For weeks… he had followed her. Watching. Learning.
He had intimate knowledge of every facet of her life: from what brand toothpaste she purchased, to her favorite pizza topping, to the way she licked her lips when she became nervous.
For weeks… he had followed her.
He now knew her better than she knew herself.
It was time.
A bead of sweat slid down her slender neck to trickle over the curve of her breast before being absorbed into the fabric of her sports bra. Today she was wearing a small pair of black shorts and a dark pink tank top with a scooped neck that showed a tantalizing peek of her baby pink bra underneath.
He liked when she wore pink.
The soft color emphasized her femininity.
He watched as a bumbling gym attendant moved close and placed his hands on her waist. Mumbling about having to check the fastening of her safety belt, he was too busy eyeing her breasts to see her raise her knee. Tilting her foot upward, she slammed the heel down on his toes. The pathetic man yelped as he fell backwards.
He smiled as she innocently asked if the gym attendant was okay, all the while not even trying to hide the knowing smirk that curved her lips upward.
That’s my girl, he thought.
After giving her harness a reassuring tug, she stepped up to the two-story rock wall and began to climb. He watched the play of sleek muscle stretched under golden skin. How each limb gracefully extended from one secure notch to another. The quiet power of her movements coupled with her innate confidence made her intoxicating to observe.
Her long chestnut brown ponytail swished back and forth each time she swung her body from one handhold to another. The bright afternoon sun streaming in from the overhead skylights gave her locks a lustrous glow.
He loved her hair. Loved watching her brush the long wavy length after a shower or how she would toss it up into a messy, lopsided bun when she needed to concentrate on a task. He could still picture how it looked fanned out on her pillow, falling in soft curls about her face as he stood over her bed.
Yes, he loved her hair. Too bad they would have to cut it all off. Long hair would not do for what he had planned for her.
After she reached the top of the interior rock wall, she began her slow descent. A younger, less experienced climber stepped on her hand, causing her to lose focus… and her balance. She fell backwards. Her slim frame was jarred by the sudden pull of the harness around her waist, bowing her body.
He took a determined step forward before ruthlessly checking himself. He could not risk being caught on the gym surveillance cameras interacting with her. It would put all his carefully laid plans at risk. With clenched fists, he was forced to watch as the same asshole gym attendant began to slowly lower her to the ground. A little too slowly for his satisfaction. Only the thought of breaking the gym attendant’s neck in the parking lot later tonight appeased the tightening pressure of displeasure in his chest.
He watched as she was suspended above the ground, secured only by the harness around her waist. Visions of what he could do to her prone body as she hung helpless flashed before his eyes.
His cock swelled.
Soon enough he would have her under his complete control.
Pivoting the moment her feet were safely back on the floor, he left the gym.
His careful observation—as usual—went unnoticed by his prey.
* * *
“The CIA has their warrants, so we need to move tonight. A ground route will not work; the traffic patterns are too unpredictable. Have a helicopter waiting at twenty-three hundred hours. I want the cover of darkness but not so late someone remarks on hearing a helicopter. Understood?”
After giving his orders, Reid Harrington disconnected the call. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a second cell phone. Looking at the screen, he watched as a pizza app was opened.
Large pizza with mushrooms and black olives. Diet Coke.
Right on time.
He had cloned her phone weeks ago as a means of tracking her movements and interactions. Every Friday she left work to go directly to the gym, then returned home, ordered a pizza, and stayed in for the rest of the night. She rarely interacted with anyone until the following Monday morning at work.
She would not be missed for days.
Strolling over to the sideboard, he tossed a few ice cubes into a crystal glass and poured himself a generous three fingers of bourbon. He was anxious to return to the compound. Reid despised these business trips that forced him away for months at a time. His clients paid a premium for fast and efficient results. He was already behind schedule after the last girl failed to live up to her potential.
Reid flipped open the file resting on the polished wood surface and stared at the glossy photo paper-clipped to the top as he took a sip of his drink, soothed by the cold burn as it slipped down his throat.
Long brown hair framed a small, gamine face with bright, expressive blue eyes. Her pink lips were open on an easy smile.
Caressing the outline of her jaw with his fingertip, he skimmed the stack of papers contained in the file. The death certificates of both her parents. A list of foster homes. Her high school and college transcripts. Pay stubs. Cell phone records. More surveillance photos.
To the untrained eye, Devon Chase led a boring, unremarkable life as a computer programmer for a software company that designed video games. She had no family. No close ties to former classmates. Very few friends. The majority of her interactions were in chat rooms of the various video games she played. As far as Reid could tell, almost everyone who interacted with Devon, from her coworkers to the guy behind the counter of her favorite café, thought her a pretty, yet shy and timid girl.
