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Read an exclusive preview: Show of Force by Elle James

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Read an exclusive preview: Show of Force by Elle James

Show of Force

by Elle James

A former marine must help a Russian spy…but can he trust her?

Force Recon Marine Mack Balkman would do anything for Declan’s Defenders and the boss who gave him a second chance. But aiding a rogue Russian spy pushes his loyalty to the limits. Beautiful, cunning Riley Lansing loves her adopted country – and her baby brother, who is being held for ransom. Can they work together to find the young boy before Riley’s handler learns that she has gone rogue?

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Chapter One

Just after four o’clock in the afternoon, Riley Lansing slipped in through the back entrance of the Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown Washington, DC. She wore a stolen employee badge and one of the dresses required of the female waitstaff. With her dark hair tucked beneath a blond wig, she passed for the woman in the fuzzy image sufficiently enough to make it past the security guard.
She carried a large purse and smacked chewing gum. When the guard asked to search her bag, she made certain her less-than-sexy panties and feminine products were on top to discourage him from digging deeper and discovering her second costume of the night.
Her trick worked. The guard waved her past the checkpoint.
Riley sailed through and entered the employee locker room. Instead of ditching her bag, she carried it through to the door on the far side that led deeper into the hotel’s service area.
Riley’s heart pounded against her ears, and her pulse thundered through her veins. She’d trained most of her young life for this. Her mother and father had drilled her daily on her responsibilities and loyalties. But Riley had hoped and prayed she would be forgotten, shuffled into the far regions of some paper file that had never been converted to digital data.
All the years she’d immersed herself in the American life her parents had created for her, with their own false identities and her legitimate birth certificate, were about to be blown wide open. No one she’d come into contact with over her lifetime knew her as anyone but Riley Lansing, daughter of Linda and Robert Lansing. Her parents spoke perfect American English and appeared to be the finest of upstanding citizens of the good old US of A.
Only they weren’t. She wasn’t. Her life had been one big lie, leading up to what she’d been tasked to do that evening.
Why now? Why, after the deaths of her father and mother in an auto accident five years earlier, had they come back to call her to service? Riley had hoped her parents’ handler had forgotten their daughter and her little brother even existed.
She’d pushed her secret life to the back of her consciousness for so long, she almost believed it was all a weird dream made up from a child’s wild imagination.
Until that morning, when she’d received the electronically distorted message from an anonymous voice initiating her call to action. “Baryshnikov has risen.”
At first, she hadn’t recognized the code words. When they sank in from the years her father had repeated them, a chill raised the hairs on the back of her neck and rippled down the length of her spine.
“You will find instructions at the luggage storage area at the Metro in downtown DC.” The voice left an address and locker number. “And to guarantee your compliance, we have a little insurance policy.”
A moment later, little Toby’s voice came through the receiver. “Riley?” he said, the one word catching on a sob. “I’m scared.”
“Oh, Toby. Sweetheart,” she said. “It’s okay. I’m coming for you. I’ll find you and bring you home.”
Her little brother sobbed once more, jerking at Riley’s heartstrings.
“Toby?” Riley cried out.
“Do the job tonight and the boy will be returned to his home,” the voice said. “Fail and you will never see him again.”
Clutching the large bag close to her side, she hurried through the maze of corridors she’d traversed the day before, familiarizing herself with the layout of the kitchen, the staff elevators and the ballroom where the evening’s event would take place. She’d even identified an electronics closet where she could hide until the event began, ensuring she’d be past the security guards who would be posted at every entrance and exit checking identification against invitation lists.
The second worst part of her plan was the two hours she’d have to wait until she could initiate the operation.
The absolute worst part of her plan was the crux of the operation and what she had to accomplish to satisfy her handler and get her little brother back alive.
To succeed at her mission, she had to kill someone she not only knew but admired.
Her hand shook as she slipped a file into the keyhole and jimmied the lock on the door to the electronics closet. It clicked, and she pulled the door open. She’d played with locks from an early age and could open just about anything requiring a key. This skill had come in handy during college when she entered her dorm past curfew and the doors were locked.
Once inside the electronics room, she closed the door and locked it from the inside to keep anyone from randomly walking in looking for something or someone.
For the next two and a half hours, she waited. The security detail would have swept the ballroom and surrounding cubbies, restrooms, hallways and anterooms. Guards would have been positioned at all corners, equipped with radio communications devices and handguns.
Her target would have no fewer than four bodyguards in attendance. Having had an attempt made on her life recently, she wouldn’t take any chances. Not even at a gala with the prime purpose of raising money for sick children.
During the two hours Riley waited, she went through her proposed actions in her mind, the steps she would take and how she would maneuver her victim out of the ballroom and into one of the anterooms or the ladies’ restroom. Once there, Riley would aim her small handgun at the woman and force her to take a small pill. She slipped her hand into the voluminous purse and curled her fingers around the HK .40 caliber handgun that fit snugly in her grip. She knew how to fire it. Knew where to hit her target to ensure a quick and painless death. But she wouldn’t fire the handgun unless absolutely necessary. The poison would do the trick much more quietly. All she had to do was make her take it, and Toby would be set free.
