The toast of California.
At least that’s the term that had been used by several people earlier in the night. They should have called me a wolf instead. I’d turned into nothing more than a predator, prepared to feast on my competition.
As I peered out the window, the darkness was unable to hide the dark, ominous clouds that had fallen over the angel city. Lightning flashed in the distance, an indication of a rough night of weather. I enjoyed the tumultuous conditions, relishing the wrath Mother Nature brought, raining down like the breath of God.
Or perhaps that’s the way I’d finally thought of myself, the hand of God able to crush anyone who attempted to get in my way. Some called me an evil man, others a genius. I was a combination of the two, relishing the accolades my ruthless nature had afforded me.
I took a deep breath, sliding my hand into my pocket as I walked to the window of my office. I enjoyed coming here after hours, especially given the incredible view of downtown LA. I swirled the crystal glass, allowing the delicate aroma to filter into my nose.
I did love an expensive cognac.
After taking a sip and holding it into my mouth, I unbuttoned my tuxedo jacket before swallowing. The night had been spectacular, the awards gala everything the producers had hyped the event as being.
Interactive Dynamics had received two of the highest awards, an honor that would boost our stock by at least ten percent. I licked the rim of the glass, enjoying the moment. I’d worked hard to build my company from my father’s garage when I was fifteen to an office building that I owned outright in the best section of Los Angeles.
While I might have been considered a child prodigy back in the day, I’d learned to become a savvy businessman, replacing worn-out jeans with Armani suits. That hadn’t been without difficulties, but as the honors continued to roll in, it was time I accept I was the leader in the gaming industry.
And my father had warned me that playing video games would stunt my brain.
“Here’s to you, Pops. You made certain I had a work ethic.” While my father and I had rarely talked during the last few years of his life, I’d known he’d been proud of me. How could he not be? I made billions of dollars after all. After taking a sip of my drink, I leaned against the window, marveling at my good fortune. Life was good.
Even the eight years I’d been in the army had perfected my ability to control both people and things around me, providing an entirely different kind of education while my little company had already started to thrive. My father had insisted I enlist, nagging me until I did, refusing to pay for college if I didn’t serve my country and toughen up. I’d hated him for what he’d done to me, but I’d come to learn that Father always knew best. By the time I’d left my military career, I was already a multimillionaire. And now? Look out, Jeff Bezos. I’m prepared to knock you off your throne.
I laughed; that was going to happen within two months. On top of the exciting evening, tomorrow I was leaving for Fiji. Ten days of doing nothing but relaxing on a private island after arriving in my jet. A wicked smile crossed my face. After my return, I’d enjoy embarking on another task altogether.
Removing any hope my enemy had of absorbing even a small portion of the market. Fuck him. His unscrupulous methods had been nothing but an irritant up to this point; however, it was time for him to understand the kind of powerful player I’d become.
I was surprised to hear a knock on the door. Other than the janitors and the security staff, there shouldn’t be anyone else in the building at one in the morning. Huffing, I took another swig of my drink, moving toward the door, sliding the glass onto my desk as I did.
The moment I had my hand on the latch, the door burst in, several members of LA’s finest moving inside.
“What the hell is the meaning of this?”
As a man I didn’t know approached, he held out his badge as he flipped on the overhead light. I quickly scanned the name, not recognizing it as one of the men who… played in my field of games.
“Detective Granger. I’ll ask one more time. What the hell is the meaning of this?”
The man wore no expression, but nodded toward one of the officers, who removed the handcuffs from his waistband as he walked toward me.
“Mr. Ruger Jameson, you’re under arrest for the brutal murder of…”
While I heard him, the rage filling me was enough to drown out his voice. The hard thudding of my heart echoed in my ears. I seethed but acknowledged that my rights had been read to me and that I understood the crimes listed against me.
As I turned around, allowing the cop to place the handcuffs around my wrists, I made a promise to myself.
Which meant a threat to the bastard responsible.
The man would suffer for putting me under duress.
In the end, he’d lose everything.
Including his life.
Ten months later
Goddamn blue lights.
They seemed to come from everywhere, officers of the law surrounding the cabin. I laughed as I heard men shouting, as if they’d made the catch of their fucking career. I’d been through the routine before, although now I knew what to expect.
I’d become hardened over the last few months, enjoying planning my revenge. No longer would I play by anyone’s rules but my own.
As the place was surrounded, men peering in the windows in hopes I’d make an attempt to escape, all I could do was smile.
This was only a hiccup, something I’d been forced to realize could happen. Let the fuckers take me in. I’d be released within a matter of hours, my attorney one of the best in the business. Then I’d destroy the person responsible.
