I wake from my catnap as the plane hits the runway, and I’m out of my seat as soon as the fasten seat belt light is off. As Mr. Junior Executive tries to gather his belongings, he watches me surreptitiously. I turn and walk out the door, but halfway down the Jetway, he catches up with me.
“Ms., you left this. Ms.!” He shouts at me, and I finally turn.
“That’s okay. I don’t need it.” His eyebrows lift, and he turns with a huff. When we reach the gate, I watch with amusement as he tosses the book on a seat in the waiting area. Once I reach the lower-level baggage claim, my tension level rises as the city looms closer and closer. It’s as if I’m descending into my own personal hell, which is just beyond the glass doors. The lump in my throat feels like cement, and I swallow hard as I step off the escalator. I move with the mass of the crowd toward the baggage carousels.
When I exit, the bright Los Angeles sunshine and choking smog hit me in the face. It fills my lungs with dread. But as soon as I spot Hunter standing next to the car, my nerves settle down. He’s tall, muscular, and greying at the temples. He has trusting green eyes that are made more prominent by his dark, tanned skin. Even though he rarely smiles, his quiet and steady demeanor is welcoming to me.
Hunter pumps my hand as I step off the curb. “Good to see you Ronnie!” he exclaims as he reaches for my bags. He slams the trunk closed, and I slip into the back seat.
“How was your flight?” The dull thunk of the driver’s side door signals the start of the ride to the Cole Security offices.
“Good. Uneventful. I had some time to read up on my client though.”
He nods at me in the rearview, and then silently pulls out into traffic. Hunter is the strong silent type, a former Marine, and he’s lost none of his military spit and polish over the years. He never strays from his high and tight, his crisp black suit, and no-nonsense demeanor.
Hunter filled my spot as Jeff’s right-hand man when I moved to San Francisco, and I’m grateful. Relocating to San Francisco may not have been possible if not for him. Left to his own devices, Jeff could easily drive off employees with his overbearing managerial style. For years, I served as a buffer between him and the troops as his Staff Non Commissioned Officer. I managed the day-to-day mentoring of the junior NCOs while he handled the brass. Together we were a good team.
After he agreed to let me work out of San Francisco, our relationship changed. We weren’t best friends and co-workers anymore, and it took a while to get used to it. Our relationship became more formal and more strained. Even with the substantial increase in revenue from my office, the change in his demeanor lately has me puzzled. He should be happy.
When we arrive at the Cole Security office, Hunter pulls open the door for me. “Jeff is waiting for you. I’ll take care of the bags Ronnie.”
From the outside, the Cole Security building looks a lot like a warehouse. No one would suspect just by looking at it what goes on inside. I walk up to the double doors and scan my employee badge. Beyond the doors, the office is cold and sterile. The black marble floors and white walls add to the ominous feel. The heels of my shoes click along the floor as I walk, and the smell of the leather furniture fills my nostrils.
I pass the reception desk as Marci waves a friendly hello. She looks the same, all primped and pulled together in her tight bun and pencil skirt. She’s not classically pretty, but Jeff doesn’t care about such things. She’s a first-class executive assistant, and she keeps the office running smoothly, in spite of Jeff.
“Can I get you something Ronnie?” She asks politely. I shake my head, and she points to Jeff’s office. “Go ahead. He’s free.”
Taking a deep breath, I ready myself for an uncomfortable meeting with Jeff. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in more than six months. He won’t talk about whatever is bothering him, not today, and not in front of Hunter.
I exhale sharply and step into the office, and when Jeff moves in to hug me, I stiffen automatically. He grasps my arm in his one hand and looks me over to see if I’m still the same.
“How are you my friend?” He asks as he backs up, sitting on the corner of his desk with one leg dangling like a snake from a tree.
“I’m good Jeff. You call me enough, you should know.” Jeff smiles, ignoring my sarcastic wit.
“So I received a wonderful report from Michael Cummings. He’s very pleased with your service.” He wears the look of a proud papa on his face.