She couldn’t think about the woman she’d been sent to eliminate. Toby was only six years old. He deserved a chance to live. If it meant taking the life of an older woman who’d had her chance at living, so be it. Riley couldn’t let anything happen to her only living relative remaining on earth. As far as she knew, Toby didn’t know what her parents and she herself had been recruited to do.
No one knew, except Riley and her handler. And Riley had no clue who her handler was. When her parents died, she’d taken on guardianship of her little brother. She should have known hiding him in the Virginia countryside with a paid nanny wouldn’t be enough to keep him safe. When her parents had passed away, she should have moved as far away from DC as she could get. At least then the Russians wouldn’t have been able to find Toby and use him as collateral to collect on their investment.
As the time neared, her breathing became more erratic and her pulse raced. In less than an hour, she’d have to put her skills as an assassin to use on an innocent woman who had gone out of her way, spent her money and engaged her employees to help Riley. She’d betray the woman’s trust and the trust of her new assistant, Riley’s best friend and roommate, Grace Lawrence.
Riley swallowed hard on the bile rising up her throat. She’d never asked for this assignment. She’d spent her life training with the misguided belief she’d never have to use that training. If asked to do something she didn’t like, she’d always imagined herself refusing.
Until they’d kidnapped Toby. Toby was her Achilles’ heel. She’d do anything for her little brother.
Even kill?
The alarm on her watch vibrated, letting her know the time had come. She had to get ready and make an appearance at the gala. Her target would recognize her and welcome her with open arms. She might even wonder how Riley could have afforded the plate price to get in. Riley had a lame excuse to cover long enough to get her quarry alone. She’d take her someplace where she could be assured they wouldn’t be followed by the woman’s bodyguards. There, she would do what she’d come to do.
Riley removed the blond wig, slipped the maid’s dress over her head, released the clasps on her bra and slid the straps down her arms. Naked but for a pair of silky black panties, she wrapped a small amount of C-4 explosive to her inner calf with an Ace bandage and tucked the detonator affixed to a hair clip into her long dark hair, pulling it back behind her right ear and letting the rest of her hair fall over her left shoulder. The C-4 and detonator were courtesy of her handler, from among the items she’d found in the locker he’d sent her to in the train station.
Once she had her diversion devices secured, she dug a long black dress out of the bottom lining of her purse and shook out the wrinkles. She’d purchased the dress while shopping with her friend, intending to wear it to a less expensive charity event later that summer.
She almost laughed at the thought. That was when she was still an innocent American female who had nothing more to worry about than riding the Metro to and from her work as an aerospace engineer. The irony of it all was that she’d been recruited by the FBI to help them capture someone stealing government secrets from the corporation where she worked.
They’d come close but hadn’t nailed the bastard. What was so ironic was that thief might have been working for the Russians. Just like she was.
She pulled the dress over her head, settling the halter strap around her neck and letting the silky gown slide down her torso and over her hips. Riley and her roommate had both loved the dress. Though it had been a little pricey for her budget, she’d purchased the garment, excited to wear it to a ritzy DC function.
She no longer was the child easily molded and trained by her parents. That little girl had grown into a woman with a mind of her own. All the propaganda her parents had used to shape her beliefs had been replaced by the readings and research of an inquisitive mind. She had no desire to work as a spy or an assassin for a country for which she felt no affiliation. She was an American, despite her parents’ home of birth. She wanted the American dream, the American lifestyle, and the right to pursue happiness and love. And she’d hoped to accomplish some of that pursuit in the dress she’d purchased with her roommate.
Riley tucked the murder weapon into the bra of her dress. A tiny plastic bag containing one small pill that only had to touch the victim’s tongue to do the job. The pill would dissolve before anyone could do anything to help her, and the damage would be done. She’d die within just two minutes, her body hemorrhaging internally.
Pulling a small mirror from her purse, she examined her makeup and the dress in an entirely different light from that of the happy young professional engineer she’d been when she purchased the item. In that dress, her life would change forever.
To Riley, the dress would always be what she’d worn when she committed murder.
* * *

“ARE WE HERE?” Charlotte Halverson asked as the limousine pulled up to the curb outside the Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown Washington, DC.
Mack Balkman had the lead on the bodyguard detail for his new boss. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And don’t call me ma’am,” the woman said. “It’s Charlie.”
“Yes, ma’am—Charlie.” Mack choked on calling his new boss by her first name. His years on active duty made him want to address his boss with the utmost respect. And if that wasn’t bad enough, his parents had insisted he address women older than him by their surnames. Calling Mrs. Halverson by her first name didn’t sit right in his books. But she was the boss, and if she wanted him to call her Pookie while standing on his head, he’d do it. She’d given him a job when most others wouldn’t have given him the time of day.
“Are my men in place?” Charlie asked.
“They are. We’ve got you covered.” He touched his headset. “All clear?”
Mustang, their point man who’d arrived on a motorcycle ahead of them, replied, “Ready as we can be. This place is crawling with people here to see the red-carpet show.”
