Trace climbed the stairs two at a time, the stairwell of the fancy apartment building empty at the dinner hour. Or maybe the rich snobs who lived here were too good to take the stairs.
He was two hours late. Not the best way to start his first assignment for Shadow Force International. Then again, he hadn’t planned to be working for Rock Star Security and shoved out the door and into the world of protection services so fast it had made his head spin.
The past couple of days had been a whirlwind. He’d struck out on his own, surviving the first Virginia night in an empty fishing shack with no heat or running water. Reese’s cheeseburger didn’t last long, and while the lake wasn’t frozen over and the owner had left some gear behind, Trace hadn’t been able to catch a damn thing.
The next morning, he’d stumbled through a snowstorm into Murder Creek, found the lone greasy spoon in town and ordered breakfast. The coffee was mud and the eggs were runny. He didn’t care. It was better than prison food any day.
The small 1980s TV in the corner was turned up, a weatherman dressed in a fancy suit waving at various colored blobs on the map and declaring the storm would intensify throughout the day and continue overnight. By the next morning, they were expected to have six feet of snow.
As Trace had finished his toast, a sheriff’s car had driven up. The two men who got out walked like military men, not cops. Before the bell over the door rang, he’d left the waitress a generous tip and disappeared out the back and into the woods.
His mother had always said he was as stubborn as the day was long, but he wasn’t an idiot. While there’d been nothing on the news about his escape from Witcher, he’d known the men in that car were looking for him. A storm was moving in that would lock down the area. He had no vehicle to get out and no supplies to hunker down and ride it out.
He needed help.
Admitting that fact had taken every last ounce of his common sense, but now he was here. Beatrice had cleaned him up, made him shave his beard and cut his hair.
Because of his specialized work for Command & Control, the agency had scrubbed his past years ago. Few pictures existed of him before his time in Iraq with SEAL Team 3, when he’d first grown his hair long and sported a thick beard to blend in with the locals. SEALs often needed out-of-the-Navy-box appearances on their assignments, and that was the picture Ms. Bunkett had spread all over America.
He was a squeaky-clean Boy Scout now, with colored contacts and new clothes—nice threads, not the usual camo gear he was used to. The only thing he hated was the fancy dress shoes.
Petit and Reese had put him through their version of basic protection service training, and Reese’s wife had explained all the ins and outs of his new job.
Petit and Reese hadn’t been happy when Beatrice insisted Trace take this assignment. They’d wanted more time to work on him, and they’d planned to send him out of the country on a Shadow Force assignment. Beatrice had other ideas, and neither man seemed eager to argue with her.
So here he was, playing bodyguard. A test run, Beatrice had called it. He’d kept himself in good shape inside Witcher, had kept his skills sharp. His enhancements from Project 24 had never faded.
Still, with a secret manhunt on for him, he had to stay in the shadows as much as possible. Beatrice had given him a set of rules to follow, briefed him on the client. Single female, twenty-eight, with a potential stalker. He was to keep an eye on her but not be obvious about it.
The stalker is high-profile, Beatrice had said. Has possibly harmed the client’s sister, but there’s no proof and the client can’t make public claims without evidence. We’d like you to investigate, see if you can incapacitate the stalker and discover the sister’s whereabouts.
The woman lived in the penthouse on the top floor. He climbed the last set of stairs and went through the fire door.
It was Beatrice’s fault he was late and she’d supposedly called ahead to let the client know. Still, Trace felt a shot of nervous adrenaline firing below his breastbone as he rang the doorbell. There was a marble-topped table near the elevator with an elaborate floral arrangement. A ficus tree sat in the corner under a skylight, and a large painting of the sun rising over a mountain range hung on the wall left of the door.
Seconds ticked by. He straightened his tie, smoothed the lapels of his suit coat, fiddled with the brim of his baseball hat.
The hat didn’t go with his outfit. He’d picked it up on his way over, feeling too exposed otherwise. Even with his change in appearance, he feared being recognized after Savanna Bunkett had done such a fine job of splashing his face all over the news a year and a half ago.
On the other side of the door, he heard a muffled voice, “Coming!”
