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Authors: Debra Webb, Regan Black

Too far gone

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TOO FAR GONE

“Dangerous Protectors”

 

Debra Webb and Regan Black

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2015 WebbWorks, LLC

Edited by Marijane Diodati

Cover Design by Vicki Hinze

 

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the authors’ intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the authors’ rights.

 

D & R Books, WebbWorks, LLC, Huntsville, Alabama

First Edition January 2015

Table of ContentsDangerous ProtectorsChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenABOUT THE AUTHORS:

 

Dangerous Protectors

 

When there is no one else to turn to...

When there is no one else to keep you safe...

A dangerous protector from the Guardian Agency is the man you want for the job.

The Guardian Agency was born of necessity and forged in determination, but every protector has one thing in common: He never fails. Whatever it takes, whatever the stakes.

 

Chapter One

West Hollywood, California

Tuesday, December 9, 5:45 p.m.

Lauren Marie Woods finished reading the script and turned it upside down on the small table as if hiding the title page would somehow make the entire mess go away. She’d chosen to read through the project alone and in public at a popular diner. It was the most effective way to keep her reaction—good or bad—in check. In Hollywood someone was always watching, eager to take an embarrassing photo or to start rumors and stir up trouble.

Everyone played the game, but she preferred to go about it more quietly than most. Lauren saved the drama for the set instead of allowing it to seep into every nook and cranny of her personal life. According to her agent, Desmond Trinity, that was part of the problem. Desmond insisted her need for privacy was the reason her career hadn’t hit the right high points. If only she would cut loose occasionally, seek out some bad-girl publicity, and develop her inner diva, she would be in demand.

On that, they disagreed. Lauren believed there were better ways to stand out than a trumped up drug charge at Hollywood’s hotspot of the week or a bogus tantrum on Rodeo Drive. Lauren wanted to be known as an impeccable professional among her peers. She had cultivated a reputation as a dedicated and competent actress directors and producers could count on to show up and to give her best. Still they incessantly hired her for little more than her body and her ability to scream on cue in low-budget horror films.

In time, Lauren had realized the problem. Desmond—her agent and on-again-off-again boyfriend—never suggested her for more substantive projects. Sure she had a sweet role as fan favorite Dr. Loveless on theHarper Covedaytime drama. She and Desmond agreed one hundred percent on the steady work. Beyond the security of the paycheck padding her bank account, her success on the show enhanced his talent agency’s reputation. Trinity Talent represented some of the top television and film stars. She’d been luckier than most new faces in Hollywood when she’d shown up ten years ago at the tender age of eighteen and landed his representation. He’d arranged her first auditions and she had been working regularly since which was pretty darned good for a girl from small town Kansas.

But with this script, she glared at the offensive waste of paper, Desmond had done it again, damn him. He’d told her this could be her breakout role, but obviously he’d been referring to her ability to break out of a demon’s lair in her underwear. Why couldn’t he—just once—support her vision for her career?

She gazed through the diner window at the glittering city lights along Sunset Strip until the surge of anger eased. Her arrival in Los Angeles had been like all those lights: bright and exciting, full of hope and dreams. If she wanted to push her career to the next level it was clearly time to sever her contract with Trinity Talent. The task would have been far simpler if she hadn’t allowed their relationship to become personal.

Not for the first time, she regretted giving in to his romantic overtures all those years ago. He’d been so smooth, and she’d been so young and naïve. Lust and a grudging mutual respect weren’t a solid foundation for love and weren’t nearly enough to change Desmond. Without her role as Dr. Loveless and the self-imposed psychology research that went along with it, they wouldn’t have lasted six months under the same roof. The research allowed her to deal with the highs and lows without losing her mind. Her long-running performance as the adoring and longsuffering girlfriend of Desmond Trinity was one for which she would never receive the Emmy or Oscar she deserved, she thought ruefully.

