Seth Halcott lifted a glass of whiskey to his mouth and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the whisk of a wedding dress, the hint of dark fingers clamped around an ultra-feminine wrist. He leaned backwards on his barstool to look through the frosted glass of doors of the hotel bar to the lobby beyond and, yep, that definitely looked like a bride being hustled out of the hotel by a bulky policeman.
Seth released a low curse, tossed his whisky back, and picked up his tuxedo jacket, which he’d hung on the half-back of the bar stool. Intrigued, he quickly crossed the black and white tiles of the lobby floor, his exit blocked by a white haired couple who’d stopped just inside the lobby to watch the activity outside.
“Dammit,” Seth muttered.
At six-foot-two he was able to look over the heads to see Leah Hamilton—married just six hours ago—arguing with a uniformed policeman. The cop wasn’t paying her any attention; he just calmly opened the back door to the police van and offered her a hand to help her climb up into the dark interior.
Skimming past the old people, who had no intention of moving from their prime vantage point, Seth slapped his hand onto the outside door and pushed it open. It was supposed to be autumn in Cape Town but summer was still having too much fun and warm and fragrant air caressed his face as he stepped outside. It was a beautiful night…
…to be arrested.
Seth called out to Leah but the sound of a motorbike backfiring drowned his words. The police van was parked down the road from the entrance of the old hotel and his view of Leah was momentarily obscured when a small tourist bus pulled up next to him. Doors slid open and happy, and sun-broiled, tourists stumbled out, very cheerful after an evening of wine tasting.
Seth pushed his way through the throng and when he emerged, he saw the policeman slamming the back door shut and movement behind the grilled window suggested that Leah had lost the argument.
She was well and truly busted.
What the hell happened, Seth wondered as he broke into a jog. How did she go from looking utterly gorgeous, ridiculously happy, and legally married to being arrested?
The policeman turned at Seth’s shout and watched his approach with cynical eyes. Seth noticed his hand hovering over his weapon so he lifted his own hands to show he wasn’t a threat. Dark brown eyes met his in a challenging stare and he didn’t drop his hand.
Dammit, suspicious and experienced. Seth might not be able to talk his way into getting them to release Leah.
“What did she do?’ Seth asked, after greeting the cop with a polite good evening.
“And you are?” Cynical cop asked.
The cop’s expression told him he’d had a long and annoying evening and he wasn’t in the mood for small talk.
Seth, who believed in going to the heart of the matter, nodded to the locked door on the van. “Okay, arrest her. But let me go with her.”
“You her husband?”
“No and I think you know that I’m not. Where is he and why are you arresting her?” Seth demanded, his voice sharpening and taking on a commanding officer note. He noticed the annoyed expression and the snap of the cop’s spine. Dammit. Foreign cops did not appreciate Yanks ordering them around.
“She’ll be charged at the Bellville Station, you can go there.”
Hell, no. He wasn’t leaving her alone, not for one damned minute. Seth opened his mouth to try another tactic and silently cursed when a female cop left the passenger seat of the van and joined her colleague. She looked even more exhausted than her partner and he could tell the delay was dancing on her last remaining nerve. He was keeping her from hot food or a hot shower or hot sex and she wasn’t in the mood to listen to anything he had to say.
In thirty seconds he could disarm both and spring Leah but there were witnesses. The two old ducks were still standing just inside the door of the hotel, watching him and a few of the not-so-drunk revelers were also watching his futile argument. And he’d noticed three cameras covering the entrance of the hotel; everything he did was being recorded for prosperity.
The easiest, and quickest, way to his objective was to give them a reason to arrest his ass. Without further thought, Seth clenched his fist and plowed it into the doughy flesh of the policeman’s gut, pulling his punch at the last minute so he didn’t cause much pain or do any damage. As he intended, they had his face plastered against the pavement a minute later—their reaction times were seriously slow—and then the business end of a nine millimeter was pushed under his chin.
Seth relaxed his body and allowed them to manhandle them, a little concerned about a shaky finger on the trigger of that semi-automatic. He slowed his breathing and resisted the urge to slap the weapon away, to retaliate. His default reaction was to fight his way out of a situation and it took a lot of willpower to allow the male cop to place a knee in his kidney, to grind his cheek into the filthy sidewalk.
Leah Hamilton, you owe me one.
He grimaced when they yanked his arms back, secured him with a pair of old cuffs, and yanked him to his feet. The fat cop screamed at him and the female cop waved her pistol around. Seth kept his eyes on her finger against the trigger, hoping like hell the safety was on.
When they finally calmed the hell down without, thank God, a weapon being discharged or a fist flying, they tossed him into the back of the police van. He stayed on the floor and scooted to the side panel and leaned back, stretching out his long legs. Damn, he had a tear on the cuff of his dress pants.
He looked up at Leah who was staring down at him, eyes and mouth perfectly round with surprise. “Seth? What the hell?”
Seth’s mouth tipped upwards. “So, congratulations on your wedding, Leah.”
“That being said,” he added, “I’m no expert on weddings and marriage but even I can tell that yours isn’t off to the best start.”
