Excerpt: Nightfire

Nightfire by Lisa Marie Rice

Book 3: The Protectors

Chloe Mason sat in the very elegant waiting room of RBK Security, Inc., which was in a very elegant building in very elegant downtown San Diego.

She’d spent a lot of time in plush, designer surroundings, but she was still impressed with the large room which managed to be both beautiful and designed for comfort and efficiency.

It also had another quality she was very familiar with. Everything in the room, from the color palette of light earth tones to the lush, healthy plants to the expensive couches and armchairs, the interesting but not shrill modern artwork, was designed to calm and to soothe.

It was still the Christmas season, but the office didn’t have the usual loop of nauseatingly familiar carols playing, which many found grating and stressful, particularly if they were in trouble. Rather, the Christmas spirit was honored by soft medieval madrigals playing in the background. Instead of killing a tree, the company had put up a colored light sculpture that was both intriguing and beautiful.

She’d spent all of her childhood and a good deal of her adolescence in and out of very expensive medical clinics and that mixture of good taste and reassurance was one she was familiar with.

Even the receptionist was soothing. Chloe had walked into this highly successful office and asked to speak with one of the partners. In American business-dom that just didn’t happen. She knew enough of business etiquette to know that.

And yet she hadn’t made an appointment. She’d propelled herself here from Boston without even thinking of making one, excited and terrified and hopeful, in equal measure.

So she’d walked over to the elegant U design of the reception counter and quietly given her name to the slender, sharply-dressed receptionist with beautiful silver hair cut by someone who knew what he was doing.

The receptionist hadn’t blinked at the unexpected request. She simply looked up and asked whether the appointment was urgent.

Urgent? Was it urgent? Maybe, maybe not. Though if Harry Bolt was who she thought he was, it was more than urgent. It was life-shattering.

So she simply nodded, throat too tight to plead her cause.

“Okay then,” the receptionist had said, tapping on her touch screen. “It’s a busy morning for Mr. Bolt, but I’ll do what I can.” She looked up again, eyes searching Chloe’s face. “Would one of the other partners do? Mr. Keillor has a free hour this morning.”

Mr. Keillor would be Michael Keillor, former Marine, former SWAT officer, current partner. She’d read his bio on the RBK web site and seen his unsmiling photograph. He looked smart and tough and capable, just like all the partners. If she had security problems, he’d probably be just as good as Harry Bolt.

But her problems didn’t have anything to do with security.

She shook her head, hoping the receptionist wouldn’t take her inability to speak as discourtesy. And while she was at it, that the receptionist wouldn’t notice Chloe’s shaking hands.

The receptionist didn’t, she simply touched the screen again. “Okay, I can clear you for Mr. Bolt at nine thirty, if you don’t mind waiting.”

Chloe had waited all her life for this moment. Another half an hour wouldn’t make any difference. She managed to choke out a thank you through her tight throat and sat down to wait on one of the incredibly comfortable armchairs that dotted the enormous lobby.

So many emotions swirled in her chest that she couldn’t feel any single one in particular, just a huge pressure so powerful she could barely breathe. She wanted so much for—

And she stopped herself right there. Wanting didn’t make things happen. If there was one thing her life had taught her, it was that. She could want so fiercely she thought she would explode and it wouldn’t make any difference at all. It was impossible to understand what really could make a difference. Fate? Perhaps. Randomness? Maybe. Wanting? No.

So she sat back in the extremely comfortable and attractive armchair and…disappeared.

It was her trick, harshly learned throughout her childhood. Bad things happened to her when she got noticed. She’d learned very early to sit back and become unnoticed. She didn’t become literally invisible. It’s just that she could turn off all the subconscious signals humans sent to each other, so that no one noticed her.

She sat there, unmoving, saying nothing, and observed. Observed the other people waiting for one of the three partners. There were three men in the room, all middle-aged or older, all visibly rich and powerful. Businessmen, who wanted RBK to help them in something or with something. Two were sweating so badly a slightly acrid odor rose above their expensive colognes. The other sat in Male Mode, knees apart, clasped hands between them. He radiated anger and aggression.

Chloe didn’t dare look at him. Though she’d perfected the art of blandness, she knew through bitter experience that an angry male took even a chance meeting of eyes as aggression.

She turned her head toward the entrance door so that he couldn’t even pretend to think that she was staring at him, and watched as the sliding door swooshed open.

