chapter nine —
Seth stood with his back against the wall and his arms crossed over his chest. Kessler had returned to his favorite place, pacing circles atop the surface of the bar.
They both waited.
Seth accepted that he could be waiting for backup that may never come. Consequently, he had been formulating a plan A and a plan B in the twenty minutes that had elapsed since he ended his call with Janie.
Of course, she wasn’t known as Janie now. She had changed her name to Maddie and dyed her hair once a month. She no longer worked as a high school guidance counselor. Seth had reached out to an old contact and helped her get an entry-level job in a PR firm. Now, three years after her escape from Sean Kessler, she was the assistant to an account executive who bought media time for clients wanting to advertise in the sports and entertainment arenas. He had no doubt in five years or less, she’d be an account executive with her own assistant, still thriving, still happy, still safe.
Seth made a silent vow that as long as it was what she wanted, that was the life Janie Savoy, AKA Maddie Jones, would have. Sean Kessler wasn’t going to destroy that life. Not on Seth’s watch.
He glanced at the time and pretended he didn’t see the dried blood on his hands and the cuffs of his shirt. He had thirty-four minutes to find a way to get those deadly wristbands off Jules or get his hands on Kessler’s phone and terminate the connection himself. His main problem was that right now, he couldn’t see a way to accomplish either task, and once Kessler realized the woman he was expecting wasn’t going to show, the situation would deteriorate and fast.
Think! his mind yelled at him.
He scanned the bar and the people in it for the hundredth time. The body language of the two college kids Otto had been sitting with suggested they had had no knowledge of what was going to happen or that their friend had a part to play in it. Otto had attempted to rejoin them but they had shunned him, sliding to the edge of their booth seats so that there was no space for him to sit. Neither one of them had looked at him as he’d stood by the table. However it had happened, Otto had gotten them here under false pretenses. Seth couldn’t be sure if Otto would protect them from becoming collateral damage, or if he would leave them to their fates and protect himself. He suspected he was going to find out.
Danielle and Jules sat in the first booth seat nearest the door. Danielle sightlessly stared out the front window while Jules sat across from her, holding her hands. Neither of them said a word. Jules was waiting, too, but Danielle was lost in the numbness of her grief to the point that time and the passing of it likely meant nothing to her.
Moser had settled into the booth Kit and Belinda had occupied. The former Secret Service agent’s eyes swept each quadrant of the bar every few minutes, but Seth hadn’t seen any change in Moser’s demeanor that would suggest he had come up with a plan.
Because he’s waiting on you to tell him what the plan is, said the voice in his mind.
He had a plan, but it sucked. Plan A was to make another attempt at getting close enough to Kessler to disarm and incapacitate him. With Kessler’s phone, there was a chance that Seth could get Jules to Wes and Murdoch soon enough for them to crack his phone and terminate the connection between it and the wristbands.
Plan A required a lot of luck. It also held the danger of Otto coming to Kessler’s aid and making the situation worse. Plus the risk of Kessler pulling the trigger either intentionally or accidentally and wounding or killing a bystander. Not to mention the possibility that in close combat, Kessler’s training would be better than his own and leave him standing while Seth was on his ass or worse.
Plan A might be worse than having no plan at all, but it was all that he had.
Long practice kept him from reacting to the voice in his ear. Though Seth wanted to ask Wes where the fuck he’d been all this time, he held his tongue and waited.
“The first thing you need to know is that Josh, Vaughan and Murdoch have made it to your location. Josh is positioned at the rear entrance. Vaughan and Murdoch are in an SUV on the street in front.”
The pad of his forefinger tapped his elbow, the only outlet he allowed himself for the surge of relief flooding his system. He could discard plan A. With Josh and Vaughan here, plus Wes’ twin brother Murdoch, his options expanded exponentially.
“Second, Walker called in two minutes ago. He met Maddie at the Lincoln Memorial and he’s bringing her to the office. They should arrive in the next ten minutes.”
More good news. Walker Riley wasn’t an official member of The Praetorian Group, but if he was in town and one of them called on him, he helped with no questions asked. Seth knew that with Wes and Walker looking out for her, her safety wouldn’t be an issue, no matter what happened here tonight.
“Third,” Wes started. “Barrett is on the roof of the building directly across the street from the bar.”
Surprised at that last bit of information, Seth had to consciously keep his body still and his face blank. Barrett Rush also wasn’t one of Josh’s Praetorians, but like Walker he was someone they all trusted. The thing about Barrett’s presence that made Seth rethink the gravity of the situation was the fact that he worked for Uncle Sam, though you’d never find the name of his organization in any government database. He wasn’t here because Josh had asked him to be here. He was here because someone had sent him.
