Book Three in the Wildefire Trilogy: Midnight Shadows

Midnight Shadows

The thrilling and emotional conclusion to the Wildefire trilogy

Known as the wild child of Midnight, Alabama, Sabrina Wilde has worked hard to earn that reputation. But beneath the tough girl façade lies a hurting, vulnerable heart. Fiercely loyal and protective of those she loves, Sabrina will do whatever it takes to keep her loved ones safe.

Private Investigator Ian Mackenzie has loved Sabrina for years. Understanding her pain and wariness of commitment doesn't stop him from hoping that someday she will trust him with her heart. When Sabrina puts herself in jeopardy, willing to sacrifice her life to save others, Ian has no choice but to foil her plans. He never knew what his decision would cost him.

As evil descends upon Midnight, Sabrina’s worst nightmares are realized and she is forced into an impossible position—trust her loved ones with her shameful secrets or forever live in the shadows of the past.

One man is determined that she doesn't survive to do either.

 

Coming Soon!

Prologue

Tallahassee, Florida
Four Years Ago

“Come on you lowlife, scum sucking son of a slimy slug. Do something so I can go home.”

Placing her cellphone at an inconspicuous but strategic angle, Private Investigator Sabrina Wilde waited for something to happen. Would this guy ever do anything interesting? For the past six days, she had been following Harold Benoit around town, watching, waiting, and snapping more photos than she’d ever wanted of a possible cheating husband. And what did she have to show for it? Just a bunch of pictures of Harold having dinner with various women. That might prove he liked to eat at nice places and his diet was a cardiologist’s nightmare, but it certainly didn’t provide evidence that he was an unfaithful husband.

The women he’d dined with were as eclectic as they were surprising. Two had been attractive but as mistresses went, just didn’t look the type. One had been, as her Aunt Gibby might’ve said, as homely as a rutabaga, bless her heart. And one woman had been old enough to be the man’s grandmother.

So just what was Harold Benoit up to?

Other than his unusual dinner companions, the man’s life was boringly routine. He went to work at nine and left his office at six sharp. Twice she had followed him home, where, according to Sabrina’s client, Delores Benoit, he’d dined and slept with his wife. It was the other nights that Delores wanted to know about.

For several weeks Harold had been coming home late, claiming he was overloaded with work. Delores didn’t believe him. She was certain he was cheating on her and had hired Sabrina to find out with whom and provide photographic proof. So far all Sabrina had been able to prove was that he enjoyed an eclectic variety of dinner companions.

Having learned the hard way, Sabrina considered herself an excellent cheat detector. So should she continue following this guy around when she was almost certain he wasn’t having an affair? Her innate curiosity said yes. Even if Benoit wasn’t a cheating slug there was definitely something going on with him and she wanted to know more.

“Have you had a chance to look at the menu?”

Pulling her gaze away from her subject, Sabrina gave a distracted smile to the server and ordered the first thing that came to mind. “I’ll have the grilled salmon.”

“Um…ma’am, we don’t have grilled salmon. How about tuna or swordfish?”

Neither choice sounded good to her. And she suddenly realized she was ravenous. Having scarfed down a meager breakfast of cold cereal and missing lunch, her stomach was insisting on something more substantial.

Taking the menu she hadn’t even glanced at, she hurriedly perused her choices. The spaghetti and meatballs jumped out at her. Not as healthy as grilled fish but she couldn’t resist.

She placed her order, took a sip of her iced tea, and then returned her attention back to the man three tables away from her. What she saw made her sit up straight in her chair and take definite notice. Benoit’s dining companion had finally joined him. This one didn’t just surprise her…she was stunned.

Either Benoit’s taste was even more eclectic than she had imagined or something else was definitely going on. One thing she had to admit, taking photos of this one would be no hardship at all.

The dinner companion was not just a man. He was gorgeously masculine, handsome without a hint of prettiness. Dressed in a navy pinstripe suit that had to have been tailored to fit his tall, muscular frame, the man exuded not only an air of confidence and sophistication but danger, too. She got the idea that beneath the elegant suit was a man who could handle himself in any kind of situation. And had done so many times.

