The Edge, Book Two
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“BURN EVERYTHING. THEY’RE COMING.”
Roxanne “Razor” Haught is used to being in control. An expert in stealth security for corporate espionage cases, Razor is all about setting traps for the bad guys. But suddenly she is the target. A mysterious man is following her. Someone has trashed her house, searching for something. Then there is the cryptic coded message from her army friend: “Burn everything. They’re coming.”
Tanner O’Connell has no intentions of leaving Razor’s side. Despite her objections to having a “babysitter,” his orders as the newest member of the Edge are to watch her back. Of course he can’t help watching a lot more than that. But with some brainwashed assassins after his partner, Tanner cannot afford to let his desire for Razor interfere with his duty. His special ops skills might be all that stand between saving Razor — or losing her forever…
Catching a thief was easy. Catching a thief in the act was more of a challenge — one that made Roxanne Haught’s skin sizzle with eager anticipation.
The lavish retirement party was her idea, despite the fact she’d never met the guest of honor. It was the perfect trap, complete with juicy bait her target would be unable to resist.
She mingled among the well-dressed partygoers, smiling and making small talk as she passed from one cluster of people to the next, waiting for the right time to strike.
Her client, Mr. Chord, had graciously opened his home for his friend’s party — something the middle-aged reclusive genius had never done before. Because of that, dozens of people had come here tonight, curious to get a peek into the executive’s estate.
Roxanne cared little about the details of the hand-carved woodwork or the intricacies of the mosaic tile floor inlaid with semiprecious stone, which seemed to delight many of the people here. She’d seen it all before. She was more interested in the number of exits on each floor and the location of the information she’d been hired to guard.
The stage was set. The party was in full swing. Mr. Chord had made sure his newest employee, the unlikely named Mary Smith, knew that the plans for Chord Industries’ latest invention were being kept safe on his hard drive at home, away from any possible thieves at the office. That machine had no Internet or network connection, making hacking it from a remote location impossible. No copies were being stored elsewhere, not since the last fiasco. If someone wanted that information, the only way to get it was by breaking into his home office.
He was being extra careful this time. Too bad for Mary Smith her boss suspected her of the theft and had hired Roxanne to catch her in the act.
The Kevlar designed into the bodice of Roxanne’s beaded evening gown gave her little comfort. Mary looked more like the kind of woman who would prefer knives — up close, personal, and silent.
She was a small, innocent-looking woman. She had delicate, softly rounded features, like a porcelain doll. Her bright, cherry red hair was styled in an old-fashioned manner that reminded Roxanne of glamorous actresses from the 1940s. Her dress matched her flamboyant hair color and skimmed the kind of curves that made men forget their own names. If it weren’t for the fact that her boss was a freaking genius, Mary probably would have continued to get away with stealing his intellectual property.
But Mr. Chord was a genius, and, after a bit of surveillance, Roxanne was sure he was right. Mary Smith was a thief.
Roxanne stood on the grand staircase leading to the second floor where several people mingled, both here and on the balcony above. She watched Mary laugh at something Mr. Chord said, placing her delicate hand on his chest while she batted her fake eyelashes. The redhead stared up at him in rapt attention, hanging on his every word. Her hands were quick, but Roxanne was watching carefully, expecting the woman to make a move.
Mary didn’t disappoint. With a quick, graceful motion, she swiped Mr. Chord’s key card from his breast pocket, palming it until it was safely in her red beaded evening bag.
Busted, but not good enough yet. Mary had to be caught stealing the information, or no one would believe little Miss Innocent was guilty of anything more than stunning good looks.
Mary excused herself, heading toward the staircase. Roxanne turned to the nearest group of people and chatted with them as the other woman passed behind her, moving up the stairs, to the right, toward Mr. Chord’s office.
Roxanne caught Mr. Chord’s gaze and gave him a slight nod. Tonight, she was going to plug her client’s information leak once and for all.
A smile stretched Roxanne’s lips as she waited until the last flash of red skirt was gone before following Mary down the hallway. The floor plan to Mr. Chord’s home was firmly in her mind. There was only one reason Mary would be headed down this hall — to reach Mr. Chord’s office.
Roxanne waited a few brief seconds outside the solid wood door, giving Mary time to power up the PC and begin her illegal hacking.
The high-tech keypad controlling the office door indicated the door was securely locked. Roxanne used her key to open the lock. By the time she swung the door open, Mary was already standing, her eyes wide with innocence.
“What are you doing in here?” asked Roxanne.
“Mr. Chord asked me to look over some of his papers.” She held up a key card. “See? He gave me his key.”
“Liar,” said Roxanne, her grin widening. “But then everything from your dyed hair to your name to that résumé you used to get hired is a lie.”
Mary did a good job of sputtering in indignation and picked up her cell phone from the desk. “How dare you? I’m calling Mr. Chord right now to have security escort you out.”
“Go ahead,” said Roxanne, shrugging. Mary was caught, and if the sweat beading along her hairline was any indication, she knew it. The only way out was through the door behind Roxanne, or out the window, which was easily twenty feet down, thanks to the high ceilings on Mr. Chord’s first floor. It was too high up to jump out the window, and there was no place in that outfit for her to hide rappelling gear.
Mary Smith was well and truly caught.
“I’ve been made,” said Mary into the cell phone. “Heads up. Window.”
Roxanne’s confusion lasted for a millisecond, but even that was too long. Mary had a partner — something Roxanne had failed to uncover.
Roxanne lunged across the room to stop the woman, but before she could cross the space, Mary hurled a stapler through the window, jerked a USB drive out of the PC, and tossed it through the broken opening. Roxanne slammed into Mary, pinning her to the frame of the window. Outside, she saw a man below pick up the drive and sprint off across Mr. Chord’s manicured lawn.
Sure, the data on the drive was fake, but that wasn’t the point. Roxanne had been charged with catching a thief, and she’d failed to realize there were two of them.
Fury boiled up inside of her as she grabbed the dainty woman’s arm to spin her around and tie her wrists with the flex cuffs she’d brought with her. Mary had other ideas.
She lashed out, slamming her pointy elbow into Roxanne’s stomach. Pain flew out from that spot, driving the air from her lungs. Mary shoved away from Roxanne, but she moved only two feet before Roxanne snagged her arm and jerked her to a halt.
“You’re not getting away,” Roxanne snarled.
Mary’s hand snapped out, striking Roxanne’s forearm hard enough to break her grip, likely leaving a bruise. She reached beneath her short skirt and pulled out a slim knife. “Like hell I’m not.”
Sometimes being right sucked.