Angry again—with him and herself—her inner diva was suddenly willing to burst into the limelight with a world-class fit. What a scene it would be if she indulged the urge, poured coffee over the script, and tossed it in his face. Lauren had worked too hard, invested too much in her career to keep playing the bombshell screamer or ditzy girl next door. She wantedrealroles. She wanted to dig into substantial parts that her fans would embrace.

Desmond was at the top of the echelon in Hollywood, and he’d found those roles for other clients. For reasons he refused to explain, he’d never sent her to an audition for a part that had the potential to propel her to the top of the A-list. He had plenty of bigger clients, she understood that, and she wasn’t right for every script that crossed his desk. Still, as the longstanding man in her life, she’d expected a certain level of emotional and professional support.

After all this time he had to know it wasn’t about fame or being more popular than other actresses, not for her anyway. The more meaningful roles would allow her to grow creatively and would give her the challenge she craved. She tapped her French manicured nails on the script. Obviously, he had no intention of opening his eyes as either her agent or her boyfriend. Or maybe he was afraid she’d outgrow him and move on. Either way, he was cheating her. Cheating her and cheating on her!

The dull ache somewhere near her heart surprised her. Her heart wasn’t broken, just tangled up in more regrets. No matter, she would need to tread carefully through the inevitable confrontation. Their personal relationship, like their business contract, served a purpose. She’d known for years they weren’t living a love for the ages. Their time together would hardly meet the definition of mutual adoration, even in Hollywood. On some level, she’d stayed with Desmond for the visibility. His inability to stay faithful had killed her feelings for him long ago.

She’d been smart to handle this read-through of the script alone. If she’d agreed to his request to read it with him in the office tonight over dinner, she would’ve flung the script at him in a fit of temper, and then gone straight home to pack up and leave him. A stunt like that would’ve hit the tabloids within hours—he would’ve seen to it—pushing her further from her goals. No one gave her much credit for brains, assuming her famous blond hair and naturally large breasts somehow negated her mental acuity.

Let them underestimate her. She was a good actress and Desmond knew it. She was about to seize the reins and take her career in the right direction. She’d dallied too long as it was. The security of his representation and a highly sought after address to call home no longer felt like the priority it once had.

Lauren paid her bill, leaving a generous tip for the waitress. She’d been there once, working every possible shift between casting calls until Desmond had found her and signed her. He’d given her a good start even if he refused to entertain her more serious plans for the future. For giving her that good start, she owed him a clean, civil break.

She rehearsed her speech aloud on the drive to his office on Wilshire Boulevard. He should be wrapping up his day by now. Desmond often filled his afternoons with interviewing—and screwing—the next generation of red-carpet wannabes. Just another reason their personal relationship had never made it to the next level. Lauren couldn’t even remember the last time they’d shared a bed, much less made love. Funny, that part never really bothered her. Deep down, she’d considered Desmond more friend than boyfriend. He was about to discover that friends shouldn’t treat friends this way.

On the street in front of the building, a glossy black car with dark windows took up both parking spaces assigned to Trinity Talent. Had Desmond planned to take her out to dinner? Maybe he, too, had realized a public place was best for this reading. He had to know she wasn’t going to be happy with the script. Then again she was early. Maybe he had an appointment. If he was in there banging some bimbo on his couch, she might just pitch one of those famous Hollywood fits.

Lauren found a spot just around the corner and turned off the engine. Flipping down the visor, she checked her make-up and added a fresh swipe of gloss to her lips. He often said her mouth was one of his favorite features and she wanted him to have some regret about treating her this way. Thinking her casual floral skirt, snug sweater, and heels might not pack the right punch—especially if they were going out for dinner—she debated going by the house to change into something more appropriate for a business meeting.

No. She needed to do this now, before she lost her nerve. And she needed to do this here, at the office inprivate. Mentally reciting her speech one more time, she decided it might be better for both of them if she didn’t say anything. A note might be simpler, depending on who he had in there with him. No point in feeding the rumor mill.

With the script in her lap, she twisted around searching her car console, her purse, and then beneath the passenger seat for a pen. She wrote only two words ‘We’re done’in the blank space under the title. Then she signed her name.