Leah Hamilton lifted the heavy skirt of her elaborate wedding gown and hiked it up to reveal shapely calves and a pair of ridiculously high stilettos covered in what looked like crystals and pearls. Stomping over to the cement bench at the back of the jail, she sat and reached down and pulled her right shoe off and wiggled her siren red, sexy-as-hell tipped toes.
Seth leaned back and rested his head on the cool but grimy wall. His cellmate had, along with her pretty feet, a tiny waist, porcelain skin, and eyes the color of a stunning African day. Her long, dark hair fell out of her elaborate wedding-day hairstyle and her eye makeup was ruined, making her look like a horror movie bride. Yet Leah, with her red-rimmed eyes, her grubby wedding dress, and her bare feet, looked stunning. She was, by a galaxy or two, the sexiest cellmate he’d ever had.
Seth stretched out his long legs and shoved his hands into the pockets of his tuxedo pants and tuned out the drunken snores of the guest in the cell next door. Looking around, he decided this holding cell wasn’t so bad. He’d been in a lot worse. And, for a change, his companion wasn’t a gangbanger, a drunken wife beater, or a trainee serial killer but the utterly gorgeous and stupidly sexy younger sister of his best friend.
Oh, yeah, he’d definitely had worse experiences in jail.
“Why are you here?” Leah demanded and he heard the wobble in her voice.
Seth rolled his head to look at her. She was trying to sound brave but he could see the fear in her eyes.
“You’re my best friend’s sister. When I saw you being led out through the lobby of the hotel, in handcuffs, towards a police van, I thought that you could do with some company,” Seth replied, on a careless shrug. “Jed would do the same thing for my sister.”
He didn’t bother to tell her that seeing that cop’s thick fingers around her wrist made his teeth slam together so hard his jaw still ached.
“You saw me in the lobby? Why were you there after midnight?” Leah demanded.
“Drinking in the hotel bar.”
“But there was free alcohol at the reception.”
Seth looked at her, knowing his expression was inscrutable. He’d ducked out of the reception shortly after the speeches, ten minutes after Jed and McKenna left. Making small talk wasn’t something he did well and he was over watching Leah fawn over the douche she’d married. Despite only meeting the groom earlier that evening and not exchanging more than ten words with him, Seth could tell he was an asshat by his fishy handshake and his refusal to make eye contact.
Seth also noticed Heath-the-Asshat looked anything but happy to be married. Leah glowed and looked as radiant as a bride should while Heath just looked like he’d sold his soul to the devil.
Leah put her shoe back on, wincing as she lowered her foot to the floor. She rested her forearms on her knees and Seth stared at her profile, wondering if the creamy skin of her elegant neck felt as soft as it looked.
“So you just jumped into that police van with me?”
Leah frowned at him, her expression disbelieving. “And they just let you?”
Well, no. There was no point in explaining how he got himself arrested, that it was the most efficient means to achieve his objective, which was to accompany Leah to jail so he could protect her for as long as she was inside, whether that was two hours or two days. He wasn’t worried about the charges; Pytheon would make those go away.
There were perks to being the COO of a kick-ass international security company with high-level connections to many governments all around the world. Because of his position and because Leah was Jed’s sister—Jed had recently retired after many years as a Pytheon operative—Stone, their el presidente, would exert pressure on high-level government officials to get Leah’s charges dropped as well. Depending, of course, on why she was arrested.
Drunk and disorderly they could work with; murder would be a lot trickier. Not impossible but trickier.
Seth’s eyes traveled over the beaded bodice of her torso, lingered on the hint of a cleavage, and wandered down and over the full skirt of her cream gown. Her perfect nails suggested she hadn’t been in a fight and there was no trace of blood on her gown. Leah hadn’t shot or stabbed her groom.
Seth relaxed; they’d be out before dawn.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?”
“Did you kill, badly hurt, or maim your asshat groom?”
Leah’s extraordinary eyes widened in shock. “No!” she retorted.
Leah stared at him in shock and then the starch went out of her spine. She released a snort that was part laugh and part sob.
“I wish I had,” she admitted, lifting up her hand to her head.
Seth watched, fascinated, as she started to pull tiny pins from her hair, the moisture in his mouth disappearing as sable colored curls fell to her shoulders and down her back. He made the mistake of dropping his eyes from her hair to her chest and noticed her breasts were higher, the fabric of her gown lower and, shit, he could just see a hint of a berry red nipple.
His erection sprang from half-mast to full and he casually sat up, leaning forward to disguise the party in his pants. He was thirty-five years old, and he was reacting like a teenager seeing his first centerfold. God, he needed to get laid.
Leah placed the final pin on the pile between them and pushed both her hands into her hair, shaking out the curls. “That’s better,” she murmured.
For who? Not for him, that was damn sure. He was painfully hard, fighting the urge to grab her, lay her on the concrete bench, and to pull up that heavy skirt and find out whether she was as wet and warm and spicy as he imagined her to be.
Wanting Leah wasn’t anything new to Seth. She’d been the star of his action filled dreams—the only action he’d had lately—from the first minute he laid eyes on her six months ago.