I didn’t bother trying to run. The Feds had caught me fair and square, although they had no way of knowing the real story nor did they give a shit. Whoever had tracked me likely had been hired by the asshole who’d taken me down months before, still doing everything he could to destroy my entire life. Little did he know he’d failed and would continue to do so.
It was only a matter of time before he’d learn his lesson.
Crossing Ruger Jameson under normal circumstances caused irreversible damage.
Being stupid enough to have me framed was something else entirely. That would bring a different and severe reaction. I’d bide my time, but soon enough Whitfield Sharpton would beg me to end his life, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
At least not in the beginning.
I laughed softly as I unfastened the holster, placing my weapon on the table in front of me just as the door was kicked in, rangers and other officers of the law swarming in. I raised my arms, giving the first man who entered a huge smile.
“Ruger Jameson. You’re a hard man to catch. This time you are going down.” When officers approached, dragging my arms behind me, I kept the smile, even able to laugh.
Let them be confused.
The end game had yet to be played.
Revenge would be sweet.
Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Six days later
“Get out of town. This is your last warning.”
The ugly words remained in the back of my mind and would for weeks to come. While I’d been threatened before, there was something much more ominous about this time. I was sick to my stomach but refused to be afraid. So the bastards didn’t like I was infringing on their territory. So the hell what? They were the ones breaking the law.
Now I had proof.
I couldn’t wait to see them arrested for their horrific crimes.
“Can you please hurry?” I barked at the taxi driver, glancing at my watch for the umpteenth time before noticing the man’s harsh glare staring at me from the rearview mirror. I could tell by the sneer on his face that he just might purposely slow down. I might have to result to bodily harm.
“I’m going as fast as I can, lady.”
I rubbed my eyes, more than ready to leave the dry county, although the pictures I’d taken were phenomenal. I’d just had to get that one last freaking photograph, assuring myself I had time to get to the airport. I couldn’t miss this flight. There were people counting on me.
There are people trying to hunt you down.
The thought was never far from my mind.
No, I wasn’t going to do this to myself. Not when I had not one but two deadlines looming over my head. That included two distinctly different meetings that I had to attend.
Both had been set for tomorrow.
I sat on the edge of the seat, grateful the small airport finally came into view. I already had my hand on the door handle before the driver came to a full stop. When I jumped out, grabbing my bags, he kept his hard, cold glare on me. I’d prepaid him a hefty sum to get me here on time. Well, that had failed. With only one hefty duffle plus my camera bag, I had to pray the powers that be in the airport would allow me to take them both onto the plane or I was in deep shit.
I’d taken enough of these trips, trying to capture some of the most beautiful scenery in the country to know how to pack light. However, this expedition had involved certain undercover elements as a side job to my main gig. While exciting as hell, I’d been forced to bring additional equipment. As I ran through the small airport, I realized I was paying for accepting the dangerous job.
At least I’d accomplished my task.
Thank God there wasn’t a single person in line. As I plastered on a smile when I approached, I glanced at the flight board. I didn’t see my flight listed. After yanking the ticket from my pocket, I slammed it on the counter.
The girl standing behind the computer jumped. “Can I help you?”
She barely glanced at the ticket. “I’m sorry but it’s already headed down the runway.”
“I’m sorry?” I glared at my watch then compared it to the one on the wall. Mine was fifteen minutes behind. “No. No! I have to get on that flight. You don’t understand.”
“Is it an emergency?”
“Well, no, but my job is depending on getting back to LA pronto.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Is there another flight?”
“Not until tomorrow.”
“That just can’t be the case. Surely there’s something you can do. Please.” I glanced out the large window overlooking the runway. There was a small commuter plane right there. Maybe if I could just get to Anchorage then I could catch a commercial flight. “What about that one?”
The girl shook her head. “No seats available.”
“You didn’t check.”
“Please check for me. Just do your job!” I insisted, yanking out my wallet. “I’ll pay whatever premium. Anything.” I should never have pushed it, leaving a day earlier. Both assignments were important to me, one exposing horrible crimes against nature. My photographs could bring a defining moment for the oil and gas industry.
One they weren’t going to like.
Exhaling, she cocked her head but did as I asked. Then I noticed a look of surprise on her face.
I hung my head, trying to figure out what excuse I could make for being so stupid and nasty. The girl didn’t deserve it. “Please. I beg you.”
She continued to hesitate then allowed her fingers to fly over the keyboard.
“Hmmm,” she said, her brow furrowing.
“What does that mean?”
“I was told there weren’t any seats. Well, I guess you’re in luck, ma’am. There are definitely seats available. You’ll need to connect in Anchorage.”
