Slow Heat

Bounty Hunters Series (Volume 5)

Lorie O'Clare

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter One
 

Micah Jones studied Greg King as he stood at the entrance of KFA, King Fugitive Apprehension. King squinted against the sun, which was hovering just over the horizon and not quite ready to set. King was a good boss—not that Micah had many in his past to compare the man to. But he didn’t act like he was better than God.
It hadn’t taken long for Micah to see just how good King was. The rumors about his reputation were right. King was an incredible bounty hunter and was clear when it came to explaining how he wanted things done. Micah was cool with cut-and-dry orders. He didn’t have a problem going out and doing as he was told. It’s what he’d done most of his life.
This wasn’t a safe line of work. Micah didn’t flinch over potential danger, though. The job was a lot safer than his last, and he was still alive. At twenty-eight, Micah had lived longer than many others in his former line of work.
King walked out of the KFA office with his wife beside him. The man was almost six and a half feet and somewhere around fifty years old. He didn’t bark orders. Even when he got pissed, he growled instead of yelling.
But then, why bother raising your voice when your mere presence in a room grabbed everyone’s attention? The man stood a few inches taller than Micah. In the three months Micah had been in Los Angeles, he’d grown to respect King. He reminded Micah of his father. There were differences, but both men were careful, levelheaded, and knew what the fuck they were doing.
King looked at Micah as he joined him in the curved driveway where their trucks were parked. Haley King, Greg’s wife, remained next to him looking over paperwork.
“You ready to head out?” King asked, and looked over at Ben Mercy, their bounty-hunter-in-training. The kid wasn’t licensed yet, and therefore got to do all the grunt work. Mercy never complained.
“Always ready,” Micah answered, feeling pumped. Ever since Haley had described their job today, he’d been fired up to chase someone down.
There was a slight smirk on King’s face. “You think so?”
“Sure do,” Micah grunted, doing his best to keep a tap on his adrenaline. He didn’t want to sound too excited about trailing someone again. “Ready when you are.”
“Good. Got the trucks gassed up?” King asked Ben.
“Yes, sir,” Ben said, straightening to attention. Everyone was laid-back at KFA, but Ben always acted as if he might salute King anytime the man spoke to him. “Ran them all through the car wash earlier this morning, too.”
King nodded and glanced at the trucks in his driveway. “Look good,” he muttered, his tone changing and sounding less aggressive when he spoke to the kid. “You can go with us on this one, Mercy. Haley will explain what you’ll be doing.”
Ben looked ready to split with pride.
“Micah, you’re in unit two. Ben, you’re in three.” King thumbed at the two trucks parked behind his as his expression turned serious. “Okay, here is the deal,” King continued, and glanced down at paperwork Haley was showing him. “You’ve already been shown Larry Santinos’s stats and picture. Haley has copies of his photograph for both of you. Pin it on your dash so his face is fresh in your head. We’re going in under the assumption Santinos is armed and dangerous. You understand the drill, right, Jones?”
“Capture and detain, no kill,” Micah recited, and kept his hands relaxed at his sides. He never knew how desperately he craved having a gun back in his hand until he tried not using it. “We haul them in so a court-appointed lawyer can escort them into a courtroom where they are tried and convicted and more of the taxpayers’ money is spent daily.”
King grinned and Haley looked up from the papers in her hand. She smiled up at her husband. Micah had repeated what King ranted about on a regular basis. King wasn’t cynical, but from time to time cases were sent over to them where everyone would be a lot better off if KFA just took out the scumbag once they found him. Micah was all for doing it that way.
Greg studied him with bright blue eyes. “That’s right,” he said slowly. “We never kill them. We haul them in so our wonderful judicial system can drag them through the system.”
Haley was one hot MILF—although Micah would take that thought to his grave. She handed Micah and Ben pictures of Santinos.
“We’re resetting the GPSs,” she said, picking up where Greg left off. “One of our informants just sent word that Santinos is heading to his club early today. He should be at Club Paradise in about thirty minutes.”
She stepped around her husband, then headed over to the three black Avalanches parked in a row outside the King’s beachfront home and the KFA office. “It will only take a second to program the GPSs, then we can head out.”
“And we stay together on the highway.” Greg King looked pointedly at Ben. “I’m lead. No shortcuts.”
“At this time of day traffic shouldn’t be too bad,” Haley added, then climbed into the rear of Ben’s truck.
Micah gave up trying to convince Haley he knew how to program the GPS in their trucks. He waited patiently outside the middle truck that he would be driving until Haley finished with Ben’s GPS and headed to Micah’s truck. Haley was all business as she opened his driver-side door and climbed in, then typed their destination into the small GPS in the dash.
Greg and Haley had two sons who were around Micah’s age. King occasionally reminded Micah of his father, but Haley wasn’t anything like the memories he had of his mother, which were vague at best. Micah hadn’t seen his mother since he was ten but would bet good money she didn’t look anything like Haley. He wisely diverted his eyes from her firm, tan legs when she hopped out of his truck a moment later.
“Once we get there, and before you get out of your trucks, be ready with your phones. Haley will three-way us in, then we take our positions.” King stood outside his truck at the lead and pointed a finger at Micah and Ben. “No one jumps the gun on this one. This guy is big-time. We take him down neat and easy. No one gets carried away. Do you hear me?”
Micah gave a swift nod and climbed inside the black Avalanche parked behind King’s. KFA had purchased two more trucks identical to the one they already owned right before Micah started working for them. He didn’t care about the new-car smell, but having all the latest conveniences on his dash worked for him.