“I’m glad things turned out well. He’s a nice man.” I pick at some lint on my pants.
“He’s very happy with the idea of keeping Tim Bennett around. If we weren’t stretched so thin, I’d have him work with you on this job as well. He was a great hire, Ronnie.”
“So why is Millennium hiring this one out anyway?” I ask abruptly.
He looks confused for a moment. “They’re not. It’s Erik Sinclair’s boss and Olympus Television that wants separate security. After the last threat was received at the set, he figured it was time to tighten things up.”
Jeff stops speaking as Hunter approaches the door. Waving him in, Hunter sits on the black couch opposite me.
After sliding off the desk, Jeff retrieves another brown folder from the drawer. When I reach for it, I notice Hunter’s expression. His shoulders stiffen, his jaw locks, and the tension rips through him. The folder is heavy in my hand, and the emblem on the cover page is recognizable as the FBI’s. My blood runs cold as I flip through several pages, skimming through the IT Forensics report, noticing words like hacked, spoofing, and Cole Security. “We got hacked? By who?” He sits on the corner of the desk again, watching me as I read.
“I’m not sure.” He crosses his legs, one over the other and sighs.
“We found a message on one of our servers, more like a sick love note actually.” He points to the folder, and I flip the page.
“As long as Sinclair plays Cameron, he’s not safe. I’ll find him, no matter who’s around him, no matter who tries to protect him.”
“Is the actress playing Bianca a target?” I ask, confused. Jeff shakes his head, looking grave. “No. I don’t believe so. She hasn’t received threats of any kind. That message was left on the server, in your personnel folder.”
I suddenly feel as if my stomach has been launched out of my body and over the top of the Empire State Building. It’s a warning to both me and my client, but why? How would anyone know to target me? I look at Jeff, and he reads my expression immediately. He shakes his head as he turns and sits in his chair again.
“I don’t know. Hacking was not Kincaid’s thing. I’ve got everyone here working on it, and I’m in constant contact with the FBI, so as soon as I know, you will know. Your buddy over there, John Grilli, is working the case.” This calms my jangled nerves a bit. I’ve known John since childhood, and he’s become like a brother to me, someone I know will always be there for me. He’s not just a peer, and I trust him with my life.
“We need to take extra precautions until we find out who is behind the threats. I’ve put a rush on the security for the Lords of the Street set, but judging by the size, the Santa Clarita house is going to take more time.” He hands me another brown folder.
“This is the property layout for Mr. Sinclair’s ranch house. He moved in a few weeks ago.” The photo of the ten-acre lot worries me. His house sits in the bottom of a valley, surrounded by outbuildings and a heavily forested ridgeline.
“This place is a stalker’s dream. The ridgeline is perfect cover. And all the buildings offer plenty of places to hide.”
Jeff nods his head enthusiastically, but he moves on to other matters. “So far we have nothing on the Brentwood house. I spoke to the Fire Marshall, and he doesn’t think it was a gas main leak. We won’t know anything until they finish the investigation.”
He rubs at the stubble on his chin. Since leaving the military, he’s given up on shaving regularly. It suits him though. “I spoke with his ex, Catriona O’Neill.” He mentions casually. My eyes shift quickly from the property layout to his face.
“Is she a person of interest?”
He shakes his head. “No, not at this time. She didn’t notice anything unusual before she left the house yesterday. She has been living at the Brentwood house since she and Mr. Sinclair split up three months ago. He moved out to Santa Clarita before the threats started.”
Jeff sounds unconcerned by the issue of the ex-girlfriend, and in his mind, only one body to protect means only one agent. But for me, it’s a cause of anxiety.
I’ll be alone with him.
With a make-me-weak-in-the-knees, newly single piece of man candy.
Lord help me.
“You’d better get going.” Jeff raises an eyebrow, silently asking where I had drifted off to, but when I don’t offer up an explanation, he continues. “Hunter will get a Cadillac Escalade ready for you.”
