Four weeks later
Nikolai Steele pulled the wicked black Harley into a vacant parking spot on Washington Street, let the engine throb for several seconds, then turned the bike off slowly, ignoring the curious looks of several women walking past him on the sidewalk as he stared across the street at the office front of Nelson Building and Construction.
Sometimes, past favors sucked. This was one of them. He owed Nelson for some rather important information the man had provided several months prior. Nik almost shook his head. That IOU was now about to become a pain in the ass.
“I’m here.” He spoke quietly into the comm link built into his helmet.
“Carry the helmet in with you, Renegade. Leave the comm on so I can pick up the conversation and see what he wants.” Tehya Talamosi, the red-haired sprite working communications, spoke quietly into the link.
He nearly rolled his eyes at the new code name. Unlike the others, his code name had changed several times over the years to reflect the differing areas of the missions assigned. For this more personal job “Renegade” reflected the fact that this time, he was working alone.
His initial meeting with Nelson would be overseen by his commander, Jordan Malone, until it was ascertained whether or not this was indeed a personal contact or if it was something more. Something that could possibly risk the Elite Ops unit or Nik’s cover.
Pulling the key from the ignition, Nik swung from the bike and slowly pulled the helmet from his head, careful to leave the sensitive electronics inside active.
He had no idea what Nelson wanted; all he knew was that he had contacted Nik in a manner in which he shouldn’t have been able to contact him. It’s what had put Jordan on alert, and it left a hell of a lot of questions for the man to answer.
Holding on to the helmet, Nik waited for a break in traffic before strolling across the street. At six and a half feet it was impossible not to draw attention to himself. Add that to his well-conditioned body, long white blond hair, and what he knew were his unusually strong Nordic features and Nik was impossible to hide in plain sight.
This was why he preferred the shadows. Nik had the ability to blend into those shadows, to watch, to wait, and to garner the least amount of attention possible.
The shadows were safer. There he wasn’t forced to interact with others. He didn’t have to risk friendships, loyalties, or possibly the drive to fill the unnamed hunger that plagued his soul.
Stepping onto the sidewalk, he was aware of the pedestrians who cleared a path around him. They watched him with wary curiosity, sensing instinctively that this was a dangerous man.
Nik stepped inside the offices of Nelson Building and Construction and walked up to the receptionist’s desk.
“Maddix Nelson.” Nik’s voice, normally dark and rough, sounded more dangerous as he stood over the petite young receptionist.
She swallowed tightly as her brown eyes widened, youth still fresh enough that she felt no fascination for the monster staring down at her. She felt only that inherent fear, that need to run.
“M-m-may I ask—”
“Steele.” He gave only his last name. The name and identity he had been given eight years before.
She jerked the phone from its cradle, punched in a number with a jerky movement, and stuttered his name into the phone.
“Mr. Steele, Mr. Nelson’s assistant will be right here.” She laid the phone on the cradle as she glanced desperately at the small seating area off to the right. “It will be just a moment.”
Nik had mercy on her. He stepped back from the receptionist’s station, but he didn’t sit. He moved to the edge of the lobby, placed his back against the wall, and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Maddix Nelson’s assistant, Alison Chenkins, moved down the staircase that led to the upper floors rather than using the elevator. Dressed in slim black slacks and a white tailored blouse, with low heels, she gave the impression, a correct one, of quiet efficiency and confidence.
“Mr. Steele.” She moved right to him, a slender hand reaching out in greeting. “Thank you for coming so promptly.”
Nik’s brow arched sarcastically as he accepted the handshake, careful not to pinch her hand in his much larger one.
“We can use the elevator or the stairs,” she offered. “Mr. Nelson is in his office.”
“Stairs are fine with me.”
“Excellent.” A friendly smile tugged at her lips as she turned and moved for the staircase. “If you’ll follow me.”
He followed, keeping a careful distance between himself and the assistant, his gaze constantly searching his surroundings.
Nik hadn’t expected Nelson’s favor to be called so quickly. Nor had Nik expected the message to come through a contact whom only a few people were aware of.
“I always take the stairs whenever possible.” Alison Chenkins grinned back at Nik as they moved past the second floor. “The elevator is quicker, but the stairs are better for my hips.”
“And give Maddix Nelson time to prepare himself,” Nik stated quietly.
She almost paused on the steps before her smile turned cooler and the chatter stopped. She turned, and her pace quickened until they were pushing through the fourth-floor door and moving into the plush assistant’s office outside Maddix Nelson’s office.
Maddix didn’t make Nik wait. He was standing in the door to his office, his dark hair brushed back, but not as neatly as Nik remembered it being before. There were added lines on Maddix’s face, his brow creased with worry. Six weeks had wrought an almost devastating change to the man’s face.
“Nik, thank you for coming.” Maddix invited Nik into his office with a wave of his hand.
Nik glanced into the office, then to Maddix in a signal that the other man was to go first.
