Several hotels later, Adriano announced, “Every hotel in this little town is booked. Travelers driving down to Florida for vacation, and the storm . . . The maid said there's a motel a few miles ahead.”
They drove along the back roads of South Carolina with Adriano grilling her for information about what had happened tonight. When she became visibly upset, he backed off. He offered her time to compose herself but was clear answers were expected.
After several miles, they arrived at a one-pump gas station and motel. A sign in the window read ROOMS. Adriano banged on the office door until an old man dressed in white long johns appeared.
Payton waited anxiously in the SUV. She didn't worry about Adriano abandoning her; he'd had his chance to drive away and call the police but hadn't taken it. Somehow her whereabouts had been discovered when only law officials knew where she was being kept. Now she worried about the car with blackened windows finding them again, pulling up behind the SUV and shooting.
Adriano soon reappeared. The sleek lines of his rain-soaked bodyâtwice her sizeâmade Payton question her sanity in recruiting a stranger for help. She'd blindly trusted the
's reputation when she really didn't know anything about Adriano. He could have pummeled her and tossed her on the side of the road. She wouldn't have been able to fight him off. If she needed clarification about her level of desperation, she'd found it.
She watched as he ran toward the SUV. In another place their meeting could have been more pleasant. Before this happened she had been focused on developing her career, but Adriano would have been a welcome distraction.
He rubbed his hands together in front of the heating vent, and all the sinewy muscles of his arms flexed. “He wants an arm and a leg for the one room he has left. I don't think we have much choice.” He looked to her for confirmation.
“I guess not,” she mumbled, wanting to be at home in her own bed.
“I'll need the money back.”
She turned to the window as she dug into her gown to retrieve it from underneath her breast. Adriano watched, the fairy kiss lifting with sinful interest in her chosen method of securing the cash. She handed him the money. He rubbed his thumb across the bills, his eyes glued to where she had hidden them.
“He's waiting.” She nodded toward the impatient-looking man.
In a flash, Adriano handed the man one of the bills and was back inside the car. He whipped the SUV around the building. “The manager says there are no twenty-four-hour stores around here. You'll have to wait until morning to get decent clothes.”
She swept her fingers through her wild, wet mane. She crossed her arms over her breasts. Her modesty had quickly disappeared when she stepped out onto the ledge of the Adam's Mark Hotel, but in the confining space of the SUV, it returned with a vengeance.
Adriano read the hand-painted numbers on the motel doors. Only a pick-up truck occupied the parking lot of the one-story, white-brick building. “Here we are. Room 104.” He pulled up to the door and cut the engine. “Definitely not the Adam's Mark.”
Tiny pieces of hail mixed with the rain pattering across the windshield. “Let me go in first. I'll bring a blanket back.” He returned with a black wool blanket and held it open for her. She stepped down into his arms. He wrapped her up tightly, holding her close as they ran for the motel. She liked the feel of his arms: strong and sure. Once inside, he released his hold. She turned and thanked him, stepping away with the blanket but suddenly feeling adrift.
No more than functional, the room would be her shelter from the storm brewing outside. The lingering odor of stale cigarettes filled the tiny room. A double bed, a nightstand with lamp, and a television completed the space. A continuous leak from the faucet had made a wide rust stain in the bathtub. Neatly stacked on the back of the toilet were two sets of towels that looked as rough as sandpaper.
“Definitely not the Adam's Mark,” Payton said. “But I'm so tired, I don't care.”
They shared a moment of uncertainty. Payton broke the concentrated eye contact by moving to the window. She pushed the dusty curtain aside and peered out into the storm.
Men were after her who would kill her without a second thought. The authorities had to be upset they'd lost their prime witness. Innocent police officers had died tonight in the line of duty, and they wouldn't be happy to learn she'd run to South Carolina.
It was emotionally devastating to try to understand it all. The situation felt surreal, as if she were watching it from outside her body. She couldn't make it through the night alone.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“One option would be to go back to Charlotte and catch my flight to Chicago in the morning. Another would be calling the police and reporting what happened at your place. Or you can tell me what the hell is going on.” He moved closer. “Guess which one I'm choosing?”
“The storm is getting worse.”
“I know you're scared, but you'll feel better when you tell me what's going on.”
