One Week Earlier
The roundhouse kick sent the woman reeling to the edge. She staggered back and slipped on the slick algae. As saltwater sprayed into the air, her enemy lunged forward and swiped at her. The woman deflected the blow with her hand. Her other clutched an object that had the power to send her enemy to its doom.
The enemy leapt high, twisted in midair, two muscular legs shoving her over the edge into the jagged rocks and churning tide below.
Rough waves crashed against the jetty, and icy geysers spewed high as she fought for breath. The woman’s arm thrust out of the cold depths, her fingers gripping the object she dared not let go of.
It was her only weapon, one requiring time to reach critical mass. Time the woman did not have.
Bouquets of wilted flowers lay atop the mound of dank dark earth. There was no headstone, no engraved script memorializing who rested beneath. A nameless grave for now. Except the tall, powerfully built man standing graveside knew. He placed a single perfect gardenia on the dirt. He knew secrets about the deceased no one would have ever suspected. He blinked, sighed, then turned from the dead and strode toward his car. He had an appointment with the living.
After sliding into a black Mercedes coupe, he took one last look across the cemetery grounds. His heart felt as though a two-hundred-pound weight sat on his chest. Not from guilt, because he bore no blame for her death, but with an acute awareness of life’s futility. He shook his head, cleared his thoughts, and put the car in gear. He drove slowly down the service road, accelerated past the cemetery gates, and sped recklessly through the early morning commuter traffic. By the time he arrived at his destination he realized only one solution would solve the problem caused by her death.
He strode into an elegantly appointed conference room, nodded to each of the six somber faces already seated and waiting. “Thank you for arriving on such short notice.” He took his place at the head of the table. Behind him a gray mist blanketed the Pacific Ocean.
A tall, Prada-clad woman rose with cat-like grace from her chair and perused the Balinese credenza laden with an assortment of pastries, fruit, and mini quiches. “She’s too young.” She set a China cup under a silver coffee urn.
The leader remained unmoved. “Obviously.”
“Much too young.” Another woman spoke, a dark-haired exotic beauty who tapped her perfectly-manicured finger on the table. “You will endanger her life.”
“No other choice is available.” The leader relaxed back in the leather chair, interlocked his hands behind his head, and glanced up at the ceiling.
A strong black hand pushed a thick sheaf of papers across the gleaming marble table. “We reviewed her file. The findings are impressive. She will be a valuable resource. In the future. Not now. You will be risking a powerful, potential asset.”
All eyes angled to the leader.
He nodded once. “I’ll handle this personally.”
The room erupted in furious protest. They hurled blame. Accused the leader of negligence. Of irrationality. Of ineptness. Of arrogance.
“Failure means her certain death!” shouted one.
“I know the cost,” the leader roared back.
“What about the ancient laws?” the exotic beauty banged her fist on the table.
“We have rules,” shouted another.
“This recruit is not prepared. She’s undeveloped and raw!”
“You might as well throw her to the lions!”
They ranted, scolded, and pleaded for almost an hour.
The leader stood, his eyes glowing red. “I know what I’m doing.” He turned his back to them. “Meeting adjourned.”
I saw red. Scarlet slashes blurred and smeared before me. My eyes glazed over, no longer focused.
Most people unwind from a long stressful work week on a Friday night. Single people dated or met friends for drinks and gossip. Not me. I hunched over a stack of tragically written essays filled with every imaginable grammar error and misused word possible. No wonder I saw red. Even my pen color revealed my mood.
Students asked why I didn’t use a friendlier color to grade with. Green ink? Not a chance. Red is passion. Red is blood. Red is danger. Red is power. As an assistant professor of English, I preferred a symbolic color to grade with.
I stared out the narrow window to the empty campus below. Jeez, I’m a glutton for punishment. Staying late to grade papers was stupid, perhaps mildly obsessive. I blamed my ridiculous work ethic. I’m too concerned with making a good impression with the English Department chair.
I slapped the red-inked essay to the back of the stack and blinked at the next one. The words blurred. I rubbed my eyes. It didn’t help.
I needed wine. On my couch. With my comfy t-shirt and sweat pants. I slid my bare feet into the shoes under the desk. Quitting time.
The metallic whoosh of a door punctuated the silence. Guess I wasn’t the only suck-up still working.
Footsteps treaded toward me. Probably the night custodian. Except his approach was always accompanied by jangling keys and a whistled Motown tune.
I scanned my phone booth-sized office—didn’t want to forget anything important—which contained one battered old desk stacked with essays and books; one non-ergonomic cracked pleather office chair; two IKEA bookcases crammed to bursting; and one metal folding chair for grade bump pleaders and extra credit beggars.
I scowled at the two gilt-framed university degrees. How dare they mock me. I was so close. A Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Literature. Two down, one to go. The elusive PhD was within grasp. Almost. I was only one pesky dissertation away.
