Authors: Leslie North
Twenty minutes later, he and Hayley were strolling around a busy DC mall. They’d bought a couple of touristy baseball hats proclaiming America the Beautiful to disguise their appearance slightly, and were currently doing their level best to look like a young couple in love— right down to simpering looks and hand holding—and not like they’d just blown off a whole team of FBI agents.
Scotty laced his fingers through hers and kept hold of her hand even though she tried to pull away. Heled her over to an empty bench near a deserted stretch of pathway. “So, won’t you get in trouble for ditching those agents like that?”
“Probably.” She freed her hand from his then folded them in her lap. “I found some disturbing information on your SEAL team during my research and I wanted to find out the truth, directly from the source.”
“I see.” Scotty crossed his arms. “What kind of information?”
“The reports I read indicated your team was responsible for Nick Matthew’s death.”
Her words still sucker punched him in the gut, even though he’d heard them hundreds of times already. “Wrong.”
He cursed and pushed to his feet again. “I don’t give a shit what those reports say. We loved Nick. He was like a brother to all of us.
a brother to Kyle. We would never take out one of our own. Never.”
“Fine. Calm down.” She glanced around nervously, then patted the bench beside her. “Sit, please.”
Grumbling, he did as she asked. The accusations stung, even though they weren’t true. And the fact they’d come from Hayley, well that just made it so much worse for some reason. Still, Scotty took a deep breath and forced his anger and pain to the sidelines. If he closed his eyes, he could still see Nick that last day—laughing, joking, goofing around with the rest of them while they loaded up their gear. Then the sickening whistle of the sniper’s bullet and Nick face down on the ground, blood seeping from the wound at the base of skull. According to the coroner, the shot had killed him instantly. Once Scotty got his hands on the fucking creeps who’d taken Nick out, they’d pray for such an easy death. He shook his head and stared into the distance. “We were set up.”
“Excuse me?” Hayley faced him, concern lurking in her gaze.
“Someone took out Nick. We’re trying to find out why.”
“Whoa. That sounds like something from a spy movie.”
“Welcome to my life.”
She snorted. “Hey do you hear that?”
The lilting notes of a jazz band drifted from across the reflecting pool. Feeling oddly nostalgic, he pushed to his feet, turned and pulled Hayley into his arms, swaying with the beat.
“What are you doing?” She swatted at his chest. “People will see us.”
“That’s kind of the point, Red.” He laughed and led her into an underarm turn.
Hayley gave him and incredulous look. “You’re pretty good at this stuff. Where’d a guy like you learn move like that?”
“My mama raised me right.” He winked and she smiled and he felt it all the way to his toes. He hadn’t danced like this since he’d left home to join the Navy. “What can I say, I’m a renaissance man.”
“That’s one word for it.” She shook her head and stepped away from him as the music faded. “So, do you have any leads on what happened to Natalie?”
“A few.” He shrugged, his good memories dissipating as he concentrated on the specifics of the mission. “Last week there was an explosion at a publishing house owned by a man named Coran Williams. Turns out Natalie had written a few romance novels for him that supposedly contain some secret files.”
“I heard about the explosion on the news.” Hayley tucked an errant strand of her hair behind her ear and he had the crazy urge to see if her curls felt as soft as they looked. “And the evacuation. You think whoever was responsible was tied to your friend’s murder?”
it was.” When the breeze whipped another long strand of hair across her face, he couldn’t resist anymore. Scotty traced a finger across her creamy cheek and pushed the curl behind her ear, loving the little shudder she gave beneath his touch. “Remember, Gage? Big guy, very tan and tough?”
“Yeah. Well his new girlfriend, Anna, worked at Coran Publishing and one of those files got inadvertently passed to her on her e-reader. The bastards even kidnapped her trying to get them back. We had to stage a rescue to keep her safe.”
Hayley swallowed hard. “Sounds scary.”
“Nah. Business as usual around here.” Scotty gave her a small grin. “Anyway. Turns out there a rogue SEAL involved by the name of Michael Becks. Real crispy critter after surviving a fire that took out the rest of his unit. He’s after these files too and we think he might be part of
“Okay.” Hayley sat back and for a moment and Scotty was afraid he’d scared her off.
“It’s not all bad though.” He placed his arm along the back of the bench, turning on the charm. “You get to spend more time with handsome old me.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “There’s a new round of cutbacks coming.”