She moved to the bed, and he sat next to her, the mattress dipping and tilting her in his direction. “There's only one bed,” she pointed out, although she hadn't agreed outright to tell him anything.
“I'll sleep in the chair. Believe me, I've slept in worse places.”
She turned, watching him.
“Your feet okay?”
“I'll be fine.” She had escaped gunfire and a bad FBI agent. Jagged rocks and chipped glass wouldn't take her down.
Adriano's voice softened with compassion. “Let me look. Slide back on the bed.”
She sat with her back against the headboard watching Adriano while he examined the damage to her feet. The curious tone of his skin gave her no clue to his heritage. True, he stood tall, dark, and handsome, but there were undertones in his complexion she couldn't distinguish. His eyes danced while the corner of his mouth hardened in concentration. “You have glass in your feet.”
Did the glass come from the ledge, or the side of the road? She didn't know. She hadn't noticed the tenderness of her feet until Adriano placed them across the hard muscles of his thighs and began plucking at the glass. He went into the tiny bathroom and returned with a towel and warm washcloth. He worked intently on removing the glass in silence until he finally asked, “Tell me what this is all about.”
“My ex,” she began the lieâa necessity to keep him safe. The reporter in him would want every detail, but knowing too much could get him a target painted in the center of his chest. “We had a fight. I ended it. He didn't take it well.”
Adriano nodded, his concentration centered on removing a sliver of glass. He squeezed and manipulated her heel until the shard came free. “You broke it off, and he wouldn't accept your decision. His reaction is a bit drastic, don't you think? Ex-husband, or ex-boyfriend?”
“What's his name?”
An easy-to-remember name slipped past her too-relaxed lips. “Tommy.”
Adriano moved to the other foot, alternating the warm cloth with the massage of his fingers. “Tommy is crazy in love with you.”
There was truth in that.
Payton's eyes fluttered. She was exhausted. Adriano made her feel comfortable with his gentle ministrations and softened tone. “Why are you helping me?”
“I have a Land Cruiser with thousands of dollars' worth of repair work needed on it parked outside. Not to mention almost being run off the road, someone shooting at me, and involving myself in an assault against a FBI agent.”
He tempered the sarcastic answer with quiet empathy. “I couldn't leave you on the side of the road, not knowing if you were safe. I'll get you to the police in the morning.”
“You've done more than enough. I can find my own way.”
“And leave me to explain all the damage to the SUV to my editor? The police can meet you at the Adam's Mark and help you get your things. Then you can give them information about your ex so he can take care of the damage to the SUV.”
“I'll call the police first thing in the morning.” Another lie. She'd be gone by the time he woke up. She would take the keys to the SUV, whatever money was left after paying the hotel bill, and drive and drive.
Adriano pressed the warm cloth against her feet. “I wish we had some gauze and a bandage. It doesn't look too bad, but you still need to keep it clean or it'll get infected.” He removed the cloth and kneaded the flesh of her sole. Her bone-tired body quickly succumbed to his rhythm. Her body felt heavy, wet, and cold. She slumped into the stack of pillows.
Adriano glanced up with his dancing eyes. “Your boyfriend must be dangerous. Ramming into the back of us like that. Shooting at you. Getting a buddy at the FBI to kidnap you.”
He was fishing for information. Payton conceded she owed him an explanation. He was placing his life in jeopardy to help a complete stranger. But giving him the truth would only put him in more danger. She opted to continue the lie. “That about sums Bobby up.”
She stiffened. What name had she used?
Adriano's eyes burned into her. “You said your boyfriend's name was Tommy.”
“It isn't. It's Bobby. I didn't want to tell you his real name.”
“Why not?” He was coming in for the kill, using a tone as soft as silk. “You told me your nameâfirst and last. I could track him down with that information alone. Everything you've said, running away without any clothes, the fear in your eyes . . . This is about more than an angry boyfriend. Why were you at the Adam's Mark Hotel?”
Payton wanted to trust him so badly. She needed help to get out of this situation alive. She was alone and cold and afraidâvery afraid. She could tell Adriano the truth. He'd been a big help to her. He had proven he wouldn't abandon her. If the truth was too heavy for him, the worst that could happen would be him running away. The best: he'd help her find a solution to her problem.
