Something was off. The Caribbean jungle beyond the chain-link fence had gone quiet.
The back of Caitlyn’s neck prickled and beads of moisture gathered on her skin as she and her dog strolled the grassy strip at the edge of the runway. Nascent sunlight washed the sky in pale gold, banishing the shadows, and at the end of his leash, Rockley lifted his leg and peed on a fencepost.
If something were wrong, wouldn’t he sense it too?
“Come on, Ro.” She flicked the leash and he quit sniffing the ground.
No less than eight guards tracked her progress toward the plane. Their presence should have made her feel secure.
About halfway to her ugly-but-reliable six-seater prop, Treavor Lambert and three men entered the airfield through a small gate that led to the house. His two guards—Jack, a hulking white man with a shaved head and a thick beard, and a lanky black man with cornrows named Christophe—flanked him. With their AK-47s and shiny muscles, the pair could have walked straight out of Soldier of Fortune magazine.
His son Glenn came third. Damn. He was back from his three-week tour of Europe. Late twenties, sandy hair, blue eyes, chiseled features, gym-honed muscles, and a tennis-court tan. The type who looked airbrushed and superfluous despite his Ivy League education. The type who probably tortured kittens and charmed his mother with the same zeal.
“Good morning, Ms. Brevard,” Lambert said in his deep, booming voice.
She stopped and waited for the group to join her. “Morning.”
Lambert somehow looked cool and fresh in a gray suit tailored for his tall, trim frame, not a single strand of salt-and-pepper hair out of place. He bent over and stroked Rockley’s black fur. “He looks better every week. You’re taking good care of him.”
“Thank you, sir. He just needed a little love.” Someone had dumped the lab mix on the road near Rockley Beach, beaten and bloody, his coat matted and mud-caked. The poor boy was only now starting to look healthy again. “Lucky he’s a good flier or I wouldn’t have been able to keep him.”
As if she could have abandoned him to who-knows-what fate.
“Dad,” Glenn said, stepping forward. “We should move off the tarmac.”
Rockley darted behind her legs and growled softly.
“Sorry,” Caitlyn said at Glenn’s sharp look, tugging the dog toward the plane. “He’s still not comfortable around white men under forty.” More specifically, a creepy frat boy who couldn’t understand a woman not falling at his feet for a chance to sample his awesomeness.
“Is that your excuse too?” Glenn fell into step behind her as she trailed Lambert and his security detail. He’d asked her out repeatedly during the year since she’d started providing frequent hops between St. Isidore and the other Eastern Caribbean islands for his father.
Rather than take the hint each time she declined, he seemed only more intent on changing her mind.
“You know I don’t date people I work with,” she said. Even when they weren’t self-important assholes.
He leaned close and whispered in her ear, his hand skimming down her back. “Make an exception. It’ll be worth it.”
Caitlyn’s skin crawled and she jerked away as his hot breath touched her neck. “That’s—”
“Come to the music festival in Sancoins with me this weekend,” he cut in. “You’ll have fun.”
Sure, if one’s idea of fun was getting date raped.
If Glenn had been her client, she would’ve turned down the steady work after the first flight, and damn the money. But he wasn’t, and she didn’t want to let him ruin what was otherwise a good thing, so she’d been reluctant to stir up trouble. But she should talk to Mr. Lambert, request that Glenn not accompany him on her plane anymore. “No, thank you,” she said. “Nothing’s changed.”
His handsome face twisted into a scowl. “If you and this guy are so hot and heavy, how come he lives in DC and you’re here?”
Kurt would probably laugh at the irony of her using his name to fend off unwanted advances, but she’d realized early on that it was better for business to pretend she was in a serious relationship. Fewer bruised egos and unwelcome propositions.
But her story had grown suspicious after so many years of “dating,” so last month she’d faked an engagement. She now wore a modest CZ solitaire she’d ordered from the Internet on her left ring finger.
“We’re working on it,” she said, skirting around Glenn. “He already popped the question, we just need to sort out the details.”
“I’m starting to doubt this fiancé of yours is even real.”
Her heart skipped. None of this was his business, and her story was supposed to convince him to back off.
Glenn followed on her heels. “I mean, if you were my girl, I’d make things happen a lot faster.”
Never. She quit walking and faced him. “Please stop. I mean it.”
A nasty expression crossed his face and she tensed.
“Glenn!” Lambert growled. “Leave her alone. She’s working.”