His thick brown hair was slightly tousled as if he’d run his fingers through it a time or two. Or perhaps a wife or lover might have. His skin was lightly tanned. Not unusual in Florida but he didn’t look the type to spend a lot of time on the beach and definitely not in a tanning salon.

Since he was seated across the table from Benoit, she should be able to get a good clear view of him. Angling the phone an inch to the left, Sabrina clicked on her camera, taking multiple shots. Many more than was necessary, but so what. It was good to have a variety to choose from.

She was too far away to tell his eye color but she thought perhaps dark brown, maybe a couple shades darker than his hair. A slash of thick brows above his eyes made them look even darker. Those brows arched in reaction to something Benoit was saying to him. His cheekbones were prominent, slightly etched, as if he was of Slavic descent. The dark stubble on his face made her think of sexy pirates or maybe marauding highwaymen.

A shiver of excitement zipped up her spine, as surprising as it was uncharacteristic. Sabrina Wilde did not get turned on so easily. Falling into lust, especially over a stranger, was not her thing.

So distracted by her reaction, she literally jumped when a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs appeared in front of her.

Thanking her server with a slight smile and nod, Sabrina absentmindedly twirled spaghetti onto her fork and brought it to her mouth. She took a bite, realizing too late that she had more on the fork than she could fit in her mouth. She chewed what she could, uncomfortably aware that several strands of spaghetti hung from her mouth like tentacles. Which, of course, is exactly when the man she’d been practically drooling over looked straight at her.

Hastily dropping her gaze to her plate, Sabrina concentrated on the mass of food in her mouth, willing herself not to choke. Finally swallowing the last of it, she surreptitiously lifted her eyes again. Though he was no longer looking her way, a small, enigmatic smile played around his sensual mouth as if he was fighting an all out grin.

Great going, Sabrina. Not only did you let your surveillance target catch you spying on him, you humiliated yourself in front of the most fascinating man you’ve ever seen.

Deciding she had more than enough photos, she dug into her meal with the fullest intention of enjoying herself. So what if she had embarrassed herself. She would never see this man again after tonight.

Proud that she hadn’t weakened and checked out the man for several more bites, she rewarded herself for her remarkable self-control by looking at him again. He was alone. Benoit had apparently left and though she should probably have followed him she couldn’t work up any regret. Tomorrow, she would call her client and tell her that though her husband did indeed seem to have something clandestine going on, in Sabrina’s opinion, he wasn’t cheating.

The captivating stranger stayed seated at the table, seeming in no hurry to leave. He sipped on a glass of wine as he played around with his iPhone. Sabrina told herself to look away. If she didn’t, he would catch her staring at him again. But for the life of her, she couldn’t drag her gaze from him.

And then he did something so surprising, so extraordinary…so infuriating. He lifted his phone, pointed it directly at her and clicked several photos.

What the hell?

Ian Mackenzie couldn’t resist taking the shots. The instant he’d come into the restaurant, he had noticed the blonde in the corner. Not only was she stunning with her short cropped white-blonde hair, creamy magnolia skin, and light green eyes, she was focused entirely on him.

Hard for a man to ignore a beautiful woman who seemed as fascinated by him as he was by her. Also hard to ignore the fact that she had taken multiple photographs of him and his dinner companion.

This gig had just gotten infinitely more intriguing. When Blue Sea Industries had contacted him for this job, he’d been tempted to turn it down. Not because corporate espionage wasn’t interesting but because he already had three other cases that were equally as interesting and time consuming. When they’d offered a twenty thousand dollar bonus if he completed his task within the month, he hadn’t been able to say no. With that money, along with his other cases, he should be able to hire a second full time employee.

And now this added bonus. A fascinatingly beautiful woman who was apparently quite interested in Harold Benoit, too. He discounted the idea that she was here to see Ian specifically. The woman had been here when he arrived. Plus Ian hadn’t known until an hour before his appointment time where he would be meeting Benoit for dinner.