Which meant that this mysterious benefactor Kessler kept mentioning represented a greater threat than he’d imagined.
“I’m working on finding and intercepting the signal between Kessler’s phone and the tech on Jules’ wrists. His phone is the only one that’s active within a half-mile radius and that’s a mistake I can capitalize on,” said Murdoch. “I’m close, but I’m not there yet so you’re going to have to find a way to keep Kessler distracted.”
“Any information you can get him to give up about whoever put a target on your back would be helpful,” said Wes.
How much time did Murdoch need? Five minutes? Ten? More than that? He glanced down at his watch. A few more minutes and Kessler would start to get antsy over Janie’s delayed arrival.
He pushed away from the wall and took a step toward the bar. If Murdoch needed time, Seth would get it for him.
Kessler’s eyes weren’t on him but Otto’s were, and so Seth remained in motion even though Josh’s curse signaled that they had a problem.
“What?” Vaughan asked.
Silence reigned over the comms. Seth forced himself to continue moving toward the bar. When he got there and still hadn’t heard anything from Josh, he leaned over and reached for a bottle of Jameson. By now he had roused Kessler’s attention, and because he didn’t want to give the man any more reasons to be suspicious or jumpy, he retrieved two lowballs from the stack of glasses beneath the bar. He set them on the bar as though he had nothing more on his mind than a casual drink between enemies.
“Dammit! Seth you’ve got incoming and you’re not going to like this,” Josh said. “Back entrance. Ninety seconds.”
He should have locked the door, but he had hoped Allie would send backup and hadn’t wanted to close off the last point of entry into the bar. Seth schooled his gaze, training it on the neck of the bottle of Jameson and the two lowballs. He went through the motions of pouring two drinks even as his body tensed into a live wire.
Why hadn’t Josh just told him who it was?
Kessler had closed the distance between them and now stood over Seth. Looking down at him, he asked, “Is one of those for me?”
Seth picked up one of the glasses and held it up for Kessler to take. “If you want it. I have no idea if you’re a drinking man or not,” he lied.
Kessler bent down to accept the offered glass. He said something in response, but Seth didn’t hear him. His gaze had gotten caught on the back entrance of the bar.
On the woman frowning down at her phone even as she stepped into the main area of the bar.
She looked up from her phone, and the magnetic force that sizzled between them every time they were in the same room connected her gaze with his in an instant.
“You texted me and I’m here,” she said, coming toward him. “What is so important that it couldn’t wait?”
“Well, who do we have here?” Kessler spoke.
Seth watched Dinara actually look at her surroundings. Her eyes widened when she registered Kessler’s presence. Her phone fell from her hand and clattered onto the concrete floor.
Kessler said, “You must be the lovely Dinara. I had no idea you were coming but I’m so glad you’ve joined us.” He raised the barrel of the gun and pointed it at Dinara’s forehead. “Do sit down and have a drink with us. We’re celebrating.”
“Celebrating what?” Dinara’s eyes moved to him, and the relief and confidence he’d felt five minutes ago disintegrated into ash. A situation on the verge of being resolved had just gotten a hell of a lot more complex.
And a lot more personally involving. Having one of his oldest friends trapped in Kessler’s deadly snare was bad. Seeing a gun pointed at the only woman who had marked his soul was catastrophic.
chapter ten —
Seth vibrated with aggressive energy and yet he stood motionless.
She’s not supposed to be here.
Don’t you think I fucking know that? he shot back to the inner voice that had chosen the wrong moment to state the obvious. Seth’s mind churned with questions, but the dangerous violence crawling up and down his spine with greater and greater speed, waiting to be released, indicated how close he was to snapping.
“Sit,” Kessler directed. “Your boyfriend and I were just about to have a drink.”
Dinara’s chin rose and her eyes narrowed on the man pointing a gun at her forehead. “He’s not my boyfriend, and I don’t want to sit down,” she replied, her voice sharp and cold. Her eyes didn’t leave Kessler’s when she asked, “Seth, what am I doing here?”
“Yes, my pretty,” Kessler answered before Seth could frame a response. He stepped into Dinara, so close that his chest was inches from hers. “What are you doing here? You said you received a text from your boyfriend. What did it say?”
Seth’s fisted hands tensed when Dinara raised her hands to Kessler’s chest and shoved him away. He had been thinking that he was going to have to worry about Otto being the wildcard in this situation, but Dinara was now the unpredictable factor in this life-and-death equation.
And the thing was, there was no way he would tell her to stand down. He didn’t want Kessler anywhere near her. Already he was much, much too close.