Hunter immediately rises from the couch, causing the leather to squeak as he moves. He’s gone in an instant, and I make myself busy packing the new folder containing the details of Sinclair’s property in my bag. I need to make a point to go over this with Mr. Sinclair later.
“Stay safe, please,” he says, looking concerned.
“Always Jeff.” He hugs me again, tightly. Even with one arm, he gives an amazingly strong hug. He’s managed to overcome his injuries and what they cost him. After he recovered, the Army promptly discharged him. But it was losing his wife of barely two years that nearly broke him. When Amy left, he went to a very dark place, drinking and nearly overdosing on heavy-duty painkillers. Whatever brought him back from the edge, I’ll never know. But I was happy to have my friend back.
I wiggle nervously from his embrace, and he seems distressed by it. He knows being close to people, even him, unnerves me. The pained look on his face makes my heart ache, but I can’t help how I feel.
I turn and wave a hand as I walk through the lobby. Now I understand the reason behind his odd mood, the hacking attempt is enough to put him on high alert. Jeff would never have put me on this case if he thought Kincaid was behind those threats, but if he has hacked into our network, he probably knows I’ve moved out of L.A. This could be his way of bringing me back to town, where I’m easier to reach. The thought of him, lurking, waiting for his chance halts my steps, and the sense of safety I’ve had all these years drains away.
“Your bags are in the back, along with the ammunition.” Hunter smiles and hands me the keys before opening the door so I can climb into the SUV.
“Thanks, I’ll see you soon.”
The GPS screen flickers to life, and I punch in the address of the North Hollywood set. The annoying GPS bitch starts giving me directions and demands that I turn right in three hundred feet. Yeah, sure lady. In this traffic, that distance will take twenty-five minutes. How about you make yourself useful and get me a burger and a beer?
As I pass through the neighborhoods, the streets start to look familiar. The set is almost an hour from where I used to live, and far from the Cole offices, but not far from where my ill-fated job took place. The close proximity raises the hairs on my neck, and instantly, I’m back there. Fighting for my life.
As I approach the street, I notice the warehouse where Kincaid took me is gone. In its place is a shiny new shopping center, complete with a restaurant, a nail salon, and a bank. They could have built Disneyland on this very spot, but for me, the awful memories will always be there. I interrupted Kincaid’s plans for Miranda Cassidy, but I look like her, so for him, I was an acceptable substitute. I certainly paid the price for it.
I finally arrive at the set, and I’m disappointed to find it’s not one of the swanky, tightly-secured major studio lots. In fact, it’s nothing more than a dirty looking back alley, surrounded by a standard, six-foot chain-link fence. The guard, a rather rotund looking man, sits on a stool ten feet from the street. I suppose I should be happy there’s a guard, but he’s unarmed, and looks like he couldn’t catch anything except his lunch. As I turn into the driveway, the heavyset guard greets me. Handing him my ID card through the open window, I introduce myself.
“Veronica Harper from Cole Security Services, I’m here to meet Mr. Erik Sinclair.” As he checks my ID against the clipboard in his hand, his lips tighten into a knot, accentuating his chipmunk-like cheeks. He nods at me as he returns my ID.
“Let me open the gate,” he says as he walks away. Pulling a set of keys from his pocket, he opens the lock on the gate, and stops to lift his radio to his mouth. “Ms. Harper here to see Mr. Sinclair,” he says then lowers the radio to give me directions.
“Pull in and make a left, Ms. Harper. You can park in one of the empty spaces behind the trailers.”
I drive through and park behind the trailer. Once I park and turn off the car, I grab my messenger bag, and when I make it around to the front of the trailers I notice how close they are to the gate. No wonder they have received threats. With no more than fifty feet between the fence and the first trailer, it would be easy for anyone to toss a threatening note or a box of ripped up lingerie over the fence. They’re lucky it wasn’t something explosive.
When the security guard meets me, I’m informed that I’m standing in front of my client’s trailer. “You can wait here. Mr. Sinclair should be done soon.” I nod at him and he turns around to leave.
Really? You’re just going to leave me here alone?