Augustus “Gus” Walsh climbed out of the passenger seat of the limousine and opened the back door.
When Charlie started to slide across the seat, Mack touched her arm. “Normally, I’d say ladies first, but not tonight.”
“Right.” Charlie settled back and waited for Mack to exit the vehicle.
He stood, straightened the tuxedo she’d arranged for him to wear and patted the nine-millimeter SIG Sauer P226 tucked beneath his jacket. Under his white shirt and cummerbund, he wore a bulletproof vest. He’d already cleared his men through the service that had been hired to provide security for the annual gala. All they had to do was show their identification and they would bypass the metal detectors that would make all kinds of noise if they found guns or knives on those who passed through.
He held out his hand for Charlie and helped the older woman from the back of the limousine. Gus closed ranks, moving in on the other side of her. He used his body as a shield against any potential threat.
They couldn’t be too careful. Less than two weeks prior, an attempt had been made on Charlie’s life. Two vans full of bad guys had cornered her limousine on a busy DC street. They’d killed her previous bodyguards and attempted a kidnapping. Thankfully, former Force Recon marine Declan O’Neill, Mack’s old team leader, had been there to save her. She’d rewarded him by hiring him and his team to provide security for her or anyone she deemed in need of assistance.
“You gentlemen don’t know how safe it makes me feel to have highly qualified, loyal men protecting me.” Charlie patted his arm. “I can’t tell you how happy I am that Declan agreed to come on board and bring his team with him.”
“Ma’am—” Mack started.
“Charlie,” she said.
Gus smiled. “I don’t know about you, Mack, but I have a hard time calling her Charlie myself. She could be my mo—”
Charlie held up her hand. “Don’t say it.”
Gus clamped his lips shut.
Mack hid a smile.
“Don’t say I’m old enough to be your mother. I feel old enough as it is. But my mind is still sharp and I feel like a twenty-five-year-old, thanks to Edwardo, my personal trainer.” She lifted her chin. “And this dress makes me feel like a million bucks.” She sighed. “My husband would have liked me in it.”
“You look amazing, Charlie,” Mack said. “But I’d feel better if you looked amazing inside the hotel. Not out here on the streets where anything can happen.”
“Right.” Charlie forced a smile to her lips and stepped out on Mack’s arm.
He knew he appeared to be more a date than a bodyguard, but he didn’t care, as long as he had room under his jacket for a weapon. He scanned the crowds of people standing on the other side of a barricade. Photographers snapped pictures and bystanders watched as vehicles pulled up one by one, discharging well-dressed men and women onto the red carpet.
Mack and Gus eased their charge along.
Charlie smiled and waved at the reporters and the people like a celebrity on a walk of fame.
From what Declan had told Mack and the other men of his team, Declan’s Defenders, Mrs. Charlotte Halverson was a kind of celebrity in her own right. The rich widow of a prominent philanthropist, she’d rubbed elbows with some of the most influential people of the century, from Hollywood movie stars to the leaders of many countries, including the president of the United States.
Charlie stopped and waited her turn to have her official photograph taken in front of the gala’s backdrop. Ahead of her was a younger couple, the woman wearing a fancy silver gown with sequins and a diamond necklace that probably cost more than what Mack had made in a year as a marine.
He didn’t envy the woman her jewelry or the money it took to buy it. Instead, he cringed at the amount of money wasted on jewelry that could be given to the charity the gala was raising money for.
But he wasn’t there to judge the people attending; he was employed to keep Charlie safe.
When it was Charlie’s turn to have her picture taken, she insisted on Mack standing with her.
“Wouldn’t you rather have one of your friends pose with you?” Mack asked.
“These people are acquaintances. Besides, you’re much better-looking than they are. I’d love to make them all jealous.” She smiled up at him. “But if it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to be in the picture.”
“I’d prefer to stay close,” he said.
“Good. Then it’s settled.” She led him to stand in front of the backdrop. Once they were there, photographers snapped their pictures.
The flashes temporarily blinded Mack. He touched a finger to his headset. “Keep your eyes peeled,” he said softly.
“No worries,” Gus responded. “We’ve got Charlie covered while you’re playing the model.”
Mustang chuckled. “Nice tux. Didn’t know you could clean up so well.”
“Damned monkey suit,” Mack muttered.
“I heard that,” Charlie said between her teeth as she smiled for the camera.
“Sorry.”
“Don’t worry. My husband hated to dress up as well. But the gala for the children was one of his favorites. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Her smile faded. “He would have loved being here.”
Mack realized he didn’t know much about the Halversons, other than what had been printed in the tabloids. He wondered how long they were married and whether they’d had children.
“You see, my husband and I weren’t blessed with children.” She hooked her arm through his and left the photographers’ circle and continued on toward the hotel. “We tried, but it wasn’t meant to be. All the money we would have spent raising and educating one of our own went into scholarships, research and a new wing on the children’s hospital. My husband didn’t live to see the wing complete.”
“Did they capture your husband’s killer?” Mack asked.
