Authors: Maggie Marr
Tags: #hollywood, #Organized Crime, #contemporary romance, #glamour, #hitman, #movie star, #Kidnapping, #hero
“I can’t,” Natalie said. She kept her tone firm, just like her therapist had told her. Nothing personal, no anger, just a clear and
boundary with her dad.
“Yes you can.” There was a playfulness in his voice, but his tone edged toward pissed, and Natalie knew what happened once Daddy got pissed. What had always happened when Daddy didn’t get what he wanted or what he thought he deserved, or his way, or his charm didn’t work, or someone told him no . . .
“No.” Natalie repeated the words. “I can’t.”
There was a pause, like the moment before a car wreck or right after you hit your toe on a piece of furniture and you know the pain is traveling from nerve ending to nerve ending but the actual neurons to make you feel the pain hadn’t yet fired. For a split second in the silence Natalie hoped that maybe Daddy had also been seeing a therapist or working on healthy boundaries or thinking of ways that he might rebuild his relationship with her, but then—
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Dallas Warner bellowed. “You little bitch—you realize you wouldn’t be anything without me?”
And no. Daddy was still Daddy, and this was when the abuse would start.
“Daddy, please listen, I can—”
“No, you listen to me, you ungrateful bitch. I worked my ass off to get you where you are today and now, when you’ve finally hit it big with this damn
role, you want to turn your back on me and—”
“That’s not how it happened, Daddy. You spent all my money.”
money? Why the fuck would you think that was
“Because the checks had
name on them.”
“Bullshit. You know how expensive it was to get you to that first role?”
“Was it more or less expensive than the four Corvettes you purchased in five years?”
“What the fuck, Nat? Did you want to drive around L.A. looking like the white trash you are?”
Enough. She knew this conversation would go nowhere except into an abyss of swear words on Daddy’s part, tears on her part, and self-loathing after the phone call.
“Daddy I can’t help you, I just can’t . . . I . . . I don’t think you should call me again.” She needed to distance herself from Daddy, but he still called when he needed money for booze, women, bail, or drugs.
His laugh was a harsh sound, like shards of glass shattering against a marble floor.
A sick feeling coiled through Natalie’s gut.
“You think you can get rid of me that fast? Shuck me like you do all the other people in your life? You can’t. I’m your
. We share the same DNA, little girl. You’re mine until the day you die. Don’t you ever forget I brought you into this world and I sure as hell can take you out. You think on what I need, because I’m coming to get mine.”
An ice-cold trickle of fear threaded through Natalie. The line went dead. She glanced around the department store. She’d wandered away from the saleswoman helping her when Daddy started screaming in her ear. Pinpricks of heat in her eyes and her vision blurred.
“Miss Warner, can I—”
“No. No, I . . .” Natalie broke away from the woman and walked down the hall, her head bent. She had to get out of the store. She needed to be alone. She wanted to go home.
Her belly tightened and she wrapped her arms around her waist. Daddy wouldn’t hurt her, would he? He’d never struck her, but he’d hit Mama when they were still together. The drugs, the damn drugs and the booze, he’d changed . . . his mind . . . he wasn’t the same. He’d never been all that great at being a daddy, but he’d been good for a quick laugh and some fun times. All that was gone now. Since the emancipation he’d become meaner and meaner. His phone calls more vicious. His trouble more permanent. He’d actually served jail time on the last DUI.
She broke out of the back door of the store. The sunlight bit sharp into her eyes. Natalie beelined for her convertible parked right by the door. Daddy’s gambling was out of control, or so she’d heard from Ari. Daddy could be in trouble, serious trouble. But Daddy’s troubles weren’t her responsibility . . . were they? Her therapist said no, but damn, Natalie felt like she was meant to make things right for her parents, all the time.
She slid behind the wheel of her car. No emotion. No feeling. No tears. She wouldn’t be weak. She’d be strong. She’d force herself not to feel, no matter how it hurt to pretend like she didn’t care.
“Yo, Tatum, it’s Dex.” A hard knock on the door of his room and Beck was up off his bed. He pulled open the door. The black-haired guy with the scar from earlier that afternoon was in the hall. “You want to join? We’re shooting the shit and watching the Lakers kick some ass. Might be beer involved.”