They were wrong.
There was an anxious, almost desperate, energy about her. He could see it in how she attacked that rock wall, how she bested every video game she encountered with practiced ease… and in the haunted look that crossed her face in those quiet moments late at night when she thought she was alone.
It was probably why she had turned to hacking computers.
She was one of the most talented hackers he had come across. Up until this point, she had stayed under law enforcement radar because her hacking lacked purpose. There was no political or monetary reason… just boredom as far as Reid could tell. An agile, intelligent mind that is not challenged tends to manifest itself in destructive ways.
But all that changed a few months ago; she hacked the wrong company. She caught law enforcement’s—and his—eye.
It would be a shame to waste that talent behind bars.
Devon Chase was a woman who desperately needed a challenge, something more exciting than this staid boxed-in life she had created for herself.
Yes, they were wrong.
He knew raw talent when he saw it. Devon had true potential, not like the others.
Looking down, Reid swirled the melting ice cubes, watching as the remnants of amber liquid coated the sides of his glass. Tilting his head back, he swallowed the last bit of bourbon. Pulling an ice cube into his mouth, he crushed it with the sharp edges of his teeth.
Time to go claim his unwilling recruit.
Tossing my purse on the side table, I turned to close the door behind me and lock it.
A man’s arm reached over my head and slammed the door shut.
Letting out a shocked scream, I turned back… and faced a pair of platinum gray eyes.
“Hello, Gwen.” His voice was dark and low… ruthlessly controlled.
I opened my mouth to scream again.
Julius’ hand wrapped around my throat as he leaned in close.
“Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. I can’t have you screaming like that, baby.”
“What do you want, Julius?” I rasped, his grip on my throat an uncomfortable threat.
“I think it is time for new introductions. My name is Ethan Hale.”
He paused. I could see him searching my eyes for any sign of recognition. As if I should know who he was, but I didn’t. Fuck, why didn’t I know who this man was?
“And you are Piper Clayton,” he finished.
“I didn’t take any money. I never put the sale through,” I rushed to explain, assuming he was angry I had conned him.
Who the hell was this man and how the fuck was he able to find out my real name and where I live?
Oh my god, the dollhouse. The fucking dollhouse. Was he responsible?
“This isn’t about the money, Piper. I want something far more valuable than money from you.”
Without thought, I tried to scream again.
His hand closed around my throat, cutting off my air. My fingers clawed at the back of his hands as I struggled to breathe. Slowly, my body slid up the wall as he used his grip on my throat to lift me off the floor. The pressure on my windpipe increased.
“You’ve been a very bad little girl, Piper. I won’t tolerate any more disobedience. Do you understand?”
His grasp on my throat prevented me from speaking or nodding, so I blinked my eyes to show him I did.
He lowered me to the floor and slackened his grip. After he could see I would no longer try to cry out, he lowered his arm. Straightening his cuffs, he ordered, “Now be a good girl and invite me in for a chat.”
Giving him a dirty look, I responded stiffly, my voice hoarse. “Won’t you come in?”
Taking a step forward, I began to shake as I felt his presence directly behind me.
This was bad. Very bad.
I needed to reach my bed. Under the pillow was a .38 special Quinn had given me a few years ago. Taking a few more hesitant steps, I waited till I was close then lunged for the mattress. Falling across it on my stomach, I slid my hand under the pillow.
There was nothing there.
Horrified, I turned on my back and looked up at Ethan. He was standing close to the bed, legs spread wide as he towered over my prone form. Reaching behind him, he pulled the revolver free from his waistband.
“Looking for this?”
With a cry, I rolled onto my stomach and tried to scramble away across the rumpled bed sheets. He grabbed my ankle and pulled me toward him. Reaching down, he fisted my hair and lifted me up.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” I cried out as I reached up to try and dislodge his grasp.
Ethan dragged me across the room and pushed me against one of the wide, timber support beams which dotted my loft space.
I watched as he inhaled deeply but said nothing. As if he needed a moment to control his emotions. This was not a man to piss off, I reminded myself, especially if he knew something about David’s murder.
As I waited for his next move, I looked him over. Similar to yesterday at the gallery, he was wearing another custom-made suit. The clean black lines accentuated his broad shoulders and muscled arms. The sharp angles of his jawline and lowered brow heightened the sense of dangerous power he exuded.
I stayed silent. My fingers gripped the smooth wood of the beam behind me in an effort to ground myself and my rioting emotions.