Charlie shook her head. “No. And that’s part of the reason why I decided to hire your team leader. The police force is too overwhelmed with work to find all the bad guys. I figured I could help, if only just a little.”
They entered the building and moved with the flow of people toward the main ballroom.
The crush of guests all dressed in glitz and glamour surrounded Mack and Charlie. Mack’s first instinct was to grab Charlie and back away. How would he keep her safe in a room as crowded as it was?
He gripped her elbow and slowed her to a halt.
Charlie frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“There are far too many people in this room,” he said.
Her frown easily turned into a smile. “The more the merrier. The charity will get lots of donations.”
Mack grunted. “I’m more worried about your safety. You need to hang out on the fringes where we can give you better coverage.”
“Oh, pooh.” Her smile slipped. “And my safety isn’t as important as getting the money needed for the research that could provide cures for children with life-threatening diseases. My husband was a big proponent of this particular aid group. I won’t hide behind my bodyguard when there are children in need of cures.” She shook her arm loose of Mack’s grip and marched into the middle of the ballroom, smiling like a Valkyrie declaring victory.
“What’s wrong?” Gus asked. “Why is Charlie alone in the middle of the room?”
“I think it was easier facing the Taliban than working for Mrs. Halverson,” Mack muttered. “The woman has a mind of her own, and she doesn’t like following orders.”
“I’m not liking it,” Mustang said into Mack’s ear. “We can’t protect her if she’s not willing to protect herself.”
“You’re telling me,” Mack said, and pushed his way through the throngs of elegantly dressed people until he arrived at Charlie’s side.
“Well, darn,” she said, and smiled up at Mack, the lines at the corners of her eyes crinkling with mischief. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“Please, Mrs. H—”
She raised a finger. “Uh-uh.”
Mack sighed. “Charlie, don’t go running off. I can’t protect you if I’m not at your side.”
“I want you to keep me safe, but I can’t take you everywhere.”
Mack straightened to his full six foot three inches. “Where you go, I go.”
Charlie raised her brows. “I’m sorry?”
“If you want my protection, you have to follow my rules.”
Charlie crossed her arms over her chest and raised her salt-and-pepper brows. “Not to the ladies’ room, I should think.”
Mack frowned deeply. He hadn’t thought about areas off-limits to men. Perhaps they should have hired a female bodyguard just for that purpose. For now, he’d have to make do. “I’ll clear the room before you go in.”
Charlie patted Mack’s cheek and smiled. “Sweetie, that won’t be necessary. I can manage a trip to the restroom on my own.”
If he was going to do the job right, he had to know exactly where his charge was at all times. Disappearing behind a closed door was not something Charlie could do without having him or one of his men check the facilities first. He’d cross that bridge when they came to it. For the moment, he kept busy chasing the wealthy widow around the ballroom.
An hour into the night’s festivities, Charlie exclaimed, “Oh, look who’s here.”
Mack glanced in the direction Charlie was looking.
A dark-haired woman in a long black dress stood next to a man in a white tuxedo. She nodded, spoke to the man, made him laugh and then looked up. A moment later, she was walking toward Charlie, a smile spreading across her face. “Mrs. Halverson, I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“My dear, wild horses couldn’t drag me away. This is the one charity event I can’t miss.” She clasped the woman’s hands. “Mack, you remember Riley Lansing, don’t you?” Charlie squeezed Riley’s hands and let go, then turned to Mack. “She was the woman who led us on quite the wild chase a couple weeks ago. In fact, it was her roommate’s concern for her that made me consider spinning up Declan’s Defenders.”
Mack remembered Riley. “I’m sorry. I barely recognized you.”
“That’s okay.” She smiled. “I guess I clean up well.”
Mack couldn’t keep his gaze from traversing the length of the black dress from her neck to her toes. The fabric clung to her curves like a second skin.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Charlie said. “For two reasons.”
Riley raised her eyebrows. “Two reasons? That sounds pretty specific.”
Charlie laughed. “You’ll understand in a moment. Number one, I’m glad you’re okay. For a while there, we didn’t know what had happened to you when you went missing. And two, I couldn’t convince Mack to allow me to go to the ladies’ room on my own. But I’m sure if I go with you, he won’t insist on accompanying me.” She gave Mack a challenging lift of her brow.
Mack frowned heavily. “I still think you need me to clear the restroom before you go in.”
“Fine.” Charlie’s lips pressed together. “I’ll tell everyone to leave so that my big bad bodyguard can inspect each stall.” She shot a glance at Riley. “Do you mind coming with me?”
Riley gave Charlie a tight smile. “Not at all.”
Mack studied the younger woman. Something wasn’t quite right about her response.
Her hands clenched into tight fists, and a slight glow of perspiration coated her fair skin.
“Miss Lansing, are you feeling well?” he asked.
She jerked her head around to stare up at him. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
He shrugged. “You seem nervous.” He tipped his chin toward her balled fists.
She laughed, uncurled her fingers and pressed her palms together. “No. I’m not nervous,” she said quickly. And then sighed. “Well, maybe just a little. I don’t normally wear fancy clothing or attend expensive galas.”