“Perfect.” She locked the car, dropped her keys into her purse, and slung it over her shoulder before heading for the side door of the building. “Actors and actresses change agents all the time. No big deal.” The news would make the usual rag papers and magazines, but eventually it would be replaced by some other actor’s latest move or dilemma.

Head held high, she summoned the posture and poise of her Dr. Loveless character on her way to the lobby elevators. She poked the call button and took a long, deep breath. “Hand him the script and walk away,” she reminded herself in a whisper. They could divvy up their classic movie collection later. Clean. Civil. No drama breakup. Just go their separate ways.

Rolling and unrolling the script in her hands, her impatience ratcheted up. She pushed the call button again but neither elevator seemed inclined to cooperate. She blew out a big breath. One way or another she was going to finish this tonight. She turned on her heel and headed for the stairs.

Desmond would protest and try sweet-talking her. He would promise and cajole, but deflecting all that would be the easy part. The challenge would be maintaining her composure in the face of his inevitable explosive lecture touting his expertise and long-range vision for her. She clutched the script in her fist, a tangible reminder of what was at stake.

“We’re done,” she whispered. Whatever it took, she would make him believe it. She would not tolerate any more of his bravado and bluster.

When she reached the fourth floor, she decided to use one last advantage and headed for the back entrance to the office suite. Desmond used this rear exit when he wanted to slip away unnoticed from a waiting client. As she passed the break room where Desmond’s lovely assistant prepped perfect, calorie-controlled refreshments for his clients during regular business hours, she heard raised voices. The voices were definitely coming from his office. She moved closer. The door was open but she couldn’t see inside yet. Surprisingly the other voice was male.

“Wait!” Desmond shouted, his voice tight with desperation.

“We are done waiting,” the man replied in a flat voice of indeterminate European origin. “You have failed to fulfill our requirements.”

Desmond must be helping someone rehearse, Lauren decided. Wanting a better look, she tiptoed a little closer to the open door.

“Not a failure, gentlemen. A hiatus,” Desmond said, his voice quieter now but still laced with tension. “A short pause, that’s all. The feds have been sniffing around. Believe me, I’m protecting everyone’s interests.”

“You offer me excuses? You are weak. Useless!”

Lauren was near enough now to see two men in dark suits facing off with Desmond. The shorter one doing all the talking seemed to be in charge. From this angle it was impossible to see more than their profiles. The man in charge nodded and the second man, this one a little younger and taller, stepped forward. If this was a rehearsal, where were the scripts?

“Let’s all take a big breath and relax,” Desmond implored taking a step back. “I always come through.”

Definitely not a rehearsal. She’d never seen him so disheveled in a meeting with clients.

“If so, then when will we have the product you’ve promised?” the shorter man demanded.

“Patience is a virtue,” Desmond replied, visibly regaining his composure. “As soon as the feds get distracted, I’ll have the cream of the crop delivered. Andreas knows I’m good for it.”

“If Mr. Polzin had any confidence in you, I would not be here.” The boss spat on the floor, and then gave another nod. The taller man drove a fist into Desmond’s stomach. He doubled over only to take a hard elbow to the kidneys.

Lauren jumped. Her heart stumbled. What was going on here?

“I give you my word,” Desmond sputtered between gasps for breath.

“That is not good enough, Mr. Trinity.”

A kick to the stomach had Desmond collapsing near the boss’s feet. A muffled scream jerked Lauren’s attention beyond the men to the couch on far side of the office. A beautiful woman only half dressed cowered there. Her eyes were wide, her thick mane of dark hair tousled. Anger momentarily burned through the fear Lauren felt. So Desmond had been here with a new fledgling actress. The woman looked older than the typical wannabe and vaguely familiar, but—

“Our patience has run out,” the boss was saying. “We require thebestproduct on schedule to maintain our reputation and to keep money flowing in. Money you like to spend, no?”

Desmond peered up at the man. “Yes. Yes. I understand. I’ll make it happen. Just give me a chance.”