“Why were the police and ambulances at the hotel?”
The image of dead bodies assaulted her. The sound of gunfire echoed in her ears.
He placed her feet on the bed. A sign he was about to leave.
“Payton, I'll help you if you're in trouble, but only if you tell me the truth. I've been patientâmore than patient, considering everythingâbut it's time now to tell me everything.”
They watched each other for a long moment as Payton wrestled with what to do.
His cell phone jingled. When he left the bed, the mattress shifted, tossing her into reality.
When had he gotten it from the backseat?
His partner had been at the Adam's Mark.
She wouldn't be able to keep the truth from him . . . and when he found out she had liedâhe would leave her . . . alone . . . abandoned . . . afraid.
“Adriano.” Her voice quivered.
He pressed the phone to his ear and moved across the room. He asked the caller, “What's happening at the hotel?” He glanced in her direction, and Payton knew she had no more time.
“I'll tell you everything.” She scrambled off the bed and ran to him. “Please hang up the phone, and let me tell my side of it.”
He stared into her eyes as the male voice on the other end of the phone rambled on. She grabbed the ends of his shirt and clung to him. “Please, Adriano.” She buried her face against the muscles of his chest. “Hear me out.”
“Are you still there, A?” the man called.
She burrowed deeper into the definition of his chest, holding on for life. His free arm came up to her waist. His muscles loosened, making her sink deeper into his body. His chest felt like silk cloth covering rock. He cradled her into false comfort. Her eyes fluttered for a brief moment before the voice on the cell phone reminded her of her mission.
“Jake, I'll call you back.” Adriano disconnected, setting her away from him. He loomed over her, waiting, his patience gone. “Start talking, angel.”
Silk gliding over smooth cotton. Payton's soft curves pressed against his hard body. The give of the mattress when he suspended his body weight above her on his elbows. Pumping deep. “
please.” Pumping. The headboard slamming against the wall with every thrust of his pelvis. “
please.” Pulling away until the moisture drowning the mushroom tip of his penis dried from the sudden assault of the cool air swirling around them. Inhaling deep the fragrance: the mixed musk of their bodies with the sweet floral fragrance of roses. To the foot of the bed, his knees sinking into the carpet. The rough pads of his fingers grasping her ankles, pulling her silk-covered body across the smooth cotton of the sheets. Eyes closed, tasting. Tasting the surface and beyond. “Adriano,
” Different now, begging for more. “Adriano,
Adriano envisioned it all as he stood over Payton while she sat on the bed, gazing up at him, pleading for a chance to tell her side of the story before he made any judgments.
“How much did your partner tell you?” she asked.
“Jake. All he knew.”
Payton stared up at him for a long moment. She was deciding what to tell him. Crocodile tears filled the corners of her eyes, but she fought to hold them back. She turned her head and took two quick swipes at her face before looking at him again.
“Don't start with the Bobby-Tom stuff. Tell me the truth.” He dropped his arms, lost the angry stance, and released the tension in his voice. “If I wanted to hurt you, I could have when you first jumped in the SUV.”
Payton didn't answer.
“If I didn't want to help you, I could've left you on the side of the road.”
She parted her lips in contemplation, the words on the tip of her tongue.
“Start by telling me why you don't want me to know what's going on,” he gently prodded.
“I don't want you to get hurt.”
The truth. Finally.
“I can take care of myself . . . and you too.”
He watched her wet her lips with her tongue, immediately drawn back into his fantasy. He had left off with him on his knees at the foot of the bed. The parting of her lips prodded him to swiftly switch their positions. Payton on her knees, her hands delicately cupping him. Her head dipping low, lips parted.
“Do you know Sherman Grazicky?”
The words shattered his fantasy with the force of a rock hurled through a window. All hope that
Sherman he was investigating and
Sherman, who sent a crooked FBI agent to accost her, weren't the same person was gone.
“He's my boss. I manage his Charlotte nightclub, Skye.” Payton stared down at her bare feet.
“What does Sherman Grazicky have to do with what's going on?”
