EXCERPT: RUNNING WILD
Ernesto Diaz chewed nervously at his lip as he checked his watch once again. He cursed beneath his breath. The two men he’d hired to help him with this job were late. He’d had no choice but to go with local talent, which usually wasn’t an issue. There were more than enough available men to do this kind of work. The problem wasn’t the lack of assistance, the nature of the job, or even the money. The problem with this job was the target.
Ernesto was fifty years old. Forty of those years he’d been running various cons and scams. Made a good living. For the past five years, he’d turned to information gathering. Being a short, squat man with average looks had its advantages. Few people noticed him or saw him as a threat. Being a snitch and informant was a much more lucrative endeavor.
It was because of his past association with the target that he’d been chosen for this job. Ernesto wasn’t above taking the occasional kidnapping assignment. When finances were low, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t try his hand at. So when he had been offered this opportunity, he had eagerly accepted. The money was excellent, and the setup was minimal. All in all, it should’ve been an easy way to make a nice profit. The issue, once again, narrowed down to one specific problem—the target.
He had known Aidan Thorne for several years. The man had paid him handsomely for various bits of intel Ernesto had collected. Ernesto didn’t know the reason Thorne needed the information he asked for…didn’t want to know. Sometimes, the more you knew, the better your chances of getting dead. Ernesto made sure he knew just enough to make a living and not enough to cause his death.
If he’d had a conscience, he might feel guilty for betraying a man who’d always been kind of decent to him. But Aidan Thorne understood the way of the world they both inhabited. In a battle between money and loyalty, money always won.
Ernesto peeked around the corner. This time of day there were few people on the streets. And in this neighborhood the ones who were on the streets were the people you wanted to avoid.
Maybe once this job was over, he’d go somewhere else. Get out of town, at least for a little while. Did Aidan Thorne have people who might come looking for him? If that was the case, then Ernesto knew he wouldn’t want to be around.
He didn’t know what the people who hired him wanted with Aidan Thorne. He didn’t want to know. Whatever it was, he doubted Thorne would survive the outcome.
A shiver that had nothing to do with the temperature zipped up Ernesto’s spine. If Thorne somehow got away, he’d come looking for Ernesto. The thought made his gut roil. He’d seen dead men with more warmth in their eyes than Aidan Thorne. Without a doubt Ernesto would not survive any kind of skirmish with the man. That was the reason he’d hired two men to help him. Thorne would be a ruthless, formidable enemy.
If the men he’d hired didn’t arrive soon, he would have to do this on his own.
Ernesto unconsciously shook his head. No way would he take on Aidan Thorne by himself. Only one man would survive such a confrontation.
Ernesto knew to his soul it wouldn’t be him.
The bar was both sleazy and filthy. Smoke swirled through the big room like an industrialized bug fogger belching out its last toxic dregs. From the sticky fake-wood floor that hadn’t seen soap and water in decades to the light fixtures with grimy coats of dirt and dead bugs, the ambience of Claudio’s Cantina bellowed, Enter at your own risk.
Aidan Thorne figured it’d take at least a half-dozen showers before the stink left him.
Slouched in the corner, his back to the wall, he gave the appearance of being half wasted and all the way bored. He was neither. His informant was fifteen minutes late. Punctuality had never been a priority for Ernesto Diaz. Aidan had no illusions about the man. Though less corrupt than most in his business, if Diaz got a better offer, he’d sell out without a thought. Which was why Aidan was going to give the vermin only five more minutes to show. The back of his neck was getting that twitchy feeling, which usually meant trouble was brewing. Ignoring that twitch had once gotten him shot. He hadn’t ignored it since.
He shifted in his chair, noting and appreciating the lack of pain. Three months ago, he’d been laid up with a broken leg. Weeks of doing almost nothing but waiting for it to heal had made him antsy and out of sorts. The minute he’d returned to full LCR duty, he’d jumped into the action as if all of hell’s demons were on his ass. Too much time to think and remember. Too much time to regret. Nothing like staying on the edge of danger to help focus a man’s thoughts.