No, she was definitely here for Benoit. Question was, why? And more importantly, just who was she?

Taking one last sip of his Merlot, Ian grabbed his phone and stood. Withdrawing his wallet, he threw down another twenty for the waiter. Benoit had paid for the meal, but Ian had noted the man had been decidedly stingy on the tip. Made him dislike the slimy weasel even more.

His eyes on his target, Ian moved toward the woman at a leisurely pace. When he saw her eyes widen in alarm, he couldn’t help but grin. He reached her just as her hand closed over her cellphone, the one she’d used to take numerous photographs of him.

Covering her hand on the phone with his, he said mildly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to confiscate your photos.”

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Settling into the chair across from her, he kept his hand on hers, enjoying the soft, silky skin beneath his fingers.

“Listen buster, you need to get your paw off my hand before you lose it.”

“My paw? Gee, I didn’t realize my hand was so ugly.”

Her smooth brow wrinkled with a frown. “Paws aren’t ugly and neither is your hand.”

“I have scars.”

She glanced down at his hand still holding hers. The scars weren’t that noticeable anymore, having faded over the last few years, but he’d had a few people mention them. Explaining how they came about wasn’t his favorite topic of conversation. War and his experience in the military were taboo subjects even his family honored. So why had he even mentioned the scars?

Most women who noticed them either asked what happened or politely ignored them. This woman continued to surprise him. Instead of asking questions or pretending she didn’t see them, she used her other hand to trace a scar that started on his ring finger. His suit jacket prevented her from seeing that this one extended up his arm to just above his elbow. He wished he were wearing short sleeves so she could follow it all the way up.

“Shrapnel?”

“Yes. How’d you know?”

“I have friends who’ve served.”

When she stopped tracing the scar and removed her hand, he felt the loss of her touch like a blow. Glad that he still held her other one, he squeezed it gently. “So…care to tell me why you were snapping photographs of me?”

“I’m an artist?”

“Are you asking me?”

A delightful pink tinged her cheeks. “No…no. Of course not. I am an artist.” Her voice grew with confidence. “Whenever I see an interesting face, I take snapshots so I can recreate it later.”

“I’m honored you find my face interesting. So…water color, charcoal, or oils?”

“Um…charcoal.”

“Fascinating.” He withdrew a notepad and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket and pushed them across the table. “Draw my face. If you convince me you’re an artist, I’ll let you keep the photos.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to draw a picture of you. My work is private…deeply personal. Now please let go of my hand and I’ll be on my way.”

“Do it and I’ll delete the photos I took of you with spaghetti hanging from your mouth.”

Her cheeks went pinker. “You didn’t get any shots of that.”

“Did too.”

Glaring at him, she snapped, “I’m right-handed. You’ll have to let go of me first.”

Unable to resist and willing to take a slug to the face if she saw fit, Ian lifted her hand to his mouth for a light kiss and then released it. Before she could react to that impropriety, he grabbed her phone. “I’ll just hang on to this for the time being.”

Eyes sparkling with a bright green fury, she snatched up the paper and pen and started drawing. He had no idea if she was actually sketching him or just doodling circles and figure eights. He couldn’t take his eyes off her face.

The soft pink coloring her velvety cheeks made him think of a creamy white rose he’d seen in his mom’s yard. He remembered that it bloomed solid white but after a few days, took on a rosy, blush-colored hue. The flower, however, paled in comparison to this enchanting creature’s beauty.

She wore a sleeveless, light green blouse almost the exact shade of her eyes. Her arms were a light golden color and though slender, were well toned as if physical fitness was a priority for her. She looked both strong and delicately feminine.

“Here.” She shoved the drawing toward him.

Dragging his gaze away, he looked down at the notebook and choked on a strangled laugh. She had indeed drawn him and not very flattering. “I never realized how large my nose was.”

“Nosy people rarely do.”

He slid her phone across the table, placing it where it’d been before. “Care to tell me the truth about the photos?”

She eyed him speculatively. He withstood the scrutiny, knowing she was trying to determine if he could be trusted. “If I tell you, will you answer my questions?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Benoit’s wife hired me to prove he was cheating on her.”

