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Portland, Oregon January 15
"Inside/Out" Exhibit of Suzanne Huntington's interior designs
"Girlfriend on your six."
A hard elbow jabbed into Morton "Jacko" Jackman's hard side. It would have knocked a lesser man down. Former senior chief Douglas Kowalski wasn't known for his gentleness or delicate touch. But then neither was Jacko. He was a former Navy SEAL too, just like Senior. But both of them were out of the service and working in the same company, Alpha Security International, so Jacko could knock Senior on his ass and not be court-martialed.
Except, well, Senior was a good guy.
Senior's elbow couldn't knock Jacko down, but his knees nearly buckled at the thought of the woman behind him.
"Not my girlfriend," he mumbled, hoping the tan he'd gotten over his dark skin this past week teaching Mexican federales in Baja the fine art of fucking with the enemy hid his red face.
Senior shifted his eyes sideways, a hint of a smile on his big ugly mug. "No?" He shook his head and jabbed him again. "So why the chubby every time you lay eyes on her?"
Fuck. Busted. Jacko pulled his tuxedo jacket lower. He'd learned to control his dick at fourteen. What was heback in high school? Why couldn't he be in jeans, like he was most times he saw her? Tight stiff ones that kept the hard-on down because it didn't have anywhere to go.
Except you don't wear jeans to a fancy art exhibit. Particularly not when your boss's wife's works were on show.
"Bravo red, moving fast," the chief murmured. Anyone farther than a foot from them wouldn't have heard a word and wouldn't have understood anyway. The orientation clock. "Bravo red" meant she was moving behind him to his right. Man.
Jacko thought he could smell her but that was crazy. Still, why not imagine he could smell her, because she drove him crazy in every other way? Though smelling Lauren in a room full of hundreds of people, every single oneman, woman and otherwearing perfume or cologne, with caterers walking around with hot food on platters and glasses of wine everywhere
well, that stretched even Jacko's sense of his own craziness.
He wasn't known for this. He wasn't what Suzanne Huntington, the big boss's wife and the star of the show, would call a fanciful man. He was known for being hardheaded and hard-hearted and hard-bodied. He was a roughneck from Texas who'd be in jail if he hadn't signed up for the Navy. They'd pounded self-discipline and a sniper's focus plus a dozen lethal martial arts into him. He could handle any type of weaponry, explosives, hand-to-hand combat.
Not one ounce of his very extensive and very expensive training gave him a clue about how to handle Lauren Dare.
There she was! Alone and lost-looking against the wall across the room to his right. For such a beautiful woman, she was doing her best not to attract attention, though for Jacko that didn't work. Couldn't. It was like the roof opened up and the sun shot a beam straight down onto her like a spotlight. Jacko was surprised people weren't gasping and turning to watch her.
She was doing everything possible to keep a low profile. She didn't even want her name on the program, though all of the works on the wall were hers. Suzanne insisted she take the credit for them, but Lauren had insisted right back. Very few people knew this entire show was all hers. He had no idea why she didn't want credit. Most people were happy to receive it for things they didn't do; few refused it. But who knew why women wanted anything, anyway? Lauren didn't want anyone to know, and for him, that was that.
Lauren was moving through the crowd like a ghost, nodding and smiling and never stopping to talk to anyone. Jacko couldn't understand how the men managed to avoid staring at her, but then he'd always known deep down that most men were assholes. You'd have to be an asshole and blind to boot not to realize that Lauren was the most beautiful woman in a room full of them.
Two of the beauties were married to his employers, John Huntington and Senior.
Lauren moved gracefully, not speaking a word to anyone, accompanied by notes from heaven. It took Jacko a full minute to realize that angels weren't sending down a sound track for Lauren Dare to move to. It was Allegra Kowalski, up on a dais, playing her harp. The notes morphed into a recognizable tune he'd heard Senior's wife play a million times.
Senior's wife was a talented musiciana harpist and singer. Jacko remembered the first time he'd met her, sent to be a bodyguard while Senior hunted down the fuckhead who'd attacked Allegra and blinded her. She'd had to have tricky experimental surgery to get her sight back, which had added years to Senior's life. Jacko would have done his duty, even lain down his life, for a snaggle-toothed banshee girlfriend of Senior but as it happened, Allegra Kowalski was beautiful and sweet and had played her harp for Jacko for a couple of hours while he sat in a chair facing the door, .22 on his lap, finger along the trigger guard.
Allegra's music had fucked heavily with his head and changed him forever.
But Lauren was the one who messed with him the most. Those long, white delicate hands of hers created things he couldn't even begin to imagine existed and yet became stone hard reality for him the instant he saw them.
