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Today was the day.
Layla Habib walked into her favorite coffee shop. The one where she’d first seen him.
He was totally out of her league. But here they were. About to have their first date. Her heart nearly exploded out of her chest.
A month ago, he’d walked into her coffee shop, this coffee shop, looking like a God, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful people. A beam of light speared through the clouds and shone through the shop window, and it had been as if angels were singing. Her heart thundered in her chest like she was having a heart attack, and she’d been enveloped by this weird feeling that he’d been sent just for her.
She couldn’t look away. He was laughing, white teeth, lush almost feminine pink lips, his body surrounded by an essence that seemed to glow like a halo.
Fanciful, silly girl. Yet she couldn’t look away. As if he felt her stare, he glanced over and their eyes met, held, for just a moment. Her heart pounded harder and a rushing sound filled her ears. His intensely bright blue eyes widened, and then she ducked her head and got back to her homework but continuing to watch them out of the corner of her eye.
One of the gorgeous girls in his group tugged on his arm and the moment dissolved as if it never happened. She had probably imagined the whole thing.
Except a couple of days later he was in her coffee shop again, alone, and he seemed to be searching for someone.
He’d ordered a drink and then sat at the table next to her.
Layla thought it must be coincidence, but then he’d started a conversation. “Do you have Professor Jones?”
What? She looked around, trying to figure out who he was talking to. “Are you talking to me?” She was so shocked she just blurted it out.
He flushed. “Uh, yeah. But I can leave you alone.”
Her first instinct was to agree for him to leave her alone and she could go back to her studying. She was so unused to being seen. Was her mouth open like a gaping fish? Highly possible. Because a freaking Greek God was talking to her.
Very attractive, Lay.
Nerdy, shy, Layla hid in the back of the class and tried to be invisible. She was a nearly unheard-of mix of Jewish and Muslim, shunned by both her heritage communities. When her mother was alive, their little family had been their own happy unit. But these days, their household of only her and her dad, lived an awkward tense coexistence, as if her baba were unable or unwilling to figure out how to deal with the woman she’d grown into.
She’d never had many friends and she was awkward socially.
“You want me to go?” As he studied her, she realized she’d been sitting there staring at him blankly.
“Oh, umm, yes?”
“You’re not sure?” A smile quirked his perfect lips and his eyes sparkled as if he knew what effect he had on her. He probably did. Guys like him didn’t typically look twice at girls like her.
Was it hot in here? She fluttered her hand in front of her face and managed to knock over her tea onto him. The brown liquid splattered all over his pristine white shirt. Luckily it wasn’t very hot. “Shoot!”
He jumped up and grabbed napkins from the dispenser and wiped up the mess, but he was cleaning up the table, not his shirt.
Oh my gosh! She was a complete and utter idiot. He was so out of her league. “I’ll get the table. Take care of your shirt.” Now she was ordering him around like he was her baba. If only she could disappear into a hole in the floor while he wasn’t looking. She glanced around, searching for a place to literally disappear while she slapped the napkins over his chest.
“I think you got it all.”
Layla was sure her face was a deep, dark burgundy. “I’m so sorry.”
He grabbed her fingers and held on loosely. “It’s fine.” Her hand tingled where he touched her. What was that all about?
She pulled away and plopped onto the bistro chair, fighting the urge to drop her head into her hands.
He took a step back. “Sorry for touching you.”
“Oh, it’s fine.” Although she wasn’t touched often. Her baba wasn’t physically affectionate. He would have a heart attack that a strange man had touched her. But her mom had been a hugger, and she missed her dreadfully.
“I’m Ben.” He extended his hand.
“Layla,” she muttered.
“Like the Eric Clapton song.” He smiled and the sun came out to bestow her with sunlight and joy. “I love him.”
She brightened. “My mom was a huge Clapton fan.”
“Was?” he asked gently.
She blinked away tears. Her mom had been gone for almost ten years and it still hurt. This was one of those days where she wished that she could go home and tell her mom what a complete dork she was.
“Fuck cancer.” The vehemence of his reply took her by surprise. “I had a friend who died of Hodgkin lymphoma in high school.”
“Yeah.” He had a faraway look in his eyes. “But I made him a promise before he died and knowing him changed my life.”
“What was the promise?” She couldn’t believe she asked such a personal question of a complete stranger, but there was an ease between them that made it somehow okay.
He flushed again. “I, uh, wasn’t in the best of shape and I vowed to take care of my body. We started walking together while he was undergoing chemo.”
It was hard to believe he hadn’t been in good shape. He had sleek arm muscles dusted with pale blond hair and thighs that strained the fabric of his jeans.
“Looks like you’re doing a great job.” She blurted out. Then covered her face with her hands. “Oh my goodness. Shut up, Layla.”
He laughed, rough and yet husky. “I work hard at it but thank you. I don’t do it for the attention, but I need to be the healthiest version of me I can be.”
Layla hunched in her seat, trying to hide her softer body. She definitely wasn’t the healthiest version of herself these days. Lately it seemed she spent all her time studying or helping her dad.
“Don’t hide.” He smiled, his bright blue eyes soft. “You’re beautiful.”
She ducked her head, resisting the urge to argue with him. “Thank you.”
They’d talked for over an hour about everything under the sun.
School: she was studying English—her father wanted her to be a teacher, she wanted to keep working in the family business. He was getting his MBA, so he could move up in the family business. They were both older students, her twenty-four, him twenty-eight.
Favorite Smithsonian museums:
His, the Air and Space Museum. So cool that they explored the unknown.
Hers, the National Portrait Gallery. Without connection to an extended family, she liked to learn about all the different ways people contributed in the world and their backgrounds.
Her job was naturally somewhat disheartening, so she liked to find positive stories to reaffirm her faith in humanity.
Favorite outdoor activity:
His, Lacrosse because of course he played the most extra all-American sport there was.
Hers, walking in the park.
“Where do you live?” he blushed. Blushed! “Never mind. Sorry too personal. I’m not a creeper. I swear.”
“I’ll go first, just so you know I’m willing to reciprocate. I’m getting my MBA and live in a house with five guys. But I go home on Saturdays to have lunch with my parents.”
She really shouldn’t tell a stranger, thought about deflecting, but he couldn’t possibly be interested in her, so it didn’t matter that she was twenty-four and had never lived anywhere but home. He was a beautiful man, and she was a quiet, shy girl. “I live at home with my dad. I work in his business and go to school part time.”
“Your face lit up when you mentioned work.” He leaned closer. “What do you do?”
“Cool.” He looked intrigued. “So you could check me out and make sure I’m not up to nefarious purposes?”
“Do I need to?” She couldn’t get over that she was sort of flirting with him.
“No. What you see is what you get.”
She seriously doubted that. She looked at her phone and realized she had to run. “Oh, I’ve got to go.”
“It was nice chatting with you.” He held out his hand.
“You, too.” The best stress relief she’d had in forever.
“Maybe I’ll see you around.” His blue eyes twinkled as if he had a secret. “If you’d like that.”
“I would,” she said softly. Not believing that she’d see him again, even by accident.
But the next time she went to the coffee shop, he was there. Every day she went to study, he was there. Finally they exchanged cell numbers.
They had talked every day for hours on the phone and at the coffee shop. Until yesterday, when he’d asked her out on an official date.
Her father would flip. He was very conservative. She was twenty-four and he still thought she was a virgin. Frankly in relationship terms she kind of was.
Now a week later they were having their first official date.
Layla headed for the back of the coffee shop. This was the first time they would sit together. Normally, she sat at one table, and he would sit at the next table over. She worried that her father would randomly walk by, see them together and ask questions. He wouldn’t approve and she couldn’t bear to cut short whatever this was. Seeing Ben and talking with him had become a bright spot in her otherwise colorless life.
“Going old school, huh?” Ben tapped her giant textbook.
“Can’t afford the iPad and stylus,” she said defensively. Used textbooks were it for her.
“Must be heavy.”
“I get by.”
He lifted her backpack easily with one hand. “Damn.”
She refused to ogle his muscles but darn it, he was ripped. Being attracted to his physique was so superficial. The more she’d gotten to know him, the more she’d been attracted to his mind and his kindness.
“You like my muscles.” He teased, full of confidence that was not misplaced.
“I like you,” she said softly. It was true but she still braced for a laugh, or worse, rejection. She still couldn’t quite believe that he was interested in her.
He paused, then said equally as softly, “I like you too.” He smiled and set down her favorite drink. A hot, chai with extra almond milk foam.
Layla dug through her backpack for some dollar bills. He held up a hand, palm facing her. “I’ve got it.”
“You sure? I’ve got money.” She clutched the ones in her hand.
“Are you always going to be this difficult to buy things for?” The exasperation in his voice was hard to mistake. But her heart trilled at the way he said always. As if they had a future.
That gave her hope.
Maybe things could work out for them.
A few hours later, Layla was on the way home.
Was today even real? Ben had kissed her! Just a chaste peck on the mouth, but her lips were still buzzing, and she was floating on the air.
She walked from the bus stop to their house. They only had one car and they used it strictly for work and to go to the grocery store.
A blue sedan going slowly down the street caught her eye. There’d been a sedan just like that behind the bus.
She ignored the momentary disquiet, floating along, reliving every moment of the past few hours, going through each facet of their conversation, and adding up the clues. He liked her. He really liked her!
He was totally out of her league.
“It’s just infatuation.” She mentally chastised herself on the way to the house. But she couldn’t make herself believe it. This didn’t feel like something trivial. It felt huge and light and full of possibilities.
Just as she acknowledged that something good was happening, movement out of the corner of her eye pulled her attention back.
A blue sedan was coming down the street again.
Was she being followed? Layla stopped ignoring her instincts and hustled to their house. She was being followed.
She would be a terrible PI if she didn’t tag her tail. But she had to wonder why someone was tailing her. She pretended to be talking to someone on her phone and dictated the license plate into the notes app. She’d run the plate when she got into the office.
Her stomach jittered and her hands were shaky as fear replaced the joy from her date. The car drove past her slowly, then sped up and turned the corner.
Her concerns over her father’s new case came roaring back. Could the car be related to baba’s recent job? Or was she being paranoid? Her baba had taken a case to surveil a guy for supposed insurance fraud, but something had seemed off about it.
He’d been secretive about the details which she didn’t like. She hadn’t wanted him to take it, but of course, he knew best. And never failed to remind her of it.
She finally reached the front door of their little bungalow. The bushes in the yard were a month past needing a trim and the paint was starting to peel on the siding. Money was scarce. They still had five more years of payments before they could finally pay off the debt from her mom’s medical bills.
After her mom died, her dad had converted the garage into the office for his private investigation business. He used to have an office in a building across town, but after her mom’s cancer treatment bills, he’d given up the office and converted the garage. The good news was private investigators were always in demand in the DC metro area so they had plenty of business.
She opened the door quickly and scurried inside, her heart beating in double time. Finally in the tiny entry, her shoulders unhunched and her stomach eased. She hadn’t realized how much that car disturbed her until she’d accomplished this smidgeon of safety.
She let herself into the office and headed for her dad’s desktop. She’d prefer some cases with more meat, more mystery, but insurance fraud and cheating spouses were their bread and butter.
She loved what she did. Loved that her father let her help out. She adored mysteries and sleuthing. She’d started working with him after her mom died. It had been a way for him to keep an eye on her and to keep her busy.
She walked into the office, took in the receptionist’s desk where she’d spent her middle school and high school years doing homework and taking care of the office administrative stuff for her father.
If she peered hard, she could still see the faint dots from when her permanent marker had bled through the paper to the desktop. Now she was taking classes at college part time and working for her dad.
She thought about forcing a conversation with her dad again, but when she peered in his office, he wasn’t there.
The unsettled feeling wouldn’t leave, so she locked the front door.
She slung her coat on the rack in the corner behind the file cabinet and pulled out her laptop. She needed to file the paperwork and send the pictures from the insurance fraud case she’d completed yesterday.
Her buzz from her date with Ben had completely worn off. Real life intruded painfully.
While she entered the information so they could get paid, that tail kept nagging at her.
Once she finished paperwork, she logged in to their multipurpose PI software, Tracers, and pulled up the plate number to see if she could get any info. The website was legal, but she always had the urge to glance over her shoulder when she accessed their database.
After twenty minutes, she acknowledged defeat.
She couldn’t find any info on the person who owned the car.
That was weird. But not completely out of the ordinary.
Her heart jumped when someone scratched at the door to the office. She pulled up the security camera feed and saw her father fumbling with the lock. Layla let out a breath and willed her heart to slow down.
“What the heck did you lock it for?” He groused.
She debated whether or not to tell him. He still wasn’t crazy about her doing the private investigator work. They’d been able to increase their income, but he didn’t like her involvement and he constantly mentioned when she’d be done with school and could get a teaching job.
She did not want to teach.
“Someone was following me.” She couldn’t deny how freaked out she was.
He shrugged it off. “Probably just someone going the same way as you.”
“Really, baba?” Her blood boiled. She wasn’t some fair maiden scared of her own shadow. She had self-defense training, some anyway, and a healthy dose of situational awareness in dicey circumstances.
“Run the plate.”
“I did.” She hesitated. “Couldn’t get a hit.”
She had such a bad feeling about the job he just took. “You think it’s related to that new job?”
Supposedly this guy her dad was surveilling had committed some sort of insurance fraud, but the client had given them a company name she’d never heard of. The request had come in online. Not unusual. PI business these days was more high-tech computer work and less gumshoe dicks with fedoras and cigarettes.
“Let it go, amirti.” He brushed a hand over her hair. “I got this.”
But did he?
“And it’s good money.”
Maybe too good. But her father wouldn’t be swayed. She’d been worried about her dad lately. Little things had caught her attention. Forgetfulness that she was afraid was more than forgetfulness. Recently he’d lost some client files, so she’d set up an automatic backup system on his laptop without his knowledge.
That way if he accidentally deleted customer files, she could access them. She wanted him to see a doctor, but she was trapped in the cycle of parent and child. No way would he take advice from her.
So she kept watch and hoped it was nothing. But deep down in her gut, she knew it wasn’t nothing. Just like she knew, deep down, that the blue sedan hadn’t been random.
Who was watching her? And why?
“My dad is gone.” Layla texted Ben. “You want to talk more?”
She had debated contacting him since they’d already talked for hours earlier on the phone before she had dinner with her father. But she really wanted to connect with him.
Her dad just went out for surveillance on their new subject and said he’d be gone most of the night. Another red flag. Why do they need surveillance on this guy in the middle of the night for insurance fraud? Typically, those were day jobs to catch the person doing physical stuff that they claimed they couldn’t do.
She’d lain in bed propped up on pillows, staring at the Eric Clapton poster of the Layla album cover but not really seeing the sleek form and funky lines of the iconic artwork. Instead, she was picturing Ben.
He texted back. “Can I come over?”
Her heart quickened. It was a terrible idea. But her dad would be gone for hours. She dialed his number. “What for?”
“What do you think?” She could hear the smile in his voice. “I want to kiss you.”
She wanted that too. So badly. “It’s a terrible idea.” But her voice weakened. She wanted to see him so badly. Like an ache in her soul. He’d been the bright spot in her life for the last week.
“Really wonderful idea. I’ll be right there.”
“Park around the corner. Just in case.”
“Are you ashamed of me?” The uncertainty in his voice surprised her.
“No!” How could she explain? “My dad is very old fashioned and he’s very strict. When you meet, I want him to like you.”
“When?” The smile in his voice warmed her heart.
“Yeah.” But not yet. She was going to have to prepare her father for a boyfriend. Since her mom died, he’d gotten less flexible and more rigid.
“See you in twenty.”
She let him in the back door through the kitchen and ushered him inside. The room was mostly dark, a light under the stove the only illumination. They were both in shadows, the atmosphere intimate as they stood only inches apart. Anticipation fizzed in her blood.
His deodorant scented the air as the warmth of his body seeped into hers even though they weren’t even touching. Inches separated them, but he didn’t make a move. He’d said he wanted to kiss her but maybe he changed his mind?
Suddenly there was an awkwardness between them. She wanted him to kiss her, but….
“What are you thinking right now?” he demanded.
She was more comfortable with him than anyone else, even her father. Before she got to know him, she would have deflected, tried to make him laugh. But she wanted to answer honestly, because they’d talked about so much stuff in the past week.
“On the phone…” ugh she hated being so wishy washy. But she was in uncharted territory. She took a deep breath. “…you said you wanted to kiss me.”
“I do.” He shot back immediately. He grabbed her hands, but gently. “But I didn’t want to come in and just maul you.”
Ben placed her hands on his shoulders, then slowly, carefully, treating her as if she were important, curled his arms around her waist and pulled her into the safety of his body. Layla tilted her head up and stared into his eyes. They stood there for a full minute, adjusting to the almost embrace. If she inhaled deeply, her breasts would brush his chest muscles. Heat rose between them, the air becoming sultry and laden with import.
“You are so beautiful,” he whispered.
He bent and pressed his lips to hers. The kiss was soft and sweet. Her lips parted and his tongue traced the opening. Layla pushed onto her tiptoes, increasing the pressure of the kiss. Wanting to be nearer to him, wanting that intimacy that she was craving. He pulled her closer, her breasts smashed against his muscles. The contact was delicious.
A rush of desire flowed through her. She slid her hands around his neck and he pressed harder. His tongue invaded her mouth, and they tangled together. A rough slide then swirl as he angled his head and pulled her even tighter against him.
She felt the throb of his erection against her belly. Oh.
Ben was much taller than her and soon the arch in her neck was getting uncomfortable. The kitchen was hardly the place to continue kissing. Layla pulled away and took his hand leading him to the living room. The room was dark. The sheer curtains hid them from the street view. The room had the standard layout of couch flanked by chairs and a coffee table to hold the remote and a few private investigation magazines. The shabby furniture and well-worn rug were just there, an integral part of her life. Nothing had changed since her mom had died. Her father unwilling, and financially unable, to update their house. He saw it as a betrayal of her mother. But she hoped Ben wouldn’t judge.
Based on all talks, his family had money with a capital M.
She pulled him down to the nubby sofa.
“You sure?” he groaned against her mouth.
“Yes,” she replied breathlessly, willing in this moment to surrender her soul to him and he’d only kissed her.
She didn’t have a lot of experience. She’d always lived at home with her strict father. She’d had sex a few times, but it hadn’t been all that noteworthy. Definitely not good enough to repeat. But suddenly, she was on fire.
He sat on the sofa and pulled her onto his lap so she lay across his body. Ben threaded his fingers through her hair, her scalp tingling with his touch, every nerve ending coming alive.
He held her head for a kiss that went on forever. Layla stroked her palms over his arms and shoulders longing for bare skin but not sure how to ask for what she wanted. Then she thought, screw it. She would touch him the way she wanted.
She gently pushed him away. Ben sat up his hair mussed and his lips red from kissing her a dazed look in his eyes.
She did that. His unfocused gaze was from her.
“I need better access,” she said boldly. Surprised at her ability to demand what she wanted. She’d never imagined she could be this comfortable with a guy.
“Don’t let me stop you.”
Layla straddled his lap, her knees bracketing his hips as she sat on his thighs. Then she gripped the bottom of his t-shirt. “Can I…?”
He smiled at her. “You can do whatever you want.”
She pulled his shirt over his head. She glanced at the clock on the wall. “You too.”
His smile brightened the dark room as she smoothed her palms over his pale skin. The contrast between them an erotic reminder of their differences. She watched his nipples pebble at her touch, the smattering of goosebumps over his chest. His skin was lightly browned from the sun but still much paler than her. “You were in the sun today?”
“Skins in practice today.”
She blinked, relishing that image of a sweaty Ben without his shirt on, muscles flexing.
His fingers toyed with the hem of her loose top, the tips of his fingers brushing her the soft skin of her belly. “May I?”
She’d already given him permission, but she liked that he asked again. She nodded. Slowly he raised her shirt over her head, his breath catching as he trailed his fingers over the swell of her breasts. He cupped her in his large raw-boned palms and lifted her to his mouth. Burying his face in the swells, he turned his head, the softness of his hair teasing her skin and then he slowly licked her nipple.
He licked again then gently sucked the bud into his mouth.
Oh my. She clutched his head as he began to feast on her.
“We should stop,” she panted. “Probably.”
“You don’t sound very sure.”
“Because I’m not.”
He pushed her bra cups down and scooped her out so her breasts were completely exposed. Somehow the juxtaposition of her bra still on, but her breasts pushed up and out over the lace was more erotic than just being naked. It felt naughty and forbidden. He ran his fingers over her belly. “You feel so good.”
Layla threw her head back, eyes closed as she let the sensations his fingers and mouth elicited roll through her. The air was cool against her wet nipples but her body was on fire.
As he feasted on her breasts, his fingers slipped beneath her flirty skirt. The ruffly floral more feminine than she usually wore, but she’d put it on and wondered if he would like it. His fingers skimmed along her thighs and wetness coated her panties. “May I?”
Layla’s breath caught. Her heart thudding so hard she could barely hear. She nodded.
He lifted her skirt and dipped his fingers into her serviceable cotton and headed straight for her. He was gentle and slow, treating her with a care that sent ribbons of warmth flowing through her.
Layla gripped his shoulders and leaned in to kiss him.
They ate at each other ferociously. And his fingers kept exploring her sex, cupping her, teasing with his middle finger but never penetrating.
Layla rocked her hips into his touch. Wanting to beg for more.