“You’re a private investigator?”

“Yes.”

“And what have you decided about dear old Harold?”

She lifted her slender shoulders in a delightfully feminine manner. “He eats too much red meat, is a lousy tipper, and picks his teeth when he thinks no one is looking.”

“True and quite gross, but not exactly evidence of infidelity.”

“He’s also doing something underhanded…sneaky.”

“Really? Like what?”

“You tell me.”

Ian leaned back against his chair. With anyone else he might have told a lie or at the very least skirted around the truth. This woman made him want to share information. Get her take and opinion. He was an excellent judge of character and knew to his soul that she could be trusted.

“Harold Benoit works for Blue Sea Industries, which among other things, develops women’s cosmetics.”

“Yes, I know that much about him.”

“Harold has been working on a project for cell rejuvenation. Cutting-edge research. If FDA approval comes through, it could have a major impact on the aging process and make a boatload of money for the company. And—”

“And Deep Blue thinks Benoit is trying to sell this formula to the highest bidder.”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“And he is, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is.”

“So he is a scum-sucking, lowlife creepazoid. Just not a cheating one.”

“From my research of him and observations, no, he isn’t…a cheater, that is. The other description is most definitely true.”

“And you were hired by his employer to catch him?”

“Yes. Tonight was my final meeting with him. I was undercover, pretending to work for a competitor. I made him a lucrative offer. He eagerly accepted.”

“So what happens now?”

Ian glanced at his watch. “I’d say that even as we speak Harold is making his one allowed phone call to his attorney. I texted his employer just after he left the table.”

“So you’re a PI, too?”

“I am.”

“Care to tell me your name?”

“I will if you will.”

She held out her hand to shake his. “Sabrina Wilde, Wilde Investigations.”

Taking her hand back into his, Ian knew an odd moment of serenity, as if he was not only touching the soft, smooth skin of a beautiful woman but also someone who would become very important to him.

“Ian Mackenzie.”

“I’ve heard of you.”

Reluctantly releasing her hand, he cocked his head, surprised. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

She flashed him an unabashedly cheeky grin. “I’ve heard you always get your man.”

Unable to resist, his own grin just as cheeky, he said, “And my woman, too.”

 

Chapter One

Miami, Florida

Armando Cruz stepped out of his limo into the back alley of his club and took in a deep breath. Ah yes, the smell of success. Oh, some people might think of it as stink. The stench of debauchery or filth. But Armando knew better. This was life, humanity. This had made him wealthy beyond his dreams. This was his destiny.

Who knew that a few days ago he could have felt this good or optimistic? After Lauren had left him, he’d been distraught. Yeah, he could admit that to himself now. She had broken his heart, almost broken his spirit. After all he’d done for her, given her. She had betrayed him in the worst way possible. He had been set on vengeance. Finding her and making her pay his only priority. But then he’d been made to see reason and now had a new lease on life.

Only three people knew how this had happened—Armando, the shrink who’d helped him, and Robert, his most trusted friend and advisor. If news got out he had seen a head doctor, Armando knew he’d be ruined for sure. Admitting weakness in this business was tantamount to asking to be killed or taken over. But his one true friend had suggested the shrink. And Armando knew Robert would never tell a soul.

Though wary of sharing his inner most thoughts with anyone, especially a stranger, he had agreed to a visit. After all, Robert had never steered him wrong yet. And once again his friend had been right. That visit had changed his life—made him see things in a whole new light. He now knew why he acted the way he did, did the things he did.

His newly discovered self-awareness hadn’t stopped him from performing his job. If anything, understanding his motivation had only increased his productivity. As the doc had assured him, understanding one’s inner demons would keep Armando grounded. Didn’t mean he stopped being a tough guy. Oh hell no. In fact, just yesterday he’d taken over the territory of one of his oldest rivals, ordering the elimination of the man’s entire family. Only a strong, courageous leader would have the balls to do something so bold.

Yeah, he was definitely back on his game.

