I’ve written several books for Elle James’ Brotherhood Protectors World, and Zero Hour is one of my favorites because the hero and heroine are equally matched. It takes a team effort to catch the bad guys and fall in love!
“To repeat, we are saddened to bring you the news that well-known hedge fund manager Frank Vanetti was shot and killed by an unknown assailant late last night.”
Two men sat in the big room in matching leather armchairs, each holding a crystal glass of whiskey, staring at the television set. They focused on the reporter who wore a solemn expression as he delivered his latest bulletin.
“Vanetti was alone at his home on Blue Lake when he was shot, apparently preparing to take his boat out for an evening run. The assumption at this point is that he was killed by a sniper, probably hidden in the many trees surrounding the property. His body was found midmorning when he failed to show up for a business meeting and his assistant went to check on him. Again, financier Frank Vanetti is dead, killed by a rifle shot. This is a developing story we will continue to bring you updates on.”
Deadshot, so nicknamed for his prowess with firearms, rose from the chair where he’d been sitting and turned off the television.
“That’s enough. It’s done, and that’s all we care about.”
“Excellent job, by the way,” the man in the other armchair, known as Steel, commented. “As always.”
“I took no pleasure in it.” Deadshot sat down again, lifted the glass from the table beside him, and took a healthy swallow of the whiskey it contained.
“Nor do I,” said Steel. “But it had to be done. We cannot afford one weak link in this chain. This project and the results are too important.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand what happened to him. He was so dedicated to our message and this project and looking forward to the results.”
“You’re right. It’s as if he underwent some kind of metamorphosis. He was one of the biggest supporters of the project. His infusion of cash was just what we needed since my own was already tied up. What the hell, you know?”
“Yeah. I still don’t know what happened to him.”
“And by the way, thank you for taking care of it.”
Deadshot sighed. “I’m just sorry it came to that. We’re just lucky his involvement wasn’t known to anyone but us.”
“We damn well better hope that’s the case,” Steel growled. “You checked his house for any notes he might have left? Looked in his laptop?”
Deadshot nodded. “All clean. Good thing most of the investment is already complete. We’ll miss his money. Who would ever have imagined the man would decide to sabotage us? Especially after investing so heavily. Wonder what made him have second thoughts after all this time.”
“We may never know, but at least he’s out of the picture.” Steel grunted. “Let’s hope he’s the only one who felt that way.”
“I can promise you the others are all fully committed. Vanetti’s death leaves a hole to fill, but you said you handled it.”
“Already in the works.” Steel blew a perfect smoke ring. “Beckett’s finally come on board.”
Deadshot’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. Lyle Beckett was almost as wealthy as Vanetti and even more radical. But beyond that, he had influence and power that reached far beyond Morgan’s. There were people whose backing and support they’d need when they pulled this off. When, not if. “This is not a joke, right? He’s refused to align himself with anyone until now.”
“Because his plans were much larger than theirs. But he’s just what we need and he’s fully invested.”
“You’re a fucking miracle worker. I think I’ll sleep a lot better tonight.”
“We just have to make sure to keep him under control. These guys think a checkbook automatically puts them in charge.”
Gooding sighed. “True that.”
They sat in silence after that, gazing out at the rolling land beyond the large house. It was raining outside, and drops spattered against the big picture windows. Inside, however, it was warm and cozy, with a fire crackling and the amber lights from the lamps lighting the room and reflecting off the polished wood floor. If only it could warm the cold place in his heart left by the betrayal, Steel thought to himself.
“How are things coming along on your end?” he asked. He had acquired the nickname because people said that’s what he was made of.
“No problems. Like I said, everyone else on the list is on board and we are right on target,” Deadshot, so nicknamed because that’s what he’d been as a sniper, answered. “You know me. Follow the plan, cover all the details, get it done.”
“Good, good. Just making sure we’re ready for the next step.” Steel drew a long pull on his cigar and blew perfect smoke rings. “I fixate on every little detail.”