“Little girls who lack discipline tend to get themselves in trouble… very dangerous trouble.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you?” he challenged as his fingers undid the first button of my cardigan.
“Please. Please don’t hurt me.”
Ethan looked into my eyes. I could feel his warm fingers brush my skin as he undid another button.
“If you don’t want me to hurt you, then you need to be honest with me.”
“I don’t know what you want!”
I watched as his eyes flashed with anger and unmistakable need.
Grabbing my jaw with his full hand, he pushed my head back till it connected with the beam. I watched in captive silence as his gaze moved from my eyes to my open lips and back.
“I want you to say that you were a very bad little girl.”
“They’re all dead!”
“What the hell are you talking about, Charles?” I asked as I took in his disheveled state. His cheap ill-fitting suit was torn at the shoulder and covered in what looked like motor oil. There was an unmistakable splatter of blood across his shirt and jaw.
“They’re dead! Christ. They’re all dead!” Charles raged, as he paced the large hotel suite while pulling on the tight confines of his ruined tie.
Brought forth, no doubt, by Charles’ screams, Robert entered the room. “Do you require my assistance, Sir?”
Despite the circumstances, I had to admire the butler’s calm expression.
Leave it to a Brit not to bat an eye at a man covered in blood ranting about murder. If I wasn’t mistaken, he was probably more concerned about the expensive, cream-colored Persian rug under Charles’ feet than the subject matter of the scene he had just interrupted.
We were in the Sterling Suite of the Langham Hotel in London, which came with the assistance of a professional butler during the length of your stay. The strange irony was Robert had probably seen as much if not more than me in his illustrious career. This was made all the more startling considering I had personally been responsible for toppling several governments as well as arming and starting countless insurrections during my own illustrious career.
Still, I wasn’t so sure a small civil war in a remote portion of Southeast Asia over control of the cocaine trade compared to the debauchery Robert witnessed on a daily basis in the most elite penthouse suite in London, while at the service of the average celebrity or politician as their temporary butler.
At least what I had witnessed and orchestrated had a moral if not ethical purpose.
Well it did if your moral code involved survival at all costs and money.
Turning to the stone-faced gentleman, impeccably dressed in a traditional tweet suit in a muted blue, I waved him off. “No, Robert. My guest is just agitated. I will ring when I need you,” I instructed before turning my attention back to Charles.
And his fucking mess.
I wasn’t even in London by choice. If Charles hadn’t blackmailed Devon, I would be back on my compound in Wisconsin. Since it was evening there now, there was not a doubt in mind I would be deep inside her tight body as I had her bent over the edge of the bed, with my crimson hand mark on her pert ass.
Damn you, Charles.
“You’re not making sense. Who’s dead? The guards?” I demanded, swiftly losing patience, especially as I felt a surge of arousal at just the thought of my beautiful babygirl. I needed this mess with Charles to be over and done, so I could get back to what was really important, my Devon.
Ignoring my question, Charles approached the sideboard.
Grabbing the stopper off the crystal decanter, he dumped half the amber contents into a glass, carelessly spilling the expensive Michter’s 20-year Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey the hotel had provided at my request. Tipping his head back, he took a large swallow before choking. No doubt unused to the fiery bite of the strong liquor.
I watched as his already agitated face turned a blueish purple. He continued to choke and gasp for breath as spittle sprayed the mirror over the sideboard. Using his sleeve, he wiped his mouth, smearing the blood splatter across his cheek.
I shook my head, everything about this man repulsed me.
It took all my years of military and espionage training to remain calm and focused, while I waited for Charles to answer my question.
“No. I mean, yes… some of the guards are dead but… everyone else too. He came in and just shot them. He shot them all!” Charles turned back to the grab the decanter a second time.
I stepped forward and ripped it from his hand. Tossing the decanter back onto the sterling silver tray with a clatter, I fisted a handful of Charles’ ruined shirt and shoved him. Several heavy gold-framed portraits of long dead British nobility rattled as his body connected with the wall.
Twisting the fabric tighter, I forced his head back as I pressed my fist under his jaw. “Enough of this bullshit, Charles. Tell me now. Who exactly is dead?”
“The whole team. Your whole team,” he sputtered.
“Devon?” I challenged.
Charles just nodded.
“Devon is dead?” I had a sick need to hear him say it plainly.
Reeking of whiskey, his fetid breath left his body in a burst as he began to sob. “Yes! She’s dead. Devon is dead. They’re all dead. Lyla, Roman… everyone. He just came in and shot them.”
“Who? Who shot them?
“Vasili Rostov,” sniveled Charles. “He killed them all. He killed your precious Devon.”