I slid my credit card across the counter so fast she jumped backwards. “That’s fine. I’ll take one.” As she processed the new ticket, I made a promise to myself I wasn’t going to be this stupid again. My stomach was in knots and had been since managing to sneak onto JSRC’s property in the middle of the night. At least I’d gotten some decent photos of their criminal activities, dumping chemicals into the ocean. God knows what they’d been, but I had no doubt marine life would suffer.
“Here you are, ma’am. You can take a seat right over there. The plane will be boarding soon.”
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” I gripped the ticket as if it was a lifeline. The girl didn’t seem impressed with my nod of appreciation, but I couldn’t blame her. I’d come off like a bull in a china shop. After shoving the ticket into my jacket pocket, I clutched my things, moving to one of the few seats in the small lobby area. I took a deep breath as I sat down near the window, trying to calm my nerves.
It would all work out.
As I thought about the photographs I’d managed to obtain, I only hoped they would be enough for Congress to finally sit up and take notice. At least, that’s what I hoped they were being used for. The man’s wretched voice spilled into my mind again. I couldn’t think about that any longer. It had just been a single phone call, the threat telling me nothing. I was here. I was safe. And I was going home. Sighing, I tugged my bottle of water from my case, my hand still shaking from the adrenaline rush. Before I had a chance to twist the cap, I noticed the approach of several people out of the corner of my eye.
Curious, I watched as four men dressed in suits approached the counter. Their attire reminded me of all those bad cop shows my sister was addicted to watching. Maybe they were FBI agents. Wait a minute. There were two others, burly looking dudes sandwiched between them. Interesting. It was obvious they were prisoners being escorted to another location.
Oh, shit. They were leaving the area on the small plane I’d noticed on the runway.
The one I’d just paid a pretty penny to purchase a seat on.
Why should that matter? While I couldn’t tell from this angle, the prisoners had to be in chains. I’d be safer on the plane than on a typical street with all the law enforcement agents along for the ride. Maybe at least it would be an interesting flight if nothing else. I shifted my attention to my phone, sending a quick text to the editor of National Geographic. Maggie would understand, at least to a point. As far as Joel Ackerman, the mysterious man who’d offered me a huge sum of money for capturing illegal activities at JSRC Refinery, I was told not to make contact under any circumstances, merely arriving at our scheduled meeting. However, I had no doubt he’d be pissed at the delay.
Had to grab a slightly later flight. I’ll be there tomorrow as scheduled.
When I hit send, I rolled my eyes. “You cut it close, girl,” I whispered to myself then snapped my head in the direction of the counter, hearing a commotion. Great. The tallest of agents was berating the poor ticket agent, leaning over the counter and pointing his finger in her face. She was obviously shaken, her cheeks crimson in color. What the hell was the asshole’s problem?
While the incident was none of my business, it didn’t seem a single other person in the airport was coming to the girl’s assistance. I rose from my seat, placing my bags on the thick plastic then folded my arms as I walked closer. Maybe I was trying to look as if I had some kind of authority in the place.
“Is there an issue here? Do you need me to call security?” I asked, only giving the girl my attention, but I’d caught a glimpse of chains. The two men were definitely brutal convicts.
She seemed relieved, trying to offer a smile.
“We can handle it, miss,” another one of the agents said, trying to give me the brushoff.
I remained exactly where I was, keeping my signature hardnosed glare on my face. One of the prisoners arched his back until he was able to catch a glimpse of me, a cold chill shifting down my legs. I’d been up close and personal with several prisoners during various photoshoots, but this guy took scary as hell to an entirely different level. He was bald, his skin covered in gang-colored ink, but that didn’t bother me in the least. It was the shimmer in his dark eyes.
The fucker was undressing me.
“Miss, I’m going to tell you this one last time. Then I need to see your supervisor. We will have no additional passengers on that flight.” The first agent was at it again, raising his voice even more.
“I’m sorry, sir. My supervisor has left for the day. Besides, Mr. Cavanaugh, you didn’t book a private flight. You have no jurisdiction over a commercial plane. The passenger has already secured her ticket. I suggest you make yourself comfortable until I get the call the flight is ready.”
“That’s Agent Cavanaugh.”
I had to applaud the woman. Good for her for standing her ground.
Agent Cavanaugh slammed his hand on the counter. “Un-fucking-believable.”
“Jim!” another one of the agents chastised. “The girl is right. Just calm down.”
Good ole Jim shifted his nasty look in my direction. Then he grabbed Mr. Evil Eyes and yanked him away.
