Sherman Grazicky was not the kind of man who appealed to women. He was short and ugly, and he'd quickly realized he'd never get a woman based on looks or physique, although it didn't stop him from wanting the prettiest woman wherever he went. So he concentrated on developing a charming personality. He became a woman's best friend and confidant, and when they least suspected it, they had fallen for him. He smiled over at his pretty, rich bitch of a wife, Cecily. His scheme had worked nicely on her.
A servant bent down to whisper into his ear.
“Excuse me a moment, gentlemen.” He stood from his place of prominence at the head of the dinner table and kissed Cecily sweetly on her aging cheek. “Business. Please continue to enjoy your dinner.”
The dinner guests acknowledged Sherman with a chorus of grunts, quickly returning to their dinner. Cecily was excellent at entertaining. He was sure she'd keep the guests occupied in his absence. She was the one who insisted on hosting these boring get-togethers. He'd much rather be down at the club, running things and being in charge. He liked his life best when he was the boss.
Sherman didn't acknowledge Hiram's bulky presence as he passed him waiting in the foyer. He proceeded to his office with Hiram following in silence. As he walked down the long hall, his demeanor changed. The impeccably dressed, refined dinner host morphed into a ruthless businessman who didn't accept incompetence. Although physically short and stout, thanks to Cecily's money he wielded fierce power in the underworld. He strolled to the edge of his desk before he turned to the waiting man. “Your face tells me the news isn't good.”
Hiram lifted his broad chest and widened his stance, ready to assume responsibility for the failure. “Payton got away.”
His lips turned up into a sinister grin. “Payton got away,” he mocked. He pounded his fist on the edge of the desk. “Payton got away? How did she get away when you assured me you could handle this job? And an easy job too. The woman is nothing more than a cup of tea. And the police couldn't protect my dogs.”
Hiram removed his skullcap, twisting it between beefy hands. “We took the hotel, no problem. But when we checked the suite, she was nowhere in sight. It must have been a setup.”
“Do you seriously believe the police have the resources for a decoy that elaborate? No. My source says she's been at the Adam's Mark for days. He was right when he fingered her as the prosecution's witness; he's right about this. She was there. The question is, where did she go?”
He bolted across the room and grabbed the taller Hiram by the collar. “And who I'm going to get to kill you.”
“Mr. Grazicky”âsputum spewed from his mouthâ“I can finish this job. Give me a chance to find her.”
“Why? My time is running out. Why should I waste one more minute on you? You were supposed to bring Payton to me. You stormed the hotel like an amateur. It's all over the news. I tell you to be discreet, and you have a shoot-out at the Adam's Mark?”
“She was taken into custody before I could get to her,” Hiram tried to explain. “I had to snatch her before they moved her someplace else and we lost her.” The man wasn't the smartest, but he had a reputation of getting the job done Sherman knew to be true.
“Peopleâpolicemenâare dead. More crimes to pin on me! The police won't let that go until someone hangs.”
“Who knew the police would shoot first? These new rookies don't honor the code.” Hiram cursed. “It should have been a simple snatch.”
“Then you show up hereâwhere there is a room full of witnesses to connect me to you. Exactly why should I let you live?”
“I have a lead.”
Sherman's anger disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced. He released Hiram's collar and smoothed his rumpled clothing. He loved having the clout only money could buy to make big gorillas squirm. “Well, why didn't you say you had a lead?”
“My guys saw a half-dressed woman fitting Payton's description get into a
newspaper truck. That's why I thought it might be a setup. The police wouldn't allow Payton to give an interview if they were trying to hide her, but the news would try to get the story and find where Payton is really stashed.”
“Like one of those
sting operations where a poor sucker is caught on hidden camera doing something stupid. Could the woman have been a decoy while they moved the real Payton?”
The puzzled expression on Hiram's face confirmed he'd never considered the possibility.
“I got the license-plate number of the SUV,” Hiram told him.
“Good,” he said absently. “Follow it up. Where would a woman with no real financial means go if she were on the run?” Sherman asked himself. “Assuming the woman you saw getting into the news truck was Payton, she has no money and no clothes andâ”
“Go to her apartment.”
Hiram's dumb expression didn't fade, but he knew enough not to ask questions.
“See if she doubled back to her place for clothes, then follow up on the SUV.” Sherman strolled over to the desk and perched his hip on the corner. “Let me make something very clear. I'm paying you good money to get this job done. I don't have a lot of time to play with here. Payton has to be stopped from testifying. I don't want the FBI to even get a chance to depose her. If Cecily finds out . . . if Payton talks . . . I go to jail . . . and you go to your grave.”
