Have you served in the military? Are you a military family member? Service members and their family and friends sacrifice so much that we take for granted — being there for birthdays, graduations, weddings, new babies. Often their sacrifices are bigger than that – when if affects their physical/mental wellness. I wanted to show this when I wrote Charlie Zalman’s character. to all who serve and sacrifice!
I’m going to make him sit down and listen to me. If this was a mistake, I need to know that now and move on. Maybe that’s what I get for grasping at straws.
With that whirling in her mind, Alix Bonner exited the interstate and turned onto the two-lane highway that led to the ranch-style mausoleum she called home. Her stomach was knotted with a combination of anger and anxiety. She had hoped the weekend at the Vanity Fair Spa would relax her and help her put her life in perspective. But nothing had been able to push the thoughts out of her mind that had been spinning around there since her whirlwind marriage to Lee Bonner.
What’s wrong between us, Lee? I wanted to use this weekend to find out. Why has business suddenly become more important?
He had been so edgy the past couple of weeks she’d had to tiptoe around him. Something was wrong, and she was determined to find out what it was. Her plans to stay home this weekend and try to work this out between them were torpedoed when Lee announced he had business meetings. She was beginning to get sick of all the damn business meetings. When was there time for the two of them?
After the first week of their hasty marriage, she had the feeling Lee had relegated her to the sidelines. The only thing he seemed to have time for with her was hot sex, which wasn’t so hot anymore, and to show her off at dinners and events with business people. He was generous with money, but she was beginning feel as if he’d bought and paid for her. And she had no idea why. Something was very wrong, but she had no idea what it was.
And, yesterday, he’d been particularly uptight.
“Couldn’t we spend the weekend doing something together?” She pressed her palm to his cheek. “Maybe it could relieve some of your stress.”
“Not possible. This is important.” Then, as if it occurred to him he might be angering or upsetting her, he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and moved her hand. “Maybe next weekend, okay? For now, go to the spa. Enjoy yourself. Spend the weekend there.”
She was still trying to decide if he’d been encouraging or just trying to get her out of the house.
When her cell phone rang, she checked the screen, hoping it was Lee telling her his meetings were over. No such luck. Not Lee, but Gina McMasters, her closest friend in Houston.
“Hello, lady of the manor.” Gina’s voice was bright, as usual. “How goes life in the mountains?”
“It’s not exactly in the mountains, but close.”
“Just checking up on life with the gorgeous hunk.”
Gina had been there when she met Lee at a hotel event and probably would have run away with him herself if she’d been the one he had his eye on.
“Life is…fine.” She put a deliberate smile in her voice. “It’s great, in fact.”
“Better than Houston,” Gina pointed out.
“Yes,” she said. No way would she let Gina know what her situation had turned into. “Much better. Listen, I have to go but I’ll call you later, okay?”
“Alix? You okay?” Concern edged Gina’s voice.
“Yes. Fine. Call you later.”
She thought she’d had a nice life in Houston, with a great job as event coordinator at one of the major hotels and a relationship with what she’d thought was a great guy. If the sex wasn’t off the charts, so what? Maybe her expectations were too high. Then the roof fell in on her. A mega chain bought the hotel, and someone was brought in to replace her. She’d had her eyes on the prize, but the new owners took the prize away. How stupid she was not to have seen that coming.
And Barry, the long-term relationship she’d invested so much in, had given her a shock she still couldn’t fully accept. She’d wanted to kill him when she discovered he was one of the attorneys handling the hotel deal. And that the deal had been in the works for two years, and he’d used their so-called relationship to get as much inside information as he could. Talk about feeling like the village idiot. It didn’t say a whole hell of a lot about her ability to pick a man, or about her intelligence.
She had to recognize the fact that Lee Bonner had swept into her life at a low point, dazzled her, and waltzed her into a hasty wedding. But now it appeared like he was strike two in her choosing-a-man department. What had happened to her brain? Her smarts?