Sex had never been like this.
Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Arousal spiraled higher.
Her thoughts scattered into a million fragments like a mirror shattering. She needed to touch him. To give him pleasure like he was giving her. She pushed the elastic waistband of his shorts down and gripped his penis.
He was so big and hot in her hand.
Layla watched as her fingers curled around the engorged red tip and she pumped, staring in fascination as he leaked. The air scented with their desire.
She moaned as his finger slid just a bit further inside her. She squeezed him harder, his hips lifting off the sofa and into her touch. Heat swirled around them like a dervish.
“I want to have sex with you.” He licked her nipple.
Yes. She wanted that too.
“But I don’t want to rush you.” He rubbed his nose along the curve of her neck and then sucked the skin. Her sex pulsed with each intense kiss.
“We have plenty of time,” he groaned as she rocked over his erection.
But she didn’t want to wait. She cupped her hands around his face and stared into his eyes. “Let’s do it.”
“Only if you’re sure.”
Layla awkwardly dismounted from his lap.
The disappointment on his face cut into her heart like a visceral knife. Then she held out her hand. “We need to make sure we get all our clothes off the sofa and floor.”
They couldn’t have sex in the family room.
Ben surged to his feet so fast he swayed. He grabbed her hand and scooped up his backpack and their clothes with one lightning fast swipe.
“Lead the way.”
She couldn’t speak. Emotion crowded her throat and tears threatened again. What just happened between them was mind blowing and overwhelming. Ben pressed soft kisses to her neck and shoulder. He petted her skin, like he was soothing her.
She tensed. It had been life changing for her. Sex had been okay before, but nothing had prepared her for the emotions and sensations that overwhelmed her now.
Layla relaxed and he laughed against her ear. “What did you think I was going to say?”
“I don’t know.” She tilted her head up to look him in the eye. “I don’t have a lot of experience. Maybe it was just okay for you.”
She wanted him to say that he didn’t have a lot of experience either. Instead, he was honest. “After Max died, I went a little crazy.”
She tensed again.
“But all those times pale in comparison to what we just did.” He kissed her softly on the mouth. “They’re faded memories, unlike the mental playback I’ll have of you, head thrown back in ecstasy as you came in 4G technicolor.”
“You’re going to relive it?” Her insecurities came out again.
“Every night I’m not with you, I’m going to play it back in my mind and jack off.”
The mental image of him pumping to ejaculation stirred her illicit fantasies. “Maybe you’ll let me listen sometime.”
He groaned against her mouth then kissed her hard. “Hopefully, there won’t be too many nights without you.”
How did she get so lucky?
He thickened inside her. But instead of going for round two, he rolled so they lay in the bed. Layla’s head rested against Ben’s chest, his heart beating strong and vibrant beneath her.
Sex with Ben was amazing. But the intimacy after was almost as satisfying. He listened to her. She had no idea why she was confiding in him. He probably didn’t want to hear this. In reality, they had just met. But she needed a sounding board.
She’d just finished telling him about her concerns about her dad, feeling a little disloyal but she needed someone to hear her.
He was everything her father wouldn’t understand. Blond hair, blue eyes, very American white boy. Ironic since he and her mother had defied their families to be together.
She didn’t want to sneak around.
So she’d have to start dropping hints to get her father used to the idea of a boyfriend. It would also give Ben time if he suddenly changed his mind about dating her. One foot in, one foot out was not how she wanted to live her life. But she was also realistic about the upheaval dating anyone was going to bring her relationship with her dad.
The only good thing about this stupid job was her dad was out right now, trying to get pictures of the comings and goings at the house of their surveillance subject. That was the other thing…if it was insurance, why did they want pictures of the people coming and going?
He ran his hand over her hair. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
He snorted. “Come on. After the last few weeks, I know you.” Ben shifted and she tilted her head back. His blue eyes normally sparkling with life were somber. “You aren’t going to let this drop.”
How was it possible that this man, this gift, knew her better than her own father?
“I’m going to do some more research on the car. And I’m going to do some research on this job my dad took.” The decision solidified as he gave her the encouragement and support she needed.
He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “That’s my girl.”
She was his. She wrapped her arms around his waist savoring his smooth skin. “Am I?”
“For as long as you’ll have me,” he replied.
“I’ll have you.”
She licked his bicep. “Not sure how I got so lucky.” She couldn’t help but add.
Ben rolled on top of her. “I’ll show you lucky.”
His erection brushed her belly. She skimmed her hand down his stomach and curled her fingers around him. “I think it’s my turn to show you.”
She pumped once and he rocked into her hand. “If you insist,” he said breathlessly.
Layla shoved her hair up into a messy knot and pulled her laptop onto her lap.
“Naked research?” Ben rested his head on her shoulder and played with her body as she pulled up Google.
She giggled. “Yup.”
She had covered the camera on her laptop. She wasn’t an idiot.
She tried to find the company that hired her dad, entered various spellings but nothing came up.
“I can’t find any listing for this company.”
She tried again, with different variations. He shoved to full sitting. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing good.” What company didn’t have a website?
“What do you do next?”
“Research the surveillance subject.” She clicked the keys to pull up their program on background checks and set the program to running on the subject’s name.
“What time is it?” Ben kissed her neck and her nipples peaked.
She looked distractedly at the clock in the upper corner of her screen. Shoot. Her dad would be home soon. She sighed. “Probably time for you to leave.”
He needed to be out before her baba got home.
“Pull up the Find My feature and see where he’s at.” His demand quickened her heartbeat.
She clicked on the icon on her laptop. “He’s a good hour away.”
Ben leaned over and sucked her nipple into his mouth, lavishing her breasts with attention as he licked his way to the other nipple. He slid his fingers into the curls protecting her sex. His blunt fingers probed her nether lips and teased her, entering slightly then pulling away.
Layla moaned, lifting her hips.
“I think I need to do some research of my own.”
“Like what?” She asked breathlessly.
“Like whether you want this,” he slid his finger into her, “or this.” His cock, fully hard and ready to go again, nudged her hip.
Layla set her laptop onto the nightstand and pushed his shoulder, rolling until she was on top of him.
He was hard.
“Do you have any more condoms?”
He reached over into his backpack and pulled out a strip, then quickly covered himself.
She pressed down onto his erection, and he filled her completely.
“I want you.” She arched her back as he shoved up into her, his hands cupping her breasts.
“You’ve got me.” They rocked against each other. Layla’s orgasm built quickly.
“Damn, Layla.” His neck arched as he came, pumping into her. And she had the random thought that if they kept seeing each other she needed to go on the pill. She panted as she came, squeezing his cock and milking every last drop of his orgasm from him.
She collapsed over his chest, and he curled his arms around her. “You’re insatiable.”
He snorted into her neck. “Only with you. It’s never been this way with anyone else.”
He tightened his grip.
It hadn’t been this way for her. “Me either.” Her heart swelled as if it was too big for her chest filling her with gratitude that this beautiful man had chosen her.
Her computer dinged but she was too spent to care. Ben glanced at his watch and sighed. “I should probably go.”
Ugh. Her sadness was acute.
“One day…” They’d be able to be together. “I’ll start conditioning my dad to the idea that I have a boyfriend.”
“Can’t wait.” He pulled out of her and strode to the bathroom. He came back, pulling on his jeans as he handed her some tissue.
She smiled her thanks and cleaned up.
Ben pulled on his shirt, and she marveled at his muscled chest. “You are so beautiful.”
He blushed. “Shut up.”
“Nope.” She leaned against the pillows and propped her hands behind her neck, thrusting her breasts out, teasing him just a bit.
“You’re the beautiful one.” He groaned. “That’s so mean, teasing me when I have to leave.”
She giggled. “Something to remember when you’re at home in bed.”
He leaned over and kissed her deeply. “I’m not likely to forget.”
“I will.” He kissed her one more time and then left quickly. A disquiet filled her as her computer pinged again.
Layla dragged on a nightgown and grabbed her laptop.
The screen came to life, and she got some answers. “Oh, shit.”
Layla sat at her desk, waiting for her dad to get up. He’d been out late last night. She’d waited up until Ben had texted her that he was home, then gone to sleep. Her body was still fizzing from the amazing sex. That part of her night had been wonderful.
The rest, not so much. She had been asleep when her father returned. Her stomach curdled as the implications of what she’d found swirled in her head.
She could have initiated this discussion over the kitchen table, but she didn’t want this to be contentious and she needed him to take her seriously. She figured that giving him this news over a platter of labneh, dates, and pita wouldn’t convey the right kind of gravitas. The stark predicament she and her dad were in became apparent when she found out who his surveillance subject was.
He sauntered in at nine a.m. and raised his brows when he saw her already at her desk. “You’re in early.”
Normally she studied at the coffee shop before her eleven am class and didn’t come into the office. “We need to talk.”
His brow crinkled. “Everything okay?”
“Let’s go into your office.”
“Wow, must be really serious.” He teased.
Once he was seated at his desk, she sat across from him, her knees pressed together, and her head bowed. “You need to cancel that job.”
Ugh. That wasn’t the right way to start but ever since she’d read the report on his job, she’d known things were not good.
“What? No. The money is good.” He leaned forward. “You just finish up your studies so you can get a real job and be done with this PI business.”
Her dad didn’t understand. She loved the investigative aspect of the business. She’d been taking forever to finish her degree for multiple reasons. One being that she didn’t want to do something else. But that was a conversation for another day.
“You don’t understand. This client is bad news.”
“You do not tell me what to do.” His voice was hard.
Crap. She had really bungled this. “Baba. Listen. This job is bad. I checked the client request, and they must have used a VPN because the IP address was obscured.” Nothing good ever came from someone hiding their location.
“No.” He dug in his heels.
“Your subject is an Iranian scientist.”
He scoffed. “What do you know about this?”
“I did some research last night.”
“I told you to let it go.”
“I had a bad feeling, so I investigated. That’s what you taught me.” Frustration made her voice sharp. He let her help in the business, but he never trusted her instincts.
She wanted him to believe in her abilities. Her heart yearned for his approval.
“You never met them in person, right? We know nothing about these clients.” His eyes shifted and her stomach dropped. “Baba?”
“What? It’s fine. The money on this job is fantastic.”
Money was always in short supply. Mom’s medical bills had decimated any savings her parent’s had. They were still paying off the debt from her mom’s cancer treatments.
Her father didn’t say anything else, but something in his body language pinged her intuition.
She tried again. “He’s Iranian.”
How could he not see the implications? Whoever hired her dad was setting him up. A Saudi man investigating an Iranian scientist? Yet, he scoffed at her concerns.
A knock on the door to their offices interrupted. Before she could say more, three men in suits opened the door and walked in as if they owned their house.
Layla’s heart triple timed.
“Omar Habib?” The guy in front, white man, greying hair and clean-shaven face, had a holster on his hip and a badge attached on the other hip.
Her father stood. “Who are you?”
“Are you Omar Habib?”
Her father’s chest puffed. “Who wants to know?”
Layla sat very still trying to make herself invisible.
The man flipped open his badge and identified himself as a Special Agent in Charge. Layla wanted to throw up. In charge of what?
“We need to ask you some questions about one of your clients.”
“Our clients get absolute confidentiality.” Her father blustered.
“Who hired you to watch this man?” He held up a picture of the Iranian nuclear scientist.
“None of your business.”
Jeez baba. Don’t antagonize the federal agent.
So far, the FBI guys had let her stay in the room. She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself, staying very still and hoping against hope that there was a happy ending to what was happening right now.
“Answer the question, please.”
Her father answered grudgingly. “Came in through the internet.”
“You never met your client in person?”
“No.” He waved his hands. “Happens all the time.”
“What did they ask you to do?”
“Insurance fraud. Pictures of who comes and goes from the house.”
“And did you supply them with that information?”
“I did what I was hired to do.”
“Did you have anything to do with the bomb?”
Layla jolted. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Bomb?
Baba’s eyes widened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You claim no knowledge of the explosive device in Mr. Ghorbani’s garage?”
“Of course not.”
“But you did give the Iranian government intelligence on the victim.”
Layla’s stomach revolted. Oh shit. Had the scientist died?
Her father’s face turned ashen. “I didn’t have anything to do with a bomb.” He suddenly seemed to realize that he’d been duped.
“You were seen on security cameras near this residence last night.”
“Sure. The client wanted more pictures.”
“You admit you were at this residence hours before the bomb went off?”
“I don’t know anything about a bomb. I was hired to take pictures for insurance fraud.”
The agent moved toward her baba. “You are under arrest for the aiding and abetting of spying for a foreign government.”
“What?!” Her father shook his head. “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.”
“You need to come with us.”
Don’t resist, don’t resist. Layla chanted in her head.
But of course, her baba did. “That’s ridiculous.” He kept the desk between him and the men. So far no one had said a word to her.
“You have the right to remain silent.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just trying to make a living and support my family.”
“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, you will be provided with counsel.”
Layla’s stomach churned. She’d known when she’d seen the identity of the man her baba had been watching that this was bad. But what was happening now was a whole other level of bad.
The man pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt, old fashioned metal, they clinked as he walked toward her father.
Luckily, her baba put his hands up. “This is outrageous. I have rights.”
The agent was reciting her father’s Miranda rights. This wasn’t even a square on her horror bingo card. What was happening right now?
“Please turn around or we will charge you with resisting arrest.”
Her father turned and faced the window, hands behind his back. “I moved to this country to enjoy the freedoms available to all citizens. This is an outrage.” He blustered again.
“Where are you taking him?” Her voice shook.
“He is being remanded into custody.”
They didn’t give her the address. They did ask her though. “Who are you?”
“She’s no one.” She knew her father was trying to protect her, but his words cut.
“His daughter.” Layla tucked her trembling hands beneath her thighs.
“We have a warrant to search the premises.” One of the other men held up a piece of paper.
She nodded. Her stomach churned as she held down bile as they led her father out of the office. An attorney. They couldn’t afford an attorney. They did okay but they certainly weren’t getting rich off their jobs. All the extra money went to medical debts.
Her brain pinged from thought to thought. The client had contacted her dad through the internet. Since she’d set up their website, nowadays, plenty of jobs came through online.
Usually, they did their due diligence. Made sure the company or person was legit before they accepted the job. She wasn’t even sure how much her dad had been paid. He kept saying the money was really good.
She watched as they carted away her dad’s ancient desktop computer. The agents dug through their files, tossing papers and folders on the floor, tagging other things and placing them in a row on the floor, marked with little plastic tent numbers.
Another guy came in and started dusting a grey powder over all the surfaces. People moved around her, digging through their life, decimating the sense of safety that she’d taken for granted her whole life.
She wanted to call Ben so badly. But she just sat there as federal agents dismantled her life. What was going to happen next? It couldn’t get any worse, right? They’d see that her father wasn’t conspiring with the Iranians, and it was all a mistake.
The next morning, Layla sat in her receptionist’s chair and stared at the mess around her. The agents hadn’t been neat. Papers were strewn everywhere. The fingerprint powder made everything grimy. They’d confined their search to the office, but the lead guy had said they’d be back with a warrant to search the house.
He’d given her his card. Special Agent in Charge, Jones, had stared at her as if she had the answers to what was happening.
She didn’t know what to do. Everything was so overwhelming. But no one else was going to pick up the pieces. Just like when her mom had died and her dad had been devastated. She took care of things.
She knelt on the ground and scooped the papers into a pile. Her dad was old school. They’d taken his camera and the files and the computer. She didn’t have the heart to sort anything right now.
Her cell rang. Ben!
“Hey.” Just the sound of his voice lightened her heart.
“Hi,” she said softly.
“How’s it going?”
“Did you see the news?” Her stomach rolled again. This call could be over fast.
“I vaguely heard something about it. I’ve studying for my finance midterm. The private investigator they arrested last night. Do you know him?”
“That’s my dad,” she whispered.
“What?” She could hear the rustling in the background. “I’ll be right over.”
Her heart was grieving because they’d been on the edge of something beautiful. But it was crumbling away into dust and flying into the ether. A shitstorm of biblical proportions was coming her way. She wouldn’t wish that on her enemies let alone a guy she was falling for.
“We just met. You should run far and wide from me. From this.” Her voice wobbled.
She had tried to suppress her emotions, but dang it was hard.
“Last week was a lifetime ago.” Ben shot back. “Before I saw you in that coffee shop, I thought my life was close to perfect, but now I can’t imagine my world without you in it.”
“Are you sure?” She should tell him no. She even tried, but the caution stuck in her throat.
“I’m on my way.”
“Come in the back door again and park a few streets over. So far the reporters have stayed out front.”
Twenty minutes later he knocked on the back door and she let him in quickly.
She stood in the darkened kitchen, all their curtains shut tightly to keep prying eyes away, arms wrapped around her waist, warding off the pain.
Ben didn’t hesitate. He pulled her into a hug. How had she gotten so lucky? “Tell me about your dad. You were right about that client, huh?”
She nodded against his chest. His heart steady and solid beneath her ear. “Yeah. The FBI arrested him. They think he was working with the Iranian government.”
“What was he thinking?” She started to spiral, her voice rising. “We always vet our clients. There are plenty of shady people out there. He knows better.”
Ben held her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Hey. Tell me a good memory about your parents.”
“Focus on a positive memory before we deal with the not-so-great stuff.”
“My parent’s met in college. My dad was an exchange student from Saudi Arabia and my mom was an Orthodox Jew from New York.”
“Wow. That’s quite a difference in background.” His voice was calm, soothing, and she felt her heart rate slowing and her thoughts became more ordered as the panic dissipated.
“They fell in love against all reason.”
“I don’t know much about either of those backgrounds but I’m guessing that that’s pretty rare.”
“Yeah. Both their families disowned them.” Layla’s heart slowed finally. “It was mom and dad against the world, until I came along. Then it was the three of us.”
“What did you do for family holidays?”
“My mom always said, that since we were cut off from their family traditions so we would make our own.”
“Yeah. They chose traditions that were important to them and blended them together.”
“That’s pretty special.”
“Yeah.” She smiled tremulously. “Their love story was epic. Thanks for reminding me.”
He kissed her forehead. Layla was amazed at his acceptance. He didn’t judge. “Anytime.”
“How are you so…accepting?”
She loved that his first instinct was compassion. “Everyone is going through something. You just can’t always see it on the outside.”
Layla tried to push out of his arms. Being with her was dangerous. “You should go. I don’t want any of this to come back on you.”
He shook his head. “Let me stand in front of you and block the shots coming your way,” he said. “At least for a bit.”
“I’ve got you.”
A hundred thousand dollars.
Two days later, Layla thought she was going to be sick. The judge had set bail at a million dollars. So that meant she needed one hundred thousand dollars to get him out on bond. Even if she could get a home equity loan on short notice, they couldn’t afford it. Plus the house was in her dad’s name. She’d talked to a bail bondsman. She should know more about this, but they dealt mostly in civil cases. Insurance fraud, cheating spouses, quick cases that didn’t involve hardened criminals or the possibility of life in prison for treason.
Even if she somehow came up with the money to pay the bondsman, they wouldn’t get that hundred grand back.
There was no way they could afford that.
When the FBI had come back to search the house, they’d confiscated her phone and laptop. Layla didn’t realize how dependent she was on her phone until she didn’t have it. She’d had deleted Ben’s contact information and the call log so he wasn’t implicated in any way. Their relationship didn’t have anything to do with an Iranian scientist and she wasn’t about to get him in trouble.
Luckily, she’d backed up everything on a separate cloud storage so she still had access to her classwork and other files. She had picked up a burner phone at the drug store that she could use to call Ben.
“How are you?”
Tears burned her eyes. “Fine.”
“Come on. I know that’s not true. Let me come over.”
“I’m pretty sure someone is watching me.” She hadn’t seen them, but she’d felt eyes on her for the past two days as she’d tried to figure out how to help her dad.
“I’m so tired.” She wasn’t sleeping. Between worry about her dad and the constant
harassing from journalists. The continued intrusions from the FBI. She was exhausted.
“Meet me at the Westin Washington Square.”
“I can’t afford a hotel.” They’d frozen her dad’s bank accounts. Luckily Layla had her own account for school expenses, but she’d just paid tuition and her balance was very low.
He didn’t bring it up often, but his family was rich. She shouldn’t see him right now. “I don’t want any of this to touch you.”
“No one knows about us.” Ben countered quickly.
“And I don’t want them to find out.”
Layla wrapped her arms around her waist and hunched over. She could really use a hug.
“It’s only an eight minute walk from the Metro,” he cajoled.
He knew she couldn’t take a taxi.
“I’ll text you a room number in a few minutes.”
“Okay.” She relented.
She took the bus and the metro, switching trains and watching for any tails. If they were following her right now, they were good.
Layla knocked on the hotel room door. Ben opened it quickly and yanked her inside. Then she was in his arms and for the first time in over forty-eight hours she felt safe.
She burrowed her head against his chest and hung on.
Layla realized he was squeezing her just as tightly. “I needed to touch you.” He breathed against her hair.
“What do you need to do next?”
“I don’t know.”
She needed to come up with a plan. That was what she did. She researched and planned. But this was outside the normal scope of her experience, and she was floundering. “I can’t afford bail.”
He took a deep breath.
“No.” She pushed out of his arms. “First, your parents would flip. Second, my father would flip. There’d be no way to hide our relationship any longer. Third, I don’t want this to taint you in any way.”
“Then let’s see what else we can come up with.”
“I can’t believe you’re sticking around.” Layla couldn’t keep the wonder out of her voice.