“Don't talk,” Sherman ordered the young woman in the hot tub next to him. “Be quiet and do what you do best.”
He spread his arms wide across the rim of the hot tub while the woman stroked his naked, tanning-booth-browned body. Even this woman's skillful hands and hungry mouth could not distract him from his troubles. Managing an exclusive club that catered to the rich and famous had its privileges, but Cecily's money afforded him many pleasures, and the ability to have beautiful women twenty years younger than him had to be one of his favorites. Of course, if Cecily knew the VIP floor of Skye was where he “auditioned” the hostesses, she would have shut the club down and thrown him out of the houseâif he was lucky. He let his head drop back and stared up through the skylight at the star-splattered sky. This suite of the club was his favoriteâskylights, the scent of fresh cedar, and a private bedroom off the massage room.
He had made the same stupid mistake most men in his position make. He let himself fall for a beautiful woman. Sure, at first Payton was only eye candy. Gullible and eager to please, she had believed he was actually interested in her suggestions for running his Miami location of Skye. His interests were more focused on the reaction of his groin to her beautiful, exotic features. She kept politely rejecting him, but Sherman was certain it was only a matter of time before he had her in one of the hot tubs. Being able to buy almost any woman he wanted, the depth of his attraction to Payton even after she refused him was astonishing.
The woman in the hot tub straddled him, moaning her wanting of his body. All pretend. She was a pro. She knew what to do to get a man to take care of her. There was no simmering passion like he had seen so many times in Payton's eyes. He'd tried so hard to get her heat focused on him. If there were any way he could erase what Payton had seen that night, he would. If it meant he could have her, he'd travel back in time to correct his mistake.
Reliving the deadly scene of that night made him thrust upward in anger. The woman bounced on his lap, an Academy-Award performance well worth a minimum-wage hostess job. But the women who worked at Skye weren't there for the money. They were there to meet the rich and famous athlete who would marry them and lock them up in a fancy mansion. Or the politician who would make them respectable and erase their years as street whores. Or, his favorite, the women who wanted a chance to impress Diddy or Gordy or Face with their singing.
He pushed the bouncing hostess-wannabe off him the second he climaxed. “Get dressed and get out.” He grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist before he stepped out of the tub.
Two mistakes had been made that night. One, believing Payton had the mental armor to be one of his mistresses. His heart had wrenched when he saw Payton standing in the doorway, speechless and crying, in shock from what she'd seen. And that had been his second mistakeâletting her get away.
“I'll tell you everything you want to know,” Payton promised. “Later. When we're safe. We should go. Before they turn around.”
Breathing heavily, the man watched her as he contemplated the situation. The eagerness in his eyes pulled at Payton's core. This was a man who devoured adrenalin and used it as an aphrodisiac. As soon as the chasing headlights had passed, he jumped into the backseat and pulled her, shivering, into his arms from her hiding place on the floor. He looked out the back window into the darkness. “I think we lost them, angel.”
The endearment made her feel even more guilty about getting him involved, but she had to use every resource available to survive. Considering the circumstances, an apology would sound trite, but the truth wouldn't. “I'm really scared.”
His arms tightened around her bare shoulders. This stranger had the ability to erase a measure of her panic with one reassuring look. He was the best parts of G. I. Joe and Ken in the flesh: ruggedly handsome with brazen cockiness tempered by underlying sensitivity. His long, silky hair was fastened in a ponytail that cascaded to his wide shoulders. His cheekbones ended in a V at the top of his heart-shaped lips. Stationed at the perimeter of his left eyebrow sat a fairy kissâa black mole delineating the rugged handsomeness of his face.
“We'd better get going,” he said, releasing her. He left the backseat of the SUV to get behind the wheel.
Payton climbed from the back and into the passenger seat, snapping the lap belt over her. “Where are you going?”
“I'm taking you to the nearest police station.”
“I can't go to the police.” She had to
get to safety,
and being with the police hadn't proved to be safe.
The man whipped the steering wheel, navigating the huge SUV with ease. The narrow dirt road gave him barely enough room to turn around, but he managed without chipping a branch. He glanced at her as he pulled to a stop at the intersection of the main road. “Where do you want to go?”
“I haven't figured out what to do next,” she admitted.