“That you do. “And you can be sure they’re all covered. I did a little demonstration to show you. Want to see it?”
Steel sat upright. “Damn straight I do. You should have led with this.”
Deadshot chuckled. “Just wanted to make sure I had your attention.”
“You’ve got it now. Let’s see it.”
Deadshot picked up his tablet, which he’d left on the side table next to his chair, and activated a file.
Steel watched in fascination as an electronically created city came into view. Seconds later, what looked like a large bullet dived into the picture and into the city, which exploded instantly.
“Damn!” Steel stared, awestruck. “And that’s how it will work in real time?”
“It is. This is only one of many simulations we did to make sure we had all the information necessary. I’d say it’s time for the next stage. We should plan to start moving people out to the ranch.”
“I think it’s almost time,” Steel agreed.
“These assholes will never know what hit them,” Deadshot pointed out. “They all live in a deep comfort zone of denial, never realizing what needs to be done. And they never listen.”
Steel shook his head. “I’m tired of running my mouth at them and getting nothing accomplished. It’s time for action.”
“We agree on that.”
“I’ve got this place all prepped for them, so let’s start moving people in small groups. We need to start their training now, so we don’t run into complications. Everything in this project has to be exact and to the minute.”
“I agree.” Deadshot took a sip of his fine aged whiskey. “Good thing nobody knows about this place yet except you and me.”
“Which is why it’s owned by a shell corporation. And it’s going to stay that way. The men need to be aware of that. No hint to anyone of where they are going or who owns it.”
Deadshot thought for a moment. “I’ll be sure they know that, and what will happen to them if it leaks. “I’ll schedule them in small groups. Don’t want that little town asking questions about a new group descending on them.”
Steel was silent for a moment. “We’ll do it so people will hardly notice. The ranchers out there have things happening all the time. We’ll tell our people how to dress to blend in.”
“Fine. Give me a date certain, and I’ll pass along instructions about getting out here.”
“All the supplies will be laid in by the end of the month so the first of next month works. I’ve picked a date to execute the plan. This gives us time to get everyone drilled on what to do.”
“Do we need to vet them all again?” Deadshot asked. “Just to be sure?”
“Good suggestion. Better to be 100 percent safe. We can’t afford any leaks.” He took out his phone and tapped a message in the Notes app. “I’ll get that put into motion right away.”
“And no running their mouths,” Deadshot reminded him.
“They know the penalty for that.” Deadshot smiled. “This is the big one, Steel. The one that will forever cement our name in history.”
“The country will be shocked,” Steel agreed, “but maybe that’s what it needs.”
“I’m with you. Time to make a statement.”
“And this will be a big one.”
He leaned back in the chair. Anticipation raced through his blood. No one would be ignoring him after this.
“You look too relaxed.” The man standing in the bullpen, an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives team member, grinned at his teammate, Terry Fordice. “Usually that’s when the shit hits the fan.”
“Don’t tell me that,” she groaned and made a face.
Terry, a topnotch ATFE agent herself, was relishing a rare moment of relaxation in the office, chatting with the other agent. She’d been immersed in an assignment with a three-man team and was taking advantage of a short lull in assignments.
He shrugged. “What can I say? It is what it is.”
At that moment, as if prompted by his words, the phone on her desk rang.
“God forbid I should take a moment to enjoy myself,” she joked as she picked up the receiver. “Fordice.”
“It’s Jaeger.” The tone of voice was sharp and clipped. “In my office now, please.”
“On my way.” She hung up and turned to the other agent, who was grinning. “I’ve been summoned. And wipe that smartass look off your face.”
“Jaeger?” he asked.
“Yeah. With Max Jaeger you never know if he’s going to give you a medal or kick your ass. Wish me luck.”
She hurried down the hallway, wondering what was up that prompted such a terse order.