In fact, he’d been so focused, that when he’d gotten the call from Diaz, he’d almost delayed the meet. After all this time with no viable intel, what was the point of rushing just to find out there was nothing new? After that thought, the inevitable guilt had followed. How dare he not follow up? Had he not made a promise? Had he not sworn that he would follow every lead, no matter how minuscule or far-fetched, until he found the murdering bastard?
So, despite the fact that Diaz was about as reliable as a politician and most likely had nothing new to tell him, Aidan had taken the bait.
His family thought he was certifiable. Not that they’d come right out and say it. His mother and father, ever supportive, just gave him that sympathetic, helpless look that basically said, We’re here for you, but we’re completely lost on why you’re not living up to your potential.
His sister was a little more blunt. Last time he’d talked to her, they’d had a shouting match. She thought he was wasting his life and didn’t mind saying so. He thought she was a nosy, opinionated buttinski who needed to stay out of his business. A day later, he had sent her flowers to apologize. She had sent him a bottle of his favorite wine. Both of them knew that all was forgiven.
To his family, it probably did look as though he was wasting his life. Or at least not living up to his potential. They had a vague idea of what his job with LCR entailed, but he did his best to shield them from the more hair-raising details. Rescuing kidnapped victims from the most dangerous places in the world was a far cry from the safe, secure world he’d left behind.
But that world stopped being safe and secure a decade ago. His family could stay in denial as long as they wanted. Aidan knew the truth. The monster was still out there. Watching. Waiting. Looking for his next chance to strike. Too many had paid the price for Aidan’s carelessness. He would never let his guard down ever again.
Without moving a muscle, every inch of Aidan’s body went on high alert. His eyes searched the reason for his unease. Detected nothing. Still, the hair on the back of his neck was screaming a warning. What the hell was going down?
“Let me go, you big gorilla! I don’t want to go in here.”
What the hell?
A woman was shoved into the middle of the room. All eyes were on her, and almost every damn one of them had the salacious look of a predator about to pounce. This was not going to be pretty.
The room was too smoky to tell much about her, but that wouldn’t matter to a bunch of drunk, horny, soulless men. Fresh meat had arrived in their vicinity, requiring no effort to obtain. The woman was in a shitload of trouble.
With a casualness in direct contrast to the circumstances, Aidan stood and eased himself over to the bar. Calling attention to his movements wouldn’t be good for either him or the woman. He was her best chance to get out of here unscathed. If he was taken down, she was toast.
There were three men at the bar. An additional eight were at various tables. Four men had been playing pool. Two had been throwing darts. Of course, all activity had ceased. No one was doing anything now but staring at the woman and salivating.
Already trying to figure out which man he could pit against the other, Aidan leaned against the barstool and pretended to eye the woman just like everyone else. Acting as if he wasn’t interested would call attention to himself, but in truth, he didn’t bother to look at her. All other eyes were on their single target. Aidan’s attention was on the safest way to get this woman out the door.
The music on the ancient jukebox ended. Since no one had bothered to pay for another song, silence filled the room.
“Look,” the woman stated in a firm, no-nonsense way, “I’m just looking for my friend. If you’ve not seen her, that’s fine. But I’m not going to stand here anymore. I’m leaving.”
Aidan’s involuntary gasp took in a giant gulp of smoky air, and he almost choked on the fumes. Probably would have if he wasn’t in shock. His eyes finally settled on the woman, and even though his mind screamed a denial, he couldn’t avoid the truth. Holy, holy hell. That was no girl, no mere woman. And definitely no stranger. That was the one, the only, Anna Bradford.
What the hell was she doing here? Most important, how was he going to get her out alive?
Anna stood in the middle of the smoke-filled room and concentrated on acting tough and in control. She told herself she’d been in worse predicaments. A dozen bee stings in Arizona, a snakebite in Peru, and a severely broken heart in the ninth grade. Not to mention being kidnapped and tortured a few years back. She could darn well figure her way out of this situation. Admittedly, while all the men surrounding her looked as though they would murder their sainted granny for a dollar, she had learned to look beyond dirt and grime to the person beneath the surface. Out of all of these not terribly reputable-looking people, there had to be at least one with enough decency to help her get out of here.