Kessler’s surprise at Dinara’s actions showed on his face. “You are quite the spitfire, aren’t you?” he said, taking a step toward her and another before stopping a foot away. “I suppose you’d have to be to attract and hold the attention of a man like Seth Marlowe.”
Rather than backing down, Dinara held her ground. “One more time, and listen closely so that you don’t miss it. He’s. Not. My. Boyfriend.” She crossed her arms over her chest and demanded, “Who are you and what am I doing here?”
Seth studied Kessler’s body language. His stance wasn’t as loose as it had been before Dinara’s arrival. His movements weren’t as sure and certain. His forefinger moved toward the trigger of the gun more often. The gun itself, though, hadn’t wavered away from Dinara.
He needed to disarm Kessler. Now. No more spy game tactics. No more waiting.
“I’m the one that asks the questions and you’re the one that answers them,” Kessler said.
Now. Now while his irritation with Dinara’s assertiveness still had him back on his heels.
“Don’t do it.”
His body had barely leaned into forward motion when he heard Barrett’s voice in his ear. Barrett’s direction to stand down was unexpected, and yet Seth recognized that Barrett was probably the only one with a view into the bar. And with his training, Barrett would have had no trouble reading Seth’s body language and knowing he was readying himself to attack.
“You’ll just make the situation more unstable and the safety is off. He’s already twitchy and even if it’s not a kill shot, at that distance odds are good he’ll kill her anyway. Be patient,” Barrett spoke. “Convince her to take a seat at the bar. That will put a barrier between her and Kessler.”
Seth berated himself. First because he should have already thought of that, and second because Barrett’s words forced him to admit that the patience he usually possessed by the truckload had evaporated the second Dinara had walked into the bar. Her presence had heightened everything even as the situation, poised to explode, seemed frozen in time.
With slow, casual movements, Seth walked over to Dinara and pressed his hand against her hip. She looked at him, her amber eyes meeting his and full of question. It didn’t matter that he wanted to answer every single question she asked him. He could only hope that there would be time for that later. Now, he used the pressure of his hand on her hip and urged her to one of the barstools.
Once she was seated, he stood behind her and reached for the bottle of Jameson. It was fitted with a pourer but the golden liquid moved quickly through the opening and into the glasses. Seth poured two fingers into each glass before reaching for a third one and filling it as well.
In his peripheral vision, he saw Otto sidle up to the bar, standing to Kessler’s left. Wordlessly, he picked up another glass and poured another drink.
Seth slid one glass down the polished surface of the bar and Kessler easily caught it. He repeated the motion and Kessler handed the second glass to Otto. With careful intention, Seth moved one of the glasses into Dinara’s hand and dragged his thumb over the back of her hand. Just one stroke of contact before he pulled his hand away and wrapped it around his own glass. It hadn’t been enough, but he couldn’t have more.
“What are we celebrating?” Dinara asked.
Kessler grinned. “Victory. Mine that is,” he answered. “You see, I’m receiving the greatest gift of all today, and though it’s not my birthday or Christmas, it’s going to feel like both wrapped up in one.”
“What’s the gift?”
Kessler took a sip of his whiskey, seeming to savor the complex mix of flavors though Seth guessed the last thing on his mind was the quality of the Irish spirit.
“Did you know, Dinara, that for the last dozen years, your boyfriend has essentially kidnapped people from their homes and the people who love them?” Kessler asked, his eyes focusing on Dinara. “Did you know that he’s not really one of the good guys?”
Through the comms, Murdoch said, “Let him keep talking, Seth. I need about five more minutes to crack the encryption on his phone.”
Seth’s hand tightened around the glass and he shifted his weight closer to Dinara. He put one hand on the high back of the barstool, consciously keeping his hold on it loose and relaxed. Seth gave every outward appearance of calm and yet it required the greatest of efforts to maintain the cool, blank facade.
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Dinara.
“Nor you mine,” Kessler returned. “We both seem to excel at deflection.”
“We have nothing in common,” Dinara replied. She surprised him then by taking a drink of the whiskey he’d poured her out of politeness rather than any expectation she’d drink any of it.
Kessler rested his elbow on the bar and leaned toward Dinara. Once again he was too close to her, and once again Seth was powerless to do anything other than let it happen.
“Tell me about the text message you received.”
“Why should I?”
Kessler stared at Dinara for a long moment before taking another slow swallow of whiskey. He set the half-empty glass on the bar and spoke, “Is she always like this, Marlowe?”
“I am not a woman who will sit silent while the men talk about her,” Dinara said. “If you want to know something about me, then ask me. Not him.”