“What?” He wrinkled his nose.
“At work. That’s why getting this promotion is so important to me. Job security.” She shrugged. “There’s an opening for a Team Leader on the Intelligence side. My boss has me working independently on a lot of different stuff and seems to have no problem delegating to me when needed. She’s kind of my mentor at the Bureau and she’s in a place where I’d like to be someday. Well, without her sick child, of course. Poor kid’s got some rare disease. I’ve offered to help her more, lend an ear when she needs it, but she mostly keeps to herself about it all.” She gazed over at a flowering Japanese cherry tree beside them. “So, these days I concentrate on my career and climbing the Bureau ladder. I figured if I could solve this case, it might give me more street cred.”
“Yeah. Successful ops look good on the old resumé, you know?” She blinked hard, her attention focused on her lap again. “My boss is always busy, so I figured she wouldn’t care what I was working on as long as I kept up with my other projects. But when I mentioned my idea to her earlier this morning, she ordered a tail on me. Can’t really do much with a shadow following you around, so…”
“So you ditched ‘em.” His grin grew wider. “Nice job, Red. I think there’s hope for your street cred yet.”
Her gaze held his for a second longer than was strictly polite. “So, it seems we’ve got our work cut out for us then, huh?” She flashed him an excited smile and his pulse notched higher. “I’ll be ready to start whenever you are.”
That night, Hayley curled up in the corner of the sofa in her tiny Georgetown apartment to watch the latest episode of
. Normally, she loved getting into all the intricacies of these fictional cases, always figuring out whodunit way before the actors in the show. But tonight…
Tonight, she couldn’t stop thinking about the real-life bombshell that had dropped into her life and blown all her orderly plans straight to hell. It wasn’t just her attraction to Scotty Devonshire that threw her for a loop, though the guy was freaking beautiful—no doubt about that. No, this had more to do with the story he’d shared on that bench earlier.
She’d been so sure coming into the meeting at the pub that Scotty and the rest of his SEAL team would be nothing but a group of GI Joe lookalikes, with bullets for brains, but now doubts crept in. Scotty seemed so funny and smart and truly loyal to his friends. Then there was the way he’d danced with her on the plaza, cool and confident and smooth. There was something about a man who could dance…
The more she pondered, the more time flew by and soon the end credits for the show were rolling. Hayley clicked off the TV, then opened her laptop instead. Honestly, at this point she didn’t know what to believe. And the one thing she didn’t want was to be wrong. Not again. Nope.
No matter how gorgeous and intriguing she found Scotty and his story, Hayley would stick to her investigation, stay neutral, play the straight-arrow. Her plans were to solve the case and get the promotion, end of story. And if achieving her first objective meant spending more time with Scotty in order to figure out who was responsible, then that’s what she’d do.
She’d just logged into her remote account at the Bureau when her cell phone buzzed. She grabbed it off the side table and unplugged it from its charger, then narrowed her gaze on the tiny screen.
A frisson of dread ricocheted through her bloodstream. Speaking of consequences, seemed it was time to explain why she’d bailed earlier at the pub. Ditching her boss-mandated tail hadn’t exactly been a stellar move, but at the time she hadn’t had much choice. She needed Scotty and his team to trust her and she couldn’t get him to do that with a bunch of agents watching their every move.
After a deep breath for courage, she answered the call. “Hey, boss. What’s up?”
“You directly disobeyed my orders, that’s what’s up.”
Michelle Harper wasn’t used to having her orders disobeyed, especially by one of her trusted analysts. She did her best to relax her tight shoulders and stared out the doorway of her office into the empty blackness beyond. This late, the place was practically deserted. Only the whirr of a far-away janitor’s mechanical floor buffer split the silence.
She gave orders for a reason, the same reason she planned all of her missions to a T. Control. Control meant safety. Control meant security. In her world, control meant everything.
When Hayley didn’t answer, she softened her tone a bit and continued. “Tell me why.”
“The person I met with wasn’t comfortable with a crowd. It seemed more important to gain his trust than to—”
Hayley sighed. “Yes. And I’m sorry about that. I promise it won’t happen again.”
The kid was good. Better than any of Michelle’s other analysts and Hayley was on a fast-track for early promotion if she kept up the efforts. “Kid” being a relative term, of course. Michelle was only eleven years older than her protégé, but some days it seemed like centuries.