Lauren had to do something. She reached into her purse, searched for her phone. Not there. Her pocket! She’d put it in her pocket at the diner. She dug into her pocket.Empty. Damn it! She must’ve dropped it in the car. She glanced back down the corridor. There wasn’t a phone in the break room. What could she do?Think!Maybe if she walked in the men would stop.

When she would have moved, the boss said, “Mr. Trinity, Mr. Polzin would like me to inform you that your services are no longer required.” He brushed one palm against the other. “You are finished.”

Lauren took a breath and prepared to announce herself. When she opened her mouth to speak she saw the gun. Lauren’s mouth snapped shut on a scream as her heart launched into her throat. The taller man bent down and pressed the extra long barrel to the back of Desmond’s head. Before she could blink he fired twice. The quick pops hissed in the eerie silence. Desmond’s body jerked, then slumped lifeless to the floor.

A low, keening wail filled the office as the woman on the couch lost it.

The boss shook his head. “Shut her up.”

The script fell from Lauren’s hands. At the sound, the boss swiveled around. For what felt like an eternity, they stared at each other. Dark hair slicked back from his high forehead, heavy eyebrows over hollow dark eyes, hooked nose, and thin mouth seared into her memory.

“Well, well,” the boss said, “who do we have here?”

Lauren bolted.

She heard him bark orders in a foreign language. His voice sounded so calm it terrified her even more. She made it to the stairwell and her heels clattered on the treads. As she reached the third floor, she heard the thud of footsteps on the stairs above her. Oh, God! She rushed out of the stairwell and into the seemingly endless maze of shorter corridors. She could call 911 from one of the office phones.

She tested one door after another, all of them locked. Why the hell hadn’t she double-checked that her phone was in her pocket?

“Stop running and I will be easy on you.” The words echoed through the near darkness.

As if she would believe something so absurd. They’d killed Desmond and the woman, too, probably. Why would they keep her alive? Trembling, she tore off her shoes and moved faster. Each door she reached was locked.

“You are a beautiful woman, Lauren Marie.”

The voice she recognized as belonging to the man in charge seemed to boom all around her.He knew her name!Renewed fear throttled through her. Maybe if she made it down to the lobby—

“I know how to care for beautiful women. Come to me, and I will put the world at your feet. I am far more powerful than your dead lover.”

She struggled to think beyond the smothering panic. She had to dosomething.

“Nikoli?” the man called out, his unfaltering footfalls echoing softly.

“Here.”

Dear God!They had spread out. With all the offices locked, the two of them would have her cornered soon.Do something!

She looked around for anything she could use as a weapon. Spotting the fire alarm on the wall, she made her way there and pulled it. The alarm wailed and emergency lights flashed up and down the hallways. Water squirted and then began a steady sprinkle all around her. Taking the fire extinguisher, she hid behind the nearby water cooler.

Somewhere down the corridor the boss swore, the words reverberating a cruel accompaniment to the discordantly flashing lights. “Wrong choice, Lauren Marie! You are a dead woman!”

She gripped the fire extinguisher, her body shaking. Suddenly she heard sirens wailing outside. Hope swelled in her chest, but the silence in the corridor had her pulse galloping even harder.Where were the killers?Had they decided she wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught? Had they cut their losses and run?

Regret trickled through her at the thought that she might have been able to help the other woman if she hadn’t run.No. With no weapon and no cell phone, running had been her only choice.

Every second of the next two or three minutes pounded in her brain. What felt like a lifetime later, the thump of boots had her daring to peek past the water cooler. Firefighters hustled along the corridor.

Trembling so hard she dropped the fire extinguisher, Lauren moved away from her hiding place. The firefighters stalled, the beams of their flashlights blinding her.

She moistened her lips and forced out the words she needed to say. “Please. Help me.”

 

Wilshire Boulevard Police Precinct, 11:38 p.m.