Roxanne hated knives. She really did. She’d much rather be at the receiving end of a nice, fat shotgun. There was something inherently wicked about knives, something far more sinister than the effective simplicity of a revolver, or the efficiency of a semiautomatic pistol. Guns were designed to kill; knives were designed to hurt. It took a long time to die from stab wounds, unless a person were lucky enough to have an artery severed. And while Roxanne had been trained to deal with the threat, facing a shiny blade again still had the power to make her break out in a nervous sweat.
Mary stabbed forward, slicing at Roxanne’s arm. The blade didn’t cut her, but she was sure some of the hair on her forearm had been shaved clean. Good thing she’d brought a gun to a knife fight. It was in her evening bag, which she’d dropped on the floor by the door when Mary had shattered the window. All Roxanne had to do was get to it and the fight would be over. One way or another.
Mary kept swiping, holding Roxanne at bay as she backed up to make her exit. Roxanne made sure not to glance at her beaded bag, not wanting to give away that it was important to her. A woman cruel enough to carry a blade as her weapon of choice would not hesitate to use anything against her she could find.
“I’m leaving. Keep quiet, and I won’t hurt anyone on my way out,” said Mary. The wicked gleam in her dark eyes spoke differently.
“Bullshit. We both know that’s a lie.”
A slow, amused smile spread across Mary’s mouth as she backed up a bit more. Roxanne followed her up. As she passed the desk, she picked up a heavy crystal paperweight and flung it at Mary’s head.
The woman dodged, and Roxanne took the opening. She charged forward, gripping Mary’s wrist and shoving it high to keep the knife away from her. She used her momentum to slam the woman into the hardwood door. Her head hit hard. She blinked several times as if dazed.
Roxanne didn’t wait to see whether it was an act. She smashed the knife hand against the wood, over and over until the gleaming metal fell to the floor.
Mary screamed in outrage and head butted Roxanne right in the nose.
Pain flashed red behind her eyes, making them water like crazy.
Roxanne grabbed the front of the woman’s dress and flung her to the floor, face-first. Mary’s skin squeaked against the gleaming hardwood floor. Roxanne crashed down on top of her, driving her knee into Mary’s back hard enough to make her cry out in pain. Something along Mary’s back popped, but Roxanne didn’t care what it was. She wrenched Mary’s hands behind her and pinned them there while she fished a set of flex cuffs from her evening bag.
Mary was secured, moaning, and no longer fighting.
Time to go after the other thief.
Roxanne picked up the knife so Mary couldn’t use it to free herself and dropped it into her purse. She took out her cell and dialed Mr. Chord as she raced out of the office and down to the exit nearest to where Mary’s partner had been. “Mary is in your office. She might need an ambulance.”
“What the hell did you do to her?”
“Not as much as I would have liked. She had a partner. I’m going after him.”
Roxanne didn’t wait to hear what he had to say. She raced across the lawn, but the second thief was nowhere to be seen. Behind a screen of manicured bushes, several bars had been recently cut away from one section of the iron fence surrounding Mr. Chord’s property, and on the other side of that, there were dark tire marks on the street.
Roxanne had failed to catch him, which meant it was only a matter of time before a new Mary showed up to finish what the last one couldn’t.
Mr. Chord was not going to be pleased.
* * *
“Mr. Chord is pissed,” said Roxanne’s boss, Bella Bayne, the next morning.
Bella was the owner of the Edge — the growing private security company in Dallas where Roxanne worked. They handled all kinds of needs from threat assessment to protective details to US troop support to ridding foreign countries of any number of pesky criminals. For the right price.
Roxanne’s specialty was stealth security for corporate espionage cases. She made sure the bad guys didn’t know who she was until it was too late and she caught them with their hands in the cookie jar. At least that had been her specialty. Based on Bella’s scowl, she might have been demoted to cleaning the locker room toilets if she wasn’t simply fired.
Roxanne really didn’t want to walk away from the job she’d come to love. She had to find a way to make things right.
Bella stood to her full, impressive height. She was easily six feet tall in her combat boots, and every inch of her was sleek, sculpted muscle. Her stormy gray eyes narrowed in fury. “Where shall we start, Razor? With the fact that your client’s information was stolen? Or maybe with the part where the guy who stole it got away?”
“The data was fake. I planted it. Whoever has it isn’t getting anything of value.”
“And now they know that, too. Mr. Chord told me how hard it was to architect that setup. Your chance to catch the thieves is gone, and he still has no idea who Mary works for or with.”
Roxanne looked down and toyed with her wide cuff bracelet. “Were the police able to get her to talk?”
“Not a word. Not even to a lawyer. And now whoever is doing this knows we’re onto them.”
What was worse was that the police were now involved — something Mr. Chord had wanted to avoid from the beginning, which was why he hired the Edge to deal with the problem. If word got out that his designs were being stolen, his company’s stock price could plummet. He might lose investors.
Roxanne had no idea about the specifics of the devices that had been stolen from him. She didn’t need to know any secret information to do her job. But what she did know was that Chord Industries had contributed to several advances in the field of medicine. His machines helped people. Saved lives.
Because of her, he was losing his ability to do good in the world, and that pissed Roxanne off more than her own failure.
“I’m sorry, Bella. I should have realized Mary could have a partner.”
“Yes. You should have. So the question is, why didn’t you?”
Roxanne considered giving her boss some lame excuse. She could come up with half a dozen that might help her cover her ass, but she couldn’t do that to Bella. They were friends. Bella trusted her, and she wasn’t going to screw that up by lying.
Roxanne took a deep breath and admitted what she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to. “I’ve been distracted.”
Bella crossed her arms over her chest and lifted a dark eyebrow. “Distracted? Care to elaborate on that?”
“My ex, Kurt, he’s been sending guys after me, having them follow me. I thought he’d stopped a few weeks ago, but I guess I was wrong. He’s not done with his games. A new man showed up yesterday, and I spent so much time losing him before I went in to do the job, I was rushed. I wasn’t completely focused.”
Bella’s face darkened with rage, and her voice became lethally calm. “What, exactly, are these guys doing to you?”
“Nothing. They just watch me. Kurt was the jealous type, and even though we split three months ago, he apparently still hasn’t managed to accept the fact that we’re over.”
“Give me Kurt’s address. I’ll go speak to him.”
“No, Bella. You’d only make things worse if you confront him. I already did, and he denies everything. I know he’s lying, and I told him I’d have him brought in for stalking if it happened again. I thought I’d gotten through, but either way, this is my mess. I’ll be the one to clean it up.”
Bella glanced at Roxanne’s arm where the bruise from last night’s combat darkened her skin. “Did he hurt you, Razor?” she asked, her hands clenching to fists at her sides.
“No. It was nothing like that. He’s not a bad guy. He just didn’t want to let go.”
“I could make him.”
