It’s time for a #ThrowbackThursday read. This week’s feature is FREEZE FRAME, book 4 in the Phoenix Agency series. Each story features a military hero and a strong heroine with a psychic ability. Met Kat and Mike in this steamy romantic suspense story.
Katherine “Kat” Culhane is a highly sought after remote viewer, but her gift is beginning to splinter, and just at a time when she needs it the most. Her sister Mari, along with Mari’s employer and his family, have been kidnapped. But Mike D’Antoni, a partner in the shadowy Phoenix Agency, is suddenly back in her life and could be the only person to help find the hostages. They had once been lovers who parted on very bad terms. Reunited, the chemistry between them is just as hot as it ever was. Can they put the past behind them as they race to find and rescue the hostages? And what will happen when it’s time to say goodbye again?
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER!
The conference room had been darkened as she requested, the only light coming from a small lamp on a corner table. Katherine “Kat” Culhane settled herself in the comfortable chair at the head of the table, so large it nearly swallowed her petite form but exactly what she needed to relax her body. She looked at the man seated to her left and nervously she wet her lips.
“I have to tell you again, when I’m at my best my success rate hovers between eighty and ninety percent and lately my…gift seems to be wavering.”
Joel Singer put his hand over hers. “I understand. You made yourself very clear. But the Graumans are willing to take this chance. They don’t know what else to do.”
Katherine had been very reluctant when he’d called three days ago, introducing himself as a private investigator and asking for her help with a case. Her remote viewing powers had been wavering for the past couple of months, a problem that disturbed her a great deal. It was almost as if the f/stop of the camera in her brain was refusing to let in the amount of light she needed to clarify the picture she was reaching for. One of the reasons she had finally agreed to come to San Antonio was to meet with some people she believed could help her. And of course, the fact that her sister, Mari lived here, was a big plus.
It also gave her the opportunity to leave Tampa for a couple of weeks. Put some distance between herself and a problem there she didn’t want to deal with. Sometimes she wondered how much that problem had to do with her current psychic stress, then dismissed it as rationalizing.
She sighed, tucked a few strands of her thick, lustrous, streaky-blonde hair behind her ears and nodded. “I’ll do my best. You said their son had an auto accident about half an hour from here in the Hill Country. They found his car but not him?”
Joel nodded. “The car was pretty racked up. The theory is he managed to get out but sustained a head injury, wandered away and lord knows where he is.”
“What about dogs? Trackers? They usually do a good job in cases like this.”
“The area around the crash is filled with streams. If he splashed through one of them the dogs would lose the scent.” He studied her with an intent gaze. “You really are their best hope. If you can do anything they’ll be terribly grateful.”
“I’ll give it my best shot. Did you write down the coordinates where the car was found?”
“Yes.” He slid an index card in front of her. “You said that was all you wanted.”
She nodded. “That’s right. Now I need you to just sit quietly next to me.”
Katherine closed her eyes and let her mind open itself, reaching for the layers that could extend beyond her immediate space. In a moment an image flickered, like an old time movie, black and white and fuzzy at the edges.
She swallowed. “I see a piece of road. A curve. And a large tree. Wait.” She focused harder, willing the images to come to her. “More trees. And water on the road.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
She could tell Joel Singer was trying to keep the excitement from his voice. “It was raining that night and he lost control on a curve.”
Then her mental screen went black and Katherine gritted her teeth in frustration. Exhaling a long breath, she focused again. This time the picture was a little clearer.
“I see a hill past the trees. And boulders. Large ones. Wait! More water.” She pushed her mental layers as hard as she could. “A creek. And something black and white.” She wrinkled her nose. “I think it smells.”
She reached for the pad of paper and pencil she’d asked him to have ready and began sketching—the curve, the tree, the hill, the blob of black and white. A stream. And then the image sharpened in her mind and froze, framed as if by a camera.
“A cave,” she said. “But not really a cave. A big hole in the rock.”
“That’s it.” He hitched his chair closer. “There are lots of big cave-like holes in the limestone around there. It’s easy to fall into them. Anything else?”
“I don’t think it’s far from the creek. There’s a pile of boards on the ground.”
Then it was gone. Katherine rubbed her face, trying to force her mind back into viewing mode but nothing appeared on her mental screen.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “That’s all I’ve got. I told you I’ve been having some problems.”
“It may be enough.” He had his cell phone out and was already dialing. “I’ve had people waiting at the crash site to see if you came up with anything. Yeah, Chuck? Here’s what we’ve got.” He repeated everything Katherine had said. “I’m going to fax her sketches directly to your cell. Call me back but meantime, get moving.”
“I hope that helps,” she told him.