“That’s it?” As exhausted and emotionally weary as Lauren was, she felt stunned at the detective’s seeming indifference. “I’ve spent the last three hours explaining to you how two men killed Desmond and probably the woman in his office. I’ve given descriptions to your sketch artist. I’ve cooperated with your every request, including having my hands checked for gunpowder residue. Now you expect me to just walk out of here as if two killers aren’t looking for me, and to be available in case you need me for further questioning?”

This was insane!

Detective Randolph Treadwell shrugged. “If anyone gives you any trouble—” he nodded toward the business card she held “—you give me a call.”

“The killers saw me and chased me,” she repeated, anger and fear churning wildly inside her. “They know who I am. How long do you think it will take them to find where I live?”

Treadwell leaned back from the interview table. He’d loosened his tie. The off-the-rack suit was rumpled. Everything about the middle-aged man screamed impatience. He was ready to go home and Lauren was standing squarely in his way.

“Look, Miss Woods, you have my word we’re going to do all we can to find your boyfriend’s killer. But the fact of the matter is, unlike TV cops, our resources aren’t unlimited. If you need us, you call and we’ll be there. That’s the best I can do at this point.”

Lauren stood. “Fine.”

Treadwell pushed back his chair and stood as well. “If you recall anything else, you be sure to let me know. And don’t leave town. We may need to question you again.”

“Wait.” Lauren shook her head. “What about the woman? Who was she?”

He scratched his head. “I guess I forgot to mention that the only body we found was your boyfriend’s.”

“That’s impossible. The man who ordered Desmond’s murder, ordered his thug to shut her up.” Had there been a third gunshot? When she’d started to run she hadn’t looked back. Was it possible they hadn’t killed her? The bottom dropped out of Lauren’s stomach. Had she left that woman to fend for herself?

Treadwell shrugged. “We found no visible indication that anyone else was in that office. Fact is, we’ll be analyzing evidence and going through finger print databases for days, but right now we got nothing except your story and a dead body.”

Lauren gritted her teeth to prevent ranting at the man. He’d made her relationship with Desmond sound sleazy and managed quite well to make her feel like the scum of the earth. Now he was accusing her of lying. She got the distinct impression he’d saved this bombshell just to get her reaction. “Are we done here?”

“For now. Officer Cooper will see you to your car.”

Lauren couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. Treadwell instructed the officer who’d been the first on the scene, after the firefighters, to escort her out of the building. She was grateful it was Cooper. He was the only cop she’d encountered in all this who had been nice to her. The only one who seemed to care that she was in danger.

As they moved quietly toward the precinct entrance, she tried again to put her finger on what felt familiar about the woman’s face. Whatever it was, it niggled at the back of Lauren’s mind. She had seen her somewhere. Then again, she met dozens of other actresses and wannabes every week. Maybe it would come to her. Lauren prayed the woman wasn’t dead or being held hostage. How could she have just left her there?

Face it, Lauren, there was nothing else you could have done.

“Treadwell can be a jerk, but he’s been doing this a long time,” Cooper said as they walked to her car. “He’s got a good record of closing cases.”

“I’m glad to hear it’s only his people skills that are lacking.” Whatever illegal business Desmond had been involved in, he deserved justice. So did the woman who was likely guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Cooper hesitated at the driver’s side door of her car. “Do you have a private security team or a bodyguard?”

She sighed. She was so damned tired. “Desmond,” she began, hating how her voice cracked on his name, “he and I talked about it a few times, but never followed through.” No follow through was the story of their entire relationship, she realized. “It’s never been an issue.”Until now.

“Maybe this will help.” Cooper handed her a business card.

“The Guardian Agency?” She studied the gold shield logo centered over a website address and toll free phone number.

“It’s a private group. They might be more help to you than the department at the moment. I have a friend they helped once. The Guardian Agency is the best.”

“Thank you, Officer Cooper.” She fished out her keys and hit the unlock button.

Cooper opened her door. “You take care now.” When she’d settled behind the steering wheel, he closed the door and gave a wave before walking away.