A beer? Beck hadn’t drunk a beer in nearly a year. There’d been no beer involved during his last mission and at Club Crazy booze didn’t mix with his meds.
“Sure.” Beck walked into the hall.
“You ate in-room tonight.”
“By the time I finished with paperwork and orientation, the mess was closed. They fixed me up a tray and brought it down.”
“They’re good like that. Kitchen is available twenty-four/seven. You pick up the landline and press 2, you can order anything you want. And I mean anything. Trevor spent three weeks trying to confound those guys in the kitchen. He’d dial in at 3 a.m. and ask for some weird-ass stuff he knew was only in Southeast Asia or Fallujah. They’d make it and bring it to him. Finally, Chef was knocking on his door asking him to at least give them twenty-four hours for the eccentric dishes. We laughed our asses off over that one.”
Trevor . . . Trevor was blond and big, grew up in Nebraska and played football in college before joining the army. Remi’d given Beck a list of all the operatives working for Estrella, and he’d been memorizing names and faces when Dex knocked on his door. “You’re from Texas. Former Navy.”
Dex nodded. “And you’ve lived in nearly every state, once a Marine but then, who the hell knows? Guessing you can’t talk about what exactly you did.”
“Might be a problem for me, if I remembered half of it.”
“Got beat up pretty good?”
“Middle East. Six tours and then South America.”
“But you’re back now and here with us.” Dex rounded the corner to the rec room at the back of the house. Pool table, bar, two flat-screens on either side of the room. The Lakers were on one TV while two guys sat in front of another wearing headsets and playing a video game. Three guys and one woman watched the game and one guy leaned against the back wall with a beer in his hand. All of them, but the guy holding up the wall, sat with that stiff look like they were ready to jump to attention and salute at a moment’s notice.
“What you drinking?” Dex asked.
“Take a Sculpin IPA if you got it.”
Dex walked around the end of the bar. “We got anything you could ever want at this place.” Pulled a beer from the refrigerator and popped it open. “Did you meet everyone?”
Beck shook his head. He hadn’t met any of them, but he’d read their bios and seen their pictures.
“Nah, you wouldn’t have if you missed dinner. Remi keeps you pretty busy before your first assignment. All kinds of formal shit, and I heard you were already assigned.” Dex took a long pull on his beer.
Beck’s eyes skimmed over his new colleagues. Every one of them high-end elite services or former spooks. Each with a backstory they weren’t allowed to tell.
“Takes a little while getting used to the idea that we can talk about what we do,” Dex said. “Took me six months before I felt like I wasn’t doing something wrong by talking about my assignment with anyone but Remi.”
Beck nodded. Secrets had been his life. Now, here, these people were meant to be his colleagues, and according to Remi he was meant to utilize them as a resource. “How long have you been working for Estrella?”
“Going on two years,” Dex said. “Best civilian security gig on the planet.”
“She treats you well.”
“She does. As long as you’re the right fit.”
His belly churned with the conditional response. “Right fit?” He tilted his beer and the liquid flowed easily down his throat, maybe a little too easy. He was halfway finished with the first beer he’d had in nearly a year and he wanted another one already.
“We’re a tight group. We take care of each other and Estrella takes care of us, but she demands loyalty, transparency, expects us to walk what we talk. No bullshit, no drama. You down with that?”
Was he down with that? Hell yes. He’d built a career on doing what he was told and respecting his oath.
“Everybody been here a while?” While the folder on his colleagues told of their specialties and what branches of the military they came from, the number that was missing was how long they’d worked with Estrella.
“Most, yeah. Some come and go and others, well, they go.” Dex upended his beer. “Meet the rest of the crew. Except for those two boneheads over there.” He smiled and jerked his thumb toward the two guys on the couch playing Xbox. “That’s Trevor and Hudson, and they won’t get off that thing for at least another two hours.”
Beck followed Dex to the giant couch in front of the TV. “You met Connor out front earlier today. That’s Fallon Mackenzie.” The woman with thick blonde hair was all muscle and sat beside Connor on the couch.
“Welcome,” she drawled in a silken southern accent. She was tiny but looked to be a powder keg that could explode. Seven years in the foreign service, which meant spy and operative. “Heard you arrived today. Got a gig starting?”