Ben stiffened. “Why not?”
“Because…” They’d just met. In relationship years they were not even a blip. And yet, he’d been amazing. Out of this world. “Why would you?”
“I don’t quit. I stick,” he said fiercely.
They lay on the crisp, cotton sheets of the king-sized bed, twined together so that every part of them was touching.
“Spell out the consequences.”
“I think they chose my dad deliberately.”
“Because he is Saudi. They probably were trying to set him up to take the fall.” The Saudis and the Iranians had been enemies for centuries. They’d probably hoped he’d be arrested and automatically fingered for the attack on the scientist.
But the FBI had found him first.
“But that doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Ben rolled so they were laying side by side.
Things were even worse after an article in the paper named her dad and their private investigation firm. Their business landline had been ringing off the hook, but it had mostly been reporters and a few curiosity seekers.
“Once the cops questioned him, they would know that he’d been hired by the Iranians.”
“There’s been several instances recently where private investigators were hired by foreign governments to spy on expat citizens living in the US.” She’d done research after her dad’s arrest. In some cases, they were prosecuting the PIs.
“I keep thinking maybe if I can find more information on the client, that I can get my father released.”
“What kind of information? I thought they took your laptop.”
“They did.” She paused. “I have files in the cloud.” She took a deep breath. “And I have an SD memory card that I think might have the pictures from the last night he took pictures.”
“Should you let the lawyer work on it?”
“My dad’s public defender had done her best, but she clearly has more clients than time.”
Ben said, “That sucks.”
So what was she going to do? “Normally, I have plenty of ideas.”
Her dad’s frequent policy of shooting down her ideas had come back to bite her. But she was paralyzed by worry she was doing the wrong thing.
“I loved working as a private investigator.”
Ben continued to stroke her skin. “Don’t speak about it in the past tense.”
Right now she couldn’t see a future for their business.
“My dad might get his wish after all.” She’d told Ben about how her father was just waiting until she could become a teacher even though all she wanted was to continue in the family business.
She could feel her future slipping through her fingers. “I want to fight for it, but right now my dad is more important.”
Ben squeezed her tight. “I admire your passion for work. I just go along with the flow.”
“Distract me.” Layla needed time to work through what her next move should be. “Tell me something no one else knows.”
“I don’t really care about the MBA. My dad wants me to get it.”
What? That was a big commitment. “You don’t want an advanced degree?”
“I don’t care one way or the other.” He shrugged. “Honestly, it’s easier to do what he wants and make him happy.”
His parents were paying for his school. He was lucky that he wouldn’t have a mountain of debt when he was done. And he’d have a job with his family company.
“You do that a lot? Make other people happy?”
“If it’s something that’s easy. Sure.” He smiled. “I like making people happy.”
“Thank you for giving me the past few days,” she whispered.
“Hey, hey.” Ben stared into her eyes. She could get lost in his warm blue gaze. “That sounds like goodbye.”
It really should be. “I need to go.”
She tried to push out of bed, but he held on tight.
“My immediate future looks pretty bleak.” She gestured between them. “Is sex with me really worth the headache?”
It didn’t feel like just sex. But she didn’t have that much experience. It was too soon for anything more, even if she felt with every fiber of her being that they could be more. That he was more. That he could be the one.
“It isn’t just sex.” Ben leaned in and kissed her. “And I’m not going to run.”
But she couldn’t help but feel very alone.
Adams-Larsen Inc. and Associates
“Did you see the news last night?”
Jake Brown sat in his boss’s office. He had, and he was pretty sure he knew what he was thinking. Marsh Adams had a soft spot for women in jeopardy. Jake was a tad more cynical, but he could admit that the scared young girl they’d caught on camera, wild-eyed and looking very alone as she left the courthouse, had roused his protective instincts as well.
Layla Habib was in a bad spot. The online vitriol directed at her was intense. They couldn’t get to her father, the real culprit, so they’d been seriously attacking her.
“We don’t typically solicit our clients.”
To the outside world—Adams—that was Marsh Adams, his boss, and Larsen— his other boss, Jillian—Inc and Associates was a very private public relations firm with a closely guarded client list. And they did do PR, just not in this office. Here they specialized in private witness security and helping people disappear.
Jillian walked into Marsh’s office in her pencil skirt and fancy blazer. “There’s something about her. Did you see that shot on the news?”
Layla was motherless, like Jillian.
Jillian Larsen was gorgeous, but she came off as very cold. She probably had good reason. Jake didn’t know her well. She’d voluntarily left her job at the US Marshals office after a scandal involving her and one of her protectees. Supposedly she’d had an affair with him and then he was killed. He knew there was more to it than that, but she wasn’t sharing, and he wasn’t about to ask.
Jake shifted in the oversized, normally super comfortable, leather chair. Marsh’s office had a man cave, comfortable den vibe. Employees frequently gathered here to shoot the shit and razz each other. They didn’t typically do business discussions here. Those conversations took place in Jillian’s far more formal and straightlaced domain.
“I think we should feel her out.” Marsh interrupted Jake’s musings.
“What about her father?” Jake couldn’t help but interject. Maybe Jill and Marsh were going to offer her protection for a bit. They did do some pro bono work. But plenty of their clients paid big bucks to disappear, forever. Legally, of course.
“Her father can’t help her right now.” Jill argued. “She’s an adult.”
But Jake was surprised at the vehemence of Jill’s support.
“Her father took money from the Iranian government,” Marsh said. “He isn’t getting out of prison any time soon.”
Jake wasn’t sure why he was in the room. But he was compelled to add to the conversation. “My guess is he’ll plea down. He admitted he took money from them.” At least according to the paper.
“Agree.” Jillian was staring at this morning’s Washington Post. But there was a speculative cant to her head that Jake didn’t like.
“Do we really want to take her away from her only parent?” Jake was trying to be the voice of reason here. Both Jill and Marsh seemed intent on reaching out to Layla Habib. And for the life of him, Jake could not figure out why. It wasn’t that he didn’t have compassion for her plight. He did. But why were they thinking this was a good idea?
“Let’s bring her in.” Jill nodded.
Fuck. He didn’t like this. But they were his bosses. “How do we get in touch?” Jake assumed they wanted him for the logistics.
“Company website is offline.” Marsh clicked on his laptop.
“FBI likely confiscated her phone.” Jake added. “And if they didn’t, they are monitoring it.”
“We need to approach her in person,” Jillian said.
Marsh usually handled the logistics and Jill the people, she wasn’t as much of a soft touch as Marsh, when they had a case.
They each had a role at ALIAS. Jake was one of the point people for the actual relocation, if it was needed. Sometimes he used debit cards to make purchases in red herring locations to throw anyone off the trail of one of their clients. Sometimes he did witness protection. Sometimes he was a bodyguard. All around security was his specialty. And when they needed a Jack of all trades, he was their guy. But that was after the client had been brought on board.
Initial contact was never his job.
Jake’s protective instincts flared to life. They were both far too interested in this girl, okay, woman, but she looked young and that brought out his need to safeguard innocents. He had enough self awareness that he knew his own weaknesses. This girl pushed every button.
He’d look out for her. “I’ll do it.”
Marsh nodded. “Great. Here’s her address.”
Jillian tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. “Check with Kita and make sure Layla doesn’t have any active social media right now.”
Kita Kim was their resident computer guru. She did social media seeding and taught self- defense to clients and at a local women’s shelter.
Looked like he was off to make contact with a girl on the edge.
Layla skulked through the back alley, hoping the reporters camped out on their front yard wouldn’t be lying in wait for her.
She’d needed food.
She had tried Door Dash, but a reporter had bribed her delivery guy and then held her dinner hostage. Her neighbors were keeping their distance, worried about being tainted by the possibility of being associated with a suspected spy. The few kids she was friendly with at the community college hadn’t reached out. She’d asked her professors for extensions on her assignments and the replies had been mixed.
In desperation, she’d slipped out the back and walked to the grocery store wearing a pair of Ben’s sweats and a Washington Nationals ball cap to shield her face.
She’d picked up peanut butter, bread, and a couple boxes of protein bars. The bags were heavy but at least she wouldn’t starve. They wouldn’t find her carcass a month later half eaten by wild dogs. Wow she was tired. And very, very alone.
Her arms ached as she shifted the bags to one hand to pull her keys out of her pocket.
“You need a hand?” The deep voice came out of the darkness.
She yelped and dropped a bag.
Her heart thundered in her chest, banging hard enough that her head went light as she took a step back.
“Shit. Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He was big. Intimidating. Screw him. She squared her shoulders. “No comment.”
He picked up her bag of groceries and held it out for her.
She snatched it up and clutched it to her chest. She needed the food.
He sighed. Retreated a few steps back. “I’m not a reporter.”
She snorted. “Right.”
He rubbed his large palm over the back of his neck and through his short curly black hair, his bicep bulging. “I am here to offer you a proposition.”
“What, if I have sex with you, you’ll get my dad out?”
He straightened, and practically growled. “Did someone try to sell you that bullshit? Give me a name.”
He seemed so sincere. But people lied all the time. Hazard of private investigation. Suspicion. People likely weren’t telling the truth. Sometimes it was depressing how many people lied to your damn face.
She backed toward her door. Hoping there wasn’t more guys like him waiting for her.
He sighed again. “I’m not here to hurt you. And I don’t want an interview.”
“You’re just loitering around my back door for shits and giggles.”
He pulled something out of his pocket. Layla tensed. She could defend herself—maybe—but she really didn’t want to crush her bread.
“I’m from Adams-Larsen Inc and Associates.” He held something out, but she kept her focus on his eyes, not his hands.
“Never heard of it.”
“Here’s my card. We do…public relations.”
“Yeah, that’s what I need. An image makeover.”
He laughed, low and husky. “Google us and then give me a call.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jake. Jake Brown.”
Huh. She wasn’t getting any weirdo vibe or sexual predator vibe off him. She could be wrong, but his regard felt…protective.
“Why?” she asked suspiciously.
“My bosses would like to help you.”
“Unless you’ve got a spare hundred grand that you don’t want back, I’m good.” False bravado, of course. She was far from good, but she certainly wasn’t going to let some stranger see that she was on the edge of panicking.
“They set bail at a million?”
“Damn.” Jake shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He actually sounded like it.
“I told you—”
“No. Why you?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure. I don’t usually work with clients until they’re already clients.”
“You do public relations?” Layla couldn’t keep the skepticism out of her voice.
“Of a sort.”
That wasn’t an answer.
She heard the rustling from the back alley and stiffened. He shoved a cheap cell phone in her hand. “Use this when you call.”
What kind of public relations firm used burner phones?
The noises were getting closer. Crap. Some reporter must have figured out this side entrance.
Jake shooed her. “Hurry up and get inside. I’ll distract them until you’re safe.”
She believed him. Fool? Or Smart?
Layla had googled Adams-Larsen while she ate her peanut butter sandwich. The information had been confusing and didn’t give any clarity as to why Jake Brown had been on her doorstep. But it was a legitimate business.
Ben had given her an iPad his family had lying around. It was several years old and slow, but it connected to the internet, and she could do some research. When he’d handed it to her, he’d said, “I wanted to get you a new one, but I didn’t think you’d accept it.”
She certainly wouldn’t have. Her heart warmed at the fact that he knew her so well already.
She’d tried to find any information about the client in the cloud storage, but the client files were gone. Wiped. By the Iranians? Her father? The government? She had no idea. All she knew was that she had zero leverage against the might of the US law enforcement agencies.
What about the photos her father had taken that final night before he was arrested? Could there be a lead to whomever had set the bomb?
The photos her father had taken were on the camera and they got uploaded to Dropbox—but it was a manual process, had he done it before he was arrested? He had come home late and then the FBI had been here.
But she also had backed everything up on a separate photo storage flash drive. She’d downloaded all the photos to the stick before the FBI searched their house and the photos from the final night were not in the Dropbox.
Good thing because she no longer had access to the Dropbox account.
What the FBI didn’t know was she had the memory card from the night the bomb went off. She should have turned it over as soon as she found it. But she didn’t trust them.
She couldn’t access the photos. She needed a memory card reader and she needed to figure out how to buy one without causing suspicion and look at the photos for any clues. And make sure there was nothing that would incriminate her father.
After her brain going round in circles as she considered all her options, ha, her limited options.
After exhausting all the avenues, she could think of, her gaze kept returning to the card Jake had left. Plain white stock. No logo. Just Adams-Larsen Inc and Associates and a phone number.
The articles she’d found had hinted at their high-profile clients, whom no one could confirm, and some old rather negative stories about the founder, Jillian Larsen, a former a US Marshal. That seemed a strange transition—from federal agent to public relations.
Maybe they offered protection services to their clients.
At the rate things were going, she would need it. She’d caught a reporter trying to break into the office. They had run away before the police arrived. But now she didn’t even feel safe in the house.
She was getting threatening phone calls from random strangers.
She hadn’t been able to talk to her dad. She’d seen him in court when the judge had set his bail but that was it.
His lawyer had asked to see her. That meeting had not gone well. “Your father doesn’t want you to come see him. Doesn’t want you to come to the courthouse.”
A knife to the heart would have hurt less.
Her devastation must have shown on her face because the lawyer, a public defender, patted her on the arm. “He’s trying to protect you.”
By leaving her in the dark?
The lawyer shifted in her seat uncomfortably. “I have some bad news.”
All she could think was… “More?”
“Uh, yeah. Your father received a notice that the government is seizing the house.”
“But…I live there.”
With her inexpensive suit and worn briefcase, Layla figured the attorney did understand. “I know. You’ve got until Monday of next week until you need to leave.”
She fell back in the hard wooden chair. “Where am I supposed to go?”
The government had frozen their bank accounts. Layla had a small account that she used for college expenses that was nearly depleted since she’d just paid her fall tuition. But it was all hers so she had a little money.
“I’m sorry.” The attorney looked like she was, but sorry didn’t give Layla a place to stay or any options. She was on her own.
She’d talked to Ben every day for hours. He was trying to be supportive, but her problems were monumental, and she felt bad asking for any more than he’d already given.
Maybe Adams Larsen could help her get positive word out about her dad.
She’d also googled Jake. He reminded her of a big teddy bear. When she thought back to their interaction, she hadn’t been scared of him. He had a big brother vibe that had made her feel safe.
She was curious about why they approached her. She wanted to believe they were coming from a place of generosity, but she was also skeptical. The churning in her gut reminded her she didn’t really have any options left.
Before she could make a decision, there was a furtive knock on the back door.
She almost didn’t answer, but then she thought screw it. She was tired of being afraid in her own home. When she peered through the curtains, it was Ben.
She yanked open the door and pulled him inside. “What are you doing here?” she hissed.
“I needed to see you.” He wrapped his arms around her and held on tight.
Layla’s brain was racing. “What if someone saw you? What if you were identified?”
“Then the world will know, you’re mine.”
Her heart melted. As soon as she relaxed into his embrace, everything quieted. All the angst and worry over the past few days evaporated into mist. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too.”
“Come on.” He led her to the sofa and gently pulled her into his lap. Layla sat across his knees, feeling his solid form beneath her, holding her up, supporting her.
She sighed and relaxed further into him, trying not to worry about any blowback onto Ben.
He kissed her thoroughly. “Peanut butter?”
“Comfort food. Peanut butter sandwiches were my mom’s feel better cure for a bad day. Except during Passover. Because except for natural peanut butter,” she made a face, she really wasn’t a fan of natural peanut butter, “regular peanut butter isn’t Kosher.”
“I’ll confess I have no idea what Kosher means.”
“There’s a bunch of rules about meat and dairy not being eaten on the same plate.” Her family wasn’t orthodox, so they never really followed that one. “The big one is how animals are slaughtered.”
“I know. I try not to think about it. It’s why I was a vegetarian for a while.”
“Thanks for that food lesson.” He laughed. “Tell me about your day.”
So she did. About the lawyer, her dad. She didn’t tell him that she thought she’d been followed when she went to the grocery store. She’d managed to dodge reporters but maybe it was just some really intrepid reporter hot on her boring trail.
“I found out today I have to be out by end of day on Monday.”
He stiffened. “What?”
She needed to focus on a place to stay. But at least she had the weekend to figure it out.
“Come stay at my house.”
“Your parents don’t even know about us.”
“It will be fine.”
Right. His totally white bread, wealthy parents would freak if they found out they were dating now.
“I don’t want my introduction to be while all these lies about my dad are in the news.”
“They would love you.”
He was being naïve, but it was sweet. No way could she bring this trouble to his family.
She wondered if there was a youth hostel nearby. She didn’t really have much stuff. Some clothes, a picture of her mom and dad before her mom died, her mother’s Hamsa necklace, her yarmulke from her bar mitzvah, and some really old pictures of her parents.
“Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.” Ben squeezed her tight. “Together.”
“If we’re together, everything will be okay.” And she realized she didn’t need any PR firm. She just needed this.
The moment was perfect. He was perfect.
He kissed her sweetly, the caress tender.
They sat together, kissing deeply, as if their souls were fusing together. The moment spiraled out and the kiss turned intense. Ben brushed his hand down her arm and twined her fingers with his and she held on for dear life.
He broke away. “Let’s go to bed.”
“You should probably leave.” He should. That thought doused the flames from their kiss. She didn’t want him to.
“I’m not leaving tonight.” He kissed a path from her cheek, down her neck. Goosebumps pebbled her skin and her body flared to life again.
“Ben,” she said breathlessly. She didn’t want him to leave. She curled her hand around his neck and kissed him, sucking hard, teasing her tongue against the salty sweat of his skin. She loved him like this. He’d just come from lacrosse practice. His hair stuck up every which way and his skin held the gleam of sweat. He was the perfect all-American boy and he was here with her.
His erection prodded her hip.
She wiggled in his lap. “Is that a lacrosse stick in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”
“I’m very happy to see you.” He kissed her hard and cupped her breast in his palm.
“What if we had sex in the living room?” He teased. “That would be naughty.”
He was trying to pull her out of her melancholy, and she appreciated it but, “I can’t have sex out here!”
He wormed his hand up her shirt and put his large palm against her breast. Her nipple hardened. “Someone is happy to see me too.” He licked his way down to her breast. Her body tingling as he sucked and kissed her, handily unhooking her bra and pushing it off her shoulders.
He sucked her nipple into his mouth. She arched against him, pushing her butt into his erection.
“This position isn’t very satisfying,” she panted. Trying to reach for any part of him to tease him the same way he was teasing her.
In an athletic move, he rolled so she was beneath him on the sofa.
Ben rocked his hips into hers, and she spread her legs so that she could wrap around him. He looked down at her, his blues eyes shining and a wicked smile on his face. “I’ve got you right where I want you.”
She giggled. “Ditto.” He was wearing sweats and she pushed the waistband down. “No underwear?” She wrapped her hand around his penis. “Now who’s naughty?”
“I was really sweaty, but I wanted to get here fast.”
Her heart melted again. “I’m so glad you did.”
She’d been feeling disheartened and hopeless. But now he was here.
She pumped her hand and his cock leaked. The smell of his desire, for her, permeated the room. She rubbed her thumb over the tip and he swelled even bigger.
She needed him inside her. Needed that connection. That feeling of belonging to someone.
Layla rocked her hips more urgently.
“What’s the rush?” he asked against her lips.
“I need you.”
He pushed her skirt and tights down to her knees exposing her to the air. They should go to the bedroom, but when he rubbed the tip of his cock against her, she moaned.
“Shit, that feels good.”
She’d gone on the pill. Because even worse than a sexual relationship would be a baby out of wedlock. She had gone to Planned Parenthood in secret, getting the prescription to protect herself. But it wasn’t effective yet.
He rubbed again, barely penetrating her. Layla curled her hands around his bare butt. He was muscular and strong, but she pulled him toward her.
He hadn’t been her first lover, but she’d never gone without double protection. They shared a connection that felt unbreakable.
“I want to protect you.” He reached down and grabbed a condom from his backpack.
She loved that he was adamant about protecting her. It was too soon to believe she’d discovered her true love, but deep inside she knew that Ben was it for her.
“Yes.” Her heart thundered in her chest.
“I won’t ever leave you.”
She accepted that he meant it, that he felt this indescribable bond just as much as she did. Just knowing he was there for her was a huge weight off her shoulders.
“You’ll always have me.”
Bam. A loud crash woke Layla. She jerked awake, thrust into panic mode.
Ben was curled around her, snug against her back cocooning her in a shroud of safety. But that was clearly an illusion.
“What the hell was that?” Ben yanked on his sweats.
Her stomach knotted. “I don’t know.”
They didn’t have guns in the house. Her father didn’t believe in them. But she did have a softball bat. She pulled the bat from her closet.
Ben held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
She hesitated. She could defend herself, but she was happy he was here. “Fine.”
“Let me check it out.” They crept to the living room and the source of the crash was clear. A brick with the words “Arabic Scum” written in chalk rested in a pile of glass on the floor. Shards of glass littered the chair and the coffee table, sparkling like stars in the glow from the streetlight. Weirdly, it looked almost pretty.
She wasn’t upset, she was numb. This was her life. Threatened by random strangers.
“What assholes.” Ben went to the other window and peered out. “They’re gone.”
She let the tension that had gripped her flow from her body. “Dammit.”
The racial slur was hurtful, but not unexpected. She’d heard similar things growing up. Kids whose parents weren’t happy that her father had immigrated here. She shrugged it off now unwilling to let someone else’s smallness impact her beyond the momentary.