Jake had told Adriano what he knew, but not enough. Police officers were dead. Hotel guests reported hearing gunshots. One man described it as a Wild West gunfight. The informant was too scared to talk. He slipped out of the hotel in the mounting confusion. But before the man slipped away, he told Jake the same thing he'd told the police. There had been a murder, and Grazicky had placed a hit on the key witness against himâa beautiful woman.
“What does Grazicky have to do with all of this?” he asked again.
things the FBI need me to testify to in order to prosecute him.” She wrapped her arms around herself.
His investigative curiosity kicked in. “What things?”
She hesitated, her eyes dropping to the floor. He sat next to her and took her hands in his, encouraging her.
“It all started when I flew to Miami.”
“Why'd you go there?”
“Sherman's opening another Skye club. It's under construction, but almost complete. I've been managing the club here, but the Miami location would be a huge promotion. It's in a multimillion-dollar district. Since Sherman lives here, I'd be solely in charge. He sent me there on a scouting mission. Everything went well. I wrote an entire proposal. I was so excited, I thought I'd drop by the club when I returned to Charlotte to tell him how it went and schedule a meeting to present my ideas.”
“Go on,” he said when she became quiet.
“I knew Sherman would be at the club. He's always at the club. When I got there, one of the security people directed me to the private suites. I should have been suspicious right then. No one enters the private suites without an invitation.”
“It's our little Las Vegas: what goes on in the private suites stays in the private suites. People pay thousands of dollars and wait weeks for access. Once the room is booked, the patron is given a key and a cell phone and no one goes in without an invitation.”
“Not even you?”
“Not even me, and I'm the manager. Sherman runs the operation of the suites. Everything is top secretâwho comes, who visits, who pays what, when they'll be thereâonly Sherman knows.”
“You never found this suspicious?”
“Honestly, no. The rich and famous can be paranoid. The strict privacy is one reason the club is so popular. More than being suspicious, I was annoyed. I'm the manager, and parts of the club are off-limits to me. It's one of the reasons I wanted to manage the Miami clubâSherman wouldn't be there to limit me.”
“But this night the security guard told you to go up to the suite. It had to raise flags.”
“Looking back now, yes. Then, no. I was so excited about telling him my ideas. Besides, Skye was closed, so the suites were empty. I figured it was another attempt to impress me.”
“By the security guard?”
“Sherman,” she answered. “He comes on to me.”
Adriano could imagine it, and he didn't like the idea of someone with Grazicky's history trying to blemish Payton. “You went to the suite and what happened?”
“I followed voices to Sherman. When I walked in . . .”
He sandwiched her hands between his, silently encouraging her to go on.
“Adriano.” She looked at him, her eyes big and wide with fear. “I heard him tell his bodyguard to kill a man, and then I saw the bodyguard do it.”
Payton had witnessed Sherman Grazicky ordering a murder.
And Grazicky knew she had reported it to the police.
They were dead.
He went stone-still, fighting to keep his face neutral as Payton watched for his reaction. His mind twisted through a labyrinth of scenarios.
“Understand now why I didn't want to get you involved? Why I didn't tell you?” Payton's voice trembled on the verge of hysteria.
He'd been investigating Grazicky for a year, but never was there any direct evidence of his involvement in any crimes. He had a million questions, but started with the most important one. “Who did he have killed?”
“I don't know.”
“I can see the man's face as clear as glass, but I'd never met him before, so I don't know who he is.”
“The police didn't tell you the victim's name?”
“The body was gone when they arrived at Skye. With so much traffic coming and going, the forensic team didn't find anything to arrest him on. He was picked up for questioning, but with no body, insufficient evidence, and an alibi, he was released.”
He'd heard rumblings of Grazicky being arrested on trumped-up charges and having to be released, but he didn't have a source inside the police station who could give him any information. The first he'd learned of a murder was through Jake's informant.
“Grazicky wants you aliveâwhy?” Adriano asked, working out the mystery aloud. “Why come after you if there's no body, no evidence, and no charges pending? The police would rack it up as a crazy female seeing things if he never put a hit out on you.” He ran a hand across the angles of his face. “You're running from Grazicky and the FBI?”
“I was placed in protective custody when Sherman found out I was the witness against him.”
“It's hard to convict someone of murder without a body and no clue who the dead person is.” He left the bed and expended his nervous energy by pacing. “Give me the details about what happened at the Adam's Mark.”