Thinking about an unavailable woman was like waiting for a boat at an airport, constantly disappointing. He’d run through the endless list of why he should stop his thoughts wandering to her—she was about to be married, they lived on different continents, he was based in New York city, she lived here in Cape Town. He wasn’t looking for a relationship; his idea of commitment was a one-night stand and Leah, according to Jed, didn’t sleep around. Also, Leah was Jed’s baby sister. Seth’s junk didn’t care.
He wanted Leah when she was engaged, wanted her as she walked down the aisle, wanted her now. He’d love to strip her out of that gown, peel the fancy, crystal-beaded bodice off her torso and touch his tongue to her nipple, to run his hands up the inside of her thighs…
“Are you going to ask me what happened?”
Seth blinked and it took a couple of seconds for him to refocus, for her words to make sense. He ran a hand across his jaw, his hand scraping across his three day stubble.
“What happened?” he asked, thinking a little conversation might distract him from imagining her naked.
“I trashed the honeymoon suite.” Leah stated. “Ripped the curtains, broke vases, tossed a champagne bottle at the TV set.”
Since he dealt with scumbags of the earth, who routinely did a lot worse, a trashed hotel room didn’t even blip on his bad deeds radar. “Okay. Why?”
Leah stared at the iron bars in front of her as a tear tracked mascara down her cheek. “Heath said he was going to go up, that I should stay and talk to my friends. I thought his suggestion was odd and told him that we could go up together.”
“He insisted that I stay, said this wasn’t our first time together, that it was just like any other party.” Leah shook her head. “I was hurt by that comment and a little pissed off but I didn’t want to start an argument on our wedding night. So, I stayed downstairs and after an hour I headed on up.”
Judging by her wobbling chin Seth knew he wasn’t going to like the next part of the story.
“I was supposed to call him, tell him when I was coming up, wake him up in case he’d fallen asleep. I didn’t call, I just went up.”
Seth didn’t need a degree in quantum physics to know what she was about to say next. “And when you got up there, you caught him with someone else.”
“Not just anyone else, I caught him with his best man, or best woman…with the woman who’d stood up for him at the altar. The one in the red gown.” Leah ran her fingers over her forehead. “They’ve been friends since they were kids. I thought they were just friends. Anyway, I found them on the bed and Sara was kissing the hell out of him. And Heath was kissing her back, with a lot more enthusiasm than he’d ever kissed me.”
“Oh, shit,” Seth said.
Her deep blue eyes filled with tears and her luscious bottom lip trembled. Unable to keep his distance, he scooted up the bench and put his arm around her slim shoulders, pulling her into his side. He dropped his lips onto her hair and closed his eyes.
Leah turned herface into his shoulder and her hand slid inside his jacket and her hand fisted the fabric of his shirt. “I never once suspected, I thought they were just good friends.”
Leah shuddered. He pulled back, shrugged out of his jacket, and draped it around her shoulders. Leah looked up at him, her eyes darker with pain and despair. “Why did he want to marry me if I wasn’t what he wanted?”
Money probably had something to do with it. Her father, General Hamilton, was wealthy and, as Jed had once told him, their mother’s parents were loaded. Leah was, as he’d also heard, one of the most successful property developers in the city. Apparently, for someone just shy of thirty, Leah played with the big boys and frequently won the game. That took stones and cash.
Heath didn’t have the first but obviously wanted the last.
Leah dropped her forehead onto his shoulder and her tears dampened the fabric of his dress shirt. Seth lifted his hand up to hold the back of her head, wishing he could massage her pain away.
“I always wondered why he wasn’t keen on sex, why he never seemed to want me. I’d wear naughty lingerie, greet him at the door naked, I sent him super sexy texts.” Leah snapped her head back and her eyebrows pulled together. “It’s not like we didn’t have sex, we did. And it was great, well, good. Sort of. Maybe he’s just confused and Sara caught him at a weak moment.”
Oh, hell, no.
Seth grabbed her chin and tipped it up so he was looking into her eyes. “Heath is a dickhead. You caught him making out with someone else, on your wedding night! His behavior is inexcusable so don’t you dare try and rationalize it.” Seth made an effort to sound soothing. “Trust me, this isn’t about you but about the fact that Heath wanted to live off you, wanted his cream-cake and to eat it, too.”
“But maybe if I was sexier, hotter…”
“Honey, if you were any hotter you’d melt the sun.” Seth growled and placed his thumb on her bottom lip. His lips quirked. “You’re the sexiest, hottest, most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen.”
Leah’s tears disappeared and he saw something spark in her eyes. Desire, maybe? Whatever it was, it was followed by doubt. And confusion, bucketloads of confusion.
Wanting to give her something else to think about but also because he’d always wanted to taste her, Seth dropped his head and swiped his mouth over her lips. He felt her shock and waited for her to pull back, to slap his face, to tear a verbal strip off him.
When she did neither, Seth pulled his mouth off hers and bent his head so their eyes were level. “Your husband is an effing idiot and I’m going to show you exactly how sexy you are.”