Even though the shrink believed he needed more than one visit to be completely cured, Armando disagreed. He had overcome a difficult time in his life and he was moving on. It was over…done with.

This morning he’d called off his team of investigators, told them to come back home. He had better things to do than go after some nobody who didn’t appreciate him. There were plenty more women in this world. Lauren Kendall meant nothing to him anymore.

“Boss, everything okay?”

Abruptly aware that he’d been standing in one place, staring at the back door of his club, Armando gave a stiff, arrogant nod. So what? He had nothing to be embarrassed about. This was his place…his kingdom. If he told this dumb-ass to stand here until next week with his underwear down around his ankles and his ass hanging in the wind, then that’s what the guy had better do. Armando was the ruler of his world.

“I’m fine.”

The words were nothing less than a growl. Nevertheless, Armando straightened his shoulders and walked through the door that was being held open for him. The dark hallway led to his offices. Few knew that the lower floors existed. The nightclub was a notorious place of sleaze and human vermin where lowlifes and gangbangers came to get drunk, get laid, and make deals.

Armando liked places like this. It reminded him where he’d come from and how far he’d risen. He could leave here and go home to his mansion, fly anywhere in the world in his private jet, make people do anything he wanted. But the sleaze that came here day after day would never be more. In every way possible, Armando was far superior from that sludge.

A part of a wall slid open, revealing the interior of an elevator. As Armando descended, he stood proudly before the mirror on the elevator door and took stock of his appearance. Just over six feet tall, smooth, slightly olive skin, glossy, thick black hair, chocolate brown eyes, and a slender physique. His dark brown suit had been tailored to perfection, enhancing but not overwhelming his good looks. He was tough looking but elegant, too—the image of a successful businessman. As he’d learned early in his career—image was everything.

A minute later he was in another world. This one of wealth and privilege. The fragrance of rich leather and thousand dollar cigars permeated the air. Decadence surrounded him. While he basked in elegance, the fools above him slogged around in the trenches of filth. But without them, he wouldn’t be here. He loved the irony.

“Everything’s ready for you, sir.”

Armando didn’t bother to acknowledge the asinine words. Of course it was ready for him. There would be hell to pay if it wasn’t.

He seated himself at his table and immediately dug into his Porterhouse steak. Prepared by the chef of the most exclusive restaurant in Miami, the meal was exquisite. The Cabernet, a perfect accompaniment, had been flown in from France just last week. At five thousand dollars a bottle, few people could afford it.

Armando paid no attention to the people surrounding him. They were there to do his bidding. And just like the furniture or decor, they could easily be replaced.

Hunger appeased, he took one last swallow of his wine and stood. The remains of his meal would be removed, the table cleared. He gave a nod to one of his men who clicked on his stereo. The soothing sounds of light jazz filled the room. That was also a signal to bring in tonight’s guests for drinks and some fun. One hunger had been appeased, another remained.

The door opened and two people entered, a man and woman. He knew the man well. Ryan Walker had been working for Armando for years. Caught between two worlds, Walker had proved his loyalty and cunning numerous times.

Walker had brought the woman round before, but Armando had been too immersed in his grief over losing Lauren to really notice her. And damn what a sight he’d missed. Medium height, silky black hair that just touched her shoulders, and a body that wouldn’t quit. Good sized knockers that would overfill his hands, slender hips, but not too skinny, and long legs that could wrap all the way around a man’s waist for a good, hard ride.

Her smooth white skin reminded him of cream and silk. Armando’s mouth watered. He couldn’t wait to see if she tasted as good as she looked. And oh yeah…her mouth. Even if she were as ugly as a donkey’s ass, that mouth would’ve sealed the deal. A woman’s mouth was made for only two things and neither of them involved talking. He looked forward to putting that luscious mouth to good use.

“Welcome!”

Walker shook his hand, while the woman stood back, looking slightly awkward and shy. Yes indeed, he was going to have a good time tonight.

Giving his other men a nod of dismissal, Armando waited until they’d closed the door behind them, leaving him alone with Walker and the woman before saying, “Who’s your friend, Ryan?”