“Speaking of which,” Charlotte interrupted, “how did you manage to get a seat at the event? I thought it had sold out within thirty minutes of going up online.”
Riley gave a brief smile. “I won the ticket on a radio talk show.”
Mrs. Halverson clapped her hands. “What a gift. This event is one of my favorites. I hope they have the children’s choir sing as they have in the past.”
“Children’s choir?” Riley’s eyes widened.
“Yes. They always do. There they are, lining up now.” Charlie bit down on her bottom lip. “I’d like to make a trip to the ladies’ room before they begin.” She reached for Riley’s arm. “Do you mind accompanying an old woman? I promise not to make any strange noises.” The widow winked and held up her fingers like a Boy Scout. “I swear.”
Riley darted a glance at the children lining up near the raised dais where the band had set up earlier. “I suppose I could.” She nodded as if making up her mind and turned to take Mrs. Halverson’s arm. “Let’s get this over with.”
Charlie smiled over her shoulder at Mack. “Happy? I have someone looking out for me so you don’t have to.”
“I’d still like to clear the room before you go in.”
“I’ll ask people to leave,” Riley offered.
Mack informed his other two team members of his intentions and then followed the women to the hallway where the ladies’ restroom was located. His gut was tight and roiling just a little. Like the time just before the mission that had ended his marine career. He’d had the same feeling then as he had now.
Charlie waited with Mack outside the restroom while Riley rounded up the occupants and ushered them out. When she returned, she nodded. “The room is clear.”
Mack entered, checked each stall and looked for any other doors leading in or out. When he was satisfied no one else was in the room, he returned to Charlie and Riley. “Okay, the room is clear.”
“I could have told you that,” Riley said. “But I guess you had to see it for yourself.”
He nodded and checked his watch. “Five minutes tops. If you’re not out by then, I’m coming in.”
Charlie smiled. “I can barely get my lipstick out of my purse in five minutes.” She patted Mack’s arm. “Don’t worry. I’ll be out by then. If not, please come in and get me. I might be stuck.” She laughed all the way through the door.
Riley glanced back as she followed Charlie inside. A frown dented her forehead and gave her a worried look.
Mack opened his mouth to ask what had her concerned, but she disappeared behind the closed door before he uttered a word.
The next five minutes stretched before him like a chasm. His pulse pounded, and his heart banged against his ribs. Why, he didn’t know. He’d checked the room and every stall. No one but Riley was inside the restroom with Charlie. So why was he worried?

 

Chapter Two

Riley waited for Charlie to enter a stall before she extracted the small plastic packet containing the pill from the bra of her gown. She pulled the clip from her hair and set it on the counter in front of her. Once she administered the poison, she’d set off the small explosion and make her exit in the confusion.
She hadn’t counted on Mack being there and so attentive. Her gut clenched, and she closed her eyes, mustering the strength she needed to do what she had to in order to save her brother’s life. Toby was only six years old. He deserved the chance to live to a ripe old age. Charlie was in her sixties. She’d lived, loved and traveled the world.
And saved your life by offering the services of Declan’s Defenders. She didn’t deserve to die any more than Toby. But her death would be much less painful than what her handler would do to Toby if Riley didn’t complete the mission.
With her eyes closed, Riley could see Toby’s face the last time she’d visited him in the Virginia countryside. He’d been so happy to see her and sad when she’d had to leave. Margaret, the nanny, had smiled and held him like he was her own. The woman was like a grandmother to both Riley and Toby. Riley had known the woman her entire life.
Riley hated leaving but knew she had to go back to her job at Quest Aerospace Alliance that Monday or she’d be missed. Throughout her life, her parents had warned her she would be called on to perform for her mother country one day. The tasks were yet to be determined. She’d assumed spying of some sort. Not assassination, though she’d been trained with a variety of weapons and in both defensive and offensive maneuvers.
Within hours of leaving the country house, Riley was back at her apartment with her roommate, Grace Lawrence. In the middle of the night, she’d received the text. Knowing she couldn’t confide in her roommate, she’d kept the text to herself and lain awake the remainder of the night until morning. Then she’d had to act as if nothing were the matter. She’d contacted the nanny, who had just woken up and discovered Toby missing.
Thankfully, Margaret, who’d been her nanny when she was a little girl, hadn’t been harmed in the abduction. But Toby was gone. Explaining to Margaret that she couldn’t call the police had been difficult. But she’d calmed Margaret and prayed she’d have the strength to hold off calling the authorities when Riley wanted to do the same.
If she had called the cops, what would she have told them? Hi, I’m a Russian spy. I don’t want to be, but I’m tasked with assassinating a wealthy widow in order to save my brother.
She’d be locked up faster than she could say seriously.
And Toby would be absorbed into the Russian spy machine, tortured and brainwashed until he didn’t know right from wrong.
Sweet heaven, she had to go through with the assassination. She couldn’t abandon Toby to Russian machinations.
A hand touched her arm, making Riley jump.