The other man gave a mirthless smile before stepping into the office.
Nik stepped inside as he tucked the motorcycle helmet under his arm to provide Tehya with clearer audio and visual coverage of the room.
“You contacted me through an unusual source, Mr. Nelson,” Nik stated as he moved to the side of the room, putting the wall at his back. “Care to tell me why?”
Maddix ran his fingers through his hair, and it was obviously not the first time.
“I tried to reach you through Lilly Harrington and her fiancé, Travis Caine, but they were out of the country and unavailable,” Maddix stated quietly. “That only left the few contacts that I could find of Caine’s to get a message to you.”
Nik arched his brow again, remained silent, and waited. Maddix ran his hands over his face before sitting in the large chair behind his desk. His suit jacket lay over the back of the chair, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up haphazardly. The shirt was wrinkled, as were the slacks he wore. He looked like a man under pressure.
“It took a while,” Maddix finally sighed. “I finally learned Caine was in Aspen last year and possibly knew Bailey Serborne Vincent. I contacted her husband, John Vincent, and looked into the possibility that he could help me contact you.”
Nik leaned back in his chair then and watched Maddix silently for long moments. So that was how Maddix had known to contact John Vincent, code-named Heat Seeker, an undercover agent with the agency Nik worked in as well.
Maddix’s knowledge of John had caused an edge of concern when Maddix had contacted Nik.
“How did you learn Travis was in Aspen?” Nik asked.
“Raymond Greer,” Maddix answered. “I knew his wife, Mary, when we were younger. They were in D.C. several weeks ago, when Mary mentioned Bailey’s marriage to John Vincent and John’s friend Travis Caine standing as best man in the wedding.”
How small the world was becoming, Nik thought.
“So, who do you need to rid yourself of?” Nik asked.
Nik’s reputation had been created long before he had taken the identity. Nik Steele had been an assassin and thief, willing to take almost any job.
Maddix’s expression reflected disbelief for several seconds. “No, you misunderstand, Nik. I don’t want to get rid of someone. I want to find out why someone wants to get rid of me. Have you heard about the murder that took place at my building site outside of town?”
Nik narrowed his eyes. “A bit.”
Tehya’s information on it was as thorough and in depth as only Tehya could make it. He knew about every piece of evidence collected, the entire depth of the investigation, and the fact that Maddix was seen committing the murder at the time that he had an airtight alibi.
Maddix gave a mocking laugh, a bitter, angry sound.
“I can’t understand it. I know that girl. I know her family. Her father worked for me, her cousins. Her brothers.” He shook his head wearily. “She seemed like such a good girl, Steele. Mikayla Martin has never seemed like a psycho before, so what the hell happened?”
“I take it you’re saying you didn’t kill your foreman?” Nik asked as though he really didn’t care.
“No, I didn’t kill my damned foreman.” Maddix shot Nik a disgusted look. “As I’m certain you already know, I was in an impromptu business meeting with the mayor, the chief of police, and several of our city leaders. But that damned girl refuses to believe it.”
Maddix was out of his chair and pacing to the wide, historically old windows of his office and stared down at the traffic bustling below before turning back to Nik.
“I need your help,” Maddix said, his wide, tanned face creasing in tiredness. “When you needed information, I provided it for you. When you needed the blueprints on the estate the Harringtons were using, I provided it, quietly. I was there when you needed me; now I need you. You said you owed me. Now I’m calling in the debt.”
Nik pursed his lips and stared back at the other man thoughtfully. Yeah, Nik owed him the favor; there was no denying that. And Maddix wasn’t scrimping when it came to hiring the best. Nik was the best. He took care of things, all kinds of things. If a man wanted the best personal security, he called Nik. If he wanted the best assassin, he called Nik.
“You want the girl killed then?” Nik pressed.
“Fuck no!” Maddix looked like he was going to have a seizure. Shock and disbelief transformed his face as his brown eyes widened once again until they looked as though they would bulge from his face. “I don’t want her hurt. I want to know what the hell is going on with her. Why did she target me?”
Nik sat back as he stared at the other man in confusion.
“If you had me investigated, Maddix, then you know what I’m known for. What makes you think I can help if you don’t want this girl to simply disappear? You’re hiring a sledgehammer here when you need a flyswatter.”
Maddix shook his head as he stared back at Nik as though horrified.
Maddix swallowed tightly, his Adam’s apple bobbing in tight reflex. “I don’t know who else to turn to that could actually do the job. Look, Nik, I’ve helped you in the past, and I don’t want that girl hurt. I simply want to know what the hell is going on. Mikayla has never been caught in a lie. Someone is trying to destroy me. Mikayla or someone else, I don’t know. I want to know who and I want to know why.”
Fuck, Nik didn’t need this.