Amusement played with the corners of his mouth. “Yes, you are always like this. Nothing at all like my Janie.”
Dinara’s shoulders squared and her spine straightened. He couldn’t see her eyes or the look on her face, but he had seen this same change come over her before and prepared for the storm on the horizon.
“Your Janie?” she questioned.
Nodding, Kessler touched his finger to the rim of the lowball and circled it round and round the edge. “Seth took her from me.”
“I don’t believe you,” Dinara said.
“Believe it.” He raised his gaze to Dinara’s and went on, “It’s been four years now. Four years since he took her from me in broad daylight. For three of those years I thought she was dead. All because of your boyfriend.”
Kessler lifted the glass to his lips and tossed back the rest of the whiskey. “Can you imagine what that was like for me? Thinking she was dead and then one day learning that it was all a lie?”
Dinara responded with silence. She didn’t relax and she didn’t reach for her drink again. She remained in an attitude of anticipation, simply waiting for whatever Kessler would say next. Seth waited, too. Not just for Kessler to keep talking, but for Murdoch to report in on his status.
His gaze strayed over to Jules and her eyes met his in an instant. She could hear everything being said, and he couldn’t help wondering what was going through her mind right now. She had always joked about learning how to keep her emotions concealed, insisting that he give her lessons. Something he had said must have stuck, because whatever she was feeling—fear or anger or something else altogether—had been shoved down deep.
“What do you think of your boyfriend’s relationship with the bartender?” Kessler asked, drawing Seth’s attention back to him.
For the first time since she’d sat down, Dinara turned and looked at him over her shoulder. The collision of their gazes struck him with percussive force. Rather than accusation, Seth found concern among the new questions she asked with her eyes. The look they shared lasted seconds, but when she turned away from him and rested her gaze to Kessler, irrational hurt rose within him.
Dinara said, “I told you. He’s not my boyfriend. I don’t care about his relationship with the bartender. He isn’t mine.”
Kessler’s gaze flicked over to Seth, and his brows rose in question. “What say you, Seth? Which woman do you want to take home tonight? The lovely Dinara or the ravishing Jules?”
Looking in Jules’ direction had been a mistake. Yes, it had drawn Kessler’s attention away from Dinara but he hadn’t wanted to focus it on Jules. Using the distraction to redirect Kessler’s interest Seth said, “Tell me more about the wristbands. How do I get them off?”
Kessler drew his phone from his pocket, pressed the home button and glanced at the display. “Once I have Janie and we’re safely away, I’ll press a button on my phone that will unlock them. Much like a key fob unlocks a car door.”
“I’m supposed to trust you to terminate the connection and unlock the wristbands?” Seth challenged. He took a step toward Kessler, putting his body between him and Dinara. “Why do I think that’s a losing proposition for me?”
“Because you’re no fool,” Kessler returned. “You have absolutely no guarantee that I’ll do what I say once I have what I want. In that regard, I have no guarantee that you’ll actually do what you said you would.”
“You heard me do exactly as you asked.”
“And yet she’s still not here.”
“It’s D.C. Maybe she’s stuck in traffic.”
“Traffic patterns in the city are unpredictable,” Seth replied. “She’ll be here.”
Kessler’s eyes narrowed, but instead of challenging him, he said over his shoulder, “Otto.”
The young man pushed away his empty glass and rose to his feet. Rounding the bar, he came to stand face to face with Kessler and waited expectantly.
“Gladly escort Dinara over to the table where our former agent is sitting,” Kessler told him.
Seth moved to step in his path, but Kessler drew his gun once again and pointed it at his chest. “You, stay where you are.”
“Two minutes, Seth,” came Murdoch’s voice.
Not the reassurance he wanted. He’d made a mistake leaving his place at the back of her chair. Seth had left her vulnerable and he cursed himself for the error.
Otto reached out his hand and closed it around the back of Dinara’s chair. “You’re with me,” he said to her, stretching out his other hand with the clear intention of wrapping it around Dinara’s arm.
“I’m really not,” she said. Her arm shot out and she slid from her chair. Caught off guard, Otto’s response time was slow and Dinara took full advantage, capturing his hand and twisting it sharply at the wrist.
“Fuck, that hurts you—“
“Do it,” she cut in, getting into his face. “Call me a bitch. I’ll show you what this bitch does when an asshole slime bag attempts to put his hands where they haven’t been invited.”
Kessler’s laughter rang out through the silent bar.
Barrett’s warning came too late, and Seth barely registered it as he charged forward, taking advantage of the opening he’d been waiting for all night.
Want to know what happens next? Click here to read Chapters 11 and 12.