Those days when Charlie was sick and there wasn’t a damned thing she could do to make him better. Days when all she could do was hold her son tight and pray for a miracle…
Michelle swiveled in her chair and stared out at the glittering D.C skyline, the Washington Monument in the distance, the Capitol building. All the scions of American justice, but where the justice for her and Charlie?
On her desktop a small, black burner phone buzzed to life and she glanced at it over her shoulder, her heart rate accelerating. She should be used to them by now, the calls. They came every night, always at eleven-fifteen sharp. Still, every single time he called her throat dried and her chest constricted and she wondered why in the hell she’d ever agreed to his conditions.
Charlie, that’s why.
Biting her lip, she turned back to face her desk and the dim cubicles in the distance. “I need to go, Hayley,” she said, her tone sharp with tension. “We’ll discuss this first thing in the morning.”
She hung up before Hayley responded.
Hand trembling, Michelle grabbed the burner phone and pressed Answer. “Yes?”
“How’s Charlie?” The low, monotonous voice grated on her nerves.
“H-he’s holding his own.” She hated the quiver in her words. She was an FBI Intelligence Team Leader, an ex-Army medic who’d seen more active duty time than most Rangers for fuck’s sake. One man’s phone call should not do this to her, and yet—it did.
The FBI kept files on everyone suspected of nefarious activities, had intel on anyone they considered a threat to national security, kept tabs on criminals far and wide. They had two-words on this guy.
. Even the White House couldn’t access his records, let alone Michelle.
And that’s why she feared him the most.
You couldn’t control what you didn’t understand.
“Are the plans for the widow coming along?”
“I’m working on them.”
“Don’t take too long, Michelle. We had a deal.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Forget promises. They mean nothing. Action. That’s all that matters.” She could practically hear his sinister smile through the phone. “I’d hate to see anything happen to Charlie.”
Her blood prickled with ice. She’d do anything to save Charlie. Anything.
“I’ll have the intel by the end of the week. I’ve got my best analyst working on it.”
“Perfect. Until Friday then, Michelle.”
Long moments after, she sat and stared off into the blackness surrounding her, hot tears streaming down her cheeks and the burner phone still clutched in her hand like a lifeline.
Hayley walked into FBI headquarters the next morning in her best black power suit, ready to defend her actions and her honor and beg not to be fired for her insubordination. She didn’t have to wait long. She’d barely reached her desk and put her bag down when Michelle summoned her to her office.
Shoulders squared and head high, she plastered on a polite smile and headed across the open-concept room toward the glass walled office in the corner. Michelle sat behind her desk, perfect as always—perfect posture, perfectly coiffed dark brown hair, perfect make-up highlighting her perfect dark brown eyes.
“Close the door and have a seat.” Michelle gestured to one of two chairs in front of her contemporary-style metal and glass desk. “We need to talk.”
Nothing good ever started with those words.
She did as her boss asked then crossed her legs primly and folded her hands in her lap. “I want to apologize again for—”
“I don’t care about that now. Just know if you ever disobey my direct orders again, I’ll fire you immediately, understand? Now tell me what you’ve learned about the SEAL team.”
“Oh.” Hayley did her best to hide her surprise. Disobey orders, get fired. Got it. “Okay. Well, I’m looking into information suggesting someone other than SEAL Team Ten may be responsible for Nick Matthew’s death.”
“I see.” Michelle narrowed her gaze. “And what do you think?”
“I’m not sure. I need more time.” Michelle’s lips thinned slightly and Hayley noticed the shadows beneath her eyes. Maybe she wasn’t so perfect after all. Didn’t look like her boss had been sleeping well lately. Although Michelle kept to herself, Hayley knew her son’s illness weighed heavily on her, at least from the phone calls she’d overheard. Concerned, Hayley leaned forward slightly. “Is everything all right? At home, I mean.”
“Everything’s fine.” Her boss’s expression shifted from exhaustion to annoyance in a flash. “What about the blond one? The one you snuck away with.”
Snuck away with?
Her posture stiffened and she crossed her legs away from Michelle. “After we left yesterday, he told me his team had nothing to do with Nick Matthews’ shooting.”
“Hmm.” Michelle kept her gaze locked on Hayley’s, the end of her pen
tap, tap, tapping
on her desktop like a wonky metronome. “Offer him a deal.”