The second prisoner had his head down, his long, tangled blond hair hiding his face. For some reason, a rush of heat replaced where the cold had been. He was at least six foot five, maybe taller, muscular in all the right places. The prison jumpsuit and bulky jacket couldn’t hide his massive physique, his hair dancing across his chiseled jaw. Even though his wrists and ankles were shackled by thick chains, I had a feeling they wouldn’t necessarily hold him if the man got angry.
“Come on, Jameson,” the agent who’d chastised Jim said to the second prisoner in a much kinder voice.
Jameson. When he slowly lifted his head, locking eyes with mine, I was struck almost instantly by just how soulful they were. They were also very haunted, as if the hulking mass of a man was nothing more than a shell. However, there was a shimmer of electricity surrounding him I’d never encountered before.
“Sit the fuck down,” Agent Cavanaugh snapped at the other prisoner, which prompted Jameson to drag his heated gaze in the man’s direction, a sneer curling on his upper lip.
Jameson slowly shifted his gaze in my direction, giving me what appeared to be a respectful nod of appreciation. Now he seemed amused by the situation. As he turned, I was able to see just how icy blue his eyes were. They were far too mesmerizing, my mouth dry and my throat tight. When the group of men moved away, I exhaled and headed to retrieve my bags before returning to the counter.
“Are you okay?” I asked the woman, smirking given the agent’s expression of fury.
She threw a nasty look in their direction and kept her voice low. “I can handle jerks who pretend they are larger than life because of the badges they carry.” When she slapped her hand over her mouth, I couldn’t help but smile. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Yes, you should have, and I’ll add another couple words for you. Asshole. Bastard.” I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the blond prisoner. “Just who are they? Any idea?”
“Let me see.” As her fingers flew over her keyboard, I couldn’t help but notice how fidgety Mr. Evil Eyes was, barely able to remain in his seat. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the asshole was high as a kite.
“Two rangers and two FBI agents are escorting Michael Zephyr and Ruger Jameson to California. I guess the two of them must be pretty notorious to require four law enforcement officers.”
Why did the name Ruger Jameson ring a bell? Was he some serial killer I’d read about in the news? I craned my neck in an effort to get a good look at his face but failed. I guess I’d never know.
“I guess you’re right. Do you have a significant number of criminals hiding out in Alaska?”
The girl laughed. “You’d be surprised. At least you’re getting ready to board. I hope you have a… pleasant flight.”
Cringing, I could only imagine what the next four hours would be like. For some crazy reason, I unzipped my bag, retrieving my camera. As nonchalantly as possible, I turned it on, finding the right speed then quickly taking a picture, able to get a fairly good shot of five of the six men. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture anything more than a side view of the gorgeous blond. Oh, well. The girl behind the counter grinned when I winked. My gut told me capturing the moment might come in handy.
When the call to board was made only minutes later, I was first in line, hopeful to sequester myself in my seat, finding the ability to ignore the other passengers. At least I had a book that I’d intended on reading ready on my Kindle. That should be enough of a distraction. The small commuter plane allowed for twelve passengers, my assigned seat located all the way in the back and against the window.
There were no other passengers waiting in the airport, which meant it was convict city and me. Perfect. I settled into my seat, immediately reaching for my earbuds and Kindle, pressing my body against the cold metal exterior in an effort to remain as far away from the group as possible.
As they filed onto the plane barely a minute later, Mr. Evil Eyes made certain I knew he was watching me. The agent or ranger assigned to him shoved the dude into his seat across the aisle and all the way at the front.
While there wasn’t that much of a distance between us, I still breathed a sigh of relief. I shuddered when Ruger stepped on board, the aura surrounding him indicating a man of importance and extreme power. I had to wonder what crime the man had committed. As he’d done before, he turned his gaze in my direction, cocking his head as he locked eyes with mine.
I hated another shiver trickled down my spine. I wasn’t prone to responding to any man in a positive manner, but the heat coursing through my body indicated clear betrayal. Huffing, I turned on my Kindle, surfing until I found the book I’d wanted. I had far too many unread selections in my library. Maybe it was time to take a break for a little while, trying to catch up on life.
As if I had anything other than work.
An ugly memory flashed into my mind, my ex’s face looming in front of me, an ugly reminder of the past.
“You’re such a bitch, Parker. You think the world revolves around you,” Stephen snarled, glaring at me with a mixture of hatred and sanctimonious bullshit.
“Maybe so, darling, but at least I don’t sleep with every hot man who crosses my path. What was the last girl’s name? Bumpkin or Baby Doll or was it Kitten?” I knew every young girl he’d seduced, using his influence and superstar wannabe status to coerce them into his bed. His moment of surprise was a sweet reward.