Roxanne had seen Bella mad. She’d seen the woman take down three armed men by herself. And she’d heard stories about that building Bella destroyed in Mexico a few months ago. But Roxanne had never seen this kind of steely, quiet rage so intense it vibrated through her entire body. She heard rumors that Bella had a dark past — one she never discussed with her employees — but seeing this kind of reaction made Roxanne wonder just what that past had been.
“I’ve got it covered,” said Roxanne. “I’ll go see him today and make sure he quits playing these games.”
Bella swallowed several times before her hands unclenched and the redness in her face abated. “I won’t have anyone hurting my people.”
“Kurt isn’t hurting me. He’s just jerking me around.”
“Are you protecting him?”
“No. He’s an asshole for screwing with me like this, and I plan to tell him that to his face.”
“I don’t like the way he’s treating you.”
“Neither do I.”
“He interfered with your work, and I can’t let that slide.”
“I know.” Roxanne let out a long, resigned breath. She loved her job, but she knew the score. A mistake like this was too big a thing to simply ignore. “Are you going to fire me?”
Bella’s mouth flattened in frustration. “I should. That would certainly appease Mr. Chord. But no, you’re not fired. However, I’m not handing out any more chances, either. You blow it again, you’re out. Our work is too dangerous for distractions. You need to get your personal shit straightened out before I can assign you any more jobs.”
“What about finding the guy who got away?”
“The cops are involved now. They’re looking into it.”
“So . . . what? We just leave Mr. Chord hanging?”
“No, I’m going to offer him our services for free to calm him down, but he already said he didn’t want you back. I’m sorry.”
The rejection stung, but not nearly as much as her failure did. Mr. Chord was right to be mad. She let her personal life get in the way of her professional life, which was a big no-no. She knew better.
“I understand. I’ll go see Kurt on his lunch break and make sure he understands that his games are over. I should be back by one.”
“No. I don’t want you back until you’re sure you’ve fixed the problem for good.”
Roxanne took a deep breath to keep herself from shouting at her boss. “How long is long enough to convince you?”
“As long as it takes. No less than a week.”
A week? If Mr. Chord’s thief had left any trail, it would definitely be cold by then. “That’s more time than I’ll need.”
“This isn’t negotiable, Razor,” said Bella. “If his buddies stay away for a few days, chances are they won’t come back. And there’s something else, too.”
“Assholes have a tendency to escalate things when confronted. I’m not letting anything happen to you, so I’m assigning the new guy to you. Wherever you go, he goes. Got it?”
“You’re giving me a babysitter?” Roxanne did shout this time, jumping to her feet in anger.
Bella strode around her glass desk and got right in Roxanne’s face. “I’m giving you a badass former special operations babysitter — one I want on our team. Don’t fuck that up.”
Great. Now she wasn’t going to be able to look into possible leads on the thief. Her babysitter would no doubt rat her out. “I don’t need him, Bella.”
“I think you do. And he needs you, too. While he’s babysitting, you’re going to explain how things work at the Edge. He’s already passed all our tests and breezed through training, but he hasn’t taken on any real jobs yet. Think of this as his orientation.” Bella pressed a button on her phone. “Lila, please send Tanner in.”
“This isn’t a good idea. I’m a horrible teacher. You need to get Riley to do the training. He’s good at that kind of thing.”
“Riley’s good at everything, which is why he’s too busy for this. You, on the other hand, happen to have some free time on your hands. Deal with it, Razor. This is happening.”
Fine. Roxanne had screwed up. If this was her punishment, she’d take it like a woman, get through the next few days, and be back to her real job in no time. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” said Tanner as he came in on the heels of her statement.
Bella made the introductions. “Razor, this is Tanner O’Connell.”
Tanner was not what she’d expected. She’d been so upset about being saddled with a babysitter, she hadn’t even considered that he might be a hot one. And he was. Smokin’. Taller than Bella, even in her boots, Tanner stood with a posture that screamed complete confidence. His shoulders were wide, his back straight, and his blue eyes stayed fixed on her, unblinking. An amused grin lifted one side of his mouth and formed little crinkles at his eyes. His jeans clung to thick, long legs, and on his feet were the worn cowboy boots of a true Texan.
“Tanner, this is your new partner, Roxanne Haught. We call her Razor.”
Tanner’s dark brows went up at that. “Razor? Is that because you have a sharp tongue?”
“The sharpest,” she replied. “You’d better beg Bella for a new trainer, or I’ll skin you alive.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth. “Might be worth it.”
Bella grabbed each of them by one arm and pushed them toward her office door. “I see you two have a lot to talk about. Outside of my office. I have work to do.”
“This is a bad idea,” said Roxanne, praying for a last-minute reprieve.
Bella ignored her. “And don’t think you can come back here in a few hours claiming you tried to make it work. There will be no trying today. Just doing. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Tanner. “We won’t let you down.”
Bella gave Tanner a stern look. “She’s going to try to ditch you. Don’t let it happen. Some asshole is giving her trouble, and if she gets hurt, you’re fired.”
All hints of amusement fled Tanner’s rugged face, making his eyes turn cold. He seemed to grow a couple of inches taller and took a step closer to Roxanne. It reminded her of her best friend, Jake, who had a tendency to be a bit overprotective.
Tanner nodded. “I understand.”
“Good. I’m glad that’s settled. Now get out.” Bella shooed them through the door and shut it behind them.
It was time to let the new kid know how things worked around here. “If I’m going to be your trainer, we have a couple of things to get straight.”
“I’m in charge. You do what I say, when I say.”
The slightest creases formed at his eyes, but he didn’t refute her order. “Is that it?”
“No. I don’t want or need a babysitter. I’m going to deal with my personal problems on my own, without your interference.”
Wow. He was taking that remarkably well.
“I think that covers the basics. But I reserve the right to change my mind.”
He moved, somehow maneuvering her so that her back was against the wall. He nudged closer, breaking the edge of her personal space. His voice dropped to a quiet rumble that Bella’s secretary, Lila, would have had trouble overhearing from her desk a few feet away. “Then it’s my turn to talk. I don’t work for you. I work for Bella, which means she’s the one who gets to hand out the orders, not you. So, while I’m happy to learn whatever it is you have to teach me, I’m sure as hell not going to stand around like a good little boy while you deal with your personal asshole problems when Bella specifically told me not to.”
Roxanne wasn’t sure what she’d expected from the seemingly good-natured man, but it wasn’t that. She pulled in a breath to put him in his place, but an instant later, his thick, hot finger pressed against her lips, quieting her.
She was so shocked by the touch, she forgot all about the fact that she should have been upset by it. Instead, she drew in a breath scented with soap and the faintest hint of his skin.