A man walked into the waiting room and all male eyes swiveled to him, watching his progress across the lobby. The three rich-looking men might think that they were alpha males in their own environments but they weren’t. Chloe knew many rich men who thought their money gave them top dog status anywhere, any time. Often it did, but not always.

This man, striding across the room, was the alpha male. He’d be the alpha male in any grouping, rich man, poor man, didn’t make any difference.

He wasn’t tall but he was immensely broad—wide shoulders, thick arms, strong neck. A bodybuilder but without that bodybuilder waddle because he clearly built onto muscles that were already there. His movements were fast, precise, powerful. The strongest man in the room, hands down. And he’d be the strongest man in the room in most rooms.

Michael Keillor. The K in the RBK. He wouldn’t be billionaire rich but he didn’t have to be. He was wealthy, successful, dominant. Enough by any person’s measure.

He scanned the lobby as he walked by, eyes dwelling for a moment on her. He didn’t break his stride, but Chloe knew he was studying her. She met his eyes, fiercely blue, very intelligent, impersonal and cold. Suddenly he blinked, the coldness vanished and something happened, but she didn’t know what.

When he walked in, he’d launched himself across the room as if it were just a way station as he arrowed toward the offices visible behind a glass-plated sliding door, but now he detoured and stopped for a moment at the desk, elbows on the counter, leaning forward to talk to the receptionist.

The woman looked startled, then shot a glance at Chloe.

Her heart gave a painful beat in her chest. He was discussing her? Why? Did he have some inkling of why she was here? How could he? No one on earth knew why she was here. Not even old Mr. Pelton, the family lawyer, knew, because she hadn’t approached him yet.

Time enough for that if she were successful. Not that Mr. Pelton would ever approve.

No. Her mission here was completely secret.

So why was Michael Keillor discussing her with the receptionist?

It was…it was unnatural. Chloe wasn’t used to being the focus of anyone’s attention. She didn’t remember learning the art of passing under everyone’s radar. It had always been there and she’d perfected it over the years.

She never dressed outrageously. Her clothes were expensive, but low-key, never too trendy. She was always clean and groomed, but never flashy.

All her life, people had taken one look and simply forgotten her in an instant, walking on by. Chloe didn’t want attention. Not out of shyness, but because she was afraid of it. Since she could remember, attention had meant danger. If someone looked at her too closely, her heart began pounding, an instinctive and totally uncontrollable reaction.

Michael Keillor nodded at the receptionist, took another look at her that had her hands sweating, and disappeared through the sliding glass door into the offices at the back of the lobby.

Nine fifteen. The appointment with Harry Bolt was in a quarter of an hour if he were a punctual man.

Chloe sat back to do what she did best—wait. It seemed almost her entire childhood—what she could remember of it anyway—and adolescence had been spent waiting. Waiting for the scars to heal, waiting for the casts to come off, waiting to recover from the last surgery, waiting for the next one. She was the goddess of waiting. If there were a PhD in waiting, she’d have been awarded one years ago.

She knew exactly how to prepare for a bout of waiting, how to breathe shallowly, slowly, how to distance herself from her body, how to will herself to stillness.

In college, she’d read up on a number of behavioral and mind-control techniques and found that she’d taught them all to herself instinctively, without knowing they existed.

Chloe could outwait anyone. Just sink right down into herself until she needed to come back up.

But right now, it shocked her to realize that none of her techniques worked. Her breath was rapid, almost panting. Her heart trip-hammered in an anxious, uneven rhythm. Her palms were sweaty. There was no way she could will herself back into her well of calm. She kept clutching the manila envelope on her lap over and over again, until the edges were sweat-stained and crumpled. Another sign of huge stress, together with the feeling that there was no oxygen in the room.

She had waited her entire life for this moment, without knowing it. And now that it was here, she wasn’t prepared. She would never be prepared. She’d thought and thought about what she would say but nothing occurred to her. Her mind was empty, hollow and shiny with panic. She didn’t even know if she could talk, her mouth was so dry.

Think, Chloe! She told herself sternly. She’d done so many hard things in her life, surely she could do this?

What to say? How to tell if she even should say it? Maybe she’d talk to the man and realize that she’d been insane to rush across the country for this. Maybe—

“Ms. Mason?”

Chloe turned, heart pounding. “Y-yes?” she stammered, sliding forward to the edge of her seat.