Maybe she should have a T-shirt that said Stupid.
She turned onto the highway leading to their house outside Eagle Rock.
She knew money wasn’t the problem with Lee. Generous was too mild a word for her husband. But the situation at home had niggled at her from the minute she’d left the house yesterday. Had she made a mistake falling into this whirlwind marriage? Was he sorry, now, after barely three months, that he’d married her? The thought nagged at her more and more.
She’d begun to wonder if all Lee had been searching for was a great hostess for the parties he loved to throw and an acceptable wife on his arm for the events they attended. When had everything begun to deteriorate? Was she even in love with him anymore? Had she really ever been, or had she just anxious to get out of Houston?
Maybe she needed to find a job to occupy her when he was gone so much on business. How would Lee react to that? And was there even a place in Eagle Rock that could use her skills?
Shut up, Alix. Just find him and make him listen to you. If he won’t, you’ll have to think about walking away. Start fresh someplace else.
She glanced at the dashboard clock. Three o’clock. At first, she’d thought about calling him from the spa, but she was afraid he’d tell her to stay there. Just going home was better. When she got there, she’d call his cell, hoping he answered, and coax him into coming home early. He didn’t like her calling when he was involved in business, but that was tough. This was important. She wanted answers, and she wanted them now. But as soon as she turned into the long drive, the knots in her stomach tightened even more. Several cars were parked in the turnaround in front of the house. Lee never had business meetings at home, especially with this many people.
She drove carefully around to the side of the house, surprised to see the garage door open as she pulled into her slot. Leaving the weekend bag she’d taken with her in the back seat, she entered the house quietly, surprised at the silence that greeted her. Then she heard the faint murmur of voices coming from Lee’s den, which he liked to call his cigar room. It was where he indulged in the hand-rolled Cuban cigars that were frequent merchandise on some of his trucks.
Should she go knock on the door? Sit in the kitchen? Find something to do until whatever this gathering was ended? Lately, Lee had been so on edge, she often had no idea what would set him off.
She took a tentative step into the living room…and stopped dead. The giant flat-screen television set was on, but the image paused on it didn’t come from any television show, she was sure. Instead, it held a montage of pictures of men’s faces or their bodies. The men in some of the pictures were obviously dead, and not so neatly, either. In the others, there was just a head shot, but she wouldn’t want to meet any of them on a dark night. Beneath each photo was the word Eliminated or Set up for Elimination.
This couldn’t be some television show. The image was static, unmoving on the screen. Then she noticed the light for the DVD player was on. What kind of disc had something like this on it, and where had it come from? What did Lee have to do with it?
For a moment, she was frozen in place, shocked. Panic surged through her, making her heart rate triple. Her stomach roiled, and she had to bite her lip to keep from throwing up. What in god’s name was Lee involved in? Why would he be killing people? He had a trucking empire that had made him uber wealthy. How did all this figure in? Did any of this explain Lee’s increasingly strange behavior for the past three months? And who were the men he was closeted with?
The boom of laughter sounded faintly in the den, and someone said in a loud voice, “Killing those fuckers was a pleasure.”
Oh, god. Oh, Jesus.
She needed to get the hell out of here before anyone knew she was home.
Please don’t let me pass out. And don’t let me make a sound. If they find me, will they kill me, too?
Then a tiny part of her brain kicked in.
A record. Make a record of this.
She pulled her cell phone from her purse, her hands shaking so badly she almost dropped it, and snapped a couple of pictures of the television screen. She was so panic-stricken she didn’t notice the spa receipt she’d stuffed into her purse fell onto the floor. As quietly as she could, she eased into the garage and climbed into her car. She prayed silently that the noise of the engine as she cranked it would not penetrate the thick walls of the house. She gave fervent thanks the garage was on the opposite side from Lee’s den.