Lauren slowly buckled her seat belt, wondering what to do and where to go next. She couldn’t bear the idea of hiding with a friend and putting someone else in jeopardy. She stared at the business card.

What did she have to lose?

 

Chapter Two

Venice Beach, California

Wednesday, December 10, 5:30 a.m.

Mike Stone jerked awake and struggled to draw air into his lungs. He closed his eyes as the sound of children screaming echoed over and over before fading with the images that still haunted him. “Just a nightmare,” he muttered. He was in California, not Mubi.

The rattling of his cell phone against his nightstand dragged his thoughts from the painful memories. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he picked it up and read the single word on the display:Protect.

He adjusted the pillow under his head and waited for the rest of the assignment. In the pre-dawn darkness outside his window the Pacific Ocean crashed into the sand. His standing sunrise date with a long run on the sand and then a cruise of the waves on his surfboard was cancelled. Well, hell. He sat up and rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck. A shower and a bottle of cola would have to suffice today. Moments later the picture came through along with the primary background on the new client.

Gorgeous woman. It was the best perk of working in this part of the country. He skimmed through her file, not at all surprised that face had landed steady work on one of those daytime soaps in addition to several commercials and small movie roles.

Mike’s curiosity spiked as he read her claim of witnessing her agent’s murder. The killer had seen her and evidently knew her, but she’d still managed to escape. The police, in all their wisdom, had taken her statement, sat her down with a sketch artist, and then sent her on her way.

If the hit was professional, why was she still alive? Mike supposed miracles happened, though he’d never seen one. However she had survived his job was clear. She’d asked the Guardian Agency for help and he would deliver.

Another text came through:Urgent!

“Aren’t they all?” Mike muttered at the phone as he entered the contact number provided for the client.

It rang twice before the woman answered with a wary hello.

“Mike Stone, Guardian Agency,” he said. “Is this Lauren Marie Woods?”

“Oh, thank God,” she said in a breathless rush. “Yes, this is Lauren and I’m in big trouble.”

Got that loud and clear.“Are you in a safe location?”

“Yes. I think so.” She gave him the name of a low-rent motel near LAX.

“Stay there until I arrive.”

“How long will it take you to get here?” she asked, her voice more than her words giving away just how scared she was.

Mike checked his watch, thought about routes and the light traffic at this hour. “Give me forty-five minutes.”

“How will I know it’s you?”

Fair question. “I’ll send you a head shot. See you soon.” He ended the call and took a selfie. It wouldn’t win artistic awards for subject or composition, but it would serve as identification.

Mike dressed quickly, grabbed his go-bag, and headed for his car. Once he was settled behind the wheel, the deep rumble of the Camaro’s engine gave him almost as much pleasure as surfing and smoothed out the rough edges following another restless night. One day he hoped those damned nightmares would leave him be. He doubted that would happen this side of the grave.

The streets were mostly clear and with the sun no more than a hint on the horizon, he had time to think. A dangerous pastime when a guy couldn’t get his mind off what he couldn’t change. “What’s done is done,” he muttered. He was here now. His career as a Navy SEAL was over. No going back.

Without the steady work as a Guardian Agency protector, Mike would still be banging through odd jobs and squeaking by as a bounty hunter. His gaze drifted west toward the ocean as he headed inland. Only two things pulled him out of a crappy mood these days. Surfing or a case. Surfing kept his mind and body sharp. Being a protector did the same and bolstered his self-respect. Every man needed a little success in his life.

Checking the time on the dash, he used the buttons on the steering wheel to cue the voice commands so the file would be read aloud. He smiled a little as the automated voice based on Claudia, his Guardian Agency technical assistant, filled the car. His smile faded as the new client’s background sunk in. College drop-out, in Hollywood for a decade, and considered a success story. Primary personal ties included associates from her daytime soap and a long-term relationship with her agent also known as the victim.