Three black Avalanches made them a bit conspicuous. Micah had spent almost ten years mastering how to be invisible. This wasn’t his show, though. He followed King’s lead. The man knew what he was doing.
Micah had to admit, when the three trucks drove down the interstate, it was a power trip. They appeared a force to be reckoned with. And they were. Micah had done his research. Greg King’s impressive reputation wasn’t just talk. KFA was the best bounty-hunting business in the United States. King knew how to arrive near a scene with all three trucks and park so no one noticed them. He also knew when to arrive making a show so their fugitive knew that his or her run was over.
Micah preferred his hunts more reticent. It was how he’d been trained. King had a hell of a lot of knowledge, and Micah would learn a lot from the man. Hunting wasn’t the same as killing, and no one would come looking for a man with Micah’s very specific qualifications at KFA. But broadening his horizons would only make him more versatile once he returned to his old life. He only had nine more months to wait out until this life was over and his previous life was back in full force.
Micah sat in his truck, driver’s-side door open, and watched Greg and Haley talk to each other before she leaned against her giant of a husband and kissed him. Greg swatted her rear when she turned from him for the passenger side of their truck.
There were some things Micah doubted he’d ever learn from his boss. King had a relationship with his wife that was something out of fairy tales. The two of them were best friends, something Micah wouldn’t believe possible after so many years of marriage if he weren’t witnessing it for himself.
He couldn’t remember the last time his dad had mentioned his mom. She’d been out of their lives for so long, it was as if she’d never been part of their small family to begin with. Maybe he’d never been part of a traditional nuclear family like the Kings, but Micah was proud of what he, his dad, and his uncle had accomplished. In circles not quite as public as KFA’s, Micah’s family had at least as strong a reputation.
“Jones,” King called out.
“What’s up?” Micah put his past out of his head and focused on King when he walked over to Micah’s truck.
“Something about Santinos’s MO bugs me.” King rested his forearm on the top of the truck door and leaned in to talk to Micah. “Santinos has managed Club Paradise for several years now. The club was a dive and he turned it into a reputable, successful nightclub. The profile we’ve worked up on Santinos doesn’t make him sound like the kind of person who would take a dive and turn it into a gold mine. The man is flashy. He loves his expensive clothes and fast cars. He lives on the edge, tossing money around as if it meant nothing to him. Nothing in his MO suggests he has any type of bookkeeping experience. Nor does it sound like he cares about budgeting.”
“Maybe he doesn’t.”
“I think the man might have a partner.”
“Someone under the radar?” Micah was intrigued. A hunt always proved more challenging when the prey was a bit more elusive than usual.
“What I’m thinking.”
King’s bright blue eyes pinned Micah with a hard look. King knew telling Micah his thoughts would intrigue and grab his interest. Micah waited out the moment, holding the older man’s gaze. He’d learned shortly after joining the KFA team that King was really good at reading people, often pinning their qualities and faults down after talking to them for only a few minutes. What impressed Micah more than anything was how the man could also nail a person without even knowing him. It was a trait Micah would love to possess.
“I’m thinking he doesn’t have a concept of what it takes to build a business like Club Paradise, and someone else is handing him an allowance to serve as their front man.”
“Then nailing Santinos won’t end the money laundering. But is that our problem?”
King sighed. He let go of the top of Micah’s car door and straightened, cracking his knuckles as he turned and stared toward his truck idling in front of Micah’s.
“The bounty is on Santinos,” King said slowly. “We’ll get him and turn him over to the authorities. That’s our job. On our way over, I’m going to put a call into the detective on this case. I know the guy. We go back,” he added, giving no indication if he missed the twenty years he’d been a cop for LAPD. Once he retired from the force, he had opened up KFA. King spoke matter-of-factly as he continued. “This is simply a hunch. So when we’re there, here is what I want you to do. After our phones are patched together, I’ll position everyone around the building. There is a back door to the club, and at this hour, I’m told it’s often propped open while the cooks are in the kitchen preparing food for the evening. I want you to head in there and find the office. Find out what they’re doing in that office. If I’m right, whoever is back there will be handling the club’s real set of books.”
King was always right when it came to profiling. It was uncanny.
“So while you are getting our man, you’re sending me in to help out the cops?”
Greg King stared at him a moment, his gaze shifting as he appeared to be determining something about Micah. “Yup,” he said finally, and pushed away from the truck. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Santinos is hardwired. Marketing gurus often like to keep close tabs on their covers. He might tip off whoever is in the office when we take him down.”
“I can handle it.”
“I wouldn’t have assigned this part of the job to you if I thought you couldn’t.” It was as close to a compliment as King would ever give.
Micah watched his boss return to his truck, climb in, and start it. In that short time, the sun had quit procrastinating and finally dipped below the horizon. Evening shades of pinks and oranges streaked across the sky, making for one hell of a sunset. Micah glanced at the clock on his dash and put the truck in drive, pulling out of the circular drive of the Kings’ home and office, then looked in his rearview mirror when Ben pulled out behind him.
Three months wasn’t long at all for a bounty hunter. Micah had helped chase down plenty of criminals skipping out on their bail. There had only been a couple of cases that got interesting like this one. Greg and Haley had been profiling this case for a while. Micah had overheard them discussing it, and now he understood why. The information they’d been given on Santinos hadn’t added up for them. It was the irony of all ironies that King chose Micah to help out the cops.
Micah never once imagined working like this. Not only was he bringing in men and women who tried bailing on court dates or skipping out on their bonds, but now he was going even farther and searching for a person that the law hadn’t found yet. He’d hunted down more people than he could count in his previous life who were guilty of crimes but not yet convicted. Micah had never brought them in; he’d killed them.