Ben said, “We should call the police.”
She didn’t think they would help but she shrugged. “You should leave.”
“I’m not leaving.”
Her heart warmed. “Are you sure?”
Hours later, the police had come and gone. Sadly, she’d been correct. That had hurt more than the words written in chalk.
Ben paced angrily. “I can’t believe they aren’t going to do anything.”
Even if they wanted to, there was no video surveillance on their street, no way to figure out who had broken the window.
“You aren’t safe here,” he said.
“It’s just a broken window.”
“This time.” Ben shoved his fingers through his hair. “What if next time it’s a broken you?” His voice cracked.
They’d just gotten a check from their last insurance job. She’d put it aside for legal help, but now it was going to have to pay for the window repair.
A quiet despair settled over her, the weight like a heavy hat on her head.
She and Ben had retreated to the kitchen. She needed to sweep up the glass and see if she had anything to cover the hole made by the brick.
Ben continued to pace back and forth. Back and forth. “We’ve got to get you help.” Suddenly he stopped. Picked up Jake Brown’s card from the kitchen counter where she’d put it after entering the house the other day. She’d meant to throw it away, but she’d left it there.
“What is this?”
“Oh, just some guy who supposedly can help me.”
His tired beautiful blue eyes brightened. “That’s great.” He looked down at the card again. “But how?”
“I have no idea.” She leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling. “Supposedly they run a PR firm, but it seems weird.”
“What else did he say?”
“That was it.” Layla shook her head. She’d dismissed the idea earlier. “He said to call if I was interested in talking to his bosses.”
“You should do it.” Ben urged.
“Because I need you to be safe. The cops didn’t help. At all.” Ben’s mouth was downturned, a miserable look in his eyes. “Clearly, I can’t keep you safe. Maybe they can.”
She’d ruled them out. But as she looked into his pleading gaze, she relented. “I can’t imagine how they could help me.”But she was going to call. If it made Ben feel better, she would do it.
Layla had called Jake Brown.
She really hadn’t wanted to, but Ben was so freaked out about the brick that she relented. If she were honest, the brick scared her too. Even so, as soon as she hung up after making the appointment, she’d regretted it.
What could they do for her? Probably nothing.
But she was here, and she’d meet with Jake and his bosses, and then she could tell Ben that she’d tried and she’d be fine on her own.
The address Jake had given her was in a very expensive part of town. The brownstones and brick townhouses were perfectly maintained with big stone pots and fresh greenery. No chipped paint or sagging porches here.
A discreet bronze placard on the wall next to the door had only the name: Adams-Larsen Inc.
That was interesting. Jake had clearly said their company was Adams-Larsen Inc and Associates. Maybe the sign was created before the associates had been added.
She’d escaped the scraggle of reporters still left outside their house. Some new scandal had usurped her father’s story and she’d never been so happy about a congressperson’s illegal stock purchases as she was today.
She probably wouldn’t even have come to the meeting, but she’d promised Ben.
She noted the cameras, nearly hidden in the entrance. The entire building and neighborhood screamed “money.” Which confused her even further. They had to know she didn’t have any. If she had, she’d have gotten her dad out on bail.
She hadn’t been followed. She’d been cautious about her route, switching subway trains and taking a bus to get here.
The door opened as soon as she knocked.
Jake was there. She’d forgotten how big he was, his bulk filling the doorway. “Come on in.”
She walked into the conference room and stopped short. The slender woman—ice blonde hair and gray eyes, dressed in a tailored suit with a pencil skirt, hair in a simple twist, looking like the perfect ice queen—stood quickly.
A casually dressed white man, mid-thirties, with dirty blond hair that flopped over one eye and a nose that had clearly been broken at some point, unfolded gracefully from his chair at the head of the table.
So they were the bosses.
“Have a seat.” Jake gestured to a leather chair at the conference table.
She sat down nervously, her stomach whirling and tipping like that time she’d ridden the ferry and discovered she suffered from motion sickness. Despite the upset stomach, she decided to take the lead.
“I can’t afford whatever you’re selling,” she said belligerently. Why had she promised Ben she’d meet with these people?
They didn’t react to her bald statement.
The truth was she didn’t know exactly how much money her dad had, but the government had frozen his accounts. It had only been a few days, but she’d quickly run through her small savings account buying food. Fixing the living room window was going to take the rest.
She watched them carefully, noting the ease between the man and the woman. Jake had placed his chair slightly further away from them and closer to her. She couldn’t say why but the small gesture of support warmed her.
“Hello Layla.” The woman smiled, her voice as cool as her appearance. “I’m Jillian Larsen. This is my partner, Marsh Adams. You’ve already met Jake.”
“How’s it going?” Jake asked, his voice compassionate.
“Fine.” Except for the harassment, the calls at all times of the night, the hateful, hurtful comments on her social media accounts, the brick through the window and the complete lack of income. All their customers had dropped them after the scandal. They couldn’t afford to be associated with someone conspiring with a foreign government.
And this morning’s phone call was just icing on her shit day.
The silence in the room lengthened.
She wished she’d let Ben come with her. He could charm anyone. He had an easy demeanor and wide-open smile. She’d first been attracted to his smile.
“What made you call?” Jake’s face was impassive, giving nothing of his thoughts away. “If you believe you can’t afford us.”
He didn’t deny it, and that small kernel of hope that maybe they could help her evaporated.
“I promised my boyfriend.”
Jake jerked, glanced at the other two and they all exchanged a look.
Did she not look like she could have a boyfriend?
“What do you need from us?” Marsh Adams asked softly. “There must be a reason you reached out.”
She kept her body stiff. “Brick through my living room window.”
Jake straightened. “Are you okay?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” She rolled her eyes at the dumb question. “I’m fine.”
“There’s a big difference between fine physically and fine emotionally.” Jillian Larsen spoke.
She blinked back tears. Because, yeah, “It’s been…difficult.” Look at her, being a mistress of understatement.
She watched the three of them, searching for clues. Jillian Larsen was cool and reserved as if she was merely an observer, not really invested in the conversation. She and Marsh Adams had an ease between them, but Layla didn’t sense any sexual vibes, so she guessed they were just colleagues. Jake clearly deferred to them both, but they also seemed to value his opinion.
She’d never worked for anyone but her father, but she liked how they treated him. Her baba frequently dismissed her opinions. She had to fight to be taken seriously.
Layla loved that Jillian was a lady boss.
But those goals would clearly have to wait a long time. Right now, she didn’t have a business to be boss of.
“We can help you lay low for a few days,” Marsh said.
Lay low? “Like a safe house?”
“Something like that.”
She felt like there was a whole other conversation happening below the surface as she watched Jake’s eyebrows rise and he exchanged look with his bosses.
“But you can’t tell your boyfriend where you’re going,” Marsh continued.
“That’s a deal breaker.” Layla shook her head. “Besides, I thought you were in public relations.”
“We are. But we also protect our clients when we think it’s necessary.” Marsh seemed to be their unofficial spokesperson.
That seemed suspect. “Don’t your clients have a say?”
“Most of the time,” Marsh replied.
Most of the time? Those words should be somewhat disturbing, but their entire vibe was laid back. Chill.
“Do you normally approach clients with your services?” Did they just randomly pick up clients that they found in the news? That seemed weird.
They ignored her question.
Jake asked, “Any other problems besides the damage to your property?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes I feel like someone is following me.”
Jake’s eyebrows rose. “Any issue getting here today?”
“I can figure out how to lose a tail.” But it was weird. She was used to doing the observing, not being observed and it gave her a creepy feeling.
They exchanged glances again and she thought how nice it would be to be part of a team. They clearly had respect for each other. And they clearly were able to communicate without speaking.
“What’s the cost?” Better to get this over with now. She was sure she had no hope of affording them.
“We take on pro bono cases.”
She hated the idea of a handout.
“What are you doing for money?” Marsh asked.
Jillian picked up a phone Layla hadn’t even noticed. Damn. What kind of PI didn’t even notice a phone? “Martha, can you bring in some water and some snacks?”
“I’m getting by.” Her stomach grumbled. “Most of the in-person attention has tapered off.”
“Let us help you.” Jake urged.
“Why do you care?” Layla could feel her confusion grow. They seemed perfectly sincere, as if they really did want to help her. “I’m nobody.”
“Everyone is somebody,” Jillian said fiercely.
“You just randomly go around helping strangers?” She couldn’t help but ask again.
Marsh grinned. His teeth white and his smile wide. “Sometimes.
Besides. “The brick was probably just an isolated incident.” She hoped.
“Or it could be more,” Jake cautioned.
“I’ll think about it.” She wouldn’t commit to anything. She couldn’t tell if they were frustrated or didn’t care. They all had poker faces. Although Jake was giving off a very tense vibe.
Now came the real reason she was here. She had come even though she didn’t really think they could protect her. But they might be able to help her with her other problem.
“Do you have any contacts in the federal government who are trustworthy?” She needed to give the pictures on the camera’s memory card to someone. But she didn’t trust the Special Agent in Charge.
She definitely didn’t want to hold on to them. What if the Iranians got ahold of her files? The people in the surveillance photos could be in grave danger. They’d already killed Dr. Ghorbani. She didn’t want harm to more people on her conscience.
Another one of those looks passed between them.
What would it be like to be so in tune with friends that they could speak volumes without ever saying a word?
“Can we inquire as to why you need a contact?” Jillian raised one perfect blonde eyebrow.
She hadn’t had a chance to tell Ben the most troubling thing that had happened to her this morning. She’d gotten a call. The voice on the other end had been distorted with some sort of device, and they weren’t subtle about their threats. “We know you have our files. Give them to us, or else. We’ll be in touch.”
She had assumed her father had given them all the photos he’d taken. But he must not have given them the photos on the memory card she found.
They must not have received the last batch. The same ones the FBI likely didn’t have either.
She hadn’t had a chance to get a reader for the card, and now that she’d received a call demanding the photos, she was concerned that other people might be in danger. They had blown up the scientist. Her stomach rolled. She would never forgive herself if someone else got hurt.
The federal government knew about the Iranians. Shouldn’t they be lying low?
“Say I have some files that a former client is demanding but I think they could put someone in danger.”
The tension in the room rose exponentially.
The weird thing was no one moved, but now she could feel the stress vibes coming off all three of them.
“Why not give them to the agents in charge of your father’s case?” Marsh steepled his fingers and rested his chin on the tips.
She didn’t trust the cold-eyed agent who had arrested her father. He didn’t care about the truth. Should her father have done more due diligence about their client? Yes, probably. But who would ever consider that a foreign government was using a local PI for espionage and surveillance? “They don’t have my father’s best interests at heart.”
“Why would you think we could help you?”
“What? I know you used to work for the US Marshals.” She was tired of people underestimating her. “I know how to do my research.”
They all remained silent.
“Do you know anyone I could contact about some sensitive information?”
“How much danger?” Marsh asked gently.
Layla’s stomach roiled. Acid churned and she thought she might be sick. “I don’t know. But I don’t want anyone else blown up like the scientist my dad was surveilling.”
“Let us help you.” The urgency in Jake’s voice took her by surprise.
“Not sure some PR spinning about my father’s naïveté is really going to help me.” She tested them.
She couldn’t help but feel there was a whole other layer of evaluation going on. And if she didn’t have a lot of really big f-ing problems, she would be far more intrigued by Adams-Larsen and whatever they really did. Because what kind of PR firm did pro-bono work?
“We have other options.” Jake urged. “Let us help you.”
Holy shitballs. This girl was in so much trouble. She had to let them help her.
“I’ll think about it,” she replied coolly.
Which was code for no. That was always what his mom said when she didn’t want to outright tell him no. She’d think about it.
“Listen. You need to always carry cash and a cell and your IDs with you. Set up a go bag at your house with clothes, mementos, and anything else you don’t want left behind.” The sense of urgency hammering him was intense. He needed to get through to this girl.
She raised an eyebrow at him. She had that sardonic, are you serious right now? Look down pat.
Before he could press ALIAS’s case again, a cell rang.
Layla looked surprised. She pulled the phone out of her bag.
She seemed to recognize the number. “Hello?”
He could hear the squawk on the other end. All the color drained out of her face and tears began to well in her eyes. “Wha….” she cleared her throat. “What happened?”
“You’re sure?” She gasped out the words.
Jake, Marsh and Jill leaned forward in their chairs.
The sheer grief radiating from her was hard to handle. She pressed the off button on her phone and stared at the tasteful yet completely bland watercolor on the far wall of the conference room. Tears rolled down her face, but her anguish was silent.
Her throat convulsed as if she were trying to keep her emotions in.
“What happened?” Marsh was the one who finally broke the silence.
Just looking at her, Jake knew it was going to be bad. She looked at them with blank eyes. “My father is dead.”
Layla looked around the room, things floating through her consciousness like she was under water. Jake was talking to her, but she couldn’t seem to make sense of his words.
She dodged his gaze and stared blankly at the blues and greens of the picture on the wall.
It was floating too.
“Layla. Layla.” Jake’s large hands were on her shoulders. Not hurting her but squeezing hard enough that she noticed.
Air rushed through her head and the room went white for a moment.
Jake gently pushed her head between her knees and rubbed her back. “You’re okay. You’re gonna be okay.” He squatted beside her, just rubbing her back and telling her she was going to be okay.
But was she?
Her baba was dead. So many thoughts and emotions careened through her.
She could hear Jillian dialing her phone and see her pump clad feet as she paced the conference room.
Marsh Adams had left but he came back in with a cup of tea.
“Prison is saying suicide.” Jillian’s voice was clipped, severe. The unspoken words were no way. No one in this room believed it was suicide.
“They killed him,” Layla said it from far away, her voice faint. All the blood rushed to her head. She forced the words out from her throat. “They killed him.” This time was stronger, louder, her voice garbled as if she were talking through marbles.
She jerked up. “They killed him.”
Jillian Larsen didn’t look happy. “You don’t know for sure.”
“He would not commit suicide.”
“Don’t sugar coat it. She needs the truth,” Jake said fiercely.
“Fine. The Iranians likely killed your father.”
“Why? They got what they wanted!” She wailed.
“But did they? If they are pushing you for additional photos, maybe they didn’t. He was a loose end.”
“Sorry.” Jillian didn’t look sorry. She looked pissed.
“Well, I guess I don’t need your services anymore. Thanks for the offer.” She stood. She needed to get out of here. Go…home. Would the government still be taking their home? She didn’t know.
Marsh jerked his head at Jake.
“I’ll take you home.”
“That’s not really necessary.”
“Sure, it is,” Jake said gently. “How did you get here? Did you drive?”
She shot him a look. The government had seized their car. “No.” The reality that her father was gone rolled over her again. Dead.
Her limbs too heavy to move, her head was like a solid brick. Nothing made sense. Nothing penetrated the weird gaping hole of grief.
She was alone.
Jake drove slowly, watching for a tail. He performed a series of turns and circled back several times to make sure they weren’t followed.
He searched desperately for something to say. Grief rolled off Layla like a storm cloud. Her face was pale, stark.
He wanted to wrap her up in a hug and tell her everything was going to be all right. She reminded him so much of his sister. He wanted to save her the way he hadn’t saved Cia. He pulled into the alley behind her home.
“I have to be out in two days.” She sat immobile in the front seat. “I think?”
Would the government still be planning to seize their house? Would they take that from her too? “I’ll call in some favors and find out if that order is rescinded.” Jake wanted to help her any way he could.
“Sure.” She stared out the window at the alley.
“You want me to walk you in?” Jake wasn’t sure what to say or do.
“No.” She curled her fingers around the door handle.
He was still worried about her. Her father’s death didn’t mitigate the threat from the Iranians. “You need to be careful.”
“I’m aware.” But her voice was dull, listless.
“I’ll check on you later.”
She nodded, but still hadn’t gotten out of the car.
“It was weird without him in the house, thinking about him in prison.” Her voice trembled. “But now, he isn’t ever coming back. That—”
He reached out and squeezed her hand.
“The house was already so lonely.”
He wanted to suggest she call someone, but the truth was, they were going to offer her the chance to relocate. And if they did, she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone where she was going.
He wouldn’t offer her empty platitudes. He wasn’t over his sister’s murder, and it had been years. He definitely wouldn’t lie to her.
Sometimes you just needed to grieve.
Layla walked into the house, moving through the rooms as if she were wandering through molasses.
The furnishings seemed to haunt her with memories. The big lounger chair where her dad watched baseball in the summer, the indentation deep from years of his weight. He’d never sit there again.
She never sat in his chair. It was his domain, an unspoken contract between them. But as she trailed her fingers over the worn, nubby fabric, sorrow welled inside her.
Their relationship was complicated. Always had been. Her dad hadn’t known exactly how to raise a girl and he’d been super strict. Trying to protect her, she knew.
She dropped into the chair and curled up, leaning her back against the arm, her arms wrapped around her knees as she rested her head on her legs and let the sorrow overwhelm her. The chair smelled like her dad, a combination of his Head and Shoulders and the cherry lifesavers he perpetually kept in his pocket.
Tears soaked into the fabric of her jeans as she tried to come to grips with the reality that her baba was never coming home. Her last communication with him had been through his lawyer. That sense of disconnection isolated her, her thoughts disjointed and dispirited.
There were things she needed to take care of.
His body needed to be taken care of. He needed to be ritually washed and wrapped and interred. He’d indicated his wishes when they had buried her mother.
Then she needed to sit shiva for seven days. Her mother would want that.
But there was no one to sit with her.
Everyone had abandoned them. She couldn’t do it here if she had to be out of the house.
But his lawyer had no idea when her father’s body would be released. And she felt as if she were failing him all over again. If only she’d argued more vehemently against taking that case. If only she’d told her father, she loved him.
They weren’t a demonstrative family.
It was understood that they loved each other, but no one ever said the words. And now she could never tell him.
Layla made a vow never to leave things unsaid again.
Her burner phone rang. It was Ben.
“Are you okay?” He demanded. “You didn’t call and then I worried that that guy was some sort of nutjob.”
If she wasn’t so sad, she might have laughed.
“My dad—,” she choked. Unable to say the words.
“We’ll figure everything out. I’ll help you.”
Her heart grew two sizes larger. No hesitation. He was in.
“My dad is dead.” She spit the words out fast. Her heart thundered in her chest and the words came out right but sounded unreal. How could he be dead? How could he leave her?
“Hanged.” She stopped again unable to get the image of her father swinging out of her head.
“I’ll be right over.” Ben hung up.
Layla didn’t know how much time had passed when suddenly Ben was there. She was still in the chair curled up like a little kid, her body stiff and her limbs tingling as he pulled her to her feet and wrapped her in his comforting embrace.
“I’m so sorry,” he murmured against her hair as he held her tight. The circle of his arms was her protection against the sadness battering her. An uneasy peace wrapped around her.
Finally, finally she felt safe again.
Her tears poured out soaking his shirt. Her eyes were puffy slits and she tried to take a breath, but her nose was full of snot. She snuffled trying desperately not to slime him.
“Give me a sec.” He ran to the powder room and grabbed the entire roll of toilet paper.
She blew her nose, the snot coming and coming. “Super sexy, huh?” She could barely see out of her swollen eyes.
“Life isn’t always sexy,” Ben said. “But it’s endurable because you’re here.”
Her heart melted.
“How did I get so lucky?” Emotion swelled inside her. If she’d had any tears left, she’d be crying again.
He wrapped his arms around her, solid and comforting. “We’re both lucky.”
“You don’t want to cut out?” Insecurity swamped her. They barely knew each other. “My life is a mess right now. Super complicated.”
“Nope.” Ben led her to the bedroom. “I just want you.”
Their relationship was still young. She knew it. Knew that most people would assume this might not last, be replaced by the new and shiny several times before they found their forever people.
But she believed he just might be her forever.
Layla woke in Ben’s arms. She stretched, her body sore as if she’d taken a beating. A glass of water sat on the bedside table.
It still felt weird to have him here and spending the night. Her father would be horrified. She had no more tears, just an aching emptiness. Her father wasn’t ever coming home.
Somehow, she had to pick up the pieces and move on.
Thank goodness she had Ben.
Her personal burner cell buzzed. She slid out of bed and left Ben sleeping deeply. It was still early, the sky just beginning to lighten. A new dawn, a new day, and she was buoyed a peculiar lightness. She and Ben would figure things out.
Other details were filtering in. She needed to deal with funeral arrangements. The public defender said the prison would keep his body until she had a funeral home. She didn’t know how she was going to pay for it.
She closed the door to the bedroom quietly and tiptoed down the hall. “Hello.”
“We want those files.”
Her heart went into overdrive, beating against her breastbone so hard it was difficult to hear the menacing voice on the other end of the phone.
In the midst of overwhelm about her dad, it had completely slipped her mind that the Iranians were threatening her.
She had to tell them something. What the hell was she going to do? Lie. Lie. Lie.
“I…I’m working on finding them. Are you sure my dad didn’t give you everything?”
“You don’t want to end up like your father.”
Frigid fear enclosed her chest, making it hard to breathe. She gasped for breath. “I’m working on it.”
“Work harder.” The voice threatened. “Or else. You’ve got two days. We’ll be in touch.”
Shit. In all the trauma and messiness of yesterday, she’d never gotten an answer from the Adams-Larsen people about contacts inside the government.
“Hey.” Ben came up behind her and put his palms over her shoulders. He kissed her neck. “Who are you on the phone with?”