Color stained Glenn’s cheeks and he flashed a scowl in his father’s direction. Then, he spun on his heel and stalked toward the plane, passing his father without a word.
Caitlyn lightly touched the weapon holstered at her side and started breathing again. She wasn’t helpless against assholes like him anymore. That didn’t mean she welcomed the conflict. The less contact with Glenn, the better.
As she started walking again, a silver glint flashed at the edge of the jungle. Without thought, Caitlyn launched herself at Lambert. “Get down!”
She caught him around the middle and knocked him to the ground. The impact as she landed across his hips jarred her entire skeleton.
Crack. A rifle shot ruptured the air. Lambert’s guards dropped to their knees. They formed a wall in front of him and Caitlyn and turned their firepower on the gunman’s location.
Within seconds the barrage stopped, leaving behind a coppery, sulfur-scented haze and a ringing in her ears.
“We got him.” Christophe turned to Lambert, his voice faint. “Sir, are you all right?”
Caitlyn scrambled off her client, her heart on double time. There was no blood on either of them, and Lambert’s eyes were open, his gaze lucid as he pushed to sitting. Thank God.
The shock of adrenaline kept her on her knees. She couldn’t trust her shaky limbs yet. Some people claimed that near-death experiences made them feel more alive. Her stomach violently rejected the notion.
She’d been shot at before. Hell, she’d lived in a hyper-vigilant state of awareness during—and for a while after—her deployment to Iraq, but damn. Despite—or maybe because of—Lambert’s security measures, she’d never expected bullets to fly here. Somehow that made it worse.
Christophe moved in and waved her back so he could check his boss’s condition while she scanned the airfield. Perimeter security goons rushed the downed shooter and scurried like ants to ensure the remaining area was safe.
Get up, Cait. With a deep breath, she stood and brushed dirt off her pants with trembling hands. Empty hands. She must have dropped Rockley’s leash when she knocked down Lambert.
“Ro?” she called, turning in a circle, shading her eyes from fresh sunlight glimmering over the treetops. “Rockley!”
Her breath backed up in her chest. Please.
A yelp came from her right. The mutt cowered under the plane’s fuselage, up against one of the wheel chocks.
“Oh, thank God.” She nearly fell to her knees. Stumbling, she ran to the dog and dropped to the tarmac, hugging him with one arm and stroking his back. “What a good boy. I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I love you, sweetie. I love you.”
He whined and nuzzled her face.
Her heart finally found its rhythm and she took a deep breath, dropping her forehead to his. “Jesus.”
Behind her, someone cleared his throat. Rockley growled and ducked his head. So, Glenn then.
She stood and tried unsuccessfully to wipe Ro’s black hairs off her white shirt and tan cargo pants before turning.
“You okay?” Glenn asked, his brows furrowed.
“Fine.” She jerked her chin at Lambert, who stood in a huddle of his men. “Your dad?”
“A few bruises, but alive, thanks to you.” His voice deepened with anger. Glenn might be an ass, but the attempt on his dad’s life had pissed him off.
She shrugged off his words. “I could just as easily have been wrong.”
“But you weren’t. And everyone else missed it.” He rubbed a shaky hand over his mouth and down his jaw. Maybe he was human after all. “What clued you in?”
“A reflection. A small spark of light. The guy clearly wasn’t an expert.”
“And that was enough?”
“It didn’t belong, and I’ve seen it before.” But she was not going to talk about Iraq. Certainly not with him. “Does your dad still want to go?” she asked.
Glenn sighed and gave her a visual inspection. “Of course.”
“Don’t we need to wait for the police?”
He gave her a “get real” look. “This is St. Isidore. He owns the police.”
She managed not to frown. Lambert was a legitimate businessman. Sure, there’d been rumors, but she’d never seen anything to suggest that his dealings went beyond greasing the skids to get things done in some of the corrupt island-nations, something every businessman in the Caribbean undoubtedly did.
“The guards are handling things. If the cops need a statement,” Glenn said, “they’ll contact you later, but this was pretty straightforward. The other guy shot first.”
“Any idea who it was?”
“Doesn’t much matter now.”
She shivered. It did matter. Someone wanted Treavor Lambert dead, and if the shooter had a boss, her client was still in danger. As was she by association.
“Woman of the year!” Lambert bellowed as he approached, wiping dust from the back of his suit jacket. “You saved me.” He grabbed her free hand and pumped it between both of his.