“It’s more than we’ve had up until now. Let’s wait in here until I get a call back. No sense getting the Graumans’ hopes up if it comes to nothing.”
“I agree.” Katherine leaned back in the chair and sent up a silent prayer that she’d been able to help.
“Would you like some coffee while we wait?” Joel asked. “I have some fresh on the sideboard.”
“Yes, that would be nice. Thanks. Just black, please.
He filled two mugs, brought them back to the table and handed her one. They sat in silence, sipping, waiting for the cell phone to ring. When it did, they both jumped. Katherine listened to Joel’s side of the conversation and watched his face. When a smile broke out she allowed herself a full breath.
“They’ve got him,” he told her, snapping the phone shut. “He’d banged his head and become disoriented, managing to get out of the car and stumble away. We were right that he’d staggered through the creek and up the hill on the other side. Then he twisted his ankle and fell into that limestone hole.”
“But why didn’t the trackers find him? The dogs?”
Joel chuckled. “Simple answer. He ended up disturbing the home of a skunk, which sprayed the area with his odiferous perfume, effectively killing every other scent in the area.”
“How is he?” Katherine was almost afraid to ask.
“Badly hurt, dehydrated and weak from blood loss but nothing that a hospital can’t fix. We got to him in time, thanks to you.”
“Thank god,” she breathed.
“We need to tell his parents,” Joel said. “I think they can use some good news.”
* * * * *
“Kat, that is so wonderful.”
Mari Culhane hugged her sister. She’d come home from work to find Katherine stretched out on the couch, nursing a glass of white wine and looking thoroughly exhausted.
It was easy to tell the women were related. Same petite figures. Same emerald eyes. Only where Kat’s hair was a naturally streaked honey-blonde, Mari’s was more of a chocolate color with golden highlights. And where Mari was exuberant, Katherine was restrained, almost rigidly self-contained. But the affection between them was obvious to anyone who looked.
“Yes but it might have turned out worse.” She sipped at the wine. I told Joel, just as I told you. My powers have been wavering lately, like a light bulb just before it goes out. What if I hadn’t been able to help? What if my gift failed me?”
Mari kicked off her shoes and flopped into a chair. “But it didn’t and that’s the important thing. Anyway, didn’t you say part of the reason for this trip was to meet with some women from a group called The Lotus Circle to see if they could help you?”
“Yes. And I’m grateful you let me show up on your doorstep this way.”
“Oh, honey, you know my door is always open.” She giggled. “Unless I have a towel on the doorknob.”
When they’d shared an apartment right after college, that had been the signal that one or the other was entertaining company.
Mari fetched a wineglass from the kitchen, poured herself a drink from the bottle in the fridge and returned to her seat. “So tell me. What is this Lotus Circle? What do they do?”
“To explain that, I need to give you a short course in metaphysical history,” Kat warned.
Mari propped her feet on an ottoman and leaned back, holding her wine. “Lecture away.”
“Okay. Legend has it that The Lotus Circle first came together in ancient Egypt, where the lotus flower was associated with various gods, including Ra. Kadesh, the goddess of sexuality and fertility, was traditionally depicted holding lotus flowers and many believe that she was the founder of the Circle. According to the story that has been handed down over the millennia since then, The Lotus Circle consisted of women with exceptional psychic abilities. Members were telepaths, clairvoyants, healers and practitioners of various metaphysical skills, such as astrology and forecasting with tools, like cards and stones. Their gifts and talents were revered by pharaohs and slaves alike and it was their sacred oath to help anyone in need, regardless of their station in life.”
“So what happened to it?” Mari asked.
Kat shrugged and took a sip of her wine. “The world changed, ambitious men felt threatened by the gifted females.”
“And nothing’s changed,” Mari reminded her.
“Anyway, over time, the Circle was gradually wiped out until a professor, Dr. Olivia Crandall, reached out to four other women and resurrected it. Now they even have a website and people who post on it from all over the world.”
“So who are you going to see here in San Antonio?”
“A woman named Vivi Alderson. She’s kind of the lead person in this area and also has been very successful in helping others when their gifts began to fail.”
“I think your problem is you’re just stressed out,” Mari told her. “You take too many of these cases that tap into your energy and leave nothing behind for you. I mean, it can’t be healthy for you.”
“I’ll be fine.” Kat sat up, setting her glass down and rubbing her temple. “But you’re right. I may have been pushing myself too much lately.”
“Brent Fontaine can’t be helping anything either.” Mari’s voice was filled with concern. “How’s that going?”
“A lot better since I’m here for a while.” Kat stretched and sighed. “Some men just don’t know when to quit. Who’d ever have thought he’d turn out to be the stalker type?”