Heading down the driveway, she forced herself to maintain a low speed to minimize engine sound. But when she turned onto the highway, she hit the gas, and the car leaped forward. And fear leaped into her throat again. She kept checking her rearview mirror, terrified she’d been heard and Lee or someone would follow her. If they caught her, she’d be as good as dead. She knew it.
What the hell is going on? Who were all those people marked Eliminated? What am I going to do? Where can I go?
Her hands were shaking so badly she worried she’d steer the car into a ditch.
She was pretty sure the bodies in the pictures were of dead people. What was Lee doing discussing dead bodies with whoever was at the house? Who was this man she’d married, that he could discuss killing people while smoking cigars? And who were the men with him?
Then another thought stabbed at her—Lee would call the spa this evening. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he always called her at nine o’clock at night. For a long time, she thought how nice it was that he wanted to chat with her no matter where he was or what he was doing. Now, she wondered if he was checking up on her. But why? That heart-stopping scene in the living room was giving her an instant case of paranoia. How had she gotten herself into this situation? Lee Bonner had been so attentive, affectionate, and caring when he’d swept her off her feet and out of Houston. What had gone wrong? Or had she just not seen the real man?
Forget the pity party and quit acting like a fluff ball. You have more important things to think about.
Wasn’t that just the damn truth? She wasn’t stupid by any means, although she was beginning to think her marriage to Lee Bonner gave the lie to that. But easier said than done. Okay, she told herself. Think. think. think. Like where she could go, and whether Lee could find her there. And what she would do after she got there, wherever there was. She gave fervent thanks she had cash with her. It was a habit she’d developed a long time ago, and one she was thankful for now. The only clothes she had with her were the ones she’d packed for the spa. Damn. But that still didn’t give her a direction to take.
She had gone about ten miles from the house and was nearing the little town of Eagle Rock when her engine began making a weird noise. She eased up on the gas a little then fed it slowly, but the noise only increased. Then, with a loud pop, it stopped altogether, and steam or smoke seeped out from beneath the hood.
No, no, no!
The tears she’d been fighting off now ran down her cheeks, and she pounded the steering wheel in a combination of fear and frustration. What was she supposed to do out here in the middle of no place, where she’d be ripe pickings for Lee and his men? She was pretty damn sure she’d have to call the garage in Eagle Rock for a tow, and that would leave a trail for Lee to follow. Normally, she’d be dialing his cell phone, or calling the house for Frank, who’d apparently been with her husband forever and lived in the little house behind the big one.
After what she saw back at the house, however, that wasn’t an option. She didn’t know who she could trust. She needed a place to hide, a mechanic for the car, and someone to help her. Right. With no resources to call on. Crying wasn’t going to give her any answers.
Her hands shook as she pulled out her cell to scroll through the numbers, hoping one would pop out at her. But everyone listed was either connected to Lee or miles away. When she heard the sound of a car coming up behind her, she froze. Would it stop? What should she say? She looked in the rearview mirror and, sure enough, there was a black SUV pulling up right to her bumper.
Oh, god. Is this someone Lee has sent? Does he know I was in the house after all?
She couldn’t decide if she wanted him to try to help her or keep on going. Making sure the doors were locked, she watched the driver get out and walk up to the car. She wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hands and did her best to pull her fraying edges together, gripping the steering wheel so he wouldn’t see how badly her hands were shaking.
The loud knock on the window made her jump.
All Charlie Zalman, better known as Charlie Zero, wanted to do was go home, take a hot shower, grill a steak, and veg in front of the television. He had just completed a month-long bodyguard job for Brotherhood Protectors, one that had taken every bit of energy to complete. Some people were just more difficult to protect, and, often, they were the ones who needed it the most.
Some days, he longed to be back in the SEAL teams, but then a twinge in his right arm reminded him of the metal pins that would always be part of his body and resulted in the medical discharge that left him a civilian. He’d lost a good friend in that firefight, too, a loss he still struggled with, wondering if he could have done anything different.