“Just protecting my number one source of income.” She gently slipped free of his grasp.
He laughed, deepening the creases etched into his deeply tanned face by the Caribbean sun. “I’ll double it.”
“Sir, that’s not—”
“Nonsense.” He didn’t appear shaken, but then he was an expert at hiding behind bluster. “Don’t argue with me. I’m the customer.”
She wrangled a deferential smile. “Okay. Thank you.”
Dropping his jubilant expression, he asked. “Are you okay? You good to fly?”
“One hundred percent,” she said, grabbing for Rockley’s leash. “Let’s do it.”
“Excellent. Come inside and get some coffee while I change into a clean suit.” He pinched the shredded fabric of his pants between his fingertips. “This one is ruined.”
Inside? She’d never been invited into his home before. “What about Rockley?”
“Bring him.” Lambert waved her to follow him and then waited for her to catch up, leading her along a brick path toward the house.
She gave the leash a gentle tug and moved in alongside Lambert as they passed through a gate, and up to the wraparound porch held up by ornate columns.
After they entered through a set of French doors, he waved her toward a doorway. “Coffee’s already made. Mugs, cream, and sugar are on the counter. One of the girls in there can help you. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Glenn had stayed outside talking to the guards, so she felt safe entering the kitchen alone. Whereas the living room had been appointed in ornate furnishings that looked too old and valuable to safely sit on, the kitchen was modern. As big as her small house, it was bright and airy with pale gray cabinets, stainless appliances, and white granite counter tops. A large window over the farmhouse sink and a skylight over the island let in the washed-out light of early morning.
To her left, a wide counter had been turned into a drink station with a coffee maker, cappuccino machine, and an electric tea kettle. “Something for everyone,” she muttered. “Rockley, sit.”
He followed her command and she pushed the looping handle of his leash down onto her forearm to free up her hands. Grabbing a yellow mug off a rack of hooks filled with a rainbow-colored set, she filled it about halfway and added a little cream and sugar.
Lambert would be out any minute. No need to take more than she could drink.
“Can I help you with anything, ma’am?” a familiar voice asked from behind her.
The mug slipped from Caitlyn’s hands and shattered on the tile floor.
Rose looked as shocked as Caitlyn. “Caity?” she whispered, brown eyes wide. “How did you find me?”
“I didn’t.” All the searching she’d done since Rose had gone undercover nearly four months ago to help bring down a human trafficking ring, and her sister had been right here. Maybe the whole time. “I’m working. We came inside because—”
“Rose!” A gravelly female voice came from another room, sharp as broken glass. “What was that?”
Rose’s eyes widened even more, eyebrows pinched in fear. All the color leached from beneath her warm, brown skin. “No,” she mouthed to Caitlyn as she opened a pantry door. “A broken mug, ma’am. I’m cleaning it up now.”
Dark bruises were visible on Rose’s upper arms, and she’d corralled the tight curls of her rust-colored hair into a sleek bun at the back of her neck, revealing more bruising on her left jaw.
Oh, God. What had they done to her? Caitlyn glanced around, her stomach hollow. There had to be a way to get Rose out of here before she suffered another blow from whatever bastard had caused such pain.
“Mrs. Lambert is—” A wide-hipped black woman with short graying curls entered the kitchen and stopped at the sight of Caitlyn. “Oh. I didn’t realize we had a visitor. I’m Reini, head housekeeper.”
“Caitlyn Brevard,” she managed without sounding too odd.
“Were you taking part in the target practice?”
Target practice? That would explain why neither of them was freaking out from the sounds of gunfire.
“Um, no. I’m Mr. Lambert’s pilot. He needed a minute and offered me coffee.” Caitlyn made a face somewhere between a smile and a grimace and tried to control her trembling limbs. Too much had happened in too little time for her to process. She pointed to the Pollock-like disaster of ceramic shards and coffee that Rose had already begun to sweep up. “I’m afraid I made a mess.”
The older woman’s gaze took in the scene, her nose twitching at the sight of Rockley, who was only refraining from licking the coffee because Caitlyn held his collar. If the woman had spared any thought to Caitlyn and Rose both having red hair and freckles, she didn’t seem to understand the significance.
And why should Reini suspect anything? Beyond those typical redhead traits, the half-sisters looked nothing alike, their physical differences going far beyond skin tone. Rose’s dad must have shared the recessive gene for red hair, but John Weekes was a short, wiry black man from Barbados, whereas Caitlyn’s father was a tall, big-boned white guy from Chicago.