He lumbers back to the main gate, and I turn, taking a look around the set. There is a long row of single-wide trailers and a few larger trailers, probably for wardrobe and crew. The permanent buildings are at the far end of the lot. One has a blue sign that reads “Axel’s Pub” at the top. Another building across from the pub is heavily damaged and pockmarked with bullet holes. Jagged shards of glass cling to the window frame and the door is missing.
Jeez, we really need to step up security around here.
I look around, and except for the gate guard, the set is almost empty. But even with the lack of activity, I would never allow a guest to wander around the set or trailers unaccompanied.
I climb up the steps, have a seat on the landing, and I pull out my files. There’s no time like the present to get some work done. Studying the property layout is a priority, so I grab the photo. The house is large, and it takes time to plan a security installation, so I quickly get lost in my work, and perhaps ten minutes passes, maybe more.
“Excuse me, may I help you?” The deep male voice startles me, but when I look up, the person standing before me doesn’t look very friendly. Disregarding the files, I let them slip from my lap as I rise up. My hand instinctively reaches inside my jacket and wraps around the grip of my Glock. His appearance is disconcerting, the low-slung jeans, plaid shirt, and black leather jacket all add to his gang member appearance.
“Who are you?” I demand as I stand my ground.
He smiles subtly and looks back toward the thick-necked bouncer behind him. Then I notice it. Sewn on the front of the leather jacket is the words Lords of the Street. I close my eyes for a mere second and relax my stance, letting my hand slip off the grip.
It’s him. It’s Erik Sinclair.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he says, looking up at me with bright blue eyes, evidently unaware that he was seconds away from being shot.
“I’m Erik. And you are?” Before I can form an answer, the breeze picks up, and the noise of scattering papers catches my attention, as well as his. With one hand, he pulls off the beanie cap as he bounds up the stairs two at a time. As he passes me, I inhale his scent. It’s an interesting mixture of motorcycle exhaust and leather along with something spicy, citrusy, and very masculine. I step down, just beneath the landing and gather the papers that fell.
“Here, let me,” he says with a hint of an English accent. He looks very different from his headshot, more scruffy and dangerous. But it’s him alright. The very same one who’s well-defined torso made me weak in the knees. My brain downshifts into neutral as I watch his long, graceful fingers arrange my papers into a neat pile.
“And you are?” It takes a few seconds for my head to clear, but this time, I manage to introduce myself.
“I’m sorry, Veronica Harper, from Cole Security Services.” He nods as I extend a hand, but he doesn’t take it. His hands are full of my papers.
“Pleased to meet you. Come inside.” He turns to open the door, but can’t, and immediately faces me again. “Here, these are yours.” The soft warm skin of his hands meets mine, and the contact is electric. White-hot sparks erupt between our fingers, and I hold his gaze, I think for a moment, but it could be longer.
He pulls his hands from underneath the pile, but I’m caught in his unwavering stare. The slightest tightening of the soft skin around his eyes says he’s aware of it too.
Turning around on the cramped landing, he opens the door and walks into the trailer. It’s dark and dreary inside and nothing like the luxury accommodations I imagined. The mostly brown furnishings are sparse and worn, and the carpet has been repaired with duct tape adjacent to the door. Setting the pile down on the small dinette, I watch as Erik slips off his leather jacket. The bulk of it along with the baggy jeans makes him look much larger and more intimidating. With just the layers of flannel, he looks like any other guy, but perhaps more handsome than most. More like impossibly handsome.
My mind wanders to the photos Sarah found last night. The man in those photos looked like a marble statue, carved by some Italian master, perfect and unattainable. Instead, the man before me is real. No Photoshop, no makeup, or special lighting.
“I’m Dan Royce.” The thick-necked, red-headed bouncer reaches out a hand, returning my thoughts to the present. I shake his hand, and he retreats, taking a seat on the couch.
“You must work for Millennium?” I ask, and he nods at me with an air of confidence that belies his actual importance. He if of very little use to me.