The footsteps slowed and a chill raced up my spine. At twenty-eight I knew better than to work late in a building with no security. Especially considering the town’s most recent crime.
A week ago, a brutal murder at the beach made the local news. Someone had sliced open a transient and cut out a few body parts. Police said it was a drug deal gone wrong.
The gruesome killing happened a few miles from the college. I had nothing to worry about.
The footsteps probably belonged to an ambitious colleague. Or an on-the-verge-of-failing student.
The footsteps stopped. In front of my office.
I lifted my head. It was not the night custodian or another professor.
“Hello.” A divinely intimidating vision of handsome with the sexy deep voice to match filled the doorway.
I sized him up.
Broad shoulders tapered into a lean muscular frame and six-feet-five-inches of manliness scrutinized me with a gorgeous grin. His skin tone and hair color were ethnically ambiguous, and yet his deep-set brown eyes, straight nose, full lips, and square jaw suggested an ancestry of power and passion.
“Yes?” I used my bored professor voice. “May I help you?” Please don’t say you’re registering for my class next semester. It’s impossible to lecture while drooling.
“I need to speak with you, Professor Daphne Sites.” His voice. Smooth as jazz and Barry White smoky. The kind of voice that makes you think of hot s—
I cleared my throat. “What’s this concerning?”
Handsome Hunk was too old to be a co-ed, too young to be a parent, and too muscular to be a stuffy intellectual. Evidently, some Greek God had gotten lost on the college campus.
Greek God stepped into my office, sat on the metal chair, and crossed his arms, his crisp white tailored shirt straining against impressive biceps. Not that it mattered to me.
I swallowed, my belly tightening with suspicion. I watched enough teen scream movies about sexy-looking killers to be wary of any late-night visitor.
Mmmm…Greek God knew my name and location of my office. He had the professor title wrong though.
I shifted in my chair. There were no Friday evening classes. No theatre productions scheduled. No campus club events. I didn’t like it. Not one little bit. And my reliable early warning system about people—intuition or whatever—was taking a nap. I was getting nada from Greek God. No vibes, no hunches.
I fussed with the papers on my desk when it happened.
Tingles. Pins and needles. An icy hot tightening at the back of my neck. My overactive intuition at work. Weird premonitions usually followed.
I was too vulnerable in this shoebox-sized office. Time to go. “I was just leaving.” I gathered the stray papers.
“I’ve come to train you.” Greek God’s tone was king-like, full of self-importance.
“Excuse me?” The tingle crept upwards, and my jaw clenched. According to the doctor, this was the reasons for my TMJ headaches. Worry, anger, even being annoyed contracted my jaw muscles. Tense should be my middle name.
I slowed my breaths, tried not to panic. I have a tendency to overreact.
It didn’t work. My jaw began to throb. Something was very wrong with Greek God. He looked at me like a hawk looks at a mouse. Like I was dinner. Like Zeus looked at a beautiful woman.
“I’m here to train you.”
I chewed on my lip. What was he talking about? Did I miss a department memo? “Who are you?”
Greek God leaned forward, set his powerful-looking hands flat on the desk. “My name is SJ.”
That’s nice. Greek God has initials. Despite alarms going off in my head, I smiled calmly. My eyes flicked to the doorway. It was four feet away. I could make a run for it. His muscles might slow him down.
Greek God stroked his chin, his brown eyes soft, encouraging, non-threatening. He flashed a wide grin, held up one hand, and, eyes locked on me, pulled an item from his trouser pocket with movie-like slow motion. “You’ll need this.” He set a small polished wood box at the edge of my desk.
I tracked his hand as he slid the box across the metal surface. Curiosity overcame fear. Ring-sized gifts tend to have that effect.
Oooh, jewelry, whispered Emotional Me. My hand reached out, hovered over the box.
Danger, danger, screamed Logical Me. It’s a trick! I snatched back my hand, curled my fingers into a fist. “You caught me at a bad time. I’m leaving. Make an appointment during my office hours.”
The Greek God called SJ tilted his head, his brow creased, his lips pressed into a disappointed smile.
It was ten o’clock at night. I was alone. In a vacant building. A Greek God look-alike wanted to give me jewelry. Or a psychopathic killer wanted to hurt me. It was a no-brainer. The second option made the most logical sense. Men bearing jewelry were a rare breed. Greek God was trying to lure me like a worm on a hook. No way was I going to take the bait.
I looked down at my desk. Could you kill someone with a Sharpie? Or bore a person to death reciting 18th century English poetry? It worked with my students.
I needed to distract him. Throw these essays into the air and run for my life. Either that or get a grip on my overactive imagination.
SJ’s mouth spread into a brilliant smile, white teeth gleaming. I notice teeth, one of the consequences of having been married to a dentist.