The only “type” their mother had, when it came to men, was the leaving kind.
Reini’s pinched expression smoothed. “No problem, ma’am. We’ll take care of it.” She stepped around the spill to the far side of the island. “Would you like another cup of coffee?”
“No, thank you. I’m leaving in a minute.”
“What’s this?” Lambert’s deep voice filled the room, shrinking the room to claustrophobic proportions.
“Just a mishap,” Reini said. “We’ll take care of it, sir.”
Caitlyn’s mind raced. She couldn’t abandon Rose.
As if sensing her thoughts, her sister glanced up and gave a small shake of her head.
Fear etched Caitlyn’s chest like acid, but she couldn’t see a way to get Rose out of this place without them both getting shot. As much as it pained her, she had to retreat and return with a plan.
At least now she knew Rose was alive and where to find her. Not necessarily safe, but her situation could be much worse.
I’ll come back for you.
Turning to face Lambert, she said, “Sorry. I dropped my mug.”
“A few jitters are to be expected,” he said, ever the gracious one. Except now she knew him for the heartless bastard he really was. “Are you sure you’re good to fly?”
She gave a brisk nod and followed him out of the room, not allowing herself to look back. “Of course.”
“Good.” He smiled. “I’m running late for my meeting.”
Her mind and body were numb with loss. Every leaden step took her further away from Rose. And her bruises. And whoever had delivered them. Caitlyn would like to return the favor.
God, Rose. Caitlyn forced herself to unclench her hands and breathe slowly.
The excessive number of guards, the whispers surrounding Lambert’s business dealings, his fast-growing fortune. It all made sense now.
And no wonder Rose hadn’t escaped after a week or two undercover. She hadn’t ended up in some random household from which she might sneak away, she’d landed in Lambert’s secure compound surrounded by fences and men with rifles.
She hadn’t stood a chance.
Caitlyn and Lambert were on the grass that edged the runway before he spoke again. “I discussed it with my wife, and we have a request. Our way of saying thanks for what you did today.”
And she had to pretend her world hadn’t been tossed. She cleared her throat and tried to pay attention. “What’s that, sir?”
“You must come to Arielle’s engagement party,” he said. His youngest daughter was set to marry into one of the richest “high white” families on Barbados—descendants of the original plantation owners—in October. “And bring your fiancé. I want to meet the man who can handle such a firecracker.” He winked.
Shit. Warning bells went off in her brain. “Oh, sir, I’m not sure—”
“No arguments.” He stalked toward the plane, and the rest of his entourage followed. “If you’ve already booked clients for that evening I’ll pay to have someone else take them. Tell your man to take a weekend off. Tell him it’s important.” She opened her mouth to protest and his expression turned hard as he looked over his shoulder. “No arguments. I’ll see you both there.”
Dammit. She had to get out of this. Maybe the police could help. Maybe none of this would matter after today.
He owns the police.
Glenn had straight up told her that.
To maintain her trusted position within his sphere—and find a way to help Rose and anyone else imprisoned behind his walls—she needed to pretend nothing was amiss.
And if the police failed her, she had to attend the party. With Kurt on her arm.
Trapped like a spider under a cat’s paw, she swallowed hard. “Of course. We’d be honored.”
Kurt Steele breathed out and pressed the trigger, running through the steps of marksmanship on autopilot. Five shots, five holes in the paper target, center mass.
Six. Dead on. Seven.
Pain gripped his lower leg—well, where his lower leg used to be—and his shot went wild.
Next to him, Dan Molina lowered his weapon and gave Kurt a “what the hell was that?” smirk. Then his smile dropped and he tapped his earmuffs before removing them.
Kurt lifted the protection from one ear, forcing himself to stand tall as he took deep breaths through his nose.
“You okay, man?”
“Fine.” Sometimes his friends read him too well. “Just lost focus.”
“Bullshit. You could take that shot in your sleep.”
“It’s nothing. Sometimes I still get…twinges.” Phantom pain, twinges, whatever.
“Twinges.” Dan’s voice was laced with skepticism, maybe concern.
Kurt let the earmuff drop, dismissing his friend, who also worked for him at Steele Security. There were advantages to being the boss.
Talking wasn’t going to help anything, and the pain was already diminishing. After six years, he knew how to work through it, and the inexplicable sensations didn’t last as long or come as frequently as they had early on.