He'd seen her drawings and paintings first. Suzanne, the wife of his other boss, John Huntington, aka Midnight Man, designed places where you walked in and felt like you were in some kind of stylish fairyland. Suzanne had sent him to pick Lauren up in her workshop to talk about creating images of Suzanne's designs. Jacko had walked into a big airy room and had frozen because he was surrounded by the most beautiful things he'd ever seen in his life. He'd simply stood stock still and gaped, mouth open like some raw recruit watching SEALs in training.
And then Lauren had walked into the room and even her gorgeous watercolors and drawings vanished from his head like smoke.
Suzanne and Allegra were beautiful women. They were known for being beautiful, though they never used those coy tricks most good-looking women did. But Laurenit was like she was another species. A cloud of shiny dark hair surrounding a heart-shaped face with silver-gray eyes on top of a body to make men weep. It had been a hot late summer day and she'd worn a sundress that showed delicate pale shoulders, slender arms and a tiny waist, and when she spoke Jacko didn't hear a word she said.
His head was buzzing too loud.
She tried twice. He got that much. He saw her full mouth open and close and all he could think about was that mouth on his while his entire body buzzed and he got the first of many, many hard-ons that sprouted whenever he was around her.
At the third try, he tried hard to focus and managed to grasp that she was asking him a question. Morton, right? He simply stared at her. Suzanne said she 'd send someone called Morton? And at the end there was this little inflection, making it a question. And fuck him if he didn't forget his own name was Morton.
He was an asshole and blown away by her, but in his defense was the fact that only the Navy ever called him Morton, and that was only on official occasions or when he was being chewed out. He'd been Jacko forever.
It was only when he saw the first glimmerings of fear in her eyes and she took a quick instinctive step back that he pulled his head out of his ass. And felt ashamed. Having a 240-pound thug who lifted weights daily and had spent the last fifteen years training to kill people stare at you was probably not a good thing. Particularly if you were a beautiful woman with a slender build, alone in a space with the thug.
So he'd used every single ounce of self-discipline the Navy and particularly SEAL training had beaten into him and nodded and saidYes, Morton's my namemost folks call me Jacko. Suzanne Huntington sent me to pick you up.
She'd just stood there, staring at him. Well, he could do something about her unease. He'd tapped his cell and called Suzanne. When she answered he simply handed the phone to Lauren and watched as some color came back into her face.
And when he complimented her on some of the artworks she actually blushed.
And Jacko was lost.
He drove her to Suzanne's office in Pearl, which was also the headquarters of Alpha Security International, where Jacko worked. He thought driving under eighty miles per hour was for dead men but he kept it at a steady forty and would have driven at twenty miles an hour if he could, just to stay in the vehicle with her. He waited for her as she and Suzanne talked, then drove her back. At thirty miles per hour. When he dropped her off at her house, he drove around the block and stopped the car and waited for his hands to stop shaking.
When he found out that Lauren taught drawing at a community center, he enrolled immediately and got another huge whack to his system. He was good at it. Damned good.
The past four months of his life had been work, thinking of Lauren, attending her classes, sitting in his empty apartment drawing maps and drawing Lauren. There hadn't been room for much of anything else. No cycling out to the boonies and letting his Kawasaki Vulcan Voyager motorcycle rip. Megadeth, his favorite band, came through Portland, one night only, and he didn't go. It was a Tuesday and Lauren taught on Tuesday evenings. So no Megadeth.
No fucking, either.
That was a shocker. He didn't even realize he'd stopped fucking chicks until three weeks after meeting Lauren. It hadn't even occurred to him. When it did, he made a point of going out that evening to his usual hole, The Spike, and picking someone up because Jacko Jackman didn't do abstinence. Nope.
A couple of chicks he'd hooked up with before stopped by and made interested noises and to his enormous surprise, his dick said no. Fuck no.
As a matter of fact it felt like his balls tried to crawl up into his body.
He never tried that again and so he might as well have been a tattooed and pierced monk these past four months for all the tail he got.
And the reason was right in this room.
Jacko tracked Lauren as she made the rounds, speaking briefly with a few people when they spoke to her, then moving on. In the room full of trendy women dressed in bright peacock colors tottering on stiletto heels, she was low key in a midnight-blue dress with ballerina slippers. Jacko couldn't even see the other women while she was in the room.
They all seemed overblown and shrill. Sharp laughing voices crackling. Lauren's voice was never sharp. It was soft, with an underlying tone like music, only not.
She was sweeping the room with her eyes and Jacko felt a change in the air when she saw him. Her face went from slightly sad to joyous in one second, and his heart nearly exploded out of his chest when she veered course immediately, making a beeline for him. He could feel himself stiffening in every sense.
"Incoming," Senior muttered. "You're on your own here, son. I'm going to my own woman."
Palm Beach, Florida
"Go on in," the muscle said, waving toward the door with his .44, a weapon that probably cost more than he did.