A second later, the door swung open. The woman was out of breath, her hair swept up in a high ponytail. She was dressed in workout attire and a fine coating of sweat glistened on her ample cleavage as she wiped her face with a towel. The rhythmic beat of a drum, tambourine, and finger cymbals of Middle Eastern music echoed in the background.
From behind the towel, she said, “You must be…”
And then she moved the towel to her neck and met his gaze.
The towel stilled and the woman studied his face. “Coldplay?”
Trace felt frozen in place. In the briefing with Beatrice, she’d referred to the client only as Ms. Jeffries.
His heart stuttered in his chest for a second. Even without makeup and her signature red power suit, she stood out like a diamond among glass. She was striking, her dark hair offsetting her pale skin, all of it softened by a delicate nose and high cheekbones. Workout clothes did nothing to dampen her natural, elegant demeanor.
Before him stood the woman who had ruined his life.
Trace took a step back. Waited…
She didn’t seem to recognize him.
One hand went to her hip. “Are you the strong, silent type or is this one of the rules, that you can’t speak to me? I must have missed that one in the contract.”
Why would she recognize me? She had one grainy photograph of me from six years ago, and I was nothing but a story to her.
Trace forced his mouth to work, struggled to get sound out. He tipped the brim of his hat down a little farther. “Sorry, I’m late.”
“Randy didn’t buzz me. How did you get in?”
Randy, the doorman. What a joke.
Trace shifted gears, forcing the anger boiling in his gut aside. As soon as he could get hold of Beatrice, all bets were off. “Security check of the building showed me some weak spots. I got in through a service door entrance on the first floor. I’ll speak to the manager tomorrow about beefing things up.”
She stepped back, using the towel on her arms. Long, slender arms with small wrists and finely-boned hands. “Come in. I’ll grab a shower and then we can talk about…my problem.”
“Um, okay. Sure.” She gave him another once over. “Have we met? You seem familiar.”
Met? Jesus God. “No, we’ve never met.” Not in person. If we had, I would have wrung your neck.
She gave him a small smile. “Even if we had, we have to pretend otherwise, right? Sorry, this is all new to me.”
He nodded and stepped back, grinding his teeth. She closed the door, leaving him alone in the penthouse hallway.
Counting to a hundred to give her time to get in the shower, he paced to the elevator doors, locked the thing down, then locked the door to the stairwell. He withdrew the cell phone Beatrice had provided and punched in her number.
She picked up on the first ring. “Yes?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
He forced himself to lower his voice. “Ms. Jeffries? Her name isn’t Jeffries and you know exactly who she is and what she did to me. If this is some kind of joke, I swear I’ll…I’ll…”
What would he do? The woman was smarter than smart and she was, well, a pregnant female.
A man, he would beat the shit out of for tricking him like this. But he would never hit a woman. “…I’ll beat up your husband.”
“You can try,” Beatrice said without concern. “What’s the problem?”
Trace nearly crushed the phone. “You know exactly what the problem is. You lied and set me up with the woman who crucified me.”
“I didn’t lie. Her real name is Savanna Jeffries-Bunkett, but she only goes by Savanna Bunkett for her show. Her mother, Doris Jeffries, is from the New Hampshire Jeffries, a Daughter of the Revolution, and a top-notch lawyer. Her father, Shawn Bunkett, is the president of a private Catholic college. Her sister Parker works for National Intelligence as a glorified profiler, you might say. Her job is rather vague and ill-defined. She has a degree in cognitive therapy and a knack for understanding how criminals work, which National Intelligence has found helpful. For reasons I haven’t quite figured out yet, Parker pulls together the president’s daily briefing and presents it to him. I doubt that has anything to do with her brain research, other than to profile a terrorist here and there. A month ago, she went missing. All I can get out of my sources is that she’s on assignment.” Her voice emphasized assignment. “Odds are there was something…personal…going on between her and the president, or he gave her a black op job and she got caught.”
Linc Norman. The president sure liked to spread himself around.
The sound of a fridge door opening came from Beatrice’s end. “Who do you think passed your file—the bogus one—to Savanna?”
Trace took off his hat and scratched his hairline. “The sister?”