A touch of vertigo spun inside her head, and she realized she’d forgotten to breathe. The roughness of his work-hardened finger grazed across her mouth as her lips parted slightly so she could pull in enough oxygen.
“I’m not done,” he told her. “You and I are going to be working together, and I’m not going to let you do anything to screw up my chances of keeping this job. I need the work. So you and I are going to get along real nice-like and make Bella proud. Got it?”
As close as he was, she could see deep blue streaks radiating out from his pupils. The creases around his eyes were paler, as if he’d spent a lot of time in the sun, squinting. His scent reminded her of a summer drive in a convertible — warm and exhilarating with just a hint of an incoming storm.
She felt her skin heat and attributed it to her sudden flash of irritation at his high-handed ways.
Roxanne pressed her hands against his chest to push him back, but as soon as she felt the hard contours of his muscles beneath her hands, her mind stuttered for a moment before she remembered herself and finished pushing.
Tanner stepped back, his finger shiny from her lip gloss.
Roxanne pressed her lips together to fix the damage he’d done to her makeup and swore she could taste him — salt and earth and something else that made her wish for another taste just so she could figure it out.
Not that she would do that. Bella generally frowned on her coworkers tasting each other.
Roxanne cleared her throat to cover her discomfort. “I can see already that you and I are going to have problems.”
“Nope,” he said. “Not a single one. We’re both going to do what the boss says.”
No way was she letting a stranger into her personal life to help her make an ex-boyfriend back off. But he didn’t have to know that. “Fine. You win. We’ll meet back here after lunch and get started on your training.”
By that time, she’d have dealt with Kurt and no longer have anything to hide. She’d throw herself into training Tanner, and in a few days, everything would be back to normal.
Roxanne “Razor” Haught obviously thought she was dealing with an idiot.
She was wrong.
Tanner shook his head in amusement as he followed her to the underground parking lot. She hurried out to her car, clicking over the pavement on some of the sexiest high heels he’d ever seen. The artificial overhead lighting gleamed off her perfectly styled hair, showing off several shades of golden blond that matched her wide cuff bracelet exactly. Her bare arms were subtly muscled, with a combination of strength and softness that made Tanner sweat from fighting the need to see what that felt like. The brief touch of his finger against her soft mouth was more than enough to haunt his dreams for a week. Now that he knew what her lips felt like, he was going to spend way too much time thinking about them.
Her shiny lip gloss clung to his finger, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to wipe it away. He liked it there — a small reminder of a few brief, pleasant seconds that would never be repeated.
Beneath her classy slacks that hid more than they displayed, her legs were probably sexy as hell. Even though he was working with her, he couldn’t help but wonder just how those legs would look if all she was wearing were those strappy leather heels.
Not that he was ever going to find out.
He’d known from the instant he saw her in her fancy clothes and sparkling jewelry that she was going to be trouble. Women with money always were, and office rumors claimed that she was rolling in it. Not only was she an only child who’d gained a substantial inheritance when her parents died a few years back, she also owned more land than was healthy for a person. Between the real estate and old oil money, Razor was set for life and then some.
She was a woman used to getting her own way, but that was about to change.
Razor slid behind the wheel of a shiny silver Mercedes and pulled out of the parking lot at the Edge. Tanner followed her, keeping his distance in the heavy lunch-hour traffic. She turned into the lot of a high-rise building and parked in a visitor’s slot.
Tanner gave up his secret chase and found the first open parking spot he could, rather than lose her in the maze of the building. By the time she hit the elevators, he was right on her sexy heels.
“Why are you following me?” she asked without turning around.
“Bella told me to.”
The elevator doors opened, and a small crowd of people got out, heading to lunch. Razor got in. When the doors slid shut, she turned and glared at him. “This is ridiculous. What harm can possibly come to me in broad daylight in an office building?”
“Bella seemed worried.”
“Bella is overprotective.”
“I noticed. Possessive, too. But so long as she’s signing the paychecks, she gets to be.”
Razor frowned, which only made him notice her mouth that much more. It was a nice mouth — soft, with just the barest sheen of lip gloss. In a mad corner of his mind, he wondered if it was flavored.
Tanner shoved his hand into his pocket and made sure he’d wiped away all hints of that lip gloss from his finger before he did something stupid and tasted it.
They were working together, and that meant he needed to keep things professional between them. He knew better than to mess up his chances at the Edge by getting involved with a coworker — even one wearing flavored lip gloss.
“Is it really that simple for you?” she asked. “Bella has the money, so she gets the last word?”
“Bella hired me. Not you.”
“So if I were to offer you more money to walk away, you would?”
Anger rose, flashing just below the surface. “My loyalty can’t be bought.”
“Seems to me as if it already has been.”
The elevator doors opened and Razor strode forward, her heels clicking on the polished marble floor.
“I’m here to see Kurt,” she announced as she passed the receptionist.
The young woman shot to her feet, scurrying to stop Razor from passing. “Do you have an appointment?”
Razor kept going without an answer, and as soon as the receptionist realized she could not be stopped, she scurried back around her desk and picked up the phone.
Tanner wasn’t sure if she was calling this Kurt guy or security, but he wasn’t about to stop and listen long enough to figure it out. Wherever Razor was going, so was he.
She opened a door on her left, walking in as if she owned the place. The man behind the desk quickly shut his laptop and stared up with a guilty look on his face.
Kurt’s skin said he was nearing forty, but he had the body of a much younger man. Several pictures sat atop his desk for visitors to see, showing him rock climbing and sky diving. There was another of him shirtless, wearing boxing gloves and dripping with sweat.
His hair had begun to gray, and he’d tanned his skin until it was a deep, crinkly brown. Even though the man was dressed in a suit and tie, Tanner could tell he was an athlete.
“This has to stop, Kurt,” said Razor.
“What the hell are you doing in my office?”
“You sent another man to follow me again, didn’t you?”
Kurt glanced back at Tanner, who planned on keeping his mouth shut unless things got out of hand.
“No. I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” said Kurt.
“Not him. The skinny guy with the bad haircut.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Razor pulled out her phone and brought up a photo. She set it down on Kurt’s desk. “Proof. Which I plan on showing the police if you don’t stop sending your buddies around to follow me.”
Kurt looked at the photo. “I don’t know this guy. Looks like a drug addict to me.”
“This isn’t funny anymore. We’re over. Deal with it.”
“I have. As a matter of fact, I’m seeing someone else now. Not that you care.”
Razor lifted one eyebrow in suspicion. “Really? What’s her name?”
“Like I’m going to tell you. You’ll probably go find her and act all crazy like you are with me, claiming she’s trying to read your mind or something. You need help. This whole paranoid thing isn’t at all becoming, so put on a tin foil hat and leave me the fuck alone.”