“Listen, it’s none of my business, except you’re my sister, I love you and I care what happens to you. But don’t you think you should have called the police?”
Kat raised an eyebrow. “And tell them what? That some rich, good-looking guy keeps calling me and sending me flowers?”
“He’s stalking you, Kat. You said it before. You’ve got to get him to leave you alone before things get out of hand. Who has a name like Brent Fontaine, anyway? He sounds like a character from Central Casting.”
“I know, I know. I was…”
“Vulnerable,” Mari supplied.
“Stupid,” Kat corrected her. “Anyway, being away from him for a while and not taking his calls on my cell ought to send him the message.” She hugged her sister. “And thanks for telling me I can hang out here for a while.”
“Maybe if things with Mike—”
“Maybe nothing,” Katherine cut her off. “Mike D’Antoni was a big, big mistake. One I’ll never make again.”
She’d never discussed the disastrous ending of her relationship with the handsome Phoenix Agency partner, nor did she intend to. But it had probably been the reason she’d fallen into the situation with Brent so easily. She’d met the handsome hedge fund partner at a dinner party and his come-on was so smooth she was swept up into a whirlwind relationship with him before she even realized what was happening.
It had taken far too long for her to realize everything was about Brent. Everything focused around him. He resented her friends, her work, any time not devoted to him. She woke up one day frightened to discover she’d allowed him to isolate her from everyone and everything. When she told him she thought they needed some space, things had gotten ugly. And a pattern had been set.
He’d call or come by, shouting at her, demeaning her, then try to apologize with flowers and expensive gifts. The worst scene of all had been the one when she’d told him they were finished, not to get in touch with her anymore and definitely not to come by her place. She’d had to threaten to call the police to get him to leave.
The visits had stopped but not the calls or the gifts, all of which she returned to his office by messenger.
But worst of all, her clairvoyance began to waver and for that she resented him the most.
“So when are you going to see this Vivi person?” Mari adeptly changed the subject.
“I thought I’d call her tomorrow after you guys take off.”
“Ah, yes. Tomorrow. It isn’t every day I get a free trip to Hawaii.” She grinned. “And if it wasn’t for the fact that Eli Wright has business meetings I’d be staying in my office while he and his wife and daughter were drinking mai tais and lolling on the beach at Waikiki.”
Mari had what Kat considered a dream job as executive secretary to the CEO of Wright International, a conglomerate with offices all over the world. She worked very hard at her job and Katherine suspected this trip was actually by way of a thank you. Eli Wright appreciated hard work and loyalty.
“So what time is takeoff?”
“Noon. I have to be at the private hangar at eleven.” Mari drained her glass and pushed herself out of the chair. “That means I’d better get packing.”
“How about if I run out and pick up some Chinese while you’re doing that? A small thank you for letting me stay here while you’re gone.”
“Kat, you know you can stay here any time you want. For as long as you want. No big deal.” An impish grin played at her lips. “But I’ll accept with gratitude.”
* * * * *
The gleaming Gulfstream G550 stood on the tarmac at the private airstrip next to a Piaggio p.t180 Avanti II. The combined cost of the two planes could easily feed any Third World country. The meeting place had been chosen for its remote location, which guaranteed privacy. The Gulfstream, the larger of the two planes, was the actual site of the gathering.
Four men lounged on the butter-soft leather sofa or in one of the comfortable armchairs. Drinks had been served and the preliminaries dispensed with. Now they sat there, each waiting for one of the others to break the silence. At last a tall, muscular man with a swarthy complexion and hair just a little too long, set his drink on the table beside his chair and leaned forward. His eyes were fixed on the blond man directly across from him, on the couch.
“So Gringo, do you have the information? Is everything in place?”
The blond hated the derogatory nickname but as a code to hide his real identity he supposed it worked as well as any other. And eliminated the risk of anyone overhearing him called by his real name. Two or three more weeks at the most and he’d be rid of these people, anyway. All debts cancelled. Money in an offshore account. And the lifestyle he’d mortgaged his soul to get.
He swallowed the last of his drink, looked at all three men and reached for his briefcase. “I have everything right here. Their complete itinerary.”
He extracted three sheets of paper and handed one to each of the men, who studied it carefully.
“And this is confirmed?” the swarthy man asked. “If there are any slip-ups…”
“This is set in stone,” Gringo said. “And there won’t be any slip-ups. I promise you. I triple checked myself.”
“I’m sure you know it’s to your advantage to have everything go smoothly,” one of the other men said.
“You don’t have to remind me.”