The receptionist gave her a kind smile. Considering how upscale this office was, the smile was purely gratuitous. Most receptionists and secretaries in successful big-bucks enterprises were haughty. Certainly Mr. Pelton’s was. In all the visits to her lawyer’s offices, Chloe had mainly seen Mr. Pelton’s secretary’s nostrils as she tilted her head up to look down her nose.

“Mr. Bolt is free to see you now. Third door to your right down the corridor.” She pointed to the big glass doors next to the reception desk.

Oh God, this is it!

Panic keened in Chloe’s head as she slowly rose, hoping her knees would support her. It was a very real fear. Both her knees were complex creations of plastic and steel and they were as delicate as they were high-tech.

Everyone’s eyes followed her as she made her slow way across the lobby, which suddenly felt as huge as the Gobi Desert. The glass door ahead of her was so clean it glowed. How was she supposed to—ah. It swooshed open at some invisible command.

Inside the corridor, the feeling of luxury was even more powerful. The doors were shiny brass, with no door knobs, only built-in flat screens to the right. The rooms must be enormous because it felt like she walked for ages down the gleaming parquet corridor simply to get to the third door on the right.

Here, too, she was met with a wall as blank as her head. She simply stood there, clutching purse and envelope tightly, waiting for the next step. Any thoughts or plans simply vanished from her head. She felt as if she were walking on some kind of uncontrollable path where she could only stumble forward and never turn back.

She stared at the shiny brass door, looking blankly at her reflection, mind emptied of thought for a heartbeat, two. Then there was a whirring sound, a click releasing some invisible mechanism, and this door too slid open.

Chloe stood, frozen, on the threshold. She’d been dreaming of this moment all her life, thinking she was insane because it happened only in her dreams.

When things remained as hopes and dreams you could decide how they turned out. And though not much in her life had turned out well, in her dreams this always had. It had always ended in laughter and joy.

Only in her head, though.

Which was notoriously unstable.

Chloe trembled. Stepping into this room might mean stepping into a new and better life. Or it might forever trap her behind the invisible but oh-so-real wall she’d lived behind all her life.

It felt as if her entire existence were hanging by a thread, by a step.

“Ms. Mason?” a deep voice said and she gasped in air. She’d been holding her breath for almost a minute without realizing it.

Across another vast room, two men were standing, as gentlemen did for ladies. One was Michael Keillor.

She didn’t want him there. Her business was exclusively with Harry Bolt and if her business ended badly, she didn’t want anyone else to view her humiliation. But a lifetime of training made her hold her tongue. She didn’t even remotely have the courage to ask him to leave the room.

The other man was…was Harry Bolt. Chloe eyed him hungrily. Much taller than Michael Keillor and almost, but not quite, as broad. Dark blond hair, light brown eyes. Familiar-looking eyes.

Her heart was slamming against her chest so hard she wondered if they could hear it.

Chloe was used to observing and interpreting body language, but there was absolutely nothing to read here. Both men were utterly still, both were utterly expressionless.

She had no way at all to gauge their feelings. No way to figure out how this would end.

Shaking, with a feeling of doom interlaced in her heart with wild hope, Chloe stepped into the room.

She’s scared shitless, Mike thought, glad that he’d horned in on this meeting. This Chloe Mason had specifically asked for Harry Bolt but once Mike had seen her in the lobby, he knew he had to be here, too.

Because this woman was clearly one of the Lost Ones. A woman in trouble, on the run from some violent asshole. And shit, it made him angry all over again that there were monsters in the world who could beat up on women.

RBK mainly dealt with corporate security. In the lobby waiting for RBK’s very expensive services, there’d been two CEOs and one head of security for a Fortune 500 company. Mike had read their files, knew what their problems were, and knew how to solve them.

Those three men alone probably represented about a million dollars in business this year for RBK.

Chloe Mason represented nothing, because RBK policy was not to accept money from women on the run. If anything, RBK often provided the women with a little nest egg to see them through that first difficult year.

On average, after the first year, they were safe.

After last night, Mike really, really wanted to make a woman safe. Wanted to help a woman, particularly a woman like this, soft and gentle and completely undeserving of the sick fuck who’d forced her to come to them.

This morning Sam was staying home with Nicole, who had bad morning sickness, so the corporate honchos would be divided between him and Harry. Stuff he and Harry could do with their eyes closed. All three of them had an instinctive understanding of security risks—their entire childhoods had been security risks—and they had been trained very hard and very expensively by Uncle Sam to learn how to deal with risks. It was a question of knowledge and reason.