“Riley, honey, what’s wrong?” Mrs. Halverson stood behind her, wearing a silver gown that complemented her silver hair. The slim woman still appeared beautiful despite the lines and wrinkles on her face. And the frown she wore was soft and worried. About her.
Riley stared into her clear blue eyes for a very long moment, the tiny plastic bag burning her hand. All she had to do was open it, shove the pill into the older woman’s mouth, and it would all be over.
Her hand shook. Trembling started at her knees and rippled all the way up her back. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Toby. I just can’t.”
The tiny plastic bag dropped from her nerveless fingers and drifted to the floor.
Mrs. Halverson bent to retrieve it.
“No!” Riley tried to grab the bag from the woman, but Charlie held it out of her reach.
“What is this?” the widow asked.
“Nothing. I was just going to flush it down the toilet.” She reached for the bag. “Please. Let me have it.”
“Is it a drug?” Charlie’s gaze captured hers. “Are you taking drugs?”
“No. Of course not,” Riley answered automatically.
“Then why do you have it?”
Tears filled Riley’s eyes and trickled down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“For what, my dear?” Charlie pulled Riley into her arms and held her.
“Why did you have to be so nice?” Riley muttered between sobs. “This wouldn’t have been so hard if you weren’t so good to me.”
“What wouldn’t be so hard?” Charlie held Riley at arm’s length and stared into her eyes. “Tell me what’s bothering you. Perhaps I can help.”
“Oh, it’s no use,” Riley shook her head, more tears falling down her face. “The only way you can help is for you to die.”
Mrs. Halverson’s eyebrows rose on her forehead. “Sweetie, whatever do you mean?”
“The only way to save my brother is for me to assassinate you.” Riley nodded toward the plastic bag. “The pill is poison. One touch on your tongue and you’d be dead in seconds.”
Charlie’s eyes widened, and she held the plastic bag up in front of her. “You wanted to assassinate me? Why? Did I do something to make you mad?”
“Oh, Mrs. Halverson, no. You did everything to help me.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “Then why would you want to kill me?”
“They’re making me. They have my brother, Toby. If I don’t kill you, there’s no telling what they’ll do to Toby. I’ll never see him again. They could kill him, or worse.”
“What could be worse?” Mrs. Halverson asked. Then her eyes rounded. “Torture?”
Riley nodded. “And brainwashing. I can’t let that happen. He deserves a better life. He’s just a child…only six years old.”
“Oh dear.” Charlie stared at the little bag, shaking her head. “Whatever can you do?”
“Nothing. I can do nothing. My brother will disappear, and I’ll never see him again. He’ll think I’ve abandoned him. They’ll tell him I never loved him. They’ll make him a weapon to use against others in the future.” Riley broke away from Mrs. Halverson. “I can’t let that happen.”
“There’s nothing else you can do, then, is there?” the older woman said softly.
Riley stopped pacing and turned to frown at Mrs. Halverson. “What do you mean?”
“You’ll have to kill me.” The wealthy widow held up the bag. “I’ll take the pill and die. Your brother will be safe, and all will end as it should.” She started to open the little bag.
Riley dived toward her. “No!” In her effort to stop Mrs. Halverson from doing the dastardly deed, she knocked her to the floor and straddled her.
Mrs. Halverson let out a squeal and grunted as she landed hard on the marble tile.
The door to the restroom burst open. Mack charged in. “What the hell?” He grabbed Riley around the waist and yanked her up off Mrs. Halverson.
“Let go of me!” Riley fought to free herself of Mack’s grip, but his iron band of an arm held her tightly against his chest.
“Charlie, are you all right?” Mack asked.
The older woman sat up, still holding the little plastic bag. “I’m okay. Miss Lansing was only helping me to take this pill. It will relieve the headache I’m getting.”
“No! Mack, don’t let her take that pill. Please, let go of me. She can’t take that pill.”
“Fiddle. Of course I can.” She tilted her head to the side. “It’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Riley cried. “I never wanted it. Don’t do it. Please, don’t take that pill.” She struggled against the arm holding her around the middle, tearing at Mack’s tuxedo sleeve with her fingernails. “Let me go. You don’t understand. Please. Don’t let her take that pill.” Tears poured from her eyes to the point she couldn’t see clearly. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear them, trying to see what Mrs. Halverson was doing. Praying she didn’t go through with the instructions Riley had been given.
“Mack. Let the dear girl loose.” Mrs. Halverson pushed herself to her feet. “I’m quite all right. And for the record, I’m not going to take the pill.” She held the packet up. “But we can’t just flush it down the toilet. If it’s that potent, it could harm someone else.”
“What are you talking about?” Mack asked, still holding Riley around her middle. “Is this woman really a threat to you, or not?”
Charlie smiled. “She’s not. She just proved she doesn’t have it in her to kill.”
Riley sobbed. “No, I don’t. I’ve failed Toby. Oh, sweet heaven, I’ve failed him.”
She went limp against Mack, her heart breaking into a million pieces. She’d failed her little brother. What horrible things would happen to him now?
* * *

MACK HELD THE woman in the black dress against his chest as she sobbed into his jacket. “Could someone please tell me what’s going on?”