As Maddix said, he’d provided invaluable information weeks before, during an operation that had threatened one of their own. An operation that had been of vital importance to the security of several nations. Nik did owe Maddix, but as Nik stated, Maddix was hiring a sledgehammer to swat at a fly.
Nik propped his ankle on his knee, set the helmet on his leg, and angled the face shield in Maddix’s direction.
“Did you kill the foreman, Mr. Nelson?” Nik asked coldly, holding his hand up to forestall the words on the other man’s lips. “Let’s not protest yet, because I warn you, you lie to me and I find out, and I’ll kill you as well as those lying for you. Tell me the truth and tell me what you really want before we go any further.”
Maddix shook his head, frustration lining his face as he moved back to his desk and took his seat. A position of control, Nik thought. This was where Maddix Nelson felt the most in control.
“I didn’t kill my foreman.” Maddix wiped his hands over his face again before leaning back in his chair and laying his arms on the sides. “I swear to you, I wasn’t there. And I don’t want the girl hurt. Not so much as a bruise or a moment’s fear. But I do want to know what the hell is going on. I’ve lost three damned good builders, one of the best contract plumbers in the business, and an interior designer I was salivating to get for that office project. All because of Mikayla Martin. They’ve pulled from the project because of their belief in her. And I swear to God, I don’t even blame them. If I were someone else, I’d believe her, too. That’s how honest she has always been. How good her reputation is.” Confusion filled his face now. “If you asked me if I knew a good woman, then Mikayla would be the first that came to my mind.”
Maddix shook his head as he sighed heavily, his lips tightening for long moments.
Damn if Maddix didn’t act as though he was telling the truth. Nik watched curiously as Maddix lowered his head and stared at the desk for long moments.
As he lifted his gaze back to Nik, Maddix finally sighed, confusion evident in his dark brown eyes. “You know, I helped that girl get a loan for that dress shop of hers. My wife and I sent all our friends there for dresses, tuxes, suits, what ever we could do to help her. My wife, Glenda, and Mikayla were fast becoming friends before this happened. I just can’t understand why she’d lie like this.”
“And this is what you want me to look into?” Nik asked incredulously. “Do you know how much I charge, Maddix? I don’t come cheap, even for a fucking favor. This is like putting a junkyard dog in a cage.”
Maddix’s eyes narrowed. “You owe me, Steele; you made that statement yourself. That you owed me one. I’m calling in your marker.”
“That marker gets you a discount,” he grunted. “And a slim one at that. This isn’t a cut-and-dried job. You’re talking about indefinite work here.”
Maddix leaned forward. “Nik, I put myself in a spot when I helped you before. I risked my business, my family, when I went against Lilly Harrington. If she had learned what I was doing, she could have convinced friends to pull out of some very important D.C. contracts I have. I went out on a limb for what you were doing. Remember that while you’re setting your price.”
Nik rose to his feet. “I’ll take eighty percent of my normal fee for the job in cash.”
For a moment, grief flashed in Maddix’s eyes. “I don’t have enough in personal cash at the moment, and too many eyes are watching the business funds since this murder,” he finally said, his voice low. “Give me fifty, Steele. Come on; I know a lot of people. I’ll owe you.”
“I don’t want your favors, Maddix.” Nik stood to his feet as he stared back at the other man coldly. “I’ll be at the Suites until morning if you change your mind.”
“Steele.” Maddix rose as well, his movements jerky. “Look, I don’t have a good feeling about this. I’ve built my business using my gut, and my gut is twisted into so many knots it’s painful. What ever the hell is going on isn’t going to threaten just me; it’s going to threaten her.” He reached to the desk and tossed a picture across it with an angry jerk of his hand.
Nik shouldn’t have looked. He knew he shouldn’t look, but he wanted to make certain the helmet was angled correctly for Tehya to get an image of the picture. However, his eyes went straight to the photo as well, narrowed, and something inside him became intrigued.
Thick, long dark blond hair fell straight as a ribbon, thick and healthy, over her shoulder and across her breasts like a soft, warm, living curtain. She had a wide, clear forehead, a pouty lower lip that drew the male animal inside him. Brows a shade darker than her hair arched over eyes that seemed to suck him in. Amethyst eyes. Eyes that glowed even in that damned photo. They were surrounded by thick, naturally long lashes. Her face was makeup free, innocent, honest. Pure.
Purity, he knew in many cases, was only skin-deep, but somehow, even that cynical part of his soul wanted to believe the purity he saw in her went clear to the bone.
Excerpted from Renegade by Lora Leigh.
Copyright © 2010 by Lora Leigh.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Lora Leigh is the author of Live Wire, Forbidden Pleasure, and Enigma, among many others. Writing is her passion, her peace, and her lifeline, and she can often be found daydreaming and plotting and planning with the varied characters that fill her imagination. When she isn’t writing, she tends her flower gardens, watches horses romp outside her home, or spends time with the family and pets she fills her life with. She lives in the rolling hills of Kentucky.