“Offer the guy a deal. Tell him that if someone on his team takes the fall for the shooting, then the others go free. I don’t care which one of them it is.”
A deal was the last thing she’d been expecting in regards to Scotty and his SEAL team. And why would the government offer something like that now? Last time she’d checked the investigation wasn’t even complete. The whole thing screamed
and her well-honed instincts went on high alert. “Um, do mind me asking why?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Michele tossed her pen aside and pushed to her feet. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in after yesterday, Agent Stevens?”
“I thought since—”
“Well, you thought wrong.” Her boss came around the desk, staring down at Hayley. “I’m willing to keep your indiscretion between us and off-the-record, but only if you present this deal to the SEALs. No questions asked.”
Pulse thudding and muscles tight, Hayley crossed her arms. Scotty would never go for it. She couldn’t blame him either. The whole thing was fishy as hell. Why would an innocent man take the fall and face prison time for a crime he didn’t commit?
“How bad do you want this promotion, Agent Stevens?”
The screws around her heart tightened. Her boss knew all the right buttons to push, dammit. Hayley forced herself to take a breath and met Michelle’s gaze direct. “Badly.”
“Then do this. It’s the easiest way for everyone to move on.”
Hayley wanted to ask exactly who “everyone” was, but refrained.
Michelle’s phone rang and she raised a brow at Hayley. “What’s it going to be?”
Fine. She’d say what she had to in order to get out of here, then decide. “All right.”
“Good.” Michelle answered her call then put her hand over the mouthpiece. “You can go, Agent Stevens. I’ll e-mail you the details and you can set up the meeting.”
Sure enough, ten minutes later, her computer dinged with an alert for a new e-mail. Hayley opened it and saw the details of her and Michelle’s agreement in stark black and white—one of SEAL Team Ten confesses to shooting their team mate and the others would receive immunity in exchange for any information they had regarding the whereabouts of Ms. Natalie Matthews. Huh. That last part was new. Hayley scrunched her nose at the screen. Why would Michelle care anything about Nick’s widow?
Worse, how had they known what she’d found inside that house, unless…
Icy tendrils of dread shivered through her nervous system.
Michelle was in on it all, somehow. Had to be. Which meant her hunch had been right. This whole thing against Scotty and his team was a set-up. Yeah, she wouldn’t be offering him that bogus deal, not now. Not ever. But she did need to warn him.
She pulled out her cell phone and dialed Scotty’s number, her knees tingling with anticipation despite the reason for the call. He answered on the second ring.
“Hey, Red. What’s doing?”
“Hello.” She smiled despite the fact he couldn’t see her. The nickname was growing on her, not that she’d let him know. “I need to see you again.”
“Aw, I knew you couldn’t stay away.” Same teasing tone, same flirtation. Same lick of flame in her core at the slight huskiness of his voice. “Just tell me when and where.”
“Um.” She clicked a few keys on her computer and brought up a list of local safe houses, saw one a couple of streets over from the widow’s house where they’d first met. She gave him the address. “Say seven tonight? I have to work until six.”
“Seven’s good for me. Looking forward to it.”
“Me too,” she said, and meant it.
“Oh, and Red? Bring your laptop. We’ve got some things you can help with.”
Meaning his team, not just him. Disappointment flooded her before she tamped it down. This was still business. And it wasn’t like she and Scotty were a real couple. They’d only played one for a couple hours to throw some federal agents off their tracks. Besides, they both knew the score. They were using each other. So much for those warm fuzzy feelings brewing inside her. She tamped them down with a vengeance. “Will do.’
“Awesome. See you at seven, Red.”
“See you.” She hung up and checked her watch. That gave her eight hours to find out all she could about Nick Matthews death investigation and why someone would be so keen to cut a deal all of the sudden.
Scotty arrived at Hayley’s safe house a few minutes early, out of habit. Gave him time to check out the place, the surroundings, make note of all the entrances and exits and secure the perimeter. Once that was done, he let himself in using the key in the lockbox near the front door as she’d instructed in her text, then turned on a few lights to make the place homier. He placed the bag of groceries he’d picked up on the way over in the fridge, then opened a bottle of wine.
A cab pulled up to the front of the small two-story promptly at seven and Hayley exited, looking as delectable as always, her casual jeans and sweater hugging all of her curves. His body tightened response, but he forced his libido back into submission. They were here to work, not so he could get laid.