“Mr. Cruz, I’d like to introduce you to Lilah Green.”

“Come over here, sugar, and let’s get a good look at you.”

Her slender neck moved as she swallowed nervously. Green eyes darted over to Walker, as if asking permission.

“No use looking at him. I’m the one who calls the shots here.” Armando’s voice went hard—she needed to learn obedience, quick. “Now come over here before you’re made to.”

She stumbled slightly but moved forward. He looked at her feet and figured walking in four inch heels might not be easy, but they sure made her legs look good. He patted the empty space on the sofa. “Come on. I don’t bite. Well, not too hard, anyway.”

He and Walker shared a knowing grin.

The woman settled beside him and he drew in her delicate fragrance. That subtle perfume teased his senses, making him both hard and irritated. Lauren had used perfume sparingly, too. Most of the women he had been with seemed to bathe in it. He’d told Lauren that was one of the things that convinced him she was a lady. The fact that this woman did the same brought back memories of betrayal and he didn’t want that.

Armando looked up at Walker. “Go into the bathroom and get the perfume that bitch from last week left behind.”

While he waited for Walker to do his bidding, Armando concentrated on getting to know the sweet, young thing beside him a little better. “Tell me about yourself, honey. Where are you from? What do you do?”

“I’m from Nebraska. I moved down here a couple of years ago.”

Armando liked her voice. It held a softness and refinement that was often missing in the women he met. “And what do you do for a living, darling?”

“I’m a hostess at Maxi’s.”

“Somebody as classy as you working in a joint like that? We’ll find you something better, won’t we, Ryan?”

Walker handed over the oversized bottle of perfume he’d fetched. “Yes sir. That’s real kind of you, sir. Isn’t it Lilah?”

“Umm...yes, thanks. I’m not real fond of it. It’s just a place to work till something better comes along.”

Armando leaned over and whispered in her ear, “You please me tonight and I’ll make sure something better comes along.”

Her delectable body stiffened and she shot Walker a look that could’ve melted iron. Any other time Armando might have been amused by her reaction, but tonight it didn’t sit well with him. The bitch needed to learn her place.

His hand wrapped around the back of her neck and he pushed her up until she stood beside him. “Cuffs, Walker.”

She jerked away from him and sent another look to Walker. “What? Ryan, no, this isn’t what I—”

“Um…Mr. Cruz.” Walker said. “I don’t—”

“Silence! Both of you,” Armando snapped. Had Walker been about to refuse him this treat? The very idea had Armando seething. First he would show the girl her place, then he would deal with his disobedient employee.

Still holding the woman by the scruff of her neck, he took the cuffs Walker handed him. “Put your hands behind your back like a good girl and I won’t hurt you. Resist and pay the consequences.”

Armando felt the tremors in her delectable body as she complied. Was there anything sweeter than a beautiful woman terrified and bound for his pleasure? He snapped the cuffs on, making sure they weren’t too tight. Marring her lovely skin, at least at the beginning of their relationship, wasn’t in his plans. There would be plenty of time for that later on when they got to know each other better.

Armando pushed the girl down to her knees. “Close your eyes. I don’t want to blind you.”

He was pleased that she did as he asked. Holding the big bottle of perfume, he walked around the kneeling woman, gave her several good sprays on her neck, cleavage and bound wrists. Once he stripped her, he’d find a few more places but this should do for now.

“Look at me.”

She opened her eyes and looked up. For just an instant, he saw something behind her fear. Anger yes—he had expected that, but he also saw steeliness and courage. Maybe there was more to this one than he’d thought.

He unzipped his pants and took himself in his hand, already rock hard. Time to find out if that mouth lived up to its potential. “Let’s make use of that beautiful mouth in the best way possible.”

Her eyes went wide and she shook her head, jerking away from him. “No way in hell, you lowlife, scum sucking maggot.”

Fury engulfed him. No one spoke to him like that and lived. She would pay for those words with her life, but for now, she would pay with her mouth. Pushing her head down, Armando bent her to him. “You damn well better do as you’re told or you’ll—”

She butted at him with the top of her head. Armando jumped back, barely getting out of the way in time.