“If my guess is accurate, and I am correct ninety-nine percent of the time, Parker received the file outlining your rogue activities from the president.”
A patient silence descended, as if she were waiting for him to connect the dots. A possible scenario spilled out without too much brainpower. “Linc Norman told Parker to make sure Savanna broke the story.”
“Parker is missing. The president is stalking Savanna. It adds up, only we don’t know exactly why. Norman is now keeping tabs on Savanna, no doubt fearing she’ll reveal her suspicions to the world that he’s made Parker disappear. She doesn’t have any facts—yet—and President Norman hopes to keep it that way.”
“What am I supposed to do about it?”
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me why the president had you branded a traitor on national television?”
When he didn’t respond, she went on. “Well, consider this your chance to prove to Savanna that you’re not a traitor and that her intel from President Norman was bogus.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Find her sister. And if the president is the one who threw your ass in prison, who better to have on your side than an investigative reporter with a fan base of six million viewers? She can clear your name, Coldplay. Think about it.”
He was thinking all right. Thinking his former job as a cleaner for the president might put Savanna Jeffries Bunkett in more danger than she was already in.
“She can also help you dig up dirt to blackmail Linc Norman,” Beatrice went on. He heard the clink of silverware against a bowl. “So he stops trying to kill you.”
Trace returned the hat to his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You set me up.”
“I did,” Beatrice admitted freely. “In so doing, I also gave you a way out of the mess you’re in. I don’t care about your past and the things you’ve done, but it would solidify your job with Shadow Force International if you’re not a hunted felon.”
His past was not something to be proud of, Navy SEAL or not. He’d killed for his country, sure, but his job as a cleaner went beyond that. While once he’d believed he was doing the morally right thing, helping the president wipe out threats to America, he was no longer sure there was such a thing as morally right. “Savanna is already suspicious. Even with the change in my appearance, she suspects we’ve met.”
“So come clean. Tell her the truth. She needs you and you need her. Besides, she signed a contract.”
So did I. Every employee of Shadow Force International, whether they worked as bodyguards for Rock Star Security, performed search and rescue missions, or assisted on kidnapping cases, were required to sign one. If he breached his agreement, he was out in the cold again.
Petit planned to put Trace in charge of a team. If things worked out. Even if they didn’t hold him to his contract, bailing on his first assignment would hardly help his cause. He’d never make team leader if they couldn’t depend on him.
Did he even care? He wasn’t a team player anymore. Couldn’t endanger anyone else.
“Follow the procedure I gave you and think about it overnight,” Beatrice said. “If you wish to terminate the assignment in the morning, I’ll find someone else to guard Ms. Bunkett.”
A growl formed in his throat. Beatrice’s logic was so…so…logical. Be the hero again. Keep someone safe. Solve all your problems.
If only it were that easy.
Didn’t matter. He couldn’t complete this assignment without risking his freedom. Morning was nearly twelve hours away. Could he keep Savanna Bunkett from figuring out who he was in the meantime?
The woman was a bloodhound when she picked up the scent of a story. Sure, it had been eighteen months since she’d run his, and she’d had plenty of stories since then, but she wasn’t one to forget a name or a face for long, he bet. “She’ll terminate the assignment before morning.”
“You can’t hide forever,” Beatrice said. “And there’s only so much I can do to keep you off the grid. This is your chance to clear your name. Don’t blow it.”
The line went dead.
Trace braced one hand against the wall and sighed. Twelve hours. He had twelve fucking hours to keep up this charade, and then what? Bail?
He’d never quit a job in his life—except the last order from the president—and he wasn’t about to do so now. If Savanna figured out who he was and called the police, he’d have to, but until then, he’d lay low and plan for the worst case scenario.
…clear your name.
Pocketing the phone, he shook the ridiculous idea from his brain and walked back down the hall to wait.
He’d follow procedure like Beatrice had instructed him to when she gave him the assignment. Scan Savanna’s apartment for bugs, make sure her windows and doors were all secure. Check her personal security system. Then he’d stand guard for the night.
By morning—if he made it that long—he’d have a plan of escape.
Or one that would take down the president of the United States.