Not that he’d mind a little nookie with Red, but perhaps after they found what they were both searching for on Nick’s widow. Celebratory sex. Yeah. That sounded damned near perfect. Solve the case, share a bed. Awesome.
She knocked and he let her in, grinning like a fool. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she said, patting the messenger bag at her side. “I brought my laptop.”
“Good.” Kyle had sent Spence back to the widow’s house to check the attic that afternoon, and he’d managed to dig up Natalie’s laptop. Now, they needed someone had to hack into her encrypted files. Scotty smiled and moved closer, inhaling deep of her now familiar strawberry scent. “Uh, can I take your coat?”
“Oh, sure. Thanks.” She set her bag on the sofa then slipped it off. “This place is nicer than I remember.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here. Sometimes these safe houses are more like shoeboxes.”
“Yeah.” She chuckled and tossed her long auburn hair over her shoulder. “So, you said you had some stuff you needed my help with?”
He hung up her jacket then turned to face her. Even from across the room he felt the near irresistible pull, to touch her, to taste her lips, to stroke her soft skin. Alarmed, Scotty shook off the errant thoughts and concentrated on the mission at hand. This was all about the mission. Had to be. “Uh, yeah. We found Natalie’s computer earlier. Thought maybe you could hack into it and see what’s on the hard drive.”
“Sure. I’ll take a look.”
She took a seat at one end of the sofa and he walked back into the kitchen, wiping his suddenly damp palms on the legs of his jeans. He grabbed the laptop off the counter and handed it to Hayley. “Here you go. You want some wine while you work?”
“Yeah. I stopped at the store on my way over. Figured I’d cook us some dinner while you did your thing. Seemed the least I could do for all your help.”
“Oh.” She smiled up at him, her expression surprised. “You cook?”
“I know my way around a kitchen.”
“Wonders never cease.” She gave him a slow once-over that had his pulse skyrocketing. “Sure, I’ll try some wine.”
“Fantastic.” He poured her a glass then refilled his own before returning to the living room. She seemed to already be deep into hacking, with Natalie’s laptop open and running on top of her knees while her own computer hummed along on the sofa beside her, a determined expression on her beautiful face. “Your wine, Red.”
She took it from him without looking. “My boss wanted me to offer you guys a deal tonight.”
“What?” He stopped short.
“I’m not going to.” Hayley did look at him then, holding his gaze a moment before focusing on her screen again. “And I believe you, by the way. About you guys being innocent.”
He scowled. “What kind of a deal?”
“One of you takes the fall and the rest go free. It’s bogus though. I’m still trying to uncover who exactly the offer came from, since my boss doesn’t have that jurisdiction. I’ll let you know what I find out. And forget my promotion for now. Proving you guys innocent has become my top priority now. I’m going rogue.”
Scotty sank down onto the cushions beside her. He wasn’t sure which part of her statements stunned him more. That she believed in his innocence or that she was giving up her coveted promotion to go rogue. Both touched him far more than he wanted to admit. In his world, loyalty and trust were prized above all else and she’d just handed him both on a silver platter.
“Hey, listen to this.” She opened up a file on Natalie’s computer and hit Play. Audio, rough and short, filled the airt. Lots of voices, all male, orders barked then agonized screams. Scotty picked out a few names, recognized one—Becks.
The tape must’ve been recorded during the ambush of SEAL Team Twelve, the mission that had killed all them, except Becks.
Hayley clicked off the audio, her brows drawn together. “What the hell is it?”
“The demise of a SEAL team.”
“Where would Natalie get something like that?”
“No idea.” He sat down on the arm of the sofa and rested his forearms on his knees, his glass dangling from his fingers between them. “What else is on there?”
“Let’s see.” She squinted at the screen and clicked a few more keys. “Looks like a bunch of confidential files.” She glanced up at him then quickly back to her screen. “There’s one here with your name on it. One for each of your friends too.”
He gave her a look. “Thanks for believing in us, Red.”
She hesitated for a moment and he lived and died in those few seconds.
Finally, she exhaled and shrugged. “Don’t get all sappy on me. Honestly, the whole cover-up is too cheesy to be real. No one’s stupid enough to leave all this out in the open for anyone to find. Especially a bunch of SEALs.” She gave him a little wink. “And besides, being bad feels pretty good. So, let’s find out who’s trying to set you guys up, eh?”