Seth didn’t give her time to respond; he slammed his mouth on hers and hoped his kiss conveyed that she was all woman, sexy as hell, utterly perfect. His hands traced the cord down the side of her neck and slipped under the fabric of his jacket to trace her collarbone, down her chest. His tongue tangled with hers, long, slow, sexy swipes that had his head reeling. She was heat and fire and passion and he felt the walls of the jail cell disappear. He could only think of Leah; he loved her spicy, decadent mouth and marveled over the fact that her perfect skin was so smooth, so silky, so girly. Seth nibbled his way across her jaw, pulled her delicate earlobe into his mouth and smiled when she shuddered.
“You are all woman, soft and gorgeous and so very sexy.” Seth growled in her ear. He dragged a finger down her breast and felt her nipple pucker. He wished he could pull her bodice down and taste her, but swiftly reminded himself that kissing her in a squalid jail cell was one thing, he couldn’t take this any further.
If they weren’t sitting behind bars, he could seduce her into making love, but he knew that he would be taking advantage of her broken heart, her need for attention. Besides, should he ever be that lucky to take Leah to bed he wanted her to want him, to be thinking of him and only him. He wasn’t any woman’s panacea for pain.
Seth lifted his hand to cradle her cheek and his fingers pushed past her hairline, and soft, fragrant curls fell over his knuckles.
“Leah, look at me.” Seth commanded and when her eyes met his, he spoke again. “This isn’t about you, about how hot or sexy or attractive you are. This isn’t about how loving you are or how good you are in bed. This is about the fact he is a tool who needs his face rearranged.” Seth’s thumb gently stroked her cheekbone. “You are gorgeous, incredibly, breathtakingly hot. If you don’t remember anything else I said tonight, remember that.”
Leah pulled her bottom lip between her teeth as she nodded.
“He treated you like crap, Leah. When this passes and he wants to talk, don’t forget that,” Seth said, his tone low but insistent.
“Okay,” Leah agreed.
“You won’t allow him to talk his way out of it?”
Seth snapped his head up at the yell and the sound of boots hitting cement suggested someone was walking towards their cell. Seth moved away from Leah and winked at her as he slouched against the wall, his face insouciant.
A big policeman approached the bars, his blue shirt stretched across his enormous belly. “Charges against both of you have been dropped. You’re free to go,” He said, unlocking the cell door and pushing it open.
Seth stood up and, as he held out his hand to Leah to help her up, he saw Jed and McKenna approach the cell, both worried. McKenna rushed into the cell and pulled Leah into her arms. Leah, as expected, burst into tears. Thunderclouds appeared in Jed’s eyes.
“Your brother-in-law desperately needs a come-to-Jesus talk.” Seth told him.
Jed looked at his wife and sister and nodded. When he looked at Seth, he was wearing his I-want-to-kill-someone expression. “I’m on it.”
Seth clapped him on the shoulder as he walked past him. “Yeah, so am I.”
“What the hell do you mean we can’t trace that email?”
Seth slammed his hands onto his hips and looked up at the high ceiling of his incident room, searching for the calm and the patience he was reputed to have. He looked down at the still swollen fingers on his hand and grimaced; it seemed as though he’d left those two traits as well as his mind back in Cape Town when he left two weeks before. His eyes were watching Cracker’s hands dance across the keyboard but on his mental big screen another set of images flashed—Leah, touching her top lip with the pink tip of her tongue after he kissed her, her wedding hair mussed from his hands. The desire in her blue eyes, the confusion. The fear on Heath Green’s face when he placed his forearm across his throat and lifted him onto his toes, the ache in his hand after he plowed his fist into the dry wall an inch to the left of asshat’s eye, seeing Leah sitting on a lounger on her verandah, her arms around her knees, tears running down her face. It had taken everything he had to say goodbye, to walk away from her.
Seth scrubbed his hands over his face and told himself to concentrate. He was back in New York, was back at work, and he needed to focus. Leah would be okay… she just needed time.
Cracker’s blond dreadlocks bounced as he monitored the reams of code running across his screen. Cracker was his most creative hacker, and if he was having trouble pinning down the IP address of the computer The Recruiter’s latest taunting email was sent from, then the rest of his hackers—all ten of them—didn’t have a chance.
When Cracker shook his head and leaned back in his chair, Seth muttered a string of long and creative curses.
“Sorry, boss,” Cracker muttered.
Seth laid a hand on his shoulder to reassure the young man—God, was he even twenty yet?—that he wasn’t upset with him. He was just deeply pissed off that a scumbag was running around the world, selling his services as a recruiter for any cult who could pay him his enormous fee. As someone who’d grown up in a cult-like commune, who’d escaped the rigid, crazy world—the notion of someone actively recruiting members, usually teenagers, to join organizations for a financial reward was even more despicable than the cults themselves.
And any group or individual who twisted the tenets of various religions to suit their own egotistical agenda were fucking despicable indeed.
Seth felt a presence beside him and looked sideways at Smith Stone, a philanthropist billionaire and the president of Pytheon International, a non-cult-like organization whose sole purpose was to right the wrongs that governments, the military, and police organizations couldn’t. Sometimes that meant fudging the rules, coloring outside the lines, using a lot of coercion, threats and, yeah, sometimes that meant annihilation. Of a structure, of a bank account and, very infrequently, a person.