But the hospital stay and the end of his SEAL career had been only some of the bad news waiting for him. Someone should have warned him that when the woman you thought was waiting for you said, “I’ll always be here,” she actually meant she’d be there until someone better came along. Someone with a sound body and no bad dreams.
He gave thanks daily, however, for Hank Patterson, the former SEAL he’d gone to high school with who had started the agency and was more than happy to bring him on board. The agency became the entire focus of his life, helping him effectively blot out those things he wanted to forget. If now and then he wished for someone in his bed, he always reminded himself his good right hand was ever faithful.
He had been dreaming of the shower and the steak when he nearly ran into the silver sedan half-on, half-off the road, blocking traffic in one lane.
What the fuck!
Casting his eyes heavenward in a Give me strength silent plea, he climbed out of his vehicle, made sure his T-shirt was untucked to cover the gun at the small of his back, and jogged up to the driver’s door of the sedan. The woman sitting behind the wheel might have made his tired cock sit up and say Take me out to play if he wasn’t so fucking tired and she didn’t look like one big mess. Masses of dark hair that looked as if she’d been running her fingers through it surrounded a face with high cheekbones and eyes so brown they reminded him of pools of chocolate. Her full lips were bare of any lipstick, but Charlie didn’t think she needed any. The T-shirt she wore with bling scattered over it probably cost as much as his entire outfit. Which, he thought, wasn’t hard. It also fell softly against small but full breasts that he—
Jesus Christ, Zero. Put your cock away and see what’s going on here. This woman gives every appearance of being in some kind of trouble.
It pissed him off even more because no woman had had that instant effect on him for a long time.
Great. Just fucking great.
She was sitting with her fingers gripping the steering wheel so hard he could see the whites of her knuckles even through the glass. Either she was oblivious to his presence or ignoring him, so he rapped on the window. She jerked up straight, hard, as if she’d been shot. But she kept her eyes focused straight ahead, so he rapped again, wondering if she could grip that wheel any tighter. What the hell was going in there? Who got that tense over a car breakdown?
“Hello?” He didn’t want to shout and scare her half to death, but he couldn’t figure out why she was ignoring him. “Hey! We need to get your car moved before someone rams into it.”
That got her attention. She turned her head and lowered the window a couple of inches. Crap! Were those tears tracks on her cheeks? He wondered if her skin was normally that pale.
Oh, great. Another idiot. At least this one wasn’t related to someone they owed a favor to.
“Your car.” He did his best not to growl at her. “It’s blocking the road. You have to move it. What’s wrong with it, anyway?”
When she wet her lips and gripped the wheel again, he began to get the feeling she wasn’t just an idiot but someone with a real problem. He studied her through the window and an itch crawled between his shoulder blades. This woman was in a panic about something, and her obvious fear of him went beyond what she might feel for a stranger on the highway.
Good going, Charlie. You always get the women in distress.
“I…It just conked out. Steam came out from beneath the hood, and I’m not sure I know what to do about it. It won’t start now.”
Charlie swallowed a sigh. “Let me check it out and see if I can figure out what’s wrong. Hit the hood release button.”
For a brief moment he worried she might not know where it was, but again, he didn’t think she was stupid. Just scared. And getting more frightened by the minute, as evidenced by the glances she kept stealing over her shoulder.
“Are you looking for someone?”
“Y-No. No, I’m not.” She wet her lips. “Do you think you can fix the car?”
“Let me check it out.” But one glance under the hood told him this wasn’t a roadside repair job. The motor was a damn mess. This baby needed a tow. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you need to call the garage in Eagle Rock for a tow. This is beyond a quick roadside fix.”
Her face turned whiter than his sheets. “But I can’t— I mean, I don’t—”
Charlie waited, but she just sat there, biting her lip, fear growing in her eyes. He wanted to ask her what the hell was going on, but he was pretty sure she wouldn’t tell him.