That was Micah Mulligan, though, and for now that man was buried so far under the radar, not even Greg King would find him. Micah pulled into traffic as he stayed a car length behind his boss. It felt good to be given a loose rein on this one. He wouldn’t let it go to his head, though. Get cocky and take a bullet. Guaranteed.
Micah reached under his shirt for the silver pendant he always wore. The flat coin-shaped pendant had an engraving of Saint Michael on it. His father had given it to him when he was a boy after Micah had killed his first deer.
“Saint Michael protects hunters. You’re part of an elite, proud group of men now,” Micah’s father had told him. Micah had stood tall and proud. That day he had felt like a man, just like his father and uncle. “That doesn’t make you invincible. Remember that every time you aim your rifle, son.”
Micah thought about his old man and his uncle, hunters in the purest sense. Micah had learned how to hold a shotgun, aim, and fire when he’d barely been taller than the gun was long. Hauling home large game had been a thrill through his teenage years. By the time he’d hit his early twenties, there wasn’t a creature on God’s earth Micah couldn’t take down with a single shot.
Except for one.
When his father and uncle moved just outside Pontoria, Minnesota, a town in the northern part of the state, and beautiful country, Micah had been seventeen. With his mother long gone, and the old man and uncle all he had in the world, he trudged along begrudgingly. Their reason for leaving Evansville, Indiana, the only home he’d remembered up to that point, hadn’t been clear to Micah at the time. He had seen Pontoria and the many lakes and wilderness around the town as boredom personified. It wasn’t until he was much older that he learned the truth behind the Mulligan brothers’ relocation.
Except now, for the following year, he wasn’t a Mulligan. He was a Jones.
The pendant warmed between his fingers as Micah silently mumbled words to Saint Michael and rubbed it one last time before slipping it back under his shirt. His grandfather had been the strongest influence when it came to prayer. Micah’s dad went through the motions. Micah wasn’t sure why he always wore the pendant or said silent prayers. There was no harm in it. If he let go of the traditions his father and grandfather always followed, something bad might happen. Although what had already happened was bad enough.
Micah focused on King’s taillights ahead of him as twilight slowly drifted into night. Maybe there was a Mulligan curse. His father, uncle, and Micah had made the best of the curse, or gift, they were born with. For a number of years the three of them handpicked the jobs they took, and made a lot of money as agents hired to kill—assassins. Within a few years the Mulligan reputation grew to the point where they’d moved into some incredibly elite circles. None of them had hesitated when the U.S. government started paying attention to their success record. Maybe they should have. But the money was incredible. The jobs were more than satisfying. The power was addictive.
Micah still firmly believed they’d been set up. They hadn’t learned that their target was CIA until after Micah had put a bullet through his heart. His last kill had brought an end to the life they’d led for seven years. Micah’s dad and uncle quickly devised a plan. Mulligans didn’t go to jail. That same night they learned that Micah’s target had been CIA—and that now the elusive branch was inquiring into his death—Micah, his father, and uncle had packed their bags and left their home, each of them going in a different direction. For a full year they wouldn’t contact one another. None of them knew where the other two went. Three months of that year had passed. Three months now that he’d been Micah Jones instead of Micah Mulligan.
He signaled to turn when King’s blinker began flashing. Their exit was up ahead. He prayed his father and uncle had found new lives that allowed them to satisfy the hunter in them. In nine months Micah would find the man who’d hired him to kill Sylvester Neice. That man would regret the day he ever hired Mulligan’s Stew, the code name used when contacting the Mulligans. Once their world was safe for them again, Micah would track down his father and uncle. Micah wasn’t the young son in need of protection by his father and uncle any longer. He was the grown man, in his prime, a hunter no one would ever be able to hunt down and kill. His father and uncle were getting older. Micah would see to their protection.
Micah followed King’s truck, with Ben behind him. The three trucks slowed as they took the exit and reached the intersection that the street Club Paradise was on. Five minutes later they were pulling into a shopping center across the street from the club. Their trucks were conspicuous, but in the large parking lot with a four-lane, busy street between them and the club, their presence wouldn’t be as easily detected. Micah glanced at the digital clock on his dash at the same time his GPS announced he’d arrived at his destination. He’d been so lost in thought all the way here, it was the first time he’d heard the soft female voice speak.
“Good to know,” he muttered and parked alongside King. They had an hour before the club opened, plenty of time to nail Santinos.
King hopped out of his truck as Micah and Ben got out of their trucks. Haley hurried around to join them looking as if she’d just hung up her phone.
“Okay, Micah,” she said, sounding out of breath. She didn’t continue but instead looked at her husband. “We’ve only got about half an hour. You were right. The minute we explained our theory, they wanted in on the action.”
Greg gave his wife a knowing look and nod. “Not surprising. Anyone else isn’t our bounty, though. We have to let them in. All we get is Santinos.” He looked at Micah and Ben. “Which means we need to hustle.”
They took a few minutes to secure bulletproof vests over their shirts and check safeties on their guns. King was inspecting his Glock and slid it into the holster at his waist when he approached Micah again.
“You willing to go into this without the getup?” He nodded at the vest Micah was pulling up his arms. “If I send you around back, I need you looking as inconspicuous as possible.” He lowered his voice, although there was no one around but the four of them. “We called in our hunch, and it’s no one’s surprise that we have police detectives on the way. This isn’t their jurisdiction, though, so they have to go through red tape. That means the local jurisdiction will hightail over here, too.” King shook his head. “A piece of the action never grows old,” he muttered. “Needless to say, before long we’ll have a three-ring circus. I want to move in on this now, though. What I want you to do is sniff out the back end of the club undercover, so to speak. You up for this?”