Maybe whatever her boss had on his mind would challenge her and occupy her. God knew her social life was a big cipher. Ever since he had walked out of her life without looking back, she’d pretty much cut herself out of social activities. She knew she needed something to erase the painful memories that all these months later still clung to the edges of her mind. Something that would deal with Jesse Donovan’s abrupt departure, but she hadn’t found it yet.
One minute he was there, and things were growing between them. The next minute he was gone. Not even a goodbye. After the best night they’d had together, when she woke he was gone along with his motorcycle and every trace that he had ever been there. If she only knew why, maybe she could feel better about it.
At least she kept trying. If she could just block him out of her mind.
It’s over. Terry’s mind kept repeating that. Over, over, over.
But she hadn’t been able to move forward yet. She kept reliving the memories of the two of them naked in bed, having the wildest sex she’d ever imagined. Or just sitting together, having quiet time, relaxed in each other’s company. Or riding that big motorcycle of his, her seated in front so his hard cock, barely shielded by the denim of his fly, tried to insert itself between the cheeks of her ass. And it pissed her off. She’d never been one to let the end of a relationship wear on her.
“Night riding is great,” he teased, urging her to get dressed. “But just put on that long T-shirt you sleep in when I can’t talk you out of it.”
“What? My ass will show and everything,” she protested.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure no one sees it. Come on., It’s our last night in the country.”
She’d allowed herself to be talked into it, however reluctantly. They were staying outside of Washington, D.C. at a cottage a friend of hers knew about. They’d had long walks and sat in the sun and had more sex than she’d ever dreamed of, but tonight was their last night. She hated for this to end.
In the end she’d allowed herself to be talked into it, and off they went down the two-lane country road devoid of any vehicles but theirs. Jesse had her sit in front of him instead of behind, pulling up the tail of the T-shirt so her bare ass rested against his fly. She could feel his thick, hard cock straining against his jeans, especially every time they hit a bump.
It was a bright moonlit night with a gentle breeze, and she felt freer than she ever had in her life. And hornier, with Jesse’s dick all but wedged into the cleft between the cheeks of her ass.
“Lift up a little,” he murmured in her ear, slowing down just a bit.
She did as he asked while he fumbled behind her and, in a moment, she felt the bare skin of his shaft rubbing in that cleft.
The walls of her sex throbbed and vibrated, and she swore she could come just from the friction and the vibration of the bike. They rode like that for a long time, the contact driving her crazy. She couldn’t even squeeze her legs together. Finally, Jesse pulled off the road into a little secluded area of trees, turned off the motorcycle, and nudged her forward until she was almost bent over the handlebars.
“Just feel,“ he whispered.
She heard the tearing of foil and the movement of his hands as he sheathed himself. Then, bending her even more and spreading the lips of her sex, he drove into her with a hard, fast thrust.
She thought she might come just from that movement alone
But once he had her in place, he turned on the motorcycle, leaving it in a low gear, the vibrations racing through their bodies. She squirmed back toward him, but he held her firmly in place, working his cock in and out while the bike did a lot of the work for them.
She was so lost in the sensations, in the orgasm building inside her, eyes closed to immerse herself in it, that when she exploded it shocked her. Jesse had one thick arm tight around her waist, clasping her to him while they shook with the force of their combined release.
When her inner walls stopped spasming and Jesse’s cock stopped throbbing, she leaned forward as if she’d never be able to move again. Jesse kissed the back of her neck and stroked the cheeks of her ass before easing himself from her body. Covered again by her T-shirt she let him settle her in place and kick the bike into third gear .
She was sure she’d never forget one minute of this evening.
And she never had.
In all her other relationships, she was the one who walked away. Not this time, not the one time it mattered, and the pain kept trying to push itself back to the surface. She’d always told herself not to get invested in a relationship but with Jesse there had been an invisible connection, something that bound them together. She’d opened her heart to him as well as her body and her mind and gotten pain and betrayal for her trust.