“Let me lock the door first.” Charlie hurried to the door and twisted the lock, blocking anyone else from accidentally barging in on them.
When she turned to face Mack, she lifted her chin. “We have a situation.”
“Do I need to call the others in?” he asked.
Charlie held up a hand. “Not yet. I have a plan on how we can remedy the trouble, but I need your complete cooperation.”
“Mine?” Mack shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You will, soon enough.” She nodded toward Riley. “Did you know that Miss Lansing was a Russian sleeper spy?”
Mack stared down at the dark head of the woman crying her eyes out into his expensive tuxedo jacket. “Seriously, what’s going on? Why is she crying?”
“She’s crying because she failed to assassinate me,” Charlie said.
Mack shook his head. “Come again?” Had the woman had too much of the champagne flowing freely throughout the ballroom?
“You heard me.” Charlie tipped her head toward the other woman. “Ask Riley.”
Touching a thumb beneath Riley’s chin, he tipped her wet face upward. The tears on her cheeks made his stomach clench. He wanted to hold her close and chase away whatever was troubling her. “What’s Charlie talking about?”
Riley sniffed twice, and then her face crumpled. “She’s right. I’m supposed to assassinate her. I’m a Russian sleeper spy, sent to kill Mrs. Charlotte Halverson.”
“And if she doesn’t, she’ll never see her little brother again,” Charlie concluded. “I can see no other way to solve this problem but to take the pill she brought to do the deed with and die. Do you?” She tilted her head and stared at Mack.
Mack’s jaw dropped. “Are you out of your mind?” He grabbed for the little packet.
Charlie held it out of his grasp. “No, no. Hear me out. In order for Miss Lansing to have time to find her brother and get him out of the clutches of his kidnappers, I have to die.”
“Charlie,” Mack said in a slow, even tone, though his heart was hammering and his muscles bunched, ready to make another grab for the tiny plastic bag the woman held in her hand. “You didn’t hire me to stand by and watch you die. If Miss Lansing is threatening to kill you, I can take care of her. Now hand me the bag before someone gets hurt.”
“Don’t you understand? The only way to help Miss Lansing and her six-year-old little brother is to have me die. If not permanently, then for a short amount of time. Enough to give you and Riley a head start figuring out who has her brother and getting him back.”
Refusing to release Riley, Mack faced the woman footing the bill for Declan’s Defenders. Her heart was in the right place for most things, but defending a woman out to kill her was just plain crazy. “I can’t let this woman go. If what you’re saying is true, she came here to kill you.” He frowned down at Riley. “How could you? This woman is responsible for saving your life.”
Riley nodded. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“Then why would you want to hurt her?” he asked.
Her shoulders sagged. “I had no other choice.”
Mack shook his head. “There are always more choices.”
“Not when it comes to her little brother,” Charlie said.
“Since when do you have a little brother?” Mack’s eyes narrowed. “You never mentioned a little brother.”
Riley lifted her chin. “You don’t know me well enough to ask.”
“Does your roommate Grace know you have a little brother?” Mack asked.
Riley shook her head. “I don’t advertise that part of my life. I thought I had him hidden away. I didn’t think they would find out about him.” She threw her hand in the air. “Hell, I thought they’d forgotten I even existed.” She stared down at the arm clamped around her middle. “You can release me. I can’t kill Mrs. Halverson. I just can’t.”
“Charlie,” the older woman corrected. “Call me Charlie.”
Riley gave her a weak smile. “See? How could I kill someone who is as kind and generous as Charlie?” She held out her hand. “Please, let me have the pill. I can’t let it get into the wrong hands.”
“Oh, but you’ve put it in exactly the right hands. I’m going to die tonight. And you’re going to save your little brother,” Charlie said.
“You are out of your mind.” Mack released Riley and lunged for Charlie.
She backed toward the door, a frown pulling her brows together. “Listen, you two. We don’t have much time.”
Riley glanced at the watch on her wrist. “Time. Damn. I forgot. They gave me C-4 to set off as a diversion. I’m supposed to kill Mrs. Halverson and set off the explosive to create a diversion and allow me to escape. They’re expecting the explosion.”
“Good.” Charlie smiled. “That will give us time to get my dead body out of the hotel and off to the morgue.” Her smile faded. “As long as the explosion doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
“It shouldn’t. I didn’t use a lot of the explosive and I set it in a storeroom surrounded by other empty rooms. No one was there, and it was empty. No one should go back there.”
“Wait a minute.” Mack held up his hand. “I can’t possibly be hearing this correctly. You can’t set off explosives in a crowded hotel. It will start a stampede. Even if the explosion doesn’t bring the walls down, the guests will rush for the doors and crush the people in front of them.” Mack shook his head. “No. No. No. This is insane. Besides, I can’t let you take that pill. If it’s poison, what antidote is there? We don’t even know what it is.”
“I’m not going to take the pill, silly. I’m only going to pretend I did. You’ll call for an ambulance. They’ll wheel me out. Riley will escape and you’ll go with her to help her find Toby, her little brother.” Charlie drew in a deep breath and looked from Riley to Mack and back. “You see? All I have to do is lie dying in a hospital long enough for you two to find Toby and get him back.”
