Authors: Christi Snow
Brian pulled up in front of the arts and crafts bungalow with a big covered porch. This was the address listed on the card. It was actually an old 1930’s house rezoned for offices, the front
yard full of huge old oak trees. It looked cozy. Not exactly the look you would expect for a PI’s office and the Harley Knucklehead sitting out front made the entire picture even more unexpected.
As he began up the steps to the porch, the front door flung open and a gorgeous, tall blonde, dressed in a fitted, lipstick red suit stomped out, screaming, “Zach, you rat bastard. I hope you burn in hell!”
She gave him a very unladylike hand gesture through the door before slamming it behind her. Then she straightened her jacket, smoothed her hair, and walked off, looking completely put together and unruffled. Wow, that was a skill. She didn’t even give him a second glance as he stood there with his mouth hanging open.
He quickly shut his mouth as she stormed out to the huge truck that was completely contrary to the sleek, polished look she had going for her. But she swung into the high truck in that tight skirt like a pro, squealing the tires as she pulled away from the curb.
Brian approached the door slowly, wondering if this was really that good of an idea. He peered inside where the man in question—he assumed it was Zachary Nelson—sat leaning up against the front of the reception desk grinning like a banshee. He pushed the door open and the guy’s smile got even wider.
“Did you hear all that?” he asked. At Brian’s nod, he continued. “I think she’s starting to like me.”
Curiosity got the better of him. “Who was that?”
“Sylvia, my secretary. Oh, and she’s also my ex-wife.”
O…kay. There was a story there, he’d bet his life on it, but he didn’t have time to get into it today, no matter how tempting. The guy stood up and appeared to be an inch or two taller than Brian’s six-foot-one frame. He was lean, but well-built with a competent air about him. Humor pulled at the corners of his mouth.
This wasn’t a guy who took life too seriously, including things like first impressions. In contrast to Brian’s suit, this guy was dressed purely for comfort. He had on extremely worn and fitted jeans, ripped in a couple of different places. A long sleeve, black graphic tee and black combat boots completed the look. His hair was longer on top and very dark. It had been a couple of days since he’d shaved, if the scruff on his face was any indication. He wore a black leather cuff on one wrist.
Interesting was the word that immediately came to mind. Brian would bet good money that this guy never went too long without female companionship, which made him even more curious about the beautiful and angry Sylvia.
“Sorry about that.” The man waved toward the door, then stepped forward and reached out his arm. “I’m Zach Nelson. What can I do for you today?”
Brian shook his hand. “I’m Brian Barnes. Eddie Walters gave me your name. He thought you might be able to help me.”
Zach leaned back against the edge of his desk and looked Brian over. “Eddie’s a good guy, but you look a lot like him.” He gestured toward Brian’s suit. “Are you a cop, too?”
Brian rubbed the back of his neck, thinking about his new reality again. It was a shock at how quickly things had changed. “I was until this morning when I turned in my badge. That’s why I need your help.”
Zach stood. “Okay, this sounds serious. Let’s go into my office where we can discuss this without being interrupted.” He walked over to the front door, locked it, and turned the closed sign. He led Brian toward one of the side doors, which led into an office.
He didn’t know what he expected, but from what he’d seen of Zach, it wasn’t this. As Brian glanced around it, he tried to figure out how this man and this office went together. This looked more like a very expensive, corporate lawyer’s office with black wood bookshelves that worked with the ultra-modern black steel desk and furnishings. It was a very masculine office, and extremely upscale.
“I can see you trying to figure it out.” A trace of humor laced Zach’s voice as he took the chair behind his desk. “Sylvia is behind the decoration of the offices. She owns a third of the business and she handled that part of it. Don’t try to figure out the woman herself, though, because you will never get that one. She’s one hundred percent certifiably crazy.” And that was said with an actual straight face.
“So, is that why she’s an ex?”
Zach gave a wry smile and his face softened a bit. “No, actually that’s one of the things I love most about her.”
Brian noticed he said ‘love,’ present tense. Again, interesting.
“No, she’s an ex because for a while there I was certifiably crazy, too, and unfortunately two crazy people makes for an impossible marriage.” A flash of sadness flickered across his face so quickly that Brian wondered if he’d just imagined it.
But then the easy humor lit back up Zach’s face as he said, “So, I’m assuming you didn’t come here to hear about my screwed-up relationship. What can I do for you today, Mr. Barnes?”
Brian handed him the file he’d smuggled out of the police station in his box of desk items. “This isn’t something a civilian is supposed to have, and since I’m now one of those, I’d appreciate it if you would keep the fact that this file exists quiet.”
At Zach’s curious nod, he proceeded to tell him about Nathan’s assault case that led them to this point.
Zach nodded a few times and flipped through the paperwork, before looking up at Brian. “I agree. There’s something more going on here. Although I have to admit, I’m not so sure about your hunch that it traces back to the senator’s camp. That seems a bit too obvious even for those corrupt bastards, but we both know politics can create a nasty game. I’ll look into the backgrounds of all three of the remaining suspects and see what I can find. In the meantime, what’s your plan?”
“I’m getting Toni and Nathan someplace safe. I have a throwaway cell phone.” He jotted down the number and the address for an email account. “I’m going to stay off the grid as much as possible so hopefully no one finds us, but I will check both of these each day. If something urgent comes up, leave me a message and I will get back to you within twenty-four hours.”
“Okay, be careful.”
* * *
Toni swung around and glared at Colton as he sat at
desk. “Okay, what the hell is going on? You’re hovering. You never hover…at least not normally over me.” Colton was an over-protective alpha when it came to his family, but it had never extended to her…until today. She had missed something here. Had she done something wrong with the paperwork?