“The detective woke me and said hit men were outside. She helped me take the ledge into the next room. I took the stairs and left through the kitchen. I saw the
“I know the rest.” He stopped in front of her. “Except why an FBI agent tried to kidnap you. He could have shot you on the spot. It would have put an end to Grazicky's problems, but he said Grazicky wanted to talk to you. Why?”
She shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe he wants to kill me himself.”
Adriano shook his head and resumed his pacing. “No. Grazicky isn't the type of man to get his hands dirty. Jake and I have been investigating him for a year. Special investigators at the authorities haven't been able to prosecute him. It's impossible to directly connect him with anything. He has layers and layers of logistics and people between him and his illegal activities. There's something else he wants from you.”
“I don't know, but whatever it is, it's going to keep you alive.”
Payton bolted from the bed. She grabbed his rain-soaked shirt in her tiny fists. “No one can protect me if I take the stand. Even if he goes to jail, his men will always haunt me.”
Her eyes were wild with panic. It stabbed at his chest to see this angel crumbling because of Grazicky. The corrupt FBI agent or Sherman Grazickyâboth crooks who would rather kill her than take a chance she knew too much.
testify,” he told her. “What you know will put him away for a long time.”
“If it doesn't kill me first.”
Payton pressed into him, plastering her body against his. She was shaking, terrified and vulnerable. His hormones flared to life, and at the worst possible time he remembered how long it had been since he shared his bed with a woman. One of the perks of traveling the country on assignment was the opportunity to experience women of all flavors, but the Grazicky investigation had distracted him, and he hadn't had the opportunity to sample the local southern delights Charlotte offered. Payton clung to him, sweet perfection at his fingertips. Besides her vulnerability right now, Payton wasn't the type of woman he'd be satisfied to spend one night with. He'd need time to pleasure her properly. He stroked her hair once before he moved away on the pretense of taking off his wet shirt. His judgment couldn't become clouded by a pretty face and a slamming body.
“My partner and I are in Charlotte on special assignment to investigate Grazicky. Jake was at the Adam's Mark tonight to meet with an informant who knew about you witnessing the murder.”
“I had no idea.”
He paced the tight space of the motel room.
Payton blocked his path. “Will you help me? If you can get me clothes and put me on a Greyhound, you'll never see me again.”
Reporter mode kicked in. “
can break this story wide open. I'll help you, but you have to tell me what you know about Grazicky.”
“Just because I worked at his club doesn't mean I was his confidant.”
“You've seen the books, which means you have valuable information. Even if you don't know what it is. The IRS put Capone away on tax fraud. You witnessed him ordering a hit and saw his man do it. I want to hear about it before the FBI does.”
Payton hesitated. “What will you do with what I tell you?”
“Write the story of the century!”
Jake would keel over when he told him the angel who had kidnapped him was the key to their entire investigation.
“You can give me phone numbers, remember telephone messages, and tell me the names of the people coming and going at Sherman's estate.”
Payton mumbled, “I'm a reporter's dream.” Her eyes flickered up and away from his.
He agreed. Payton was a dreamâof a different kind. He backed off, afraid he'd alienate her.
“The Charlotte police were supposed to take me to FBI headquarters in the morning.”
He started pacing again. “I'll give them a call and tell them about the agent on your living-room floor. It should start an investigation. You'll be safe.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“We have to let the police know where you are, and that you're still alive. The Charlotte police department is probably combing the streets for you right now. You're a witness. You can't just walk away. They'll find you, and put
A shadow crossed Payton's face, and his heart lurched. Her fear was palpable. He couldn't imagine how it would be to have Sherman Grazicky's henchmen trying to kill you.
Payton was in over her head.
“I'll take you directly to FBI headquarters myself. Sherman may be able to buy one agent, but not the entire force.”
She watched him with careful eyes, putting her faithâher lifeâin his hands.
“I'll find a pay phone tonight and tell them about the agent at your place. We'll let the FBI know where you are tomorrow. I'll get you clean clothes, and we'll have breakfast.”
“And what do you want in return?”
“You tell me everything you know.”
Payton nodded, clearly not eager to relive the trauma.