Success story. Mike knew everyone had his or her own definition of success. Apparently his new client had found hers. Success for him meant keeping her alive until the situation was resolved. He thought of that desperate, pleading voice. The past few hours must’ve been harrowing, yet she was still alive.Takes smarts and creativity to stay a step ahead of a serious death threat. He played and replayed the transcript of her request for assistance, piecing the scene together in his mind.

Early to the meet at her motel, he searched the immediate area carefully. He found her car parked close to the side entrance, but didn’t see anyone who might be keeping an eye on it. He wasn’t quite ready to call that a good omen. Scared enough to stay away from home, he wondered if Miss Woods had been smart enough to pay cash or offer a false ID when she checked in.

No point keeping them both waiting. Parking as close to the front door as possible, he paused to consider how he wanted to handle the initial meeting. With the details of her case rolling through his mind, he reached over and pulled a snub-nosed revolver out of the glove box. Sliding the gun into his shoulder holster, he left the car and headed into the motel, striding right past the front desk without being noticed.Not good. He took the stairs to the third floor. According to his watch, he was six minutes ahead of schedule. Before he could knock the door opened.

At first glance, the brunette staring at him looked nothing like the knockout blond in the case file. In jeans, a snug sweater, and with feet bare, she was shorter than he’d expected, but he recognized the pale, silver-blue eyes. She examined his face, then her gaze skimmed down to his shoes and back up again.

“You’re early, Mr. Stone.”

“A little.” He kept his hands visible. “Can I come in?”

“ID?” she asked, showing no signs of the distress he’d heard over the phone.

He slowly reached for his wallet and flipped it open for her inspection.

She gave it a study and, with a nod, she stepped back from the door allowing him to enter the room.

“Thank you.” He turned, pushing the u-lock and deadbolt into place. He looked around the room, assessing the closed curtains, the television tuned to a local station, an overnight bag, and her purse. “Can you walk me through your situation? I’ve read your file, but it’s always good to hear the details firsthand.”

“Okay.” Her pink-tipped toes curled into the carpet. “Is it typical for bounty hunters to moonlight in personal security?”

How did she know about that? “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I’m sorry.” She twisted her hands together. “Let me explain. I’m excellent with faces. As soon as I received your photo I knew I’d seen you before. You stood in the background during the press conferences when the Angeles Forest killer was found and brought back for trial.”

How the hell did she remember an event on the news that played out two years ago? “The county sheriff did excellent work on that one.”

“With your help, right?”

“Is this an interview?” He braced his hands on his hips. He couldn’t think about that capture or he’d give her an earful that would violate the gag order on the case. Besides, one of the perks of working for the Guardian Agency was the knowledge that he was employed by the best in the business. “If so, you should be aware I don’t do the sharing thing. If you want to know how good I am, check the Guardian Agency’s reputation. If that doesn’t satisfy you, I suggest you rethink your strategy.”

“Sore spot,” she said. “No problem. You’re better looking in person, by the way.”

Mike shook his head. He had a feeling all this rambling was a sign of just how nervous the lady was. “And you weren’t a brunette in the file photo,” he countered. Had she cut and dyed her hair or was the original picture the façade? In Hollywood it could go either way.

“Do you prefer blondes?” Her full mouth tilted at one corner as she reached up and tugged off the brunette wig, allowing a tumble of long blond hair to fall loose. “I can do that. Well, it seems.” A hint of sadness weighted her last statement.

All that lush hair falling around her shoulders would’ve been an enticing distraction under different circumstances. He typically got a read on his clients immediately, but her tone and expressions were all over the place. Maybe it went with the territory in the acting business. At any rate, it posed a new set of variables and potential problems for him. He marked off anothernot goodon his mental checklist.

“Your personal vehicle is parked outside,” he began, determined to stay focused on her case. “Did you check in here under your real name?”

“Yes and no.”

“Miss Woods, I don’t have much tolerance for games. I prefer straight answers.”

“It’s not a game.” She pushed her hands through her hair, smoothing it back from her face. “I saw two men murder Desmond Trinity last night. They know I can identify them and the police don’t seem to care.” She inhaled a big breath. “Do you want coffee?” she asked, gesturing to the small personal coffee maker.