The swarthy man rose, an indication the meeting was at an end. “We will contact you as soon as everything is in place. You have the secure telephone we provided you with?”
Gringo nodded. “And the laptop is secure. We’re hacker proof. Not to worry. The transactions will be completely secret.”
“It’s my business to worry. Otherwise I’d have no business.” He stopped directly in front of Gringo. “We cannot afford to have one thing go wrong here. You understand that.”
“Hey!” Gringo rose from his seat and stood even with the other man. “I have more to lose here than you do. I’ve got everything covered.”
“See that you do.” He gestured to the other two men. “Time to leave.”
Gringo opened the door and lowered the stairs, watching as the men descended and headed to their plane. Checking his watch, he saw that his pilot would return in ten minutes. He’d explained to the man that he was having a very private business meeting that needed to be away from the office and out of sight of anyone’s eyes. This was not an extraordinary occurrence so it raised no flags with the pilot. He simply got into the car Gringo had arranged to have waiting and took himself off to the closest town to eat. He’d done it before and Gringo knew it would happen again.
The important thing was not to do anything to make anyone suspicious. Anyone at all.
Walking to the bar built into the wall, he poured himself another drink and knocked back a good inch of the liquid. He’d be damn glad when this was over and he could draw a full breath again.
* * * * *
Mike D’Antoni leaned back in his desk chair and propped his booted feet on an open desk drawer. The late afternoon sun blazing in through the floor-to-ceiling window bathed everything in a golden light. Things were quiet for the moment. Rick Latrobe was still on his honeymoon and Troy Arsenault was winding up a mission. The other two partners were at their primary homes in San Antonio, Texas. Julia, their prize-winning assistant, was gone for the day, leaving the Phoenix Agency offices all but empty.
Mike liked the arrangement they had. Very few office staff. Teams either out on missions or at home for down time, awaiting the next call. With the training programs off-site and debriefings held in the hangar at their airfield, the high-octane security agency was able to keep a deliberately low profile.
Currently he was on a conference call with the agency’s CEO, Dan Romeo and Mark Halloran in San Antonio, discussing the what if’s of a new client in the San Antonio area.
“I know we don’t usually pull a full frontal attack like this,” Dan was saying, “but this company is huge. They have offices all over the world. I think it would be prudent for them to meet the person who can handle transport at a moment’s notice.”
“I agree,” Mark put it. “The only company more diversified and more spread out than Canyon Global Technologies is Wright International.”
“Next on my list to contact, by the way,” Dan interjected. “So what do you say, flyboy. Everything’s under control, for the moment anyway. Come on out. Either one of us can put you up.”
Mike chuckled. “Thanks for the hospitality but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll get my usual suite at the Vistana.”
Dan’s laugh was even louder. “I forgot. D’Antoni the ladies man. Well, the bar at that hotel is fertile ground.”
Even though the other men couldn’t see him, Mike clapped a hand over his heart. “You wound me, you old married men. I’m a respectable businessman.”
“Monkey business,” Mark put in. “Okay, the hotel it is. When will you be here?”
“Wheels up in time to get me there by noon, your time. Can you arrange for one of the company cars to be waiting for me?”
“I’ll do it,” Dan assured him. “Call when you get in. I’ll be in my office here in the house.”
Mike disconnected the call and sat up, reaching for his briefcase behind his chair. It was interesting, he thought, how two of his partners had found themselves living part-time in the same city in Texas. Mark’s wife, Faith, a San Antonio native, had contacted the agency when Mark’s Delta Force mission was blown and terrorists kidnapped him. Using their skills and the telepathic communications between Mark and Faith, Phoenix affected a successful rescue. Mark had resigned his commission shortly afterward and joined the agency. Faith was a best-selling author and their living arrangements were more flexible, so she often accompanied Mark when he had to be in their condo in Baltimore.
Dan’s wife, Mia, had moved to San Antonio when her grandmother left her a beautiful old home. A medium, she “saw” events before they happened. They’d met when she helped thwart an attempted theft at Carpenter Techtronics, owned by a close friend of Dan’s and solve two murders. She’d restructured her job as art historian for a museum and sometimes took consultations but her living arrangements weren’t quite as flexible as Faith’s, so Dan made the city his home base. Sometimes Mia traveled to Baltimore with him, sometimes not.
Mike knew, however, they’d both be there for some time as soon as Rick and Kelly Latrobe returned from their honeymoon and the three women went into proactive mode to get the agency’s Psi department up and running. Sometimes the perennial bachelor wondered if he’d ever settle down and, if he did, if the woman he chose would also have a special psychic gift.
Oh, well, time to worry about that later. He had things to do and places to go if he planned to be ready to leave in the morning.
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