So far, coming to Cali had been an abysmal failure. Counseling traumatized children was a challenge on the best of days. It was especially difficult when the parents of those children were less well-behaved than a one-year-old with diaper rash. But when the psychologist scheduled for the clinic had canceled because of a family emergency and Carrie had called her at the last minute, Anna had gotten swept up in the notion that if she didn’t help, no one would. Now not only had she not helped a single child, Carrie was missing.
And to make matters a thousand times worse, Anna was apparently going to die a horrible death.
At that thought, her spine went stiff with indignation. She was most certainly not going to die today. She would simply explain what was going on to these men. Surely they had tender feelings for their mothers or sisters. She would just appeal to their human side.
Giving them the smile she often used to put a frightened child at ease, she stated firmly, clearly, “Gentlemen, I find myself in need of assistance. A friend of mine has gone missing. She’s about five-feet-five, with blond hair and light green eyes. Her name is Carrie. Has anyone seen her?”
No one answered. Not even a headshake. She tried again. “I know if your mother or sister were missing, you’d want someone to help her. Wouldn’t you?”
What came next burned her ears. These men were definitely not fond of their mothers or sisters.
She made a three-sixty-degree turn, looking for a friendly face. It wasn’t to be found. Deciding a quick and graceful retreat was her best recourse, Anna started to back away. She took slow measured steps and began to feel optimistic. No one was coming after her. Maybe they were going to just let her—
She slammed into what felt like a brick wall. Heart thundering, her breathing almost to the point of hyperventilating, Anna turned around. Her eyes were on the level of a large, well-formed chest. The man stood before her like an immovable boulder. Tall, broad-shouldered, and so muscular that the sleeves of his olive green T-shirt were molded around his well-developed biceps.
Anna swallowed hard and finally found the courage to raise her gaze to his face. A wave of dizziness swept over her, and if he hadn’t grabbed her shoulders, she would have keeled over at his feet.
Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, why did she have to walk into his?
Casablanca was a million miles away. She was no Ingrid Bergman, and the man in front of her was definitely not Humphrey Bogart. Rick never would have glared at Ilsa like that.
“Having trouble staying out of trouble, Anna?”
“Hello, Aidan. It’s nice to see you again. How are you?”
Despite the tense situation, Aidan had trouble keeping a straight face. “Only Anna Bradford could have two dozen salivating drunks surrounding her and act as if she’s attending a Sunday social.”
She lifted her chin. Such a lovely, stubborn slant. “Politeness never goes out of style.”
“You think we could save the social niceties until after we get you out of here?”
Without moving her head, her gaze swept nervously around the room, the only indication that she was aware of the trouble she was in. Clearing her throat, she said, “I was just leaving.”
“Very wise,” Aidan said dryly.
Though he kept his eyes on Anna, Aidan was hyper-aware of everything that was going on around them. The three men at the bar were discussing their plan of attack. A half dozen other men were looking for their own chance to strike. The rest of them were hanging back. No doubt waiting to see what their friends could accomplish without them.
So for now, it was nine against two. Not the worst odds he’d ever faced. If he could get out of here without bloodshed, all the better. Protecting Anna was his priority.
She swallowed loudly. “Any suggestions?”
“Yes. Get ready to be offended.”
Wide-eyed, she looked up at him. “What?”
He took advantage of her open mouth, swooped down, and slammed his mouth over hers. His tongue swept inside, and in an instant, Aidan knew the men surrounding them were the least of his troubles.
He’d dreamed about tasting her, and dammit, now he’d gone and done it. She was more delicious than anything he’d ever tasted in his life. He could stand here all day, drowning in her sweetness, savoring her flavor.
Oh hell no.
Before she could struggle or kick him in the groin, Aidan pulled away from her. Giving her no time to scream or slap his face, he scooped her up with one arm and threw her over his shoulder. With the other, he pulled his Glock from the holster on his thigh and glared around the room. And just in case they didn’t get it, he shouted, “Mine! Anybody got a problem with that?”
Not waiting around for an answer, Aidan turned and stalked out of the bar.
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