Razor frowned and tilted her head. “You’re not lying, are you?”
“No. I’m not. I got over you weeks ago. If someone is really following you — which I doubt — I have nothing to do with it.”
Tanner felt a brush of air as the office door opened. He spun around and came face-to-face with a large, stone-faced security guard.
“Is there a problem here?” asked the guard.
Tanner moved so that he was between Razor and the guard.
“I think that’s up to Ms. Haught,” said Kurt. “What about it? Do you need an escort out?”
He hadn’t called her Razor the way everyone else did. Was it because they’d been close, or because only the people she worked with used the nickname? Roxanne fit her better. It was softer and prettier. He couldn’t fathom how she’d gotten the nickname.
Razor shook her head and straightened her shoulders. “No. I’m leaving. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
Kurt handed over her cell phone, and the guard stepped aside for them to leave first. Of course, he rode down in the elevator with them and watched until they exited the building.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what that was all about, are you?” asked Tanner.
Razor shook her head in confusion, making the pale highlights in her hair catch the sun. “Apparently, there’s nothing to tell. I was imagining things.”
“And the photo?” he asked. “Did you imagine that, too?”
“I must have been wrong about the man in the picture following me. Or if he was, I guess it had nothing to do with Kurt. He probably just wanted to ask me out or something.”
“Can I see it?”
She shrugged, drawing his attention to her bare shoulders peeking out from her sleeveless blouse. “I guess so.”
Tanner took the phone from her and looked at the image. It showed a tall, thin man dressed in layers of dirty and rumpled clothing. His hair was wild, and there were dark circles beneath his eyes. “Kurt is right. He looks like a druggie. Does he associate with people like that?”
“He likes to drink, but I never saw any proof of drugs being used by him or his friends.”
“Why did you think he sent this man to follow you, then?”
“Because he’s the only one I knew who would do something like that. When I broke things off, he wasn’t happy. He had his friends follow me. I thought he was trying to get back at me for breaking up with him by scaring me.”
“Were you scared?”
“I wasn’t,” she said, making it sound as if she’d changed her mind.
“But you are now?”
She used the remote access fob to unlock her car doors and turned to face him, stopping in the middle of the searing pavement. She held up her hand to block out the sun and stared up at him. The wide gold bracelet on her left wrist gleamed in the sunlight. “I’m sure that whoever this guy was, I lost him yesterday. Worst-case scenario, he was checking me out as a target to mug me for drug money.”
That wasn’t the worst-case scenario, but then Tanner wasn’t exactly going to fill in any blanks she might have in that area. He didn’t want to scare her more, so he kept his mouth shut.
“He’s long gone now. All I have to do is get through the next few days without a visit, and Bella will have me back working again, where I belong. Until then, I’m going to make use of my time off to get some things done I’ve been putting off.”
“What about my training?” asked Tanner. “You’re supposed to be showing me the ropes.”
She eyed him up and down. “We both know that was just an excuse Bella needed to assign me a babysitter. She wouldn’t have hired you if you didn’t already know what you were doing. Besides, any gaps in your training will have to be filled in while you’re on a job. Sitting around and discussing things over coffee isn’t going to help when you’re in the field.”
“Maybe, but I still plan to do what I’m told. Since that includes your participation, I’m going to have to insist that you play along as well.”
“Insist?” she asked, inching closer.
He could smell her skin, warm from the sun. He pulled in a deep breath before he caught himself. Even shaded, her golden eyes caught and held the light, making them sparkle. But it was her mouth that kept pulling his attention. It had been way too long since he’d kissed a woman, and her full lips kept reminding him of exactly what he’d been missing.
Sweat broke out along his hairline, but it did little to cool his blood. “I’m afraid so.”
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” she informed him, her tone firm. “I’m going to go home. So are you. We’ll meet tomorrow morning and discuss enough business to make Bella happy, and then we’re done. You’ll go join the brute squad, and I’ll be back to my own, more delicate missions.”
Delicate definitely suited her. Not that he guessed for a second that what she did wasn’t dangerous. He knew it was. The bruise on her arm proved that.
“That’s not what Bella wanted, and you know it.”
“What I do on my time off is my business. Bella doesn’t get to dictate that. Neither do you. I’ll see you at the office at eight tomorrow morning. Don’t be late.”
With that, she turned and got in her car.
Tanner sighed and hurried to his car to follow her. Bella had warned him that Razor wasn’t going to be easy to work with. She’d told him it was his job to make it work, and he planned to do just that.
Roxanne’s new home currently looked more like a warehouse than the cottage she’d fallen in love with. Moving boxes were still piled up everywhere, turning her living room into a maze. She’d been here two months now and still hadn’t had time to unpack. Of course, she wasn’t home much to notice the mess, but for the next few days, it was going to be staring at her, annoying the hell out of her.
Unless she used the time to unpack. That was what a rational person would do.
Maybe it was best to call a charity and have them come and haul it all away. She didn’t need any of it. All the stuff she needed was already unpacked. These boxes were simply full of memories — most of which she really didn’t care to relive.
The only thing that kept her from getting rid of everything was that some of these things reminded her of Jake and the time they’d spent together as kids. He and his mom, who was the head housekeeper for Roxanne’s parents, were the brightest spots in an otherwise lonely childhood. She couldn’t toss those memories away with the rest. Nor could she throw away his belongings that had been left behind in his room at her parents’ mansion. Most of his things had been moved to a rented storage facility, but there was no way she’d found them all. Jake was off defending the country, and she wouldn’t repay him by throwing away the things that might mean something to him.
It was time to bite the bullet, sort out the good from the bad, and face the disappointments of her past. Chances were that her dismal memories weren’t going to make her feel any worse than failing Mr. Chord had.
Roxanne let out a long sigh and ripped the tape off the first box.
A heavy knock sounded against her front door, and she knew without looking who it was. Tanner. He’d tailed her from Kurt’s office, and it had taken her a good twenty minutes to lose him. Or so she’d thought.
She flung the door open, keeping her arm across the entrance to let Tanner know he was not welcome.
Sunshine backlit him, highlighting the breadth of his shoulders. His posture was straight and confident, telling her without words that he fully expected to get his way.
She was going to enjoy watching the mighty fall. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“You did. Nice move, too, by the way. Do you have the train schedules memorized or something?”
Irritation grated along her spine. “How did you find me?”
“Bella. She wasn’t pleased that you were disobeying orders.”
“Bella’s my boss, not my commanding officer.”
Tanner shrugged, making his muscles bulge. The fact that her gaze darted straight to that delicious masculine display served only to irritate her further.
“I was clear that I’d meet you tomorrow,” she reminded him.
“You were. You just forgot the part where that’s not what our boss requested, so I thought I’d come by and keep both of us from getting fired.”