Micah stared at King a moment before letting the vest slide back down his arms. “No problem,” he heard himself say and ignored the adrenaline spiking inside him.
King was one of the good guys. He wouldn’t set Micah up. Just because he’d been used as a scapegoat to get rid of a crooked CIA agent, then thrown to the wolves when someone needed to be charged with the man’s death, didn’t mean something like that would happen again. Not in this lifetime at least, which would last another nine months before Micah would return to his old life. Cats might have nine lives, but Mulligans had an infinite number, as long as they lived by the code.
Honor-bound is honor-solid. Find another by the same code and he’ll run by your side as true as Mulligan blood runs through your veins. Grandpa Paul had often grabbed Micah by the arms and given him a solid shake as he repeated those words to him. Even after he passed, his father had made him recite the Mulligan code, especially when they were forced to work with others.
Micah felt his Saint Michael’s pendant press against his chest as he put the vest back into the side compartment alongside his truck.
“No weapons? Nothing?” he confirmed.
King nodded. “Just your true grit and intuition,” King told him, then patted him on the back of his shoulder. “Something tells me you have a lot of both. And this will go down a lot smoother if we have everything wrapped up by the time the men in blue show up.”
Micah watched King walk back to his wife. He prayed that was all King sensed about Micah. The next nine months would be hell if anyone learned who he really was.
*   *   *
Maggie O’Malley glanced up from her books when she heard the cook talking to someone out in the kitchen. Max was back there alone and would be for another hour until the club opened. He worked better alone and did an incredible job of setting up all the meal preparation if he didn’t have anyone to distract him.
Four other cooks would arrive and clock in within the hour. By then, Max would have all the sauces simmering, vegetables diced and sliced—all the preparations that would be needed for them to serve the dinner listed on the dry-erase board behind the bar for that evening.
When her other cooks clocked in, all they would have to do was prepare the orders once the club opened. It was a good system, one that worked well and kept everyone happy.
Maggie hadn’t asked to be kitchen manager along with accountant. When Uncle Larry hired her on as the club’s accountant two years ago, right after she’d graduated from UCLA with an accounting degree, she’d considered herself blessed to be doing exactly what she’d wanted to do. The club had been in worse shape than her uncle had described, though. In fact, it had been on the verge of bankruptcy. At first she’d been pissed—furious, in fact, that Uncle Larry had lied to her.
It was her mother who’d convinced her to make a go of it. “Your uncle probably doesn’t have a clue how bad off the club is. He doesn’t realize the blessing he’s been given by hiring you on, sweetheart,” her mother had explained in the soft-spoken, matter-of-fact tone she used so often. “God has sent you on this special mission. I just know it. Uncle Larry is a free spirit but a good man. You’ve got that level head and your feet are grounded, blessings you’ve been given and can put to good use now. I just know you can turn your uncle’s club around for him.”
Maggie had done just that. She’d even had to admit that she’d enjoyed the challenge. When her uncle was arrested, for money laundering no less, Maggie had been so livid she’d walked off the job. It took more than a bit of gentle persuading this time for her mother to convince her to ride out the storm. Lucy O’Malley could see no wrong in her younger brother. Maggie wasn’t so sure this time that Uncle Larry was innocent. What she didn’t know, and could only find out by remaining at work, was where he got the money to launder. It sure as hell wasn’t through the club. Maggie’s books were squeaky-clean.
Glancing up, she cursed under her breath when Max continued talking to whoever was out in the kitchen with him. Uncle Larry might be an idiot, but she’d sworn more than once that he’d given her this office, right off the kitchen, on purpose. Uncle Larry knew Maggie would jump in and put his kitchen in order once she heard the chaos that occurred there daily. And she had. The kitchen was run like a smooth sailing ship today. It would stay that way, too, damn it!
She pushed her chair back from her desk, eyeing her numbers longingly. They were so much easier to get along with than real people. Numbers were cut and dry. They were black or they were white. There weren’t shades of gray the way there was with people.
Not to mention, babysitting wasn’t part of her job description. Already Uncle Larry was on her shit list. It was bad enough trying to keep tabs on him day and night. Unlike her mother, Maggie’s father continually demanded that she wash her hands of him. Every time he said that, Maggie’s mother would show her true Italian blood and start banging pots and pans as she yelled at her husband that a Santinos never turned her back on family and she knew an O’Malley would never do that, either. When Lucy O’Malley started yelling there was nothing to do but let her run through her liturgy, which usually ended with a winded cry to Saint Joseph and Mary and the good Lord Jesus to protect them all from hell.
As she headed around her desk, the mixture of Irish and Italian blood inside her brought Maggie’s temper to a quick boil. She would never be like her mother, but a glance at the small statue of the Mother Mary holding baby Jesus, a gift from her parents, brought her pause.
“Saints preserve me,” she grumbled under her breath, then crossed herself and blew out an exasperated sigh as she headed out of her office. Max knew he wasn’t allowed to have friends in the kitchen while he was working.
“Max,” she said, using his name as a warning when she stared at the tall, dark-haired man facing Max from across the large, cutting board counter. She’d put her foot down on anyone showing up and hanging out in the kitchen. The club couldn’t afford to hand out free meals to everyone who decided Max was their best friend.
“He showed up at the back door with some questions.” Max stuck his chin out stubbornly and turned to stir something that smelled strongly of garlic and oregano. Max was making his famous spaghetti sauce, one of Uncle Larry’s favorite food items.