But with their Lost Ones, the trembling and broken women who showed up on their doorstep because RBK was their last chance before falling into the abyss—when dealing with them, you used both your head and your heart.

Though the woman in the lobby had asked to see Harry, Mike instinctively knew she was his. He had to be the one to help her.

Not because she was beautiful, though she was. Astoundingly beautiful.

But because she looked so lost, so alone. She was slightly built, with pale skin and pretty, delicate features. A slightly overlarge mouth, huge light brown, almost golden eyes.

Her clothes were expensive. So were her shoes and purse. Expensive, elegant, discreet. This was a lady of taste and of breeding and she looked rich.

Didn’t matter.

He and his brothers had seen a lot of everything pass through their doors. Women who’d been beaten up by low-life drug-addict husbands and lovers, sure. But also wives of lawyers and doctors and even a Senator. The rich weren’t immune to the joys of beating up on women and children. If anything, they were able to hide it better, and for longer.

The police were also more willing to turn a blind eye.

The rich wives who ended up as one of RBKs Lost Ones sometimes tried going to the police, but their husbands often wielded enormous power and were able to get away with things poorer men went to jail for. The wives of the rich fucks were just as beaten down as their poorer sisters.

This woman, this Chloe Mason, belonged to the rich, there was no mistaking it. And not the new rich, either. She had that understated elegance of someone who didn’t need to make a splash, someone for whom good taste came naturally.

From head to toe she was groomed and lovely. But there was something underneath those pretty, expensive designer duds that was a little less lovely.

She moved slowly, exactly like someone who’d been punched hard, in a place covered by clothes. That was a little trick fuckhead men who liked beating up on women and kids learned. Their rages might be uncontrollable, but boy they knew enough to reason it out and punch where it wouldn’t show. Last week a banker’s wife had come in without a visible scratch on her. Except, of course, for a ruptured spleen that had required eight hours of surgery six months before. It had followed broken ribs and a punch to the liver so hard the liver had sustained damage.

Shitheads knew what they were doing, all right. Even in a fucking rage they knew enough to cover their tracks.

Someone had done something like that to Chloe Mason, who moved so very carefully, as if she would fall down if she didn’t watch it.

Oh man. Who could do that to someone like her? Who could do it to any woman or child? But especially to Chloe Mason, with her soft skin and gentle features and slender build?

He glanced at Harry, expecting him to say something, then glanced again.

What the fuck?

It was like Harry was frozen. He simply stood there, staring at her. Not in a sexual way. Like Sam, Harry loved his wife fiercely and absolutely. He had zero interest in other women since his marriage. But something about this woman riveted his attention. And blocked his tongue, because he wasn’t saying anything.

Harry knew as well as Mike that these women needed reassurance. They did not need a male staring at them. Particularly a tall, strong male. That kind of staring came off as aggression and women like Chloe Mason had had a bellyful of that.

Mike elbowed Harry in the ribs, to no effect. Okay, so Harry was out for the count. It was up to him.

“Welcome, Ms. Mason,” he said gently to the frightened woman slowly crossing Harry’s office. Since Harry wasn’t moving, Mike walked around the desk and approached her slowly. No sudden moves, just nice and easy.

She stared up at him and he had to jerk his gaze away because he was staring too, just like his idiot brother Harry.

Damn, she was…she was lovely. The old-fashioned word was exactly right. Nowadays beautiful was the technical term used for a woman who worked on herself, got herself some surgical enhancement, who stood out because of the way she was dressed and was made up.

Chloe Mason had a different kind of beauty, made up of perfect skin, delicate features, soft blonde hair, huge golden eyes, none of that, as far as he could see, enhanced.

So, that’s what she’d look like in the morning. After sex.

Mike squelched that thought immediately, ashamed of himself. The last thing this woman needed was a man she looked to for help coming on to her.

She was looking up at him anxiously, then back at Harry, clutching a purse and a big manila envelope, visibly worried because his fuckhead brother had his head up his ass.

Since she looked like she was about to fall down, Mike chanced it and placed a hand under her elbow, as gentlemanly-like as possible, though he wouldn’t object to carrying her to the client chair.

No. Not going there, he told himself sternly.