“What?” He looked up at her with what she assumed was supposed to be an innocent look, but he still looked guilty as hell. “No, nothing’s wrong. I just feel like we leave you with too much to do. I thought I could help out a little and learn some of your filing systems and such.”
He waved a hand over the piles of flight data scheduling books and the various things that Toni did to handle the paperwork for Mad Rob, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FAA.
Something was fishy here. Colton was overprotective as hell, but he’d always allowed her the freedom to do her job… Unless she wasn’t going to be doing her job any longer. “Oh my God, are you planning to fire me?” She thought of Mad Rob and these guys as family. She’d only worked here for six months, but honestly couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. Devastation flooded her.
“No, no, Toni, not at all.” Colton looked shocked as he held up a hand to stop her. “We love having you work for us.”
“Well, then I don’t understand—” The office phone rang, so Toni held up a single finger for Colton to wait. “Mad Rob. This is Toni. What can I do for you today?”
“Yes, who may I ask is calling?”
“This is Officer Ryan Howard. We’ve had a situation arrive with Nathan Morrow’s case and I need to talk to you right away. Is that possible?”
Brian had texted her to not leave the office. Toni scowled at the phone and Colton waved to her trying to figure out what was wrong. She flung a hand up in the air to stall him while she grabbed a piece of paper and pen. “You said your name was Officer Ryan Howard?”
“What happened to Detectives Brian Barnes and Eddie Walters? I thought they were in charge of this case.” Colton began waving at her frantically, but she needed to hear what this guy was saying so she turned her back on him and walked up to the reception counter to write.
“Honestly, ma’am, we just need you to come in and verify some information. I was told to call and let you know we need you to come by the police department. I don’t know anything else about the situation.”
“Okay.” She looked at the clock on the wall. “I have my lunch break in about forty-five minutes. I’ll come by then. Will that work?”
“Yes, ma’am. That will work perfectly.” She could hear the relief in his voice.
She turned to hang up the phone and Colton lurked right over her shoulder, looking at the note she’d written and shaking his head. “I think you need to call Brian about this.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Why on earth would I need to do that? It was a cop.”
“Just do this for me, okay?”
She shrugged, and pulled out her cell phone, which Colton pulled away from her. “Call on the office phone.”
“Colton Robertson, what the hell is going on with you today?”
He sighed deeply. “Something happened. Brian called earlier. I don’t know the whole story, but he thinks things have become more dangerous. He plans to pick you up at lunchtime and get you and Nathan out of town.”
“Seriously? Why didn’t he call and tell me about this himself instead of talking to you?” Scowling, she wondered what had changed and if this was why they wanted her at the police station.
“He thought you would be safe here for a few hours while he took care of things in town, plus he didn’t want you to worry.”
“Oh my God, we can’t let the
fret, huh?” She leveled a hard glare at Colton who smartly kept his mouth closed. Obviously, being married to Penelope had taught him something.
He pushed the phone toward her. “Just call Brian and ask him about it first.”
“Ask me what?” Brian asked from the doorway. He wore jeans that hugged the muscles of his thighs, hiking boots, a T-shirt stretched across his chest under a heavy leather jacket. The look was rugged and oh, so sexy. He always looked damn good in his suits, too, but this was such a contrast in looks for him.
Even with everything going on, Toni took a moment to enjoy the view. Tingles erupted low in her belly. Honestly, was there anything the guy didn’t look completely devastating in?
Colton visibly relaxed when he saw Brian there to handle her wrath rather than him having to deal with her temper. Wuss.
She debated for a moment what she wanted to grill Brian about first, but the lines of strain around his mouth and eyes told her that he probably didn’t need too much added stress right now.
She said, “I’m hearing all kind of interesting information, but you’ll answer my concerns about that in a moment. I just got a phone call from the police department. They need to ask me some more questions and want me to come down there.”
Brian frowned in concern. “Who did you talk to?”
She looked down at her notes. “Officer Ryan Howard.”
“How long ago did he call?”
“I don’t know…maybe five or ten minutes ago.”
“Dammit. I didn’t think they’d be able to organize this quickly.”
What the hell was he talking about?
He gave a sharp nod to Colton and then Brian cupped her elbow to drag her out of the office. “Get your purse. Leave your cell phone here. We have to get out of here, now.”
“Because something is up with this investigation. I’ll explain on the way, but just know that there is no Officer Ryan Howard. This is some sort of a trap. They know you told me about the ambush at the grocery store. I got angry and let it slip to my captain this morning. I think you may be in danger now.”
Panic seized her. What about Nathan?
“Ambush?” Colton asked, as he looked her over with a critical eye. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said as she tried to pull out of Brian’s grasp. This was all too fast. She needed just a minute to process, but neither one of them seemed to care about that. They were both too tense.
“Brian, what can I do to help?” Colton asked, frowning in concern.
“Is there a car or truck here you can use? Something besides your motorcycle?” Brian asked.
Colton nodded. “Chris is on a flight, but his truck is out front. I can take it.”
“Can you hold back and follow us for the next hour or so, just to make sure someone doesn’t tail us. If they do, call this number.” He jotted down a number on a business card and handed it to Colton. “It’s the number for my ex-partner, Eddie Walters. He’ll get someone on the car that follows us.”
“Ex-partner? What happened to Eddie?” Toni began to panic. This was starting to sound really serious.
Brian took a deep breath. He kissed her softly on her forehead. “Nothing happened to Eddie. I quit the force this morning. We can talk about it on the road, but for now, come on. We have to get out of here. Nathan and Sam are waiting for us out in the truck.”