Maggie’s stomach almost growled its appreciation. One of the upsides of being the accountant at Club Paradise was Max’s incredible cooking. He could have been a four-star chef, but being a felon made it hard for him to find work. They were lucky to have him at Club Paradise. The club’s reputation for good food had helped keep them afloat during its rough times.
“Who are you?” Maggie crossed her arms, possibly more as a shield than out of frustration. The man she stared at was incredibly sexy. There was something in his eyes that bothered her, though. They were a soft brown, and his lashes and eyebrows were a thick black. The lashes didn’t quite hide the way his eyes appeared doused with danger. “What questions do you have?”
“I’m looking for Larry,” the guy said, his deep baritone crisp and a bit too confident.
“Larry isn’t back here. This is the kitchen. Larry would be up front. Are you lost?”
She watched something spark in his brown eyes. “And you didn’t say your name.”
“You’re right.” He didn’t look like a vagrant wanting free food, or in need of a job. He looked healthy, very healthy, and dangerous. “Are you a cook also?” he asked, walking around Max’s prep counter then between the stocking shelves.
“I work here and you don’t.” No matter how big or how muscular this man appeared, Maggie had had her fair share of dealing with bullies. She wasn’t easily daunted or intimidated. Coming from a large family, Maggie had learned at an early age to stand her ground, or she’d never get what she wanted. “Tell me your name, why you’re here, and what you want—or leave.”
He didn’t appear interested in anything on the shelves where cooking supplies were stocked but reached the end of the aisle and turned, then stopped when she blocked him.
The top of Maggie’s head probably wouldn’t have touched this man’s nose. He was tall. And muscular, damn! When she stared at him straight on, she got an eyeful of roped muscle pressing against his T-shirt. Where his shirtsleeves ended, corded biceps began. He had a tan and she noticed a couple small puckers, old scars remaining from some previous trauma in his life. She imagined him fighting like a mercenary late at night in some loading dock against bad guys.
“If you want to go out front you can leave the way you came and walk around the building.” She again crossed her arms, but this time felt the solid beat of her heart grow stronger against her chest. “The back door is that way.” She nodded in the direction of the door, proud of herself for not trembling as adrenaline started pumping through her.
He glanced at her for only a moment before looking over her shoulder. Maggie couldn’t physically stop him and wasn’t sure touching him would be to her advantage. The way he brushed against her when he walked past suggested he wanted her doing just that.
“Is there a place we can talk?” he asked and took determined steps toward her office.
“Stop, now!” she ordered, hurrying after him and grabbing the door, then damn near skidding in front of him before facing him again.
The amusement in his eyes pissed her off. Who the hell was this guy?
“Anything you want me to do?” Max asked from behind the man. His voice was a lot deeper and meaner than he usually sounded.
“I don’t know yet, Max,” she said, focusing on the man facing her. She caught him glancing down her body before meeting her gaze. No way would she look away, but she was very grateful for Max being close, just in case. “Who do you think you are prancing in here as if you had a right?”
The man stepped closer, moving into her space, and lowered his head so that when he spoke, his breath tickled her skin. “Because criminals don’t have rights. The police are going to be here any minute.”
Oh God! This man really was dangerous. The law was looking for him and he had to choose her place to hide. Maggie had to think fast. She hadn’t made the deposit yet. No way in hell would he take her and Max hostage. Not if she could outthink him.
“Why are they coming here?” she asked, trying to match his cool, soft tone.
“They’re about to make an arrest.” Now he looked amused, as if her question were ludicrous.
Maybe it was. Hell, she didn’t have a clue how to talk to a criminal.
“Oh really?” she asked, wondering how for-real this man was. “And you sauntered into the back door of my kitchen just to tell me that?”
“Your kitchen? I thought Larry Santinos ran this place.”
“He does.” She didn’t need to explain herself to him, and apparently the look on her face made that clear.
The buzzer next to her desk went off, letting her know someone had just come in the front door. She turned, glancing at it, and shifted her attention to the small box next to her phone. A second later it beeped, letting her know it was Larry who was here.
“Who do they want to arrest?” she asked, trying for a different tactic.
“Is that telling you Larry is here?” the man asked, nodding at the devices on her desk.
“That’s enough.” She pointed behind him. “Turn around and march out that door. Now.”
“I will in a minute.”
When he reached for his back pocket, Max moved faster than Maggie had ever seen the man move. For a giant black man, his looks could intimidate. But in the year and a half that he’d been here as their cook, all Maggie had seen was an oversized teddy bear with a heart of gold. At the moment, though, he looked terrifying enough that Maggie took a step backward. Max grabbed the man before he could get his hand to his back pocket.
Max stood over six feet tall, and this man was just as tall. Where Max was very large, Maggie imagined this man would be all steel and packed muscle. Instead of struggling, the stranger stepped to the side, turning to face Max and holding his hands up in surrender. Max looked mean as hell. The stranger didn’t look scared. That same annoying, amused look was still on his face.
“Easy now,” the man said, holding his hands out in front of him when he slipped out of Max’s grasp.
Maggie noticed he was now also in her office.
“I was just taking out my ID to show the lady here who I am,” the man said. “Is she your boss? You’re a good man to keep an eye on her.”
Max grabbed the man. His expression never changed and again he moved so fast a cry escaped Maggie’s lips before she could hold it back. Pressing her fingers to her lips, she stepped backward until she leaned against her desk. Did she have time to call 911?
Max flipped the man around, and her office wall shook when he shoved him against it. The man’s face was turned to the side, his cheek against her wall, terribly close to the crucifix hanging there. The amused look was gone. He blinked once, twice, and exhaled. Maggie swore she could see his brain working through the expression that changed on his face. He was trying to decide if he should try throwing Max off him or not.