“No, thanks.” She was definitely a ball of nerves. “Maybe we should sit down.”

She shook her head. “I can’t sit still right now.”

“Fine.” He took the desk chair, hoping the example would rub off on her. “How did you register for the room?”

“I have an agency credit card and ID as Marie Woodson on Desmond’s corporate account. Sometimes it’s nice when no one knows who you are.”

“I see.” He hitched a thumb toward the discarded wig. “And you carry disguises with you regularly?”

Her frown turned to a scowl. “I needed a disguise so I stopped by the studio and grabbed a few things. The night watchman was happy to let me in. It was the best I could do on short notice.”

He had to hand it to the lady, for someone who’d witnessed a murder and barely escaped the same fate she had pulled it together admirably.

She passed her cell phone to him. “You can scroll through those,” she suggested. “I took pictures of the sketches the artist drew. Those two men were arguing with Desmond when I arrived—”

“Your boyfriend,” he suggested. The file had said long-termpersonalrelationship.

She winced. “Sort of. He’s—he was—my agent. I’d gone to the office to tell him I was done with him personally and professionally, but those men were there. I witnessed the whole thing from just outside the door to his office.”

Mike studied the faces of the two men, both in suits, the taller, bulkier of the two without a tie. A chief and his muscle. The third sketch was a woman. She was slim and exotic with lots of hair, maybe a couple of years older than the woman pacing the floor. “How is she involved?” Mike asked, turning the phone toward Lauren.

“I have no idea. She was in the office. I assume she’s Desmond’s latest acquisition. Or was going to be. I keep thinking I’ve seen her somewhere, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“All right.” Feeling like they were safe enough for the moment, he returned her phone. “Sit down and walk me through what happened.”

She dropped onto the edge of the mattress and slowly related the events. He was impressed when she delivered the story in a steady voice. “You don’t know what the product is?”

She shook her head.

“Hold on.” He reached for the television remote. Breaking news about the case filled the screen.

 

Lauren stared at the television as the reporter’s voice resonated in the room.

“Moments ago LAPD announced an eye-witness had come forward,” the reporter said, “providing a full account of Desmond Trinity’s murder. Combined with evidence gathered at the scene, the police have named Lauren Marie Woods as a person of interest and will be questioning her later today.”

What witness? “That’s impossible.” Lauren shook her head.

The reporter droned on, but Lauren was no longer listening. There couldn’t have been a witness. Desmond’s floor as well as the one below it had been empty. The memory of rushing from one locked door to the next flashed through her mind. The image on the screen changed to a helicopter view and her stomach dropped. Police cars had converged in front of Desmond’s house and two men in suits, flanked by two uniformed officers, were striding up the walk. News crews and anyone with a camera seemed to be crowding the front lawn.

“Oh, God.”

“You must have expected the reporters and paparazzi,” Stone offered. “They’re always following you around.”

“Not as much as you’d think.” Her voice sounded weak even to her own ears. “I’m not on top of the A-list like Desmond was.” She shook her head.” It’s not the reporters, it’s the eyewitness. There was no witness.”

“Let’s talk about the woman you saw last night,” he offered. “Is it possible she’s the witness? Maybe she hid while the bad guys were chasing you.”

“I guess that’s possible.” She rubbed at her aching temples. “Iwillremember her. I always do. It’s like when you hear a snippet of a song and you just can’t remember the name, but then it suddenly comes to you. I never forget a face.” Like the selfie he’d sent this morning had given her a surprise rush of anticipation, beyond knowing help was imminent. His eyes, that dark, mesmerizing blue, had sparked a flash of interest deep inside her. His strong jaw shadowed with a day’s beard growth created a yearning she’d kept buried for years. That he was tall and built like an Olympic swimmer was icing on the cake. She gave herself a mental kick and pushed aside that last part. Apparently her mind was seeking relief from the tension anywhere it could be found. According to her psychology research that was what people did in desperate situations.

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