“I’m not worried about that.”
“Maybe that’s because you have more money than God. Some of us, however, have to work for a living.”
Her irritation grew until it verged on anger. She hated it when people threw her money at her as if she were somehow dirty because of it. She hadn’t asked to be born into a wealthy family. She hadn’t asked for the loneliness she suffered, or the ridiculous expectations placed on her. She hadn’t even kept most of the money after her parents died. She’d given millions away to various charitable organizations. Who the hell was he to judge her?
“Go away,” she told him, not even trying to put a polite spin on it.
She started to shut the door, but he slammed his palm against it, locking his arm to hold it open. Muscles shifted under the skin of his forearm, but his posture remained relaxed. She wasn’t even sure how he’d moved so fast, considering he hadn’t been poised to strike.
Roxanne gave the door an experimental push, hoping he’d relent, but the wood didn’t even shift.
Tanner moved forward, filling her doorway. “Please, Razor. If you work with me, I swear I’ll make it worth your effort.”
“Why?” she asked, her curiosity burning away some of her anger.
His jaw tightened in frustration, but he admitted, “I need this job.”
“Does it matter?”
“It does to me. Bella said you were in the military — some badass special operations guy.”
His shoulders deflated on a sigh, and guilt pinched his features. “My family needed me, so I left the service.”
“That’s it? They needed you, and you gave up your career?”
He frowned at her, making lines of confusion radiate out from his blue eyes. “What do you mean, is that it? I said my family needed me. You would have done the same thing.”
No, she wouldn’t have. In fact, she was convinced that most people wouldn’t have. That he didn’t seem to realize how selfless that made him gave her pause. She almost felt bad for trying to ditch him against Bella’s wishes. “Why did they need you?”
His gaze shifted away, and his throat worked as if she’d made him uncomfortable. “My dad and brother died in a car accident. My sister-in-law was left with two kids and no job. No life insurance. There were lots of medical bills. I did what I could to help, but the military didn’t pay that well, and it wasn’t enough. My other brother — Reid — works for Bella, and he told me he’d help me get a job at the Edge if I got out. So I did.”
Roxanne was left reeling at the news. She knew some families were really close and had the kind of bonds she could only imagine, but what Tanner had done was beyond generous. Then again, Reid was a good guy, too. It seemed the O’Connell brothers were deeply devoted to their family.
Tanner’s mouth flattened in resignation, and until now, she hadn’t noticed just how nice a mouth he had. “With the economy sucking like it does, I can’t risk screwing up my chance. Bella’s testing me. I’m asking you to help me make the cut. Please.”
What could she say to that? If she was selfish and petty enough to send him away now, she might as well turn in her decent-human-being card and become the evil oil baroness so many people already assumed she was.
Roxanne braced herself for what she was about to do, then let go of the door and took a step back. “Come on in. We have work to do.”
He unleashed a grin that should have been classified as a secret weapon. His blue eyes sparkled, and his whole face lit up. That bright gaze fixed on her, sliding down to her mouth and back again. “Thanks, Razor. You won’t regret this.”
Based on the way her pulse had kicked up a bit just looking at him, she was fairly certain she already did.
Roxanne’s house was not what Tanner expected. It was small and simple, almost cottagelike in its appearance. It was set back from the street, secluded by trees, and while there seemed to be several acres of land, the house itself was fairly modest.
The smell of new carpet and fresh paint gave away the fact that the home had either been recently built or remodeled. Boxes were stacked everywhere, creating a wall of cardboard around the living room. A TV hung over the fireplace, and empty bookshelves lined the walls on either side. The whole place was done in bright white and pale yellow, making it seem dipped in sunlight.
Tanner sat on her couch, sipping sweet tea, listening intently as she took him through several of her recent missions, explaining some of the details that outlined standard operating procedures at the Edge.
“You’ll have to file a report after each mission. It’s all done online, and I’m sure Mira — our resident computer goddess — will get you set up with a password if she hasn’t already. Bella hands out the assignments, and unless you’ve already been assigned to one of the units, she’ll probably see where your proficiencies lie by testing you out on some different types of jobs.”
“I know vaguely what Reid does — as much as he can share without breaking confidentiality agreements — but what about you?”
“I’m part of the stealth protection unit. A lot of the women work there. We get hired by people who don’t necessarily want others to know they’re being guarded.”
“Why wouldn’t they want someone to know?”
“Appearances, for one. Some men think it’s a blow to their manhood if they need a bodyguard. It’s easier on their egos if they pretend to have a girlfriend instead. Those assignments are usually temporary and go away once an immediate threat is identified and eliminated.”
“Eliminated? You kill people?”
She flinched. It was brief, but he saw a flash of revulsion shiver through her body before it passed. “We’re not vigilantes, despite what people think. I’m usually assigned to corporate espionage cases. Someone thinks they have a leak, and it’s my job to go in, find it, and plug it.”
She’d evaded his question, but he couldn’t help but smile at the image she painted. “You’re like a spy.”
“I suppose a little bit. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Most of the time I catch people at the photocopier or by searching e-mail records.”
“So, you get an assignment and have to write a follow-up report. What about all the stuff in the middle?”
“Once you’re given a job, you and anyone else on your team will create a plan of attack — how you’re going to handle the problem, contingencies, contact schedules, et cetera. Bella or Payton will read through the plan, and, if they approve it, you start the job as you outlined.”
“Give me an example.”
“Well, in this last job I did, my plan was to draw the thief out and catch her in the act by creating a situation she couldn’t resist. There was only one way for her to access the data. We were fairly sure we knew who she was, but we needed proof. I had my client throw a party in his home where the data was being stored, and all of that was outlined in my plan of attack.”
“So we get to make our own decisions?”
“You’ll probably be part of a team at first, so while you may have input into a plan, I doubt you’ll be the lead on creating it.”
“You mentioned the brute squad. What’s that?”
“Just what it sounds like. While the Edge is the place to come if you don’t want anyone to know you have a bodyguard, we also provide big, intimidating men like you for those who want everyone to know. Bella may start you there, or she may put you with the overseas contractors. We’re guarding a film crew heading into Afghanistan in a couple of weeks. With your military background, she may put you on that team.”
The idea of going back into that hot, sandy hellhole didn’t thrill him, but he’d do what it took to make this job work out. His family deserved at least that much from him.
“Reid mentioned something about that. I think he’s going.”
“Then Bella won’t assign you to the team.”
Tanner hid his relief. “Why not?”
“If anything went wrong, she wouldn’t want your mom to lose two sons.”
Even the idea of Mom having to face the loss of another son made Tanner’s blood run cold. “Do you think she cares about that kind of thing?”