Never again, she told herself. Never, ever again. She’d keep her emotional and mental distance from all men from now on. It was a lot less painful that way. Hopefully Jaeger would have an assignment for her that would wipe Jesse Donovan out of her mind.
Yeah. As if.
Jaeger was waiting for her, sitting on the edge of his desk rather than more formally behind it, so maybe the ass kicking wasn’t on the docket. He was a tall, lean man with a weathered face who had been with ATFE for a number of years. Stories about him in the field were legend. Terry had considered it an honor and a special privilege when she was assigned to his team.
“Have a seat.” He indicated one of the two chairs in front of the desk.
“Am I in trouble?” she asked at once.
“Only if you say no.”
She studied his face, trying to discern if he was kidding or not.
“Okay, tell me what’s up.”
“We have a problem, and we’re running out of solutions.”
Terry lifted an eyebrow. “What kind of problem and how can I possibly solve it?”
“We’ve had our eye on Reed Morgan for some time. You know who he is, right?”
“Yes, I’ve read about him. Former military. Left the Army and opened an arms manufacturing company, which has grown to be a monster. Lots of guesses on where his financing came from. Outspoken critical of the government, which he calls too liberal.”
Max rubbed his jaw. “That’s the guy.”
“Then yes, when I joined the ATFE I was aware he had been a priority for some time.”
“Yeah, we’ve had our eye on him, watching his activities. The watch on him has been bumped up several notches in the past year. You know Morgan is considered a hard-liner. Among many other things, he’s been lobbying hard to overturn some of the recently passed gun laws, and his disdain for the government is well-known.”
“The whole agency knows Morgan Arms Manufacturing is one of the largest businesses of its kind in this country. They also own retail stores, plus they supply some of the arms to our military and even more go overseas. Lots of rebellions going on in the world. But I’m guessing you called me in here because something has pushed this to the forefront.”
“I know he’s spoken loudly about what he sees as the failure of America to enforce its laws, and the subsequent rise of crime.” Terry shook her head. “About the increasing numbers of what he called ‘soft’ laws that barely punished the criminals. But speaking out isn’t a crime, although for some people I think it should be. So, what’s changed here?”
“Our sources tell us Morgan Arms is suddenly buying a lot more steel, plastic, and aluminum than usual,” he told her, “so a lot of questions have floated in the air. That was the first thing that caught the director’s eye.”
“Has his client list increased?” Terry asked. “Have his orders from overseas clients gotten bigger?” Max rubbed his jaw. “After all, there is always a rebellion going on someplace and some army, legitimate or otherwise, that needs weapons. Or maybe they’re preparing to release a newly designed instrument. Or finally, is there another reason we don’t know that means trouble for everyone? I agree none of those possibilities are appealing. That’s for damn sure. But buying more raw materials and railing against the government isn’t a crime. If it was the jails would be full all the time.”
“True,” Jaeger agreed. “But here’s something you don’t know. For some time, Morgan’s been gathering a group together, first his closest friends and then people who we think share his beliefs about the way this country is run. You know there have been attacks by these off-the-wall militia groups and, based on what we learned, we’re afraid Morgan’s plotting another one. Anyway, over a year ago we managed to plant someone in Morgan’s group. We needed to find out what the hell was happening. He’s deep undercover, and sometimes we have to wait weeks for a word from him, which doesn’t help..”
“No kidding. When my guy does get word out to me, he says Morgan’s running this like it’s the military, which is what we figured. I think Morgan’s made this group his own private militia, kind of an outlaw posse comitatus. He also has three or four specially selected men who he calls his ‘guard’ who watch the rest of them like hawks. He’s been making trips recently to the land he owns in Montana, a spread in the Crazy Mountains. Each time, he takes a few of his group with him. Our undercover got taken there once. He managed to get a message out that they train. All day. Every day. Exercise. Firearms. Hand-to-hand combat. And they study explosives.”