She thought about shielding him but that wasn’t how they rolled.
“I think it was the Iranians.” Her voice shook. “They think I have photos that my dad took and they want them.”
“Holy shit.” He spun her around. “You’ve got to tell the authorities.”
She snorted. “So they can arrest me too?” That was the one thing he didn’t understand. She thought it was sweetly naïve that he assumed everyone would treat her family the way they treated him and his family. Brown-skinned girls didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt as blond-haired, blue-eyed sun gods.
“What are you going to do?”
“I love that about you.”
“You may not understand why, but you don’t push.” Her dad would have bullied her until she did what he wanted, or she at least pretended to do what he wanted.
What was she going to do? She needed to figure something out.
She wanted to call Jake. Weirdly she’d begun to trust him. She still wasn’t sure about his bosses. “I’m not sure yet.”
“Do you have them?” Ben asked.
“I think so. On a memory card that I don’t have a way to look at.” Layla shook.
“So we need to get a device to look at them,” Ben said.
We. No hesitation. No backing away. He immediately stepped up to help.
“Yes. But I can’t give the photos to the Iranians. They killed that scientist. What if they want to kill the people who visited him?”
“Okay. But first we need to know what’s on that card. Where can you get a reader?”
“I’m pretty sure they sell them at Target.” She wondered how much they cost.
As if he read her mind, he said, “Use my credit card to buy the memory card reader.”
She wanted to protest but the reality was she was running out of money. Fast. “Okay.”
“Then what are you going to do with them?”
“I thought I’d see if Jake has a contact.”
Ben stiffened. “I never asked. How was your meeting with the guy?”
“It was weird. I felt like there was so much going on below the surface.”
“What about the Jake guy? What’s he like?”
“He’s big. He should be intimidating, but he isn’t.”
“So you’d rather go to this guy than the FBI?”
“Yeah.” She wanted to talk to him again.
“Do you…like him?”
“God, no. He’s old.”
He wrapped his arms around her again, tugging her against his body, and squeezing her tight. “Good.”
“You were worried?”
He shrugged. “Maybe a little.”
It was too early to call anyone. She’d rather talk to Jake in person. Since it was Saturday, she’d need to track him down at his home.
He kissed the side of her neck. Goosebumps peppered her body and her nipples tightened to sharp peaks.
Ben cupped her breasts and smothered his face between them, smiling as he licked her skin. “You probably need a little distraction.”
A wave of desire rolled over her and her knees dipped.
“Let me love you,” he said against her skin.
Ben had gone to Target, gotten her a memory card reader.
They weren’t expensive. But he’d understood that the next step was identifying exactly what she had. And he’d taken care of it for her.
Layla headed toward the Metro, backpack slung over one shoulder, hair camouflaged with another baseball cap. She passed by a row of trees each surrounded by an iron fence with fleur de lis on top of the posts. She kept to the outside of the sidewalk near the curb and fought the urge to look around. She was headed to the library to use their internet. She had the iPad, the memory card, the reader, and a wad of cash with her.
She’d sent Ben home. It was the weekend and his parents expected him for lunch. He’d wanted her to go with him, but she didn’t want to be seen with him until she got this monkey off her back. She needed to get things under control.
She’d called Jake but he hadn’t answered. Admittedly it had been early. It was possible he’d had his phone off.
Instead of waiting, she decided to track him down. Was it a little weird? Yes, but he’d shown up at her door unannounced. She was just going to return the favor.
The itch between her shoulder blades intensified.
Shit. Was she being followed? She ducked into a convenience store and hustled to the back, hiding behind the packed shelving. She watched the passersby in the mirror up top across from the cash register. No one came inside.
She studied the layout of the store.
“Hey.” She waved at the cashier. She knew he could see her. He nodded. “Can I go out your back door?”
“Yeah. I see that. But my ex is following me, and I want to avoid her.”
He sighed. Glanced out the front window at the exact time a woman about her age walked by and looked inside. Layla gave thanks for that stroke of luck.
When the woman kept going, he nodded and said, “Go ahead.”
She beamed at him. “Thank you! You’re a life saver.”
He rolled his eyes and shooed her.
She ducked through the storage room and pressed the metal bar to open the back door. It buzzed and she quickly slipped outside. The alley was shadowed, the smell of rotting garbage and wet animal lingered in the air.
She oriented her location and headed the opposite direction. She’d take a different Metro train.
The sensation of being followed had dissipated. Maybe it was all exhaustion induced. The sex with Ben had distracted her for an hour or so, but after he left, the worry had set in.
She didn’t trust the FBI and she wanted leverage before she took the photos to the government.
She made it to the library and settled into a carrel at the back of the building.
First, she slid the memory card into the reader and plugged it into the iPad.
The photos came up. Nothing out of the ordinary. Someone left the house around eleven pm. But they had on a baseball hat that covered their ears, and the bill was pulled low over their face. She thought it was a man, but the clothes were just baggy enough that a clear determination wasn’t possible.
Two guys came and went around two am. Her dad had captured their faces pretty well. Maybe they were the Iranians. Could that be why they wanted these photos? They incriminated the perpetrators.
Layla uploaded the photos to a new cloud storage. She also copied them to the iPad. Once she turned over the memory card to the government, she’d delete the photos from the iPad.
Next up, she tried to find Jake, but his security was locked down tight. No social media. No debt that she could find. She’d used the standard people search software that she and her dad used in their business and got nothing.
She was impressed. And equally confused. When she met with them, she’d thought there was something off about the “public relations” company. Now her instincts were on high alert. Def con one. People usually weren’t this difficult to find.
Finally, she found him.
In another stroke of luck, he didn’t live that far from this library. Time to pay Jake Brown a visit. Her relief was disproportionate to her worries. She wasn’t sure why she thought she could trust him. But she did. And she needed help. She couldn’t handle this on her own.
Layla packed up her backpack and strode out the front door of the library. She turned and headed toward Jake’s apartment. Her relief was so great she forgot to take precautions.
The attack came out of nowhere.
Someone slammed into her from the side, taking her down to the cement. “Oof.” She hit the pavement hard, her head bouncing once, then twice, before resting on the cracked sidewalk. She knew she needed to get up, to move before another hit came, but her vision wavered, and her head was floating like she was bobbing in the ocean at the Eastern shore.
Her inattention cost her.
They were trying to pull her backpack from her back. Fortunately this time, she’d put her arms through both straps. But people were shouting at her attacker and running toward them.
“Get us the photos. Or else.” They whispered in her ear.
He shoved off her and ran off. A good Samaritan looked between Layla and the retreating attacker. Then he knelt and helped her up.
“Are you okay?”
Layla was nearly twitching. The need to get inside and take cover buzzed inside her.
Not even close. She cleared her throat. “Uh, yeah.”
Her head pounded.
“Oh my God, you’re bleeding!” A woman had stopped to help as well. What was up with all the people willing to help? Wasn’t this a big, impersonal city?
Except if they hadn’t yelled and stopped the person, they would have gotten the photos.
Blood trickled down her forehead. Layla sat up, her head still spinning. Her hat was askew, and she started worrying that someone might recognize her.
She pushed to standing, teetering in the still air. Her head woozy.
“Maybe you should sit down again.” The man was holding her elbow.
“I’m fine.” Or she would be. If she could just get to Jake’s apartment. Inside. Take cover. The words pounded in her head. Or maybe that was just her head.
“Can I call someone for you?” The woman was still there as well.
Layla smiled tremulously. “Thank you both so much. I’m almost at my boyfriend’s apartment.”
She pulled out her phone and held it up. “I’ll call him.”
“You’re sure?” the man asked again.
“Did he take anything?”
“No, you scared them off.”
“You need help.”
“I’m good. Thank you all.”
The strangers looked at each other and then walked away. Layla headed for Jake’s apartment. She was very lucky because it truly was around the corner.
She ignored everything but putting one foot in front of the other. People were giving her a wide berth. She might be staggering a bit. She wasn’t sure. Her movements felt uncoordinated and jerky.
She pressed random doorbells until one answered. “Delivery for 201.” They buzzed her in, and she headed for Jake’s apartment on the fourth floor, barely taking in the high ceilings and ornate moldings of the old building. She just needed to get to his door.
Finally. She knocked, once then twice.
She could hear footsteps. It occurred to her that maybe he had company. He was a good looking guy and seemed nice enough.
Well too bad. She was about to ruin his morning.
He stood on the other side of the door. She knocked again. “Let me in, please.”
Jake yanked open the door. He was dressed in workout gear, shorts and a long sleeve wicking shirt that totally showcased his muscles.
“Hi.” She waved wanly, her stomach roiling.
“Are you okay?”
“Never better.” She smiled shakily, then bent over and puked all over his shoes.
Jake stared at the colored mess on the floor and his shoes. At least she’d mostly hit the shoes.
“Oh my God.” Layla moaned. “I’m so sorry!”
Urgh. That was disgusting. But he was more worried about Layla. A trickle of blood rolled down her cheek. “You’re bleeding.” He toed out of his shoes. They were a loss anyway. No amount of washing was going to fix them.
He ran and grabbed a washcloth and soaked it with cold water. He picked up a small wastebasket too. Just in case.
He led her to his sectional sofa. “Wait here.” Jake pulled out his cell phone and called his co-worker and friend.
“Hey Vik.” Jake turned away from Layla. “I’ve got a work situation and I need your expertise. You available?”
Jake could hear Viktor’s boyfriend in the background bitching about how it was Saturday. Jake wasn’t a fan of the guy, but as long as Viktor was happy it was none of his business. To each his own.
Fortunately, Viktor lived in the same building.
“I’ll be down in a moment.” Viktor’s Russian accent was evident even though his family had defected to the US when he was a kid.
Jake got a small cup of water and handed it to her. He tilted her chin up and looked at her eyes. He knew a little about field medicine, but he’d prefer to have Viktor, who was a medic, check her out.
“How are you feeling?”
“Who was on the phone?”
“My colleague. He lives in the building. He’s got medical experience so I’m going to have him check you out.”
She nodded and then groaned.
A quiet knock on the door indicated Vik had arrived. “Be right back.”
He opened the door. “Got a head injury for you to check out.”
Viktor had brought his first aid kit and squeezed inside. He stopped still at the sight of Layla on the sofa. She had leaned back, her eyes closed, that trickle of blood starting to dry on her face.
“I can feel you staring.” She sat up and opened her eyes.
Viktor blinked, hesitated for a moment then squatted down to the ottoman. “What happened?”
“I had a fight with the sidewalk.” She quipped.
Viktor pulled an antiseptic wipe from his kit and gently began to clean away the blood. “Anyone else involved in this fight?”
She shrugged again.
“Layla.” Jake couldn’t help her if she wasn’t honest.
“Iranians, I think.” Both Jake and Viktor stiffened.
“Talk now.” Jake demanded.
She clapped back. “Aren’t you the bossy one?”
“Fine, sorry. I’m a little freaked out.” She rubbed her arms and closed her eyes. “We got distracted yesterday.”
“I got another phone call this morning demanding that I hand over photos.”
“A phone call didn’t do that.” Jake gestured to her head wound.
“Yeah.” Tears glittered in her dark brown eyes. “Then when I was coming out of the library a guy pushed me to the ground, tried to take my backpack, and when people interfered, they told me to get them what they want and ran away.”
“They basically indicated that they killed my father.” Layla’s voice broke.
She came across as so tough that he forgot that she was only twenty-four.
They were putting major pressure on her over these photos. “Have you seen the photos?”
“That’s why I was at the library. Using an SD card reader to see them.”
“Pictures of all the people coming and going from the scientist’s house.” Based on the fact that they tried to blow up the scientist, Jake didn’t think anything good would come if the Iranians got ahold of those pictures.
“You should go to the authorities.”
“The same authorities who arrested my father even though he was duped?” She snarled.
She had a point but still. “They would be able to protect you.”
“Or would they just lock me up too?”
Viktor tipped up her chin and shined his penlight in her eyes. He asked a series of questions about dizziness, how much her head hurt, probed for lumps, and then pressed a small band aid on the scrape on her head.
“Maybe Jillian or Marsh has a contact.” Viktor piped up. True to form, he’d patched her up and not asked any questions.
Jake held up a finger and dialed Jill. He spoke quietly into the phone and told her what was going on. This was an escalation that couldn’t be ignored. Layla Habib was in danger.
Jill said, “Give me twenty.”
Jake nodded. He hung up. “Hang tight.”
Layla snorted. “Not like I have anywhere to go.”
“How did you find me?” Now that things were settling down, he had to ask.
“Uh, private investigator.” She leaned back and closed her eyes again, appearing fragile.
“I’m not easy to find.” Nearly impossible was the truth.
“Yeah. I noticed. A little weird for a public relations guy.”
Viktor smirked and put away his supplies. “You should take an ibuprofen for the headache.”
“I didn’t say I had a headache.”
He patted her on the head like a little kid. “Okay.” He looked at Jake. “Anything else?”
“Nope. Tell him sorry for the interruption.”
Viktor shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Jake’s phone rang. “Hey Jill.”
“Called my contacts at the US Marshals office to see what they had to say.”
Good. Hopefully they could get her some protection.
“Yeah. I know.” Jill continued, “But technically she isn’t the government’s problem.”
“That’s bullshit.” Jake’s temper reared its head. They were going to just leave her to the Iranians? He wondered if the FBI had surveillance on her. Maybe they were using her as bait…without her permission. ALIAS couldn’t let her get killed. “We can’t—”
“Bring her in to the office.”
“Okay. Be there in a few.”
Jake hung up.
“What’s wrong?” Layla straightened, as if bracing for more bad news.
“We need to go into my office. We’re meeting Jill there.”
“We don’t operate strictly nine to five. No one will mind.”
He thought he knew what Jill was thinking. She was going to feel Layla out. She seemed to have an almost sixth sense about when people were going to need ALIAS’s brand of help. It was a little freaky.
He’d been against contacting her at first, but now…he just wanted to keep Layla safe.
“I don’t understand.”
Jake pulled his nondescript car into a small parking lot behind an old, elegant brownstone. Layla looked around. “Where are we?”
“This isn’t the place we met at before.”
He ignored her. They headed for the front door. She raised her eyebrows. There was some serious security on the entrance to the building. Jake pressed the doorbell.
“I’m sorry we didn’t order any pizza.” A man was laughing on the other end of the intercom.
Jake rolled his eyes. “Let us in.”
The door buzzed and he pulled open the painted, black door with the simple expensive brass door knocker.
A crystal chandelier dominated the two-story entry. To the right was what likely used to be the dining room complete with a mahogany sideboard with a silver coffee pot and a large conference table that resembled a fancy dining room table.
A gorgeous, giant bald guy was coming down the stairs as they entered the foyer of the grand old building. The guy was huge. Thick neck, broad shoulders, trim waist, and thighs that could double as the trunks of the oak trees in her front yard. His skin was olive-toned and his eyes were a deep soulful brown/black. He clearly was part pacific islander and totally gorgeous. He smiled, wide and friendly, and clapped Jake on the back.
“How’s it going?”
“Good. Dwayne this is a…friend.” Jake gestured to her.
Layla couldn’t think, slightly dumbstruck, when Dwayne turned that wide open smile and sparkling eyes on her.
“Nice to meet you.” Dwayne held out his giant meaty hand, but his grip was gentle when he squeezed. “Any friend of Jake’s….”
Layla blinked. She was in love with Ben, but jeez this guy was beyond handsome. She pulled her fingers from his. “Nice to meet you too.”
Jake asked, “Kita here?”
At that moment, a trim, buff Asian woman burst through a doorway at the end of the hall. She wore leggings and a crop tank top, her arm muscles on display. Her black hair with streaks of blue was up in a high ponytail. “I’m here. I’m here.”
“Great.” Jake smiled. “I thought you could start with some sparring.”
“Sure.” She bounced on her toes.
“Kita, this is Layla.” Jake introduced them. “Layla, this is my friend Kita Kim.”
Kita nodded brusquely, clearly not one for pleasantries. “Let’s go.”
Layla frowned. “What do they,” she wagged her hand between Kita and Dwayne, “have to do with my public relations problem? No offense.”
She needed help with the authorities. Not sparring practice.
“None taken.” Dwayne still poured on the charm, but Layla wasn’t so dazzled anymore.
“Not a thing,” Jake calmly answered, as if he understood her suspicion. “I just figured we’d knock out some relevant tasks, while we wait for Jill to get here.”
This whole thing was weird. She was beginning to get a bad feeling. Maybe all her problems were caused by this company. After all, the threats had escalated after Jake had contacted her. She turned and headed for the door. “I’m out.”
“Uh-oh. She’s in the weeds.” Dwayne curled an arm around her shoulders and led her to a chair at the conference table. “Hey, hey, hey. Have a seat. My sister always says “I’m out” when she starts to panic.”
“You have a sister?”
“You’re making that up.”
“Nope. Six sisters and my mama.”
“Six?” As an only child she couldn’t even imagine.
He rattled off their names. “Samaria, Sefina, Teuila, Natia, and the twins, Lulu and La’ei.”
Kita grinned at him.
“Wait. Teuila, the model?”
“That’s her.” His voice swelled with pride.
“What about you?” Layla turned her attention to Kita.
Kita shook her head. “Nope. Only child.”
She didn’t know why she was pushing this except she needed something to grasp onto. Knowledge was the key to power.
“Sorry. None of this is helping me figure out how to stay safe.” Layla focused on her problems, the distraction entertaining for a moment or two.
Jake patted her on the shoulder. “If you agree, Dwayne is going to take a look at your finances to see if there’s anything that you can use as leverage as far as protection.”
She looked him up and down. “Finances? Really?”
“I’d guess you sometimes have an issue with people’s perception of you,” Dwayne said gently. “I’m an accountant by schooling. White collar crime.”
Shame rolled through her. She’d been judged by her appearance before, and it sucked. Her nerves fluttered, but that was no excuse. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“Can he look at your accounts?” Jake pressed.
She shrugged. “Sure. But I don’t have the passwords or account numbers.” Her father hadn’t really believed she should have access to money. She had her school account and she got paid a salary but as far as doing the books, she had no idea.
“I’ve got a program that can help with that.” Kita piped up.
“You’re an accountant as well?”
Kita and Dwayne laughed and laughed. “Uh no. Computers and self-defense.”
Seemed like an odd combination to her.
“As long as you have the bank name, Dwayne’ll be able to find your accounts.”
Layla blinked. Really? A1 Investigations didn’t do financial crime investigations, so she had little experience with privacy laws and banking. “Is that legal?”
Kita’s lips twitched. “As long as you give us permission.”
“But…they’re my dad’s accounts.”
“Technically they will pass to you.” Kita’s black eyes were sympathetic. “After you go through probate court.”
Probate court. She wasn’t even sure what that was. A fine tremble started in her veins.
“Any of your own accounts?” Dwayne interrupted her panic.
“Just one and it’s got very little money in it. I just paid my tuition.” And fixed the window.
“Give Dwayne the information and then we’ll go have some fun.” Kita bounced on her toes again.
Dwayne pulled out a notebook and wrote down the information she had on her dad’s accounts.
“Kita.” Jake admonished. “Go easy on her. She’s scraped up.”
Kita shrugged. “Are you sure? She needs to be able to defend herself.” Kita gestured to the band aid. “Bad guys don’t go easy on pretty young girls. Neither should I.”
Jake sighed. “Good point.”
She was compelled to stick up for herself. “I’ve taken some self-defense classes.”
“C’mon.” Kita led her down a set of stairs and into a giant sparring room. Mats covered the floor and part of the walls.
“What’s your specialty?”
“Kicking ass.” Kita laughed. “You gonna be okay?”
Layla found she didn’t want to disappoint her. “I’ll be fine.”
“I’ve got some workout gear if you want to change first.”
Her clothes were already a mess from her altercation on the street. Might as well mess them up some more. Layla decided to play. She crooked her fingers. “Let’s go.”
Kita laughed again. “You got it.”
She didn’t hesitate, she attacked. Within seconds Layla was on the mat, flat on her back.
“First rule. Always be expecting attack.” Kita hopped up and then held out her hand to help Layla up.
That seemed rather…. “Cynical.”
“Prepared.” Kita contradicted. “And if you’re expecting it, you can’t be surprised…or disappointed,” she muttered. She rubbed her wrist and stared off into space, then shook off wherever she’d gone. “Again.”
Layla readied for an attack. This time she blocked Kita’s first strike.
Kita’s praise made her glow. But she didn’t let the pleasure distract her. She countered with a palm strike that Kita blocked. Pain zinged up her arm, but she ignored it. They did a dance for fifteen minutes, striking, blocking, parrying.
“You have some skills.” Kita frowned. “How were you attacked earlier?”
“I wasn’t paying attention.” Layla admitted. She’d been riding high on finding Jake’s address. “I’d found Jake’s address and I was feeling pretty smug.”
“Wait. You found Jake?” Kita stopped dead. She held out her fist for a bump. “That is some skill, girl.”
The fact that Kita was impressed reminded her of what she’d forgotten. “Why does a PR firm guy need to be hidden?”
“Former military. They’re all paranoid.”
Kita was lying.
Layla knew there was more to this “PR” firm than public relations.
Layla blinked. “You were in the military?”
“Nope.” That was it. No other explanation. Before Layla could ask any other questions, Kita attacked.
They continued to spar until sweat edged her hairline and the armpits of her shirt were damp. Her consolation was that Kita was sweating too.