Like him, Stone was prepared to make the hard decisions, to issue the order. They both understood that playing by the rules didn’t work in certain circumstances and they needed to be creative to get the job done.
And they always, always got the job done.
The Recruiter was at the top of Seth’s shoot first, talk later list.
“What are we working on?” Stone demanded, his deep voice holding a hint of command.
Just a hint because, as Seth had told him before, he gave the orders in his incident room. They were both determined, driven alpha males, leaders of the pack and they frequently bumped heads but Seth trusted Stone. He respected Stone and he knew that the trust and respect was returned.
Stone was, in fact, the closest he had to a friend now that Jed had married McKenna, retired from Pytheon and taken to sailing the high seas with McKenna and her daughter, Daisy.
“Ismail Khan, super-wealthy and influential South Africa businessman, contacted us this morning. He’s a moderate Muslim, and heads a foundation that is world-renowned for humanitarian efforts around the world. Very well respected…” Seth nodded to Cracker and pictures appeared on the large monitor that covered most of the wall. “Wife, Fatima, sons Muhammad—currently studying in London—and Fayed. Daughter Sadiyah.”
Stone crossed his arms and watched the pictures fly across the wall. “What’s the problem?”
“Fayed has disappeared. Packed up, swiped some cash from his mother, caught the bus for school but never arrived,” Seth answered.
“And why have we been contacted?” Stone asked, shoving his hands into the pockets of his suit pants.
“He’s wealthy, he’s connected, and he thinks his son has been radicalized. He wants us to find him.”
They’d tracked a few kids who’d joined radical Islamic sects across the Middle East. Some they’d managed to return to their parents before they were fully indoctrinated, never to be heard from again. Some they lost. It was too soon to speculate on what Fayed’s fate would be. All Seth knew was that he’d do his best to get Fayed home.
“And what organization do we think he’s joined?” Stone asked.
Seth shrugged. “Hard to tell as yet. The kid is an amateur hacker; pretty good if the father is to be believed. It might be that cell we’ve heard rumors about, an internet-based organization that uses vulnerable and disenfranchised teenagers to hack systems, organizations. It’s cyber terrorism. They are exceptionally well-funded, very computer savvy, and are open to using any means to recruit new members to join the cause.”
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Stone said, narrowing his dark eyes. “And why do you have an image of The Recruiter up on the screen? Do you think he’s involved?”
Seth leaned over Cracker and brought up the message they’d been trying to trace. “We received this ten minutes ago.”
“The Recruiter many, Halcott none.” Stone read the words. His eyes narrowed on the screen. “The asswipe is taunting you now? By sending you a photo of Fayed?”
“Yeah, I’ve become part of the game.” Seth frowned at the image of the teen on the large screen. The kid was tall and gangly and had the beginnings of a mustache. His dark eyes blazed with intelligence. “He’s taunting me, wanting us to think that he’s omnipotent, that he can take kids from anywhere in the world, that he’s untouchable.”
“Oh, yeah,” Seth agreed. “Hopefully his hubris will cause him to make a mistake.”
Seth stared at the screen, mulling over the facts. He was going to nail this fucker if it was the last thing he did. “You want to play, dickhead? I’m your guy,” he stated before turning his attention back to Stone. “I’m going to go to Cape Town, and I’m going to nail his balls to the nearest wall.”
Stone rubbed his chin. “I really need to explain to you, again, the concept of what working for a boss entails, Halcott.”
“I’m going, Stone.”
“We’re short of agents, I need you here,” Stone argued.
“Tough.” Seth ran his hand over the back of his neck. “Hire more people, Stone.”
“I’m going through the applications right now; hopefully I’ll have a couple of candidates to add to the payroll soon,” Stone replied.
Seth nodded and his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. “I’m not discussing this, Stone.” Seth reiterated, pulling out his phone. Seeing that it was Jed, via a satellite phone, he turned the screen to show Stone who was calling before putting the phone to his ear.
Jed sounded a million miles away, which he, sort of, was. Seth nodded to Cracker, who immediately tracked the signal of Jed’s phone. They were fifty nautical miles south of the Cook Islands and within seconds Cracker had the latest picture of his yacht taken by one of the many satellites orbiting earth. Seth had never asked Cracker how he hacked into satellites and wasn’t sure if he needed to know. He was just grateful for Cracker’s skills and he grinned at the picture of the yacht taken yesterday morning that Cracker put up on the big screen. Daisy, five years old, was fishing off the stern and Mac was sitting next to her. McKenna was reading a book and all seemed well with their world.
Poor guy; sexy wife, cute kid, tropical seas, and sunshine.
“What’s up?” Seth asked.
The connection via the sat phone was scratchy and Seth could only hear the third of every word Jed spoke.
“Leah said…scratch scratch…tell you…said she met… scratch, scratch…sounds fishy.”
“I can’t hear you, dude.”
“Call Leah…explain…Signal weak… Keep…eye on us.”
Yeah, Jed knew Seth could track him and was happy for him to do it. Jed, like him, knew that a pretty location and warm weather didn’t mean trouble was also on vacation. He’d been an operative long enough and knew Pytheon routinely used satellite images, illegally acquired, on many ops.