He raised his weapon and fired. Eight. Center mass. That’s more like it.
The range was quiet midmorning on a Tuesday. He and Dan and the owner were the only people around.
They ran through their ammo and pulled in their final targets. Kurt had to get back to the office for an eleven o’clock meeting, and it would be at least a twenty-minute drive to Arlington.
“Nice grouping,” a woman said from behind him.
He holstered his Beretta and faced her. “Detective Breschi. I’m sure yours would look similar.”
“Thanks, but I wish you’d call me Eva.” He might be out of practice when it came to dating, but even he couldn’t miss the way she leaned in and maintained eye contact, or the hint of a suggestive smile on her wide lips.
“I know.” But he wouldn’t.
Her smile slipped and she turned away, showing off her tight ass in form-fitting black slacks. “Dan, good to see you.” She chose a spot further down the range, leaving behind a faint cloud of perfume.
As soon as they were paid up and outside in the cool October air, Dan attacked. “Dude, the pretty detective so wants you. Why don’t you at least take her out for dinner? See how it goes.”
Kurt shook his head and put on his sunglasses. “She doesn’t want me. She wants to prove to herself she’s a patriot by fucking a wounded warrior.”
Dan glanced back at the building, his expression skeptical. “What makes you say that?”
“Shit. Sorry.” Dan took a few steps in silence. “But still. Is that necessarily a bad thing?”
“I have no desire to be her charity case.” God save him from well-meaning friends who were happily married now.
“But if it gets you laid…” Dan leaned against the minivan he and Alyssa had bought after Sophie was born last July. “Let’s say patriotism or some sense of, I don’t know, altruism is her motivation. How is it any different from hooking up with a spec ops groupie?”
Sometimes friends and their long memories were a pain in the ass. “Because I’m not twenty-four anymore. And I had legs back then. Those women worshipped our strength. They thought of us as heroes, and they wanted some of that to rub off on them.” Or against them, anyway.
Dan rubbed his dark stubble. “I’m pretty sure Eva thinks you’re a hero.”
Kurt scoffed. “Losing your legs isn’t heroic. It’s just plain-ass bad luck.”
“Whatever.” Dan opened his car door. “If you’re not into her, I get it. But it wouldn’t kill you to have a little fun.”
“I’m a ball of fun.”
Dan grinned and shook his head. “I’ll see you tomorrow, boss.” He, Todd, and Jason were working security at the Ritz in Tysons Corner this evening for the wedding of a congresswoman’s daughter.
Kurt watched his friend drive off before getting into his truck. Maybe Dan was right, but he couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for the idea.
Half an hour later, he entered Steele Security’s office on the fifth floor of a high-rise building in Arlington. The main lobby of the suite had a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Potomac, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument that never grew old.
From behind a counter-height mahogany desk, Tara Fujimoto—aka the world’s best business manager—looked up and greeted him with a smile. “Hey. How was the range?”
“I killed the target.”
She flipped her long black hair off her shoulder. “Oh, good. We’re safe for another day.” Reaching for a small stack of paper, she said, “Scott called. Everything went well at Valerie’s ultrasound appointment.”
“Boy or girl?”
“No idea. They want it to be a surprise.”
Between his sister and half of his team over the last few years, it seemed as if everyone was having babies. Would he ever get to be a dad? Thirty-four wasn’t exactly ancient, but he hadn’t been on a date in years. Kind of hard to become a father when you’re celibate.
“Also, Caitlyn Brevard is in the break room with Todd,” Tara said, with no knowledge that she’d just dropped a bomb. “She wanted to know if you could fit her in today.”
“She’s here?” Kurt pointed at the floor, feeling thick in the head, even as his heart galloped.
“Yeah. She’s been waiting about ten minutes. Todd arrived early for your meeting and offered to get her a cup of coffee.”
I’ll bet he did. According to Jason, when Caitlyn had helped out on a mission for Steele a few years back, Todd had followed her around as if attached by a leash. Jason had ribbed Todd about it for months afterward. Kurt had worn the enamel from his back teeth trying to pretend he didn’t give a shit.
“Thanks.” Steeling himself to face her in person for the first time in twelve years, he squared his shoulders and turned toward the break room.
At the same moment, Caitlyn emerged with a ceramic mug in her left hand, and stopped several feet away. His heart skittered to a halt at the sight of her.
It shriveled and died when the large diamond ring on her left finger caught the overhead lights.
(For more info, check out the Running Blind page.)