Thick dark brown hair tapered around his face but didn’t hide his intense features. This man was doing a really good job of controlling his reaction to Max’s sudden attack. And Max, with his back to her, didn’t look like the soft and cuddly teddy bear anymore. His large body looked hard as steel, just like the stranger he held. His thick, dark arms were like small tree trunks. And although defined muscle didn’t bulge against his black skin, he held the man where he was and didn’t appear to be struggling to do so.
“Take it out where I can see it,” Max said, his voice a guttural growl.
“I will, man,” the guy said, his voice still calm. “Best to let go of me so we don’t fight over a piece of ID. I have a feeling your boss wouldn’t like her office destroyed if you and I go at it.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Maggie wished she could say she hadn’t seen grown men fight before. But with brothers both older and younger, she’d witnessed them scrap as children and more than once go at each other as adults. Italian and Irish blood was a bad mix, but it was who they were. Nonetheless, her heart pounded in her chest with two huge men standing just inside her office door and testosterone pumping through the air strong enough to slice through with a knife. “Pull out your ID,” she managed, speaking softly so she wouldn’t start screaming.
Suddenly she understood why her mother always spoke softly, almost whispering when disciplining them. She was trying to maintain control while raising five children and not instantly lose her temper. Maggie was on the verge of screaming at both of them.
Max adjusted his hold on the man, not willing yet to release him, but allowed the man to pull his wallet from his back pocket. The man flipped it open and held it out, his cheek still pressed against the wall. He strained to watch her when Maggie stepped closer.
She glanced at it but stepped back when the stranger applied a bit of strength and turned against Max, forcing him to take a step back as well. Did this stranger really possess the strength to push Max off him?
The man turned slightly, looking at Max. “Just a wallet, my friend.” His tone changed just a bit when he added, “It’s never smart to carry a gun in your back pocket.”
“Hand your ID to me,” Maggie instructed, deciding it would be smarter to keep her distance from both of them just in case one of them made a quick move. Another thing she’d learned at a young age. Two boys, or men, fighting worked on blind rage. Get too close and get hurt.
Max dropped his arms, taking his hands off the man, and stepped back until he filled her doorway. He was still so unlike her usual teddy bear cook. Maggie was grateful for him being there. She gave him a quick glance, hoping her look showed as much. There wasn’t time to express her gratitude right now, though. She shot her attention back to the man when he turned, faced her, tugged on his T-shirt to straighten it, and gave her an eyeful of richly defined curves and bulges.
Maggie swallowed even though her mouth was too dry and forced composure through her body. Shifting her attention from that virile body to his hand didn’t help much. She glanced at the laminated card he held out to her but couldn’t read it from their distance. Her legs didn’t wobble when she stepped forward and took it, then stared at the picture of the man standing in front of her, then his credentials. Her stomach did a small flip-flop.
“Micah Jones,” she read. “Bounty hunter.” Then shooting him a pensive glance, she speculated. “You go after people who don’t show up for court dates, right?”
“Most of the time.” Micah had a gift for not elaborating.
Her mind raced. Uncle Larry had his court date earlier that week. She’d called him that morning to remind him. She remembered talking to him afterward. He hadn’t missed it, and there wasn’t anyone else here who was involved with the courts. “Why are you here?”
Micah looked over his shoulder at Max.
Her large teddy bear had returned. His eyes opened so wide that white glowed around his black pupils. “Don’t look at me,” he said, defensively, taking a step backward. “I’ve never missed a meeting with my parole officer.”
Since Maggie kept in touch with Max’s parole officer as well, she believed him.
“Would it be okay if I spoke with you a moment, alone?” he stressed, looking pointedly at Max.
Maggie looked at Max, too. It really didn’t sound like a good idea being alone with this man, Micah Jones. Probably most bounty hunters were tall and muscular. They would need all that brawn for their job. Her thoughts shifted. Instead of pissed, suddenly she was curious. She was reacting to all that virility like a female cat in heat. God, what would it be like to rub up against a body built like his?
She sighed, hoping she sounded frustrated instead of giving away the fact that warm throbbing sensations suddenly started between her legs. “Go back to work, Max.” She smiled to reassure him. “I’ll leave my office door open. I know you’ll be here in a flash if I need you,” she added, for her own sake as well as to remind the man facing her that he’d better not try anything.
What if he did try something while they were alone?
Crap! She’d read too many romance novels. Real men didn’t try seducing women they didn’t know.
Max hesitated but returned to his work, although not before snarling at Micah. Maggie would cheer him later. She’d rushed out of her office, ready to chew his ass for entertaining and feeding friends while on the clock, and now he was her hero. She moved around her desk on legs that were now shaky and collapsed in her chair. When she looked up, Micah Jones stood before her desk, filling her small office with his presence. She stared into his eyes for a moment, trying to learn about the man inside the body. His eyes were a dark hazel, a thick, rich green that she had first thought were brown. They were clear, focused, and staring straight at her. She sensed intelligence, a man incredibly determined who took what he did very seriously.
As she stared, she swore his eyes clouded over. She got the oddest sensation that he had just intentionally closed himself off, shut down completely other than what he was doing right there and now. Maggie couldn’t help thinking he was a man with many secrets. Remembering the puckered scars she’d seen on his arms, she wondered if those secrets were dark and terrible. Maggie suddenly felt trapped, cornered by a very seductive, yet dangerous man.