“Yeah, but they don’t actually detonate anything. I’m sure the neighbors would complain.”
“Still… Are they preparing for war?”
“That’s what we need to know. And it’s been a while since our guy communicated with us.”
“He must be in danger. If Morgan finds out who he is, he’ll kill him.”
“That’s right. Morgan keeps those guys on a chokehold. The last word my guy managed to get to us knocks all this to the front of the line. He said something very big and very destructive is being planned. He’s not in Morgan’s inner circle, but he and others have been told that before long they’ll be getting ready for an event that will change the country.”
“My god! What do you think it is? What does the director think?” She was getting an itchy feeling about this. “What’s his spread in Montana like? Could it be taking place there?”
“It’s two hundred acres of prime land he bought from the neighboring ranch that itself stretches ten thousand acres. I understand the entire perimeter of Morgan’s place is fenced, and he has a state-of-the-art security system at the ranch house.”
“Paranoid much?” she snarked.
“Not only that, that entire area is snugged up right to the foothills of the Crazies. They provide a great barrier, so people can’t spy on him.”
“Wonderful. Just great. For him.”
“There are some options, but they aren’t being used, mostly because the ranches on either side like it that way, and people are afraid of getting shot if they do. They’re training for something that’s in the works. Word is it won’t take place there because there’s no logical target. Malmstrom Air Force base is located nearby at Great Falls, but it’s impossible to get on there and plant explosives. Besides, it would not make a big enough statement.”
“Blowing up a military facility?”
“Our guy seems to think Morgan is aiming for something bigger.”
Terry frowned. “And you believe your guy is passing along good information?”
“I do. He was specially picked for this because he’s so good at it and very reliable. We think the increased purchases of materials for gun manufacture Morgan made recently are only part of it. The second part. We know something huge is in the wind, and we have to find out what it is before it bites us in the ass and we have a disaster of epic proportions.” He paused. “One other thing. A few days ago, hedge fund manager Frank Vanetti was killed. He managed resources in the billions, and it’s been whispered behind tightly closed doors he’s Morgan’s money man. The one who financed Morgan Arms in the beginning and may be financing whatever this big episode is.”
Terry tilted her head. “I guess the startup money had to come from somewhere. You don’t actually leave the military with a lot of change in your pockets.”
“Right.” Jaeger agreed. “But if whatever he’s planning is of the magnitude we fear, he would need a lot more resources than he has at his disposal.”
“Okay, then who killed Vanetti? And why? Would he and Morgan have had a falling out of some kind? Why kill off the golden goose?”
“That’s the question of the hour. Or questions. We have to find the answers and it won’t be easy. If Morgan’s behind it only a major falling-out would cause this.”
“So, what’s my role in all this?”
Max studied her face for a long time before answering.
“We need someone to get real close to Morgan. We decided it should be you. Finding that answer is part of it. Glean as much info from Morgan as possible and see if you can determine what the fuck he and his friends are up to. See if you can get him to let something slip. Check on who he spends time with. I have a feeling we’re on a timetable. Someone needs to connect with Morgan and see if they can find out what the hell is up, before it’s too late.”
“Great.” Terry made a face.
“We looked at this from all angles and you should know the brass agrees with me you’re perfect for this assignment. You’re sharp, smart, able to think on your feet, and expert with weapons and self-defense if you need them. You also have the kind of classy appearance that means Morgan won’t hesitate to include you in some of his activities. See if you can get a hint from any of those conversations.”
Terry laughed. “Is that a sexist remark?”
“It’s a dead serious one,” he pointed out, “and I think you know it. There’s a lot riding on this. What we’d like is for you to get close to Reed Morgan. We got you credentials with American Made, a magazine devoted to American firearms and enthusiasts. Your cover is you’ve been assigned by the magazine to do a profile on Reed Morgan. His life. His daily routine. The growth of his company. We want him to take you to meetings and events where he believes you’ll fit in so he can show you all the public parts of his life. And hopefully in all that you’ll find a clue to what the fuck is going on.”