Razor smiled, just a little, but it was enough to bring his attention right back to her mouth after he’d finally stopped staring at it.
“You don’t know Bella very well yet, but you will. We matter to her. In fact, it was just a few months ago that she went all the way to Colombia with a couple of our men to help rescue one of her employee’s friends from some drug lord who had abducted her. And Bella didn’t even get paid. Payton still hasn’t stopped giving her hell about that.”
“Payton. That’s the older man who helps run the place, right?”
“Bella lets him think so. He’s like a father to her, plus he’s her primary investor. He runs in the same social circles that my parents did. Same country club, same charity balls, same number of zeros in their bank accounts.”
Tanner had sensed from his first interview with Payton that he was hiding something. Maybe his net worth was it.
Razor’s cell phone rang, and she answered it. “Hello?” She listened for a moment, her skin paling slightly. “Again? How bad is it?” Her slim fingers tightened on the phone. “No, I’ll take care of the damage. Thanks for letting me know.”
Razor hung up and looked at Tanner. She was visibly shaken, though he couldn’t tell whether it was fear or anger that had driven the color from her skin.
She stood. “I think we’ve just about covered everything we can without actually doing the work. And I have to drop by the mausoleum.”
“My parents’ house. I’m selling it. I couldn’t stand the thought of having strangers tromp around the place while I lived there, so I moved out. Besides, it was way too big for one person.”
“Is something wrong?” he asked, knowing something was.
“Nothing I can’t handle, but I do need to handle it, so we’ll have to call it a day. If you think of any questions, write them down and we’ll go over them first thing tomorrow.”
Her dismissal was clear, and so casually indifferent that he couldn’t stop the rise of anger forming in his gut. “You want me to leave?” he managed to ask in a calm tone.
“Yes, please. We did what Bella asked, and I have things I need to do.”
“Then let me help.”
“No, thank you. I have everything under control.”
“You have a guy following you, and now there’s some kind of damage at the place you used to live, and you think that’s under control?”
“It’s a vacant house in a rich neighborhood. I’m sure it’s kids looking for something to cure their boredom. And we already determined that the man following me had nothing to do with my ex. It’s just a coincidence.”
“Did it never occur to you that whoever this guy is, he might have his own agenda?”
She propped her slender hands on her hips, looking at him with disdain. “If he did, it was probably nothing more than wanting to ask me for cash, or possibly my phone number.”
“But you don’t know for sure.”
She smiled at him, but it was full of condescension. “Listen, Tanner. I understand that you’re trying to make a good impression on Bella, but you don’t need to worry. She’s going to keep you. You’re just the kind of devoted, obedient man she loves to work with, and as soon as she finds out about your family problems, that great big soft spot of hers will open up, and you’ll be set for life.”
He strained to keep his civilized mask in place, but it was slipping, and his words came out as a growl. “This has nothing to do with sucking up for a job. You need my help. I promised Bella I’d look out for you, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“I prefer to do this alone.”
“And I prefer not to have to tail you again through Dallas traffic, but I’ll do what it takes. Your call.”
She squared her shoulders and glared at him. “Fine. You want to help, I’ll let you help. I hope you don’t mind getting dirty.”
By the time they reached Roxanne’s old home, the police were already there. Her real estate agent had said she’d called them, but that had been almost two hours ago. Certainly they had better things to do with their time than fuss over a single break-in.
It wasn’t until she walked through the open front door and saw the damage that she realized why they were still there.
The last time the house was broken into, she hadn’t finished moving out. The thief had made a mess, rifling through packed boxes and even eating a bunch of food from her refrigerator. Some of her father’s clothing might have been missing, but she wasn’t sure. He’d had so much. The only reason she guessed the clothes were gone was because one of the boxes she’d packed for charity was no longer full. All the drawers in the remaining furniture had been pulled out and their contents spilled onto the floor, but that mess paled in comparison to what faced her now.
There was broken glass everywhere. Every mirror in the giant living area was shattered, as well as several of the light fixtures. Doors had been ripped from their hinges. Wallpaper had been sliced and pulled away, left dangling in spiral curls. The furniture that had been left to stage the home for sale was slashed, and stuffing littered the floor. Large flaps of ruined carpet were flung back, the padding beneath torn to shreds.
Roxanne stood there in shock, unable to process the extent of the damage. She’d never loved this place, but seeing it like this was still a violation of the few fun times she’d shared here with Jake and his mom. The sheer anger displayed through the wreckage was enough to make her shake.
“Wow,” said Tanner from behind her. “Someone was well and truly pissed off.”
She couldn’t find her voice. She stepped forward, her shoes crunching on broken glass. The pieces slid beneath her foot, upsetting her balance.
Tanner’s hands caught her shoulders, steadying her. “Careful.”
A man in a suit with a notebook in his hand looked up and saw them standing there. He was in his midforties, with graying hair and a slight paunch to his stomach. His tie had been loosened, and she could see the bulge of his weapon beneath his suit jacket.
He strode over to the doorway, his expression grim. “Miss Haught?”
“Yes,” said Roxanne.
“I’m Detective Planar. Your real estate agent called and reported a break-in.”
Roxanne nodded, still trying to absorb what had happened. A police photographer snapped a photo, and the flash made her jump.
Tanner’s hand settled at the small of her back in a soothing gesture. She would have refused his offer of comfort only five minutes ago, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so now.
Detective Planar glanced over at Tanner. “And you are?”
“Roxanne’s coworker. I was with her when she got the call. Do they always send out a detective for break-ins?”
The detective shrugged. “In this neighborhood they do. We’ve searched the house, but whoever did this is long gone. It probably happened sometime last night. Your real estate agent said it was the second time. Is that right?”
She shook her head. “Last time wasn’t like this. There was a mess, but nothing was . . . destroyed.”
“Was your security system on?”
“Yes, unless one of the real estate agents showing the property forgot to activate it.”
“We can get records from the security company, but it sounds as though you’re not the only one with the code.”
“No. I’m selling the house. My real estate agent has access to it, as well as any others who showed the property.”
He scribbled something down on his pad. “I’ll get a list from her.”
“Have there been any other break-ins in the area?” asked Tanner.
The detective stared at him for a moment before answering. “None that I know of, but we’re looking into it. There was a lot of rage displayed here. Any idea who might be that angry at you?”
Roxanne had irritated some of her parents’ friends when she left her old life behind, but certainly none of them would have been angry enough for this. “Anyone who knew me well enough to be angry with me would also have known I couldn’t care less about this place. It’s just a thing — one I really want out of my life.”
The detective’s graying brows rose at that. “You’re fortunate it didn’t burn down, then, or we might have a problem.”
“That’s not what she meant, and you know it,” said Tanner. “She’s the victim here.”