“Tell Mac not to sunbathe nude on the deck.” Seth teased him.
“Not… first rodeo…Call Leah, important.”
The call dropped and Seth frowned. From Jed’s garbled message he heard the three of them—Jed, McKenna and Daisy—were fine but there seemed to be something up Jed’s sister, Leah. Jed’s very sexy sister, Leah. She of the sexy toes and the ultra-brief marriage.
Seth ignored Stone’s inquiring face and held up his hand to ward off his questions. He swiped his thumb over the screen of his encrypted smart phone and scrolled through his contacts. When he pushed the green icon to dial Leah Hamilton his heart, to his annoyance, bounced off his ribs.
Leah answered within two rings, her voice polite and businesslike. “Leah Hamilton, how can I help you?”
Since his number could not be traced, Seth introduced himself and he heard her suck in a deep breath. “Jed, McKenna—”
“They’re fine, Leah.” Seth hastened to assure her. “I spoke to Jed a minute ago but the connection was really bad. I think he was trying to tell me that I should call you.”
“That’s a relief,” Leah replied. “Well, I spoke to him a couple of days ago, McKenna is doing well, she felt had a bit of morning sickness but seems to be over it now.”
Oh, yeah, his best friends were pregnant. He was happy for them but it wasn’t something he could see in his future. Kids? Hell, no, he knew what could happen to them. Love, of a wife, of a family, wasn’t on his agenda. He’d learned a very long time ago that the more he loved—valued—the more there was to lose. When what he valued was removed, the pain could be devastating and he’d planned to avoid it if he could.
“They are leaving the Cook Islands and are sailing towards New Zealand.”
Seth heard the false note of cheeriness in Leah’s voice and wondered how she was doing. He thought he should ask but he couldn’t find the words. Are you okay? Have you seen a lawyer? Do you think about that super-hot kiss we shared two weeks ago?
Seth shook his head, needing all his willpower not to show just how much that memory, and her sexy voice, affected him. “So, what did Jed want you to tell me?”
“Oh, that… I met your dad. He was visiting Cape Town and he came by my office, told me that you and Jed had told him to look me up if he ever got to the city.”
Not sure if he’d heard her properly, Seth forced the words through his constricted throat. “Sorry, who did you say came to your offices?”
“Your dad, Ben Halcott.”
That was what he’d thought she’d said, but that wasn’t possible.
Seth told Leah to hold on and dropped his phone to hold it against his pants leg. He was sure someone was playing a sick joke on him and that Leah had her wires crossed but he always covered all his bases. His first instinct was to make sure his mom was safe. He tapped Cracker’s shoulder. “Check the GPS in my mom’s phone. Use whatever excuse you come up with to double-check what the GPS says. I want to know where she is, exactly.”
Cracker nodded and whipped around to face his screen. Stone just folded his arms across his chest and lifted his eyebrows at Seth as he raised the phone back up to his ear. “I’m back,” Seth said, his voice even. This was a bad joke, it had to be. “Can you describe him?”
“Add thirty years onto your face and that’s what he looked like,” Leah replied. “I took a selfie of us…I meant to send it to Jed to send to you but…with everything else… I forgot.”
“You have a picture of him?” Dear God, she had an image?
Excellent! Yet his cynical side issued a quick warning—a picture and an easy identification was too damn easy and he smelled a dozen rats. What was this guy’s game? What was this message, what was he trying to say? Why Cape Town, why Leah?
“I can send it to you if you want,” Leah said. “But you need to give me your number. It didn’t come up on my screen.”
“Send it to my email address.”
“Leah, I’ll get back to you,” Seth muttered when she was done taking his details and winced when he heard how abrupt he sounded. It couldn’t be helped. He was abrupt and this was important. Besides, explanations weren’t his thing.
“Your mom is at work,” Crackersaid, replacing the handset of his phone.
“You spoke to her?”
“Yeah, I –”
“Doesn’t matter.” Seth whipped back. “Access my inbox, Cracker.”
Cracker flicked a glance between to Stone and back to Seth. “I don’t think I can—”
“Cut the crap.” Seth barked. “If you can hack into defense satellites, you can hack into our inboxes. Do it.”
Cracker winced but in ten seconds Seth’s Inbox was displayed on the screen. “Open the latest email, the one from Leah Hamilton. Open the attachment.”
A photograph appeared on the screen and Seth took ten seconds to look at Leah. Long, curly hair held back by her designer shades, blue eyes dim with sadness. She’d been cheated on during her wedding night two weeks ago, what did you expect? She wore a bright red sundress and her lipstick matched her dress—an obvious attempt to look cheerful even if she didn’t feel it—and she took his breath away.
No time to think about the girl. Seth forced himself to look at the photo of the man standing next to Leah. He towered over her, big and broad compared to her petite frame. Leah was right. He did look a little like him. Nut brown hair flecked with gray, green eyes. A thin mouth slow to smile, the same rangy, naturally broad-shouldered, slim-hipped build.
Stone sucked in a breath and looked at Seth, concern on his face. “That can’t be him.”
“Sure as hell looks like it could be, though.” Seth responded, his expression grim.