He sighed and tugged his phone out of his jeans pocket. “Listen. I know the county sheriff real well. How about if I call him, and he can vouch for me. Then maybe I can get you some help.” He paused. “Whatever kind you need.”
He could see her debating the situation. Again, he wished to hell he knew what she was so frightened of that even calling the sheriff was a problem. Was she running from the law? She sure didn’t appear as if she was, but Charlie well knew that looks often lied.
Then her shoulders slumped. “I guess that would be the smart thing to do. But I’ll call the garage myself. You can go on to wherever you’re going.”
“At least let me push you fully onto the side of the road. Someone’s going to come along and clip you, otherwise.”
“I— Okay. What should I do?”
“Put the gearshift into neutral. I’ll do the rest.”
As soon as she nodded, she raised the window again. He gave a mental shrug, put his muscle into it, and managed to get the car enough off the asphalt so nobody coming by would knock into her. Then he rapped on the window one more time and motioned for her to lower it. Taking a business card from his wallet, he handed it to her.
“You call Sheriff Tate. Ask him about us.” He turned the card over. “That’s my cell number on the back. If you decide you need any kind of help with…whatever, just give me a call.” He paused. “And don’t wait too long to make those calls. This might be peaceful territory, but you never know when trouble can come along.”
“Thank you.” She whispered the words, but the expression on her face was more fear than gratitude. Again, she glanced behind her, checking the road for vehicles.
What the hell?
He cleared his throat. “This is none of my business, but if someone’s out to hurt you, maybe I could—”
“No!” The word was almost a shout. “No, please. I-I’m fine.”
She sure didn’t look fine. He’d have been irritated if not for the sheer panic on her face. He got the feeling she was almost as afraid of him as she was whoever or whatever she was running from. “Okay. I’ll be on my way.”
As he pulled out onto the asphalt and drove toward his house on the other side of Eagle Rock, he couldn’t get the woman out of his mind. That itch between his shoulder blades was stronger, but it was an itch he couldn’t scratch because he had no idea what the fuck was causing it. He just couldn’t get rid of a bad feeling he had about the whole business.
He’d noted her license plate in his cell phone. When he got home, he’d call Hank and ask him to use the setup in the office to do a search. See who it was registered to. Hank might even know the owner. Even though Charlie had also grown up in the area, he didn’t have his finger on everyone’s pulse the way Hank did.
He was barely at the edge of Eagle Rock when his cell rang. The number on the readout was unfamiliar. He hit the button to accept.
“Zero,” he barked.
“Hello? Anyone there?”
“Um, is this the man who pushed my car off the road?” The voice was faint and more than nervous. Just plain scared, he’d say. “It says here your name is Charles Zalman. Is that you?”
Did she think he handed out cards with fake identification on them?
“It is. Change your mind?”
He waited through a brief pause, wondering if she’d hung up. What the hell was with her, anyway?
“Yes. Can you come back here right away? I-I think I’m in trouble.”
Of course she was. Besides the obvious signs, did he know anyone who wasn’t?
He pulled out his calm, reassuring tone of voice. “I’ll be right there. Stay in your car with the doors locked like you were. Hang on. I’m on my way.”
But first, he texted the license plate to Hank with a request to see who it was registered to.
There were no cars on the road other than his, so he made a wide U-turn and hit the gas, pushing the speedometer past eighty. He passed a couple of cars coming from the other direction. He wondered if any of them had stopped and how the woman had handled it.
Then he was there, making another wide turn so he could pull up right behind her. He jogged up to the driver’s side of her car, and there went his antennae again. She was still sitting in that same rigid pose, as if relaxing would cause her to fall apart. Her face was even whiter, if that was possible, her hands clenched into fists in her lap. When he rapped on the glass, she jerked as if hit with an electric wire. She opened one hand to lower her window.
“Did you call for a tow?” was the first thing he asked.