Dwayne’s voice came over the intercom. “Jill is here.”
“Time to go talk to the boss.”
Layla followed Kita up the stairs to the second floor. They passed by an empty receptionist desk. At least they didn’t make their receptionist come in on the weekend. Kita led her into an office that felt the same as Jillian Larsen. Cool, formal, and just a little stiff. A large desk dominated one end and a sitting area with fancy wing chairs and a little sofa the other. Shelves full of books kept the atmosphere from being completely sterile.
“She’s all yours, Jill.” There was a distance in Kita’s voice that Layla hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t straight up animosity, but more like polite chill. Layla glanced between the two women.
“Where’s Marsh?” Kita asked, her eyebrows raised.
“He couldn’t make it.” Jill smiled tightly. There was a stiffness to her that she hadn’t displayed the other day when they met.
Weird vibe between the two of them. Layla ignored it, not her business.
“Have a seat, Layla.”
“I’m out.” Kita slipped away and then it was only Layla and Jill. No sign of Jake or Dwayne.
Jillian studied her. “How are you doing?”
She didn’t know this woman. And she didn’t share with just anyone. “I’ve been better.”
Jake knocked on the door and sauntered in. “She got a pretty good scrape on her head.”
“You could be in for worse if you aren’t careful.” Jill’s voice was callous.
Jill continued. “You’ve got the photos?”
Just like she didn’t share her feelings, Layla wasn’t sure she was ready to trust this woman, so she stayed silent.
“I have a contact that you can give them to.”
“How do I know I can trust them?”
“You’re good to be cautious,” Jillian said. “I trust him, and I know he’ll make sure the photos get in the proper hands without jeopardizing the people in them.”
She didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else getting hurt. Of course, that included herself. “What can they offer me?”
Jill nodded. “Looking for leverage. Smart. He works for the CIA.” That wasn’t an answer.
“Is he going to meet us here?”
She shook her head. “No contact for you. I’m going to hand them over.”
“This doesn’t feel like a public relations business.” Former military, former she didn’t even know what Kita was, and Jillian had contacts at the CIA and was a former US Marshal. No way was Adams-Larsen a public relations firm.
“We have sensitive clients.”
There was so much under the surface about ALIAS. “Why am I here?” Layla asked abruptly.
Jillian steepled her fingers and studied Layla. She fought the urge to squirm. “What are you going to do next?”
She didn’t know.
“We can help you be safe.”
The declaration felt weighty. “What does that mean?”
Jillian hesitated again, then said softly, “We can relocate you so that the Iranians can’t find you.”
She didn’t want to always be looking over her shoulder. “But what about the FBI?”
“We’ll figure that out.” Jillian hesitated. “Besides. Your father was the one who broke the law. On paper, you aren’t involved in the company. You’re only a student.”
This definitely didn’t seem like a job for a public relations agency.
“I need to think about it.” And what did relocation entail?
Jillian nodded. “One thing.”
“You can’t tell anyone while you’re thinking about it.”
She blinked. “I don’t really have any good friends. Except my boyfriend.”
“You mentioned him before.” Jill studied her. “You can’t tell him.”
Layla listened to the subtext in her words. “About this offer?”
“About any of it.”
“Well, he’s got to be able to be in touch with me.” They talked every day. If they didn’t see each other in person, they spent hours on the phone. Every night, she fell asleep with Ben’s voice in her ear.
“No discussions about our offer or your visit here. Period.”
There was an or else in there. But Layla didn’t cower. She let the silence build.
“That sounds like the federal witness protection program,” she finally said.
Jillian Larsen used to work for at the US Marshals. Layla had done some more research after their first meeting, and she’d been in witness protection.
Jillian assessed her with a raised eyebrow. “It’s similar.”
“Why don’t I just have the Marshals protect me?” Layla asked.
“You don’t qualify,” Jillian said bluntly.
She inhaled sharply, fear rattling in her chest. What would she do if they kept coming after her? “How long would I have to be relocated?”
She didn’t care for the vagueness of the answer. “What does any of this have to do with a public relations agency?”
“Think about your options.” Jill urged. “Will you agree to hand over the photos to the CIA?”
Layla wanted them out of her possession, but she needed to be smart about this. Just because she got rid of them didn’t mean the Iranians would stop coming after her.
Layla studied Jillian. She exuded elegance and a cool vibe that edged to frigid. However, she could feel the emotion that seethed beneath the surface of her icy façade. And she wondered what had shaped the older woman. There was a lot to admire. She’d worked for the US government. She’d left under a cloud of suspicion and instead of slinking away, she’d started her own public relations firm and from all appearances had a successful business. Her employees respected her, even if they didn’t fawn all over her.
“What would you do?”
Jillian blinked, thoughts moving behind the flat gray of her Nordic eyes. “Irrelevant.”
“Not really.” Layla pushed. “I’m trusting you, a stranger, with very sensitive information that has put me in danger.”
“So you say.”
“You don’t believe me?” Her voice rose.
“I didn’t say that. But our only confirmation that you’re in danger is your word.”
“My father’s absolutely unwarranted hanging says differently.” Grief strangled her throat, and the lump of emotion grew as a fresh wave of disbelief hit her. Her father was dead.
“I am sorry for your loss.” The words were laden with sympathy and an odd glimpse of understanding.
Layla’s gaze darted around the room, taking in the stuffy furnishings and the rows of books on the shelves. She nodded, unable to speak.
“I’ll turn them over,” Layla finally said. “But I don’t want to relocate.”
“Inadvisable. You’ll be putting yourself and…the boyfriend in danger.” Jillian snapped out. “What is his name?”
They didn’t know. Based on how much info they already had about her, she wasn’t in the mood to share.
“I’m keeping that in reserve.”
Jake had been quiet through the interrogation with Jillian, but now he spoke. “How long have you been together?”
She hunched her shoulders. If she told him they’d only started seeing each other a few weeks ago, he’d trample all over her convictions about Ben.
Jake seemed to understand that their relationship was new. “What if he betrays you?”
“What if he doesn’t?” Layla shot back.
“You can’t trust a guy you just met.” He seemed completely baffled by her faith in Ben. What a lonely way to live.
“What? You mean like you?”
That shut him up.
Layla had kept the badass shield in place since Viktor had patched her up but her resolve was beginning to crack. Her life was spinning out of control, and she couldn’t grab onto anything as an anchor…except Ben. And they wanted to take her away from him.
Jake leaned toward her. “The only person you can depend on is yourself.”
“That’s awfully lonely,” Layla responded.
“But you aren’t disappointed when someone lets you down.” Jake squeezed the arms of the chair tightly.
“Are you going to let me down?” He wanted her to put her trust in him, a virtual stranger.
“Not if I can help it.”
But the reality was she and Ben hadn’t even been a thing that long. She thought they shared a connection, a bond not easily forged and even less easily broken. But what if she was wrong?
Ben snuck in the back door in the kitchen and dropped his backpack and lacrosse bag by the door. He stopped short. “What happened?”
She’d tried to cover the scrape and the bruise with makeup, but she must not have done a good enough job. She launched herself at his solid bulk. Ben caught her easily and wrapped her in a bear hug.
“Hey, you okay?”
She cleared her throat swallowing away tears as the events of the day caught up with her. “Yeah.” Her voice came out gravelly.
“You going to share what’s going on?” The worry in his gaze fed into her vulnerable heart. She had wondered in the dark of night, when insecurities reared their ugly head, if the reason they had been going so strong was because of the forbidden nature of their relationship. But after the past few days since her dad died, they’d spent hours together. Ben’s roommates thought he was at home, but he was spending every night with her.
She thought about Jillian’s demands. Tell no one.
She didn’t want to keep anything from him. But Jillian’s insistence that Layla could put Ben in danger, kept her quiet. It was killing her.
She couldn’t tell him nothing. “I got mugged.” She didn’t even want to tell him the rest. But if he came inside any further than the kitchen, he’d see.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Some good Samaritan chased the guy off before he could take anything, but I scraped my head.”
“Stuff can be replaced. You can’t.” He wrapped her arms around her again. “Thank God you’re okay.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat and rested her forehead on his shoulder. “Yeah. I wasn’t expecting it.”
“Next time, don’t keep it from me. Tell me right away.”
Oh, how she wanted to tell him about her visit to Adams-Larsen.
Instead, she gestured toward dinner. She’d put together soup and a salad. “Tell me about your day.”
They ate together quietly. Ben shared his day. “Crazy day at practice. Some creeper dude was watching us.”
She blanched, her heart thumping erratically.
“Coach finally went over and yelled at him. Then he drove off. But it was weird.”
Could the Iranians know about Ben? No. Even Adams-Larsen didn’t know his name.
They cleaned up the kitchen together, rinsing the dishes and loading the dishwasher. His phone dinged several times, but he ignored it.
“Exciting Saturday night.” She didn’t need exciting. She just needed him. But she felt badly because she knew that before they got together that he was more of a social guy.
His phone dinged again.
“Are you sure you don’t have plans?”
“There’s a party at the Lax house tonight.” He shrugged. “A couple of friends are texting me to see where I am.”
She had a moment of insecurity. Maybe he’d rather be with his friends.
“You probably saw them that first time I was in the coffee shop.”
There had been a girl who’d been hanging close to him.
“Do you need to go?” Her stomach twisted, bile churning in her belly and edging her throat.
“Nope.” He grabbed both her hands in his and held on tight. “I’d rather spend time with you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go?”
She probably wouldn’t sleep well anyway. The phone calls, the hang ups, being attacked on the street, the house being ransacked. She wasn’t safe. She should probably encourage him to leave her house.
“I want to stay here with you.”
She couldn’t afford to go out right now. Even more importantly, she didn’t want to be seen with him, because she didn’t want to put him in jeopardy. Jillian’s warning echoed in her head again. Tell no one.
“I can’t wait until we can go out together. I want to show you off.” Ben entreated. “I want everyone to know you’re mine.”
Her heart expanded like a helium balloon. “Oh. I want that too.”
“Yes!” He danced around the kitchen with her. “Soon.”
She couldn’t keep denying him without telling him why. But Jillian’s caution pounded in her head like a cowbell, clanging incessantly. She rubbed at her temple.
“What else is wrong?”
She took a deep breath. “The house was ransacked while I was out.”
“What?” He glanced around the kitchen. “It looks fine.”
“I started cleaning up in the kitchen.” Putting the room to rights had given her time to think about Jillian’s offer. She didn’t want to go into hiding.
She led him into the family room. Every drawer had been opened and things thrown on the floor. The throw pillows on the couch had been ripped open. The bedrooms were worse.
“Did you call the cops?”
“No.” She couldn’t very well tell the police that Iranians were threatening her. Thank goodness she had the memory card on her at the time.
He took her hand. “We can get this cleaned up in no time.”
We. Her heart expanded. See, Jake was wrong. An uncommitted guy would have run for the hills at all the trouble she’d had over the past week. But Ben was still here.
A few hours later, the house was somewhat put back together. Layla was exhausted. The constant fear had zapped her energy and stolen her spirit.
Ben dropped her hands and brushed her hair back gently and pressed a kiss to the side of her head. “You need to rest.”
His phone had continued to ping until he’d pressed a button and shoved it into his backpack.
They couldn’t go out, but they could have fun…in.
“I’m feeling….” She unbuttoned the top two buttons on her shirt. “Hot.”
Ben’s gaze went to her fingers, toying with the valley between her breasts.
“Huh.” He licked his lips, his gaze never leaving the lazy trail of her hand. “Maybe I can help you with that.”
He reached for her buttons and undid another one. “How’s that?”
Her heartbeat quickened. Arousal fluttered through her belly. She curled her fingers around his wrists.
The backs of his fingers brushed against her hardening nipples. The lace of her bra abrading the sensitive tips.
“Still pretty warm,” she said breathlessly. Sweat gathered and she felt her pulse in her sex as he continued to unbutton her blouse slowly.
“I’m getting hot too.” He slipped his hand inside her blouse, gaping half open, the swell of her breasts exposed to the open air. “Maybe you can help me out.”
Layla closed her eyes and arched, pressing into his touch. “What do you need?”
“Take off my shirt.”
She pulled his t-shirt over his head, baring his rippling muscles to her touch. He was tan and warm and smooth as she caressed his skin. Heat rose between them as he continued to play with her nipples.
“Probably need to take off my pants too.”
She pushed his sweats to his knees. “How hot are you?”
“You want me to cool you off?”
He grinned, his teeth white in his tan face. “If you insist.”
Layla dropped to her knees slowly. The tips of her breasts dragged down the flat planes of his abs and over the muscles of his thighs. The crisp curly blond hair of his legs teased her. She grasped the base of his cock in her hand and traced her tongue over the curves and ridges of his erection.
He tilted his head back and gripped her hair in his hands. “That feels so good.”
Layla continued licking him until his hips jerked. “More?” She breathed against him as his erection bumped her lips.
She sucked him into her mouth, hollowing her cheeks and pulling him in. He filled her mouth, his hips rocking until his cock touched the back of her throat.
Layla moaned, her nose buried in the blond curls of his pubic hair. The scent of his desire, for her, surrounded her like a cloud.
“Oh, shit, Lay.” His fingers tightened. “Moan like that again.”
The vibrations sang through her throat, and he swelled even bigger. She sucked him harder, wanting desperately to take him in and give him everything. His hips rocked against her mouth as she swirled her tongue around him, sucking his essence as his erection seemed to grow and grow.
“Layla.” He groaned. “I’m going to blow.”
She’d never done this part before. He tapped her shoulder. “I need to pull out now.”
But she wanted him, wanted this. She gave a short shake of her head. Ben stilled. “Are you sure?”
Ben widened his stance and she braced her palms on his thighs. Layla bobbed her head sucking him hard, going as far to the root as she could before pulling back. Ben was breathing heavily now.
“Oh God.” His arms were corded, his veins popped, his thighs were like iron beneath her. She curved her hands over his ass cheeks, clenched tightly as he jetted down her throat. His cock pulsed in her mouth, spurting his come as he emptied into her.
Layla swallowed and swallowed, the salty liquid pouring out of him.
They both panted heavily. Layla was still dressed, her blouse hanging open. Ben’s sweats were at his feet and she continued to lean against him, spent from the emotional impact of the day. Ben gently stroked her hair as she relaxed her mouth and kissed his softening erection.
“That was….” Ben looked down at her, his blue eyes soft and a tender smile on his face. “Epic.”
“Beautiful,” she said at the same time.
He was gorgeous when he let go of his control and surrendered to her. She’d been in power. She’d been driving the interaction and she’d loved it.
He pulled her gently to her feet and kissed her tenderly.
He cupped her breast and bent to suck her hardened nipple into his mouth. His erection grew against her belly. The dampness between her thighs slicked. Her arousal ramped even higher.
“Sorry about not going out tonight.”
He clasped her hand and led her toward her bedroom. “I’m not.”
Jake sat at their favorite after work bar nursing a beer. The Irish bar had a comfortable vibe and laid-back clientele. He couldn’t get the expression on Layla’s face when they’d told her that she’d need to break contact with her boyfriend out of his head. He was twitchy, jittery.
“What’s up with you?” Dwayne asked.
“Just thinking about shit.” Feeling uncomfortable in his own skin, trying to wrap his head around Layla’s devotion and assurance in her boyfriend, whose name she refused to share.
“Find a woman and take your mind off things.”
He didn’t do one night stands anymore. He thought about his sister and how he failed her. “Nah. Not into one night stands anymore.”
“I only do them. I’ve got too many other responsibilities, seven of them to be exact.” Dwayne rubbed his bald head, his biceps popping. “I don’t have time for more than one night. My family comes first.”
Jake morosely sipped his beer, his mind going over that conversation with Layla. “You ever been so in love with someone that you’d tell them anything?” He’d never had a girlfriend like that, and he was a lot older than Layla. He was just so…baffled by her faith.
“What are we, girlfriends?” Viktor snickered. “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I want to talk about my feelings.”
“Ha.” Dwayne high fived Viktor. “Good one.”
Shit. Viktor was right.
“The more the merrier,” Dwayne quipped, but there were shadows in his eyes and his happy expression dipped for a second. “And there’s my merry.” He spirited away to talk to a
gorgeous blonde woman at the bar.
“How long have you been with Jonathon?”
Viktor shrugged. “Nine months. Give or take.”
Yet he was out with him and Dwayne on a Saturday instead of hanging with Jonathon.
“But you’re out with us?”
Viktor shifted uncomfortably on the bar stool. “Uh, yeah, valid point. He’s mad at me for working today. We had plans to hit the new exhibit at his favorite art gallery and he went without me.”
Plans Jake had derailed by asking for Vik’s help. “Sorry.”
Viktor grimaced. “It’s hard to be in a solid relationship when one of you, me, can’t be truthful.”
Jake liked to think that’s why he hadn’t dated anyone seriously but that was a lie and he knew it. He stayed quiet, turning things over in his brain.
Sometimes their job sucked. They did amazing things and they helped people. But secrecy was the cornerstone of ALIAS. You couldn’t keep clients safe if your significant other knew about them.
“Yeah. You’re right,” he said morosely.
“There’s a reason no one at ALIAS has a spouse,” Viktor said equally glum.
Jake considered his comment.
They all dated, but no one had anyone serious. Except for Bliss and she left for California after being reunited with her first love, Jack Stone. Marissa left for California too after connecting with Jack’s brother.
Jake hadn’t ever really thought about it, but Viktor was right.
Did that mean they were all doomed to be alone?
He tipped his chin to the bartender. “Another beer.”
He loved his job. He loved helping people. He had no desire to do anything different, but the thought of being perpetually alone, of never having what Layla was convinced she had with this guy was depressing.
“You hung up on this girl?” Viktor eyed him.
“What? No!” He shook his head. “She’s like my little sister.”
Viktor knew what had happened to Jake’s sister. “Ah. So that’s what has you so twitchy.”
Probably. Maybe. Or maybe he was just dissatisfied with life right now. And the fact that Iranians were threatening an innocent young woman who hadn’t even had a chance to live.
“You up for the job?” Viktor pressed him and intense look in his eyes. “Emotions have no place in our work.”
Emotions made protecting their clients harder.
“I’m good.” Because the idea of giving up on Layla bothered him too. The logical thing to do would be to hand her off to one of the other ALIAS team members who didn’t have big brother issues. But Jake couldn’t do it. “I can handle it.”
Viktor slapped him on the back and gave a chin lift toward the television. “Good. Because I think her problems are about to get worse.”
Another former Iranian citizen had been killed in a one-person car wreck—deemed an accident. But what if it wasn’t?
Layla’s hands shook as she answered her cell. The disembodied voice said, “Did you see that car accident on the news last night?”
She had been too busy dealing with her own shit to watch the news, but she quickly pulled up the Washington Post on the iPad and her stomach plummeted.
“Get us those pictures by tomorrow.”
“I don’t have them yet. They’re online and I’m trying to figure out the password.” She lied. “I’m trying. I swear.”
“Do it. Or else your boyfriend is next.”
Her hands shook. Not Ben. She couldn’t let anything happen to him. She ran for the bathroom throwing up the peanut butter sandwich she’d eaten for lunch. Her sweet Ben couldn’t protect himself from these guys.
A picture loaded slowly on the phone they’d just called. When it was complete, the tension in her shoulders eased. It was a picture of Jake with a red X through him.
It was Jake. They thought Jake was her boyfriend.
Relief rolled through her in an intense wave. Thank goodness. Jake could take care of himself. She still needed to tell him.
And what if they figured out that Ben was her boyfriend? She needed to get as far away from him as possible.
Using the burner that Jake had given her, she dialed his number with shaking hands. “I’m in.”
“Okay. There’s some paperwork you need to fill out,” he said without preamble. “Non-disclosure, etc.”
“When?” She shot back.
“They threatened my boyfriend.”
“You need to tell me more about this guy. I’ve been patient and respecting your privacy but if they know about him this is serious.”
“They think you’re my boyfriend.” She dropped that into the sudden silence. “You need to be careful.”
“Huh.” Jake said, “That’s interesting.”
“Are you worried?”
“I’ll be fine.” Jake dismissed her concerns. “But this moves up your timetable. We need you in the office ASAP.”
She was sick.
“Are you safe now?” Jake pressed.
“I think so.”
“Okay. I need your utility bills, anything that’s in your name and your birthday.”
“It’s all in my dad’s name.”
“What about school records? Loan documents? Cell phones? Grocery store rewards card. Anything that you registered for. Get me a list.”
“And stay away from your boyfriend. I can take care of myself. He can’t – I assume.”
He bulleted out another set of directions. Packing. Files. Clothes. Papers. “Get it all together and I’ll be by to get you in an hour.”
“We need to get you into a safe house.”
Her head was spinning. Safe house?
Jake picked her up as promised. She slid into the front seat of his car.
Besides the fact that they had upped the pressure. “They threatened Ben.”
“They threatened your boyfriend, who they think is me.” Jake grimaced.
“Sorry I’m so hideous.” She snarked even though she was not interested in him at all.
“You’re not hideous.” Jake countered. “You’re beautiful. The good news is if you leave, Ben will be safe.”
That was the only reason she was here. To protect him. Her heart was breaking. Literally her chest felt as if someone had taken an ice pick and driven it through her ribs. An unending pain speared her.
They arrived at the same offices as yesterday. “What was the office we met at the first time?”
“That’s our PR branch.”
Their PR branch? “Then what is this one?”