Payton looked down at the tattered cream nightgown. In her haste to flee the suite, she hadn't even had the time to put on shoes. With gunshots splintering the door, it hadn't been a priority. Being safe for the moment allowed her to drop her guard and remember that Charlotte's spring temperatures still required clothing. Goose bumps stood at attention on her arms. She crossed one foot over the other for warmth and flinched at the damage done by the rock chips on the ledge.
“I need clothes.” There was a sure thought. She could hang on to it until her mind stopped buzzing. Think in concrete terms: get clothes, find a place to hide, contact the authorities. “Can you drop me at my place? I'll decide what to do from there.”
“Do you think it's safe to go home?”
she go and have no fear of being harmed? She'd never imagined being in a situation like this. She had no idea how to handle it.
“Why don't you tell me why those men are chasing you, and I'll help you figure this thing out.”
Her thought processes were as scattered as when the female detective had woken her earlier, bullets flying. She had no money. She didn't have anyone in Charlotte to turn to. After the night's events, she didn't feel the police could adequately protect her. A sob choked her. She swallowed it and asked, “What's your name?”
“I'm sorry about all of this. I really am, but I have to get . . . away from here. Take me home, and it'll be over for you.”
Adriano's dark expression softened a bit. “What's your name?”
Adriano's eyes widened with curiosity. “Payton Vaughn? I've heard your name before somewhere. Who are you?”
“I've told you my name. It's enough.” The police had been diligent about keeping her identity out of the news, but Sherman's men had somehow discovered who she was.
He arched his fairy-kissed brow. “Who's chasing you?”
“Enough questions.” She shivered when a cold wave passed over her. The less he knew, the better for him.
Mistaking her reaction for a response to the temperature, he reached over and cranked on the heat. “You need clothes, but going to your place isn't safe.”
“Where do you live? How far is it?” He would have old clothes she could wear. A man this good-looking had a wife or girlfriend. If no significant other, he had to have a sister. Worse come to worst, she could borrow a pair of his sweats. She would change and be on her way. By the time he alerted the police, she'd be across the state line into South Carolina.
“Where do I live? Do you think I'm going to invite you over?” Adriano's voice dropped an octave. “Although, pretty lady, I might be persuaded to considerâ”
“You sure are full of yourself. How far from here do you live?”
“About eight hundred miles.”
“Chicago?” Payton's voice rang with alarm.
“What's wrong with Chicago?”
“The SUV has local plates.”
has offices in every city. It's not unusual to borrow a truck when I'm on assignment.”
“I'm not answering any more questions until you explain yourself. I want to know why you jumped into my Land Cruiser, tried to make me think a flashlight was a gun, and used me as a getaway car. Explain, Payton.”
He would be the type to play hero and try wrestling her down in the seat again.
The cell phone tucked in the center console rang. He reached for it.
“Let it ring.”
“No.” He grabbed the phone and flipped it open. “Adriano.”
She snatched the phone away from his ear and tossed it in the backseat.
“What's your problem? My partner is still at the hotel. You saw the ambulance and police cars. He might be in trouble.”
A lump thickened in her throat at the memory of the slain officers. “Your partner's safe. The ambulances weren't for him.” Remembering her circumstances, she tried to sound tough. “He'll call a taxi when he can't find you.”
“You know who the ambulances were for?” He had nosy reporter written all over him. He detected a story and would do whatever he had to in order to get it. His nature might work in her favor; it might not.
“Listen, angel, playing this game with you has beenâinterestingâbut I need to get back to
hotel tonight, so I can pack my bags. I have an early flight to Chicago. You don't want to tell me what's going on, fine. Tell me where to drop you. I have things to do.”
His flippant attitude angered her. “Don't you understand how serious this is?”
“No, I don't. You haven't told me what's going on.”
Payton watched him, trying to get a read on his trustworthiness. It was impossible. Even under duress, his eyes looked as if they danced with laughter. His tone roared with arrogance. He wanted to be in control. She wished she could relinquish it to him, relying on his strength to pull her through. The hardest part of everything she had suffered was going through it alone.
Adriano licked his lips and grinned devilishly, knowing he had gained the upper hand. “I'm waiting, Payton Vaughn.”
She'd never forgive herself for what had happened to those police officers at the hotel. She couldn't endanger him. “Take me home.”
She could see the wheels in his head churning, dangerously spinning ideas, but he only asked, “Where do you live?”
Adriano drove past Payton's apartment building three times. “This is a terrible idea, angel.”
no ideas. What did a person do when bad men were trying to kill her and the police had failed in their attempt to protect her? She needed to settle her racing thoughts and come up with a viable plan. She needed to feel safe for just a moment to weigh her options and figure this whole thing out.