“Please, take a seat.” Erik sits next to Dan, and I pull out a chair at the dinette, giving myself some room to breathe.
“I noticed pictures of my house in your papers. What is that for?” He scratches at his shiny black hair as he waits for an answer.
“It’s a property layout, for the security system, Mr. Sinclair.”
He suddenly looks perturbed, even confused. “I don’t understand. Why is a security system necessary?” Clearly, no one from Millennium or Olympus is keeping him briefed on the threats or procedures necessary to keep him safe.
“Mr. Sinclair, after the explosion at your Brentwood house yesterday, we need to take extra precautions. Your Santa Clarita property sits in a valley surrounded by a heavily forested ridgeline. You wouldn’t know you were under threat until it was too late.” My blunt assessments usually frighten even the most difficult clients, but not him.
“I still don’t understand. That explosion was probably a gas leak. Besides, no one is going to come all the way out to Santa…” He looks annoyed when I begin shaking my head, his lip crinkles, and his eyebrows bunch.
“The investigation is still ongoing. Until we have a report from the Fire Marshall, we have to treat the incident as suspect. And yes, Mr. Sinclair, a person who wants to hurt you would indeed make an effort to come all the way out to Santa Clarita.”
Dan’s eyes grow wide, and he huffs loudly. He exchanges a dubious glance with Erik before he speaks.
“I can’t believe all this would be necessary.” Dan’s interjection is unwelcome, and it takes a force of will not to dress him down and leave him whimpering in a corner. When I stand and slip my papers into my bag, I give him a professional, yet concise response.
“If you prefer to forgo the security measures, I’d be happy to leave you in Dan’s capable hands.” I sling my bag over my shoulder and wait. When Erik looks at Dan, he cocks his head toward the door, and Dan immediately rises. As he closes the door behind him, it’s obvious they’ve developed a rapport with each other over the last two months.
We’re suddenly alone, and my heart rate skyrockets as his demeanor turns icy.
“Ms. Harper, Dan may not have your expertise or resources, but he’s done a good job over the last few months. He deserves a little respect, don’t you think?” He stares at me with a raised eyebrow.
His commanding tone leaves me withering inside. Only one person dresses me down and that’s Jeff. Yet, my boss’s reprimands don’t leave me in a puddle. It’s suddenly very warm in the trailer, as he rises from the couch and moves toward me.
“Mr. Sinclair, please take a look at my résumé. If you’d rather go with Dan’s expertise in security matters, be my guest.” I stare him down, and his focus never wavers as he steps closer. He reaches for the paper that I’ve pulled out of my bag, and our fingers touch again. He feels it too—the connection. I can see it on his face as he quickly drags a finger across my knuckles then pauses for a few brief seconds before pulling away. I swallow hard and step backward, but the distance does no good. I’m drawn to him.
The need to escape his presence builds as he goes silent. His eyes move over me, touching every inch of my frame as he paces around me. This is almost unbearable.
“I’ll step outside while you. . .”
He turns abruptly. “No, please. Don’t go.” How is it that just a few words uttered from that beautiful mouth make everything okay?
Does he have this effect on all women or is it just me?
I sit down and watch his slow, lithe movements as he walks around absentmindedly, and I kick myself for not having stepped outside.
“You spent fifteen years in the Army? Why didn’t you stay the full twenty?” I gulp hard and gather my wits. He’s noticed the gap in my employment history, and I have no choice but to explain it.
“Mr. Cole recommended me for the FBI. They were doing a lot of hiring in the mid to late ‘90s.” A look of confusion quickly washes over his face. He stares at the paper then back to me.
“Mr. Cole? So you knew him before you started working for Cole Security?”
“Yes. We served in the same battalion. He was my commanding officer.” His eyebrows dart upward and his mouth crinkles as he nods. His reaction strikes me as odd. Why would he care how long I’ve known Jeff, and why the frown? I smile to myself a little as I stare at my hands. Maybe he’s wondering if me and Jeff…No, don’t be stupid Harper