“I’m here to help you, Daphne. Please, take the box.” He jutted his square chin toward it.
On a first name basis so soon, are we? I might look calm on the outside, but my insides churned like the three weird sisters’ evil brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Double double, I didn’t want any trouble.
“Who are you and what do you want?” My heart thrashed against my chest.
“The who I already told you. I’m SJ. The what takes a bit of explaining.” His eyes flicked to the box.
I sucked in a ragged breath, and, with false bravado, glared at him. The longer the standoff, the more time to figure a way out of this situation. “So explain.”
“Mmph.” SJ set back in the chair and folded his arms. It looked like his brown eyes flickered green. A trick of the light? Funky contacts? “I think you’re ready. The others have doubts. Truth be told, we don’t have a choice.”
My jaw tingled and tensed. Panic enveloped me like a cloud. “I need more of an explanation than that.”
This guy was psychotic, a bat shit crazy lunatic with a Greek God’s face and body. Overpowering him was impossible. But I could keep him talking.
“I don’t understand.” I lifted my schoolbag from the floor, unzipped the side compartment, and reached inside.
“You don’t trust me.” SJ pointed to the cell phone clutched in my hand. “But this time your intuition is wrong. I’m not dangerous. Well, not to you.”
“I need to make a call.” I tapped 911, showed him the screen. “You’ve given me no reason to trust you. If you don’t start explaining, I press CALL.”
SJ leaned back, relaxed, unconcerned, way too confident. “Let’s continue this discussion elsewhere.” He tapped his fingers on his lips. “Someplace with lots of people. Keep your phone in your hand if it makes you feel safe.”
“I’m only asking one more time. You don’t answer, I call 911. What do you want?”
“I’ve been sent to recruit you.” He grinned a thousand-watt grin. It was all sunshine and warmth and irresistibility.
I exhaled my relief. Tension melted away. The tingle disappeared. SJ was a college recruiter.
Strange, I hardly thought of myself as recruit-worthy. My dissertation wasn’t finished, I wasn’t published. Didn’t even have a blog. “Which university are you from?”
“I’m not. I work for an organization that recruits and trains people with your particular skills.”
Ambiguity was annoying. Even from a handsome hunk. I shoved the stack of essays into my schoolbag and rounded the desk. “Can you be more specific?”
SJ grunted. “Like I said, this cannot be explained quickly.”
SJ stood, his impressive height and broad shoulders taking up all the space in my tiny cubicle. “There’s a lot to discuss. A lot you have to understand.” He wore an odd smile, part amusement, part determination, part exasperation. He plucked the ring box from the desk and slipped it into his front pocket. “Do you know the bar just off campus?”
“The Dive?” It was popular with the locals, always noisy and crowded with people looking to get laid.
“Let’s go there. This…” he indicated my cubicle, “may not have been the best place to approach you.” He ran his fingers through his short tight curls. “I’ll buy you a drink.” He lifted his hands in mock surrender and walked out the door.
“Your company could have just sent me an email.” I locked the door behind me and followed him down the corridor. “Why The Dive?” A bar full of drunk horny singles was a strange place to recruit an adjunct professor.
“You’re not a follower of Bacchus?” SJ looked over his shoulder, his eyebrow as arched as his grin.
My laugh echoed down the hall. Bacchus, aka Dionysus, was the god of winemaking, festivities, and sex. I told my students he was the Party God, patron deity of college students everywhere. “Are you an English professor?”
His playful seriousness was off-putting and yet enchanting. But something about him had me confused. Some thingmy brain could not identify but my body felt inexplicably drawn to. Like an eight-hundred-page book you want to read but worry you’ll never finish.
SJ made me feel like that moment when you’re buckled into the first car of a rollercoaster and waiting for the scary thrill.
“Me, an English professor?” He grimaced. “I don’t care for tweed.” He chuckled at his joke. “The organization I work for hires people who possess a unique and specific ability.”
“Can you give me a hint?” The rollercoaster chugged up the steep hill.
SJ gave me a sidelong glance. “You have a rare talent to see what others do not.”
“What’s the name of this organization?” I jogged down the wide staircase beside him.
He unfurled an impish smile. “It’s classified.”
Was he serious? Flirting with me? I couldn’t tell.
SJ held the door open as we exited the building. Once outside, I realized it wasn’t his demeanor that set all those alarms off in my mind. SJ wasn’t dangerous to me. But something about him was dangerous. James Bond dangerous.
I stole a glance at him. He had a magnetizing essence. Impossible to ignore. Like that scream-inducing, adrenaline-pumping colossal rollercoaster you admire from the ground. You want the thrill of the ride, even though you know you’ll scream.
The tingling fear about SJ was gone. Replaced by butterflies flitting in my stomach. A hot guy wanted to recruit me for a top-secret job. How could I not be flattered and excited? Problem was, I had no rare talent.