“I was hard on you before, but I mean it. This isn't a smart move.” Adriano kept talking, taking the SUV for another tour around the block while he tried to convince her not to go home. “Do you have any family or friends you can go to?”
No way was she dragging her brother and his family or her elderly parents into this. She'd managed to keep them at a safe distance so far; she wouldn't chance them being used as leverage. “I appreciate your concern, but I need to change. I need money. I need time to think.”
He continued to sweep the block, looking side-to-side as he drove, checking for anything suspicious.
“I'm going to go in and change, pack a few things, and then I'm leaving,” she told him. “If I get this done I can be out in ten minutes. It'll take longer than that for those thugs to track down my address.”
“You don't think they know where you live?” He snapped into reporter mode again. “How did you get mixed up with such dangerous people?”
“Please. Let me out.”
He rolled to a slow stop in front of her building. “I don't like this.”
She turned to apologize and thank him for all he'd done when he hopped out of the Land Cruiser and joined her on the sidewalk. “I'll make sure you get inside okay,” he told her.
Everything had happened so quickly she'd never had a chance to unpack after her trip to Miami. She'd spent three days at the new Skye club in Miami, gathering ideas for the best way to operate the business. She was so excited by the trip she'd headed right over to Sherman's office from the airport after her return. She knew he'd be there, no matter how late. She had no idea what he would be doing when she arrived.
Becoming an unwilling witness, she'd gone straight to the police station. After hours of questioning, she was released. Shaken and exhausted, she collapsed into a fitful sleep until the next morning. Local news reports were covering the story by noon. The Skye club in Charlotte was closed down while the police searched for forensic evidence. Sherman was called in for questioning the next day. Twenty-four hours later he was posing for the cameras, smiling while he commended the police on their attempts to dole out swift justice. At dawn the next morning, Payton was being stuffed into the back of an unmarked police car “for her own protection.”
Her apartment was as she'd left it: giant duffel bag consuming the entryway, correspondence lying on the floor under the mail slot, living room needing a good dusting, no lights left on to welcome her home.
She turned to Adriano. “Thank you.”
“You realize you can't stay here.”
Where would she go?
He watched her, dark eyes blazing with unused energy. It pulsated off his hard chest, barely constrained by the black
newspaper T-shirt. He didn't want to go. And she didn't want to be alone.
“You promised to tell me who these guys are who are chasing you,” he said.
The way she calculated it, she had twenty minutes tops to get changed and get out of her apartment. If the hit men were headed this way, it would take them no longer than that to find her address and weave their way through the maze of one-way streets leading to her apartment complex. She didn't have time to share her story. Nor did she want to.
“I can listen while you change,” Adriano prompted. “Reporters have unlimited resources. You'd be surprised who I might know that could help you out of this jam.”
A bump came from down the darkened hallway.
“Cat? Dog?” Adriano whispered, dragging her behind him. “Roommate?”
He stepped backward, pushing her toward the front door.
“Hold it right there.”
Adriano's hands went up.
“You one of Sherman's men?” The body attached to the voice emerged from the shadows. Payton peered around Adriano's broad chest and saw the barrel of a gun.
“Sherman?” Adriano questioned.
“Who are you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Working the story,” Adriano answered, but his voice was strained, not the smooth cadence she'd heard before. “Are you police?”
“FBI,” the man answered.
They'd stationed an officer at her apartment in case she showed up. She exhaled a long-held breath, releasing her tension with it. The FBI was expert at hiding witnesses and keeping them safe. Look at all the mobsters they'd protected over the years, offering them a new life in exchange for their testimony.
“Show me your credentials,” Adriano said, “and I'll show you mine.”
“Like I need to see 'em with you busting out of that T-shirt.”
“Still, I'd like to see yours,” Adriano pressed.
Payton interrupted the battle of wills. “Would you stop being macho? Officer, I'm Payton Vaughn.”
She stepped out from behind Adriano's protective chest, but he grabbed her upper arm and yanked her back. She stumbled, smashing into his chest.
“Agent, isn't it?” Adriano asked the man.
“Honest mistake,” the FBI man said with a kindly smile directed at Payton. “You're the one I've been waiting for.”
Payton disentangled herself from Adriano. “If you could give me a minute to change, I'll be ready to go with you.”
“No need to change,” the agent said.
“What do you mean?”
“Why were you hiding in the bedroom?” Adriano asked, moving his body to partially block hers.