She shook her head. “No. I… Just… No.”
“All right.” He swallowed his questions and pulled out his cell. “Let’s take care of that first.”
Charlie felt marginally better when Reggie Forman said he’d head out right away. He stashed his phone and turned back to the woman. “We’ll wait for him, but—”
“Wait for him?” If possible, her face grew even paler. “Can’t we just go?”
Charlie lifted a brow. “Go where? And we have to give him the keys.”
“We could drop them off. I—” She swallowed. “I really want to get out of here.”
She was doing the checking-over-the-shoulder thing again. Yeah, definitely spooked.
“Okay.” He made his voice as low and even as possible. “Come on. Get out of the car and bring the bag in the back seat with you.”
She stepped out of the car and reached for her bag. Her hands trembled so much it almost fell from her fingers. Charlie took it from her, gently, and guided her into his SUV. She couldn’t have been much over five feet and, at the moment, looked extremely fragile. She also had the faint scent of some kind of flowers clinging to her, tantalizing him and making his hormones dance.
“Hold on a sec,” he told her and went back to grab her car keys from the ignition. Then he called Reggie. “He’s okay with us leaving them at the garage,” he told the woman. He said he’s almost here, anyway. Do you have someplace I can take you? Anyone who can provide transportation or whatever?”
She shook her head. “No.” Her voice was so soft he had to strain to hear it.
“Do you know anyone around here?”
She bit her lip then, after a long moment, shook her head. “No one I can go to.”
Wasn’t it just his damn luck? Charlie swallowed a sigh then punched another number on his cell.
“Hank? Hey, it’s Charlie. Yeah, I was headed home but change of plans. I’m bringing a guest to the office. The woman who belongs to the license plate I sent you. She’s spooked by something and has no place to go. Maybe we can help.”
Hank chuckled. “Another stray?”
Charlie ground his teeth. It was a joke among the agents that he drew strays like magnets drew metal. He chose to ignore Hank’s comment.
“We’ll be there in twenty.”
“See you then. Oh, and by the way, something very interesting came in while you were still gone. Something I’ll want you to be part of. This is a Zero specialty.”
“Okay.” A sour taste filled his mouth. Hank’s words meant whatever this was had to do with guns and drugs, two things Charlie had a personal reason to hate.
“You sent him my license plate?”
He felt the fear rolling off the woman next to him in heavy waves. “Professional habit. In our line of work, you learn to check everything about everyone you come in contact with. You never know what might come back to bite you in the ass.”
“And now you’re taking me someplace. I—” She stopped. Let out a breath. “Can you tell me where we’re going? Are you kidnapping me?”
If the situation didn’t have danger written all over it, Charlie might have chuckled.
“Look.” Charlie made his voice as gentle as possible. He had much experience with skittish women, unfortunately. “You said you have no place to go. It’s obvious something’s scared the crap out of you. You saw that card I gave you. Brotherhood Protectors is a group of former special forces military who work to help and protect people. I can assure you we’re all safe. If someone’s after you, there’s not a better group to take care of you. And maybe you’ll feel safe enough to tell us what this is all about. Okay?”
“Okay.” She gave one sharp nod of her head.
“You know my name. How about telling me yours?”
She was silent for so long, he wondered if she would tell him.
“Alix,” she said at last. “With an I.”
“Well, Alix with an I, I’m taking you someplace where you’ll be out of harm’s way. Then maybe you’ll feel safe enough to tell me what’s got you so spooked.”
The Brotherhood Protectors’ office was in the basement of Hank and Sadie’s new house, just outside Eagle Rock. There might even be a couple of other agents there, too, prepping for new assignments. He hoped to hell they didn’t scare the woman beside him. She was strung so tight, he thought almost anything might set her off, and the Protectors could be intimidating.
He wondered just what kind of trouble this woman was in. And how the ever lovin’ hell he’d explain this to Hank.