“Why you little—”

Shouts outside the door caught his attention. And then a pop…pop…pop.

Gunfire? What the hell?

The door burst open. Four men stood there. All holding guns…all wearing merciless, cold expressions. Armando caught a glimpse of bodies lying in the hallway behind them. His men, dead or unconscious.

The instant he recognized the man in the lead, uncertainty rushed through him. Holden Marsh had a reputation that made even Armando flinch.

He tried to keep his tone genial, unthreatening. “What’s going on here? What have you done to my men?”

“Long time no see, Cruz.”

At the hard ice in Marsh’s voice, terror entered Armando’s heart. But this made no sense. The man Marsh worked for was Armando’s most trusted friend and advisor. Surely this wasn’t something Robert had sanctioned.

“What do you want?”

“Just a little conversation. Looks like you were about to get your rocks off, but I’m afraid that’s going have to wait.” Amusement curled his mouth. “Besides, it appears she would’ve had to work awfully hard for it.”

Armando looked down at his now limp dick. Every good feeling he’d had tonight had been obliterated. Quickly tucking his shrunken member back into his pants, he zipped up. His humiliation was complete when he saw a glint of amusement in the girl’s expression.

“What is the meaning of this? What is it you want? You come in, mow down my men. What gives you the right?”

“The boss man wanted a little information from you. If you have the time, that is.”

“Of course.” Armando tried for a jovial, friendly look. His men could be replaced. “I always have time for the man who brought me into the business.” He gave Walker a look. “You and your girl can go. I’ll be in touch.”

“No one leaves.” He nodded at the girl. “Stand up.”

With surprising ease and grace, the girl stood.

“Uncuff her.”

His hands shaking slightly, Armando took the girl’s wrists and unlocked her. She breathed out a heavy, relieved sigh as she stepped away from him.

Armando gave her a glare. “Don’t think this is over, bitch.”

“Tsk. Tsk. Armando,” Marsh said. “That’s no way to speak to a lady.”

The cuffs that had been around the girl’s wrists only a moment ago suddenly encircled Armando’s. “Wait. What are you doing?”

“Seems someone’s been talking, Cruz. Boss just wants to get to the bottom of it.”

“Talking? Who?”

“You ever hear of Dr. Terrence Cummings?”

“Of course I have. Your boss is the one who recommended him to me. What do you want to know about him?”

“Seriously?” Marsh’s voice held a mocking condescension. “Do you really think the boss doesn’t know what you’ve told him?”

“It doesn’t matter what I told him…the man’s a doctor. He can’t reveal anything. And I’ve always been loyal. He’s got no reason to distrust me.”

“Until you met that sweet morsel named Lauren.”

“What’s she got to do with this? She’s gone.”

“Yes, but what did she abscond with?” His mouth quirked up in an amused sneer. “Besides your balls, that is.”

Armando forced himself to ignore the insult. Time enough to make the bastard pay for it later.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“We’ll just see about that.” Marsh motioned at two of the men. “The pool table looks like a good place.”

“Good place for what?” Armando asked shakily.

Before he could protest or fight back, two men literally picked him up by his elbows and carried him to the pool table on the other side of the room.

“Put me down! What’s this about? You can’t just—”

“Garrett, be so kind as to gag him until we get him ready.”

The indignity got worse as a cloth was shoved into his gasping mouth and then covered by duct tape. Armando struggled, jerking at the hands that grabbed at him. Before he knew it, his clothes had been cut from his body and he found himself lying naked, spread eagle on the surface of the pool table. They’d uncuffed his hands and then used tape to bind his ankles and wrists to the four corners of the table.

Even though his heart was thundering in his chest, Armando tried to tell himself he wasn’t in that much danger. He had never once thought of betraying the man who’d dug him out of the sewer and given him a chance. Once they realized how loyal he’d been, they’d let him go. So what if he had to suffer a little embarrassment in front of Walker and the woman. It would be no worse than that.