She patted the receipts scattered around her logbook for her pencil. Her computer was still open to QuickBooks and she tapped her keyboard, minimizing the screen. Regardless of why this bounty hunter stood in her office, the books for the club were none of his business.
“What’s your name?” he asked, causing her to look up again into those shut-down, dark eyes.
For some reason, it was a relief knowing he didn’t already know who she was. “Maggie,” she offered, not seeing any reason to keep anything from him that was as simple as her name. “Maggie O’Malley.” She gave up looking for the pencil she’d had in her hand before she’d gotten up from her desk and pressed her hands in her lap.
“Nice Irish name.” His lashes were long and she couldn’t be positive, but Maggie thought he was focusing on her breasts and not her face.
“I’ll let my Italian mother know you said so.”
Micah grinned but had already looked away from her and was taking in the items around her office. She watched his focus shift as he studied the scented candles on the small shelves next to her desk. In between them was a small figurine of an angel, with her wings spread wide and her arms extended. He looked at the top of her filing cabinet at the Mother Mary with baby Jesus that her mother and father had given her years ago.
“Why are you here, Mr. Jones?” she demanded when he squinted at the picture on her wall of her and her brother and sisters, taken the previous year at their Easter family gathering.
“It’s Micah.” He took a step toward the picture, studying it a moment longer before returning his attention to her. There was a picture of her parents facing her on her desk. Next to it was a smaller snapshot she’d framed of her two nieces. He glanced at the frames but wouldn’t be able to see the pictures from where he stood. “And as I said, the police are on their way.”
“Right now?” she asked.
“Yes. Right now.”
“Why?”
Micah gave her an appraising look. “You’re either very good or very stupid.” He cocked an eyebrow while again letting his focus drop below her face. “Are you going to tell me which, or do I make my own conclusions?”
“I’m not stupid at all,” she said defensively, hating that amused look on his face when he returned his attention to her face. “And since you won’t find out on your own, I’ll let you know now. I am very good.”
“Is that so?” For a moment the clouds lifted from his eyes. In that brief second that he dropped his guard, Maggie saw raw, unadulterated lust.
Her heart skipped a beat. Instead of that guarded wall returning, he narrowed his gaze, making it harder to see into his eyes. He didn’t frown but something shifted, bringing her pause. Micah came across as being a rock, impermeable, yet there was a weakness there and she’d just found it. Her sexual innuendo threw him off. Knowing her adversary’s weaknesses was always a plus. Now if she only had a clue what to do with her newfound knowledge.
“So I’m told,” she said, lowering her voice just a little, not enough to be obvious but just enough to make him wonder. “And now that we’ve established that, assume nothing and tell me why you’re here.”
“To learn if you’re the brains behind this operation.” He leaned against her desk, bending over so that his face was closer to hers. His arms were lined with thick, corded muscles that were impossible not to stare at for a moment. His hands were large and his fingers long. When he fisted them and pressed them against the edge of her desk, she felt the piece of furniture lean slightly from his weight.
“We probably only have a few minutes, darling. Do you run Club Paradise?”
“Larry Santinos owns Club Paradise and that’s public knowledge if you care to check. Although I’m sure you already know since he’s in the system now.” Maggie didn’t care if an edge of disdain surfaced in her voice. It would be idiotic to sound proud of her uncle’s foolishness.
“I didn’t ask who owns the club. I asked who runs it. Are you in charge of the books?” He looked pointedly at the ledger and receipts on her desk.
Maggie would welcome an audit at any time. Although bounty hunters didn’t audit books. “I do the books, yes. Are you with the IRS, too?”
“Nope. All I’m doing is bringing you in. Although I’m sure the IRS will be involved soon enough.”
“My books are squeaky-clean.” She straightened, stuck her chin out, and dared him silently to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, when her heart began pounding against her chest, this time it wasn’t because the sexiest man she’d ever laid eyes on was leaning over her desk staring down at her. Her father had argued each time he and her mother fought about this that Maggie needed to get away from the club. If her uncle had fucked up, her father didn’t want any of his transgressions affecting Maggie. Up until now, Maggie hadn’t been worried. She hadn’t broken any laws.
“But you admit that you handle all the books for this place,” Micah said, his tone matter-of-fact.
His phone buzzed at the same time the buzzer on her desk went off, indicating someone else was entering the club. This time the light on the box by her phone didn’t flash. Someone had come in the front door of the club. Larry didn’t have any appointments. If he did, she would have set them up for him. She glanced at the clock on her wall then shot Micah a side glance as he straightened and pulled his phone free from his belt. He stared at the crucifix on her wall as he tapped his phone’s screen with his long fingers.
Micah put it back on his belt and gave her an appraising look. “Would you mind coming up front with me, Miss O’Malley?”
“What’s going on?” Her voice cracked as she asked. She hated sounding scared, but Micah was doing a good job of making her feel that way.
Everything about Micah stiffened. He stood straighter and no longer appeared relaxed. His expression hardened, and his dark eyes were almost black. Suddenly he terrified her. A sheen of perspiration broke out over her body. Maggie’s shirt clung to her back when she stood. Her legs trembled and she braced herself, pressing her palm to the edge of her desk.
“Let’s go, Miss O’Malley.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“It would be a lot easier if you come with me of your own accord.”
She was sure she had to look terrified. “Where?”
She tugged on her shirt, knowing she offered a fair amount of cleavage. Micah didn’t glance down this time but kept his eyes pinned on hers.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, gesturing to the door.