“Let’s get you inside.” Jake had taken a long, protracted route to the office, even switching cars in a parking garage downtown. He glanced around quickly, then hustled her to the door.
As soon as they were inside, he led her to Kita’s office. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Jake strode away.
Her burner phone rang. It was Ben.
Kita grabbed the phone and silenced it.
“He can’t go with you.”
“Then what’s the point of relocating?”
“You’ll still be alive.”
That put a dagger in her heart. “What does that matter if I have no one?”
“You are stronger than that,” Kita said fiercely. “Don’t even.”
“How do you know?”
“You survived your dad’s death and his betrayal, his refusal to acknowledge his wrongdoing.”
It was as if she peered straight into Layla’s heart. How could she understand? “Are you close with your dad?”
“He’s dead,” Kita said baldly. “But our relationship was…complicated.”
Tears welled. “Yeah. I get that.”
“Look at all you’ve already accomplished.” Kita continued, “You hunted down Jake’s apartment. That’s impressive.”
“Uh, hello. Private investigator.” Why did she have to keep reminding everyone?
“You have great instincts.” Kita rolled up to her computer. “Don’t ignore them. And don’t let anyone else tell you differently.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
“But you know you can’t do PI work wherever we relocate you.”
She focused on the second part of that sentence. “Don’t you know where I’ll be?”
“I rarely know. I’m in the office all the time.” Kita bent over her keyboard. Layla felt like there was a story there.
“Why are you always in the office?”
“If anyone is ever compromised, we can’t reveal our client’s new location.”
The set up was slick.
“Typically Viktor or I do this as a pretext but since you’re here, let’s get started.”
Technically pre-texting, pretending to be someone else to gather information, was illegal.
“I thought Viktor was a medic?”
“He’s a man of many talents. He also does skip tracing. And he’s our weapons keeper.”
“Okay so what are we doing?”
“Obscuring your information.” Kita tapped her pencil on the sleek desktop. “Make a list of all the accounts in your name.”
That was easy. “None. Wait, I have a Netflix account.”
“What about school?”
Kita handed her a phone. “Give them a call and tell them you noticed that your birthday is wrong.”
“Why?” Layla wanted to understand what was happening here.
“It makes it harder if your information is different at different accounts. Less easy to find you and less easy to track if the data varies.”
Okay. That made sense. “In our business we usually already have access to addresses.”
“Right. This is to make it harder for a tracer to find you.”
Layla made the call and then hung up. “Does it really matter if I’m dropping out anyway?”
“You aren’t dropping out.”
“You’re disappearing,” Kita said. “They have to believe there’s a chance you’ll return.”
It was depressingly easy to wipe out her existence on the internet.
Kita leaned back in her office chair. “You need to stay off social media.”
“Are you kidding?” Layla snorted. “No way do I have any accounts.”
“Really? Interesting in someone your age.”
Layla shook her head. She’d spent the last eight years learning about how to track down people and surveillance. “Too easy to track.”
“What about a Finsta?”
A fake Instagram. Okay. She shrugged. “I do have one of those.” Mostly so she could follow anime accounts and get updates on news. And when they were trying to track down a subject for their clients. But she never shared that account with anyone.
“Quit using it immediately. Delete it.” Kita entered something else on her computer. “Just in case they find a way to track you through your friends.”
What friends? Everyone had basically abandoned her after her dad’s arrest. Except Ben.
“You know you can’t keep in contact with him.” Kita eerily echoed her train of thought.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t play dumb.” Kita turned in her gaming chair and stared at her hard.
The ice pick twisted by the invisible hand of injustice. Despair cascaded through her.
“You can’t make new friends if you’re dead,” Kita said.
She didn’t want new friends.
Layla couldn’t handle another loss. She was still raw from her father’s death. She felt the need to rage against these sudden restrictions. “You always follow the rules?”
“This might be a do as I say, not as I do moment.” She smiled with self-deprecating humor. “And I’m smart when safety is at stake. So now you’re going to call your boyfriend and tell him you’re going away for a few days.”
“Then I’ll never be able to talk to him again?”
“I’m sorry.” Kita sighed. “No one is worth your life.”
Layla’s fingers trembled as they hovered over her personal burner phone’s keypad. “Can I have some privacy?”
“I’m sorry. But no.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“Don’t take it personally. I don’t trust anyone.”
Layla dialed Ben. He picked up immediately. “Sorry I couldn’t get to your call.”
His voice was warm. “It’s okay. How are you doing?”
Tears threatened. “Uh. Okay.” Her conversation was stilted, especially with Kita sitting right there.
“You sound funny. What’s wrong?”
“I’ve got to go out of town.”
“Let me come with you.”
“It’s better if I go alone. Besides, you’ve got midterms.” Her heart was breaking. She’d just found him and now she had to abandon him.
“I’d rather go with you.”
“You should take care of your grades and school. They’re important.”
“I guess.” She could visualize him shrugging. “Maybe next weekend I can meet you.”
“Let’s, um, play that by ear.” Her throat was so tight, her voice thick with emotion. “After my dad…you know, I made a vow to never leave anything unsaid.” Fuck it. Kita wanted to be here then she was going to get Layla pour out her heart. Because Ben was more important than protecting her emotions.
“Lay? You’re scaring me.”
“Sorry. That’s not my intention. I just wanted to say thank you for the past few weeks. They have been amazing. You’ve been a rock and I appreciate you so much.” It was too early for love, right?
“That sounds like goodbye.”
“Not goodbye.” A total lie and she wanted to sob into the phone. But she couldn’t bear it if something happened to him. “Stay away from my house when I’m gone. It isn’t safe.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to look for a new place to live.” Truth.
“Let me come with you.”
“Bye,” she whispered. I love you, she mouthed after she hung up.
Kita took the phone from her gently and removed the SIM card out. Then Kita took a hammer out of her desk and smashed Layla’s last link to Ben, and it felt as if she was smashing her heart.
“What’s happening now?”
Jake settled into the driver’s seat. “Keep the hat on.”
“It covers your ears.”
“I’m aware. It’s uncomfortable. And I’m sweating.”
“People can be identified by their ears if the technology is sophisticated enough.”
“You really think they have that kind of surveillance tech?”
“It never pays to take chances. We’re planting misdirection left and right to obstruct your resettlement details. Dwayne is in Idaho using a debit card in your name.”
She blinked. “That sounds expensive.”
“Kita bought a plane ticket in your name to Wisconsin.”
She snorted. “Anyone who knows me knows I can’t stand the Packers.”
He laughed. Unbelievable. “And we’re driving.”
“You’ll know when we get there.”
“Who else will know?”
“We compartmentalize each piece. I’m the only one who knows exactly where you will be.” That way the rest of ALIAS had deniability if they were ever questioned.
“How did you get into this?”
Jake didn’t answer. They all had their reasons. Most involved disillusionment with the current government systems in place. People who needed protection couldn’t get it. Conversely, people who got protection frequently broke the rules and ended up dead anyway. “Reasons.”
She was quiet for a few more minutes. “This all sounds expensive.”
“Don’t worry. It’s covered.”
“But I don’t have any money.”
He could tell she wasn’t going to let this go. “Sometimes we take on clients pro bono.”
“Yeah.” It was going to be a long drive.
“My boss saw something in you.” Jake wasn’t about to admit that normally their clients came to them. Jillian had been …different lately. Sometimes when he was feeling fanciful, he thought perhaps there was a shift in the Universe. They seemed on the edge of things changing. He didn’t mind change. As long as he initiated it.
“So, I owe you guys?”
“No. Just live a good life and don’t contact anyone from your old life.”
“I really can’t ever see Ben again?” Her voice was strangled, tight.
He felt bad about it. He really did. “No,” he said gently.
She was on the verge of tears. When he looked over, her eyes had overflowed and tears trailed over her cheeks. Kita said she’d cried for half an hour in her office after she’d called her boyfriend.
“I’m sorry.” But he wasn’t really. He didn’t understand her.
“What made you so callous?” She shifted in the front seat and stared at him. Jake fought the urge to squirm. How could this girl, okay, not really a girl but next to her he felt ancient, make him so uncomfortable?
He wasn’t about to share about his sister. About how he’d failed her. And she’d died.
“Come on.” She prodded. “You know everything about me.”
He shot her an eye roll. “Hardly.”
“I am a lot younger than you. Not as much to tell.”
Jake chuckled. “You are persistent.”
“You have no idea.”
Jake shook his head and kept driving. Layla sighed.
But the silence soon turned morose until Jake, Jake!, broke it. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” She sounded more like Eeyore than her perky self and suddenly he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. “Go on.”
“Why did your dad take the job in the first place?”
She crossed her arms over her stomach. “The money.”
But that answer seemed too pat. He’d done a deep dive into them before the first meeting, and something seemed off about the whole thing.
“He’s”—she paused, swallowed— “he had been slipping lately. I started to notice.” She sounded miserable.
Jake looked in the rearview mirror again.
“What are you seeing?”
He switched lanes without answering and slowed down. Cars began whizzing by on the left, but that one car hung back. She wasn’t a child and she needed to keep up her situational awareness. “Keep an eye on that car three back. Black Toyota.”
She glanced in her side mirror. “Tinted windows. Can’t see the driver.”
He was aware. “What else do you see?”
“So far they aren’t doing anything that would draw suspicion.”
Jake sped up and shot down the highway exit. They’d go through a drive through. “You hungry?”
She needed to eat. And he could use a coffee. “There’s a Mac Donald’s at this exit. I’ll grab a coffee and we’ll see if they follow.”
Sure enough, the car cruised down the exit, with no cars between them. Jake headed to the McDonald’s. “Get the plate number and I’ll text it to Kita.”
Layla rattled off the license plate number and he texted one handed while he waited in the drive thru. The car had pulled off to the side of the road, clearly watching.
His phone pinged back almost immediately even though it was nearly eleven at night. “I had really hoped we’d be able to stop soon.”
But now they were going to have to lose the tail. He didn’t like that they had one in the first place. “How did they find us?”
Layla shrugged. “No idea.”
“You disposed of your old phone. Right?”
“Yes.” Her exasperation was evident. “Kita destroyed it in her office.”
“Had to confirm.” Jake tapped his fingers against the steering wheel, working out strategy. It would be best if they could lose them without tipping them off that they knew they were being followed.
“What do we do?” Her voice was hushed.
Jake had rented the car under an alias. They might legally relocate their clients, but ALIAS used alternate identities all the time while setting up their client’s safety.
The only good thing about the tail is that Layla had stopped crying. She had something more pressing to focus on.
Jake ordered food at the drive thru window. The car following them parked on the side of the road next to the fast food restaurant. Jake got his coffee and burgers and fries.
“I wasn’t hungry.”
“I don’t know when we’re going to be able to stop.” His voice was curt. They were on their own. One of the reasons that ALIAS worked was because they compartmentalized each section of the journey. That meant he didn’t have backup.
He shouldn’t have needed backup.
They drove for another two hours. Jake got on and off the highway. Took roundabout suburban side roads. Nothing rural because he wanted to lose the guy, not get trapped someplace deserted.
When he was finally convinced that they had lost their tail, he headed for a cheap NoTell Motel.
Layla griped. “Great. Syphilis central.”
“At least you’ll be alive to need antibiotics.” He quipped.
He was bone tired so he couldn’t imagine how exhausted she must be. They parked in the back of the rundown motel and headed inside. The double beds were hard and the quilt was made of rough fabric so it was going to be a long night. He wasn’t going to get much sleep anyway.
“Get some sleep and we’ll get on the road in about four hours.” They were going to detour again, just in case.
A few hours later, Jake woke to the sound of someone scratching at the door. He didn’t have a gun. They had a strict no lethal policy. Dead people tended to draw attention which was the exact opposite of what ALIAS did.
He did have a taser.
“Get behind the door,” he whispered. “And grab the taser, just in case he gets through me.”
Layla hid behind the motel room door while Jake waited for the asshole to get inside. As soon as the door was breached and the guy burst in, Jake punched his kidney. The man grunted but didn’t yell out.
They grappled for the upper hand. Jake let the guy toss him to the floor, intending to sweep his feet and drop him. But before he could, Layla jumped out from behind the door and shot the guy with the taser.
The intruder made an inhuman sound and dropped to his knees on the stained carpet and fell over.
“You were supposed to wait. I had it under control.”
“You were on the ground, and I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
They only had a few seconds until the guy regained his faculties. Jake wanted ID and then they needed to get the hell out of dodge.
But when he turned around, the guy wasn’t moving.
“Um, Jake.” Layla’s voice was trembling.
Fuck. The leads had hit right at the guy’s heart level.
Ugh. This was bad. Very bad. “Time to go.”
Jake sighed. “Yeah.” He patted down the guy’s pockets and found a phone and his ID. He stuffed them into the front pocket of his sweatshirt and grabbed his duffel. Jake turned around but Layla was standing stock still staring at the guy.
“I recognize him from the pictures my dad took. He was at Ghorbani’s house.”
Not good. “He was going to kill you.” Instead….
“Did I do that?” her voice was hushed.
“We can talk about it in the car.”
“It’s very rare but if someone is hit directly in the heart, it can,” he gestured to the guy. Dead.
Her lips trembled. “We need to call the cops. All this to avoid the FBI and I’m going to jail anyway.”
“Nope. Pure self-defense.”
“We can discuss it on the road.” He handed her the bags.
She still hadn’t moved.
“Get in the car while I wipe down the room.”
He’d paid for the room in cash and worn a ball cap. Maybe the clerk hadn’t given him too much attention. He and the dead guy both had dark skin and black hair. Jake grabbed the cap and tossed it on the nightstand.
He hefted the guy into the bed. Maybe they would think he’d had a heart attack. Unlikely but it was worth a try.
Time to get the hell out of here.
One week later
Jake was leaving. Layla felt a small spurt of panic. But she was also tired of trying to keep up a positive front. She felt like a boat without a mooring, adrift on a sea of uncertainty.
She was a positive person but losing everything and everyone that mattered to her had crushed those positive thoughts.
She’d killed that guy. Yes, it was a freak accident. And yes, he was coming to kill her. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t sick over it. She kept turning that moment over in her mind and every time she came back to the truth that she hadn’t had a choice.
Jake assured her that eventually she’d stop thinking about it all the time. He’d talked her through her guilt over and over again. It still hadn’t helped.
She missed Ben.
How could she miss someone she had only known for a few weeks? Their relationship had been short, intense.
She knew his number by heart. Every day she’d been tempted to call him.
And everyday Jake reminded her, “If you talk to him, you put him in danger.”
She couldn’t do it. She would never forgive herself if something happened to Ben because of her.
“Will you look out for him? Make sure he’s okay?”
Jake had pried Ben’s full name out of her.
“I’ll make sure he’s okay.”
“I miss him.” The loss a near constant ache in her heart. “Somedays I wonder if it will ever go away.”
“It will get better over time.” Jake tried to console her, but she knew he was pretending. That he really didn’t understand her connection with Ben. They’d had a lot of conversations over the last week. Jake wasn’t close with his mom, his job was hard, because the only people who really knew what he did were his coworkers and his clients. He hadn’t had a serious relationship ever.
Most days she felt as if she was living in a nightmare and praying she’d wake up soon. He handed her a blank card with a phone number. “If you have any issues, call this number.”
“Will it be you?”
“Possibly.” Jake held her hands. “But if I’m out on another relo then maybe not.”
“I’d like to say it’s been a real pleasure getting to know you, Jake Brown.” Layla thought about her dad. About all the unspoken words she’d never have a chance to say. “If I had a big brother, I hope he’d be exactly like you.”
He blinked as if she’d stripped naked in front of him. Which she kinda had.
She flung her arms around his bulk and held on tight. Jake awkwardly patted her back. Then he cleared his throat. “You, umm, remind me of my sister.”
“I hope that’s a compliment.”
Jake said softly, “More than you’ll know.”
“She’s lucky to have you,” Layla replied.
“I was lucky to have her.” Jake squeezed her one more time and then let go. “Take care of yourself.”
“Uh, yeah.” He swallowed and glanced at his rental car.
All the things they’d talked about, he’d never brought up his dead sister. That was a revelation.
“Remember. No PI work. There’s a list of potential careers, aptitude tests on your new laptop. Take your time. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
Thanks to Adams-Larsen she had a few months of money in the bank to figure out what she was going to do.
“I will.” She paused. The hole in her heart expanding out until she thought the blackness might swallow her up. “Can you….”
She held down tears but that wouldn’t last much longer, and she’d prefer to grieve in peace. “Can you get a message to Ben? Tell him, I’ll never forget him?”
He nodded against her hair. “I will.”
She knew how much that cost him. “Thank you.”
Jake was back in Washington.
After settling Layla and then driving the rental car another two hundred miles in a different direction, renting another car under a different alias, and then catching the train home, he was exhausted.
But the thought of going back to his empty apartment didn’t appeal at all. A restless, itchy feeling had been dogging him since he left Layla.
Instead of heading home, he’d stopped in this hotel bar. So much for no more one-night stands. But he was lonely. And horny. And not in the mood to be alone.
This wouldn’t solve anything. Maybe nothing would happen anyway. So far, the only woman giving him any serious signals was the bartender. An attractive woman in her early to mid-forties who was sending him vibes that she’d be open to something more than flirtation.
He sat at the bar nursing a whiskey. He’d splurged on a double of Angel’s Envy savoring the burn as he sipped the expensive bourbon.
The woman next to him tipped her head toward the bartender. “Seems like a sure thing.”
She’d sat down next to him about thirty minutes ago and ordered a white wine and some fries. She had an angular body and sharp features, with a cloud of blond hair in a feminine bob, and serious “leave me alone” vibes.
Two separate men had approached her, and she’d politely turned down each of them.
The fact that she was talking to Jake came as a surprise.
Jake shrugged. “Not what I’m in the mood for.”
She swiveled on the bar stool and propped her chin on her fist. “I thought most guys—”
“Not most guys.” He couldn’t tell if she was insulting him or just being curious.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
He couldn’t help but taunt. “You had your pick.”
She huffed out a breath. “No thanks. Men who pick up women in bars aren’t what you’d call discerning. I was convenient.”
Now he was intrigued. “Then what are you doing talking to me?”
“You seemed…very alone.”
He was alone. He hadn’t felt this isolated in a long time. Not since right after his sister had died. “Yeah.”
“Me too.” She ran her finger—short nails, polished a light pink—along the rim of her wine glass. “And then thought…I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
“So you thought we could be alone…together?”
“You ever needed to reclaim something you’d lost?”
He raised an eyebrow. “What did you lose?”
“Me,” she said softly.
He shifted closer resisting the urge to give her a hug. “I find that hard to believe.”
She smiled suddenly, her entire face brightening and her eyes sparkling. “Thank you.”
“The pep talk.”
Is that what he’d done? He’d take it if it meant she’d smile at him like that again. Like she saw him and wanted to see more. “Anytime.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Getting a drink.”
He raised an eyebrow and lifted his glass. “This is a drink.”
“You’ve assessed every single person who walked into this bar.” She tilted her head, her bob brushing her shoulder. “I just can’t figure out what you’re assessing them for.”
She’d nailed him. He wasn’t about to admit he’d been looking for a pickup. But then he shrugged and thought, why not?
“Looking for someone to spend the night with.”
She straightened up, looked around. “But you haven’t made any moves.” Her voice was more curious than accusatory.
“Who says I haven’t?” He tipped his glass toward her.
“Me?” She seemed very surprised by that.
“It wasn’t on my bingo card today.”
He laughed. “Maybe you need a new card.”
She finished the wine in her glass in a single gulp. “Maybe I do.”
His heart rate increased and the weariness that had been his companion since he left Layla evaporated in a cloud of lust.
“You want to get out of here?” Jake could swing a night at the hotel. He’d been living like a monk lately. He tossed money on the bar.
She’d already signed her tab. “I have a room upstairs.” Her voice was breathless and in the slight V of her cardigan the skin on her chest flushed.
“After you.” Jake helped her off the bar stool.
The bartender gave him a regretful look then smiled at the blonde.
“Oh, I guess names would be good.” She grabbed a small clutch from the bar top and headed toward the elevator. “I’m Zara.”
Jake watched the sway of her hips and realized that anticipation was making him hard. “Jake.” His voice was growly.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Hopefully it will be better than nice.”
They waited for the elevator. She twisted suddenly and looked at him earnestly. “You aren’t a serial killer, are you?”
He snorted. Straight up snorted. “Ah, no.”
“Phew. Me, either.”
“Good to know.” He wanted to laugh which was unusual for him. Laughing during intimacy hadn’t ever been his thing.
“I don’t do this.”
“It’s been a while for me too,” he said gently. He didn’t have time to date. And he hadn’t had sex in…shit, a really fucking long time.
She led him to the old elevator with ornate gold doors and mirrored walls. The look in her eyes was like gasoline to his already on fire body.
As the doors closed, he backed her up against the wall and kissed her. She melted against him, a soft moan coming from her. He made sure to turn her so that the security cameras couldn’t see what he was doing and that her face was protected.
He stopped kissing her long enough to ask. “What floor?”
“What?” Her eyes were glazed.
“What’s your room number, sweetheart?”
“Oh.” She dropped her head against his shoulder. “Three twenty.”
He pressed the button for the third floor. Curving his arm around her shoulders, he pulled her closer again and nuzzled her ear.
Then he kissed her again, getting lost in the lush promise of her mouth and the way she gripped his shoulders hard, as if she couldn’t bear to let him go.