“Of course,” said Detective Planar. “I meant no insult.”
“How long until you’re done?” asked Roxanne. She just wanted to get this place cleaned up and have this whole situation over with.
“We’re wrapping up now. Sorry to add to the mess with fingerprint dust, but we wanted to be thorough.”
Her manners kicked in, and she managed to choke out, “Thank you. We’ll wait outside.”
She turned and left with Tanner right by her side. His hand was at her elbow, as if he expected her to fall into a faint at any moment.
“I’m fine,” she told him.
“I’m not. That’s a hell of a mess.”
She was tempted to call a service to take care of it, but that seemed cowardly somehow, or like she was cheating. “You don’t have to stay.”
“Of course I’m staying. Only an asshat would leave you to deal with that on your own. Besides, I’m not entirely convinced that whoever did this won’t come back once the cops are gone.”
“Great. I hadn’t actually considered that until you brought it up.”
“Sorry, but reality sucks. I plan on being here in case it decides to come back and bite you in the ass.”
“A gentleman doesn’t discuss a lady’s ass.”
“Right now I’m not feeling like much of a gentleman. Part of me hopes the son of a bitch comes back.”
Roxanne turned and looked at him. She hadn’t heard it in his voice, but she could see his anger in his face. His jaw was clenched, and a vein pounded in his temple. His mouth was drawn tight, as if he were preparing to bare his teeth. “Down, boy. No need to get worked up. Shit happens.”
“Coincidence,” she replied, refusing to believe it was anything else.
“Just like it’s a coincidence that some guy is following you?”
“One guy. And I was probably overreacting because Kurt had me followed by two of his friends a few weeks ago.”
“So you’re saying Kurt is connected? You need to give his name to the cops.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I knew the two guys Kurt had tailing me right after we broke up were his friends. I recognized them. When I saw the skinny guy, I made an assumption that he was doing it again. I was wrong.”
“What if you’re wrong about the coincidence part? What if the skinny guy is the one who did this?”
“Then it’s no different than a stranger doing it, because I don’t know who the skinny guy is. Neither does Kurt. I always knew when he was lying, and he wasn’t this time.”
“So, the fact that your house was broken into — twice — and you have a guy following you — again — doesn’t bother you at all?”
“Of course it does. I’m just not sure that one thing has anything to do with the other. Neither am I convinced that the skinny guy had some nefarious purpose. He might have just thought I was hot. It does happen.”
Tanner’s eyes darkened as they slid down her body and back up. “I definitely believe that.”
Something inside Roxanne relaxed and heated under his gaze. She didn’t normally think about the men she worked with as anything more than friends, but if Tanner kept looking at her like that, she was going to start. And that was a supremely bad idea.
She took a long step back and headed to her car. “I need to change.”
“Change the subject, you mean.”
“That, too. Stay if you want to stay. Go if you want to go. Either way, any discussion about my private life is now officially over.”
Jordyn Stynger could barely stand. Her head pounded with the remnants of her punishment, but she had to block it out. There was no time to waste giving in to the pain.
At least it was mostly over now. The throbbing ache was nothing compared to what she’d suffered for the last three days.
She shoved the memory from her mind, and forced her shaking hands to work long enough to get the car started.
Deactivating three layers of security had taken time, and she didn’t have much before her mother would realize she was gone. If she couldn’t get to town and back before that happened, she was going to spend a lot more than three days in the white room next time.
The idea of it made the bile rise in her throat and her hands shake even harder. A wave of dizziness swept through her, and she gripped the steering wheel tight, praying she could keep the car on the private road. If it came back all dented up, her mother would figure out what Jordyn had done.
A woman’s life was at stake. Jordyn couldn’t afford even a small mistake right now.
Heedless of the breakneck speed, she raced to the nearest town and parked in front of the tiny library. It had once been a house, but had been converted in the sixties. Several bikes were propped against the wall, reminding her that school was out for the summer.
Jordyn had heard that most children were allowed summer break, but having been educated by her mother, she had had no such thing as a vacation. Norma Stynger was all about discipline — a fact Jordyn would have a hard time forgetting for many weeks to come.
She wrenched the door open, feeling her muscles twinge with the motion. She hadn’t moved much in three days, and it was going to be a while before her body forgave her for it.
Cool air poured over her face, and, until now, she hadn’t realized she’d forgotten to turn on the air-conditioning in the car. She’d been so focused on getting here, she hadn’t noticed the growing heat inside the vehicle.
The smell of old books and coffee hit her, making her stomach heave dangerously. She came to a rocking stop, swallowing hard to keep herself from vomiting.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” came concerned voice from behind her.
Jordyn turned and saw the woman who’d spoken. She was plump and had a kind, grandmotherly face like some of the characters Jordyn had seen on TV. Reading glasses hung on a beaded chain around her neck, and her arms were full of books. Her expression was filled with worry, making Jordyn realize she hadn’t done a thing to straighten her own appearance in three days. She was probably a total wreck.
“I need to use a computer.”
The librarian glanced at the only three PCs available. A kid sat at each one. “I’m sorry, but they’re in use. Have a seat and I’ll get you the list so you can put your name on it.”
Defeat beat at Jordyn, making her head pound harder. She pulled in a deep breath and tried to keep her voice from shaking. “I can’t wait. I’m in a hurry.”
The older woman frowned. “Are you okay? You don’t look so good. Let me call someone to check you out.”
“I just need a computer for two minutes. It’s important.”
The woman must have taken pity on her. She lowered her voice and said, “You can use the one behind the counter, but then I have to insist that you sit down for a few minutes, okay?”
Jordyn nodded and sat. She’d agree to just about anything if it got her the Internet access she needed.
“Do you have a library card?”
“You have to have a card to use the equipment. I’ll go get the paperwork from the back room. Stay right here, okay?”
Jordyn doubted that was what the woman was going to do. There was too much worry in her expression — too much suspicion. Chances were the librarian was going to the back to use a phone to call the police.
Rather than argue, Jordyn nodded and hoped she looked compliant.
As soon as the woman was out of eyesight, Jordyn bolted behind the counter to use the only available PC. The librarian had left without implementing any security procedures, leaving open the Web site she’d been using to shop for shoes.
Her e-mail program was also open.
Jordyn didn’t question her good fortune or the woman’s lack of caution. She used the librarian’s e-mail account to send the message. She deleted all traces that the message had been sent, then hurried outside on shaking legs.
She had fifteen minutes to make a twenty-minute drive before the loophole she’d put in the security system closed and she was locked out of the compound. If she wasn’t back by then, her mother would know what she’d done, and she’d be right back in the white room before the day was over.
As weak as she was, Jordyn didn’t think she’d survive a second punishment.