Frederick Rydell stifled a sigh. The quality of Gut-tierez goonhood had declined sadly since the death two years ago of that thuggish, though stylish, mobster Alfonso Guttierez. The organization had fallen to his moron nephew, Jorge Guttierez. Alfonso had had discreet, well-dressed security at the gate. Frederick passed through a metal detector and that had been that.
Jorge's muscle had actually frisked him, rumpling Frederick's Hugo Boss jacket, and had taken entirely too much pleasure in touching his private parts and between his buttocks.
Alfonso would never have hired this outlandish man-child with a backward baseball cap and oversized jeans with the dropped crotch.
Morgan, Alfonso's personal bodyguard, had always been impeccably dressed, able to serve tea or shoot you between the eyes without breaking a sweat. This goon looked incapable of thought, let alone style.
Frederick opened the door to the suite of rooms Alfonso had used as a study and had to work hard to hide his shock. The two rooms were high ceilinged and elegantly decorated. Alfonso's late wife had been a bitch of the highest order but a bitch with exquisite taste. And Alfonso himself was a thug with social ambitions. It didn't really make any difference in Floridian high society if you made your money running drugs and arms and trafficking in humans. As long as you made a lot of it, you were in. Alfonso had had a lot of it and Chantal, the new wife, knew how to spend it.
Alfonso's study wouldn't have been out of place in a lord's palace. It had been filled with superb antiques, exquisite rugs, decent art on the walls. And Chantal managed the staff like a general. Frederick had never seen the mansion less than perfect. Never even a fallen petal from the numerous floral arrangements.
Now it looked like pigs had rooted through the rooms, followed by the Huns.
After the deaths of Alfonso and Chantal, the staff had kept things going but Jorge had let the staff go, one by one, replacing the maids with the girls he fucked and who had no desire to pick up after themselves.
Frederick stopped on the threshold, willing his stomach not to rise. This was the worst he'd seen the rooms, a physical manifestation of the disintegration of Jorge's personality.
The rooms smelled of sex, expensive whiskey and overwhelming perfume. Someone had vomited and someone had shat and not flushed, so there was an overlay of that coupled with disgusting smells of fast food. The French chef had been the first member of the staff to go.
Two of the sofas had been pulled askew, cushions on the ground. Pizza and takeout boxes littered the marble floor. One of the antique mirrorsfashioned by the same craftsmen who'd made the mirrors in Versailles, Chantal had told himwas cracked.
Frederick schooled his face to blandness but his mind was racing as he crossed the room. He stepped on a used condom and his throat quivered as his stomach shot up his gullet.
Jorge was sitting with his back to the huge two-inch-thick bullet-resistant windows that gave out on to a flagstone terrace that ran the width of the mansion.
"Party last night?" Frederick asked, keeping his tone light.
Jorge grunted. He was sitting in Alfonso's chair, forearms on the surface of the Chippendale table that had served Alfonso as his main desk. A satchel sat next to Jorge's right hand. As Frederick walked closer he could see that Jorge was keeping himself upright by his arms on the table. Frederick checked Jorge's eyes, overly bright with pinpoint pupils. Christ, the man was wasted.
Jorge was going to talk business stoned out of his mind.
With an inner sigh, Frederick felt a pang of pity for himself pulse through his system. He'd earned a lot of money off the Guttierrez machine and now it was coming to a close. Like most good things, he supposed.
"So," Frederick said, sitting down on one of Chan-tal's antique chairs, noting with a repressed shudder that the seat cushion was stained. He couldn't bear to think of what might have caused the stain. "Here I am for my monthly report."
He'd had a not-unpleasant monthly appointment with Alfonso, to deliver ongoing reports. Frederick was the Guttierrez family's computer expert and the confidential conduit for communication with the various international
dealers Alfonso had business with. Alfonso owned two hotels, three nightclubs and four restaurants in Florida, which, being Alfonso, were exceedingly well run and turned a tidy profit.
But they were fronts for what earned Alfonso the real moneydrugs, prostitution, people trafficking. All activities Alfonso managed at a remove with Frederick's help. He never got his hands dirty, directing everything via secure computer, which was Frederick's lookout. Vast amounts of money exchanged hands via bitcoins on the darknet, and every month Frederick visited Alfonso, he was treated to a superb brandy while delivering his report, and watched as 25K was deposited in his account in the Caymans.
Everyone was happy.
Since Alfonso's death, the businesses, legal and otherwise, had been going to hell. Very quickly. Frederick would have left long ago if it weren't for the fact that Jorge was desperately looking for Anne Lowell, Chantal's daughter, Alfonso's stepdaughter. Right after Chantal and Alfonso's wedding, Anne had fled from her family, disliking everything about her mother's new household. Anne had come from an upper crust family in Boston and hadn't mixed well, to put it mildly.