Terry laughed. “You think I can just waltz into his office, and he’ll say sure, let’s do it?”
“He already has.” Her boss handed her a thin stack of business cards and a cell phone. The cards had Teresa Franklin on them and below it American Made and a phone number. “Obviously we weren’t going to use your actual surname. The number goes with that phone. If he calls that number, someone here will answer and give him the answers he’s looking for.”
“And the magazine is fine with this?”
Jaeger nodded. “The publisher got his balls in a wringer a couple of years ago, and we bailed him out. He owes us. Now it’s time to pay up.”
“Just to verify, you’re telling me it’s all set up?”
“It is,” he assured her. “It appeals to his ego. God knows he has a huge one. Get him to agree to let you follow him around, get a feel for what he does at work and outside the office.”
“So, let’s see. You want me to find out why the extra firearms, what the big bang is they’re planning, and when it’s going to take place.” Terry couldn’t help laughing. “Oh, and if they killed Vanetti and who pulled the trigger. You have a lot of confidence in me, Max.”
“True.” His face was dead serious. “We all do. You’ve pulled off something like this more than once. I believe you can do it again, and everyone from the director on down agrees with me. Part of this assignment is to get him to mention Frank Vanetti if you can. His connection to Morgan and his group is well hidden but we’re hoping he +might let something slip. We also would like to know the name of his new money man.”
“Oh, so you don’t want much. Just miracles.”
“Always hope for those,” Jaeger told her.
Terry snorted. “Fat chance. Just from other stuff I’ve read, the man’s more closemouthed than a dead fish.”
” We’ll see. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Do not, however, under any circumstance bring up Vanetti’s name yourself.”
Terry felt a little flutter in her stomach, a combination of nerves and excited anticipation. If she succeeded in this assignment, it would be a huge boost to her career. She didn’t even want to examine the possibilities if she failed.
“When am I supposed to start?” she asked.
“Right away.” He picked up a slim folder from his desk and handed it to her. “Your homework for tonight. I didn’t want to send it to your existing phone in case the wrong people got hold of it. Or to your laptop in case it got hacked.”
Terry raised an eyebrow. “Hacked? You think Morgan would have someone try to dig into my laptop? I won’t even have it anywhere around him.”
“Doesn’t matter. He’s got people who can do anything. If the Russians and the Chinese can hack servers around the world, getting into your laptop would be a breeze.”
She frowned. “Damn, Max. So, the guy really is that paranoid?”
“He is. Which is why you have to be extremely careful around him.” He leaned a little closer. “Terry, if I didn’t think you could do this job, I wouldn’t be sending you.” He paused. “Want to turn it down?”
“What? Hell, no. I’ll get what you want. No question about it.”
“If things start to go south,” he told her, “or your cover is blown, get out of there at once. We can always try another angle. I’m not gambling with your life.”
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. “If Reed Morgan is planning something big and dangerous, I want to find out what it is so we can stop him.”
“Just remember— ” he started again.
She held up a hand. “Got it. Now. Details, please. I assume I’m going to San Antonio, since that’s where his headquarters is?”
“Yes.” He handed her an envelope. “Plane, car, and hotel reservations, and a driver’s license also in the name of Teresa Franklin, to go with the business cards. I didn’t want to use your last name in case Morgan has someone run a trace on you. Who knows how deep they can dig about someone.”
He reached behind him for something else and handed her a cell phone. “A burner for when you call here. Good luck.”
“I make my own,” she sassed, then rose from her chair. “Thanks for having confidence in me for this.”
“You’ve proven yourself, Terry. Just be careful.”
At least she had something to occupy her mind besides thoughts of Jesse Donovan, and maybe something to fill the hole in her heart.