but it was attached to the hand holding the gun, so she stopped in mid-lunge. “Wait. Where’s Zac?” she panted. “Ghost! Where’s Ghost?”
He turned and met her eye. “He’s not here,” he said and the relief she felt just to have him acknowledge the existence of Zac was almost greater than her relief at his timely rescue. “Get back in your car and drive away.” His head remained perfectly still, facing her, but his eyes roved alertly, as if he were taking in every possible threat. “Go home. Don’t come back again—Zac won’t come for you.” He turned and walked away again, as he had before, leaving her glued to the cement, frozen in the chill of his words. She fumbled for her inhaler, taking one puff, then another, willing her feet to move toward her car as her mind shut down all coherent thought.
She got into the car, buckled her belt, and started the engine, working her way out of her parking spot without caring who watched. She pulled out and stopped at a red light, which blurred into waves as hot tears flooded her vision.
Zac won’t come for you.
But why not? His choice or someone else’s? Was he still alive? Was he still monitoring her, or had someone else alerted this agent?
She went home and crawled into bed, hiding her head under the covers and blocking out all thought as she slid into dark, menacing dreams. She slept until noon, knowing Parker would be at his friend’s until evening and not feeling up to anything. She had to face it—Zac was not coming back into their lives. Depressed, she crawled out of bed and stood in the shower until it went cold, as if she might wash away all vestiges of the inane hope she’d been harboring.