Cracker spun his chair around and looked from Stone to Seth. “That guy could be your dad, boss.”
Cracker frowned at Seth’s machine gun response. “And is that a problem?”
“Yep,” Seth replied as he exchanged a long, what-the-hell look with Stone.
He tipped his head and he and Stone walked away from the desks, away from interested ears. He trusted his staff, to an extent, but he never gave them more information than they needed to know. Frustrating sure, but this was his incident room and his rules and keeping secrets protected lives.
“Don’t jump to conclusions. There are similarities but there are also enough differences for me to be doubtful. Besides, only DNA can prove it.” Stone stated.
“If he’s an imposter, what’s his agenda?” Seth asked.
“And if he’s your father, why hasn’t he contacted you before this? Father or not, imposter or not, this guy knows a lot about you. He knows Jed, knows that Jed has a sister, knows that this picture, this news would eventually get back to you,” Stone said and pulled out his phone. He quickly typed and after a couple of minutes, he looked back up at Seth. “I’ll contact the police in Spring, that’s where your father lived, wasn’t it? I’ll ask them what definitive proof they had that the body in the burned out car was Ben Halcott’s.”
“Age, build, wallet, personal items. He was known to drive that car.”
“Still circumstantial,” Stone replied. “I want DNA or dental records.”
“I do, too,” Seth admitted.
Seth tapped the back of his phone with a long finger. “I’m going to Cape Town, I’ll see if I can track him down.”
“Going to be hard, it’s a big city.” Stone pointed out.
“But there’s a reason he’s there. He made contact with Leah, made a concerted effort to grab my attention.” Seth rolled his shoulders attempting to relieve the tension gathered there. “I need to know why.”
Seth walked back to Cracker and Stone followed. “Bring up Fayed Khan.” He ordered.
Cracker hit a button on his keyboard and the screen returned to the previous subject of the radicalized boy. He was missing and he needed to be found. If Seth went to Cape Town he could kill two birds with one stone. And he could lay eyes of Leah again. Check that she was okay and that asshat Heath wasn’t trying to worm his way back into her life.
Laying eyes on Leah was always a pleasure. Laying hands on her would be even better. Seth shook his head, annoyed at where his thoughts went. Leah…even thinking about her was a distraction. Why her? What was so special about Jed’s sister that he couldn’t forget about her? He didn’t allow anything, especially woman, to distract him from his missions.
Besides, Leah was going through a tough breakup, was dealing with a broken heart. Remember that, Halcott.
“I’ll go to Cape Town, look into the missing kid, if you take over here.” Seth told Stone.
Stone sent him a hard look. “Can you be objective about either of these two missions? Looking for your father and The Recruiter? Loss of objectivity can lead to mistakes and mistakes get you a headstone.”
Stone had a right to be concerned. His parents had been members of a small cult—a crazy-ass grouping of free spirits—and, to be honest, he still wasn’t sure what they actually believed in, if they believed in anything at all. The cult lived in a commune on the outskirts of Spring, a one horse town in the coal country of eastern Kentucky. When he was four, he and his mother left the commune and his father had not taken that news well. He found them in the next town over and made his displeasure known by rearranging his mom’s face and dragging her home. His brave and enterprising mother waited for her broken body to heal and they escaped again. Believing he would kill her if he found them again, he and his mother became nomadic, constantly changing identities to fly under the radar. As a result, he grew up overprotected, constantly looking over his shoulder and scared.
Sick of living scared, he’d joined the military straight after school and, after a stint in the Ranger’s, made his way into Delta Force, the best of the best. Nothing scared him anymore…but his pathological hatred of any organization that promoted extremism in any form remained.
So, hell, okay…he wasn’t objective but that wouldn’t stop him from doing his job. He’d find Fayed and he’d find The Recruiter. And he’d find his fake father…
His highly specialized and extensive military training had taught him to separate the job from his emotions. He had the ability to operate with detachment, to do the job no matter what the cost.
He didn’t fail. Ever.
Seth raised his eyebrows at Stone, who cracked a small smile. “Okay, I’ll step in here. You need to update me on what operations we are currently running.”
Seth nodded. “Most of the operations are under control, there’s no need for you to interfere. The agents like to do their own thing so we need to trust their skills and intelligence.”
“Just like I trust you to run this show,” Stone said, amused. “I might not be army, Halcott, but this isn’t my first rodeo.”
Not my first rodeo, said in exactly the same tone Jed used. Hmmm.
Seth looked at Stone as they made their way to the private offices at the back of the incident rooms. When Stone made comments like that, he implied he was more than a rich boy with a fancy education, that he’d seen more action than he was prepared to admit. When Seth had first joined Pytheon, he had done a little digging of his own but nothing he’d learned about Stone suggested Stone was anything more than a smart, rich executive with an Ivy League education. But he’d seen the guy work out in the gym, on the range. Stone was a skilled marksman and even better at hand to hand combat. He had the skills that men didn’t learn in rich-boy gyms.
Stone had a superb cover story and it pissed Seth off that he couldn’t break it. Despite the fact he loathed not having all the puzzle pieces, he knew, instinctively, Stone was rock solid and that he had Seth’s back.