Beck nodded. Yeah, hard habit to break, that he couldn’t talk about his gig with his colleagues.
Fallon leaned back into the leather couch. “I get it.” She smiled. “Tough to talk about things at first. Think we all went through that. Especially the first gig. But we’re here. We’re meant to be here for each other. Estrella prefers it that way.”
“There’s about twelve in-house?”
“Thirteen right now.” Dex slid his gaze toward the back wall. “Take that for what it’s worth.”
Beck glanced toward the guy standing solo. Leather jacket. Black boots. A tattoo on his . . . neck? Not military, not at all.
“Jax. Got here three months ago. He’s new too.”
“He wasn’t on my list of operatives.”
“What would they write for his resume?” Dex upended his beer. “Felon? Knows all the drug runners in L.A.? Well-connected in the criminal underworld?”
“There are worse qualities,” Fallon said. “Just because he didn’t come up the same way doesn’t mean there isn’t value.”
Dex shook his head as though he wasn’t convinced. “Former cops are bad enough—like we need a guy who actually went to jail.”
“Only thing between any of us and jail at this point is the military. Most of us should be locked up for all we’ve done.”
“Different when you’re doing it for a bigger cause,” Dex said.
“You keep telling yourself that, Mr. Navy.” Jax pushed off the back wall and dropped his beer bottle in the recycling.
Dex’s jaw tightened and his knuckles whitened around the neck of his beer bottle. “You got good hearing for a guy can’t seem to remember what he heard or saw.”
“Just because I’m not a snitch doesn’t mean I don’t remember. You got me confused with one of you boys who gets to shoot for free.”
Dex whipped around and his eyes flashed fire, but his mouth stayed closed in a thin line.
“That’s right, Dex, you just keep on being the welcome squad. See how many friends you still have, once the new guy knows what you’re about.” Jax’s gaze landed on Beck. “Good luck, buddy. Guess you know from your old job that the bad guys don’t always look bad.” He flashed a look at Dex and smiled, then sauntered out the rec room door.
“Why the fuck would Estrella hire someone like that?” Dex asked through gritted teeth. “What could he possibly bring to the team?”
“Not clear to me yet,” Fallon said. “But Estrella knows her stuff, and I trust her.”
“Yeah, I trust her,” Dex said. “But not him. Definitely not him.”
“The first letters?” Beck stood in the main operations room with Remi. He opened the file. He’d read and reread the letters and the file over the last two days. Each letter had a different picture of Natalie Warner cut from a magazine with a giant red X through the photo. Beneath the photo of Natalie, in an angry red scrawl, were the words
Kill The Whore
“They came back clean without prints. Mailed from varying locations in Los Angeles, so nothing there. They’ve escalated to following her. They tailed her all the way home last week.”
Beck looked up from the papers.
Remi shook his head. “No plates. You have everything you need?”
“Sounds like she’s a tough one.”
“Doesn’t trust anyone. Family isn’t supportive. Major daddy issues, so her choices in regards to men haven’t been wise. Leaves lots of possibilities for potential stalkers. Could be someone who knows her, a stranger, or some random she took home.”
“Studio doesn’t want them, she doesn’t want them. She doesn’t want us either but the studio is bringing us in. They prefer discretion, especially with the
premiere coming up.”
Beck looked back at the tablet. In her picture, Natalie Warner didn’t look too tough or too wild. A sadness in her eyes made Beck doubt there were as many random hookups in her life as Remi thought.
“We need to put you in place today. You ready?”
Beck looked around the room and out the giant windows and toward the L.A. cityscape in the distance. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
His stomach tightened. On most missions he was sent in to kill people, but on this one he was meant to make certain Natalie Warner wasn’t killed
“Estrella wants to see you before you deploy.”
An unsettled feeling burst through Beck. Had she watched him since he arrived? Assessed him? Made certain that her decision to offer him a job was the right decision?
Beck’s stomach flipped. Now he’d meet the one and only Estrella Leone. The rumors that swirled around this woman. She’d been CIA or NSA or some other super-secret operative when she’d been a socialite and a star. Her past—either with the prince or on her own—was what got her kidnapped. The details were unknown except at the highest levels.