He wondered in that instant what it would be like to have someone who wanted you so much that they would stand by your side, no matter what. That they would literally give up everything to be with you. Emotion filled his throat. That wasn’t what tonight was about. This was physical. A way to lose himself in her body without risking his heart.
The elevator dinged, breaking him out of the strange emotions swirling inside him. Why did this feel like more? Dealing with Ben and Layla had messed him up.
He shielded her from the cameras as they exited the car. She tugged him toward the proper room then spun around, her back against the still shut door.
“I am not into pain.”
Jake bulked up, a rage filling him. “Did someone hurt you?” he growled.
“It’s just that you’re so strong,” she said breathlessly.
She distracted him and he was pretty sure that was on purpose. Because she hadn’t really answered his question.
But his answer must have reassured her because she opened the door quickly and tugged him inside.
Jake pushed her cardigan from her shoulders, revealing the thin tank top beneath it. Her nipples stood like little soldiers waiting for his attention. “I would never use that strength against you.”
“I think instinctively I knew that.” Zara’s fingers slipped to his belt as she slowly undid the buckle, her knuckles brushing his erection through his khaki pants.
He pushed into her light caress. “You’re killing me.” He slid his fingers inside the lace cup of her bra and squeezed her small curves, tweaking her nipple between his fingers. She arched into his touch.
Jake slid his other hand toward the waist of her jeans, sliding inside and teasing the soft skin between her hipbones, stroking her belly and then moving down until his pinky finger skimmed the ridge of her pubic bone.
She nipped his lip and curled her fingers around his erection.
“Is this okay?” She pumped him.
He groaned. “Better than.”
She shoved his pants down to his thighs. She gripped his ass hard and squeezed, pulling him toward her. Jake went willingly, intrigued by her sudden aggressiveness. All the blood in Jake’s brain headed to his dick. “Sweetheart, slow down.”
He was hard enough to pound nails, but he didn’t want to hurt her. And it didn’t want this over too fast.
“Nope.” She licked his neck and sucked at the skin near his shoulder. The contact seemed to sizzle down to his dick in a straight line. Jake pushed her jeans to her knees so she could shimmy out of them.
He pulled back for a moment. She stood bare from the waist down, darker blond hair protecting her sex, her top askew one nipple coming out of the neckline, her prim and proper blond hair tousled from his fingers and her lips reddened.
He liked her body. She was all angles and curves. Angular hips and small breasts. Very spare frame, muscles in her arms and shoulders.
He grinned. “You are quite the picture.”
“Less talk, more action.” She demanded.
“With pleasure.” Without warning, Jake cupped her sex and slid his finger inside her. She closed around this finger as if she’d been waiting for only him.
“Unh.” She pushed into his hand as Jake found a rhythm that she liked. She rocked against his palm, her body swaying, eyes closed as she lost herself in his touch.
“God, Jake,” she whispered and grabbed his wrist. “We need to stop.”
He stilled. Shit. She’d changed her mind. He gently removed his hand and nearly wept at the scent from her body. “Okay.”
“I don’t want to come without you.”
“Oh, thank God.” He ripped his shirt off over his head and tossed it on the chair.
“Wait.” She blinked, stared. “Did you think…?”
“And you would have just stopped?”
“I don’t know who you’ve been hanging around with, but no means no and stop means stop now.”
She launched at him, and he caught her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and her hands wrapped around his head as she pressed kisses against his jaw and his mouth. “I just wanted to get on the bed.”
Jake carried her over to the bed and knelt down to place her carefully on the coverlet.
She pulled him down on top of her. “Inside me.”
He had condoms in his bag. He had planned ahead, just in case he ended up having sex tonight. He’d intended to find someone and drown out the noise in his head, but somehow this had turned into more. He pulled off a packet and tore it open as she quickly stripped the rest of the way.
Zara was running her fingers up and down his cock lightly like she was playing a flute. Then she reached underneath and cupped his balls.
“Shit.” He hurriedly rolled the condom on and braced over her.
She traced her fingers over his abs. “You are so beautiful.”
He flushed. “You sure?”
“Yes.” She bit her lip. “But go slowly.”
Jake notched his cock at her entrance. With agonizing slowness, he took his time entering her and pausing at each twinge of resistance. Her fingers gripped his hips pulling him gently until finally he was seated completely inside her.
They held there for a moment. Jake looked into her eyes, seeing the same sense of wonder that he was feeling.
She pulled until he was all the way on top of her.
“I don’t want to crush you.”
Her hips cradled his body as if she had been made just for him. Her toned legs wrapped around his butt, her feet meeting in the small of his back, she began to move.
Jake’s head was swirling as he rocked in and out of her. Zara upped the pace and the intensity, until he was banging inside her. Her small breasts bounced and her head was thrown back showing the long, graceful line of her neck.
She was close, her sex tightened around his cock. Their bodies came together like a ballet, as if it had been choreographed and they had practiced for hours. The sex felt so natural, it was elemental.
“I can’t hold out much longer,” he gutted out.
“Go ahead,” she said, but he could tell she wasn’t close.
He pressed up on his elbows and sucked her nipple into his mouth, tonguing the stiff bud hard. Every time he sucked, she contracted around him. “Come on sweetheart. Give it to me.”
“Don’t worry about me.” She panted. “I don’t always orgasm. It still feels really, really good.”
Like any red-blooded man, he couldn’t resist that challenge.
Jake played with her body, using his mouth, his fingers and his cock to ramp her up until she exploded around him. Her cries a beautiful music as her pussy milked him. Jake plunged over that edge, his vision blacking out as fireworks exploded behind his eyes.
The unexpectedly intense orgasm punched him in the heart.
They twined together recovering from the intensity of their coupling. His heartbeat slowed in time with hers. Jake rolled off of her and to the side, pulling her toward his embrace.
The wrecked sheets tangled around their bodies as he toyed with a strand of her hair. The skin on her face and neck glistened.
“Worked up a sweat?” he teased, inordinately proud of the fact that he’d mussed her up so thoroughly. He had a feeling she didn’t let go very often. Neither did he.
“You’re awfully pleased with yourself.” She teased right back.
“That I am.”
He waited for her answer. This easy back and forth was another first for him. She finally said, “You should be.”
A few hours and several rounds later, Jake carefully slid from underneath the blanket of her body. He had worn her out.
He, on the other hand, felt completely energized. They’d been explicitly clear that this was strictly one night. Two strangers giving each other relief. But as he tugged on his pants, quietly, a strange regret washed over him. He would have liked to get to know her better.
And with that thought he knew it was time to get the hell out.
Viktor was right.
People in their line of work couldn’t share what they did. Secrets were no way to start or maintain a relationship. He liked Zara. She had made him laugh. However, she deserved more than half-truths and evasions.
He never considered that he deserved more too.
A few weeks later
“Uh, Jake.” Maria, their receptionist, called him on the interoffice system while he was monitoring the security cameras around their office.
She was still very tentative around people, and he always made sure to gentle his voice when he talked to her. Maria had survived an unimaginable eight years in captivity, isolated and alone. She was a warrior, but she hadn’t quite figured that out yet.
“The guy at the front door wants to see you.”
They all took turns in the security booth monitoring the cameras for the building. Most days it was super boring. But every once in a while, the office got some excitement.
“He’s asking for you specifically.”
Jake studied the guy at the front door. Tall, athletic, blond guy. Mid to late twenties. “Fuck.”
“I take it you know him?” she asked softly.
“Never met him.” But now that the guy faced the camera fully, Jake recognized Layla’s boyfriend, Ben. He’d run a background check on him, just to make sure he was above board. Ben was your typical upper-class guy, college, work, grad school. Affluent parents. Trust fund. Played sports. Decent grades. No arrests or even mischief in his younger days. Except for the death of his best friend in high school, his life had been full of ease.
Because he’d promised, Jake had created a fake account and sent a message from Layla saying goodbye and that she was safe. Then he’d erased the message and deleted the account. He’d used a VPN so his IP address had been obscured. Ben should not have been able to track him down.
“Should I tell him to go away?”
Jake pondered their options.
Ben started banging on the front door again. They needed to get him inside before he attracted attention ALIAS didn’t need.
“I’ll talk to him.” Jake rubbed his hands over his face. He was tired. Hadn’t been sleeping well lately.
Jake headed down to the public entrance of ALIAS and opened the front door. “Can I help you?”
Ben shoved past him. “What did you do with her?”
“I’m sorry. Can I help you?”
Ben studied him. “You’re Jake, right?”
“You stole my girlfriend.”
Jake crossed his arms over his chest. “I think you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t have a girlfriend.”
He kept his voice kind, sympathetic. Maybe engaging with the guy was the wrong move, but if Jake were honest, he wanted to see him. See if he had been worthy of Layla. Because she had stolen a small piece of his heart.
“Layla. You took my Layla.”
“I don’t know why you’d think that.” Dammit. She wasn’t supposed to share anything with anyone. Tell no one.
“Because I was the one who made her call you in the first place,” he snarled. The guy looked terrible. Up close, he had bags under his eyes and his skin held a grayish cast.
Jake kept his face impassive. But the desperation coming off Ben was uncomfortable. “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay.” Ben paced the lobby of ALIAS. “My girlfriend disappeared.”
“I’m sorry. We’re a public relations firm.”
“You were the last people to see her.” Ben spun around and grabbed Jake by the shoulders. “I need to find her.”
Jake’s stomach twisted. He hated lying to this guy. “This is only a guess, but if she left and hasn’t contacted you, then maybe that’s your answer. She doesn’t want to be found.”
“That’s bullshit.” But the guy looked lost, forlorn. “She wouldn’t do that.”
“I’m the last guy to offer relationship advice but maybe you should just…move on.”
“How?” Ben looked at him, his gaze tormented. “How do I move on from the love of my life?”
Jake had to ask because he needed to make sure that Ben really couldn’t find her. “Did you location share with her?”
“No.” Ben shook his head slowly.
“Did you call her?”
“Phone was disconnected.”
“If she didn’t leave a way to get in touch, my last statement stands. She doesn’t want to be found.”
“It’s not safe for her to be found,” Ben corrected him.
Jake couldn’t agree. He couldn’t admit that he knew anything about who Layla was or where she was now, but he felt badly.
He had doubted Layla when she’d gone on about how this guy was the one. Maybe he’d been wrong. But that still didn’t negate the fact that Layla needed to stay under the radar, otherwise everyone around her was in danger. Most especially her.
“You’re right.” Ben straightened, a new determination in his eyes. He appeared a little less upset. Jake wasn’t sure that that was about. “She didn’t leave a way for me to call her.”
“I don’t have any other advice for you.” Jake opened the front door and nudged Ben outside. “I’m sorry about your girlfriend.”
He really was.
Layla was lying in bed feeling very alone.
She had done a bunch of aptitude tests that were pretty much inconclusive. She needed to just start exploring her own psyche for ideas on how to make a living.
She had taken lots of Literature classes because she’d been telling her dad she could maybe teach when she was done with college. Even though what she’d wanted was to continue being a PI. But it was too late for that.
Those classes had given her knowledge of story structure. She could write out her story with Ben. Maybe that would be cathartic. Jake had picked up a laptop and set up a VPN for her so she could get on the internet without being tracked.
Four hours later, she had pounded out their story. From the moment she’d locked eyes with him in the coffee shop until their final conversation. She’d recorded every moment that she could recall in minute detail.
Instead of releasing her emotions so she could heal, she missed him even more. The loss like a physical crater in her chest where her heart should be.
Suddenly, something pinged.
She picked up her phone, but she didn’t have any notifications. Let’s face it, who would be pinging her? No one. She was all alone.
It pinged again. Her laptop sat on the empty pillow next to her. She’d finished her account of her story with Ben and wallowed in sorrow.
Something pinged a third time.
From the bookshelf next to the bed, the iPad lit up.
She hadn’t been able to get rid of it. The stupid tech was the only physical representation of her time with Ben. They hadn’t been together long enough for him to leave anything at her house. He’d given her the used tech as a gift.
She frowned. And picked it up.
A conversation bubble popped up on the screen. Hey. Are you out there?
Her heart started to beat in an erratic rhythm. She reached out with trembling fingers and touched the edge. But that was it.
Ben? She couldn’t answer. She couldn’t put him in danger.
If you are, I just want you to know that I miss you so fucking much.
Tears trembled on her lashes.
I think about you every day and hope you are okay.
Oh my God. It was like she’d conjured him.
She couldn’t answer right?
But how she wanted to.
Two days later, she was in bed writing on her laptop again. A new story, which closely resembled the first one, but not about Ben this time.
This story was about lovers who weren’t separated. She’d written it fast, imagining life with Ben if they were still together. A new life begun together, creating their own story, like her parents had created theirs.
The iPad pinged again. Hey, you there?
She couldn’t stand it any longer. She missed him so much. How are you? Don’t use my name.
I’m lonely and sad. I miss my EC.
Eric Clapton ::smiling eyes emoji::
Oh, it was him. Their first conversation about her name hit her.
I miss you too. But I need you to be safe.
At what cost? I need you.
They texted for hours, careful never to use their names or locations. Until Layla yawned and looked at the clock. It’s late.
Imagine us in bed, I’m curled around you with my arms wrapped around your waist and my face buried in your…
Stop! She was blushing.
Hair. ::winky emoji::
I like that.
We will find a way. Sweet dreams.
Longing filled her. She tucked her head against the pillow and dreamed of Ben behind her.
Two days later, Layla knew she had to do something.
I’m coming for you. Ben had declared last night.
Her heart had swelled with hope. You don’t know where I am.
Of course I do. I will always find you.
I can’t come out. It isn’t safe.
I know. But I can disappear too.
You have a life, a family, friends.
That mean nothing without you.
I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll be free from this. Because she’d finally accepted that she wasn’t safe. Someone had burned her family home to the ground. She’d grieved for the loss of the structure and acknowledged the truth that her old life was gone. Now Ben was offering her what she’d dreamed of in the dark of night when she was alone. But if he just showed up, he would be in danger.
She knew his heart well enough to know he wasn’t going to back down.
Let me see if we can figure out a way to do it safely.
With trembling fingers, she dialed a number she had memorized. She was using a new burner phone and an app that could disguise where she was calling from.
“This is Jake.”
“Not you too.”
“Why are you calling me?”
He had told her they discarded burners after each case so there wouldn’t be any record of calls between ALIAS and their clients. But he had given her that card and she had memorized the number.
Why was Layla calling?
Jake would admit to no one that he’d been thinking about her. Wondering how she was doing, especially after the visit from Ben last week. Working with clients was a delicate balance. It was ill-advised to get too attached. At the end of the day, Layla wasn’t his friend. She wasn’t his little sister. She was a client. He needed to maintain a certain distance to do his job properly.
“I miss him.” Her voice broke. “I want to see him.”
“Jesus, don’t cry.” His heart thudded. She couldn’t come back. “It isn’t safe.”
“I’m miserable without him.”
God, these two. “You can’t.”
Layla said, “He’s coming to me.”
What? “That isn’t possible.”
“He knows where I am.”
“Did you tell him?”
Jake started thinking contingencies and where they could stash her until they could move her again.
“He found me.” Layla confessed. “And he wants to come. That’s why I called.”
He stayed silent. What a complete Charlie Foxtrot.
“When I first moved here…I just hoped…eventually…” she trailed off.
“You can’t,” he said gently. “I am sorry.”
“Not sorry enough.”
Probably not in her eyes. But he couldn’t seem to let thoughts of her go.
Or his mystery woman. The two were inexplicably entwined his mind.
He’d gone back to that hotel bar a few times, feeling like an idiot, and never sure what he’d say if he saw Zara again.
But after listening to Ben talk about the day he met Layla, Jake couldn’t help but feel like he’d let something important, something real slip through his fingers when he left without getting Zara’s contact info.
“I know about the house.”
“I’m sorry.” He hadn’t wanted to tell her that someone had burned down her house.
“I have nothing left.”
She wasn’t wrong.
“Except him. And he’s vowed to come no matter what.”
Jake dropped his head into his hand. He didn’t believe in true love. But these two were going to be the death of him.
“Can you get him here safely?”
“What are we talking about?” This was a terrible idea. But if Ben knew where she was, nothing was going to stop him. Their only choice was to make a transfer safely.
“He wants to be with me. Forever.”
“Let me see what I can do.”
It was almost time.
Layla paced the tiny foyer of her tiny apartment. She didn’t have an exact time for his arrival. Her heart was jittery as she bounced around the room like a drunken firefly.
Jake had planned out every detail. It had taken weeks. Impatient weeks where they messaged every day for hours. She couldn’t wait to see him.
Yet she was terrified that he’d change his mind. She’d left the front door unlocked. That was the plan. He was supposed to knock the rhythm of the song Layla.
The knocks came, sure and loud with no hesitation.
Layla yanked the door open and there he was. “Come in.”
Ben dropped his duffel on the floor and scooped her into his arms and everything was right with the world. They stood there wrapped together, their heartbeats in sync. Tears leaked from her eyes.
“I missed you so much,” she whispered.
“I missed you too,” he murmured into her hair.
He’d had multiple points where he could have backed out. “You’re sure?” She had to ask. It probably wasn’t too late for him to turn around and go back home. Jake would take him.
“Every choice I made, every day I lived, led me on a path to that coffee shop at that exact time.” He stared into her eyes as he cupped her jaw. “So that we could meet.”
He’d just given up everything. She hadn’t had a huge support network and her family was dead. But Ben had his family, he had his friends. “It’s a monumental sacrifice.”
“The sacrifice would have been to stay in DC and never see you again.” Ben kissed her softly. “My whole life, I was just waiting for you.”
She thought of her parents and their love. “My parents showed me that extreme sacrifice came with extreme love. So I know what to do.”
He smiled. “Just be you.”
Layla still needed him to know that she would have given him up to save him. “I’m sorry.”
“Taking away your future with your family company.”
“I didn’t want to go into my dad’s business. I really wanted to do my own thing. Start small and build, you know dry cleaning, car wash, laundry business. Something I can be involved in day to day.”
“You, laundry?” She couldn’t help it, she laughed.
“Hey! I know how to do my own laundry. My mom taught me.”
That was sweet. He looked so proud of himself.
“I’m just a normal guy.”
“Who didn’t need to worry about money.” She needled. But that wasn’t why she loved him.
“Who worried about his girlfriend and making sure she didn’t get hurt.” He shot back.
Her heart melted. “Oh.”
She launched at him, and he wrapped her in his arms. “Oof.”
“You caught me.”
“I’ll always catch you.”
She had wanted an epic love story like her parents. She hadn’t anticipated Iranians and bombs and death threats and leaving her old life behind. And she’d never imagined she’d find Ben in the middle of the worst days of her life.
“I love you.” The words fell out of her mouth, but they felt right. After all, she’d made a promise to herself to never to leave things unsaid.
“Love you too. Always.”
Several months later
“You headed out?” Viktor asked.
“Got something to do.”
“Maybe try and chill out when you’re done.” Viktor jabbed at him as he left the ALIAS office. “You’ve been really grumpy lately.”
Ever since that night.
The one he’d tried to banish from his memories but for whatever reason continued to haunt him late at night when he was alone in bed.
He couldn’t seem to forget her, no matter how much he tried. He had a love/hate reaction to the memory.
The connection he thought he’d felt couldn’t possibly be as intense as he remembered. Sometimes he wanted to find her and see if it had been real. Other times, he knew the last thing he needed was another encounter with the woman he couldn’t seem to forget. Ben had given up everything for Layla. That kind of love was rare, extreme. Not for the likes of Jake.
He wasn’t in the market for a relationship.
Most days he figured his response was just a weird reaction to Ben and Layla’s situation.
Jake headed to the Adams-Larsen official public relations office, grumbling beneath his breath. Things at the office had been straight up weird lately. The last thing they should be doing was mingling their covert undertakings with the official business of Adams-Larsen Inc., the PR branch. But he wasn’t the boss and had no desire to be.
He parked in the lot of the PR office. Which again made him remember Layla and her devotion to Ben and her certainty that they were meant to be together. Ben had given up everything for Layla. That kind of love was rare, extreme. Not for the likes of Jake.
He hoped they were happy.
He was meeting the new PR manager after hours to go over a plan for a client at Marsh’s request.
He shook off the strange feelings that seemed to be his constant companion these days and unlocked the front door of the discreet brownstone, not so different from their offices. The building always made him think old money. The kind that he’d hungered for when he was a kid, until he grew up and found out that old money did not mean good things would happen to you. Or that things were better if you had money.
Her sister’s abusive boyfriend had hammered that lesson home with depressing clarity.
He shrugged off the sad, gloomy feelings and stepped inside.
“I’m sorry. We’re closed.”
That husky voice had inhabited his dreams. His body responded as if they were twined together in an intimate hotel room.
Zara, the woman who haunted his fantasies, stood behind a fancy wood desk piled with files.
“What are you doing here?” Her voice was sharp with accusation.
“I could ask you the same.” But he already knew. Facts were ticking through his brain with alarming speed. New manager from California. Brought in after the old manager quit. She had been dealing with movers the last time he’d been in this office.
His dream woman.
“You need to leave now.” It was the fear in her voice that tripped him up. He wanted to slay her dragons and beat up whoever hurt her.
“Can’t?” She kept the desk between them. “Or won’t?”
“Can’t.” He gentled his voice. “Our boss sent me.”
Realization crossed her face in a wave. “Oh shit.”
Oh shit, indeed.