And, really, that was all that mattered.
Since speaking to Seth yesterday, Leah found herself looking at the photograph of Seth’s dad more than she should and thinking of her and Seth’s odd conversation. Seth sounded as he usually did, super cool, super detached, and absolutely nothing like the passionate, sexy, intense man who’d kissed her with such expertise. Leah frowned and pushed a strand of hair behind her right ear. Lately she’d spent a lot of time thinking about Seth and his kiss. It was a brilliant distraction from thinking about her sham-wedding, catching her husband kissing Sara, dealing with the lawyers in an attempt to get their marriage annulled, the hurt, and the humiliation. Leah latched onto everything that allowed her a moment’s respite from thinking about her messed up life and that was why she’d accepted Ben’s offer to buy her lunch.
Unlike his reserved, cool, sexy son, Ben had been a harmless, charming, old flirt and she’d immediately responded to and appreciated the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He’d been entertaining company but his habit of deflecting the subject away from Seth and his childhood had been very disappointing. Jed and Seth, super soldiers, were, to say the least, economical with words. She knew very little about Jed’s best friend and she’d hoped to learn more from Ben, but he’d ducked her questions about his son so Leah walked away from that lunch knowing nothing more about Seth. And, boy, she was desperate to learn more about the man who’d kissed her with such skill.
Because he was an excellent distraction from thinking about Heath. Leah blew air into her cheeks and looked at the ceiling. She fully accepted she spent far too much time thinking about Seth, thinking about his kiss…his hands, his scent. And when she was being very honest, brutally honest, she admitted she wished he’d taken that kiss further, that he’d given her more than ahot kiss. There had to be something wrong with her when her hottest sexual memory in years was a brief kiss in a filthy jail cell a few hours after she said “I do” to another man.
But when she pushed Seth aside, thoughts of Heath barreled in. Why did he marry me? Was everything a big lie to get my money? Did he love me, at all?
Am I ever going to live down the humiliation? What must our guests think, our friends, my family? Why the hell didn’t I listen to Jed when he told me that marrying Heath was a stupid-ass idea? And, most worrying, why aren’t I more upset? Why is my heart just bruised, not broken?
A fist knocking against the rim of her office door made Leah look up and her stomach instantly did back flips and her lungs forgot how to inflate. Worn jeans, a fire-engine red t-shirt stretched across a broad chest fell loosely over a flat and very hard stomach, legs that went on for miles. Seth pushed his designer sunglasses into his thick hair and his large hand rubbed his stubble-covered jaw.
Fallen angel face. Gorgeous, but oh so troubled.
Leah took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair. She resisted the urge to place her hands under her thighs so Seth wouldn’t see them shaking.
She needed her cool voice, her I-can-deal-with-anyone voice.
“Seth Halcott.” She drawled, crossing her legs, noticing Seth’s eyes lingered on the hem of her short skirt.
The temperature in the room rocketed up and she felt the moisture in her mouth disappear. He was so damn…male. Hot. Hard. Sexy.
Aw, no. Not good. It’s just a chemical reaction, lust attraction. Life’s way of telling her that she wasn’t dead, that she will feel normal again.
“So, you were the last person I expected to waltz into my office at eleven-forty on a Thursday morning.” Leah stated, watching as he stepped into the room, dropped a backpack to the floor, and kicked the door closed behind him.
Unlike his father, he didn’t bother to ask whether this was a good time for her, whether she was busy, whether he could take her to lunch…to bed.
Not helpful, Hamilton. And you’re only thinking that way because he’d be a wonderful way to escape your ultra-shitty life at the moment.
“Leah, you are looking…” Seth said in his deep, growly, I-smoke-a-hundred-cigarettes-before-breakfast voice. Sexy, attractive, doable?
“Good,” he continued. “You’re looking good. Better than I expected.”
He was being kind.
“But you’re still pale, look thinner and you have bags under your eyes.”
“Gee, thanks for the effusive compliments,” Leah retorted.
But Seth looked, doable, sexy, hot—and more—but he also looked exhausted. His eyes were red rimmed and his hair looked like he’d been running his hands through it on a continuous basis. She’d barely finished the thought when his big, tanned ringless hand pushed through those thick, wavy strands.
“I presume you being here has something to do with your father?”
When Seth just looked at her, his face inscrutable and eyes unreadable, Leah lifted her hands and explained. “I haven’t spoken to you since that night…”
The night we kissed. He might not have verbalized the words but she knew he was thinking about that kiss. Oh, nothing on his face gave him away but his eyes darkened to a smoky green.
Not going there, not going there…
“I tell you about having lunch with your dad, I send you the picture of the two of us, and thirty-six hours later you’re here. Why?”
Seth looked at her and Leah tried not to squirm. “He’s not my dad.”
“I’m sorry, but you look exactly the same. There is no way you are not related to that man. You even have the same sex…scratchy voice.”
Please let him not have caught my slip.He does not need to know he is my favorite, late night, triple x-rated fantasy. Amusement appeared in Seth’s eyes and disappeared ten seconds later. “He can’t be my father. I’m thinking this is some strange mistake.”
“Because my father is dead.”
End of Excerpt