Women who’d been beaten up had antennae that quivered when men were around and in their space, because men in their space was a situation that often ended badly. He didn’t want Chloe Mason to have even a moment’s anxiety because of him.

So he did the opposite of what he’d done walking, then running, through a bad part of town last night, trolling for trouble. Last night, his entire body had been one hand curled up in the universal come and get it sign, two bad-ass drugs in his system—alcohol and testosterone. A potent mix that got lots of men into trouble, true. But Mike had been trained by the best to meet trouble head-on when it came his way. He’d bristled with aggression last night. Aggression was his friend, always had been, had saved his life countless times.

Aggression and sex were his constant companions.

But not now.

Now he needed to dial it all down, reassure this beautiful woman, not frighten her.

“Ms. Mason,” he said, nodding his head at the two client chairs in front of Harry’s desk. “Please take a seat.”

He had a naturally deep voice, slightly rough due to the drinking last night. She stood looking at him, swaying slightly and for a second he wondered how badly she might be injured. Man, if someone had injured her so badly she could hardly stand, he was going to find out who and quietly, privately, beat the shit out of him.

“Ms. Mason?” he repeated, keeping his voice gentle.

She ducked her head. “Yes, of course. I do apologize. I’ve—been under some stress lately.”

It was the first time he heard her voice. It was as soft as the rest of her, with a musical quality. And a faint British accent.

She was English? Mike dropped his hand when she sat down, then rounded Harry’s huge desk again.

She sat perched on the edge of the client chair, one of the most comfortable chairs in the world. By definition, RBK clients were in trouble, and the company wanted them to be comfortable while they talked it out. Chloe Mason didn’t look comfortable in that chair, she looked tense as hell.

Silence. Harry was still…frozen. Goddamn it. What the fuck was wrong with him?

Mike waited a beat, two. Finally, he broke the silence.

“Ms. Mason. Welcome to RBK Security. My name is Mike Keillor and this is my partner, Harry Bolt.” He shot a glance at the silent statue that was his partner and refrained from rolling his eyes. Had Harry gone back to his pattern of sleeplessness with his little daughter? Was he in a waking coma, or what? “I know you asked for an appointment with Mr. Bolt, but we often work on…cases together. Before we begin, can we offer you something, a cup of coffee? Or tea?” Thinking of that accent.

“Yes, thank you so much.” Her words came out in the rush of loosened tension. “I’d love a cup of tea.”

Right call.

Mike waited a second for Harry to move, to wake up, to fucking get with the program. Finally, he pushed the button to Marisa, their receptionist. “Marisa, do you think we could get a cup of tea in here?”

Ordinarily, Mike wouldn’t ask Marisa to do refreshment detail, but she was the mother hen of their Lost Ones. Marisa’d been a Lost One herself, and had the scars to prove it. She was a fabulous employee, hard-working and loyal. But for the battered women who made their way to the offices of RBK, Marisa went all out. She pampered them and mothered them and protected them fiercely.

“Yes, sir, right away.”

The little interlude relaxed Chloe Mason.

Telling their story was a real ordeal for some women. They were all somehow ashamed, though how they could possibly be ashamed of ending up as someone’s punching bag was beyond Mike.. This moment out of time was a respite for Chloe. Her breathing pattern evened out. A little color came back to her pretty face.

The door to Harry’s office slid open and Marisa walked in with a tray. She’d done them proud. A big teapot, three cups, milk and home baked cookies brought in by Sam’s wife Nicole, baked by their housekeeper.

“Harry.” Mike looked at his brother, barely refraining from poking him in the side with his elbow again. “You want to pour?”

Harry started slightly, as if he’d actually been asleep and had suddenly woken up. “Sure, ah. Sure.” His gaze locked onto the woman’s face. “How do you take your tea, Ms. Mason?”

She smiled gently. “Dash of milk, one teaspoon of sugar, thank you.”

It was the first time Mike had seen her smile. She was clearly under enormous stress, probably terrified, and yet the smile was genuine, blinding. And transformed her face from quietly lovely to otherworldly beauty. A real looker. She didn’t catch your attention the first time or maybe not even the second time, but when she did catch your attention—watch out.

Mike felt a tug somewhere in his chest he didn’t ever remember feeling, like someone was pulling at a hook.

They were going to take care of this lovely woman. Keep her safe, take her away from danger.

And then, well—forget about beating the guy up. Mike was going to find the fuckhead who’d hurt her and kill him.