Who had entered the club? They opened in fifteen minutes but usually when Larry got there early, he came straight back to the kitchen, hungry and whining worse than a child. Sometimes he had someone meeting him up front before the club opened for business and he’d make the bartenders work before they were supposed to clock in, waiting on him and whoever he entertained. Ever since his arrest, though, Maggie had made sure she knew who he was meeting with and what the meeting was about. Her uncle, who was ten years older than she was and the youngest of the ten Santinos, too often behaved as if he were ten years younger. He always acted wounded, if not put out, that Maggie continually questioned his behavior. Uncle Larry swore he was innocent and had been framed. Either way, Maggie firmly believed that if he were hanging around good people, none of this would have happened.
Maggie stepped around her desk, moving to the door, but froze when Micah grabbed her ledger book, flipped it shut, and clasped it under one powerful arm.
“You can’t take that!” she complained loudly, turning on him and reaching for the book. Her fear dissipated and anger replaced it. It didn’t matter how much sex appeal Micah Jones possessed. This had gone too far. “Give that back to me right now,” she demanded, extending her hand and staring him down with all the outrage she felt at the moment.
“Actually, I can take it.” He took her extended arm and held on to her with a grip strong enough that she couldn’t free herself. “Tell your guard dog there is no problem,” Micah whispered in her ear when he pulled her up against his virile body. “Unless you want him to see his boss being arrested.”
She spun around so fast, Maggie slapped Micah’s chest to maintain her balance. If she hadn’t seen his relaxed, carefree expression when he’d first entered the building, she wouldn’t have believed it existed.
“Arrested?” she gasped, her entire body suddenly trembling. “You don’t mean me, no!” she argued. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll be back to work in no time.” Micah held on to her and half dragged, half carried her to the front of the club.
“What’s going on?” Max bellowed.
Maggie didn’t have a chance to reassure him everything was fine, as Micah had told her to do. She didn’t even see him. Micah had her pinned against him, his grip pinching her skin, and her feet barely touching the ground as he headed into the club.
Club Paradise was a large establishment, with over thirty small tables for drinking and dining, a pool hall, and a dance floor complete with an incredibly expensive light system. Freddy, their DJ, was already behind his booth, leaning against it with a sober look on his face as he watched the people in the club. Three of their bartenders were behind the bar, all of them huddled together and shifting their attention quickly to Maggie when she appeared, still in Micah’s clutches.
Maggie felt her skin burn, her heart pound so hard in her chest she could barely move, and her legs threaten to turn to jelly. Larry was red-faced, his hands fisted at his sides as he shifted repeatedly from one foot to the other.
“I want my lawyer,” he kept repeating, although he was hard to see with the giant men standing around him. “You can’t do this,” he wailed.
Maggie made inventory of each man, noting one man who was so large he had to be at least six and a half feet tall. There was another man next to him. A short woman spoke softly to Larry. All of them faced her uncle. None of them looked at her when she entered the club. Were they arresting him? Why would Micah suggest she be arrested, too?
“What’s happening here?” she asked, glancing up at Micah’s stony expression.
He didn’t answer her—just looked straight ahead and held on to her until they joined the group.
“This is Maggie O’Malley, the club’s accountant.” Micah then looked at the man facing him.
An older man with threads of silver going through his short hair nodded at Micah. “You’ve got the books to the place?”
“Yes, sir.” Micah turned over Maggie’s ledger book.
The state of shock that had overtaken her when Micah practically dragged her out of her office lifted as she watched her ledger book exchange hands.
“Let go of me, now!” She almost ripped her arm out of its socket when she freed herself from Micah’s grip. “I need to see credentials from all of you, right now,” she demanded and tried grabbing her ledger book. “And I don’t think you can take these without a warrant,” she informed the very large man who was at least twice her size.
That’s when it dawned on her. This wasn’t the first time some part of the Mafia had tried pushing their way into Club Paradise, although she admitted this was the best staged. Maggie grabbed her book and felt it slip from her fingers as the man turned from her, passing the book on to the man next to him.
“Larry Santinos is coming with us. He missed his court date and we’re here to take him in.” The large man had a stony, almost cruel sound to his voice. “You, Miss O’Malley, will wait right here with us until the police arrive.”
“What?” she cried out, jumping behind Micah when the man tried taking her wrist.
Larry started howling for his lawyer again when the really large man pulled his wrists behind his back and pulled out handcuffs.
“You are not putting handcuffs on me.” Maggie made a dash for the bar. “Alex, quick, call nine-one-one!” she yelled at her bartender who stood closest to the phone. “Now!” she screamed as she slid around the bar.
Her bartender hesitated for only a second before dashing to the phone. Max busted his way through the swinging doors and froze as he stared at the group of people in the club. At the same time that he froze, a large body pounced on her backside and Maggie slammed against the hard floor.
She started screaming but an arm stronger than steel wrapped around her waist, squeezing all the air out of her lungs so that her scream left her mouth sounding more like a gagged yelp.
“Don’t make this worse on yourself,” Micah whispered into her ear, holding her against his body, which felt more like a brick wall.
“Who are you people?” she gasped, her mind spinning as everything around her suddenly seemed a bit too surreal. The only thing she was acutely aware of at the moment was the rock-hard body pressed against her backside and the warm, unmovable arm pinning her against it.
“You’ve already been told who we are.” He was still whispering in her ear.
Maggie turned her head and stared into his eyes. Micah didn’t blink or let on to any emotion he might be experiencing at the moment. His tone was flat, not reassuring, not hostile, just stating basic facts.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Her voice didn’t sound like her own.
“For being way too good of an accountant, sweetheart. I suggest you use some of that extra money you made to get yourself a really good lawyer.”

 
Copyright © 2012 by Lorie O’Clare