I was dragged back into reality when I felt a heated body next to mine. Fuck. Agent Cavanaugh had decided to sit directly next to me. I lifted my eyebrows, offering him a sweet smile. “Well, well. Such delightful company for the trip.”
“Would you rather have one of those animals sitting next to you?” Jim asked, such glee in his voice.
“Those animals have names, Jimbo. And if you’re returning them to some unknown destination, that means they’ve yet to be convicted of their crimes. Maybe you should treat them with respect.”
Snorting, he snapped his seatbelt into place, leaning over until I was able to catch a whiff of his disgusting breath. It would seem the agent had consumed more than one glass of bourbon before taking the flight.
“Little lady, see that man with the tattoos?”
I didn’t bother answering, although I shifted my gaze toward Mr. Evil Eyes.
“He’s under arrest and will be convicted for several crimes, including sex trafficking and murder for hire. Trust me. You don’t want to mess with him.”
Even though I swallowed hard, the lump remained in my throat. While I didn’t ask about Ruger’s supposed crime, I’d made the mistake of staring at him again, much to the delight of the agent.
Chuckling, he sat back in his seat, acting all comfy. “I won’t tell you about Mr. Jameson. But I assure you that his crimes will make your skin crawl and your nightmares come true. Just be glad I’m here to protect you.”
My God, the nerve of the man. While I knew he was trying to goad me into a reaction, I couldn’t ignore the fact I was in a small plane with two horrible criminals. Anything could happen.
No. No! I was being as melodramatic as I’d been accused of being my entire life.
I shifted my attention out the window, realizing that the engines were already powering up. There was no turning back now even if I wanted to flee like a scared little girl.
Think of the prize. Think of what you’re about to achieve.
I closed my eyes, imagining the future.
The flight took off without incident, the dull hum of the engines drowning out a good portion of the cabin noise. Within seconds, I found myself absorbed in the book.
Even if the odd combination of tingles and unwanted shivers remained.
“Why did you need to get on this plane?” Jimbo asked after at least twenty minutes had passed.
“We’re not going to be besties here, Jimbo, so I think we should cease the talking. Don’t you?” I had no real reason to be nasty to the man, but his unprofessional behavior had capped a rewarding but difficult two-week stint. I’d never been to Alaska before and hadn’t been prepared for the cold or the fact there wasn’t a single bar in Prudhoe Bay. In the fifteen countries I’d been lucky enough to visit, every one of them had a local watering hole. I found the best tips while listening and observing people who’d had a few.
“Have it your way, sweetheart.”
Sweetheart. The guy thought he was bigger than his badge. What a pig.
While he left me alone, I found it difficult to concentrate after that, continually darting glances out the window. All I could see were snippets of mountain tops from time to time, the fluffy clouds becoming thicker every few minutes.
“Such a pretty little thang,” Mr. Evil Eyes growled, making certain I heard his nasty words.
“Shut up, Blade,” the agent sitting next to him snarled.
“I’m just saying she’s one fine-looking woman. I can only imagine what she tastes like. Sweet honey. I’d love to stick my tongue inside your wet pussy.”
“Shut the fuck up or I’m going to gag you. Do you get what I’m saying?” As the agent raised his voice, I could swear he was going to punch the man in the face.
Mr. Evil Eyes laughed and settled down, but not before giving me the kind of filthy look that didn’t need words to tell me what he wanted to do.
“See what I mean?” Jimbo asked. “Trust me. If he finds a way, he’ll make good on his threat.”
While Jimbo laughed, Ruger deliberately shifted in his seat, shooting the man the kind of enraged look that should turn the agent into stone. I shrank back in my seat, shoving my earbuds into my ears.
Fortunately, all seemed quiet for at least another thirty minutes, maybe more. Then the strangest sound managed to filter into my ears.
Someone was singing.
Mr. Evil Eyes.
His decent, deep voice seemed detached from the man’s savage nature. But that didn’t bother me. The words of the song did.
After singing several lines of a haunting song, he laughed then moved to the second verse, the lyrics even more disturbing.
I knew the Pink Floyd song far too well, had listened to ‘Brain Damaged’ dozens of times. The song was about revenge. Sweet revenge.
“Knock it off, asshole,” Jimbo shouted before Mr. Evil Eyes could get to the third verse.
All the prisoner nicknamed Blade could do was laugh.
While I’d never been one for premonitions, I did believe that karma had a strange way of catching up with everyone. I yanked the earbuds away, shoving them and my Kindle into my bag. Then I gripped the arms of my seat, holding my breath.
Just as the plane began to vibrate.