“Okay, now that you’re all comfy, let’s hear what you’ve got to say.”

The moment the gag was removed, Armando started talking. “I’ve done nothing to betray him. I promise.”

“Really?” Marsh said.

Agony exploded in his kneecap. Armando squealed and screamed. Opening his tear-glazed eyes he saw one of the men had a hammer. They’d busted his knee!

“Why are you doing this?” Armando sobbed. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Tell me who else you’ve been blabbing to.”

“No one. I swear.”

“Come now, Armando. In one freaking visit, you told that shrink every little secret you’ve had since you were in grade school. He can’t be the only one you’ve shared secrets with.”

Armando shook his head, feeling an unaccountable betrayal. Cummings was a respected psychiatrist. Doctor and patient confidentiality should have protected Armando. And Robert? How could he have done this to him?

“I can see you’re shocked, Armando. Let me assure you that Dr. Cummings felt quite torn for telling your secrets. However, his oath didn’t extend to the man who ordered his brother-in-law killed.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Remember Rodney Hawkins?”

“No, never heard the name.”

“That’s probably because you’ve killed so many, but believe me, Dr. Cummings remembers. When the boss approached him with the offer of serving as your doctor as payback, he jumped at the chance. Boss knows that everyone has a price. He proved it. So let’s get back to the business at hand. Who else have you told your secrets to?”

“No one. I swear!”

“Not even Lauren?”

“Of course not. She knows nothing.”

“Why don’t we ask her ourselves? Where is she?”

“I don’t know. I can’t find her. I told Dr. Cummings I couldn’t. I—”

Agony exploded again, this time in his other knee. Armando bit down on his lip, tasting blood. Behind the blur of excruciating pain, he heard the woman scream, “Stop!”

Armando gave little thought to the oddity that the woman was the only one who was trying to end this atrocity.

“Please…please,” Armando pleaded. “I promise. I don’t know where she is. Dr. Cummings is the one who persuaded me to stop looking for her.”

“You’re right. He told us that. We just wanted to make sure you were telling the truth. Boss said he wants to know about her though. Where her family is. Where she’s from. Said the short time they spent together they didn’t do much talking.”

He now deeply regretted giving Lauren to the brutal bastard he had called friend. He’d thought it was a nice gesture. Robert had turned fifty. What better birthday present than to give him what Armando cherished the most, his lovely Lauren? When she had returned to him, she’d been bruised, a little battered, but other than one silent accusing look, she had never complained. The next week, after she healed, she’d come back to his bed like she had never left it. He’d thought things were okay, but two months later, she’d been gone.

“I never told Lauren any of my business.”

“I thought we’d established that. What I asked was, where is she from? Where’s her family from? You need some more pain to help you concentrate better?”

“No…No. She, uh…she’s from up north. Maine or New Hampshire. One of those cold states.”

“Not exactly pinpointing it for us, but it’s a start.”

The reality hit him then. His knees were ruined, and as hard as that was to accept, he already knew they weren’t through with him.

As if he could read Armando’s mind, Marsh said, “I think he needs a little something to take his mind off his knees.”

Agony erupted in his ankle. And then pain exploded in his other ankle.

Armando screamed and sobbed. His body jerked and twitched in rebellion, his muscles cramped with strain. The meal he’d recently consumed surged up his throat. Turning his head so he wouldn’t choke, he vomited. The sheer atrocity of what was being done to him stunned him for several seconds. How could he get out of this? He couldn’t think straight. He had done nothing to deserve such torture.

“I swear I don’t know anything else,” Armando sobbed. “She said she was from up north, that her name was Lauren Kendall. Her family is all gone. I swear that’s all I know.”

Marsh’s face appeared above him. “I believe you.”

Though agony pounded in his knees and ankles, Armando closed his eyes in relief. Finally, at last, it was over. Now—

Something cold and hard pressed against his right temple. Armando opened his eyes. Ryan Walker had a Glock against Armando’s head.

“You traitorous bastard!” A last gasping scream of “Noooooo—”

And then there was nothing.

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