Riley’s eyes narrowed. “The instructions said the poison was fast-acting.”
“So I didn’t take all of it.”
“They’ll wait to give me Toby until they know for certain you’re dead,” Riley said.
“Money can buy just about anything,” Charlie pointed out. “Even a fake death certificate.”
“But they’ll come looking for the body.”
“So we’ll give them one in the morgue.”
“You seem to be forgetting something,” Mack said.
“Am I?” Charlie frowned. “What am I forgetting?”
“You’re not dead. You don’t belong in a morgue until you are.”
“Then you’ll just have to find the boy while I’m lying on my deathbed in the hospital.” Charlie crossed her arms over her chest.
“I don’t like it,” Mack said. “Why don’t we go to the authorities and get them to find the boy?”
“The people who have him are Russian,” Riley said. “They’re not going to let the authorities find them or my brother. They’ll move him out of the country. If they do, I’ll never find him. As it is, I don’t know where to begin looking. I don’t know who my handler is.” Riley’s shoulders sagged. “Some Russian spy I am. I can’t even take care of my own brother.”
“Don’t worry,” Charlie said. “Follow my plan. Poison me, set off your explosion, let me play the dying matriarch and see what happens from there. What could it hurt? You get a few days’ grace, and I get a rest in my husband’s wing of the hospital. I can’t see where this could possibly go wrong.” She waved toward Riley. “Go ahead. Set off your explosion. You’ll see.”
Mack wasn’t quite as sure as Charlie. And he’d rather have brought his men in to discuss what was going to happen, but Charlie had it in her head that her plan would work long enough for him and Riley to save her brother. She wouldn’t be deterred.
“Where’s the detonator?” Charlie asked.
Riley pointed to the ornamental hair clip lying on the counter near the sink. “But—”
“The longer you wait, the more suspicious your handler will become,” Charlie pointed out. “Just do it and we’ll take it from there.”
“I don’t know.” Riley worried her handler would see through the plan.
“Have you worked with C-4 before now?” Mack asked.
Riley nodded. “But it’s been years. Back when I lived with my parents. Before I went to college.”
Mack gaped. “As a teen?”
Riley frowned. “I told you. I was trained to be a Russian sleeper spy. My parents prepared me for just about anything.”
“I thought you were just an engineer…” He clapped a hand to his forehead. “Selling secret blueprints to your comrades?” He shook his head. “You were the one selling the top secret data to the Russians from Quest Aerospace?”
“No, of course not. I thought I was in the clear. That when my parents died, their handlers would forget about me.” She snorted. “I was just another loyal American, trying to do good. Well, they didn’t forget about me. They drew my number and tasked me to kill Mrs. Halverson.”
“Charlie,” the widow corrected.
“Charlie,” Riley echoed. “They’re using my brother as an insurance policy. They didn’t give me a choice.”
“Are you sure about the amount of plastics you used?” Mack asked.
“Pretty.” She drew in a deep breath. “It should make a loud noise and shake the walls but not cause too much damage or a fire.”
“For the record…” He caught Charlie’s glance. “I don’t like any of this.”
“So noted.” Charlie gave him a mock salute. “But you’re going to go along with it?”
Mack nodded and touched his hand to his headset. “Guys, be ready to lead the guests in an orderly exodus from the hotel,” he said.
“Did you say what I think you said?” Gus questioned.
“What are you talking about?” Mustang asked.
“Can’t say,” Mack said. “Just be ready.” Then he nodded to Charlie. “Assume the position.”
Charlie grinned and sank to the floor in her expensive gown.
“You can’t smile if you’re dying,” Mack warned her.
The smile disappeared from her face and she closed her eyes. “Ready.”
“I’m calling the ambulance,” Mack said, and dialed 911. He turned to Riley, not sure he should trust her, but knowing it was what Charlie wanted and possibly the only way to get the woman out of the hotel safely if others were gunning for her. “As soon as they say the fire department is on its way, let ’er rip.”
Mack reported a woman down to the dispatcher. Once he was assured the ambulance was on its way, he nodded toward Riley.
She lifted the ornamental hair clip and activated the switch on the back.
A thundering bang rippled through the heavy doors of the restroom.
Muffled screams sounded.
“The guests are moving toward the doors on the west side,” Gus reported.
“And on the north and east,” Mustang confirmed. “So far, they’re moving swiftly without panic. The security staff are facilitating their efforts. Where are you and Charlie?”
“In the ladies’ restroom on the southern end of the ballroom,” Mack said. “If the exodus is moving well, Mustang, I need you here to take over for me. When the ambulance arrives, Gus, lead them into the restroom to collect Charlie.”
“What happened? Is she all right?” Mustang asked.
“No.” Mack stared across the room to where Charlie lay on the floor with her eyes open. “She’s been poisoned. I have to leave, but I need you and Gus to stick with her like glue and keep her safe. Someone wants her dead. If she lives through the poison, they might not let her live to leave the hospital.

 

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